Womack and the Hands of Blue

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: Characters from The Sentinel and Firefly are used without permission but with no intent to defraud.


“He’s been around the block, and likely beaten up everybody on it.”
— From the shooting script description of the Firefly character played by Richard Burgi

Womack parked the beat up enforcement ship so it was butting noses with the Firefly they’d chased down. He told Skunk and Fendris there was to be no shooting unless he gave the word. That didn’t mean he wasn’t ready for a fight, and he went up the ramp into the Firefly’s cargo bay with his gun drawn. The first thing he saw was a guy who was most likely on the crew as hired muscle—and who was standing in his way trying to look hard.

“Well now,” Womack said, making it clear he wasn’t impressed. “Somebody left their dog off the leash. I been shot too many times to be scared by a gun, boy.”

He ignored the answer, because up on the catwalk he could see the organ-smuggler, Smith, and judging by the blood dripping off him, those organs were shot to hell. “Little problem during shipping,” the guy next to Smith said, not sounding too worried. This one might be the captain, Womack reckoned. The guy had more to him, looked like he might have been a soldier from the way he was watching them. Didn’t seem to care that the law had just run him down, either.

“Don’t think I need to tell you folk the trouble you’re in,” Womack pointed out. “Wetware smuggling, resisting, fleeing an officer of the law… and I’m sure a search of your ship’ll come up with another few felonies.”

The captain, if he was one, didn’t blink. Smith made a noise like he might have giggled if he hadn’t been bleeding all over the deck. Then an honest-to-God Shepherd walked out from behind some of the crates of cargo. Or maybe a dishonest-to-God one, Womack reconsidered, given the company he was in and the fact this Shepherd had no problem telling an officer of the law to take a hike.

“You know, I’m authorized to kill as I like, Shepherds not withstandin’,” Womack said.

The Shepherd looked as if he was used to having guns pointed at him. Calmly, and with a contempt that stung he started to point out all the weaknesses in Womack’s position, and damned if he wasn’t right about every one. He’d been in enforcement, Womack thought—maybe playing the same sort of part as his own. And it was going to be difficult to see the best way out, especially because he’d just started to hear a whole lot of sounds he shouldn’t be hearing. This was no time for another crazy spell with his senses. He raised his gun and heard—five times as loud as it should have sounded—another gun being cocked on the side catwalk.

“Now as I said,” the Shepherd went on, still cool. “We got guns on you, you
don’t even see. You took pains to keep your presence here secret. I don’t imagine it’d bother anyone if we laid your bodies to rest at the bottom of one of these canyons.”

Slowly Womack lowered his gun. His gorram eyes were playing him up as well now. Nose too, and that was no joke with this Firefly stinking of blood and hot engines. The screwed-up senses trip had already hit him a couple of times while they’d been in pursuit of her—he’d nearly thrown up on the controls as his eyes focused way beyond where he should be seeing, and his ears had felt close to rupturing as sounds suddenly crashed too loudly. He was never going to put a scare into the Firefly crew now, with it happening worse than ever.

The Shepherd’s voice disappeared then boomed. Womack knew he couldn’t fool himself about the extent of this problem any more. When he’d first had a crazy fit, more than three months earlier, it had been a one-time event and he’d forgotten it, until five weeks later it happened again. That second time it was bad enough he’d had to bolt from a crowded bar because the smells and sounds had overwhelmed him.

He’d still hoped it would just go away, even when it had happened maybe a dozen times, but it was getting more frequent—half of those had been in the last week: a meal that had burned his mouth when everyone else said the spice was mild; clothes that scraped his skin; a crazy moment when he thought he could see microscopic details on some stinging bug. Hearing was the worst though, leaving him with a pounding headache after ordinary background noises had battered his ears. And now it was likely to get him shot if he didn’t fight past it to make the right move.

No good trying to face the Firefly crew down. He’d reached his limit. The one thing left to do was to get out of here unhurt. The Shepherd had it dead to rights, anyway, about Fendris and Skunk being out of their jurisdiction and on the take, and Womack wasn’t going to give away what his own role really was.

“I’m fair sure we could make you disappear. You done most of that work for us already,” the Shepherd said. Womack swallowed the crack he wanted to make about the sort of man of God who’d suggest that. He let them see he was going to back off.

If he was going to get out of here with a shred of dignity, he needed to do it before all his senses at once swelled up and threatened his sanity. The dim light on the walkway was showing him people who should have been out of sight, Smith’s blood reeked as it dripped and the sounds from above him seemed to rise and fall as if someone was fucking with the controls on an audio setting.

Womack spat on the deck, and almost flinched at the slap of its landing. “Damaged goods anyhow,” he said, looking at Smith. “Let’s go boys.”

One good thing about Fendris and Skunk was they never tried thinking for themselves, and maybe the Shepherd did have some kind of peace and goodwill influence with the Firefly crew, or maybe they just had good reason for avoiding any more trouble. At any rate, no one stopped Womack and his crew backing away, though the attack dog guy in the woolly hat kept his gun trained and looked as if he’d like to use it. There was a limit to how far Womack was prepared to back down.

“Hat makes you look like an idiot,” he said, and damned if Rover didn’t look hurt. He didn’t have time to enjoy that, though. His ears were really crazy now and his own words crashed and echoed. In the silence that followed them he heard a girl’s voice from somewhere way up above him. She spoke in a whisper that he could see no one else had heard.

Maybe the words weren’t for him, Womack tried to tell himself. They sure as hell didn’t make much sense. Maybe she was just whispering to someone up on the catwalk. But as he backed out of the airlock, he was unreasonably sure that she was talking direct to him—and that she knew he could hear a whisper across that distance. That bothered him more than the guns trained on him.

“Two by two, hands of blue,” the girl said, her voice barely a breath, “You save Blair, he’ll save you. Two by two, hands of blue…” The airlock was about to close on Womack, when her whisper became more urgent. “His heart will beat to you!” It was a long time since he’d felt so relieved to get out of anywhere as he was to leave the Firefly behind.

