Don't You Want Me, Baby?

A Pink Dormouse Production

The story so far:

After killing the last of the men who murdered her family, Soolin left Gauda Prime forever (or so she thought at the time). Drifting from frontier world to frontier world she sold her skills with a gun or, when she was really broke, her body to the highest bidder. At last she found herself on Jevron. Low on funds and unable to find a new contract straight away, she rented a room in a household of working girls and took a job in the ‘Henry’s Bar’. Who Henry had been—or if there had ever even been a Henry—seemed to be lost in the mists of time. The pay was crap, but at least she could claim to be doing honest work for once.

 

Part One:

“You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar

When I met you…”

Soolin had two new stalkers this week—two men who had been heard to ask about her, and who had deliberately chosen to sit at tables she waited on every time they came into the bar. That made sense, since it had been at least ten days since she saw off the last one. The only reason that obvious offworlders visited ‘Henry’s’ more than once, was that they were interested in one of the waitresses enough not to be scared off by the locals. Maybe, instead of asking the boss for a pay rise, she could persuade him to let her wear a skirt that at least covered the tops of her thighs. The one consolation was that these two had both kept their hands to themselves so far.

The sleazy blond was a poor tipper, and she suspected he had a couple, or more, of girls working for him somewhere—he had that look about him. The dark-haired man with the ruined face always gave at least twenty percent on top, so she decided she preferred him, if she had to have a stalker at all. She assumed that the second man was a Federation officer—he seemed too civilised to have come by his scars any other way.  

Tonight was quiet so far, she noted as she roller-skated between tables on her way back to the bar with a tray of empties. The blond snapped his fingers as she passed, and she nodded to let him know she would be back. She put the tray down for Phil the washer-up to deal with and headed for the blond’s table.

“I know who you are,” he said with a hint of a sneer.

“Yeah, it says it on my name badge. You wanting to order food?”

“Quite a little trail of deaths you’ve left in your wake. I’m impressed; I could do with someone like you working for me.”

“You can’t afford me.” Soolin backed up slightly on her skates, wondering how he could know so much about her. She had told no one on this world about her past, not even the girls she lived with.

“Of course,” the man continued, “words in the right ears back on G-P and you’d have a lot of trouble out looking for you.” He smiled in an almost-friendly manner. “Name’s Dorian by the way.”

“Really?” Soolin gifted him with a fake smile of her very own. “Well, Dorian, if you don’t want to place an order, then I have other customers to see to.”

“I’m sure you do. Any time you change your mind, remember my offer still stands. If this planet should get too hot for you any time soon, just call me.” He handed her a business card, which she resolved to lose as soon as possible. If things did get difficult for her, she had a suspicion that he would be the cause of it, rather than the one to save her from it.

“I’ll bear that in mind.” Soolin said, then glanced across to the dark corner where her other stalker was usually to be found. It looked like he had witnessed the whole exchange. Now to get back to work, and hope he didn’t suddenly get any ideas about causing trouble of his own for her.

***

Soolin put her work boots back into her locker, exchanging them for a pair she could walk in. Then she replaited the end of her braid and pulled on her battered duster coat. It was the end of another shift, and she was ready to set off home. There were always a few rowdy drunks around at this time of night, but nothing like as many as there would be an hour later, by which time she intended to be safely in her room. She shivered and pushed her hands deeper into her pockets. It was a warm enough night, but something felt wrong.

There was a low whistle from a side-alley as she walked past. Dorian was there, obviously waiting for her.

“I think we should talk some more,” he said.

“Tomorrow, maybe.” Soolin pulled her gun hand out of its pocket.

“Oh, I think about now would be fine.” Dorian seemed totally unconcerned that he was now staring down the barrel of the tiny handgun Soolin kept in her coat. “And don’t waste your ammunition on me, plenty of people have tried to kill me before and failed. Of course I prefer not to have that sort of inconvenience, which is where you come in. Plus you are very, how shall I put it? Decorative.”

“I’m not that desperate for work,” Soolin replied calmly but firmly.

“You deserve much better than a job waiting on tables and a cold room in a damp flat. Let me take you away from all this.”

Was that a lucky guess or did he really know where she lived? Soolin had no doubt that she could look after herself, and the other girls were pretty damn tough—they had to be. But none of them wanted some lunatic hanging around all hours of the day when they were trying to catch up on sleep before getting ready for another night’s work. Maybe it was time to move on; if she worked her passage one way or another she could hopefully make it to the next system.

“Sorry, but I’m not interested.” Soolin had listened to quite a bit more of Dorian’s proposition for a job as his bodyguard-and-enforcer and had decided she wanted none of it. She backed away from the alley, her full attention, as well as her gun, focussed on Dorian.

Emerging into the street, she jumped at least a foot in the air when she realised she had backed straight into her other stalker.

“Is he bothering you?” the man asked, the hint of menace in his voice obviously aimed at Dorian’s ears. “I could have a word with local Law Enforcement if you wanted.”

“No, thanks. I’m fine.” Soolin set off back on her route home, and tried to forget that any of it had happened.

“Are you following me?” she asked the less annoying of her two stalkers five minutes later, when it became obvious he was not about to turn off on his own route home any time soon.

“I merely wanted to ensure you got home safely.”

“Well don’t bother.” Soolin drew her gun for the second time that night. “I can look after myself.” The last thing she needed was some man she hardly knew getting all protective over her. That led to assumptions of possession and other messy situations of the sort she wanted to avoid.

“I never doubted it for a minute.” The man kept his gloved hands where Soolin could see them. “But from what I’ve heard, Dorian is not someone you want to make an enemy of. People seem to disappear around him; not that anyone’s ever been able to prove a connection.”

“So why are you telling me this?” Soolin asked, still on her guard.

“Why shouldn’t I?” He smiled, in a not entirely reassuring way. “Maybe I like you.”

“You don’t know me.” That was the trouble with her job; people saw you a few times and came to far too many conclusions about who you were.

“So let me get to know you. At least let me walk you home, the bars in the docks will start kicking out any minute now.”

That much was true. Soolin was tired and would welcome the chance to get the rest of the way back without a third or even a fourth confrontation. And at this time of the night the house would almost certainly be empty. She reached her decision.

“Very well. Walk with me—but try anything—and you’ve already seen how fast I am with a gun. Don’t let me have to prove how good a shot I am too.”

***

Soolin stopped outside the entrance to the grey stone tenement that she currently called home.

