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Fire and Rain

By Nova
Page 1 of 10

Drifts of powdery rain billowed across the rebel camp site like white gauze curtains, shutting out the rest of the world, setting a silver gloss on a hundred igloo-shaped tents. (A donation from a vengeful Federation defence contractor who'd had a brutish, nasty and short affaire with Commissioner Sleer.) Roj Blake sat in the doorway of his tent, eyes fixed on the bright flicker of the camp fires, fingers drumming on his knee. He sighed and thumbed the tiny control unit cradled in his fist, finding the right setting with automatic ease: it was, after all, the tenth time in the past hour that he'd listened to Jek Larsen's interpretation of a first calendar ballad. A jangle of chords from the synthoharp and then Larsen's mellow voice, whetted to a razor edge of melancholy, was lilting in his ears.

Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone ...

Although actually he'd found out a week ago, not that it made things any better. Worse, if possible. He'd managed to fend off some of the pain while the children were still there - stately Dayna, cool blonde Soolin and gawky persistent Tarrant, all of them looking absurdly young to him, despite their professional swagger and ferocious weaponry. Blake had liked them immediately, even before he'd discovered that they were the crew from the Scorpio, and he'd been touched by their awkwardly earnest way of breaking the news. Dayna kept saying, 'I feel as though I know you, because they talked about you so often.' Tarrant kept mumbling, 'We would've come and told you straight away, except that we had to establish a new base first.' And Soolin kept repeating that Vila was, quite possibly, still alive: as if repetition could make it true.

Altogether, the three of them had been so respectful and concerned that Blake felt obliged to offer the same respect in return. So, rather than hiding in his tent or stalking off into the forest to howl at the Gauda Prime moon, he'd nodded gravely and thanked them and spent the rest of the evening listening to a series of stories about life on Xenon Base, while he watched the youngsters gradually unwind and start to joke about the past, as though sharing their memories had helped shift a heavy burden of grief. Impossible to load his own grief onto them after that: impossible and inherently unfair. Instead, he'd hugged the pain close to his chest and played guru to his three new acolytes, who followed him round the camp for the rest of the week like orphan ducklings imprinted on a passing farmer. A damp patch on his pillow one morning hinted at night tears but other than that, his eyes remained as parched as his heart.

But now Tarrant and the women had headed off to continue their career of vaguely rebellious piracy and Blake was listening to the same song for the tenth time in an hour, mesmerised by the lyrical pity in Larsen's voice, crooning along with the chorus, still unable to make it through the last line without his throat tightening around the irony of it all.

Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain.

Seen sunny days I thought would never end.

Seen lonely nights when I could not find a friend

But I always thought that I'd see you again.

The camp fires smouldered, scrawling curlicues of white smoke across thin sheets of rain. A light touch on Blake's arm made him jump and swivel and smile up at one of the few friends he'd managed to find and keep. 'Avalon,' he said, digging the sound chips out of his ears. 'I thought you'd still be busy negotiating with the leaders from the other frontier planets.'

Avalon grinned and squatted down beside him, a porcelain-pretty doll who dressed and moved like a trooper. 'No, it was easier than we expected,' she replied. 'They were so impressed by the way we chased the Federation off Gauda Prime that they're practically begging for a chance to join the fight.'

Blake hitched one shoulder into a moody shrug. 'You chased the Federation away, you and your squad. I wouldn't say I had much to do with it. A spot of recruiting and the occasional terrorist action - that's all I've achieved over the last few years.'

He frowned down at his hands, clenched around the control unit, and Avalon thudded a fist into his thigh to get his attention. 'You underestimate yourself, Roj,' she said in the bell-bright voice she used to encourage their small army. 'You're a hero of the resistance, you know. Our soldiers still tell stories about the Liberator's exploits. It gives them hope.'

Blake's mouth twisted into the wry rictus of a tragic mask. 'So I'm a symbol now,' he commented. 'That seems somehow appropriate. I couldn't claim to feel entirely real these days.'

'Especially since the Scorpio turned up,' Avalon agreed with unnerving accuracy. 'What did those children say to you, Roj? Are you going to tell me about it?'

Another scatter of fine rain, folding around the tent and enclosing them in a pale cocoon. Blake stared at the changing patterns, white on white, until his eyes blurred. 'They're all dead,' he said finally. 'All my old Liberator crew. Cally died in an explosion on a planet appropriately named Terminal. I'd already killed Gan with one of my more pig-headed decisions and as you know, Jenna hit the self-destruct button when she was caught running the blockade. Then Vila disappeared from Xenon Base, almost a year ago now. They never found his body but I could tell Soolin believes ... At any rate, she mentioned that Vila seemed to be fairly depressed, for a week or so before he went missing.'

He twisted the control unit between his fingers, pressing its sharp edges into soft flesh. Avalon waited for a while and then said gently, 'And Avon?'