Womack headed back for the Space Bazaar Skyplex, piloting in savage silence and with a complete disregard for the rattling hull plates and red warning lights that his speed provoked. Fendris and Skunk grumbled quietly about the Shepherd and the commission they’d lost on getting the organs back.

“Wouldn’t have a problem if that fat-assed postman had held onto the crate,” Skunk muttered as they landed. “Could’ve picked the guy up here…”

“You leave the postmaster to me,” Womack ordered. His head was pounding, his mood was foul and he wasn’t looking forward to the bazaar one little bit, but he didn’t want these two idiots taking it out Amnon. He didn’t enjoy the memory of the man’s terror as he huddled in a corner thinking Skunk was going to set him alight. Worse than that, though, was the feeling that at the time some tiny part of him had enjoyed it, or could have. He’d been under too long. He was forgetting who he really was.

He strode through the bazaar, jostling anyone out of his way who hadn’t the sense to move. One mud farmer took exception, and the brief flurry of violence left the farmer flattened and Womack angrier than ever. At the edge of the food court was a scruffy stall selling dried herbs and pots of spices. His senses had muted to a dull discomfort again luckily, and he brushed past with no more than a sneeze into the small curtained-off area behind the stall.

The old robed store keeper looked at him and must have judged his mood accurately, because all he said was, “What do you need?”

“I want to talk to Banks.”

“You’ll have to give me time to arrange it. Say half an hour?”

Womack nodded. “I’ll wait.”

“Not in here.”

The old man was right of course. A short stop at his stall could just be Alliance enforcement throwing their weight about; longer, it looked as though they’d found an informant. Reluctantly Womack went back out into the chaos of the bazaar. He couldn’t get those odd whispered words out of his mind. That ‘hands of blue’ crap—somewhere, sometime he’d heard something about blue hands… blue gloves… It had ugly echoes in his thoughts, but he couldn’t place it exactly. Something else to speak to Simon Banks about maybe.

He saw Amnon. The postmaster went white and looked as if he’d throw up all over the mail.

“Forget it,” Womack snapped at him. “It’s done; dealt with.”

“You killed them all?”

“I didn’t kill anyone,” Womack said, annoyed. Maybe it was unreasonable to be irritated after what they’d done to the postman, but he was sick of people acting like he was mad, bad or both. He wasn’t the villain in this; even if he had been a cop on the take he wouldn’t have been the real bad guy. Smith had killed at least one person since he took on the cargo of organs, probably more, and the docs back on Ariel had been claiming for months there’d be some mutant bug unleashed by this unofficial trading in lab grown transplants.

Amnon backed hastily away, obviously convinced that ten years on a penal moon or instant incineration could still be part of his future. Womack went and bought a ‘genuine all-recycled-protein wonderburger’ which tasted like its name. While he ate it he counted five minor misdemeanours, two thefts and a drunken attempt to carry off the mutated pig creature from the booth. Law enforcement seemed to be non-existent. He let most of it go, but one of the thieves ran straight past him so he stuck out a foot, showed his badge and had the little thug put to cleaning the bazaar’s stinking toilets.

It put him in a very slightly better mood when he finally got through to Simon Banks on Silverhold, which was lucky as Banks was robustly unsympathetic. He listened with interest to Womack’s account of the Firefly and the death of the organ-smuggler, but not to his demand to come out from under.

“Sorry Jim, I’m not pulling you out now.”

“I’m not getting what we want. Sure, I’m finding bent cops like Fendris, and sometimes the next step up the chain to who’s mostly putting money in their pockets, but I’m not getting anywhere near a link to the big guys.”

“You’re getting known; I’ve had it come back to me through several informers. A tough cop who can be bought for the right price. Dig yourself in deeper, and I think someone more important is going to come recruiting you.”

“I can’t do it. I’m having… I don’t know, maybe some weird kind of space sickness. Whatever it is, it’s getting worse.”

“You want out because of space sickness? Come off it, Jim. I’ve known you walk miles with a couple of bullets in you rather than give up on taking a man.”

“I wasn’t losing my mind then!” Womack said, giving away more of his real fear then he intended.

There was a long pause at the other end of the call. “Look give me a few days to think about it, then we’ll talk again,” Simon said. “Anyway, you’ll have to stay to explain to your current employers what went down, though I don’t imagine they’ll be too sorry about Smith’s death. The point was to show he could be tracked down?”

“That was the message I got. They’d have liked the organs back, but not losing the body they were in was a lot more important. And before you ask, I still don’t know who hired us. Could even be the Alliance, wanting to contract it out so that it didn’t come to trial for some reason. It happens.”

“It’s happening too much,” Simon Banks said. “The ties between government and the big multiversal companies are getting murkier all the time. And the most recent judge to ask awkward questions about the influence of the Blue Sun Corporation on Allied Planet policy was assassinated yesterday. Something stinks at the highest level, and not too many people care about investigating it. Which is all the more reason for you to stay on the job—you’ve got further into the organised crime networks than any of our other guys.”

“Blue Sun…” Womack said, picking up on the first half of this. “Simon, you remember—more than a year back—the journo Rafe rescued in that raid on the slavers on Santo.”

“The one who’d been tortured? The slavers had someone lined up to pay a big price for him. I remember him. He was raving.”

“Yes, but he was raving about Blue Sun—about them offering agents to the Alliance—men whose job was the termination of any problems that couldn’t stand publicity.”

“He said you could tell they were killers by their blue gloves!”

“Okay, I agree he was confused; but it doesn’t mean there was nothing behind it.”

“Stay under, and maybe you’ll find out,” Simon said. “Take a few days if you have to; see a doctor about the space sickness, if you can think of some story to tell Skunk and Fendris. But I need you where you are. I’m getting a lot of pressure to stop investigating certain types of crime. You’re my ace in the hole.”

Womack had seen a doctor, and not a quack either, a proper medic on Boros. He didn’t bother to tell Simon that the examination had found nothing wrong with him. Nor did he bother to argue any more; he was more interested in the memory that had finally come to him of the broken journalist trying to convince them that blue-gloved killers really existed. Hands of blue…

“I’ll go back and pay Skunk and Fendris from the advance we had,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Skunk might already have made contact with our go-between; he was going to try while I looked for someone to lend a hand repairing our plating. I’ll call you in a couple of days.”

