And here's the other half of the Blake/Gan chapter; Blake's scenes weren't really long enough to stand on their own, and Gan's big scene would have made a very long single chapter in contrast. So we have here the combined outsiders' view of some fairly tumultuous events (and I've tried to distinguish the two different viewpoints).
Chapter 6: Broken Trust
Gan felt his mouth go dry. The spectre in black and white held them all, effortlessly, by sheer force of dominion. The voice, when it came, was distorted: a rising inhuman hiss through circuits that shielded and manipulated alike.
“People of Newparis— I have brought you here to make an example. An example that some among you have forgotten. An example to all those in whose talent we trust.”
Long, gloved fingers gestured, and a girl somewhere to the right cried out in one short sharp whimper of surprise. The crowd stirred, parting, as two broad-hewed men in dockyard clothes elbowed through with the chosen one caught up between them.
Gan got one glimpse down at her face, white as ash beneath the pale plait that crowned her head; the whisper of Vargas’ double axe sang ghost-like through his mind and he almost reached out to her, but Blake caught at his sleeve, both of them unsure in that moment if she was to be heroine or sacrifice of the hour. “Gan, wait— we don’t know—”
The rest was delirium.
The baying crowd around him as the accusations began. The slender figure pinioned, wavering, before them like a wind-blown colourless flame. Cold words that sliced without restraint or mercy, streaking shame and tears like slashing wounds. Black clawing fingers that seized an averted face and dragged it up again to receive the shrieking hatred of those betrayed. And the damning images played above for all to see: secrets let slip, confidences, laughter, intimacy, two heads close together with a glance to see if they were observed.
She’d been trusted. She’d flung herself into the arms of the Federation— all too literally.
Hissing words from the platform shaped hatred, took it, flung it out and received it many-fold in return as a wave of screamed imprecations. Those who held back were swept away by the rising mob that surged towards the stage, clawing vengeance.
“This is madness!” Gan made a grab for Blake as another surge threatened to fling them off their feet; hung on for grim death despite a grunt of pain as the other man’s arm was almost wrenched from its socket.
“Madness is the word for it.” Blake’s own teeth were set. “There’ll be murder done in a minute— this girl Cris is going to be torn to pieces. What kind of leadership— what kind of justice does—”
“Get to this pillar... Here.” Gan dragged him back, feeling the bite of rough stonework through his sleeve as bodies churned them against that meagre shelter, thrusting past. Sweat was standing out on his face. Jenna had been right. Vila — Vila, of all people — had been right; the man was a masked maniac, a danger to himself and them all. To whip up a riot like this against one shrinking child for a treachery born only of foolishness—
Perhaps no other voice could have stopped them; but the Ghost’s icy command was amplified and pitched to a level beyond the human. There was, for an instant, silence.
Blake shook a dazed head, looking up towards the phantom of all his hopes as if in quest of an answer, even now, that would be some justification of what they had just seen. For his part, Gan could not pretend to make sense of it.
Two motives came to mind, and they were ugly ones. Their names were Terror— and Vengeance.
Recorded betrayals played out overhead, view after view with snatched phrases and complicit looks. One final image froze; two figures locked together, mouths upon each other, moving. The girl’s slim body pressed close — closer — against the Federation emblem emblazoned at her lover’s throat.
Stricken and bloodless, the gaze of the prisoner below was turned upwards as if fastened there against her will. But the breath that hissed in the hearing of all those present was drawn between the teeth of another.
“She has betrayed us. Is that your verdict?” Words bitten out and swiftly measured, that scarcely waited for the Yes that leaped to meet them.
“And your sentence?”
A howl this time, breaking over itself in eagerness: Death — death — death—
Blake’s grip had tightened on Gan’s arm suddenly like a vice; he broke free, ready to fling himself against that shrieking bloodlust even if only to be torn apart.
But blackness struck them, utter and complete, like suffocation. Voices were choked off into wails; Gan stumbled and fought to steady himself against clutching arms in the dark.
It was only for a moment. But when the light returned, both Ghost and sacrifice were gone.
General confusion. Dar’s voice was crashing out over the hubbub, trying to restore some kind of order. Dark lines of fury scarred his face, but he was appealing for calm; whatever his thoughts on the proceedings, he clearly had the sense to keep them to himself. Gan found his own fists opening and closing convulsively. He’d seen the evidence along with the rest of them, and it had seemed damning enough. But then the evidence they’d shown on Blake would have convinced anyone who hadn’t known the truth... and he couldn’t get the girl’s wisp of a face out of his mind.
“He had them in the palm of his hand.” Blake had braced himself against the sheltering pillar for support, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead beneath heavy curls. The look on his face was more disbelief than anything else. “He had them in the palm of his hand — he could have done anything — and he chose... that?”
Gan had no answer; but leadership meant less to him than it did to Blake. “So much for our chances of a quiet word with the Ghost — or anyone else — after the meeting,” he commented instead, with a sigh.
And as for Blake’s hopes of learning the secrets of successful resistance... well, to him, as a simple un-informed outsider, the Operation was beginning to look more like a movement in danger of falling apart. He pulled back the sleeve that concealed his teleport bracelet, holding down the button on the communicator. “Jenna— Avon— Vila? Liberator, this is Gan— can you hear me? Is there anyone there?”
Voices all around, as the mob-mind of the crowd disintegrated back into decent, puzzled individuals; but no response from the missing Liberator. Blake was trying the same. Gan watched without much hope.
