Chapter 21: The Far Northern Lakes
"They're ridiculously young — both of them." Jenna tossed back her head, clearly still far from reconciled to the presence of the two newcomers on board the Liberator, and Blake sighed.
Cris was on the flight deck, keeping watch together with Gan, whom she seemed to regard in the light of an unofficial protector among the crew. Rall, still suffering the after-effects of exposure to the Newparis atmosphere, should by all rights have been back in the ship's medical unit, where he'd spent most of their first day on board. But Blake was quite certain that a check would once again reveal the treatment couch empty and its occupant curled quietly somewhere in a corner of the flight deck, or wherever else Cris was at that moment to be found. He'd tried to be unobtrusive about it, flushing scarlet at Vila's cheerful comments on "two for the price of one"; but whenever the white, lost look of memory left Cris stricken and staring, Rall was somehow always there at hand to meet her eyes and bring a warmth of colour back into her cheeks. They'd been through nightmare together and apart. Blake thought they'd stay side by side for a while yet.
Jenna, whose patience had always been limited, predictably didn't see it that way. Supposedly off-duty, she was currently pacing the large cabin they'd dubbed the Rest Room and glaring down at Blake, still seated. Avon and Vila, who'd been playing a two-handed game that involved vast theoretical fortunes changing sides, were both listening with interest: in Avon's case without deigning to spare them his open attention, in Vila's case with unconcealed curiosity. And the mere fact that the whole crew had ended up down here instead of on the flight deck was in itself an acknowledgement that things had changed, Blake admitted ruefully.
He switched off the book plaque he'd been trying to study and looked up at Jenna, who folded her arms and stared back.
"When you hatched this plan for picking up more crew members down on Newparis, Blake, I didn't expect a couple of children. Seasoned guerilla fighters — practised saboteurs — even second-rate smugglers would have made some kind of sense. But what are we supposed to do with a shrinking white dwarf of a Delta and a limp-string cadet with a two-weeks' moustache? I'd say he had the face of a girl, only his looks are too plain to pull it off — and as for calling himself a pilot..."
And that, of course, was the real bone of contention. A quiet comms tech, especially one with Cris's genuine talent, might have been one thing where Jenna was concerned, however much of a waif and stray she might be. An impulsive young rival for the Liberator's helm was a completely different affair.
"I didn't intend to pick up Cris and Rall — any more than you intended to end up reprogramming the ship's computer," Blake pointed out, judging her bristle at that reminder. "You have to admit we couldn't very well leave them behind, under the circumstances — and at least we've got something out of the trip."
"I didn't realise we were planning to operate this ship as a universal refugee service." Avon had given up the pretence of not listening. "And while contriving to get oneself under sentence of death from both sides of the conflict may score high on the sympathy vote, Blake, it would appear to indicate a degree of political ineptitude that even you would be hard put to it to equal."
"We wouldn't have got out of the city without Rall's skill," Blake snapped. "Cris's ability speaks for itself — and as for falling foul of both camps, you know very well that was set up by the Ghost."
"Ah yes, the Ghost. The reclusive genius who was going to show us how to run the revolution. The most successful rebel leader in this Sector. Another outstanding result for the power of reason and negotiation... remind me again, just how healthy was he when you and your allies left the planet?"
Coming from a man whose own arrogance in his abilities had nearly wrecked the ship in Blake's absence, that was the outside of enough. Blake took a deep breath and a firm hold on his temper — getting a rise out of him was Avon's idea of victory, he knew that well enough — and stood up, using his own height to make a wordless point.
"Oh, I learnt a thing or two from the Ghost on Newparis, Avon. I learnt not to let personal grudges pull apart a cause... and I learnt that no amount of genius in an ally is worth a thing in the long run without loyalty."
There was a few seconds' pregnant silence.
"Mad scientists — can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." Vila hopped to his feet, neatly defusing the moment. His sharp eyes had flickered from Blake's face to Avon's. "Did you hear about Cris's father, Blake? He sounds right up your street—"
"Another would-be revolutionary with a martyr complex." Avon had pointedly not risen from his seat. One hand picked up a game piece and toyed with it reflectively. "And since none of us has yet succeeded in getting more than three words together out of the young lady in question, I take it that you, too, have been subjected to Rall in full flow on his favourite topic?"