“Have a rest and maybe whatever’s wrong will clear itself up,” Simon said. “If you need backup for any reason, Rafe and Henri are staking out Beylix for smugglers; I could pull them off.”

“I’ll call,” Womack said. He pushed his way out of the bazaar again, wishing he dared risk some kind of medication for the headache that was pounding sickeningly behind his eyes. He’d been longer than he meant to be; if Skunk had managed to reach their contact, he was probably putting the blame on him for the screw-up.

His vague unease on this point sharpened to surprise and alarm when he saw the small sleek ship that had just docked next to his vessel. It looked like the latest generation of the Wasp class, and those were the vessel of choice for any well-funded security or covert organisation. The three men who got out wore the sort of anonymous suit which would have confirmed Womack’s suspicion; the sight of the blue gloves two of them wore made him feel a whole lot more paranoid. He stopped where he was, and drew back into the shadow of a Parts Yard wall. Agents, then, whether they were official Alliance ones or some Blue Sun unaccountables.

His headache seemed to have eased, though he was aware of a distant thudding in his ears. His senses were going haywire again, but he didn’t fight it because it might be useful—for once, his eyes focused as easily as if he was looking through a scope. They were drawn to the shortest of the men, the one without gloves. He wasn’t what Womack would have expected—he was too young, hardly more than a boy. Odd choice for this sort of group, but with any luck that meant they wanted to question Fendris and Skunk, not to harm them.

Fendris looked edgy, but Skunk hadn’t the sense to recognise danger. “You must be the people we were told about,” he greeted the men, and Womack heard the words as if he was standing next to them. “You made good time. I hear you’re looking for the Firefly freighter we just left.”

“There are a lot of Fireflies,” one of the men said.

“But we saw the doctor on this one. Not many Fireflies have a proper doctor on board, one who fits the description you’ve put about. What’s the reward for putting you on the right track?”

The greed in his voice explained one thing. Their contact must have known important players were looking for a Firefly, and Skunk had seen cash in his future—enough cash to blind him.

“Describe the doctor,” the man said.

Skunk and Fendris did a decent enough job; they’d all been looking at Smith bleeding over the catwalk, and the doctor had been close by him.

The two older men looked at the younger one. “They’re telling the truth,” he said, as if he was reading the information off a screen. There was something wrong with his voice, Womack thought. It had a low tone that should have been easy on the ears but was somehow off key. Even so, it caught his attention almost hypnotically.

“And we saw the girl,” Skunk added hastily. “It’s definitely the ship you’re after. We can give you their last co-ordinates…”

He broke off, stepping back uneasily as one of the men took a thin, rod-like device from his pocket.

“He’s lying now, or thinks he is,” the young man said. He turned suddenly, almost as if he could see Womack. “Something’s wrong. I… think I can feel there’s someone else…”

The two agents checked around, but Womack had cover enough to stay out of their sight.

“We’ll deal with these two first,” the older man said, lifting his rod.

Fendris had been edging backwards and he began to run, but for no reason that Womack could see he froze. Skunk stopped dead, frozen too, eyes fixed on nothing. The young man’s attention was on them now, as if he had something to do with it, though Womack couldn’t imagine what. Slowly the young man moved back, his eyes intent, until he was around thirty feet away, then he nodded to the older agents.

Womack watched blue-gloved hands manipulate the rod, sending small spicules shooting from each end. Puzzled, he saw the man raise it towards Skunk’s blank face. A way of immobilising them for arrest and transport? A way of affecting their short term memory? It was only when he saw the blood start to trickle from Skunk’s nostrils that he began to understand. Skunk gave a choking cry, but didn’t move. The blood flowed faster.

Womack would have let Skunk and Fendris be arrested but he couldn’t stand for this.

Gun in hand he broke from the shadows and began to run towards the group. Skunk was collapsing to his knees; blood was starting to leak down Fendris’ face. The older men didn’t see Womack begin his move but the young agent swung towards him at once. Womack half expected to feel his legs freeze or his mind go blank, because the kid was certainly playing some weird part in this.

Instead, all his senses rose smoothly to a state of hyper-alertness he had never imagined he could experience without pain. He focused effortlessly on the young man. He could see every strand of the short hair, could hear the kid breathe—and with a shock that did briefly make him stumble he realised what the thud thud he’d been hearing was.

‘His heart will beat to you’

How the ruttin’ hell could that be? But at least the witchdoctor tricks the kid could play weren’t working. Womack felt fine—and it was the kid himself who was in trouble. He howled and clutched desperately at his head. The other two agents turned abruptly and realised too late they were under threat. Womack had no intention of getting nearer than the thirty feet away the kid was, but before he was that close the agent who wasn’t holding the rod drew his gun.

Womack’s aim, always good, was even better now; his sight was working for him not against him. He fired while he ran, but even so his first shot snapped the metal rod from one agent’s hand, and his second hit the other in the chest just as the man fired his own gun. Womack heard the bullet, which was an experience he could have done without, but it didn’t hit him, and he felt an angry satisfaction when he saw the blood blossom across the agent’s grey suit. Not wearing protection then, at least not from bullets. They’d been relying on the short guy and that rod.

The kid was out of the fight, though what was wrong with him Womack couldn’t guess. “Freeze!” he snapped at the last agent. “I don’t know who you are or who’s pulling your strings…Get your hands away from your neck!”

He shot to wound, because he wanted to know what the hell was going on here, but the guy’s fingers had already found the spot under his skin he’d been feeling for. It had to be some kind of poison capsule. Womack fired again, but too late; the guy had pressed it or broken it or whatever made it lethal, and he was dead before Womack got to him. Womack hastily dug out the remains of the capsule with the tip of his knife, and saw as he’d expected that it was one that would set off some kind of remote alarm when it was triggered.

He needed to get out of this place fast. The locals wouldn’t come running towards gunfire, but who knew how close these men’s backup might be.

