In which our two sets of crossover characters finally meet... just about. (Sadly I suspect the Daroga doesn't really count for most people ;-p)
This was the chapter that was originally written in flashback with Gan looking back on prior events while waiting for the rally to start; in the end I decided to restructure it into chronological order simply so that I could split the scenes involved over two chapters, since it was running very long. As I'm discovering with "In Regret, Always", an enclosing flashback structure makes dividing things into sub-scenes very difficult :-(
Chapter 5: First Contact
Gan’s face was beginning to ache from the effort of keeping up a genial smile, and even Blake’s bonhomie had slipped considerably. A mutual glance confirmed that right now they had a single thought in common: how to get away from their pressing new acquaintances. With hindsight, buying everyone in the bar a drink had probably been a mistake.
Blake peeled away the arm of one burly spacer from around his shoulders and clapped another over-enthusiastic crewman across the back in farewell, navigating an unobtrusive path across the crowded room towards the exit. Shaking off the old man at his elbow — and the pocket-case of highly contraband ju-gems he’d been trying to sell him — Gan followed, wearing a politely fixed grin as an assortment of affectionately-inebriated strangers tried to detain them, accost them or offer inside information on trade deals guaranteed to be highly profitable for a small initial outlay. Between the raised voices and the flicker of the overhead lights, his head had begun to swim unpleasantly.
“Well, that didn’t go quite as planned.” Blake stopped in the street outside, taking a deep breath, and glanced behind him. Gan found himself doing the same, as if to check that the most persistent of their erstwhile boon companions had finally abandoned the fray.
Getting into the city itself using their newly-acquired pass discs had been no trouble at all; the great thing about bureaucracy, as Blake put it, was the blind faith it placed in anyone actually inside the system. Getting in touch with the underground resistance, however, was likely to prove slightly more of a challenge.
He and Blake had posed, according to plan, as a couple of freelance traders — implying free-traders, in the Jenna sense — hoping to recruit crew. The sergeant out at the dockyard had given them a list of likely establishments, and the idea had been that they would simply drop hints.
“By everything I’ve heard, this Organisation and its Ghost have a better idea of what goes on here than the Civil Administration department that supposedly runs the planet,” Blake had observed drily. “If we make enough noises of the right sort I imagine we’ll discover they’ve been watching us all along.”
The hard-bitten crowd in the establishment they’d just left had been interested in joining forces, but not in the right way. And Gan wasn’t sure that for their own safety they wanted to attract too much more of that kind of attention.
“You could try being a little less subtle next time,” he suggested under his breath, and got a reluctant grin in response.
The next place on the list, when they found it, was mercifully empty by comparison. And the owner’s eyes met those of Roj Blake, when he introduced himself, with a mutual wary comprehension that spoke volumes.
“We’re independent operators.” Blake’s tone was carefully casual. “Very... independent, if you see what I mean.”
“Perhaps I do.” The other man’s face gave nothing away, for all the lines of experience that marked the shrewd brown features; there were streaks of grey in the black of his close-cropped hair, and an air of tough sufficiency that said ex-security, louder than words. He was no more native to this world than they were— but he was clearly very much at home in it. And the pale startling green of his gaze struck home like a challenge.
“You’d better come through... My name’s Dar Ogar — I run this place — but you can call me Dar. Everyone does.”
He turned down the light strips that glowed above the main seating area, beckoned a younger man over to take his place behind the bar, and led Blake and Gan through a private door into a set of small rooms beyond. A gesture indicated a low couch beneath a brightly-woven wall hanging; Gan sat, rather gingerly, feeling foolish as his knees jutted up as if from a child’s chair. Blake had elected to stand, only to be waved down by a peremptory gesture to sit in his turn.
Dar clipped his hands squarely into his belt, looking at them.
“This place is shielded... from the Federation.” He left the implication dangling, deliberately. “Now who are you, really— and what do you want?”
Blake hesitated for an instant, considering. But the decision was quickly made. A moment later he began to set out the whole story, as swiftly and simply as he could.
At the end he had glanced across at Gan, who emptied out the store of spare teleport bracelets they’d brought down, half a dozen in total from various pockets. He rolled up his sleeve to show the bracelet clamped there, incongruously toy-like on his thick wrist, and Blake unclasped his own and handed it over.
Dar took the hinged halves of the device and turned them over between fingers that moved with a technician’s delicacy, examining it with hooded eyes that gave nothing away. “I see.”
The green gaze lifted to Blake; swung abruptly to pinion Gan. “And with this... alien technology, you can contact your ship? Transport yourselves instantly to anywhere on our world?”
Gan nodded. “I’m no expert... but yes. When the ship comes back.”
Two steps backwards that were not even remotely casual. A small green unit inlaid with decorative glistening patterns stood against the wall. Dar set one hand upon its surface without looking round. Blake had tensed.