“Well, here we are.” She glanced at her companion. “Thank you for walking me home.” She turned to unlock the door, then paused with her hand on the card-swipe. “I suppose I could offer you a coffee—if we have any left—interested?”

“I said I would walk you home, and I did.” Now it was his turn to be on the defensive. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“Hot caffeinated beverage? Maybe a digestive biscuit if the rodents haven’t got to them? If I’d meant anything else, I’d have said so.” She looked at him again; he seemed to be giving the matter a lot of thought for such a minor invitation. “Look, you can please yourself, but I’m getting cold standing out here. There won’t be anyone else in my flat this time of night anyway.”

“Well,” he seemed to relax slightly, “if you insist.”

Generally the girls did not bring anyone home except by prior agreement, but Soolin supposed an exception could be made for someone who, while he was a work contact, was not someone she had any intention of sleeping with. And definitely not for credits, she added to that thought.

As she had expected the flat was deserted, all the others still out working the dock area at a guess. She put some credits into the heating system meter out of consideration for her visitor, then busied herself finding mugs and coffee granules. When she glanced over, he was still standing in the doorway of the kitchen. Soolin nodded towards the table.

“You can sit down if you want.”

He walked over and pulled up a chair, looking slightly uncomfortable with the situation. Still, that made Soolin feel a little less self-conscious about being in her work clothes. She finished making the drinks, then sat down opposite him and slid one of the mugs across.

“Sorry I can’t offer you any biscuits; what the mice haven’t had, my flatmates appear to have eaten.”

“Thanks anyway.” He picked the mug up. Soolin noticed that he kept his gloves on.

“So,” Soolin looked at him over her coffee mug, “what’s your excuse for being on Jevron?”

“I’ve nowhere else to go. Not until Space Command recalls me.” So she had been right about his profession, and hopefully about his intentions. Soolin generally considered herself to be a good judge of character—it made life safer at the very least.

“You’re on leave?” she asked.

“You could say that.” He shrugged. “Long story that I won’t trouble you with now. How about you?”

“Much the same. I’ve no family, haven’t had for a long time, and I’ve never found anywhere that I’ve wanted to stay more than a few months. After tonight it looks like I’ll be moving on again.”

“Do you have to?” His one brown eye met her two. “I stand by what I said about him, but if Dorian bothers you again, I’ll… well, let’s just say he won’t, and leave it at that.”

“There’s really no need for you to get involved.” If Dorian remained a problem, she would rather risk the consequences of solving it herself than owe anything to anyone, no matter how charming he was trying to be. “Anyway I don’t expect he will. Bother me, that is. You know, it’s strange, I know his name but I don’t know yours.”

The man seemed to be in need of a friend to talk to rather than anything more intimate, which placed him yet further above the average stalker. Not that Soolin had much familiarity with the concept of friendship herself. She had rarely stayed in one place long enough to get close to anyone. Of course, in certain jobs where she had charged for her time it had been a pleasant change just to listen and make interested noises rather than participate in any of the more usual tasks that she was hired for. Consequently Soolin was a good listener and not at all bad at encouraging people to start talking in the first place. And he did tell her quite a bit—about places he had been posted and events he had witnessed, but little about himself—while they drank several cups of coffee apiece.

Travis was potentially a very useful ally, Soolin thought after she had shown him out, moving him further up the scale of acquaintances. She had not asked any questions about his face, and he in turn had avoided questioning her about how she had learned to shoot, or anything else related to any of her former lines of work. He had even kissed her hand as he said good night, in a not-at-all-creepy way. She washed the mugs, then decided to turn in before any of the other girls got back. There had been no sign of Dorian when she had seen Travis out, so he probably had been bluffing when he had given the impression of knowing where she lived.

***

The next night Dorian did not put in an appearance at the bar, and Travis was using his left hand to handle his drinks. Soolin could have sworn he was right-handed, so she assumed the two events were connected. At a guess he had a nice set of bruised knuckles under the right glove and maybe even a lesser set under the left. She decided that asking him would be tantamount to thanking him for his help, and settled for inviting him to stay on after closing and joining him for a drink.

“Don’t you ever take those gloves off?” Soolin asked as she sat down with this week’s House Special cocktail for herself and a large cognac for Travis. 

Travis pushed back his left shirtsleeve then rolled down the cuff of his glove to reveal the grey kevlar of a Service-issue prosthesis.

“The other’s natural,” he said, looking at Soolin and obviously expecting a reaction.

“Do you expect me to be disturbed by that? You obviously don’t know me as well as you think you do.”

Travis shrugged, implying that most people were less accommodating in that respect. Soolin studied him and wondered how much questioning he would tolerate on the subject. Not much, she decided.

“I’ve decided to stay here a little longer,” she said, noticing that he seemed to relax at the former topic of conversation ending. “I can get some money saved up and have a chance of finding a better place to stay on the next world.”

“How long will you stay?” Maybe it was more than just the subject change he was pleased about.

“Depends on what comes up. There are a few ex-employers I wouldn’t mind working for again.” She assumed they were all still alive. “But then the way my luck’s been lately, I could still be here long after you’ve gone back to Space Command HQ.”

“Hmm,” Travis said about as noncommittally as it was possible for him—or indeed anyone—to sound. “What do you do on your day off?”

They managed to talk about trivialities until long after the rest of the bar staff gone home. Finally, Soolin stifled a yawn and stood up.

“I really should make a move.” She picked up the glasses and carried them to the bar. Travis followed her.

“Walk you home?”

“I wouldn’t say no.”

***

Mid-week and Soolin’s one night off. She spent the day doing her share of the chores, and then settled down to watch a visi-drama before getting changed and ready to head into town. The viscreen seemed to have developed a worse flicker since the last time she had powered it up, but having announced her intention to build up her savings she was reluctant to upgrade, even though full-colour would be a pleasant improvement on grey-scale.

The door buzzer sounded through in the hall. Soolin was about to get up when she heard footsteps run through from the kitchen. Obviously someone else had decided to take the night off as well.

“Soolin!” That sounded like Phaedra; she had said earlier she thought she was coming down with something, which explained what she was doing still home.

“Yeah?”

“I thought your date wasn’t due for another hour.”

“He isn’t.” Soolin got up and joined Phaedra in the hall.

“Well someone’s here for you.”

Soolin peered at the badly distorted comm-screen. Travis was standing on the doorstep.

“You mind if I invite him up?”

Phaedra shook her head and disappeared back into the kitchen.