He knelt and felt for a pulse in Skunk’s neck. None. Fendris was alive though. Womack heaved him up and ran with him to their own vessel. The other ship might have had better equipment and was certainly faster, but it was probably thoroughly trapped against unauthorised use. A couple of crew from a nearby mud-hauler must have heard some noise. They came out, took another look and decided not to get involved.

Womack hurried back for the kid, who’d understand exactly what had been done to Fendris… and who might be the Blair that the girl’s voice had whispered about. He hadn’t looked in need of rescue, but his heartbeat was still thumping in Womack’s ears, and Womack had to struggle to ignore the way he seemed to be able to smell him. Especially the blood that was trickling down—the kid had scratched his own face in the hissy fit he’d been having.

He grabbed him to haul him to his feet and the kid let out a yowl like a Boron cat.

“Shut up!” Womack snapped. “You won’t get hurt if you hurry up and do as I gorram tell you.”

He might as well have talked to Skunk’s corpse. The blue eyes staring into his were crazy blank; nothing was going in.

“You made them all start screaming,” the kid said, then his eyes rolled and he folded up like he was going to be out for quite a while. At least he didn’t weigh much. Womack fired a warning shot at another group of people, from the bazaar direction this time, who were getting too curious, then scooped the kid up and for the second time that day beat an undignified retreat. This time, though, he didn’t care; he was just glad to get away.

Once he was clear of the Skyplex he set a course for St Albans, where he had no intention of going, then stripped the kid, removed any ID and papers and jettisoned his clothes in case of trackers. They had an illegal magnetic disruptor on board—the instrument jammer of choice for crooked cops as well as smugglers. He ran that over the kid’s skinny body. It wasn’t as reliable as spacing things, but he’d have to hope it would deal with any bugs planted under the skin. He needed to check Fendris, but he took the time to have a hasty look at the ID and other junk. It wasn’t really a surprise to see the name—Blair Jacobs—but it still didn’t seem to fit the whisper he’d heard.

“Looks more like the ‘verse needs saving from you,” he muttered, but Blair was well beyond hearing.

Fendris was still breathing, stickily but no worse than he had been before. They had an adequate diagnostic scanner in the med kit—adequate in the sense he could work out from it whether Fendris needed help in the next couple of hours or could wait a day or two… or was dead whatever.

Womack ran the scanner and got nothing that would make his mind up for him. Fendris wasn’t about to die of any of the things it was programmed to recognise, but he still registered in the red. He decided to leave him alone and run the scanner again in an hour to see if the reading was getting worse. Apart from anything else there was a better than even chance the men in blue gloves could walk into an Alliance hospital and finish what they’d started.

He changed course for Beylix. No good trying to call ahead for back-up, silence was his friend right now, but he knew the smugglers’ routes in and he’d just have to hope he could find Rafe and Henri. He daren’t push the speed, not with the hull plates in the state they were, so he had to reckon on a day and a half. He’d catnap at some point. Before that, he’d best do what he could to make Fendris comfortable. And he needed to secure the kid…

Blair’s eyes were open, but there was still no one at home. He was shivering, and Womack pulled out one of the old pairs of overalls they kept for messy jobs. They were too big, and there was an oil stain down the front. They made the kid look like something the Reavers had dropped. Womack would have to pick up clothes on Beylix; it was just his luck he’d taken the ship’s dirty washing—which was pretty much everything they owned—in to the washwoman at the bazaar.

Hoping that this wouldn’t be the moment they ran into trouble, he shifted Fendris through to the med bay, put him on what limited automatic support they’d got, grabbed a blanket and hurried back. There was no sign of pirates, Alliance vessels or other trouble; but Blair had doubled over again and was making a weird keening noise that set Womack’s teeth on edge and also made him feel he had to do something about it—now.

“You hurting anywhere?” he asked, wrapping the blanket around the kid. “Blair? What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?”

To his relief, the noise stopped. He’d remembered to slide a pack of antiseps into his pocket while he was settling Fendris, so he tilted the kid’s face back and started to clean the gouge marks on his cheeks. They were deep and already reddening at the edges.

“Nasty,” Womack said. “Why d’you do this to yourself?”

The blue eyes suddenly focused on him, as if the words, or his touch, had finally gotten through.

“Stupid,” the kid muttered.

“Damn right. What d’you do it for?”

“You broke the wall and their screams came in. I couldn’t get them out again. Not that way. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Okay, so he was stuck on a thirty six hour trip in a ship that was running on borrowed time, with a near-dead crewman and now a lunatic. Unless it was some really deep scam to get the kid out of being questioned? Blue Sun were notorious for plenty of things, but not for employing people who’d gone crazy. He looked into blue, lost, haunted eyes and reluctantly decided it was no trick. Could Blair have been too close to the… metal thing?

“What kind of weapon was that rod?” Womack asked, without much hope of an answer. “What did it do to my crew?”

Bad question. The kid started to shake so much he almost fell from the chair Womack had dumped him in, and his breath sped up to panicked gasps. “I heard them screaming!” he said again.

“I was there,” Womack said. “They didn’t do any screaming. Didn’t have time.”

The kid gripped his wrist, nails sinking in more like a damn Boron cat than ever. “They were screaming inside!”

Womack stopped what he was doing. For a moment he felt as if he couldn’t get his breath either. He hadn’t been friendly with Fendris or Skunk, but what kind of death was that. And what was this kid?

He lifted Blair out of the chair by the front of his overalls. “Listen to me, I don’t care what kind of psychic witchdoctor shit you can do, you’d better start making more sense, fast. What happened to them? What can I do to stop Fendris dying from it?”

“I don’t think he’ll die.”

“You got some kind of reason for believing that?”

“He’s not screaming any more.”

Womack shook him a little, and the kid flopped in the overalls like some sort of stuffed dummy. “Go se,” Womack muttered, equally disgusted with Blair and with himself. Threaten him into sanity, yeah, really mature plan.

He dropped him back in the chair. “All right, I’ll tell you how things are going to go down. I’m going to get us a cup of the best substitute for coffee we’ve got left, we’ll sit down and you’ll try to stop the crazy talk. Then maybe we can make some progress.”

