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After the Fall

By Harriet Bazley
Page 2 of 7

It was mid-afternoon outside and already greying to dusk. Old Mace had found the warmest spot and was frankly dozing; stocking up on a few more of the dreams he’d once made a charlatan’s living claiming to interpret in the slums of New Shaohi, where they’d picked him up. It hadn’t been much of a living, even before he’d made the wrong prediction for an important boss’s wife. Blake had found a new use for the old man’s talents, talking the group into and out of anywhere, and for a while it had seemed to give him a new lease of life; but he was over eighty standard years old, and life on Gauda Prime, cold and damp, was doing him no good at all.

Another month of this, Blake thought, as a fresh spatter of rain dashed against the high windowpane, and every one of those eighty years would be etched into that frail frame. He wouldn’t give much for Mace’s chances if they couldn’t get off-planet before winter. And unless Jenna’s Santangelo contacts could come up with something big, none of them were going to be getting off Gauda Prime with anything more than the clothes on their backs.

They could always pawn Terson’s jewellery, of course. Not that Blake suspected it would fetch much. He could see the glint of the cheap stones from here in the fading light as the young man’s voice rang out above the others, loud and braying, and Winata, on his lap, giggled admiringly.

Terson fancied himself as a pilot. He wasn’t in Jenna’s league by a long shot, and he looked more like a walking pawnbroker’s window to Blake’s jaundiced eye. Of all the men Winata could have taken up with—

He’d picked the girl out of the gutter, literally. Even Winata didn’t know how old she had been. Jenna, privately, had put her at an over-developed fifteen. She’d been working the slums in a shabby little port called Heyliss. On the night that Blake and Reinus had been passing through, something had gone wrong. She’d ended up belly-down in the gutter in another girl’s territory, her face slashed to ribbons. Dozens of people must have passed her there, that night. Blake and his companion had been the first to take the trouble to turn her over and discover that she was still breathing.

It was Reinus who’d taken care of her. They’d been in the middle of tortuous negotiations at the time, a delicate dance of trust with a local group to exchange information when neither side could know for certain if the other was a front for the Federation, and the last thing, frankly, that Blake had wanted right then was to find themselves saddled with a half-savage brat from the streets. Winata had held it against him ever since.

Reinus — steady, greying, ex-spacer — had been the only one she’d trusted enough to treat as a friend and not as a potential meal-ticket. Maybe Felak, born and bred on those same mean streets, genuinely hadn’t credited that. But more than likely, Blake decided, chalking up one more savage score, the little man had known exactly the true state of affairs when he’d made that final jibe about the girl at Reinus’ expense.

They’d been on Entebe, back then. Another planet. Another cheap little room. Dusty plains beyond in place of rock and plantations, airless heat in place of dripping chill; tempers short as always. Little enough to choose between them.

Felak had been huddled in a corner, scratching away at one of the endless datapads he guarded so secretively from sight, that little tuneless whistle droning under his breath. Winata — hostile, defensive, scars still livid on her ruined face — had been listening quietly enough to one of Reinus’ well-meant lectures. There had been eight or ten others in the crowded room, and the faint breeze through the shutters had been stale in the heat of mid-day and rancid with old sweat and ill-tanned hide.

Blake, like the rest, had been half-dozing, enduring the hours until the primary sun was eclipsed and the cool of second-morning could begin. He’d never known how the baiting had been started, or by whom. Felak had never seen fit either to excuse or to explain, Winata wasn’t talking, and Reinus — Reinus, by that time, was dead.

Low-voiced barbs from Felak’s direction had become commonplace enough to pass almost unnoticed, by Blake or by anyone else. He hadn’t realised how things had escalated until that last needling insinuation had brought Reinus to his feet and across the room in a couple of strides, ploughing heedless through the bodies in between. He’d caught the shielding datapad from his tormentor’s hands, smashing it to the ground, and flung Felak back against the wall behind him.

And the gunman, uncoiling in a movement as cold as it was instinctive, had shot Blake’s lieutenant through the face even as his grip tightened, spat on the floor in the silence that followed, and walked out.

 

He’d lost Winata on that day, Blake thought now, watching her — even as he’d lost the man he’d trusted as second in command. It was Felak who’d won; who’d worked himself into Reinus’ old place and slowly, by fear or by greed, angled more and more of the group to his side.

He’d wondered, sometimes, if it had been just such an ambition that had led Felak to goad Reinus into a position where he could make that shot. In his more rational moments, he acquitted the little man of all but his habitual vindictive malice. But of late, in his dreams, he had begun to grasp at the threads of some deep-laid plot....

The rain outside had settled into a steady rhythm against the glass above his head, and the lighting panels in the walls were beginning to flicker into life in response to the premature dusk. At the far end of the room, there was a brief pause in the others’ low-voiced conversation; and in the comparative silence, Blake became aware of an all too familiar drip. He sighed.

“Winata, it was your turn to fix the roof.”

The girl spared him a habitual sulky glance. The insolent air might have been merely due to the scar that had split her lip. “So? It was my turn to go into town. You know I was busy.”

If it had been up to Blake, he’d have kept them all out of town altogether, for the semblance of some kind of civil relations with the locals, and for the sake of the physical readiness of the group in the face of what was becoming little more than debauchery. But his own authority was strained enough as it was. Instead, waiting for the prospect of soaked bedding to stir at least one of them to help, he watched the drip grow; and realised, long moments later, with the inevitability of fate, that it was Felak’s neatly-rolled belongings that lay beneath.

The temptation, acute as it was, had to be resisted. Jenna’s own untenanted possessions shared the same damp patch, thrust into the least-favoured spot by those still present to stake their claim, and the inside of the hut was dank enough already without allowing the rain a further foothold. Blake thrust Felak’s kit to one side with a cursory sweep of his foot, stooped to salvage Jenna’s spilling bags, retrieving a datapad that had been thrust down inside and threatened to drop, and found an empty bowl from their last, unwashed, meal to stem the flow.

The cracked roof-panel should have been sealed yesterday. It hadn’t been; and, watching Winata’s defiant stare and the protective arm Terson had slipped around her waist, watching the almost palpable lack of reaction from the rest of the group, Blake sighed, took the path of least resistance, and went out to mend it himself.

He was still crouched up there, trying to shield the broken edge with his body from the rain, when Councillor Arun came up the track to give them ten minutes’ warning to pack up their things and leave town.



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