“You weren’t at work,” Travis said by way of explanation. “The other waitresses don’t make nearly as pleasant conversation.” Soolin stepped aside and let him into the flat.

“Look,” she said, “it’s very nice of you to come and see me, but I was planning on going out later. I told one of the guys from work I’d meet him at the visi-plex.”

“Ah. I quite understand. Only natural that you’d want to spend time with…” He left the sentence hanging for Soolin to fill in the possibilities. ‘People your own age’ seemed a likely bet, but not enough of one for her to point out that most of those she worked with seemed young and trivial to someone dragged up the hard way as she had been. She weighed the options—going out and possibly getting her end away with some kid against staying in and talking the night away with someone who really was not that old. No competition really. And saved her the bother of changing out of her old jumpsuit into a less comfortable, but smarter, one.

“I’ll call him and cancel. I’m sure he’ll find someone else for the spare ticket.”

***

“Must be getting old,” Travis said, then yawned.

“Had enough?” Soolin asked. Admittedly the night’s choice of viewing on the viscreen had been limited to say the least, and the flat was hardly an ideal location in which to entertain visitors. All things considered, she was surprised he had stuck around for as long as he had.

“Yeah, maybe I should get back before it gets any later. Thanks for putting up with me. I promise I’ll take you to the visi-plex sometime.” He stood up. “Don’t worry, I’ll see myself out.”

“So how long have you been keeping that quiet for?” Phaedra reappeared in the living room almost before the front door had closed.

“I don’t know what you mean.” Soolin powered down the viscreen and poured the rest of the wine into her glass. Phaedra sat down on the floor, crossed her legs and rested her chin on one hand in a very elfin pose.

“Cultured older man.” Phaedra explained. “Probably got money hidden away somewhere too, for all he’s slumming it in this place.”

“It’s not like that. He’s a friend,” Soolin said, quite surprised by the realisation that she had a friend on this miserable hole of a planet.

“Can I have him then?” Phaedra asked. “With any luck he’d get me set up and I could quit working.”

“Certainly not.” Soolin felt a rush of defensiveness, which she instantly realised to be misplaced. “Look, I’ll ask him but I don’t think he’d be interested.”

“Not interested in me, or not interested in women?”

Soolin had not really given the matter much thought. It had been such a relief to find a man who could be friendly without hassling her for sex that she had never bothered to look beyond that.

“I’d say not looking, generally. Some people don’t—surprisingly enough.” It made sense. Some people bought an illusion of closeness they could not get any other way, others just held themselves back from it.

***

She never did get around to asking Travis, of course. She was rushed off her feet the next couple of nights at work, and only got to speak to him at all because he walked her home on both of them. Fortunate really, as she swore she would have fallen asleep on the way if she had not had someone watching out for her and keeping her talking. Then when she had a quiet moment one night, they ended up discussing current affairs—Space Command had a new, female, Supreme Commander, and Travis had a lot to say on the subject—and what they were going to watch on their trip to the visi-plex.

***

“So,” Travis slung his arm around Soolin’s shoulders as they left the screening room, “what did you really think of it?”

“Well,” Soolin leaned towards him conspiratorially and dropped her voice to a whisper, “I spotted a number of glaring inaccuracies in the action sequences. No sniper could be that accurate over that distance. And there were huge discrepancies in the number of rounds fired by the automatic weapons. Need I go on?”

“And I was wondering why I liked you so much.” Travis smiled in appreciation. “If you’re not doing anything on your next day off, I think you should come to the range with me and prove you’re as good a shot as you claim to be.”

***

The next week however was characterised by torrential rain. Soolin was forced to call off their trip to the shooting range in favour of staying in. Travis came round anyway, which surprised her a little. She would not have blamed him in the slightest if he had come up with an excuse not to visit the flat again.

The weather was bad for other activities as well, and four of Soolin’s flatmates had decided to take the night off after the abysmally poor takings they had all made on the previous two. It made for a slightly cramped living room, but at least they could keep the heating turned off and save money. Travis had given up his place on the sofa to Phaedra and instead sat on the floor, his right arm slung over Soolin’s knees.

Soolin was enjoying the drama that was showing on the channel they had selected when the picture and sound faded to be replaced by a news broadcast. Phaedra pointed the remote at the screen and flicked through the channels, but the broadcast was the same on all of them. Soolin tried to get up, intending to make drinks before the drama resumed, but was stopped by Travis’ grip tightening around her knees. She glanced down at him, but he seemed unaware of anything other than the news announcer on the viscreen. Soolin slumped back onto the sofa and concentrated on the screen, trying to work out what he found so compelling.

It seemed to be a recording of a trial—a recent one, she assumed—and the Arbiter was giving the verdict as she began to listen.

“The accused has been found guilty on all charges,” the Arbiter said. “His crimes have been accorded a Category Nine rating, and as such are adjudged most grave. In sentencing you, the judgement machine has taken into account your past record, your service to the state, and your loyalty to the Federation. None of these have mitigated in your favour. It is the sentence of this tribunal that you be taken from this place to an area of close confinement. From there you will be transported to the penal colony on the planet Cygnus Alpha, where you will remain for the rest of your natural life. This matter is ended.” The camera panned over the court to settle on the accused, a curly-haired man that Soolin thought she ought to recognise. Travis’ grip on her knees increased further, then relaxed again. He twisted around to look at her.

“I’ve seen enough. Does anyone else want a drink before the drama comes back on?”

“I’ll help you,” Soolin offered standing up.

Travis seemed to have problems getting to his feet, but ignored the hand she offered to him. He limped through to the kitchen, and busied himself finding tea and coffee while the kettle boiled.

Soolin leaned against the doorframe and studied him.

“Want to talk about it?” she asked, wondering whether he was more bothered by his leg, or by the news bulletin. She suspected the latter.

“Not now.” Not ever if he could help it, his tone implied.

“They won’t hear from through there. Was that someone you knew?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Travis replied. “He’s the one that did all,” he indicated his eye-patch, prosthetic arm and left hip, “this to me. Bastard managed to hit me three times when he was going down. I thought I’d seen the last of him.” He paused, long enough for Soolin to wonder if he had changed his mind about telling her. “The charges are a set-up, of course. I studied him carefully before we went to arrest him and it’s just not something he’d do. He must have gone back to his old activities, and they’re trying to cover up the fact that their rehabilitation failed. And with me on suspension as well.” He paced from one side of the kitchen to the other. “I should have killed him when I had the chance—saved them the expense of putting him through a second trial. Can’t think why they don’t just kill him and get it over with.”