The hot drink did have some effect on the kid; he stopped shivering and his face gained a bit of colour. Womack sipped cautiously, never sure any more how familiar things would taste, but his senses seemed to have settled again. They’d been… different, and now he had time to think about it, the difference had started when he first set eyes on Blair.

You save Blair, he’ll save you…

Whoever the girl was, she’d probably been crazy too, she’d sounded it—but she’d nailed the name and the heartbeat. He’d nothing to lose from keeping the kid for a while even if he looked like being more trouble than use.

“How did you do that to me?” Blair asked, as if they were in the middle of a conversation.

“No crazy talk, remember.”

“You turned my mind back on me,” Blair said.

Womack thought about the scene when he’d run towards the agents. Something had held Skunk and Fendris standing still, easy victims, and it had looked like Blair was behind it. Womack had half-expected to freeze when the kid turned to stare at him. Now it sounded like the kid had expected it too. Okay, it seemed screwy, but he’d been around long enough to know weird shit happened. There had been rumours; he’d heard Simon Banks on the subject once, some kind of Alliance college for genius kids and experiments to see what they could learn to do with their over-sized minds, make war by bending spoons. Simon, who had a son, had called it abuse…

“Where did you go to school?” Womack asked.

Blair tightened his hands on the mug. “I don’t talk about that,” he said, and his voice had the false note again, the one that had grated on Womack when he first heard him. “I finished at the Academy. I graduated.”

“You graduated to torturing and maiming folk?” Womack said sharply. “Oh no, of course not, you just hold them in place while someone else does it.”

Blair went white, threw up over the floor and started shaking again.

Womack had shot the men really responsible for Skunk’s shocking death, but he was still angry; he didn’t think he’d ever stop being angry. He fought against feeling sorry for the kid.

“I didn’t know,” Blair gasped. “I did know but I didn’t because it was all shut away till you broke the wall. But now I can see them all, every single one, and I know they were all screaming. And I did it.”

There was plenty of despair in the ‘verse. No one got to Womack’s age without being able to recognise it. Real despair bled from Blair’s voice, and the hardness of Womack’s anger wasn’t proof against it, not even now it was clear there’d been others before Skunk. The kid didn’t need anyone else to blame him; he was taking on board more than he could hold anyway.

How come Blair only felt it now, the horror of the deaths he’d seen? Maybe the crap about the wall did make a sort of sense. Womack had heard back in the war about agents from the Independent Faction being turned, having their loyalty blocked off by some of the mind-control tricks the Alliance had developed. Drugs and hypnosis, a bit of old-fashioned pain, and other things he’d preferred not to know about. Maybe it worked even better on geniuses—underage, a long way from home…Maybe they’d somehow managed to use Blair, warp some sort of talent or brain-power or whatever…

Reluctantly—because Womack hadn’t gone for the soft stuff since he was around six years old and his mom took off for Bellerophon with a better business man than his dad—he decided to go easy on the kid for now. He shoved the blanket around him again, made another cup of almost-coffee and kept his mouth shut. It didn’t look like they were getting out of crazy land any time soon, and there was enough puke on the floor.

After a lot too long of watching the kid sit and stare at something ugly that only he could see, Womack went to do the rounds of the ship and check on Fendris. The ship was doing better on automatic than it did when he was flying it, a discovery he’d keep to himself, and Fendris was a millimetre nearer being out of the red. When he went back to the cabin, Blair was asleep. Fate was finally giving up on kicking him in the pants. Of course, he could remember a time when a good end to the day actually meant something positive, like a beer with friends and maybe a pretty woman, but he’d settle for this.

His luck stayed about the same for the rest of the journey—it was roughly as exciting as flying with a couple of corpses along, but it could have been worse. For the first twelve hours or so, it was only the slow drumming of the kid’s heartbeat and the lack of alarms from the med cabin that reassured him they really weren’t corpses. After that, Blair started talking mumbo-jumbo in his sleep and Fendris’ colour improved along with the readings showing above him. All in all, Womack thought as Beylix finally neared, he’d known worse hops.

Of course, trouble was most likely to come at this end of the flight. Womack knew about the smugglers’ routes into Beylix for two reasons: he’d staked the planet out often enough, as Rafe and Henri were doing now. Also, more usefully, in his new role as crooked-cop-of-the-year, he’d been recruited a couple of times by a lowlife called Tack. He’d wanted to bust Tack and his organisation, but Simon believed all these small operations would lead back eventually to a much bigger and more sinister network run from the core.

Womack had discovered ‘Tack’ was a nickname inspired by what happened to anyone who crossed the guy—a nasty process involving nails and doorframes. He’d objected strongly to the whole ‘big picture’ approach to the smugglers. But Simon Banks was one of the few people he respected, so after some shouting on both sides, they’d done it Simon’s way and Tack was still running the routes.

He was glad of it now, because Tack was too much of a slob to change the code words his smugglers used unless there had been a major crisis. Womack still had them; he was hoping they’d be his way in to Beylix without IDing himself or the ship. Unfortunately he wouldn’t know for another three hours, and by then he’d be close enough in to have serious problems if they didn’t work.

He decided to take a quick break and check on his passengers. He was probably going to have to secure the kid and tie something over his mouth before he started dealing with Beylix’ corrupt officials—there was nothing worse for a man on the take at a customs outpost than extra voices in the background sounding excited.

Fendris was still out and looked like staying that way, so no problem there. The kid was doing what he’d been doing ever since Womack started him at it—drawing. When he’d first woken properly—after about eighteen hours sleep—he’d just sat and stared. That bothered Womack on all kinds of levels. He didn’t like people watching him at the best of times; he didn’t like the way the kid still had shadows under his eyes as deep as if someone had punched him out; he wasn’t sure if the kid could affect him or the controls; and anyway, it was just plain creepy.

Womack had let it go for a while, since at least it was quiet. Then he’d decided he couldn’t stand it and told him to find something else to look at. For a couple of hours after that, Blair had carefully looked at something else whenever Womack glanced at him, and spent all the rest of the time watching, the same as before. Just before Womack finally lost it enough to tie him up in the cargo bay, he’d noticed the kid drawing patterns with his finger in a patch of damp on the table.