Gold-brown eyes flicked briefly towards her, faltered and fell. 'Yes, well, he's dead too,' Blake said. 'No doubt about that, I'm afraid. I thought he'd settle for making himself rich and safe, once I was out of the way, but for some reason he chose to keep on fighting the Federation, just as I'd done. Avon never really wanted to be a leader, Lon. Apparently, it all got too much for him in the end. He tried to set up an alliance between the non-aligned planets out in the border system and when that failed, he took Orac and ran for the nearest bolthole. I suspect he was heading for a breakdown by then, because he didn't even bother to erase the coordinates. The others followed him, of course, and - oh hell, Lon, he must've walked straight into a Federation ambush. Orac was a sticky heap of melted plastic and Avon ... well, death by fire isn't pretty but at least there was enough of his clothing left for Vila and the children to identify.'

The rain veils lifted abruptly. Blake clenched his jaw and scowled at the petals of flame flaring up around the camp site, yellow blossoms in the milky mist. **Fire and rain. I always thought that I'd see you again.** His eyes burned and his muscles throbbed, locked so tightly round his grief that they were beginning to twitch and spasm when Avalon touched his arm and said, 'You loved him, didn't you?'

Blake sighed and slumped. 'I suppose so,' he admitted. 'I just wish I'd realised it while he was still around. You always think there'll be time, don't you? Time to bring down the Federation and make some sort of life for yourself, if you don't die trying. But I can't even hope for that now, Lon. I don't have any fight left in me.'

Avalon studied him for a while, kneading the muscles stretched taut under her palm. Then she rose to her feet and said briskly, 'Burnout. You need a break, Roj, and as it happens, I've got the answer. Have you noticed the latest craze around the camp - silver juggling balls with a fluctuating antigrav device? The children love them.'

'Not just the children,' Blake said with a reluctant smile. 'I had to take one away from Deva halfway through the last strategy session, because he wouldn't stop playing with it. What's your point, Lon? Do you think I can solve my problems by learning to juggle?'

She swiped at him, pulling the punch just short of his bicep. 'Shut up and listen, for a change. My point is, those toys were a gift from our most important backer, the man who's been supplying us with stunguns and heat-sensor detectors. I haven't told anyone else about him, partly because he asked for secrecy ... and partly because there's nothing to tell. I don't know who he is or where he is. He uses the code name Magician and he has a sense of humour - the silver balls came with a note saying that even revolutionaries need to relax occasionally, although I suspect they're the prototype for some sort of antigrav weaponry as well. But that's the limit of my information.'

Blake rubbed a thumb across his lower lip, pleating it thoughtfully. 'Yes, I was wondering about the stunguns,' he said. 'We've been cut off from the rest of the galaxy for a while now but I was fairly sure those guns weren't standard issue. So your Magician designed them himself? He sounds like an ingenious character.'

'Altruistic too,' Avalon told him. 'He hasn't asked for anything in return, at least not until yesterday. Now he wants me to lend him an engineer, if I can find one. Well, Roj? What do you think? You could inspect our mystery benefactor, do some manual work to take your mind off your troubles, then come back here to the base and fall in love with one of my soldiers.'

'Nice idea, Lon, except that I've tried the last part already,' Blake grumbled. 'It didn't work.'

'But you'll go,' she said: a statement, not a question.

'If you're so determined to get rid of me,' he sighed and Avalon grinned back, saying, 'Yes, Roj. I'm determined.'

'Then I don't really have much choice, do I? When should I leave?'

'Tomorrow. I warn you, it'll be a long journey. The Magician's obsessed with covering his tracks, so you'll be passed from one contact to the next, as a security measure. Good luck, my dear - and don't forget, this is your chance to take a holiday from being a symbol.' She hesitated, shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her combat pants and added brusquely, 'Although you're a powerful symbol, Roj. Remember that too.'

She saluted and went marching off, a small straight-backed figure with a deceptive air of fragility. A gust of wind followed her, shepherding the fine rain ahead of it, setting a white wall between Avalon and Blake. He shivered, possessed by a sudden conviction that he'd just seen the last of her. Ridiculous, of course. Avalon was a survivor - unless, perhaps, he was facing a premonition of his own death. Oh well, he'd cheated death often enough. By now he was ready for it, even eager ... although he'd rather like to meet Avalon's Magician first.

Reaching into the tent, he retrieved Deva's silver ball and started tossing it from hand to hand. On the third throw it hung suspended in midair for several seconds and then plummeted to the ground. Blake laughed. **Vila would've liked that trick.** He picked the ball up and continued to experiment, keeping count and trying to secondguess the Magician's random programming, while the technical area of his brain began to puzzle over the design of the antigrav device. Ten minutes later, he went to fetch a laser probe and three hours after that, he looked up from the scattered components of the silver ball to see the night sky arching above him, cleared of rainclouds and blazing with stars. Blake smiled and stretched.

**Yes, I know the Magician a little better now. I like the way his mind works. And I enjoyed that. Maybe Avalon's right. Maybe I need to walk away from being a symbol and spend some time working with my hands again.**


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