At Three O'Clock After the WarBy Sally M
Page 1 of 2
The end of the
galaxy... well, in his dream, it looked more like a rock quarry.|
It probably was a rock quarry. It was also the edge of the universe.
He sat on the top of the cliff, staring down into the dark nothingness that the quarry sheered off into. He watched the people - all those people, all those nameless faces - watched them pushing and fighting and silently arguing, as they scrambled and waded through shallow pools and dirty puddles of blood, away from the cliffs with their its sharp edges, from the rubble that was once workers' huts and nowsheltered fire-eyed alien insects, and from the monstrous, beautiful plants with their deadly, drugging flowers and bloody thorns...
...and went over into nothingness.
Over it all, an eerie amber light flickered, and an odd, Auronar music like the chattering, thin clicking of computers was the only sound. And he could see the shadowy forms - four of them - from the corner of his eye; he knew if he turned, they wouldn't be there, so he didn't. He just waited.
There had to be a better place to run a rebellion.
The planet they'd ended up on - after the Jevron debacle, which still gave him nightmares - had few benefits. The only one Deva could think of, off-hand, was that no one else wanted the damn hellhole, not the Federation nor the neutrals. In the chaos after the Alien Wars, it had seemed a safe - relatively safe - place to start a base, to settle and build up forces. The Federation had had enough problems holding on to the Inner Planets - surely they wouldn't be interested in a cold, dry, barren, ugly, seemingly dead planetary sink like Disentastra.
To his mind, anywhere had to be better than this.
Well, nearly anywhere.
"Where will you go?" he'd asked little mouse-like Klyn; more from interest, a vague well-wishing, than from any need to know.
"Back to Gauda Prime if I can. Yes," she'd added, seeing his quick, almost theatrical shudder, "I know. But I promised myself I'd go back some time. Maybe we could make a difference." She had sighed, and squared her shoulders, looking as firm and fierce as a mouse with a mission ever could. "And it can't be any worse than here... can it?"
"Devil and the deep black hole, perhaps?" It was a weak joke, but at least it had won a tiny smile before she turned and left. Deva had watched her go, then headed back past the sprawling, decaying ex-Federation Hospital for the Politically Insane or Deviant, looking for a man with no name - well, no name that anyone knew.
He was sitting against a broken wall, watching the water flow past and tossing the lumps of sweetbread into it for the tentacled, multi-coloured battlesquirts to fight over; he looked up at Deva, a faint, twisted and utterly humourless smile on his lips. "You're still here."
"I thought I'd try to talk you round again."
The man shrugged. "Why?"
"Oh, I don't know. I like a hopeless cause." Deva watched the tangle of rainbow-shaded tentacles as the little animals fought and squabbled over the food. "You really want to stay here?"
"Oh, let's see. Because the food," Deva tore off a strip of the sweetbread and bit into it, "is awful, the scenery," looking out past the canal to the grey-brown fields beyond, "is about as appealing as listening to a Federation trooper's thought processes and twice as dreary, the company -"
"Present excepted," the man growled.
"Present not excepted, don't appear to be thinking much clearer than the troopers... and in any case, I believe it's going to rain."
"I think it is."
"And that's a reason to leave the planet."
"As good as most, yes." Deva was silent for a minute, throwing the rest of the bread into the canal. "Oh yes, and there's the minor fact that the President of the Federation herself and her warship have been seen heading in this direction and just might be coming to wipe us out like they did Jevron. Nothing important."
The other man glared at him for a minute, the distorted gaze cold and burning, then shrugged again. When he spoke, his words came slow and thick. "We have one ship, just one ship, and three days. Not everyone can escape, Deva."
"I know. In fact, very few -"
"- And the rebellion can't afford to lose them."
"What we can afford doesn't matter, does it? As you say, not everyone can escape."
"No." the cold stare was mocking him. "But you will."
Deva winced, feeling faintly embarrassed. He had always known he was safe to go: no fighter, he was too likely to blow his own hand off if given a gun, but he had been able to claim a few skills - computing, organisation and a too-fearful-to-be-dishonest manner - that the rebellion found useful, and he had forged a small place for himself in the aftermath of the war. A totally forged place, but his own.
"Don't play falsely modest, it doesn't - well, yes, it does suit you." The undercurrent of humour was unkind. "Modesty is something I'm not used to seeing, I admit. Or at least," and the humour turned self-lacerating, "I don't recall."
"It's all I have."
Deva didn't try to answer that.
Few understood the harsh, disfigured man who called himself 'flotsam from the war' and whose job neither he nor Frater, the local rebel leader, cared to publicise.
