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By Jean Graham
Page 1 of 4

They called Obron a spacer's paradise. At least, that's what Del Tarrant had always heard. The reality, of course, fell far short of the expectation. Its single town comprised a handful of dusty wood frame buildings, all dedicated to the 'entertainment' of a spacegoing clientele. Nothing elaborate, but for a few days' holiday, it would do.

His deal for the weapons cache sealed, he waited now for Scorpio's return in two days, and to see if Avon and Soolin had done as well securing guns on Apros IV. He doubted it, but if they had, a double haul would bring a nice fat price from the rebel factions on Solasus.

Meanwhile, he had two days to enjoy the 'comforts' of Obron's gambling dens and pleasure houses. They were opulent, but well- worn, and too crowded for his taste -- mostly with self-styled freetraders whose aversion to bathing made them less than desirable company. Tarrant chose the 'Athena' for its more modest appearance -- a smaller, paint-peeling house on the edge of the settlement -- and paid twenty credits for dinner and 'companionship.' Neither qualified as particularly memorable. But it passed the time.

Alone again, he found a reasonably quiet corner in the bar, ordered a Selisian gin, and sat back to watch the customers. Companions of both sexes -- wearing a feather here or a jewel there, but little else -- wandered between the tables, some serving drinks, others merely advertising. 'Canned' music vibrated off the mirrored walls. The pilot relaxed and enjoyed the female half of the scenery.

As the day wore on the place began filling up, becoming as busy as the bigger houses down the street, and Tarrant began contemplating a change of locale. He was on his third gin, but the alcohol had done nothing to dull his olfactory senses. What did Obron spacers have against sono-showers, anyway? Or plain old soap and water?

He rose, began making his way through the crowd toward the exit. The hand that came out of nowhere to clamp on his shoulder took him by surprise; it spun him to face two nondescript spacers in ill-fitting local dress. The one who had grabbed him wore a lop-sided grin.

"Hullo, Tarrant," he said.

The pilot started at the use of his name, stared at the unshaven face in a vain attempt to recognize the speaker. He looked dimly familiar somehow...

"Tarrant?" the second man exclaimed, scrutinizing his friend's catch. "Captain Tarrant, you mean? Damned if it isn't! Cort, you've got eyes like a Golan spearhawk." He giggled. "Damned if it isn't him."

Tarrant fought down the urge to bolt into the crowd, concentrated instead on the name Cort. Where had he heard that before? They were out of uniform, but the taint of Federation trooper clung to both of them.

"Shut up, Ryver." The hand tightened on Tarrant's shoulder and pulled. "Let's take a walk outside where we can talk in private, eh Captain?"

Tarrant resisted the hand's urging, planted his feet firmly and decided on a verbal frontal assault. "Do I know you?" he demanded.

Cort's grin collapsed like a folding fan. "Outside," he repeated, giving Tarrant's shoulder a vicious shove. "Move."

The sea of intoxicated celebrants parted to let them pass. On the way, Tarrant weighed options, tried fiercely to remember where he'd seen either of these jokers before. It had to be Academy; he would remember anyone he'd served with, surely. As to whether he could take on two of them...

They 'escorted' him out into the evening breeze and between the buildings, to the tree-shaded rear of Athena's, where Ryver produced a hand blaster and Cort's ugly grin reasserted itself. "Now," he chortled, "suppose you save us the time checking and tell us just how much the price on your head is nowadays."

"I'm afraid you're mistaken," Tarrant responded, mock-polite. "I don't--"

He had no chance to block Cort's blow; the fist caught him low in the abdomen, doubled him over with a startled cry.

"Don't be a smart-ass, Captain Tarrant." Cort yanked him upright again by the hair while Ryver cackled uproariously from behind his gun. "I don't take any lip from deserters."

"No?" Tarrant fought for air, still gasping from Cort's attack. "And what are you?"

Cort shoved him with bone-breaking force against the wall of the building. Soured liquor breath assaulted him close-up. "We're a couple of enlisted men on leave, that's what. And we just found a shortcut to wealth and promotion. You."

Not if he could help it. Tarrant slammed one knee into Cort's groin and kicked hard, sending him flying with a startled yelp into Ryver. Both went down, a sudden tangle of limbs, blaster and irate curses.

Tarrant ran.

In retrospect, it had been a stupid move. He knew nothing of the planet's topography, wildlife, weather conditions... and the sun was going down. But there had been no time to stop and consider the alternatives. He plunged into the stand of trees behind the Athena and tore through bushes, thorns, underbrush, all intent on tangling about his feet and tripping him. Shouts and grunted oaths followed close behind. Twice, blaster fire seared into the tree branches above his head. Ryver and Cort had obviously recovered their faculties -- and their weapons. Tarrant's only defense lay concealed in an inner pocket -- one of Dayna's miniature, inconspicuous handguns. Before he could use it, he would have to find cover and the precious seconds necessary to get at it... He wondered if it could handle two of them...

He broke suddenly through the tree line and into the harsh red light of Obron's sunset, pausing for a startled moment at the abrupt change in his surroundings.

Dangerous. Open ground. No cover.

