"I think I might have found a job for you, boss!"
I gave Dacey a skeptical look as he slipped into the booth across from me. The last time Dacey "found a job," it involved carrying a load of badly-packaged unstable chemicals. The poor Starstrider would have been a cloud of debris at the first hyperspace bump we encountered if I'd taken his word on things. Fortunately, I always insist on inspecting the cargo myself. On the other hand, the time before last, we'd made enough for me to pay off the ship, and won a good repeat customer besides. It was always fifty-fifty with Dacey.
"Carrying what?" I asked, and sipped my beer.
"Not what. Who." He leaned forward. "One of my contacts has a friend on Jevron was supposed to transport some political refugees offworld. Only said friend forgot to pay his membership dues at the local spaceport" -- bribe money, he meant -- "and is currently cooling his heels in a holding cell. So they're looking for an alternate arrangement. They've got good cash, my friend says, and they're willing to part with it. Things are getting bad again on Jevron."
I swirled the drink around in my glass and thought about it. "Political refugees," of course, is as much a euphemism as "membership dues." Did I really want to get involved with this?
"You know I don't work for the rebellion any more." I'd tried to, at first. Done some weapons smuggling, even transported rebel troops. But the risks were too high, not just to me, but to them. My face and name were too well known, even out here. And, truth to tell, my heart wasn't in it. Not any more.
"You transported those supplies for Tocel's lot last month."
"That was just business." Tocel's shipment had been innocuous supplies: food, medicine... nothing that would scream "rebel" to a Federation boarding party as loudly as, well, rebels. And it'd been a quick in-and-out drop. No hanging around talking to people who'd want to remind me of things I'd rather forget.
"So's this! Come on, Jenna. It's an easy run, well worth the risk. And you know as well as I do how much we need the money. The poor old 'Strider's in desperate need of some tender loving care, or at least a good engine overhaul."
It was true. Our last run hadn't been especially lucrative, our regulars had had nothing for us for months, and my attempts to scare up business on this back-end-of-nowhere colony world hadn't met with much success. I chewed my lip. "How many passengers are we talking about?"
"Just three. We can put 'em in the spare crew rooms." Dacey was smiling now. He knew he had me. Bastard.
"And where, exactly, are they going?"
"Not too far. Some little farm-world, got itself declared Open. Gauda Prime."
I drained my beer and nodded, trying to ignore the feeling in my gut that said this was a very, very bad idea.
The feeling had eased a little by the time we made planetfall on Jevron. I hadn't changed my mind about anything, but when you've got a ship to run, you can't walk around in a constant state of worry. At some point, you have to put it aside and get on with your job.
Besides, things weren't actually looking bad. By all reports, the Federation patrols -- frequently given to harassing traders they suspected of illegal activity, which was most of us -- had been pretty quiet along our planned route of late, doubtless busy with more important matters elsewhere. And the rebels -- excuse me, "political refugees" -- were paying quite handsomely. Where they'd got the money, I didn't know, and didn't care to ask.
The first of them looked harmless enough, not that I haven't long since learnt not to trust to appearances. I greeted him with the usual polite-but-distant "I'm the captain, don't give me any trouble and we'll get along fine" routine I use with passengers I'd rather not have to interact with much, and turned to the second man. He scarcely registered on my consciousness, though -- a fact I'd later have cause to regret -- because at that point I caught sight of the person standing behind him.
The shock of seeing him was almost physical, like being smacked in the head by memories I thought I'd dodged. His eyes widened with recognition at the same time mine did, and I recovered my senses enough to shake my head at him as he started to open his mouth in greeting. His people didn't need to know who I was, and Dacey, assuming he didn't recognize the face from the viscasts, didn't need to know who he was. Much safer that way.
Blake, thankfully, hadn't lost any of his intelligence since the last time I'd seen him. He caught my meaning immediately, and did an excellent job of pretending ignorance, but the look in his eyes said that, sooner or later, we were going to talk.
I wasn't sure whether I welcomed that possibility or dreaded it. But, knowing Blake, there wasn't any way I was going to avoid it.
If Dacey noticed the looks that passed between us, or saw me going into Blake's cabin, he no doubt assumed it was some sort of sexual assignation. It's funny, there was a time when that's exactly what I would have wanted from Blake. But I try not to make it a habit to pine after things I can't have, and any feelings of the sort I'd once harbored had long since faded away.
I closed the door quietly behind me. "Hello, Blake."
"Jenna!" His face lit up, and I couldn't help but smile in return.
"It's good to see you," I said and, without really intending to, I found myself hugging him. Not a lover's embrace, but the warm clasp of old friends who haven't seen each other in a very long time. He returned it readily.
"I heard rumors," he said. "That you were alive, that you'd gone back to smuggling. I'm glad to find out they were true."
"I heard a rumor you were dead. I'm glad to find out it's not."
"You've done well for yourself," he said, glancing around at the ship.