Jenna laughed shortly, coming to a halt again in her restless prowl. "You too? So far as I'm concerned, that young couple are starting to get very old, very quickly..."
"I think they're sweet," Vila retorted unabashed. "I vote we keep them. A spot of love's young dream round here makes a pleasant change for once in a while."
He looked from one to another of the other three, innocently, and Blake at least had to concede the point on an inward smile. He'd never figured the little Delta for a sentimentalist before. He did, however, credit him as a considerably more shrewd operator than he liked to appear.
"I'm not proposing we dump them out into an escape pod." Jenna, exasperated, had redirected her glare. "I'm just suggesting that your two adorable babies might be better off out of our way on some obscure planet rather than cluttering up the flight deck on the Liberator."
"She has a point, Blake." Avon thrust the game board aside and stood up in his turn, walking to the door. He paused and looked back. "Think about it."
"I think they're both a lot tougher than you give them credit for, especially Cris," Blake said: for all her fragile appearance, the girl had a stubborn streak as wide as Jenna's own and a steady endurance beneath her gentle ways that was every bit the match for Rall's volatility. "And I suspect they're more than capable of making up their minds for themselves."
Jenna looked round sharply. "You think they're wanting to leave?"
To give her her due, she hadn't shown open hostility to the newcomers' faces; but there was a defensive edge to the question. Blake reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder in reassurance. "I just think they may have their own opinions on the matter, that's all. Are you going up to the flight deck, Avon?"
Avon paused, framed in the doorway. "I'm due on watch in ten minutes, yes. What is it?"
"If you see Cris and Rall, ask them to come down here a moment." He kept his tone neutral, deliberately failing to elaborate, and met Avon's assessing look in return with the faintest of smiles.
But the shape that loomed in the corner of his eye a quarter of an hour later was much too large and too dark to be either of the young Newpies.
"Has anyone managed to get to the bottom of the programming on those food synthesizers yet?" Gan enquired mildly, holding out in one sizeable hand a grey, doughy mass that looked all too familiar. The output of the highly automated facility they'd dubbed the 'galley' had its drawbacks.
Jenna regarded the object on display dubiously. "Don't ask me — the nearest I ever got to cooking by numbers was fixing up the cargo manifests for the benefit of the Inner Systems Patrol. I think Avon's still working on it... At least we know that one's edible."
For a given value of 'edible', Blake supplied mentally, wincing at the leaden memory. None of them had succeeded yet in calibrating the ship's synthesizers to produce a reliable range of human cuisine. It was enough to make you homesick for canteen rations.
"If I were you I'd get rid of that and have another go," he suggested, laying down his book plaque again — he'd loaded an analysis of the economics of the outer planets, and had to admit that it was heavy going — and inadvertently yawning. "We're not short of stores, at least; why don't you ask Vila? He claims he's got the beverage system cracked, for a start—"
He looked across at Vila, and registered for the first time the pair of fair heads bent over the game board. The other two had come in quietly after all.
"I could help," Cris offered a little shyly, looking up. "I don't understand much about this ship, but I'm good with numbers — and I'd like to do something to repay you before we go."
"Go?" Vila's mobile face pantomimed innocent dismay. "Don't start talking nonsense, Cris. No-one wants you to go, do we, Jenna?"
"Of course not," Jenna said automatically, shooting a glare at Blake, who was trying to keep a straight face.
"Anyway"—Vila had not paused—"you both still owe me a hundred and twelve thousand credits from the last game we played." He patted Cris's hand in a proprietorial way and gave her a hopeful look. "You wouldn't want to walk out without a chance to win it back, would you?"
Rall, sitting opposite, reclaimed her hand for himself, holding it briefly against his cheek before turning to brush his mouth across her palm in a moment's passing caress. A lovely fugitive colour ran up into the girl's face, and Blake, surprising an oddly wistful look out of Gan, heard Jenna let out a breath of impatience at his side. He murmured, in a spirit of mischief, "You know, they really are rather sweet," and got an elbow in the ribs in return.
"I'm sorry..." Cris had ducked her head under Vila's encouraging smile. "You've been very kind, Vila, but I can't— I can't join the fighting with you."
"Fighting?" Vila's voice squeaked upwards. "I don't know about you, but what I had in mind was something more along the lines of hitting the Federation very fast and running away."
