A Little Lower than the AngelsBy Jean Graham
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Three moons painted Chronus' night sky with crescents, one ice-blue, one gold, one dusky red. With a warm cup of synthe-caff in hand, Del Tarrant lounged in a wrought-iron chair on the balcony, breathing in crisp night air laden with floral scents. Someone with a penchant for gardening had planted Earth-imported flowers in the courtyard below. As the living quarters of a company of Federation scientists, the rest of the 'villa' was comfortable but uninspiring. So was the surrounding complex of laboratories and manufacturing plants. Typical of Federation design, he reflected - functional but devoid of aesthetics.
The flower garden probably belonged to his erstwhile employer. Tarrant sipped at the rapidly-cooling drink and idly wondered what the eminent Dr. Elen Sessa would make of her production supervisor had she known that Toren Dell was in reality Del Tarrant, deserter and rebel 'terrorist,' fourth on the Federation's most-wanted list. Thus far, Orac's forged credentials had passed all scrutiny, but after two weeks of organizing and supervising work crews (all too reminiscent of his Service days), Tarrant was ready to move on, even if it did mean returning to Scorpio and Avon's somewhat less than sunny disposition.
Today he had finally achieved the legitimate security clearance needed to access the plant after hours. Tonight with Sessa and her workers all safe in bed, he would recover the cache of explosive charges hidden outside the compound and plant them strategically in and around the factory's production equipment. Tonight, the Federation would be minus its primary Pylene-50 production facility in the fourth sector.
"Admiring the view?"
He started slightly, spilling caff, and promptly sat upright in the chair. "Ah," he said, embarrassed. "Dr. Sessa. I didn't hear you."
She smiled thinly, took the chair next to his. "You were deep in thought."
Tarrant cleared his throat, glad the thoughts in question hadn't been audible. His own smile tried to cover his discomfort - with success, he hoped.
Thankfully, Sessa didn't seem to notice; her matronly features schooled themselves into their customary mask of professionalism. "I just stopped by to thank you," she said. "And to tell you that my report to Federation Control lists you as the chief factor in our improved efficiency rating."
Tarrant's laugh was genuine, though his statement was not. "I'm glad to be of help."
"I mean it, Dell. You've been a great deal of help here. You're very good at what you do."
"I know." He saw no reason for false modesty. It was true, after all.
"I wish you'd consider staying on." She lifted a hand against his instant protest. "Oh, I know. You're young and ambitious and planing to move up the Federation's corporate ladder. But you're also the best damned supervisor I've ever been sent. I'm not without a few connections. I thought maybe - just maybe - I could arrange enough of an incentive to keep you here a while. I came here to ask..." She took a breath. "...if you would entertain such an offer."
Caught completely off guard, Tarrant stared open-mouthed for a moment before finding his voice. But all he could stammer was an anaemic, "I... I don't know what to say."
"Say yes," she prompted, openly anxious. "I mean it, Dell. You're good. I could use you here. Your own villa, promotion to head of the division - name your price."
He covered his discomfort with another brilliant smile, then pretended to consider his 'price' options. The sincerity overlaying her characteristic efficiency surprised him; it was a side of her he'd not seen before. Perhaps he'd been dealing with militarists, bureaucrats -- and 'terrorists' -- too long.
"Could I sleep on it and let you know?" he pleaded.
Disappointment and hope both mingled in her eyes. "All right. Please give it fair consideration, though, will you? I can promise you that an extended stay on Chronus can be made to further your career, not hinder it."
Tarrant beamed at her. "Oh, I never doubted it. I'll... let you know. And Dr. Sessa..." He added this last with his finest dose of charm. "Thank you."
Apparently, she accepted that as the intended promising sign and, with a nod, took her leave. Tarrant brooded in the chair for well over an hour afterward. Few things bothered him more than having to betray someone he had begun to admire, perhaps even look upon as a friend.
The three moons were setting, a fourth and fifth high in the sky when he returned from his expedition outside the perimeter fence, the bombs heavily weighting a canvas rucksack strapped across his shoulders. Since Chronus had no native population, the Federation troops assigned to guard duty here apparently considered the fence at low risk for a security breach: it had fallen into disrepair at several points and was easily circumvented. Had he still been in the Service, Tarrant would have put the lot of them on report. As it was, he silently thanked them for their carelessness: it had just made his job a great deal easier.
