I didn't respond at first, didn't even realize that the voice drifting across the barroom, calling a name I hadn't used in years, was addressed to me. It was the voice itself, the eerie, distressing familiarity of it that finally got my attention, and by then it was too late. A hand came to rest on my shoulder, and I turned around and looked into what might just as well have been a mirror.
His face was lit with a bright, incredulous grin. "Tal! It is you!"
I stared into his eyes, swallowed hard, and smiled. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done. He doesn't know, I told myself, chanting it like a mantra. He doesn't know, he doesn't know. Of course I didn't really know that, but the look on his face conveyed nothing but sheer astonishment and delight. This was a man who'd just met his long-lost twin brother in a seedy bar on a backwater planet. That was all. He'd never been that good of an actor, I told myself. Never good enough to fool me. "Hello, Roj," I said.
"I was... Someone told me you were dead."
"I'm not." And that was a lie, really. Tal Blake was dead. Long dead and buried, as far as I was concerned. He should have stayed that way.
He clapped me on the shoulders, his eyes glowing with warmth and emotions I didn't even want to think about, let alone name. "The Federation told me you'd emigrated. I got vistapes... I was told later they were faked."
Some of them were, of course. Some of them weren't. But all of them, even the ones I'd actually recorded, were lies. "I did emigrate. I'm here, aren't I?" This, at least, was the truth. After... what happened... the Administration made it very clear to me that if I stayed around, I'd be considered a political liability. They gave me a chance to get out. I took it. I know what happens to political liabilities.
"And... Shena? Is she here, too?"
I shut my eyes, lest I give in to the temptation to wipe that eager, hopeful look off his face, but that only left me staring at Shena behind my lids. Shena as I'd seen her that last day, behind the transparent wall of a cell, looking tired and hurt and so heart-breakingly young. "Shena's dead," I said.
He was silent long enough that I had to open my eyes to see if he was still there. He was.
"How?" he asked, bleakly.
"How?" I found myself echoing him. "How? Do you really want to know how?"
"Of course I do!" There was anger in his voice, and hurt. Part of me liked it. Maybe that's why I told him. Maybe I wanted him to know, wanted him to suffer for what he'd done. Or maybe, after all this time, I just wanted to tell the damned story.
"They picked her up," I said, amazed by the steadiness of my voice, "in the public square on Level Six. She was handing out leaflets. Leaflets!"
"I don't understand."
"No," I said. I took a deep drink of the Jevron whiskey that sat untouched in front of me, not looking at him. "You never did. But she understood you. She knew perfectly well what you were up to, what kind of secrets you were hiding. She talked to people... She talked to you, if you'd only listened."
"Shut up! Do you want to hear this or not?" He was quiet. I decided to consider that a victory. "She wanted to help. Wanted to be part of your Cause. You wouldn't have her, so she printed up leaflets and stood on a street corner. She wasn't there fifteen minutes when they took her in."
"They questioned her for four days. She didn't know anything, of course. Nothing important. But she knew the wrong people. She knew people who knew important things. People like her brothers."
He made a noise that might have been a sob, but when I looked over at him, finally, I saw no real understanding on his face. Not yet. But I'd gone too far to turn back now.
I took another drink. "On the fourth day, they brought me in, let me see her. She looked..." But it was beyond my capacity to describe how she looked, even if I could still see it with nightmarish vividness behind my eyes. "Well, they hadn't treated her well, and they made no secret of it." I stopped, took another drink, and looked at him for a long moment, wondering how he'd react to the next part. Wondering how I wanted him to react. "They told me," I said slowly, "That if I gave them the information that I wanted -- your plans, your contacts, your meeting places -- they would give her back to me. They were as good as their word, too. They gave her back." I put down my glass and looked him in the eyes. "I'm sorry you missed the funeral, but you weren't in any state to appreciate it, anyway."
The look in his eyes was... dead. Grim. Bleak. Dead. Now it really was like looking into a mirror. I tried to resist a morbid urge to laugh. "Now you know."
"Tal..." It was barely more than a whisper. I was almost disappointed. I'd been half-expecting violence.
"You want to know what's really funny about it?" I said. "You want to hear the punchline?" I picked the drink back up and finished it in one swallow. "I'd do it again. In a heartbeat. Because she was nineteen, Roj. She was nineteen, and she'd never done anything to anybody, and that's a hell of a lot more than I can say about you." I thunked the glass back down and stood up to go.
"Tal, wait!" He laid a hand on my arm. I shook it off. His next words were probably going to be some terrible, irredeemable lie like "I forgive you."
"Don't," I said. "Just... don't." I stood up. I walked to the door. For a moment, he started to follow me, and I fixed him with the coldest glare I'm capable of. These days, it barely takes an effort. "We're done. I've said what I had to say, and we're done. Don't come after me. If you try it, I'll kill you." I grinned at him. It must have been a horrible sight, judging from the look on his face. "And you can trust me on that. After all, if you can't trust your own brother, who can you trust?"
"No one," he said softly. He didn't seem to be talking to me. Didn't even seem to be seeing me any more, his eyes focused instead on some deep, inward place. In the middle of the crowded bar, he looked very, very alone. "No one."
I left. He didn't follow.