Chapter 2: Best of Friends
Most of the cadets — and ex-cadets — of the Borda had been billeted in an upper-level Administration building on the edge of Zone 1. The city was used to dealing with a periodic influx of Federation personnel, but rarely on this scale; the barracks reserved for Space Command had not been laid out in proportion to the cadet-ship’s capacity. The overflow arrivals, few of them able to believe their luck, had found themselves accommodated on a level of civilian comfort usually reserved for the staff of visiting members of the High Council.
The fact that they were obliged to share rooms two or three together was scarcely worthy of note to youngsters who were used to living on board in groups of five or six to a mess, but it did require a certain amount of tact where visitors were concerned. Especially those of the female variety.
Not that it looked as if he was ever likely to be the one privileged with that particular social dilemma, Rall reflected with a degree of bitterness, gathering up the few possessions he was likely to want for the day and preparing to vacate their shared room for his companion’s benefit. After cutting his customary swathe through the susceptible population on their first few days planetside, Salj had managed to acquire himself a steady girl, and traded remorselessly on Rall’s supposed inadequacies in that direction to secure sole possession of the room on a more or less daily basis. The episode at Ogar’s had not been the first indignity he’d had to suffer, and his room-mate had not on that occasion been the ringleader. But tall, black-haired Salj was a little too fond of making jokes about pilots who needed to get their wings, and altogether too keen on asserting his superior need for privacy.
It wasn’t even that Rall minded so much. He had no desire to find himself making an awkward third to Salj and bright-haired Carla, whose bold eyes dismissed him as unworthy of interest and who treated Cris with a condescension he found hard to forgive. And he certainly had no plans to bring Cris back here on his own account, only to sit awkwardly opposite her on the narrow beds and see her sniggered over by half the cadets in the building.
Carla blazed more brightly under the attention, flaunting herself on Salj’s arm against the foil of his dark good looks. As for Cris... three weeks ago, he would have said that Cris would flinch and wither under the curious stare of all those eyes. But there was an unsuspected resolute strength in her sweetness that quivered in the face of anger but did not turn aside. Cris would have walked up the front steps beside him with a hectic colour in her pale cheeks but her head held high; and he thought that, of the two of them, it was he himself who would break first before the expectant humiliation of Salj and the rest.
What hurt, for Rall... was not his fellow junior’s seamless self-confidence, or his usurpation of their joint accommodation. It was his own seemingly hopeless situation with Cris.
Sighing, he slipped a few spare credits into an inner pocket, closed the front of his tunic, and turned to leave.
“All yours, Salj. Good luck.”
The other boy grinned in acknowledgement, white teeth flashing. “And the best for your own Newparis campaign... Have you made it yet?”
“I’m not trying to ‘make it’,” Rall said shortly, feeling a flush of annoyance creep up his cheeks. It didn’t help his temper that he knew Salj would interpret it instead as weakness.
“Your loss.” Salj’s grin broadened. “Carla and I have a lot of fun...”
“Yes, I get to listen to it,” Rall retorted with more irritation than strict accuracy — he’d made a point of being out of the way as much as possible — and swiped the door control with unnecessary force. It would be just his luck now to run into Carla on her way up... But the corridors were blessedly empty at this late hour of the morning, and he managed to reach the main lobby without passing anyone at all.
A couple of the cadets were just coming across from the other wing on their way out; he exchanged a brief nod with the elder of the two, with whom he’d shared shuttle-duties before his own promotion had come through, and fell into step behind them down to the main exit and its wide parade-ground sweep.
It wasn’t as if he had anywhere particular to go. Cris was working the early shift, the apartment where he’d spent his childhood had long since gone — his mother had moved in with ambitious relatives cross-town after the old man had died — and the raucous company of the other young officers held no appeal at all. His time here on Newparis was at once racing away and slowed to an unendurable crawl; he had only a few days left, and he was getting nowhere.
He’d done his share of duty down at the dockyards watching the work on the old Borda, canted up on the landing-pads with half her deep-space cabins upside down and out of commission. Her battered plating had gained a fresh network of bright patches where old meteorite pocks or dustcloud abrasions had weakened the hull, and a swarm of workers climbed over her now inside and out, overhauling her underpowered weaponry and her crowded crew quarters. The men were stripped and sweating, despite the chill of air Outside... and not one of them was encumbered with a breather.
Rall had tried dropping his own mask in cautious, scientific increments, inhaling great conscious gulps of the too-thin air into lungs that had once been bred to withstand it; but he was no nearer matching the effortless, lithe survival of the planetbred than when he had first landed. He’d chosen Space Command. Chosen to leave his world and inherit the galaxy; chosen to grow to manhood in those crucial years breathing an air more gentle than his own. He would never be more than a crippled child in that respect — never be a fit mate for a Newpie girl like Cris—
As if that would ever be allowed anyway. He looked up, past the irregular square skyline of the buildings opposite, to the dirty haze-colour of the ceiling: the underside of the Dome. As well hope to crawl across that enclosing sky.