“So who was he?” Soolin asked, when Travis paused for breath.

“Led a bunch of troublemaking malcontents back on Earth. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him.” Travis leaned against the sink. “My squad were sent to deal with them. The rank and file were no problem, but Blake managed to get a gun off one of my men. Just my luck it was a semi-automatic. As one of the others shot him, he fired at me. Next thing I knew I was in a field hospital minus one eye and arm, and with a smashed hip.” He turned towards the kettle and winced.

Soolin crossed the room and placed her hand on his natural arm.

“Your injuries are bothering you now, aren’t they?” she asked as Travis poured water into the mugs.

“It’s the weather getting to the metalwork.” He shook his head. “I can’t really afford a private doctor and it could be days before I can get to see one on the base. Now if I was officially stationed here it might be different but…”

“What do you usually take?” she asked, wondering if any of the others had any drugs hidden away.

“This bad, I could probably do with a couple of days of synth-opiate but I don’t expect anyone around here to have that.” He seemed to remember why they were in the kitchen in the first place and set the kettle to re-boil. “Not that I’d say anything to the authorities if they did,” he added, pouring water into the various mugs.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Soolin also knew a few people who knew other people, so it was fairly likely that she could find something along those lines for him if she drew a blank amongst her flatmates. She arranged the mugs on a tray and carried it through before Travis had a chance to offer to do so.

***

The next night Travis arrived at the bar at his usual time, but with a more pronounced limp than on the night before. Soolin picked up her datapad and went over to his table, giving every outward impression of just preparing to take another order.

“Good evening, sir. What can I interest you in tonight?”

Travis looked up, showing no sign of knowing her.

“Just a coffee for now I think.”

“A wise choice, sir.” Soolin dropped her voice to almost a whisper. “I can get what you want tonight so you’re better steering clear of alcohol.”

“Yes,” Travis said. “I think I may order something else later. Maybe some food. How much?”

“Fifty credits, he told me. Hospital-purity peth. He says to make sure you know your dosages.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.” Travis handed her a fifty-credit chit. “Put the other on my bill.”

Soolin busied herself in the kitchen for ten minutes, before returning to Travis with a pot of coffee. She placed it on the table, then slipped a small leather pouch behind it.

“Thank you.” Travis slipped the pouch into the inside pocket of his jacket.

Soolin moved on. She kept an eye on Travis while she was talking to another customer, and saw him drank the first cupful of coffee quickly. He then checked that he was unwatched, and slipped through into the men’s room. She watched Travis’ table while he was gone. No one else approached it while he was absent, such was the aura of the man, but she kept it under scrutiny anyway.

She gave him ten minutes or so, then approached the table again.

“Another coffee, sir?” she asked loudly enough for the patrons on the next table to hear. “How does it feel?” she added more quietly.

He looked up at her, his pupil noticeably constricted despite the low lighting in his corner of the bar, and smiled.

“How do you think? And more coffee would be welcome. Unless you feel like carrying me home, of course.”

***

“It’s closing time, you know.” Soolin said.

Travis looked up at her with a start. The constant refills of coffee he had drunk had not been enough to keep him awake. Soolin decided against asking when he had last really slept.

“Sorry.” Travis stood up, a little unsteadily. “Did you offer to walk me home earlier?”

“Not exactly. Why? Do you need me to?”

Travis nodded, keeping both hands on the table. Opiates and sleep deprivation—not a good combination.

“Wait right there for five minutes then.” Soolin headed through to her locker, and changed as quickly as she could.

She was somewhat surprised to discover that Travis was staying in one of the cheap rooms-for-rent complexes on the less desirable side of the spaceport. She, like Phaedra, had automatically assumed that he came from money and had an independent income of some sort. In spite of his occasional comments about money being tight, he still tipped well. She more or less said as much to him as they approached the complex.

“Oh, I had money once,” he replied, “but living on half-salary for a year exhausted my savings. It’s not easy being used to having the Service provide, then going to having to pay for it all oneself. I won’t invite you in if that’s all right.”

“Oh, come on,” said Soolin. “You’ve seen my place…” 

Travis looked even more apologetic.

“You obviously expected more.”

“It doesn’t matter.” No invitation seemed to be forthcoming so Soolin turned to leave. “I’ll see you tomorrow night then?”

***

The weather picked up eventually, of course. Spring was approaching, and Travis seemed to be back to normal health. They had been unable to fit in a visit to the firing range, but there was always going to be another week. Then one evening Soolin noticed that he seemed down when she went to take his order.

There were hardly any other customers, and none that seemed to need her attention, so she slipped into the chair opposite him.

“Joints playing up again?”

Travis shook his head.

“I’ve been recalled to Space Command,” he said.

“Is that good or bad?” she asked, although the answer seemed fairly obvious.

“They’ve set a date for my court martial.” Bad then. “It will just be a formality though, they decided I was guilty when they suspended me.” Very bad.

Soolin refrained from asking what it was that Travis was being tried for, and instead settled on something a little less confrontational.

“Then what happens?”

“Execution or exile, I expect. The best I can hope for is a posting to somewhere I’m unlikely to come back from.”

“You could always just leave.” Soolin started to run through her list of current contacts in her head in case he wanted passage offworld, no questions asked.

“Not my way.” He shook his head, as if for emphasis. “Besides, who would I work for? I swore to uphold the values of the Federation—I can’t turn my back on that and fight against my own people.” He sighed. “Fighting’s all I’ve ever known. I’m not sure I could cut it as a civilian, even if I wanted to.”

“If there’s anything I can do to help…” Nothing that she could think of right now would help if he did go back—a character reference from someone like her was hardly going to help his cause. But maybe Travis would have more ideas than occurred to her.

He stared at her for a long time.

“Soolin, could I ask you something?” he said at last.

“Sure, go ahead.”

He seemed to be putting a lot of thought into how to phrase his request.

“Whatever it is,” she assured him, “I’m bound to have heard it before.”

“That, I suspect, is the problem.” He paused yet again, and studied her closely. “Would you—or would you at least consider—spending the night with me?”

Soolin was, quite frankly, astounded. If Travis really believed he was facing death when he went back to his headquarters, then she could understand that he might want one last fling. But with her? He had never seemed to want to be more than a friend and he must know that she was not going to pretend that she felt anything she did not. Surely he would be as well paying for it, from someone who could at least still pretend to care what happened to her body.

“Why not ask Phaedra? I’m sure she could show you a good time. Or one of the others if she’s not your type?”