Bypassing the guards who would be on duty inside the plant would require far more stealth. Though he had committed their patrol routes to memory, their timing was annoyingly irregular - another symptom of lax outpost discipline. He would have to stay sharp, keep his eyes and ears open.
The new security card got him past a maintenance door unchallenged. He took a dimly lit service stairwell to the third (and uppermost) level, planted the first three explosives, and began working his way downward.
The last bomb had just clamped into place with a satisfying magnetic thunk when another sound intruded on the factory's dead silence. Tarrant barely had time to register it as a footfall before a shot whined off the hard metal casing of a conveyor belt inches from his head. Percussion bullets. Less accurate than plasma bolts, but just as deadly. He dived away, rolled into the shadows, scrambled up again - and ran.
Shouts echoed behind him, more bullets spat into the corrugated sheet metal at his feet. Hulking machinery and conduits flashed past, a mad jumble. Where was he? How near to an outer door?
Move, damn it. Faster - they're nearly on top of you! Breathe later - just find the door. There! Service exit, alarm-wired. No matter now, the alarm's screaming anyway.
He slammed into the release bar, felt a rib crack at the impact, then burst into chill night air and bolted east into the building shadows. Echoing shouts and bullets faded behind him as he sprinted into the dark maze created by the compound barracks, and he became aware of the pounding of his heart, the roar of laboured breathing. Shapes, angles, shadows within shadows flashed by in a mad tilt.
Why's it so difficult to breathe? You've run harder than this in Academy training exercises...
Corner. Another corner.
Somewhere, the scent of flowers.
Steps down. The clatter of his boots on metal stairs.
An unlocked door.
No lights... don't want them on... bolt the door from inside and do your best to see in the dark. Just need a place to hide... Can't breathe...
He was only faintly aware of falling, of a surrounding jumble of heavy, round containers, and lastly, of the warm, wet seepage of blood from his soaked overtunic onto his hand...
Bright lights stung his eyes, and it hurt to breathe. Smells of alcohol and antiseptic and stiff sterile sheets...
Where was he?
As if in answer, the door of the tiny room swung open, admitting a grim-faced Dr. Elen Sessa. Tarrant blinked at her in confusion and painfully attempted to voice his queries.
She cut him off. "I'll answer your questions - and then I'll expect some answers in return." A tray she'd carried in rattled as she placed it on a table near the bed. Tarrant glimpsed serum bottles, a hypodermic, a metal carafe and water glass. "You came crashing into my residence cellar last night making enough noise to wake the proverbial dead. Which you damn near became." She took up stance at the foot of the bed, arms folded, parentally stern. "Two minutes before I managed to drag you up here, all hell broke loose. The manufacturing plant is gone, four men are dead, Chronus' value to the Federation is shot to hell. And before I turn you over, I'm damn well going to know why."
He let the hurt, the anger, the betrayal, wash over him for a long, torturous minute. "I could ask you the same," he replied, surprised at the weakness of his voice. The bullet must have pierced a lung. When he'd collided with the exit door... he'd thought it was a rib breaking. "Somehow, I thought you were different," he went on. "Not like the rest. You have a conscience."
The evasion tactic only intensified her anger. "Who are you?" she demanded. "What kind of maniac does a thing like this?"
Her face darkened even further when he laughed, then fought back the resultant coughing fit. "Can you justify what you do here? Does it ever bother you, even a little, that the Pylene-50 you produce turns millions of innocent people into mindless slaves?"
Something - a shade of doubt? - crossed her face at that, but was quickly gone. "I'm not in the habit of philosophizing over matters beyond my control. Nor should you be. I trusted you! How could you do this to me? Why?"
Looking up at her from the bed, Tarrant felt suddenly, acutely vulnerable. "I'm sorry," he said, and meant it. With a wan smile, he added, "It wasn't meant to be taken personally."