"Reasonably well," I said. But I could hear my pride in Starstrider putting the lie to my attempt at modesty. She wasn't Liberator, by any means, but she was mine in a way that Liberator had never been.
He smiled again and sat down on the edge of the bed, motioning me to take the tiny cabin's single chair. "You never returned to the Liberator." It wasn't quite a question.
"No." I settled myself into the chair. "Neither did you."
"No," he said, clearly not wanting to talk about his reasons any more than I did. We lapsed into silence for a while, me thinking about Liberator and him thinking about I don't know what.
Then slowly, his faced changed, grew more thoughtful, more intense. Oh no, I thought. Here it comes.
"Jenna," he said, leaning forward. "I'm planning on putting together an underground rebel base on Gauda Prime. I could use a good pilot. Someone with connections. Someone I trust."
Something deep inside me felt terribly warm and flattered at this, but I shook my head slowly. "I don't do that any more. I had to be talked into transporting you. My policy is no rebel business."
"I see." His voice was quiet. "Do you mind if I ask why?"
I drew in a deep breath. I did mind, actually, but this was Blake, and I felt I owed him honesty. "Because Avon was right. Bringing down the Federation was nothing more than a dream. It was always beyond us, Blake. If the Federation could survive the war and everything that came after it intact, what chance did we ever have?"
His face was calm, but something blazed behind his eyes. "You said once that some dreams were worth having."
"Yes, well, I woke up from that one." I reached out and touched the metal cabin wall, stroking it lightly, feeling the sense of connection I've always had for my ship. "This was my first dream, you know. A ship of my own, the stars around me." I smiled. "A certain amount of adventure, of the sort you can usually get out of by waving around enough bribe money. It's a good dream. A possible one. And it's mine. I don't want to go back to yours."
"I see." He looked at me for a long moment, rubbing his chin. "You're sure I can't change your mind?"
We sat there in silence for a while, until eventually he changed the subject, asked an innocuous question about the food stores we had in the galley. After that we talked easily about inconsequential things: old memories, shared jokes. It was a pleasant conversation.
But when I finally left, in the small hours of the morning, I could feel his eyes watching me go, and I knew they were sad.
The four-day trip to Guada Prime was quiet enough. Blake and his people spent a lot of their time locked away in his cabin, apparently discussing rebel matters I really didn't want to know about. Blake and I continued to behave like strangers in public. We had another friendly conversation or two in private, but he never tried to convince me to join up with him again, for which I was grateful.
The other two seemed all right. Zane, the one who'd come aboard first, was a sweet-natured kid who kept offering to clean up in the galley and do other little shipboard chores. I occasionally took him up on it. The other, who was introduced to me as Farr, was a quiet sort and mostly kept to himself, and that suited me fine, too.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly, and I was almost ready to admit to Dacey that my gut instinct about this job had been wrong. Almost.
When we got to Gauda Prime, they were waiting for us.
Three pursuits ships came out of seeming nowhere the instant we settled into orbit, zeroing in as if they'd known exactly where we would be. No sooner were they in weapons range than they started broadcasting: "Surrender your ship and prepare to be boarded. Surrender your ship and prepare to be boarded."
Dacey swore loudly. "What do we--?" He broke off suddenly, his mouth dropping open in surprise. I turned to look.
Blake and the kid, Zane, were emerging through the flight deck door. Behind them, brandishing a Federation-issue gun, came Farr.
"Farr," I said accusingly. A stupid, insipid thing to say -- it probably wasn't even his real name -- but very few of us are genuinely creative in those kinds of circumstances.
He gave me a leer that, even if he weren't the traitorous bastard that he was, would have made me want to kick his face in. "Jenna Stannis," he said.
"So much for my attempt to remain anonymous," I answered, as I calculated the odds of being able to take him out before he could get a shot off. They weren't good.
He glanced back and forth between me and Blake, his weapon never wavering. "I must say, this was a remarkable stroke of luck. Capturing the infamous Blake is accomplishment enough, but to be able to deliver you into the bargain... My superiors will be very pleased."
Dacey suddenly stepped forward, approaching Farr with a menacing stride. I'm not sure why he did it: whether he saw some signal from Blake, whether he recognized Blake's name and reacted without thinking, or whether he was just being Dacey. Stupid, impulsive, unwaveringly loyal Dacey. "Now, listen here--" he said.
"No," said Farr, and fired.
Things happened very quickly. Dacey made a move to dodge, didn't quite make it, and went down clutching his arm. Blake, taking advantage of the distraction, pulled a small gun from somewhere in the folds of his baggy shirt and shot Farr. The traitor fell instantly, his weapon clattering to the floor beside him. Blake shot him again. And again. And again. There was a look in his eyes I wasn't sure I'd ever seen before, and I spared a moment to hope -- vainly, as it happened -- that I'd never see it again.