“I don’t want something I have to pay for.” He looked away. “I thought we were friends.”

Great, just what she needed, being made to feel guilty before she had had time to make a decision. She placed her hand over his.

“We would have to go to your place.” The others tolerated Travis as her friend, but as her lover things might be different. She had never taken anyone else back to the flat.

“If that’s what you want.” He glanced around the bar. “You’d better go back to work, people seem to be wanting to order drinks.”

***

Travis pushed open the door to his room and flicked the light switch to the on position. The central fluorescent tube remained resolutely off, leaving the room lit only by the tube over the dressing table-cum-desk and the single reading lamp by the bed.

“I told you it wasn’t much,” he said.

Soolin gave him a look to imply she had seen far worse, then followed him inside.

The room was clean anyway, she noted. Travis hung his jacket in the wardrobe, so Soolin placed the contents of her pockets on the dressing table, then stowed her duster next to the jacket. He seemed edgy, and she wondered if he was having second thoughts about the arrangement. He sat down on the bed, so she pulled the stool out from under the dressing table and sat opposite him. Travis looked straight at her.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

It had been a long time since she had been asked that, if she had ever. She took his right hand in both of hers.

“You’d soon know if I’d changed my mind. I do know how to use that gun, remember?”

“I know.” He ran his fingers over the hardened skin on the inside edges of her thumb and trigger finger. “How old were you when you learned to shoot?”

“Far too young.” Soolin decided it was time to take charge of the situation. She stood up and pushed Travis back onto the bed. “What were we here for again?” The look of surprise on his face was quite impressive. So how long has it been since you let someone else take charge? Soolin wondered if that was part of Travis’ objection to the new Supreme Commander, but pushed the thought to the back of her mind in favour of more pressing matters.

Soolin debated how far she was prepared to go with this as she took her time over undressing Travis. Something more sophisticated was called for than her usual ‘quick handjob and see how long they’ll go down on me for’ style of sex. Regular fucking? Too much like her old money-spinner, which meant that a blowjob was probably out of the question as well if she was going to enjoy this as much as she meant for Travis to. And she had to enjoy it—he knew her too well not to see through any pretence. Ah well, start in a fairly standard fashion and see where it led.

Travis was sliding his hand under her skirt (which was pretty much non-existent anyway) and inside her knickers (plain white and as unsexy as she could get away with for work). Soolin took hold of his wrist and flattened his arm back against the bed. He was still letting her run this, which was reassuring; Soolin was not sure if she had ever quite managed to get the balance right between ‘disabling the client’ and ‘lethal force’. Another good reason for waiting tables rather than turning tricks.

But Travis was not a trick, she reminded herself yet again. This was wildly different to anything she had ever done for money. Call it a favour for a friend, maybe. But never let it be implied that they owed each other anything. She removed the last of his clothing, then slid off the bed and started to strip.

Travis rolled over onto his side and watched her undress, his left arm hidden by his body and by the shadows cast by the reading light behind him. Soolin was certain that she herself was outlined by the light over the dressing table. She had an athlete’s body combined with delicate curves, which hopefully a military man like Travis would appreciate.

She picked up a small bottle from amongst the items she had placed on the table, then crossed the short distance and sat down on the bed.

“Just one night. And no hard feelings after. That’s what we agreed.”

Travis nodded, unable to take his eyes off her, seemingly unable to form words at the present moment. She poured a little of the viscous liquid from the bottle into her hand and allowed it to warm there before applying it to something that was most definitely hard. She stroked slowly and firmly, gauging her actions to his response.

She could see him forcing down the rising tide of his excitement. It had obviously been far too long since anyone had touched him, but he was trying to last as long as he could, knowing that tomorrow he had to return to Space Command and would most likely never see her, his friend, again.

“Please,” he gasped, “let me… come… inside… you.”

Soolin felt the same urges building in herself as built in him. Maybe not all the feeling had been burned out of her yet either. She smoothed more lubrication onto his cock then applied a little sleight of hand to distract him while she opened the foil packet concealed between the bottle and her other hand. Old habits died hard, and it was easier to use protection than for her to discuss doing so. She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his as she unrolled the foil’s contents over his cock, sliding her hand up and down another couple of strokes to be certain all was prepared and add yet more slickness.

Then she straddled his thighs, never letting go of him as she did so. She raised herself up and moved forward to hover over his cock, lowering herself so it just brushed between her labia. Then she slid forward a little further and sat back onto his cock, feeling it slide into her more acutely than if she had taken him any other way. The momentary discomfort was worth it for the expression of shocked delight that crossed his face as he realised that the tightness around him could mean only one thing.

“Did you… just… do… what I think… you did?”

Soolin pressed a finger to his lips, then rocked her weight slightly forward and back again. He tried to thrust upwards, but she stayed perfectly still.

“Easy, soldier, I need to be able to work tomorrow.”

She waited until she was sure he had heard, then started to work herself into a rhythm that suited them both.

Travis slid his right hand between her legs. He seemed to be concentrating on giving rather than receiving sensation. In the hope, Soolin assumed, of making this last a few moments longer so that they could come together. She could go with that. He pushed two fingers into her and used his thumb to stroke the swollen bud of her clitoris. Then he found the spot on the front wall of her cunt that caused her to breathe in deeply, and then increase the pace of her thrusts as she rode him towards orgasm.

They were both close to the edge. Travis was working her clit and her G-spot as professionally as she was working him. All her muscles were tightening and she was losing co-ordination as well as control. Her chest tightened, her abdominal muscles clenched. Time stood still, and then she was falling into the blackness of release as he thrust up into her one time and fell back onto the bed.

She rolled carefully off Travis and pressed in to his side. He pulled her closer still with his natural arm and rested the hand of the prosthetic one lightly on her hip. Tomorrow he would begin the journey that could end with him being sent to his death, but at least she had given him this night to remember.

***

***

Part Two:

"I picked you up

I shook you up

I turned you around.

Made you into something new."

Soolin walked home after another long day. Travis had paid a month in advance on his hotel room and it had seemed a shame not to use it, what with it being closer to work than her previous abode and everything. At the end of that month she had paid for another, figuring that now she was used to living there, and her former housemates had found a new occupant for her old room.

“Your boyfriend broke my nose.”

Dorian! Soolin stopped suddenly, all her senses on full alert. She had not seen the man in weeks, but now he was back and out for blood by the sound of it. Her blood presumably, since Travis was no longer in residence.