He got the grin he'd been angling for, but Rall shook his head. "She's seen enough — more than enough. I can't set out to kill men I trained with. And neither of us can go back to Newparis now..."
He glanced over at Blake. "You wanted to see us."
Blake nodded. "Yes, I'd gathered there was something of the sort in the offing. I can't say I'm not sorry to hear it — you've seen we're short of crew — but I won't keep anyone who doesn't want to stay. Everyone on board here is being hunted by the Federation, and anyone who joins us will end up being hunted too. With this ship, we have the chance to make a difference — that's all."
"I won't put Cris through any more killing," Rall said quietly. There was an edge of defiance in it, as if it was his own courage being questioned; but he made no attempt to defend himself against any such imputation, and Blake, who'd harboured hopes of an appeal to Rall's social conscience, found himself tacitly abandoning the attempt in recognition of an ideal as dedicated and unsparing as his own. He regarded the young man with a sense of kinship and immense, rueful liking.
"Well, we'll see what we can do..."
"Have you got those co-ordinates set?" Blake pulled a third teleport bracelet from the rack, clasping it round his wrist, and took Cris's arm as she and Rall fastened their own. He watched as the other two rather nervously linked hands, then stepped back into the active area of the Liberator's teleport bay, drawing them after him. Avon, behind the controls, made what Blake suspected was an entirely unnecessary adjustment without bothering to reply.
It was Avon who'd found this planet, a chilly, temperate world of wide lakes and towering forests with virtually no Federation activity outside the main city. And it was he who had faked up a couple of convincing new identities for the young pair; from now on they would be settlers newly arrived from the distant southern peninsula to help build the raw little town set on the lakeshore down below, where all hands were needed and few questions were asked. There would be long cold winters to endure with only primitive technology, in the middle of a great wilderness... but they would have the freedom of the soaring landscape all around, and the warmth of close-knit neighbours far from the Federation's interest or control. It would be hard work, but they were both too young to be afraid as yet of that.
It was not, of course, the sort of world that held any appeal at all for a man of Avon's stamp, and he'd made them a present of his findings with an air of all-but-tangible disdain. But Cris had fairly sparkled with gratitude, and Blake had observed with amusement the pretty flattery with which she'd overcome Avon's reserve; if Avon had a weakness, it was for well-merited compliments, and he'd certainly been entitled in this case. Still, it had afforded Blake a private smile or two to see him basking quite so thoroughly in the warmth of the girl's regard.
He'd even wondered for a moment if it might be possible to get Avon to persuade Cris to stay; she'd been apprentice to the Ghost, after all. But she'd been adamant. Calibrating the food synthesizers was one thing — and her assistance in that direction had vastly improved the predictability of the meals on board — but helping to work a warship was another. She'd been led to horror and disillusionment in the name of her father's cause; she had no heart to follow Blake's crusade across the galaxy.
"Ready," Avon said now at last, looking up from the control board, and Blake felt the girl's arm stiffen anxiously in his own. He'd suggested they all kept hold of one another in case of rough terrain down below, but he'd meant it as much for reassurance as anything else; her other hand was wound very tightly in Rall's indeed.
"All right, put us down." Blake made it as casual as he could, watching Avon's assured grasp reach out to activate the teleport, and told himself, as always, that this time he would somehow remain aware of the whole experience. He'd seen others teleported: that dizzying moment of unfocused arrival, as the transmission seemed to outline and then coalesce into form.
But the moment caught him unawares, as usual. One instant he was in the teleport bay where Gan and Vila had gathered behind Avon. In the next instant all at once there were coarse steel-blue tussocks under his feet, and a fine moisture falling. He took a deep breath of air that was suddenly several degrees colder. The scent alone was wonderful.
Blake looked out over the water at the misty outlines of the trees on the far side, and at the rising slopes behind him. The lake stretched for miles, framed between great grey peaks on either side. Far out in the centre, a couple of low-lying islands could just be seen. Everywhere around them — from the springy reeds beneath their boots to the vast wild murmur of the trees beyond — seemed to breathe dampness and growing life. He could scarcely imagine how it must seem to eyes accustomed to the barren glitter of Newparis; Cris had her eyes wide and her lips curved in breathless wonder, and she and Rall were exchanging looks of identical excitement.