A shout from the thicket spurred him on. He sprinted east several meters and then turned back into the wood. The trees were thinner here; not so much noisy undergrowth to give him away. Better chance to lose them here. But he knew better than to underestimate Academy-trained troops -- even if this particular pair had undoubtedly been officer wash-outs. He set a pace and kept to it, not quite running now that he no longer heard them behind him. He had the advantage of a few less years and a great deal less alcohol -- but greedy types like Cort and Ryver would never give up a reward this easily. They would follow, all right.

Which left him with very few choices.

Tarrant stopped just long enough to catch his breath, and removed Dayna's tiny gun from its concealed pocket. The only cover here was offered by the tree trunks themselves. It would have to do. He chose the spot in darkest shadow, crouched, and waited. He tried the emergency recall button on the teleport bracelet, just in case, but there was predictably no response. Scorpio wouldn't be back in range for another day, at the very least.

They came crashing through minutes later, Ryver in the lead with his blaster, Cort five paces behind with a non-standard-issue pistol in hand. Without hesitation, Tarrant aimed and fired. Ryver dropped without a sound, Dayna's gun leaving a small black hole square in the center of his forehead. The second shot narrowly missed Cort. The man scrambled behind a thick trunk to return fire. Percussion bullets began splintering the bark from Tarrant's tree. Time to leave...

He backed away, intending to keep the tree between himself and the trooper for as long as possible. But the loud snapping of twigs and leaves told him that Cort had also moved, changed his trajectory. Tarrant spun, headed further into the trees, mindless of how much noise his retreat made. All that mattered now was to get away, find a better vantage point. In the scramble, he almost missed the echoing report of the pistol. Bullets whined past him like angry insects, one thudding into the ground at his heels, another plucking at the sleeve of his tunic, and still another--

He gasped, stumbled, caught his balance and plunged on, trying desperately to ignore the piercing, fiery agony under his left ribcage.

_Keep running. Don't stop, don't fall, don't give in to the pain. One more stupid mistake like that and you're dead._

He had to repeat the litany to himself a thousand more times, while the night closed in to wrap both hunter and prey in mottled black and shadow. Twin moons, mismatched crescents, peered mockingly through the overhead branches, doing little to light the way. Endless repetitions of rock, tree and bush flashed past in silhouette, while a warm stickiness crept from beneath his ribs and soaked into his tunic.

Cort followed. He did not have to pause to know it; the sounds were behind him, moving relentlessly in tandem with every ragged, agonized breath he took.

_Don't stop. Keep going!_

Roots, brambles, stones and gullies conspired to pull his feet from under him, but somehow he kept on.

Abruptly, the tree line broke once again, and just as suddenly, the ground dropped away, sent him tumbling, plummeting downward. He couldn't suppress a cry of pain when something hard and sharp- edged slammed into his injured side, nor a small yelp of surprise when his slide ended in a shock-cold splash into shallow water. He lay there for a moment, pelted with cascading pebbles and soil from the landslide, until the sounds of Cort's pursuit spurred him to rise and wade further into the lake -- if lake it was. The wet lapped at him, crawled greedily up to his knees, his waist, finally engulfing the fire in his side with anaesthetic chill. When it reached his chin, he halted and turned to squint back at the hillside. Barely -- just barely -- he could make out the shadow of something moving against the darker bulk of the trees. He tried to listen, but all other noise was drowned by the slurp of water and the roar of his own labored breathing.

Beneath the water, something slithered between the fingers of his right hand. He started, bit back another cry. When the thing did not return, he forced himself to relax, to breathe normally. Absurdly, he wondered if Dayna's gun and the teleport bracelet would survive this drenching.

_Stupid,_ he chided himself. _But it's a bit late to worry about it now._

He did hear something then. Scrabbling, scraping, rockfall, a stifled curse. Cort, either falling or making his way down the embankment.

Tarrant fought back a moment's panic at what to do next. He balked at the thought of going further in, submerging himself completely and swimming blind. If he angled left instead, headed back to shore, and if he could move slowly and quietly enough to slip past Cort in the dark...

He heard a splash, then more curses as his pursuer encountered the water. Tarrant took advantage of the covering noise to set off on his new course, aiming for a point roughly 40 left of the thinner moon crescent. To his relief, the lake bed rose more evenly in that direction, offering fewer pitfalls to his unsure feet. Off to his right, Cort's angry thrashing continued, interlaced with still more vehement curses. Tarrant had already reached shore and crawled partway up the incline (thankfully gentler than the one he'd fallen down) when he heard the pistol discharge. Five shots hushed the trilling night insects; five bullets slapped into the water.

_Firing blind,_ Tarrant realized, though he'd instinctively flattened himself to the bank at the first shot. _He can't see and maybe he can't follow either. Pistol's an open-chamber weapon... won't always fire wet._

More splashing, then the squishy, sucking noise of trooper's boots in mud, moving along the shore.


_Which direction is he moving in?_

Tarrant didn't wait to discern the answer. He scrambled up the slope on all fours, found the rim and forced numb feet to carry him back into the relative safety of the trees.

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Jean Graham

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