“All kids like to draw.” For some reason Womack had been thinking of his grandmother these last couple of months. He remembered her saying those words, one day when the rain had been soaking the pine woods and he and his brother had been bored indoors and fighting. She’d given them a stinging swat on the butt each, ignored their protests about sitting down to do something quiet and put a piece of paper and a pencil in front of each of them. The paper had been tattered around the edges and the pencils were half the size they’d once been, but after a bit of bickering they’d settled to draw. Stevie had covered his sheet with fantastic homes, all kinds of fancy stuff, some the sort kids imagined, but some so good that later it made Granma start pushing their dad to send Stevie away to learn about planning and building.

She’d looked at Womack’s scruffier representations of battle cruisers and mega guns and said an odd thing. “That’s fine, Jimmy; I know you’ll be a good fighter one day—and don’t you ever forget that the best reason for fighting is to protect them as can’t look after themselves. But draw me the forest now. Draw it for me like you see it.”

He’d spent hours at her old wooden table, drawing the details of the pines and mixed woods beyond; bitty insects, the hairs on a fox’s back…

The memory came to him like a punch in the stomach.

Tyen shiao duh,” he muttered softly, amazed. How could he have forgotten? He’d drawn stuff he’d seen that no kid would have been able to get close enough to look at. The fox—the fox had been way across a clearing, and he’d seen every damn hair on it. He’d seen the feathers on the birds, and heard the storms when they were too far off for anyone else to know they were coming.

It had seemed okay then, just the way he was; he’d never guessed he was different. Granma was old, Stevie was a little kid; it had made sense he could do more than them. And Granma had always encouraged him. She’d known. It had been okay while he lived with her.

Well, he wasn’t going further with that thought, because it led back to his dad and the arguments and on to the war, and he had a hell of a lot too much to do in the next couple hours to be getting into that. But afterwards, when he was—with better luck—safe on Beylix, he was going to get ahold of those memories, because if he’d been like this long ago and stopped, maybe he could stop again.

He went on through to the galley where he’d left Blair. Womack had felt a bit weird bringing a couple of scraps of paper and an old pen to him. Drawing was for little kids, not genius college students who’d been using their fucked-up minds to help bump people off. But Blair seemed kind of young when he wasn’t being crazy. Womack needn’t have worried. He’d slapped the pen and paper down and he hadn’t even needed to tell the kid to shut up and get on with it. Blair had picked up the pen, started in one corner, and he’d been drawing for—Womack glanced at the time—for nearly seven hours. He’d stopped to stare at nothing for stretches of time, but he’d gone on filling the sheet afterwards.

Looking at it now, Womack was reluctantly impressed. Sure it was crazy—he’d expected that—but it was the kind of crazy you got from someone who’d started off damn smart. He could recognise all the things in it too. Blair had drawn an Alliance cruiser at the top, as clear as if he’d been copying a photo, only it was towing a string of things that on a closer look were tortured faces. Behind that were core planets and moons. On the lower half of the page, Blair was drawing a building that set Womack’s teeth on edge. He couldn’t make out why at first then he realised that all the neat lines added up to a perspective that didn’t work, corridors that led nowhere or turned into stairs that a few steps up seemed to unfold… It was mad and very clever and Womack hated it. The kid didn’t seem to like it much either, but he was drawing it with great concentration.

Womack decided to give him another couple of hours. He still didn’t see how he could risk leaving him loose during the approach to Beylix, but he could put off securing him till the last minute. That way, he’d have less time to struggle and hurt himself.

The time passed about as slowly as it generally did when he was waiting to take a risk that might not come off. When he went back, Blair was adding one more scene. A man who was a remarkably good likeness of Womack himself filled the last section. The way he stood and the gun in his hand made it clear he was threatening the cruiser and the insane building. Lousy odds, but at least the kid had made him larger than life.

He looked at the picture for longer than he really had to spare. “You’ve got me wrong, chief,” he said in the end. “I don’t do hero. Don’t even do by-the-book most of the time. Good picture though.”

Blair handed him the drawing and he folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. Time to show Blair what a lousy un-fucking-hero he really was.

“I don’t know if you’re going to understand this,” he said. “Don’t suppose you’ll like it much better if you do, but I’m telling you I’m sorry for it, okay? I’ve got to get us onto Beylix without anyone knowing who or what we really are, and I can’t have any crazy talk or weird things happening while I’m doing it.”

Blair understood enough to start being alarmed, his eyes darting nervously to look for any sort of escape. “No drugs,” he said after a moment. “No drugs, no drugs, no…”

“No drugs,” Womack interrupted. He’d thought that one out for himself. There was a good chance drugs had helped start this craziness in the first place. Made him feel worse, though, somehow that the kid actually seemed relieved to be tied firmly up in the galley and gagged. He shut it out of his mind. Over the years, he’d got good at locking feelings away till the action was done—and when it was all over, it was usually easiest to leave them shut up for good.

The descent to Beylix, which had been worrying for the last day, went like clockwork. Whoever said crime didn’t pay was living in some other ‘verse—or maybe he was a perp who didn’t want to share the profits. Tack’s route and codes sent Womack threading four different customs posts, neatly fed from one crooked official to the next. He logged the details onto his own coded disc to hand on to Rafe and Henri. When he emerged from the fourth checkpoint—completely unchecked—he was clear to land where he wanted.

He’d given that some thought. Rafe and Henri would probably be somewhere near Thompsontown, which was one of the biggest settlements and easily the most lawless. It would suit Womack well enough to land there; he knew it better than anywhere else on Beylix. But he didn’t want to be recognised, not if Simon was really going to keep him under. Tack had lots of people in Thompsontown. It would be inconvenient to have to turn down a job, and disastrous to be seen with Rafe and Henri. And he didn’t even have a change of clothes, let alone something that might make a disguise.

He ran a few options while he put his ship down close to the largest repair lot on the edge of town. Smugglers did use it, but so did plenty of other crews, and one look at his hull would show he needed repairs more than most.

