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By Vanessa Mullen
Page 2 of 3

Blake stared morosely into his drink. She'd said she loved him. They'd said that and far more to each other over the course of the two years they'd had together. It had seemed eventually that they almost thought and acted as one person, sharing feelings too deep to be expressed in mere words. And then he'd lost her.

      At first he'd thought it would be easy for them all to make contact after Star One. His own life capsule had been picked up by a ship bound for Epheron; he'd contacted the Liberator, and everything had been going smoothly. Then the ship he'd been travelling on was attacked by a straggler from the Andromedan fleet. It was a miracle that anyone had survived on the ship at all. Dead and wounded lay everywhere in the twisted wreckage; he'd acquired a broken arm to add to his broken ribs, and his teleport bracelet had been damaged beyond repair. It had taken them months to limp to the nearest planet at sub-light speeds. They'd never reached Epheron. None of them.

      After that, it had been one disaster after another, fleeing from the authorities, moving from one planet to another, until finally he'd come here, to Gauda Prime, and here, all his dreams seemed to be ending.

      He tossed down the rest of the glass, heedless of Deva's disapproving stare.

      Gauda Prime: it'd been here that he finally found Jenna again.

      Another time. Another bar. He'd had an appointment to meet a gun-runner, to make arrangements for the next shipment of weapons. Sometimes it was better to make deals in person, it allowed you to size up who you were dealing with, do any preliminary transactions, examine samples of the merchandise. Of course, nothing ever protected you totally against double-dealings, but some things helped.

      The bar was crowded, just as Blake wanted it. In a crowded room, one deal more or less going on in a corner would attract nobody's attention. He pushed his way through the crowd to the bar and ordered himself a drink. He didn't know who he'd be meeting; they would find him. He'd given a description of the clothes he'd be wearing, and that would be sufficient. It had not been felt necessary to exchange names on either side. Any name used, by either party, would be an alias.

      In spite of the anonymity of the crowd, Blake felt uneasy. Perhaps, it was just the heat, after the cold outside - Gauda Prime in winter was no place for travelling in the open; perhaps, it was the feeling of being surrounded by strangers. Although he half-recognised many faces from his irregular trips into town, there was no one here that Blake knew well. While this was a useful place for gathering information, he didn't consider it to be safe. It was a necessary risk though; any bounty hunter or rebel worth his salt needed to keep up on people passing through the area. The bartender was a frequent source of information. Blake paid him regularly and accepted it as a necessary business expense.

      Drink in hand, he was halfway back to his seat when a fist launched at him out of nowhere, catching him on the jaw. He staggered sideways, dropped his drink, ducked low to avoid the next punch, and swung around to face the man who'd attacked him.

      "How's it feel to be on the receiving end, bounty hunter?" snarled a voice.

      "What's it to you?" demanded Blake. He reached out and grabbed the other man's shirt, jerked him forward abruptly, and landed a punch on the side of his face. His opponent kicked hard, catching him on the shin.

      "What's it to me? You shot my mate. Remember?"

      That had to have been Crystos. Ironic. After all, Crystos had been seeking the bounty on one Roj Blake.

      The next punch caught him in the belly, winding him badly. Blake staggered back, then managed to rush forward and grapple his opponent. This fight was getting serious. Blake worked for a stranglehold, and managed to get a firm grip on the other man's throat. The sound of breaking glass distracted him for a moment.

      He staggered sharply as something sliced into his eye, cutting down the side of his face. He reeled back, hands clutched to his face, losing all sight of what was happening around him. The voices of the crowd were loud: chanting, yelling, screaming for the other man to come and finish him off. Broken glass in hand, the other man advanced towards Blake. And then, without warning, a shot took the miner full in the chest. He staggered back and crashed hard to the floor.

      "Anyone else?" demanded a voice from the back of the room.

      Blake spun around in amazement. Even with his left eye filmed with blood, he knew who it was - Jenna.

      "Take it easy." She gestured to him with one hand. "Get out of here while I cover you."

      Needing no second warning, Blake backed his way cautiously out, avoiding the rest of the crowd, making sure Jenna had a clear field of fire. With one last careful look around the bar, she stepped out to join him.

      "So you're the man who's seeking to buy guns," she said conversationally.

      "Yes," he agreed. "Although, if I d known you were the person who was going to be selling them..." His voice trailed off. "Do you know how glad I am to see you?"

      "Reunions can wait," she said practically. "Let's get a look at that eye."

      They made their way down the street to where Blake had left his flyer. Even in that short distance, the chill wind bit through the coat he was wearing. He held one hand over his eye, trying to staunch the flow of blood. Small eddies of snow whipped around their feet, and whirled to lose themselves around the sides of nearby buildings.

      "Nice planet you picked here," Jenna commented.

      "It suffices," he said shortly. The shock was wearing off now, and the area around his eye was incredibly painful.

      Once inside the flyer, door closed against the weather, she forced him to let her examine the injury more closely. The first-aid pack under the seat contained a quantity of sterile swabs, and she cleaned the cut, ignoring his gasps of pain.

      "It's all right," she said. "It's not too deep. You'll need a couple of stitches to hold it together, but it's not going to be too serious. It's going to spoil your good looks, though."

      "Does that matter to you?"

      She slid an arm around him and held him close. "No. I don't care how you look. As long as you're the same Roj Blake underneath it."

      He hoped he was still the same man. He liked to think that he was. Sometimes it had been so hard to be sure. He had nothing to relate to any longer; the people he had known on Earth were all dead; Liberator and her crew were lost to him. Once he had been confident in his beliefs, now, sometimes, they seemed simply to be an old habit that he clung to for the sake of having an identity.

      With Jenna beside him, everything suddenly seemed so much simpler. She believed in him, not in his cause, but in Blake himself. He smiled in sudden relief; people were what mattered, that had always been the cornerstone of his creed. If you trusted people, they lived up to your expectations. If they failed, it wasn't for lack of trying. Maybe that was why he'd never killed Travis. Deep down, Blake had never been able to escape the belief that any human being was capable of redemption. If they were dead, that possibility of redemption was gone for ever. Jenna - Jenna and the others - had helped reinforce that belief. The Federation's lowest rejects, but they had achieved so much. Even Avon, embezzler, self-professed cynic and fervent defender of his own interests, had never let Blake down. The longer he'd been away from them all, the harder it had become to sustain his conviction. Some days now, all that really kept him going was hatred of the Federation. Hate was easier, it didn't require faith. Jenna was his touchstone: seeing her beside him, he could again believe that anything was possible.

      "I missed you," he said, a ragged edge catching at his voice.

      Her hand touched his hair lightly. "Me too." Then she became serious. "We need to get that cut treated before it gets any worse. The antibiotics should prevent any infection, but I don't know if this pack was produced with the local bugs in mind."




The cut had become infected, apparently he'd been lucky not to lose the eye as well. Blake rubbed abstractedly at the scar, caught Deva's eye on him and stopped. It was a habit he'd developed when he was worrying about something, and these days he seemed to spend an awful lot of time worrying.




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