“In fact,” Dar said softly, his steady scrutiny transfixing Gan, “if I depress this communicator absolutely nothing will happen— yes? Which is to say that you have no proof whatever that your alien ship is anything other than a brightly-coloured piece of fantasy... rather like these toys that you wear?”
Gan saw no movement in that trailing hand. But a high, almost soundless sensation had filled the room.
“Forcefield.” Blake’s breath hissed.
“Precisely.” Dar had not moved, but his presence seemed to tower over them. “A number of Federation spies have found it very difficult to leave — or to signal — out of this place. I have a friend who is... very useful in that respect.”
And Gan, stranded in his ridiculous low-down folded posture, found himself all too suddenly aware that this man was not friendly and not trusting; not at all.
“I think we’ve heard of your friend— and we’d like to meet him.” Blake, who was no fool, must have had the same acute awareness. But his mild tone wavered not one jot. “He could teach us a lot of what we need to know.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“A bargain, Dar Ogar.” Blake made a movement to rise, swiftly halted as the other man’s eyes narrowed in warning. But his own face blazed up in an urgency of conviction. “If I prove to you that we’re not with the Federation— you get us an interview with your ‘friend’ the Ghost.”
A thin smile. “If I believed you could do any such thing— I would ask myself why you have not already have done so.”
“Because I’ve got no desire to trigger some unpleasant trap by giving you the wrong idea,” Blake retorted, promptly. “But if you’ll just allow me to draw my gun a moment—”
He stood up cautiously, with one eye on Dar, and began fishing through his pockets, much to Gan’s puzzlement.
“Here— this’ll do.” He located an old data-pad, running the heel of his hand down the switches to blank the power. “Hold that out for me, Gan. No, further away— up a bit—”
With his other hand he was making some kind of adjustment on the lightweight Liberator gun belted at his side. Another glance at Dar, and Gan found himself on the receiving end of the coiled weapon being aimed slowly and very carefully in his direction. His stomach lurched. “Blake—”
Blake grinned. “Just stay still...”
The explosive flash of the discharge, within the confines of the forcefield around them, was as shattering as the London’s engines in full lift-off. Gan bit back a startled oath, wringing fingers that had been stung by the force of the impact. Half the datapad he’d just been handed was now a steaming wedge of slag.
“And that’s the minimum power setting. Full power would have vaporised my friend— and probably most of the room.” Blake unclipped the gun from its belt — which meant, Gan noted with relief, from its powerpack — and handed it without hesitation over to their captor for inspection. “If the Federation had anything like this, don’t you think we’d have heard about it by now? And do you really think they’d be issuing them to undercover agents to hand over to their enemies?”
“If they thought they could get a high enough prize by doing so— then yes,” Dar said drily, laying the alien weapon down beside Blake’s teleport bracelet. “But if I really thought you were Federation, Roj Blake, I wouldn’t have waited this long to dispose of you. And if you really thought I meant to kill you, I doubt you’d have pulled that particular trick.... So now that we understand each other, perhaps you’d care to talk?”
“About my ship?”
“About the men you’re looking for... and the assistance you might be able to give.”
And they had understood each other, Gan thought a few hours later, remembering back to that encounter as they waited among strangers underground. He spared a fresh glance for Dar’s dark face among the knot of men up on the makeshift stage at the end of the hall. In another fifteen or twenty years, if any of them lived to see it, Blake’s outrage at injustice would settle to just such a grim, protective determination. As for the ruthless edge... that, he thought, would be sooner to come.
He shifted uneasily at Blake’s side. This big chamber — little more than a chance walled intersection between two access tunnels on the lower level of the city — was a lot less cold than he’d been expecting, but a chill whisper of disquiet still stirred at the back of his neck. The place was altogether too much like Vargas’ vaulted temple for his comfort, and despite himself he kept half-expecting to glimpse altar and blade.
He’d have been a lot happier if they had actually heard back from Jenna... or Avon. “Until dark,” Blake had said. Well, it was dark outside already; and the Liberator had not returned.
There could be any number of reasons for that, pursuit ships being only the first, but none of them meant anything but bad news. Newparis was no Cygnus Alpha, but it wasn’t anywhere he wanted to spend the rest of his life— even if the local rebels were as friendly as Blake seemed to hope.
At the moment, as unknown outsiders at what had to be a highly seditious assembly, the two of them were getting more than a few looks of deepest suspicion... but under the circumstances no-one could be blamed for that. Looking around, Gan had to admit they’d got an impressive organisation going. And Blake’s talent for persuasion had done wonders already in gaining admission here at all.
It was only Dar’s name and Dar’s assurances that had got them this far without being shot at sight. But it was Blake’s stubbornly-argued intent to speak to the Ghost himself that had resulted in their presence tonight— in a meeting that according to Dar had been called at short notice a matter of hours ago, and yet which, by the ferment of talk around them, had clearly been anticipated for some considerable time. From what little Gan could catch without overt eavesdropping, the Operation, as they called themselves, had some big objective long overdue to happen; and there was a wild rumour besides that the Ghost was going to make an appearance in person.