By the time his engines had rattled to a stop he’d made some decisions. He hoisted Blair, still well tied, over his shoulder and dumped him in the med bay with Fendris. That might not be a great idea—he could think of a good few reasons why not—but it meant he could jimmy the door and leave them both secure. The mute horror in the kid’s eyes when he looked at Fendris was another of those things best locked away. If Womack was distracted by any bleeding heart guff they’d all end up dead or worse.

He found an even filthier pair of overalls than the ones he’d used on Blair and a cap that had been Skunk’s that he could pull well down. That, with improvised cheek pads and a slouching walk would see him clear unless he had lousy luck.

Lousy was the usual status of his luck these days, but in fact nobody paid any attention to him as he made his way to the area of small stores and bars that littered the way to the centre. At the first pay booth he came to he called Rafe but couldn’t get through. It was the number he always used, and he thought Rafe would have been expecting a call, but there were any number of reasons there might be a hitch. He decided to get a drink in the next bar and try again a bit later. There was no point buying stores until he’d got the rest of his problems sorted out.

The bar was dingy, badly-lit and sold a cheap whisky that would scour off fifty years of engine grease. Womack gambled on the fact his senses would stay okay and bought a double anyway. He almost choked on it when he looked up and saw the news story running on the small screen at the other end of the bar. No one seemed to be watching it luckily, and you’d need to be right underneath to hear anything. Womack pushed his way towards it slowly though; he didn’t want to draw attention to himself—not while the screen kept showing mugshots of him and the kid.

Eventually he got near enough to hear most of the words as well. If he could have made his hearing crank up like it sometimes did, he’d have heard it all, but he had a nasty feeling he was starting to lose the tenuous control he’d gotten, and anyway the scraps he did get were more than enough: dangerous criminals… crooked cop… anti-Alliance terrorist… murderers. This was being repeated a lot too often, along with views of the agents he’d shot. Predictably they were minus their blue gloves and rods but covered in spectacular amounts of blood. Maximum alert on St Albans the spiel went on—lucky they’d fallen for that—‘verse wide search… rewards… shoot-on-sight orders… Shit.

The overalls and cap didn’t feel much of a disguise any longer. He drained the whisky, some of it soaking disgustingly into the cheek pads, and headed for the door. How long had the story been running? It still looked like one of the main features on the news. The authorities would have had to clear up the scene, fix any witnesses, would probably not have gone public with a news story if they hadn’t lost him—that would all have taken time. It must have been broadcasting long enough that a lot too many people would have seen his face, and Blair’s.

And whoever put the story out had known exactly who Womack was. The photos had been from his file back on Silverhold. Simon Banks would have to go with the line he was a crooked cop. It was going to be gorram difficult to get in touch now. Odds were, Rafe and Henri were being watched as well. Maybe that was why Rafe wasn’t answering on the number Womack had called.

Womack joined a crowd of half-drunk punters heading to an Aussball match in a stadium not far from where he’d left his ship. He stayed well in the crowd as he passed the booth he’d called from. Two of the local law came up a minute or so later, and he saw one head into the nearby store, another into the bar he’d just left. They couldn’t know it had been him trying to make contact; had to be they were picking up every call to Rafe and Henri and anyone else he might go to for help. He was on his own.

No, it was worse than that. He was on his own with the kid and Fendris.

Head down, jostled by the noisy group, he tried to think as he walked. It probably wasn’t as bad as the first shock of seeing the news story had made him feel. Should be safe to reckon on having a little time. They’d be looking at all the planets and moons within easy reach of the Skyplex; it wouldn’t just be Rafe and Henri’s calls that were monitored, more likely anyone he’d worked closely with, especially from Banks’ unit. Damn lucky he hadn’t gotten through to Rafe. Or maybe not just luck, but Rafe making sure not to answer any calls on that number. As it was, there was only a routine check going on. If they’d heard his voice, there’d be Alliance agents everywhere.

Thinking fast now, he glanced at the approaches to his ship, decided it was still clear and slipped away from the Aussball fans. He had to accept the enforcement vessel was a liability now. It was only a matter of time till it was recognised. Fendris was a problem too, but Womack could think of a few ways around that. The three of them had all carried some false ID and there was a tiny clinic on the repair lot, run by some old battleaxes who were from the same stable as the Firefly’s Shepherd. Shouldn’t be too hard to leave Fendris there under one of his other names. Whether they could do much for him… Well, it’d be more than Womack could do while he was on the run.

Then there was the kid. Might be the craziest idea Womack had had in a long time—since his ten-days-of-hell marriage, say—but he’d decided to keep the kid. He didn’t want to think about the crap with his senses, but if he was honest, they’d seemed a lot easier to handle around Blair. Even in the time he’d been away from the ship, he’d started to notice the weirdness and discomfort building up again. Anyhow, even if he wasn’t into playing hero, he wasn’t letting the Alliance get their hands on Blair again—and that would almost certainly happen if Womack wasn’t there to look out for him. So, yeah, he’d take the kid. He’d even decided where they’d go.

He nearly changed his mind again when he opened up the medbay door. Blair had rolled himself into a corner as far from Fendris as he could get, and was banging his head against the wall.

“Stop that!” Womack snapped, pulling him away and checking if he’d done any real damage. It looked superficial. Maybe the kid hadn’t been trying to hurt himself, just wanted the banging to drown out the crazy noises in his brain. He untied the kid and freed up his mouth, though he guessed he might regret it.

“What was all that about?” he demanded once Blair was free.

He should have known better than to expect an answer that made sense. “It’s all right when you’re here,” Blair said, his voice dry and cracked.

Womack got him some water. “What’s all right?”

“Everything.”

That was a change. Most people took one look at Womack and thought life was heading for trouble. It seemed as good a time as any to let the kid think he had some choice in what happened next.

“You want to come with me, then?” Womack asked.

Blair looked at him as if he’d been offered an all-expenses-paid luxury trip to Bellerophon’s richest island. Womack could hear his heart speed up; he tried to ignore it.