“He wasn’t—”

“I don’t care what you called him, he injured me, and now I want my payback. It cost me a lot to get healed up, but now I’m here to collect.” Dorian stepped out of the shadow of a doorway, his blast-pistol levelled at Soolin.

She thought about going for her own gun, but remembered how little effect it had had upon Dorian the last time. She got the impression that the price Dorian had paid for his nose to be healed had nothing to do with money.

“So where did he go?” Dorian asked. “My quarrel’s with him, not with you.”

Soolin was torn between telling Dorian that he was wasting his time—in hope of him going away—and keeping quiet for precisely the same reason.

“You don’t know do you?” Dorian sneered. “He up and left, didn’t he? Left you all by yourself to pick up his debts.”

Soolin forced herself to say nothing in defence of Travis’ honour.

“A girl like you,” Dorian continued, “could make a lot of money working for me. Get yourself away from this dump, and anyone you might owe, once and for all.”

“I sell my skills, not my body.”

“But that’s what I want—your skills—anything else is what you might call a bonus.”

“The answer was ‘no’ the last time you asked, and it’s still ‘no’ now.”

“I haven’t even told you how much I’m prepared to pay.”

“So tell me. Whatever you have, I doubt it would be enough.”

Dorian named his price. It was more for a year than Soolin could hope to make in ten on this backwater planet. Nonetheless she refused, pointing out to Dorian that he would have more than a broken nose if he should impede her journey homewards any longer.

Dorian stepped aside. Soolin wondered if he was really that certain in his own mind that Travis was long gone.

***

She did not see Dorian again until summer was over. The room cost more to heat than her old room in the flat, and she tended to buy most of her meals at work, or from one of the stalls she passed on her way home, now that she had no kitchen to prepare them in herself. Nonetheless she had managed to put away most of her tips, if not any of her actual wages, and hoped to leave Jevron by the end of winter if not before.

He showed up at work three evenings in a row, and she was polite with him every time he placed an order. But she did not let him draw her into a conversation, or mention anything of a personal nature anywhere that he might overhear.

As far as she could tell he did not follow her home on either the first or the second night. On the third night she was three streets away from the rooming complex when she smelled smoke. She paused, and took in the screams and the crackle of flames. Hoping that she was merely being paranoid, she jogged the rest of the way, then halted abruptly as her worst fears were realised.

“Such a shame,” that familiar oily voice said right behind her.

Soolin drew her gun as she spun to face Dorian.

“Got anywhere to stay tonight?” he asked, a faint smile playing over his lips as the flames illuminated them.

She could go back to her old place—if she could shake off Dorian—but she had nothing now beyond what she wore. Banks on Jevron were less stable than those in the heart of the Federation, and the recent frauds that had shaken the system had left her very wary of entrusting her money anywhere she could not see it.

“Changed your mind about my offer?” Dorian asked.

Soolin thought about it, and decided that it was time for her to get off the planet. And with no money to her name, she felt slightly safer leaving with a sleazeball she knew than trusting on her—chronically bad—luck to find a better option before anything worse happened to her.

***

Life on Xenon was, for the most part, better than on Jevron. She had enough to eat, no worries about whether she could afford to pay for the heat and lighting, and no lecherous punters to fend off. Dorian expected little of her, beyond acting the hostess when he brought guests to the base, and as his bodyguard on those rare occasions when he took her offworld with him. He made few sexual demands on her, once she had pointed out—with the barrel of a percussion pistol to his balls—that she was prepared to go only so far and no further.

Dorian seemed to be more interested in those guests that he brought to the base than in Soolin anyway. She kept out of the way, unless invited, and was generally glad that sound carried poorly through the cavern walls. She was quite certain that when she did leave, she would be very wary of getting involved with another man. Dorian’s excesses more than outweighed Travis’ chivalry and obvious concern for her in her opinion of men as a whole.

Approximately once a year Dorian sent her off to spend a week with the Seska. At those times, he left and came back with a guest who was gone when Soolin returned. Each time she was certain that the man—and it had been a man each time—could not have left Xenon again without her knowledge. Yet there was never any sign of them when she returned—not anywhere on the base or outside it. Soolin could not quite bring herself to care about the presumed deaths of these men. If Dorian had been mistreating children, or perhaps animals, she would have stepped in to stop him. But as it was she asked no questions, and he told her no lies.

Besides, she learned a lot from the Seska—mostly concerning their history rather than their present situation. They had secrets that they were keeping from her, as they kept secrets from Dorian, but she hoped one day—maybe once she was free of Dorian—they would enlighten her as to how their culture had functioned before their war with the Hommiks. She clung to the vain hope that one day she would be free of Dorian, just as the Seska believed that one day those few of them that remained would vanquish the Hommiks and would rebuild their society to what it had once been. All that was needed was for one of them to discover Dorian’s secret, and with that learn of his weakness.

The Seska even had a ship left over from some time before Dorian—a two-seater, short-range craft that could get her to the next system at the very least were it not for Dorian’s defence system that covered most of the planet. He had told her of it when they arrived that first time, and that it would work even in his absence—and after his death. So she had a potential means of escape, but only if she could overcome Dorian’s computers. Dorian’s computers, of course, answered only to him, except in those functions he considered unimportant enough to entrust to Soolin as well. She practised shooting almost every day. Not only because Dorian paid her to, but also because she needed her trade to fall back on, should she ever find a way off this godforsaken planet.

In the long days and nights when Dorian was away or otherwise occupied, Soolin kept herself up to date with news broadcasts from the Federation. Particularly those concerning Travis, and his adversary Blake. Travis had not stood trial on his initial return to the Federation proper. That had happened much later, and he had escaped an attack on Space Command to become a wanted man. Soolin wondered how he felt at finally being brought down to the level of those he had hunted and despised. In the aftermath of the Intergalactic War, broadcasts were less reliable. Blake’s ship was still out there, it seemed, but there was no news of the man himself. Nor was there any news of Travis, although the bounties on both men still remained, along with those for the rest of Blake’s crew and his ship itself.

Dorian had his obsessions, his scientific investigations, and his interest in one would wane as he grew more interested in another. His interest in the Liberator, Soolin assumed, was just another of the same, probably connected with his own attempts to build a teleportation device. But then he came back to the base with the four surviving members of that ship’s crew, and she learned at last of Dorian’s most essential secret.

***

***

Part Three:

"Now five years later on you've got the world at your feet

Success has been so easy for you

But don't forget it's me who put you where you are now

And I can put you back down too."