Rumour had it that he'd been on a hospital ship, led a takeover and forced the ship to land on Jevron, then offered it to Frater, who had worked with the semi-legendary Avalon and - it was claimed - once met the utterly-legendary Stannis, pilot to the almost-too-legendary-to-be-real Roj Blake. Or something like that.
In any case, Frater had been more than happy to have the spaceship. In exchange for what, no one knew, and no one asked. And everyone still thought of it as the nameless man's nameless ship. It had only seemed fair that he be one of those taken off Jevron to safety before the President came.
The man was damaged, badly damaged by whatever had happened to him in or after the War, and had brought him to a place on the hospital ship. That ruined eye, and the scar to the edge of his mouth... Deva found them repellent, vaguely offensive; pain should be hidden inside, not on show for an uncaring galaxy. Deva had an uneasy and ill-suppressed feeling that he didn't want to know too much, that whatever this man did for Frater and the rebellion was probably both ruthless and bloody.
There was an aura of detached anger and violence about the man, even apart from the impact of the mutilated face, damaged hands, and the haunted gaze, dark gold and as changeable as the light.
Because Bram Ravel Ballaraeke - such was the name the man had made for himself - did not remember his own past. Something, in the chaos of war, has scoured his mind, leaving only twisted fragments and broken traces, and something hard and unstable in its place.
Deva asked few questions, kept his ideas to himself, and worried about them in between days of battling with old computers, older ideas, and people who asked questions that he did not want to answer. It was simply easier and safer that way... for someone in his position.
Like beggars, semi-skilled and not-very-successful conmen couldn't be choosers. Deva had faked his rebel credentials, not brilliantly but well enough - he didn't care to try and challenge someone else's.
He broke the silence when it was clear Ballaraeke wouldn't. "Frater wanted you to go with Klyn, didn't he?"
"Not that I blame you," Deva went on, very carefully not looking at him, "if you don't want to. If half the tales we hear are true, Gauda Prime is now even less inviting than - well, here." He blinked down at a battlesquirt circling the water near them, and threw in the last of the bread. "Murderers, mercenaries, cut-throats, thieves - every type of career criminal -"
"I don't mind career criminals," Ballaraeke said off-handedly.
"Oh -? How many do you know?"
"None... probably. Except you." With a smirk. "I don't know. Will you go?"
"Me?" Deva blinked again. "I wasn't invited. It's dangerous enough for people who can fight, and I'm not much use in the thick of it, I'm afraid."
"I've seen you with a lasergun, Deva."
"Yes, I know. You hid behind a brick wall with the rest."
"And you disintegrated it."
"Pure luck, I promise you."
"Where will you go, then?"
Deva hesitated. "There's a group headed for a planet in the outer region of sector 4. Helotrix. Said to be balmy," he glared at the shimmering, shades-of-frozen-fauna fields, "civilised," with a glance at the crumbling Hospital behind them, "and reasonably safe," with a mental nod to the threat approaching them, the President's tattered but still formidable fleet. "And where they don't ask too many questions."
"Which suits you." Ballaraeke knew his past - at least the manufactured one, and possibly part of the murky reality. Ballaraeke didn't ask questions either.
"And would suit you. Well, better than staying here."
"Or going home."
"My home -?" Trying not to think too hard about Gauda Prime, and Klyn.
"You know damn well," with an edge of the violence that was so much a part of Ballaraeke , "that it can't be mine. A dead man has no home."
"You're not dead."
Deva knew that the other man toyed with wanting to die, usually after a night of the bad dreams he would talk to no one about. Or the days when the torn holes of his memory became too hard to bear. Deva didn't know what had happened to Ballaraeke's mind, and it frightened him, but the man had become a friend of sorts.
More than a friend. Someone he feared and respected and liked... and for a man without name, without a past or a future, Ballaraeke was the most real person the conman - who wasn't much good with reality - knew.
He sat on the edge of the universe again, watching as the crowds pushed and shoved and fell. And the four shadows he thought he knew stood just out of sight of his mind's eye.
"You wanted it over," he said finally. "You wanted to be free, you said."
"Did I." And the voice was harsh, deep with a thread of uncaring mockery. "Maybe I did, Fearless Leader."
"So why aren't you gone? Are you free now I don't know you?"
The shadow had no answer to that.
"Helotrix is a mudhole in space," Ballaraeke said finally.
"You've been there?"
"I've heard of it. Rains a lot."
"It would make a change."
"You can go."
"Someone has to lead, Frater isn't going to, and neither are Disentastra's leaders." Deva snorted. "Give Audris her due, she's staying to the end."
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