Despite his words, the betrayal remained keenly etched on her face. Tarrant couldn't avoid its sting. He managed - just - to prop himself up in the bed, wincing against the wound's sharp complaint and the pull of painfully tight bandaging. Scowling, Sessa plucked a bottle from the tray, opened it, poured a measured amount into the glass.
"Take this," she ordered, and pressed the concoction into his hand. "It should help."
"Bit of a wasted effort, isn't it?" But he downed the bitter-sweet stuff anyway; it burned an alcoholic path down to the injured lung. Only then did it occur to him to wonder about his escape route - the teleport bracelet had been concealed with the explosives, hidden in a pocket of the rucksack. Where would that have got to? His clothing had been replaced with a plain brown workman's coverall; the rucksack with its remaining vital contents was nowhere in sight. A moment of panic very nearly brought the foul-tasting medication back up. If she'd destroyed the pack along with the ruined clothing...
"...all been for nothing, you know." He realized that she'd been speaking -- for how long? He hadn't heard. "We'll only rebuild it, probably set up production elsewhere until it's finished. But we'll start again."
"In that case, you can help," he pleaded. "If not for us, then for your conscience. Don't deny it. I know you have one."
"If you're suggesting I aid and abet a terrorist activity..."
"Why not render the next batch of Pylene you produce ineffectual? And the next, and the next. After that, it should be easy."
The disgusted look she wore served as answer. She took the empty glass from him, headed in crisp, measured steps for the door. "Lie down and rest," she said. "There's nowhere for you to go anyway. Troops are everywhere, still searching the compound." She hesitated, drew in a deep breath. "I'm afraid there's nothing else I can do for you."
She was gone before he could respond, rhythmic footsteps echoing away beyond the door. Immediately, Tarrant threw off the bed cover and forced his legs to move, ignoring his chest, which throbbed angrily at the disturbance. Bare feet met cold floor; he had to hang onto the bedstead and various bits of lab furniture to remain upright. He searched the waste container, the cabinets. Nothing. A pair of hospital slippers, but no rucksack. No teleport bracelet. He dropped the shoes on the floor and gingerly pushed each foot in turn into their stiff, too-large interior. He knew he'd still been carrying the pack when he'd escaped the plant last night. Perhaps in the cellar...
Walk slowly. Very slowly. Breathe easy, ignore the pain. Use the wall for support; it may not hold you up, but pretend it will and maybe you'll get there.
She didn't lock the door. Don't know what to make of that...
Empty corridor outside. No one about. So far, so good. There's a lift just here, but better not to use it. Too risky. You've got to get down the service stairs, somehow. Don't even know what floor you're on... Come on, Tarrant. Keep the feet moving. That's it. Slow and sure...
Somehow he made it down two (or had it been three?) flights of stairs, though he had to stop and rest at the end of it. Not much light down here: feeble sun filtering through narrow ground-level windows. Now where had he come in last night? Through which door? Too many storage crates in the way to know for sure. He'd have to search between them all. If the rucksack wasn't here...
Don't think about that now. Just look. Keep moving and look!
Dizziness and nausea compelled him to sit down before he'd covered half the cellar. He didn't know how long he'd 'rested' when he roused enough to focus on the cul-de-sac full of boxes directly opposite. Something dark and ribbon-like snaked across the floor, disappearing behind one of the crates. It could be...
He found enough renewed energy to launch himself across the short distance and snatch up the strap; the limp rucksack came along with it. Breathing a prayer of thanks, he collapsed onto yet another crate, fumbling in the pack's lining for the hidden pocket and... There! The silver bracelet fell out into his hand - a beautiful sight, that - and he thumbed the transmission stud at once. "Scorpio, I need teleport. Do you copy?"
Nothing answered. He secured the device to his wrist, pressed the stud once again. "Avon, come in. I need teleport. Do you read?"
