The spaceport crowd was thick. Hundreds of people, pilots and passengers, crowded the terminal. Steady streams shuffled back and forth through the access tunnels. Every public console had a line waiting; every customs station a crowd. Which was only natural, as Beskos was the only surviving hub for Sector Seven traffic. The war had destroyed almost all the infrastructure out here, and the Federation had not cared enough about the sector to do more than basic maintenance even before that.
Still, people noticed the pair as they bulled their way through. It would have been hard not to; the man was built like a human bulldozer, and the crowd parted for him the same way they would for any heavy machinery that might be passing through. The woman following in his natural wake was attractive, and might have had to fend off a bevy of advances if it hadn't been for her companion. And the scowl on her face that spoke of a volcano-level irritation with the clearance paperwork she carried.
Once upon a time, even this low level of attention would have made them extremely nervous, and for good reason. Now it was only a mild annoyance, unlikely to escalate. They were no longer wanted felons, hunted by patriots, bounty hunters, and criminals hoping to buy favor. Those people were dead. Bounties claimed, names erased from the criminal lists. These days, they were nobody at all. A status they treasured even more than the riches they sometimes ferried around the galaxy.
The video boards buzzed and spit with static. The listings of travel conditions, police alerts, and available passages to buy wavered and blurred with a regular frequency. Typical Beskos, the woman thought fondly, glancing up at one. People were probably blaming it on the war these days, but they'd been just as glitchy when she was a child. It was practically tradition at this point. Many years ago, her brother had always insisted the interference frequency was regular, and could be charted into secret messages the Federation sent to their agents afield. Even now, she could see him feverishly calculating, charting apparent nonsense and waving his free hand around as he expounded his latest theory to his siblings.
She'd always thought him stupid for believing that, and he was wrong about it, of course. But he'd been right about Federation messaging causing it, amazingly enough. Avon had figured it out a long time ago...
She blinked as Avon's face appeared on the screen, and she stopped dead in her tracks. The screens cleared of static, and nearly everyone stopped as the announcement began.
There were gasps behind her. Some groans. One brief cheer, quickly silenced with a slap. Jenna paid no attention to it. She was frozen, aghast. Her mind kept losing the thread of what they were saying. She didn't want to believe this. Didn't want to hear, to see.
The scream was going to come out. There was no way she could stop it. Let them stare, let them connect her with the still image of her own face as it was flashed in the report. She'd bring all the weight of the Federation hammer down upon them, if only to stop the pain.
A large hand landed on her shoulder, and squeezed comfortingly. She put one of her own hands over it, and tried to focus. But her brain kept chanting the same thing over and over. Dead. Blake is dead. They're all dead. They were betrayed, and they died, and now they're just ghoulish entertainment for the masses...
“We should go,” Gan said gently. “We have a schedule to keep. We...we can't do anything about this.”
Jenna drew a deep breath. “I...” She coughed. “I know,” she whispered. She let Gan steer her away from the board, and down the corridor. A few people were moving on now, but most were still watching the boards. Nobody she saw was smiling, and she was thankful for that small mercy. She wouldn't have been able to stop herself if she'd seen them celebrating.
She barely noticed anything else until they were boarding. Jenna went on autopilot then, doing all of the checks and all of the procedures without thinking about them. Gan's voice as he cross-checked and responded was calm and soothing, and she focused on the cadence. Check and cross-check and then they were floating away. She gently spun the Arrogant Swan around, pointing its nose down, and coasting it away from Beskos. The firing switches were blurry as she switched the drives up and sent them racing away.
Once she switched on the autopilot, there was no longer a routine to cling to. She stared at the instruments, not really seeing them. The pulse of the detector scan was almost hypnotic, every return beep hammering in her ears. Only it wasn't a beep. It was a word. “Dead,” it kept saying. “Dead, dead, dead...”
They were 90 million spacials away before she finally cracked, screaming and pounding her fists against the bulkhead with very little care for what her hands might break, or break against. Until Gan pulled her up and into an embrace, taking her blows until she stopped. And continued holding her as she sobbed against his bulk. He didn't try to calm her down, or talk to her. He just let her unwind her furious grief at the injustice of it all.
After a long time, she stopped. A little time after that, Gan steered her back into her chair.
“I'm sorry,” she whispered, as she scrubbed the tears from her face. She could hear Gan easing back down into his own seat nearby.
“I know,” he sighed. “I sort of feel the same way.”
“But you have better control than I do,” she said with a hint of a smile. She winced as she rubbed a stray cut on her thumb. Probably sliced on that broken switch fob she'd never gotten around to replacing. Serve her right for taking her temper out on her own console.
Gan smiled sadly. “Comes with necessary practice,” he said, with the old habit of rubbing the back of his head.
Jenna blinked fresh tears away. “How could he do it, Gan? I...I knew he wasn't fully stable, and I knew he was getting worse, and that it would only end badly if they ever met again, but how could he do that? How could he just shoot him down like that? What happened?”
Gan just shook his head. He didn't know, didn't understand, couldn't understand. He hadn't seen any of them in years. He couldn't reconcile what he had seen with the people he remembered.
“Maybe it wasn't real,” he said at last. “Maybe it's just the story they're telling, to make rebels look bad. To make us look like murderous monsters who'll kill our own as well as the enemy. To make people think it's pointless to ever fight back.”
“Do you really think so? That they faked things up? That maybe some or all of them are actually alive, and got away?”
“Like we did? I don't know. We can't know, really. That's the terrible thing, isn't it? Unless we meet a survivor like us, we'll probably never know anything about it but what they say. And they only tell the truth if it's a truth they like.” He took her hand. “We knew it would end badly, one way or another. It's why neither of us went back, even though we had plenty of opportunities to do so. It's why we're here now, you running cargo, and me working my way back home.”
Jenna sighed. “You're right. It just hurts. And it's always going to hurt. Even if we find out this is a Federation put-up...”
“It doesn't change that it's over.” Gan sighed. “The rebellion's been dead for years; it just didn't stop moving. Blake's dream was never going to happen. Not in our lifetime, anyway. Maybe people in the future can make it work.”
She smiled. “Optimistic even in the ashes. I think I envy your outlook on life sometimes.”
Gan smiled back. “Well, someone has to keep hoping. It's all a lot of us have.”
Jenna turned back to her controls, flipping off the autopilot. “I'm going to fly by hand for awhile. Some of these routes can be tricky with the crossing debris fields.” And it will give me something else to think about for awhile, she thought.
Gan patted the back of her chair. “In that case, I'll see if I can make those ration packs into something human-edible. Lunch in an hour?”
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
They both turned to their tasks, and tried to let the past fly away behind them.