Girls from the service grades were discardable playthings. The Captain couldn’t give a scoop of slime what one of his junior officers did out of hours with a girl like Cris — Delta tech, anarchist’s offspring — but there was no way an Alpha-grade could be seen actually to court her.
He didn’t care. He’d clung already to that memory of their time together, through the bad years— and the worse ones of disillusionment that followed. He’d never really thought he’d see her again. And then they’d been flung face to face and she’d caught his hands in hers; and to the shock of recognition had been added a shock of sudden fundamental knowledge that had shaken him to the core.
This, then— this was what he had been waiting for; this was why he had been waiting. This was the meaning that shrank everything else in his life to irrelevant trivialities— this unguarded joy in her eyes was a reward he would crawl through any abasement to receive, and he would suffer any tortures for her sake to enthrone it securely there.
Just thinking about her now he could feel his heart beating faster, as if her slim figure were dancing up there ahead of him, silver-fair in the unshadowed light... And he could have sworn, once, that she felt the same way; that the hours when they were not together dragged out as slow and barren for her as they did on his part.
They met almost daily: at Ogar’s, at Victory Square, at the gates of the Residence. They talked freely of the past and of unimportant matters — stood close, slipped hand into hand, touched as casually and easily as they always had. And every time he tried to tell her what he wanted most to say, that intangible barrier would be thrown up between them: the one labelled BEST OF FRIENDS— DO NOT PASS. Or just, sometimes, DO NOT PASS.
She was afraid; that much he could sense. When they met, it was as much a defiance on her part as it was on his. And maybe it was an arrogance in him, maybe he was dreaming that she too could care, but he was all but certain he had glimpsed the same misery of longing in her eyes, across the barrier, as that which ate constantly at his own heart.
It was the Angel. He was almost sure of that. And he was almost sure, too, that he knew whom ‘Angel Six’ must be.
Rall made a conscious attempt to slow his pace, despite strides that had begun almost to tumble over one another in agitation. He had come almost to the edge of the Zone, and would soon have to show his pass; the street was drab and barren, lined with offices whose many windows were all alike, and the roadway rang dully beneath his feet where the endless miles of conduits and sub-tunnels formed a cramped and twisted city of their own. The world was grey, prosaic, rational.
He did not believe in angels or demons, spirits or gods or fairies. He did not, any more, believe in stories of dead mothers whose singing could comfort the bereaved in the hours of darkness, or of impish creatures who dwelt in wall-cupboards or cleanser-spouts, and would play with little children; and nothing could convince him that two and two made five.
He believed, with uttermost conviction, in the flesh-and-blood existence of the Newparis Ghost.
And he believed that Cris, who in the past weeks had let slip more than she realised — and truly, who would seek to recruit artless Cris to a secret operation unless for some ulterior motive? his suspicions were only confirmed — was mixed up in the Ghost’s organisation on a level that had him terrified. An organisation that had killed, and would kill, in the name of liberation; an organisation that punished betrayal within its ranks by gruesome and inventive death.
If he was right... then he knew his duty as clearly as the back of his own hand. Knew that every moment he delayed meant greater risk for Cris, if she dared to love him, and for hundreds of those enlisted unwillingly into the Federation’s ranks or earning a mere daily wage in its assistance.
Save— save that he had seen all too intimately what happened to planets where rebellion had run too deep, and his stomach still turned at the knowledge of it. He’d flown a shuttle himself on those last sweeps of Mennik-3, after the cities were razed and the slaves were taken, sowing the land with poisons that would sour the crops for any remaining resistance from the mountain caves or deep shelters. He’d watched the fields reel past, mile upon mile upon mile, and given the order for young Sectus in the rear bay to set the ejection-nozzles flowing.
There had been a fine slick of spray across the cockpit shields when he’d landed, back in the Borda’s echoing hangars. Theirs had been the first shuttle back. No-one had warned him not to touch the external plating; half an hour afterwards, his hands had started to burn. He’d lain awake in the hospital bay that night, picturing those fields... picturing tiny creatures writhing uncomprehending as the gentle mist came down, picturing men and women leaving a chance refuge and brushing through knee-deep grass until thighs and shins were flayed to the bone with the same unsleeping pain that burned from that grazing touch of his fingers.
He’d seen— what the Federation could do. Only the gentle lips of the girl he loved had come close to bringing his own hands any absolution.
If Cris were truly involved... he could not gainsay her right. Nor could he reveal what she had so innocently betrayed. (And who— who, his jealousy demanded, had picked out her sweet innocence to entrust with such murderous knowledge?)
And he could not court her while the faceless Angel stood between them, and she fled; not though time was running short, and the future held out no other hope.
He was young, and he was only flesh and blood, and sometimes it was more than he could bear. The tears that poured down his face now in the open street were those of mingled rage and unhappiness, and if he had known the Ghost’s haunts he would have tracked him down without a moment’s thought for the consequences.