Soolin almost left Xenon in the aftermath of Dorian’s death. Pella was prepared to help her liberate the Scorpio in return for Soolin’s help finding the Seska a new home. But then Pella was killed, and the Seska were no more. So Soolin joined Avon’s people while she decided where exactly she wanted to go next.

She never told Avon and the others about the other ship, the one hidden in the Seskas’ secondary base. They never asked her if Dorian had owned a second ship, so she was not exactly deceiving them. Nor did she tell them that she had known Travis before Avon and Vila had known Blake. Vila often talked about both men, and about the women, Jenna and Cally, in the evenings, after he had drunk a few glasses of Dorian’s wine. She wanted to say something at times—tell him that there had been another side to Travis, that maybe the Federation had changed him, hardened him somehow between leaving Jevron and beginning his pursuit of Blake.

She knew that whatever she said would get back to Avon one way or another. He would trust her even less if he knew that she had been a friend of a man that Avon had later killed, even if she did owe her life in turn to Avon. She stayed with the others because they had saved her, and because she had nowhere else to go. In time she came to almost like them, and tried to forget about their part in Travis’ decline and eventual death.

At first Soolin had assumed that all four were in mourning for their recently dead crewmate, but it slowly dawned on her that things were not going to get any better. Dorian had been right that the four were bound together by what they had been through, although she was never certain how much they cared for each other. She shared stories with Dayna, as well as with Vila, and felt more settled than she had in a long time, but she was not really part of the group—not a member of the gestalt that Dorian had wanted.

After the near-disaster over Malodar, she sat up late drinking with Vila. He talked of leaving, and she had much the same idea, although she did not voice it. The splits in the group seemed too deep to heal, and she was not sure that she could stand to see the group tear itself apart further. It was likely that someone was going to die soon—they had had too many close calls lately—and she wanted to make damned sure that it was not going to be her.

“Everything would be all right if Blake was here,” Vila said, interrupting Soolin’s thoughts. Then he went on to regale Soolin with a string of home truths about just what Avon felt for Blake—in Vila’s opinion, she suspected, although it did make sense to her. The relationship between Avon and Vila had always seemed to be one of mutual convenience, and a way for them to escape from the pressures of both past and present.

Vila was also convinced that the Federation could be defeated if only Blake would come back and make use of the resources they had on Xenon. Soolin was sceptical, although she encouraged Vila to say whatever he had to say on the matter. One man—one man who had not been heard of in over two years—could surely not make that big a difference to the galaxy at large.

But maybe, just maybe, Soolin thought when she woke the next morning, one man could make a difference to one small group of desperate, disillusioned would-be-revolutionaries.

Orac had investigated Vila’s statement that Blake had been reported dead on Jevron by Servalan herself. There was evidence that the man, or someone looking very much like him, had been seen there. But there was no official report of his death during a Presidential visit, only that of one unnamed prisoner, whose body had been burned as Servalan had said. If there were no official records, then the only way forward was to make enquiries in person. Soolin had known people back on Jevron who managed successfully to keep all evidence of their existence away from Federation records. All of the Liberator’s crew had abandoned ship with a supply of precious stones from its hold, so Blake could easily have bartered his way off the planet by way of those lurkers, who would never accept traceable currency. All Soolin needed to do was to find one person who remembered her from the old days, and who trusted her enough to introduce her to others. Then they would introduce her to yet others, and eventually she might find that one scrap of information that would lead her a step closer to where Blake could be found. She took everything that she had claimed as her own from Dorian’s treasure stores, figuring that there was still enough there for the others to take a fair share each, should she fail to return. Besides, she was spending these jewels for their benefit more than for hers.

She told the others that she was going to investigate the abandoned Seska and Hommik encampments, in case there was anything left that they could use. Then she set off to where the other ship was still hidden. Orac ensured that Soolin could leave Xenon without alerting the others. She left a message to them all to be replayed if she did not return after two months, then made her way to the nearest planet with a busy spaceport. And from there she hitched a ride to Jevron.

***

Jevron was no more welcoming now than it had been five years earlier. Soolin took a room in a hotel that just about deserved that term. It was certainly better than the last place she had stayed. In her room she changed into the nondescript tunic and trousers she had bought for the purpose—the jumpsuits she wore on Xenon and the Scorpio being too close to a uniform to pass unremarked. She pulled her old duster coat on over the top, and set off for the ‘Henry’s’.

It seemed that the bar had not been redecorated since she had left, and had only been cleaned enough to satisfy the health inspectors. The waitresses were unfamiliar as individuals, but no different as a group from those that Soolin had worked with—only working there because they had no better, or less degrading, option.

Phil was still working in the kitchen. Soolin leaned over the counter and caught his eye.

He walked over to her, drying his hands on an old rag.

“Still here I see.” Soolin smiled. Phil might not know much about Blake, but he was bound to know of someone who did.

***

She was sceptical when the first contact with recent information told her that a man answering Blake’s description was now on G-P. The great revolutionary on a planet of the worst criminals and degenerates? It hardly seemed believable. But then another contact told her the same thing—either the man was not Blake, or he had changed a great deal since Vila and the others had known him. Maybe there was a third explanation, but Soolin could not think of one right now.

When she failed to find any alternative news of Blake’s whereabouts, in spite of a week of asking, she decided that her only option was to go back to her home planet, and see this man for herself.

***

If Jevron had stayed the same in Soolin’s absence, Gauda Prime had deteriorated by several orders of magnitude. As soon as she left the ship she had arrived on, Soolin was conscious of men’s stares following her. She took a room in a hotel, then changed into a shabby set of coveralls and tucked her hair up into her hat. The coat hid her figure, and a little dirt rubbed into her face and hands before she returned to the spaceport’s main street further helped her to blend in with the crowd.

It was hard work hiding her unease as she entered the first bar, but by the third she was becoming immune to the fear of being found out. She took her beer to a corner from which she could see the whole room then drank it slowly as she watched and waited.

This time her luck was in. A group of obvious bounty hunters walked in, drunk on success and cheap booze, and settled themselves at the bar. One of them, she was certain, was the man she had come looking for. She edged around the room, keeping herself in the shadows as much as possible, until she could get a clearer, closer view.

The man looked like Blake all right, or what Blake would look like after two years hard living and getting involved in one too many knife fights. His voice too was rougher than she remembered hearing on news-vids, but the accent was much the same. He spoke and joked as loudly as his companions, but Soolin noticed that he seemed to be drinking less. And when the others staggered back out of the bar, he stayed.

