After the FallBy Harriet Bazley
Page 1 of 7
(with grateful acknowledgements to Zane Grey)
Roj Blake, sitting in the corner of a grimy room on the colony of Gauda Prime, found himself contemplating the cold-blooded murder of one of his own men.
The first time the idea had occurred to him he had thrust it away in revulsion. But in the world in which he now lived, the commonplace of killing brought it back again and again as the obvious, the only solution. A man threatened your position? Kill him. A man challenged you? Kill him. And a man who was steadily, surely destroying the cohesion and the very ideals of your group... kill him...?
Of late, Felak’s limping figure had begun to loom in his dreams, swollen to a size far greater than the crooked little creature could boast in his daylight hours. Blake didn’t need old Mace, the failed dream-teller, to interpret that.
He hadn’t told Mace about the dreams. The old man was one of the last of the group whose loyalty he still trusted, but he shrank from admitting even to Mace how far, in these last few months, he’d felt his leadership slipping.
He hadn’t told Jenna either. And the reason for that he was not prepared even to think about. Her loyalty... had been beyond question. Once.
Before Felak — before Felak he would never have fantasised murder. Never have turned it over and over in his mind, shrinking from it and yet driven back to worry away at the same agonising obsession, like a man tormented by a scar that will not heal.
He too bore his scars now, like the rest of them, like Felak’s ill-knit leg, Winata’s face, like Jenna’s patchy burns. That deep ache in his side where Travis’ blast had never truly healed, and the newer mark that dragged at his eye, slashing its desperado’s brand across what symmetry his features had ever possessed: memento of Sirollo-2. One more failure in a long list of failed planets, of unworthy allies, of — if he were to be honest with himself — of his mistakes.
And it was Felak who’d got him off Sirollo-2, Felak and dead Reinus, laying down a withering fire that held back the pursuit long enough to get them to the landing field, and a ship. Felak had probably saved his life that day. Had risked his own, in the course of his deadly trade, a dozen times at Blake’s side without turning a hair. Stood ready to fight for him: which meant — while Blake was still opting for honesty — meant, in effect, that whatever else lay between them, Felak was ready to die for him.
The little man had made no secret of his growing scorn for Blake’s scruples. He’d brought in more and more of his own kind to the group to swell their numbers; hardened, casual killers who marked up each notch on their weapons with the air of a connoisseur and who looked to Felak and not to Blake for decisions.
They were short of money. The group was always short of money now, without a Liberator to house and feed them or a treasure room to pay the bribes that were needed just to survive. There had been a time once when Blake would have regarded himself as too high-minded to sell the services of those who followed him for cash. Those days were long gone. In moments of clarity, he faced the fact that they had become little more than mercenaries, guns for sale like so many of the outlaws among whom they had come to live.
He clung to the last shreds of his ideals, taking on poorly-paid commissions from those employers with more scruples — and hence, of course, fewer credits — than the rest. When they could scrape together the funds, he led out his little group to do what harm they could to the Federation or to give some semblance of hope to those who needed it. It came expensive.
Felak was not the only one, now, to voice in huddled corners the truth that they could all live better, a great deal better, if they took the dirty jobs. If they dropped the lip-service to a better world and accepted the Federation as it was, with all its potential for profit.
But the little man was the only one so far to have claimed for himself an equal part with Blake in making contacts and arranging their plans. He knew everyone, it seemed, and was everywhere, like a malign genius of organisation, forever presenting deals on tempting terms with no more part needed for Blake than to say “Yes” or “No”... and there was a limit, Blake knew, to how often he could be seen to say “No” to the cash they so desperately needed and still retain his authority within the group.
Felak, with his reputation for quick offence, his nose for a deal, the twisted malice of his step, and the necklace-string of teeth that he would rattle over and over in his pocket, with a little tuneless drone under his breath — Felak, monster as Blake sometimes felt him to be, was more at home in this underworld than Blake himself would ever become. And he could never be uprooted of his own free will from the place he had made for himself — nor even challenged for that position in fair fight, as his kind understood it, not by any man fool enough to draw a gun on Felak and still hope to live to fire. Blake knew himself to be no gunman; but there were others in the group jealous enough of their skill that they might some day try. Then there would be another death, and for nothing. It would not be Felak who would fall.