Still nothing. Likely the ship was off station, staying out of the way of roaming Federation patrols. But they'd accounted for this possibility: Avon had installed a long-range pulse signal generator in the bracelet's complex micro-circuitry. Where was the new pinpoint he needed to press...? There. That should do it. Now it should be just a matter of minutes, provided Scorpio was still out there at all, and not blown to bits by a sharpshooting pursuit ship. He wondered briefly why in hell he'd agreed to this in the first place. It should have been Avon down here trying to charm his way into Sessa's confidence - now there was an amusing thought - while the trained pilot remained aboard to cover him and duck the patrols. Better to keep the ship safe than -
Bright light abruptly flooded the basement. Tarrant started, blinking in the sudden brilliance. Elen Sessa had appeared from somewhere - why hadn't he heard her coming? - and stood a few feet away, still wearing her betrayal like a badge.
"Scorpio," she said accusingly. "And Avon. As in Kerr Avon? You're one of Blake's people."
"Actually..." Tarrant allowed himself a brief, ironic grin. "...I never knew the man."
The doctor shook her head. "So I've been a dupe as well as a fool. I've allowed a wanted terrorist to infiltrate and destroy my facility; I've illegally harboured and rendered medical aid to that same terrorist. I must say it's not exactly the way I expected to end my career."
"Yes, well, no one needs to know you've helped me. I promise not to tell them. And people change careers all the time. Creating the means to drug entire planets into stupefied submission isn't precisely what I'd call an honorable career anyway."
"No one asked -" she started angrily, but the admonition died midway and she left it hanging. Her glare diminished a bit in the process.
"The point is," Tarrant pressed, "I've finished what I came here to do. All I need now is a clean getaway. Like it or not, you're already implicated - not that I don't appreciate it - so you might as well harbour me just a bit longer."
"Don't patronize me!" Her voice held a decisive warning. "I should walk upstairs and turn you in here and now."
He called the bluff with another. "Then you'd better hurry. My ship isn't far away."
The sound of an outer door opening startled them both. Someone shouted, "Search the entire cellar, then report back to me." Another, younger voice responded with a crisp, "Yes, sir."
Sessa grabbed Tarrant by one arm and pulled. "Come on. This way."
His feet did not want to move, but somehow he followed. She led him into the lift, let him prop himself against a wall while she pressed the controls. He scarcely felt their upward movement, though the jolt when the car stopped again sent new pangs through his aching lungs. The double doors rumbled open - onto three armed Federation guards with their weapons poised.
"Out of the lift. Slowly. No sudden moves."
Sessa pulled up short, indignant.
"Holburn - what's the meaning of this?"
Holburn's bearded face grimaced in reply. His flanking troopers remained anonymous behind their helmets. "Just step out here please, Doctor." The captain's para-rifle motioned to Tarrant. "You too. Hands where I can see them."
Tarrant pushed himself free of the supporting wall, drew a deep breath, then willed himself to stay rigidly upright as he strode out into the corridor. Side by side, he and Sessa faced the armed trio while Holburn's eyes assessed them both, coming to rest on Tarrant.
"Where were you last night?" he demanded.
Tarrant met him eye to eye and strove to inject the innocent sincerity of the falsely accused into his voice. "Asleep," he said.
"Yes. Well, until the explosions..."
That called for a slightly embarrassed laugh. "Unfortunately," he said. Let Holburn make of that what he may.
"Toren is my production supervisor," Sessa protested. "He's not a suspect!"
Tarrant glanced at her. Defending the 'terrorists' after all, Doctor?
"Well," the captain grunted, "if he's clean, then there's no problem. If he isn't, he'll be shot." That was simple enough. Holburn had obviously passed his FSA officer training exams with flying colours. "The saboteur was wounded," he went on, and the smugness in his voice permeated the hard eyes as well. "That makes it fairly easy." His gloved hand gestured sharply, describing an arc between the trooper on his left and Tarrant. "Strip him," he said.
The trooper instantly slung his rifle over one shoulder and marched forward to grip Tarrant's arms, pushing him back against the wall. The impact sent renewed pain screaming from the bandaged wound: he clamped his teeth against crying out and fought to keep his face from betraying him.
Futile effort, he thought as the guard's hand began roughly unfastening the coverall. I'll be dead in another minute anyway.
The shouted order stayed the trooper's hand. Tarrant wondered who his unexpected saviour might be, then blinked in confusion at the realization that the stentorian command had come from Elen Sessa. Glaring, she stood nose-to-neck with Holburn, an intimidating presence despite her height disadvantage.
