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A New Life

By Susannah Shepherd
Page 1 of 1

I was only half asleep when she got home and climbed into bed next to me with a weary sigh. I never sleep well when she's this late. There's so much that can go wrong in her line of work.

I roll over and wrap her up in my arms, moulding her curves to mine. She's just the perfect height for me, and she fits as though we were designed to meld together like this. It's a freezing night outside and her skin is chilled, but I don't mind her cold bum sticking into me. She'll warm up quickly enough, and I need to hold her close. I don't like being on my own at night.

"Did the kids behave?" she asks in a quiet voice, knowing I'm awake.

"Of course," I say, "they always do. They're good kids." And they are, too. She's done a good job with them. It can't have been easy. I love looking after them, it's like having a real family. Well, it's not like they've ever had a dad of their own, is it? I get the feeling I treat them better than some of Shena's other men have done. Elli was so suspicious of me when I first moved in, not that I can blame her. She's lived in this hell-hole long enough to know that girls of her age need to be careful of Mum's boyfriend. She never left me alone with little Benn for a start, either. Sad, that a kid of her age has to know these things.

Nasty thoughts. They won't help me sleep, and I often need help to do that. I was lucky to find Shena when I did, or the booze would probably have got me. You can't do my line of work drunk, too much chance of making a mistake, and I'd got to the point where I was drinking to get through the day as well as to blot out the nights. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't have met Shena if I hadn't tried to do a job half-cut. I literally landed almost right on top of her when I had to climb out the air vents into the alley when the alarms went off.

Tarrant told me once that I was far luckier than I had any right to be. I can't remember what led him to say it, but I do remember Avon snorting and making some snide comment about the devil looking after his own. Not that he believed in luck or the devil, of course, he'd then added, a bit too late to be convincing. I suppose Tarrant was right. After all, I'm still alive, and they're dead. And I've got someone who cares about me and isn't afraid to show it.

I shouldn't think about them, either, not if I want to sleep. Too many bittersweet memories, too likely to end up dreaming about their deaths. I still keep seeing Avon's face in my nightmares, that awful expression as he realised he'd got it wrong and that Blake was collapsing into his arms, dying. And then the next round of shots started and I went down as though I'd been hit, hamming it up for all I was worth.

Once upon a time Avon would have done the same. Looking back, I can't really remember when he started to fight back rather than to look for safety. When we first arrived on the Liberator he was just as battle-shy as I was. I suppose he was a lot braver than me. He learnt to do it. Towards the end, he learnt to like it, and that's when we started to drift apart, even before we went to Malodaar.

The way I fell meant I couldn't see what happened to the others--I was watching through slitted eyes--but I heard them all die. There's a distinctive noise, a death rattle, which I've heard far too often. I heard it three times, just after I heard Tarrant call Avon's name. How must it have felt, knowing as he died that he'd got it all wrong, just like Blake had said, and that he'd unwittingly unleashed that disaster on us all? I hope Avon heard him and understood, I really do, but somehow I doubt it. I don't think Avon registered anything at all after he shot Blake.

I could see Avon, though, straddling Blake's body with that heartbreaking look on his face. I forgave him at that moment for what he'd tried to do to me in the shuttle. How could I not? We should have seen it coming, I suppose. I should have, I knew him best, knew how paranoid he'd got, knew how his judgement was slipping with the exhaustion and stress, should have known that he'd be fearing betrayal above all else. I don't know what I could have done, but I could have done something, I could have tried. Cally would have tried. I didn't, because I was tired, because I'd stopped caring what happened to me or anyone else, and because I still hated him for what he'd done and, even more, for what he'd said over Malodaar. I stopped hating him too late.

When the troopers surrounded him, and he raised the gun with that parody of his beautiful smile, I closed my eyes. I couldn't bear to actually see him die, to see the life ebb out of him as it had ebbed out of Blake. But I wanted them to kill him, God help me. I didn't want him to have to live with what he'd just done. He was tough, our Avon, but no-one's that tough. He'd barely coped after Anna died, and she'd betrayed him; then with Cally on top of that... I didn't doubt he loved Blake just as much as he'd loved Anna--not the way you love a woman, but it was love all right. You could see that in the way he guarded Blake's body, protected him even in death. And Blake hadn't betrayed him, it hadn't all been a lie, but he'd killed him anyway. No, I'm glad Avon's dead, and I hope he's found peace. But I miss him, I miss him so much.

I pull Shena tighter and she draws in a sharp breath. It brings me back to the present, where I'm just Villim Rastrick, petty thief extraordinaire, lying in bed with his woman in a poky two-bedroom apartment in the seediest part of town. I suppose that's something I have to thank Avon for, the untraceable fake identity and modest bank account he set up for me when we first got Orac, in case I ever needed it in the future. It made starting a new life so much easier. Even if I get arrested and they test me, I won't be linked back to Vila Restal.

I've never told Shena who I really am, and I doubt I ever will. It's not a question of trust. Vila's dead, as far as I'm concerned. He died on Gauda Prime with his friends.

"You all right?" I ask her, because she's wincing in my arms, and I let her go.