Gan had offered to be the one to teleport down and bring back the spare bracelets. Blake, remembering his own first bewildered steps beyond Earth's Domes into the wilderness Outside, was somewhat guiltily aware that in assigning the duty to himself he'd done the other man no favours. Gan would have loved to experience the lonely wilds of this misty North, cold and wet though it was...
But the memory of the woman Ravella leading him down to the river brought inevitably in its wake those other images of what had followed: Ravella and the rest sightless and slaughtered in the corridors of that underground meeting-place, unarmed dissidents shot down as they tried to surrender. He would have loved to bring Gan and the rest down here, to let the wind whip some colour into space-pale faces and the scent of living things into lungs more familiar with recycled air — but they could not afford the time. The Liberator had shaken off her pursuers for a few hours, perhaps; but they were still being hunted. For Cris and Rall's sake, if for none other, they could not afford to raise the questions that would inevitably be asked if the Liberator were to be found in orbit here.
Rall had removed his own bracelet, and the one Cris had been wearing. He took a few awkward steps to return them to Blake, stumbling on the unaccustomed tussocks.
"I can see lights on the shore down there." He pointed, and Blake, peering through drifting veils of rain, caught a glimpse of a cluster of low wooden buildings that must be the township they were looking for. He clipped the spare teleport bracelets on his other wrist for safe-keeping.
"Right... Have you got your story straight?" He looked from one to the other, and Cris nodded.
"We flew up from the South to take up a new homestead, but our pilot ditched us short and we lost all our supplies. We'll be happy to work for our keep while we build up enough to get a stake of our own."
"They'll be happy to have you," Blake assured her; no frontier town queried too closely into the history of hardworking newcomers. "And... we'll come back if we can in a year or so to see how you're doing. If you change your minds — well, as long as the Liberator's still in one piece you'll be welcome to have your old cabins back."
He remembered some of Vila's more ribald comments and couldn't help smiling. "But I'm guessing it will officially be just one cabin by then?"
"As soon as possible," Rall said cheerfully, without so much as a hint of embarrassment. He slid an arm around the girl's waist and got an answering smile up in return; and tenderness transfigured the two faces into something close to shared beauty.
"Cris — do you remember how we used to talk about where we'd go when we grew up? About how we'd cross the galaxy..."
"...how we'd look for Daddy's stories, where the ground was blue and the air was soft and houses lay wide open beneath the sky," Cris completed softly. She brushed the briefest of kisses against his cheek. "And then we grew up... and you told me there were no blue remembered hills. Only an ideal — an idea."
She gazed round at the soft colours of the reed-beds in the distance, at the little town without its shielding Dome, and the gentle dampness of the air. A tear spilled over, sudden and unexpected as Rall's own. "Oh, but Rall — they're here. They're here..."
"Bring me up, Avon," Blake said quietly into his communicator. aware of an unaccustomed sensation in his own eyes for which there was really no excuse at all. The young couple, so close together, were utterly lost in one another for that last moment — and then they were gone like the twilight on the planet below. Blake found himself blinking once more in the brightness of the Liberator's teleport bay.
"They'll be all right, I think," he told Gan in answer to an anxious look, slipping teleport bracelets back into their place automatically. "But we'd better get well clear of here and give them a decent chance at it."
"Better get up to the flight deck, then." Avon's tone was as dry as ever. "Jenna has plans for another set of drills on full manual control — now that you and Gan have caught up with the rest of us — and according to Zen, we've got another Federation pursuit flight closing on our tail."
"And now we don't even have Rall to help out on the flight deck," Vila complained, trailing behind in the concerted rush that followed. "Sometimes I wish we'd stayed behind on Cygnus Alpha — at least they wouldn't have worked us to death..."
"It's a penal colony, Vila," Gan pointed out patiently, looking back. "That's exactly what they would have done to us... though in your case the mere idea of hard labour might have been enough."
"I work as hard as anyone else here, don't I?" Vila said, indignant, and even Blake, who had shared in the general rumble of amusement at Vila's expense, had to admit that for all his clowning the little Delta did his part as much as any of them.
"We'll find someone," he assured his crew, taking the corridor that led up to the flight deck. "The galaxy's full of people who'd give anything for a chance to fight back against the Federation—"
"Next time," Avon cut in grimly, "Blake had better find someone with nothing left to lose."
There was a moment's silence. Gan's voice was very soft. "There'll be no shortage of those — under the Federation."