"I told you I could vouch for this man, Captain. I'm not accustomed to having my word questioned."
Holburn's smug expression didn't even begin to crumble. "Not good enough, Doctor." He sneered the final word at her, a calculated insult.
Sessa met the challenge unbowed, but her next words came as a shock - to Tarrant most of all. "Toren couldn't have sabotaged the plant. He was with me last night."
The captain and both guards chortled in lewd reaction and Tarrant felt his cheeks colour despite the tight control he maintained; just staying upright was becoming increasingly difficult.
"Well then," Holburn leered, "you won't mind if we make certain, will you?"
The guard reached for Tarrant's clothing once more, but again halted when Sessa called his captain's bluff. She spun to the wall intercom, slapped it on and said, "Code yellow. I want Commander Elofson - now!"
Holburn paled, but quickly covered the reaction with a scowl. Elofson's well-earned reputation as a martinet had not endeared him to the Chronus officers under his command. Worse, it was well known that Sessa had the commander's ear. When all else failed, politics could always be counted on to play out the hand.
With an angry swat, Holburn switched off the intercom just as an aide's squeaky voice started to answer the hail. "All right, Doctor," he growled. "We'll leave him to you. He's not going anywhere unless I know about it anyway. Meanwhile, I'll just have my own little talk with the commander."
She stared him down, stern, defiant. "You do that," she said.
Holburn's lip curled again with one final, parting leer. "Funny. I never would have figured you the type for a boy-toy."
The guard who had held Tarrant chortled behind his mask. The pilot half-expected to be pushed against the wall again, but when the assault failed to materialize, he followed Sessa's cue and mustered enough arrogance to march past all three men and down the corridor.
The door to Sessa's private quarters rattled open at the touch of her palm to the ID-plate. Uncomfortably conscious of three sneering gazes still aimed at them from the hall, Tarrant trailed her inside, glimpsed an upholstered chair not far from the entry, and headed for that.
He didn't make it.
The floor hurtled up to strike him; abruptly, he was staring into the knotted pattern of a grey institutional carpet. For a moment, nothing happened. Then Sessa had hold of his shoulders, turned him over, lifted his head to put a cup of something else foul-tasting to his lips. It burned, but started dulling the pain instantly, and he lay back on the rug to draw a long, grateful breath.
"Thank you," he said.
"It'll help, for a while."
"I didn't mean that."
Still kneeling on the floor beside him, she scoffed softly. "Don't thank me for that, either. I must be losing my mind."
"No." Tarrant closed his eyes and fought a suddenly urgent need to go back to sleep right here and now. "I think you've found it."
She started to say something, but a sudden strident noise interrupted her. He thought at first it was the door chime - Holburn come back to call her bluff again. But it was coming from...
He reached for the teleport bracelet, fumbled with fingers that suddenly felt three times too large, finally managed to silence the signal. That would be Avon, practicing his characteristic caution. In response to the emergency beacon, he would broadcast a hailing signal, then wait for Tarrant to shut it off. In 15 seconds, he'd rebroadcast the signal and Tarrant would turn it off again. Less chance that way of teleporting someone like Holburn wearing a confiscated bracelet. Of course, even if Holburn had possessed the brains to try such a tactic, (he'd never even noticed the bracelet), good old paranoid Kerr Avon would likely be waiting at the teleport console with gun in hand, and would simply have shot him on sight. You could always count on Avon. Consistency was his trademark.
The bracelet signalled a second time, and again Tarrant pressed the silencing stud. Sessa apparently discerned the meaning of the signal; just as the teleport beam began to take him, she squeezed and released his hand and said, "Good-bye, Toren."
Then she faded into the teleport's particle haze, replaced a moment later by Avon, gun in hand, scolding him for the 'stupidity' of getting himself shot. Tarrant closed his eyes and stopped hearing the rest. All he wanted to remember about this mission was that glimmer of conscience in Elen Sessa's eyes.
It meant that maybe - just maybe - he was beginning to understand what Blake's dream had been all about.
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