"Bit sore," she admits. "Rough punter and rougher wall." I reach out to turn on the light, then pull back the covers. I wish I didn't have such a good sense of smell. It's funny, I don't really mind what she does (who am I to complain, I thieve for a living), but I don't like this particular reminder of it. I can smell it, another man's--other men's--semen on her skin, on the knickers she's dropped on the floor. We haven't got a shower in the apartment, just a loo and a tiny sink, and if she uses the communal shower down the hall at this hour of night the mad old bastard next door to it comes down here the next day and hammers on the door, screaming that she's a whore. Shena can cope, she's heard it all before, but it upsets the kids. Benn asked me the other day what a whore was. I didn't know how to explain. He's only four.

She rolls over for me so that I can see her naked back, see the grazes and the welts that will have turned into bruises by the morning. It's not too bad, but I bet it hurts. I get out of bed, pull on a filthy dressing gown, and pad out to the loo and the excuse for a medicine cabinet. Not for the first time, I really wish that just one of the regenerators from the Liberator had survived. This healing cream just isn't the same. I think this is the worst part for me: not the thought of another man screwing her, but seeing her come home hurt sometimes. But we have to eat. At least she doesn't have to pull as many punters now I'm here to help.

I squirt some of the cream out on to my palm and warm it up a bit before I start to rub it gently into her damaged skin. She gasps a bit for a start, but she soon relaxes and my little first aid job quickly turns into a back massage. She's making murmuring noises of pleasure now, and squirming under my touch, and you can imagine the effect the sight of her wriggling bottom is having on me. She giggles, and I know she's doing it on purpose, so I smack her, not hard, just enough to let her know that I know what she's up to. She laughs and wiggles again, ever defiant. She knows how to distract me when my memory won't leave me alone, and she always seems to know, even when I don't say anything.

Shena rolls over and pushes me down on to the bed on my back and teases me, starting with my nipples and working downwards. When she gets to my groin, she reaches across me for the healing cream and takes out a big dollop. She slaps it straight on my cock, cold from the tube, and as I yelp and swear she laughs again. She swings herself across me and takes me inside without any preliminaries, yelping herself as the slightly less cold cream comes into contact with the hot velvety skin inside her. We're both warm again within seconds.

She rides me slowly at first, letting the soothing ointment do its work on her, but then she starts to bounce much harder and faster. I'm content to let her set the pace, I know she'll come hard in this position if I let her lead, and that's important to me. Well, it would be, wouldn't it? And I'm right, she does come, quickly, her head thrown back and her hand stuffed in her mouth to quieten her cries, so she won't wake the kids. I hold her by the hips and start driving into her quicker, enhancing the pleasure she's already given me, until I feel her tighten around me again and we share our ecstasy.

She forgets her knocks and scrapes as she sags against my chest, then rolls free and snuggles back into the shelter of my arms. Her lovely bottom's hot now, and she pushes it back into my satisfied flesh. I love this woman, and I'm immensely grateful for that. It's not so long since I found myself wondering whether I was still capable of love.

She likes to talk afterwards, sometimes, and I like to listen to her until I fall asleep. Such a simple pleasure, and such a precious one. She's talking now, but I'm not really listening to her words, just the lilt of her voice.

"...really strange, the look in his eyes. I thought he might be a bit mad." She often talks about her punters, but never the actual sex. "They were striking, too, his eyes, quite dark brown but he was pale-skinned, a real contrast."

That gets my attention, and I can't suppress a painful memory of a particularly unforgettable pair of eyes meeting that description.

"He reminded me of you, love. He looked like you did when we first met, when you were still all sad." I'd told her an edited version of the truth, that I'd been on a dangerous job and my partner had been killed. I had to tell her something to explain the melancholy I so often felt and showed.

"What did he look like?" I ask. I can feel my mouth going dry. Stupid, I know, there must be millions of dark-eyed, fair-skinned, and slightly insane men out there. Hundreds, even, in this city alone.

She's surprised at the question and she twists around in my arms to look at me with a puzzled frown on her pretty face, but she answers.

"Oh, about the same height and build as you, just a little bit taller, maybe. About forty, I reckon. Pale, like I said, but with short dark hair, dark eyes. Quite good looking, really," she adds with a little giggle, but I'm not in the mood to respond to that. "And he had this sexy, posh voice, a bit husky. He should be on the viscasts with a voice and a face like that. I asked him where he came from--not round here, that's for sure--but he wouldn't say."

There's something going on inside my chest, a feeling of tightness. I'm finding it hard to breathe, and Shena's still talking.

"I didn't like his smile, though. That's what made me think he might be insane. It just didn't look right."

"A dangerous smile, like he's about to hurt you and enjoy it?" I ask, and my voice really is shaky now. At least my heart's started beating again. It's trying to hammer its way out through my ribs.

"Yes," she says, sounding surprised. "Villim, are you all right? You look awful."