“Maybe if we get up to the surface levels?” he suggested, and Blake shrugged.
Neither of them really believed it.
Blake had pitched his voice deliberately low, but set to carry; the other man turned sharply on his heel, vivid pale gaze raking the shadows around the tunnel-exit as his hand went to a concealed gun. Blake’s own hand was curled around the haft of the weapon that Dar himself had returned to him — this deserted part of town was not a safe place to wait as the last of the resistance slipped out on their way homewards, in subdued twos and threes — but he made no move to draw it. Instead he stepped forward, deliberately, letting the overspill from a nearby factory floodlight fall across head and shoulders.
The unwilling recognition in Dar Ogar’s face carried no corresponding welcome, but Blake gave him no chance to speak.
“It’s not about... that.” A jerk of his head towards the tunnels below. “I understand you wanted no part of it; I saw your face in there. But I need to speak to you on something else.”
Dar considered for a moment, dark features set, and nodded, beckoning him forward along the street. “And your friend?”
Blake half-turned and gave the signal, and Gan slipped out from cover to accompany them, quiet and observant as ever. The big man’s sleeve was stained with rust from the ancient pipework on the wall that had concealed them, and Blake knew that the night’s events — not to mention the Liberator’s unexplained absence — had worried him badly, but Gan said nothing.
An Alpha-grade would have argued. Gan offered support... and kept his own, unflinching judgement. It was rather less reassuring than one would have supposed. Blake threw back a rather rueful look and braced himself to tackle Dar.
“We need a place to stay for tonight— maybe longer. If there are rooms somewhere—”
The green eyes that met his were uncomfortably penetrating. “Ah. And... will you still be requiring crew?”
“We’ll need to have them before our ship returns,” Blake assured him, all too aware beneath his steady front of their isolation here amid a powerful network. He’d just seen what could happen when they chose to turn on one of their own... Instinct told him that Dar was to be trusted — there was a sense of raw honesty beneath the wary surface — but that same fellow-feeling showed him a man certain neither of his allies nor his followers.
“I see.” They shared a few more strides in silence as Dar considered. “There’s a spare unit down on half-level Z that we use as a safe house sometimes... you could bed down there for a week or so. After that you’re on your own.”
A week... Blake almost let slip an exclamation, and bit it back with an effort. If they were still here after a week, they’d be on Newparis for life— and the Liberator gone for good. Memories of a casual jest from the past had begun to haunt him. If it’s the self-destruct, I doubt I’ll ever speak to you again; it had been a cheerful dismissal of the faint chance of a shared oblivion— but what if Jenna had taken that gamble once more, and lost...
Do you really think we’d leave you down there? Avon’s affable smile... his own eyes on Jenna: No, I don’t think you would. And that answer remained the same: a possibility he wasn’t even going to think about.
A distant, automatic part of his mind was thanking Dar and making arrangements, Gan’s deep voice coming in with a quiet suggestion. With a willed, focused shrug of attention, Blake thrust away both fruitless speculation and the past, and plunged back into the needs of the present.
It was twenty minutes before they found themselves at the door of their new quarters, a faceless entry in a narrow windowless street that dived below the factory quarter. There was a faint mechanical hum from above, where access hatches and ducts gave a workaday look to the place — and a promise, if needed, of easy escape — and the bare blastcrete beneath their feet where the passage had been scratched down into the city’s foundations was scuffed with dirt. Warehousing for humans... and perhaps not even mainly humans, Blake decided, examining their destination with reluctant distaste. It had the air of a storage facility.
There were places like this in the Domed cities of Earth, he knew. But he’d never had to live in them.
The boy who’d been summoned to show them the way was fidgeting, eager to be gone. “You’ll be all right now, I dare say?”
“I dare say,” Blake agreed drily, with a look up at Gan, who was suppressing a smile. “And there’s nothing else we need to know?”
“You’ve got pass discs?”
“And breath masks? We’ve not had a breach for twenty years, but there’s a duststorm forecast, and you’ll get stopped if you’re out on the street without them.”
“We’ve got our own,” Gan said from behind him, “but thanks for the warning.” He chuckled suddenly, as if at some private thought. “Come on, Blake. Good night.”
Blake, watching their young guide disappear up the street, missed the moment when Gan keyed open the accommodation they’d been offered. It wasn’t until the door slid back with a tired hiss and a jolt that he turned... and knew from Gan’s deepening chuckle that the shock of his appalled reaction had been written all over his face.
He had to laugh himself, in the end. It was just that he’d been expecting — he didn’t know what; some kind of cheap hotel, perhaps — and had got... this. This unit: two bed spaces crammed one above the other into a cell the size of a Liberator storage locker, with basic facilities in a narrow cupboard beyond. ‘Warehousing for humans’ had been close enough to the mark.
“Home sweet home.” Gan, still grinning, had sat down heavily on the lower bunk and was pulling off his boots. He stretched out with the ease of experience, feet planted firmly against the end wall. “Cheer up, Blake. It’s better than the London— we’re free men here.”
Blake, edging in to close the door behind them and swinging himself rather gingerly up to the top bunk with the aid of a recessed step, let himself collapse into a similar prone position with a sigh. Compared to the prison ship the place was at least clean, he had to admit. And he couldn’t grudge Gan the moment’s amusement at an Alpha-grade’s expense. But if they had to spend much time in here, he was going to start dreaming about conveyor belts— and vacuum-packed sardines.