That much, at least, Gan could have told them was true. It was Dar himself who had advised the two offworlders to come here on the chance, afterwards, for a private word with the Ghost. And from a few things Dar had let slip in the course of that long talk with Blake, Gan would have hazarded a guess that the reference to the ‘friend’ responsible for the forcefield hadn’t been entirely a figure of speech: if anyone on Newparis could get them in to meet the infamous legend in the flesh, then it would be Dar Ogar.
At any rate, Blake had taken the prospect seriously enough to alter his plans in order to stay on for this meeting, and he’d been going to let the Liberator know just that when she returned to pick them up. Only she hadn’t returned.
Full circle, yet again. Gan sighed and shifted, trying to keep his thoughts off that nagging, useless loop. If Blake was worrying, then he didn’t show it. Better to keep quiet... and try to blend in.
A wiry Newpie woman jostled past him at shoulder height, as if in reminder of just how difficult ‘blending in’ was likely to be. Receiving an upwards glare from beneath her sandy brows, he tried instinctively to back away and only succeeded in attracting similar annoyance from the knot of dockyard workers with whom he collided as a result; he’d been big all his life and knew how to handle his strength and reach, but these quick-moving compact people made him feel an interloper, clumsy and slow.
It was clear that by no means all the members of the Operation were Newpie-born, however. The chamber was heaving with people now, the crude stonework of its arches beginning to sweat from the mass of heated bodies below, and many among the present company were clearly offworlders with masks slung around their necks. Since the days of the first colonies there had always been drifters who tramped the space lanes, whether in pursuit of their trade or in escape from a homeworld grown too narrow, too tedious or simply too hot to hold them; a few of those here might have travelled to Newparis with the specific aim of striking a blow against the Federation, but most of them, he guessed, had landed up on this planet by chance and adopted its political divide along with the rest of their new home.
As he and Blake might yet end up doing, if the ship did not come back.... Gan groaned in frustration — it was pointless to keep worrying about something completely beyond his control, and he knew it — and shot another sidelong look at Blake, who was scanning the hall with suddenly narrowed eyes.
He’d laid a warning hand on Gan’s arm, speaking in an undertone. “Something’s about to start, I think. Can you feel it? The mood’s changed—”
Gan could sense it too: an almost palpable anticipation and focus on the stage at the front. A moment later he saw Dar and another man step forward from among the little group there. The two of them seemed to consult briefly; then Dar’s voice, reflected back through a dozen concealed transmitters, rang out across the assembled crowd, and a great indrawn breath from all around caught Gan and Blake up among the rest.
“People of Newparis — fellow-friends of the Operation — we greet you and welcome you here tonight. The notice was short, I know, and it is testimony to your loyalty and impatience for our cause that so many among you have answered the call. I have been asked the purpose of this meeting twenty times this evening already by those who know me; to the rest of you I can only give the same answer I gave then. I myself truly do not know— yet.
“And therefore without further delay I give you the man who has summoned us here as so often before; the man whose unique gifts have shown the Federation a taste of their own fear, and made this network what it now is, a byword for resistance throughout the Known Worlds. I give you— the Ghost of the Operation!”
A great projected image burst into life as if suspended above the heads of them all: the image of a dead white face with two blazing dark scars of eyes. And when the dazzle had cleared — oh, a cheap trick maybe, but Gan for one could have sworn he’d never looked away from the stage — a single silent figure, tall and impossibly lean, stood framed between the two who’d stepped forward before.
Those long, long limbs were spidery and almost deformed; in place of a loose shirt or tunic, a spacer’s black bodysuit sealed every angle of every bone, as if on a cadaver that only tight constriction could hold from flying apart. It should have been enfeebled, grotesque. Instead, that dark silhouette wore a deadly grace that dwindled the stature of the rest by as much as his reach overtopped theirs. The movements mesmerised... and appalled.
For the face was blank, that same blank mask that burned up above, featureless and dead save for the living fury of its eyes and the hissing broadcast of its breath transmitted for all to hear. Gan had seen masks enough in their few hours on Newparis, and found Blake’s own familiar features hard to read beneath the abbreviated breathers they’d used. But the Ghost’s face was masked entirely from brow to throat even here, beyond sealed doors, with a crushing weight of sand and blastcrete between the filtered air and any breach; and the very crudity of it — the flat white moulding with no pretence at humanity — conjured up rumoured ruinations beneath.
No mouth. A snubbed peg of a nose. And holes for eyes that seemed to bore down into black eternity... and yet threw back a glinting passion of power, and a fire that stole away both wits and will from those on whom it chose to fasten.