Soolin moved to the far end of the bar and ordered another beer. The last of the bounty hunters cast an appraising look in her direction. She stared straight back at him. Then she picked up her beer, dropped the payment for it onto the bar top, and moved to sit next to him.

“How’s business?” she asked, keeping her voice low.

“Good enough,” he replied.

So this was Blake, Soolin thought. The man who had robbed her friend—one of the few real friends she had made in her life—of his arm and eye. The man who had later been the cause of that same friend’s downfall, even if his eventual death had been at Avon’s hand. Avon might have pulled the trigger, but Blake had played far more of a part in the changes to Travis’ character. And Avon had saved her life more than once. Blake did not look to be anything special, nor had he ever done anything for her.

“We made a good capture today,” he continued, “a rebel wanted for crimes throughout the Federation. Brought him in alive too.” He took a long draught from his glass.

“So you collect your reward, and drink most of it, while he languishes in a cell waiting to be taken back for trial?”

“You could put it like that,” the man said.

“How else would I put it?” If everything Blake said was a cover, then it was a very effective one. She forced herself to stay that bit longer, even though her instincts were telling her to get out of the bar and off the planet as quickly as she could.

“I don’t know, girlie, you tell me.”

So much for her disguise, Soolin thought; she did not make that good a boy, but it would have been nice if he had at least played along with it. She took another drink and waited to see if the man had more to say.

“And what brings you to Gauda Prime?” Blake asked after a long pause.

“What brings anyone here?”

“There’s a price on your head? There is, isn’t there?”

“Maybe.” She finished her drink, and stood up to leave.

“I’ll find out sooner or later.” He placed a hand on her arm. “And when I do, don’t think I’ll let you away just because you’re a mere slip of a girl.”

“Oh, I already know that you won’t.” She walked out of the bar into an alley littered with broken furniture, less savoury rubbish, and giant black rats. There she waited for the man she thought was Blake to follow her, her gun already drawn and ready. If he really had turned against all that he had believed in before the war, then maybe she should kill him before he turned in any more rebels.

***

She was just starting to shiver when her quarry emerged. She stepped forward.

“I know who you are.”

He turned to face her.

“I rather thought you might. But I’m still not sure who you are.”

“You can call me Soolin.” She watched but there was no sign of recognition in his face. She kept her gun pointed at him from her hip. Not obvious, but she was sure that he could see it there, even in the dimly lit alley. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”

“My place.” He set off down the alley.

Soolin followed him to a house—or, less politely, a shack—at the less fashionable end of the spaceport. He pushed the door open and went in. She followed, wondering if this really was his home, or just the place he brought unknown quantities to.

The temperature inside was barely above that outside, even when Soolin found the least draughty position for the chair the man indicated she should use. She kept her gun in her hand and ready still, even though it was no longer pointed at her host. She would be able to turn it on him quickly enough, should she need to.

“So tell me about it,” Soolin said. “What brought you to G-P?”

“What do you think?” he asked. “I was never going to win, not without the resources I once had. So I felt that a change of career was in order.”

“Surely you don’t believe that?”

“Oh but I do.” He gave a hollow laugh. “Look around you; I find you can tell a lot about a person from where you find him.”

Soolin said nothing. This could not be the man she had come for. This man could surely not be the same man that had provoked reactions from both Travis and Avon. But a deep down, gut feeling told her that it was. Something had happened to Blake; something had changed him from the leader and inspiration of many to this broken shell of a man. Now she needed to know if the former could be brought back. She holstered her gun, since her instincts were telling her that no matter what this man might claim, he was not going to attempt an arrest tonight.

“I followed your career,” she said. That was the truth, although she hoped he would not ask her why. She could play the admiring would-be rebel if she had to, but she was not going to give away anything about her most recent companions until she was certain that Blake had not turned against the cause for real and forever.

“Then maybe you know that I got caught up in my own legend.” He sighed. “That won’t happen again.”

She could take that two ways. Either he had dropped out of the struggle, or he was allowing his—as yet unmentioned—team far more freedom of choice than the crew of the Liberator seemed to have enjoyed. What was obvious, though, was that he still did not—could not—trust her.

“There are still people out there who can be inspired by you.” Soolin got up and crossed to where Blake sat.

“What do you want?” he asked. “Who sent you?”

“No one sent me,” she said, looking down at him and seeing a man broken by one too many failures. She felt a stab of compassion for this man, who had destroyed her friend, but in doing so had destroyed himself. Maybe it was too much to blame everything on one person, rather than on the crumbling superstructure of a Federation grown too vast to treat most—if any—of its people fairly. Travis had believed in the Federation and been broken by his beliefs. Blake had, if Vila was telling the truth, believed that something better could be build from the destruction of the Federation. And it seemed that that belief had destroyed him.

 She leaned down and kissed him lightly on the lips, intending to turn and walk away. But some spark of interest awoke in him, and he took her face in his hands and kissed her back. She found herself wanting to believe that Blake could again be the man from Vila’s stories, and placed her hands on his shoulders as they kissed again.

He stood up and swung her into his arms. It felt to Soolin as if he were more accustomed to carrying bodies than to making grand romantic gestures. He crossed the room and dropped her roughly onto the ramshackle bed, which dipped and swayed alarmingly.

She had allowed no one to touch her since Dorian, and maybe she would have enjoyed the act more if she had been less jaded. But for all her protestations to Pella that all men were not Hommiks, Soolin found it easy to believe that all men on Gauda Prime were G-P men. Blake took his pleasure from her like any other bounty hunter would have done. Like any of those bounty hunters she had killed long ago would have done. That alone was almost reason enough to kill him. But Soolin let him sleep afterwards, while she lay there wondering whether anything at all could be salvaged from her travels. Reassured that he was sleeping as one too exhausted to wake, she dosed and eventually managed to fall asleep herself.

***

Soolin woke before sunrise, knowing that there was nothing in this man that could again inspire millions. Or if there was, it was hidden too deeply for her to pull it out. She left without waking him, took the first ride she could back to the planet where she had left her ship, and from there returned to Xenon.

When she returned to the base, telling stories of how there had been nothing of salvageable value anywhere she had looked, Avon had a new strategy. He planned to unite the warring leaders of the systems just outside the Federation, and from that build an alliance against the Federation.

He seemed inspired again, and the others too were more optimistic than she remembered. There was no reason at all why she should tell them about Blake.

Lyrics from The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?”


Dormouse

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