So when — if — it came to it, Blake told himself bitterly, it would be pure murder. A knife in the dark as the other man slept. A stray shot in the back as they fought off an assault. False intelligence that sent the crippled gunman alone into an alerted trap — murder only by proxy, perhaps, but the taste of that was the worst of all. The man deserved at least to know — to carry his murderer’s face with him in accusation to the grave.
If their places were reversed, Felak would not have scrupled to shoot him, Blake, down as a lesson to the rest: to rule openly by the gun until the laws of fate at last dragged him low. The same weakness that had lost the leader Felak’s respect was now forcing him to plot his underhand demise — and that, too, Blake knew dimly to play a part in his own looming resentment. By the outlaw code, he was no match for the little man. Felak knew that, and he was making sure the rest knew it. If Blake killed him or if he did not, it would be an admission, either way.
Sitting silent in his corner, while the others gathered around the heat beyond, Blake stared into the abyss of his soul and saw his own failure there; both as a leader, and as a man.
He’d first met Felak six months and half-a-dozen planets back, in an armpit of the Universe otherwise known as Sengen Town — and saved the man’s life, Blake remembered now, mouth twisting. If he’d known then what would come of that impulse, maybe he’d have left well alone. But he knew in his heart he would not.
He never had found out what Felak had done, back in Sengen, to get the mob out after him. By what he remembered of the place, it would have taken more than just an average killing to awaken that baying crowd. Blake hadn’t taken to Sengen, nor they to him, and he and Jenna had themselves been heading off-planet in a somewhat hasty manner when they’d passed the witch-hunt on the road — and, half a mile further on, what was obviously its quarry.
He’d been running since the night before, by the look of him. Less than prepossessing at the best of times, his sharp-nosed, stubbled face and twisted gait, teeth bared in effort, had made him a caricature of himself, like a crippled, desperate rat.
Head bent and staggering, the fugitive had looked up for a moment in the billow of dust as the air-car slid by. Their eyes had met.
Blake, who had never liked lynch mobs, found that he had laid a hand on Jenna’s arm almost without knowing why. The air-car grounded softly, a few yards beyond, with a hiss. Jenna met his eyes with what looked like a shrug, and raised the door. Blake leaned out, looking back.
“Get in.” It was a brief command. “I don’t much care for the local brand of justice. We’ll take you to the spaceport — then you’re on your own.”
For a moment there was only silence in reply. Taken aback, Blake glanced round. The other man’s gaze was on the air-car’s driver.
“Jenna Stannis.” His voice was hoarse and slow. “Well, fancy that.”
“Don’t take this for my idea,” Jenna countered swiftly. A gloved hand left the throttle to indicate her companion. “Roj Blake. You may have heard of him. He makes a habit of this sort of thing.”
Shrewd black eyes returned to Blake. “Obliged,” the stranger said softly, drawling out the sound, and accepted Blake’s grasp to swing himself up into the body of the craft. He said nothing else in the forty minutes until they reached the port, but in the reflection of the canopy Blake glimpsed their passenger’s gaze flickering between the two in the front seat as if trying to understand.
He dropped down into the dust nimbly enough, despite the crippled leg, and watched the other two climb out to leave the hired air-car back in the rank.
“Stannis.” One word from that hoarse voice brought Jenna’s attention snapping round in a reaction that should, in hindsight, have warned Blake. “You Blake’s backup?”
“What of it?” Instinctively defensive, Jenna stared back.
“You still as good as you were back in ’48?” His eyes had gone to the weapon that Jenna wore openly at her belt, after the local custom, and she stiffened.
“Think you could handle four?” One hand opened to show a fistful of dusty and gritty stones from the road. Blake had moved to intervene, but a gesture from Jenna held him back.
The stranger nodded and tossed up four pebbles into the air, letting them arc high above the ground even as Jenna thumbed the intensity on her gun. Three pebbles splintered into gravel as they fell. The fourth split sharply in half with the nimbus from the final shot, two inches from the ground. Jenna let out a long breath and grinned.