I didn't see him die, did I, I just heard the shots. And now I come to think of it, I heard three last exhalations, not four. When I opened my eyes again, when all the footsteps and voices had receded, Blake and Avon were gone, but the other bodies were still there. I just assumed they'd taken those two because they were worth the biggest bounty. I didn't hang around to find out what they did with the others.

And where would a sensible man go if he was fleeing from Gauda Prime? Where I'd gone, here. You could get a passage here easily enough from GP or any of the other planets in the area, and the city had a reputation for being under only the loosest Federation control. You could lose yourself into anonymity here. I had.

The last bit of evidence was the bit I didn't want to think too hard about.

"Did you do him?" I ask.

I knew he had used prostitutes when he got the chance, when we had the Liberator and the treasure room and he could afford the best. He liked sex, he told me once when I caught him sneaking off. He said paying a professional was a damned sight easier and safer than trying to pick someone up in a bar, and a lot less trouble than getting into a relationship. Ever the pragmatist, he was, and he never gave a toss what other people might think of his morals. And a whore couldn't break your heart, could she?

"Of course," Shena answers, "that's what they pay me for." She pauses, and reaches out to stroke my cheek. "I know I said he was cute, but I was only joking. You know you're the only one who matters, the others are just punters."

"I know," I whisper, turning my head to kiss the inside of her wrist, and I do know it. But if it's him, he's not just another punter, is he? God knows, if he is still alive he'll be needing some sort of comfort, even if it is the sort you have to pay for.

I throw back the blankets and get out of bed, and when I pull my clothes on I'm shaking so much that I almost trip over my trousers.

"Villim!" she cries out, "what's wrong with you!?"

"I have to find him, Shena. I think I know who he is. I thought he was dead. Where did you do him?" I'm praying that he took her back to his place, that he'll still be there when I get there.

"The alley behind the power station." Damn, damn, damn. "I picked him up outside the bar around the corner, the Aftarian one. But that was this afternoon." She gets out of bed too, starts getting dressed. "Let me help you find him," she says.

"No," I say, "stay with the kids. I'd recognise him anywhere." I've got no way of knowing what sort of state he'll be in, if it is him--not a stable one, probably. Safer for us all if I go alone, no strangers looking for him, no nasty surprises. He doesn't react well to nasty surprises. I hope he won't see me as one.

I spend four days and nights walking the streets, starting by the power station and slowly working outwards, then working my way back again. I hadn't realised until now just how average he is in so many ways. He'd always seemed so different, but now every second man looks like him at first glance. Do you know how many men there are out there of his height with straight brown hair?

I barely rest, and I keep walking until my feet are raw and Shena's begging me to stop. I look at myself in the mirror and see why. He's haunting me, I can see it in my eyes. Weird, isn't it? He's haunting me 'cos I think he's still alive.

Is that just wishful thinking? Maybe. I'm not sure what I want to believe.


#  #  #

It must have been about six or seven weeks later that Shena came to me, all nervous. She'd got something to tell me, she said. She's expecting a baby.

I don't know why she was so worried. I was delighted. She told me she didn't know whether it was mine or not, but I didn't care. In fact, I knew right from the start it probably wasn't my kid. I'd been exposed to a big dose of radiation once too often in the Liberator days, according to Orac, nasty-minded machine that it was. I'd never bothered to find out the truth--well, it's a bit embarrassing, isn't it, providing a sample, and I certainly wasn't going to get Cally to check.

But, when I added up the dates, I realised it could be my child. Or it could be his. Or any one of a load of other men, I know, I know. But I didn't care who'd provided the sperm, this was my child and I was going to be a dad. And, funnily enough, the idea that the baby might be his made it easier for me to cope with that nagging feeling that I'd just missed him, that he was out there somewhere alone and hurting, thinking me dead along with all the others. Though I doubted whether he'd be grieving too much for me, not with Blake to think about.

Other things started looking up about then, too. My name had been getting around, and a couple of heavies came looking for me one day. Their boss wanted a word, they said. I was scared shitless, but it turned out he wanted his house rigged up so the likes of me--or his rivals--couldn't get into it.

That was the start of a whole new career. Petty thieving had hardly extended me, but I hadn't dared try anything too ambitious in case I got caught and left Shena in the lurch, and I'd been getting bored. Keeping me out of a place was a whole new challenge, and I loved it. Now I'm Villim Rastrick, security consultant, and a respectable one too.

We moved out of the slums and I leased a shop, with a flat over the top for the four-and-a-half of us, as we were then. We're hardly rich, but it's a nice enough area and, hey, the place has two showers. We got Elli into a good school and she's thriving, really learning. She's clever, she'll go far now that she's got choices. Benn's brightened up too, he loves his new friends. I bought him his first scooter for his birthday.

I sit here in the evenings, with my baby son in my arms, and think how lucky I've been, really. By rights, I should be dead or rotting on Cygnus Alpha. But here I am, happy and contented. My son feels it too, he looks up at me with those expressive brown eyes of his and smiles. He's just learned to smile, and it's the best feeling in the world, watching him do it, realising he's smiling at me, his dad.

A new life. So much hope, so much potential, so much love.

I named him Kerr, just in case.

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Susannah Shepherd

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