Then I went to Dacey and helped him to his feet. His arm was smoking faintly. The energy discharge had probably cauterized it, but I've had those kind of wounds. They hurt like hell.
He staggered over to his console, glanced at the display, and gave me a grim look. "They're targeting us. If we're going to do something, we need to do it now."
"I'm open to suggestions," I said. "We've got nowhere to run." The pursuit ships had us surrounded on three sides, giving them a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree field of fire. We might have had a slim chance of escaping immediate destruction if we headed out, away from the planet, but they were faster and more maneuverable than us. We'd never get far before they caught us.
Blake came up behind us, peering at the displays. "Not quite nowhere," he said quietly. "What about down? If we can make it onto the planet, we'd stand a good chance of being able to lose them on foot."
I shook my head. "If I were going to take her down fast enough to have a hope of avoiding their fire, the result wouldn't be a landing. It would be a crash."
"Would it be a crash we could walk away from?"
I thought about it. "I don't know, Blake. I'd say... Fifty-fifty?"
Zane spoke for the first time since he'd entered the flight deck, his voice shaking a little, like the scared kid he was. "If we don't do it, we're dead."
"Or captured," said Blake quietly. We exchanged a look, a mutual wordless agreement. Better to be dead.
"Dacey?" I said, not looking at him.
"What the hell," he replied. "This trip was getting boring, anyway." I knew there were reasons I liked having him for a partner.
"All right," I said. "Strap in, and hold on."
And I crashed my beautiful ship.
I don't remember much of the descent. Bits and flashes, mostly. I remember taking a glancing hit from their plasma fire. I remember the feeling of the ship trying to shake itself to pieces under me. I remember noise. Lots and lots of noise. I don't remember blacking out.
When I regained consciousness, the first thing I noticed was the quiet. I suppose it was only comparative quiet: there was the sound of flames crackling, of gasses venting, an occasional crash as some piece of Starstrider detached and plummeted to the ground. But the horrible, end-of-the-world noise I'd thought would never end was gone.
The second thing I noticed was Zane's cold, glassy eyes staring into my face. It looked like he'd fallen forward onto a short-circuiting console and been electrocuted. It wasn't a pretty sight, and I had to close my own eyes for a moment before I felt composed enough to try moving. Miraculously, nothing seemed to be broken, though everything seemed to be battered.
"I'm here." Blake hove into view as I levered myself up, pushing aside a fragment of the pilot's chair that had fallen on top of me. Blood was pouring down his face from a gash that looked like it might have taken out his eye. He face was too swollen and blood-drenched to be able to tell for sure. "Dacey's dead," he said. "It looks like part of the ceiling fell on him."
I closed my eyes again for a moment. I should feel something, but all I felt was numb. "We have to get out of here," I said, but Blake didn't seem to hear. He was staring at Zane as if he'd never seen a dead body before. Or as if maybe he'd just seen one too many. I put my hand on his arm. "Come on, Blake!"
It took three tries before I got him to move.
The woods were good for hiding in, tangled and dense. We laid down a few false trails, confusing potential pursuers as much as possible. Fortunately, pursuit ships are built for space battles; their crews have neither the equipment nor the training for hunting fugitives on planets, and there shouldn't be any Federation ground forces, not on an Open world. Figuring we stood a reasonable chance of staying hidden and safe, we took refuge in a cave to tend our wounds. Blake's facial injury wasn't quite as bad as I'd first thought, but it seemed likely to me he'd still lose the eye. My own wounds were minor, physically.
It was a long while before either of us said anything that wasn't directly related to the business of survival. But eventually, sitting there at the mouth of the cave as he watched the falling dusk, Blake looked at me and said, "He was my friend."
"And Dacey was mine." But I could tell from the look in his unbandaged eye that he hadn't meant Zane.
"You can't trust anyone, can you, Jenna?"
His voice was bleak with despair, and part of me wanted to say something comforting. I didn't, though. Maybe because it was a lesson I'd thought he ought to have learned by now. Maybe because part of me wanted to punish him for what he'd cost me.
As if he'd read that unworthy thought, he rubbed wearily at his forehead and said, "I'm sorry. You lost your ship, your partner. And it was my fault."
It wasn't. No matter how easy it would have been to blame him, it wasn't. I'd been naïve to think I could go back to being what I was. As long as the Federation still existed, as long as I was still Jenna Stannis, I was never going to be safe, never going to be free. Never going to be out of it.
"I should have known he was Federation," he continued. "I should have been able to tell." He looked back over the darkening forest, in the direction were the Starstrider, and Dacey, lay dead.
I shrugged, though I'm not sure he saw me in the gloom. That's the thing about dreams. They can change on you without warning, turn into something other than what you thought they were. And sooner or later you always have to wake up. I suppose that's a lesson we all have to learn, too. Some of us have to learn it more than once.
"Tell me," I said eventually. "Are you still planning to set up that rebel base?"
He looked away for a long time before he said, "Yes."