“Now, watch.” The hoarse voice hadn’t changed in inflection, and it was a moment before Blake realised what the other meant to do. With an almost casual movement, he had flung the rest of the pebbles into the air — perhaps a dozen or more — plucked the gun from Jenna’s hand, and sent a series of shots spraying across the falling stones too fast to follow. In the instant after the last discharge faded, there came a soft pattering around him as the remnants hit the dust. Not one of them was bigger than the tip of a child’s thumb.
A shrug, without false modesty or any boastful pride. “Maybe Blake could use an extra gun.”
“Now just a minute —” Blake, who’d found his mouth hanging open, had hastily shut it and glared at both of them. “Maybe it’s about time ‘Blake’ was told how you two come to know each other!”
“Oh, our paths crossed a couple of times,” Jenna said, reclaiming her weapon with a distinctly cool look. “Nine or ten years back. Briefly.”
The other said nothing, and after a moment she sighed and gestured towards him. “Blake, meet Res Felak. Wanted by the Federation — and just about everyone else. Except those who’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting him.” A queer, strangled croak from the background, which Blake would later come to recognise as Felak’s laugh. “Best shot in the Inner Worlds... depending.”
“Depending on what?”
“Depending on whether the target could afford to outbid the original employer.” The acid in Jenna’s tone could no longer conceivably be set down to imagination, and Blake’s own mouth tightened.
“A while back.” No emotion could be heard behind the hoarse words. If the gesture that indicated the halt leg cost him anything, it did not show in Felak’s face. “That was a while back... before this.”
Blake frowned. “So what do you do now?”
“Pay back a debt or two, maybe,” Felak said slowly, glancing over his shoulder for a moment towards Sengen, before meeting Blake’s eyes again. “Where I’m needed.”
It was Jenna who broke the silence that followed. “So you’re on the run again and you’d stoop to take a billet with us. We’re hardly in your league of operations, Felak —or hadn’t you heard? Blake’s star isn’t riding so high these days, since he let his ship slip through his grasp —”
She’d never forgive him that, Blake knew bitterly. Never forgive him for failing to chase Avon down, no matter what — never forgive herself for staying with Blake and losing the ship, after the War. Things had been wrong between them now for a long time. He wondered, sometimes, why she stayed.
“— I’ll tell you one thing,” Jenna went on, “there’s no money in it, not by your standards. We can’t afford that sort of price.”
“That was a while back.” It was the same slow phrase, given bitterness by the faintest lift of one shoulder. Black eyes darted, close-set, from Jenna to Blake, and read his answer there. “So. Pirates’ law on what you take?”
“Pirates’ law,” Jenna confirmed. “Equal shares, and nothing held back — and equal shares of nothing is still nothing, and you can have that for free.”
“For now, maybe.”
Laconic acceptance — or so Blake had read it, then. When they’d left, the little gunman had taken up his stance a sidelong half-pace behind Blake’s shoulder, in the position that had become second nature in the days that had followed.
For now, maybe.... He couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned, Blake thought savagely, remembering back to those words across the months and worlds that lay between. Oh, Felak had pledged his honour, such as it was, and he hadn’t broken that bargain. He’d sold his considerable skill and stayed bought, despite Jenna’s hints to the contrary. But he hadn’t made any secret of the fact that he intended to increase the group’s ‘take’ to a level he considered acceptable — nor, of late, that Blake himself could be considered less of an asset than a hindrance in that aim.
And cripple or not, the man was a killer. Life was light in value, out here on the Rim, and insult easy to find, but even among such men as these, he was bitter-tongued, beneath that slow surface, and all too quick to deal out offence himself and then reply with death when it was returned. Felak was good at what he did, all right, every bit as good as he’d promised. And he used his gun without an instant’s compunction.
For a moment Blake could almost hear that croaking laugh that had begun to haunt him, the dry rattle of that string of trophy-teeth. He found himself looking round the dim room in a half-panic, as if the other man had somehow returned. But Res Felak’s corner was empty, his bedding tightly stowed, and there was no extra shadow among those crouched around the heater. Jenna had left early that morning in the air-car on the Santangelo run and taken Felak as backup with her. One more day’s freedom, at least, before they could return.
There had been a time when Blake would have caught the grim incongruity of such a thought and been able to laugh at himself. In the struggle for survival, that saving sanity was long gone.
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