“Okay, I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” he said. “You can come along. But you do what I tell you when I tell you, okay? And keep your mouth shut. No crazy talk.”

Blair nodded. “Where are we going?” he asked. It was one of the most normal things Womack had heard from him, so he gave it some sort of answer.

“Better you don’t know till we get there. It’s a good place though. You’ll like it.” He’d been happy there once, a very long time ago. “But we’ve got a lot to do first.”

He let the kid follow him, and set him to picking up everything that might be useful and wasn’t too heavy to carry. “You stay here now; no room where I’m going,” he warned, as he lifted a trapdoor in the deck.

There was room, as it happened, but Womack didn’t want an audience. He went hastily down the ladder into the space where the head emptied into a storage tank. It was dank, smelly and unpleasant down there, and Fendris and Skunk had been more than happy for Womack to be the one who did the occasional maintenance checks. It had been a good place for him to keep a few private items hidden.

One was a thick pile of cash and credits and a few barter items. He stowed these around his overalls, felt behind the tank and found the ID he’d been saving for a time like this. He had plenty of fake ones—they were up above with Skunk and Fendris’s. But this one was genuine, dating back to the time when he and Stevie had lived with his gran, and it had been easiest if she had some kind of legal custody of them. Womack had always renewed it when he had to; even before the war, he’d liked the idea of a spare ID, especially when he was on bad terms with his dad. The picture on it was a few years out of date but recognisable. Better still, he’d made a point of using it on the few occasions he’d been back to Prospect, so it had been stamped there.

It was one of the things that had made him decide on the little moon as a good place to hide out, but the choice had a lot going for it beside that. Prospect was well away from the core, and most of it was heavily forested—it had been terraformed for a large timber company. There weren’t many people there, but they were quiet and hard-working. They were suspicious of strangers, but Womack would count as one of their own thanks to his grandmother. Best of all, he’d have a place to go; his granma’s old home had been empty since his second-cousin Rucker had gotten married and moved down into Scott Mills.

He looked again at the ID. James Ellison—little Jimmy Ellison he’d been when he lived on Prospect. Might as well start thinking of himself by that name again—at least the Jim was the same. Granma would have been pleased; she always said he was more Ellison than Womack, though she’d taken his dad’s side when her daughter ran off and left the family.

Tucking the ID safely away, he hurried back up the ladder. Somehow—he’d rather not think too hard about it—he’d been able to keep an idea of where Blair was and what he was doing though he wasn’t trying to hear him. Apart from the fact he was continually mumbling to himself ‘I can do this, I can do this’ Blair was getting on with it like a more-or-less normal crewman. Jim would have chosen most of the same things to take.

“Okay,” he said. “That’s all we can carry.” He sorted the pile into a rucksack for Blair and a large oil-stained holdall for himself. “Two crewmen who’ve had a gorram good shore leave and missed their ship, that’s what we’re going to be.”

He’d had an idea what to do about disguising Blair’s appearance. The kid’s face already looked as if he’d been in a fight; a dressing over his forehead and one eye fitted with that and altered the shape of his face. Another cap—crap free gift from an arcade on Jiangyin—and Blair would pass.

Then there was Fendris…

The only possible way to move Fendris as far as the clinic was to pretend they were hauling a drunk friend along. That meant having him more or less upright—and it meant Blair would have to help.

“No!” Blair said as soon as he understood. “Oh no, no, no way, no, not touching him, no…”

“Yes!” Jim said. “Look, I don’t want to know why you think you can’t. I’m telling you we need to get off this planet now, before your hands-of-blue friends catch up with us, and we’re not doing that without seeing Fendris somewhere safe.”

Seemed reasonable to Jim; that was probably why it made no impact at all on Blair, who was still jabbering ‘no’. Time was running out. “You help with him or I lock you in here with him and take off on my own,” he said.

The kid was bright enough to have worked out that was a bluff, but luckily he didn’t seem to be thinking at all. Instead, miserably, he followed Jim into the medbay. His heart was pounding so fast it couldn’t have been good for him. Jim unplugged Fendris from the few monitors they had and got him to his feet. White and shaking Blair put out a reluctant hand, just touching the limp arm

The expression on his face then would have made a cow laugh. “It’s all right,” he said, sounding amazed.

Jim didn’t want to know. He wanted to move, while the going was good. Between them they supported Fendris out of their ship and towards the repair lot. He’d picked up a nearly empty bottle to add to the picture, but no one showed any interest in them at all. There were more crowds heading for the Aussball, and plenty of them were half-drunk, singing and shouting. With any luck it was a grudge match, and the local law would be kept busy dealing with the fights.

“Grace” it said in faded letters above the clinic. Someone had told Jim once it was nothing to do with what the sisters looked like, just that the care was a free gift. It was always busy, but the big woman on the door must have been doing her own sort of triage, because she shouted to him, “He drunk?”

“Not a drop,” Jim said. “Been like this two days. Reckon he hurt his head.”

“All right, bring him in.”

She introduced herself as Sis Annie; she and the other women inside got Jim’s respect inside a couple of minutes, by the way they dealt with the ‘customers’ and by the unexpected gentleness they showed handling Fendris who was made comfortable in one of the quieter back rooms.

“I want to give you something towards caring for him,” Jim said. “Maybe pay for him to have a doc if need be.”

“Sis Maria can do all the doctoring most folk need,” Annie said, “but if it comes to it, we’ll see what can be done.” She took the money Jim was offering. “Thank you! That’ll pay for him and a lot more besides. You going to be back this way?”

“Not soon.”

“He’ll get good care.”

“I know. Thanks.” He realised that Blair had been pushed away from him by the crowd of people in the clinic and turned quickly to look for him. There was panic in the kid’s eyes, and he’d bitten his lip. Jim shouldered a couple of men out of the way and took his arm. Blair’s heart, which had nearly been pounding out of his chest again, started to slow almost at once. Jim didn’t mind blood so long as it wasn’t his own; there’d been times in his life when he’d had to struggle not to find it downright satisfying. But not now. The blood trickling down Blair’s chin filled up Jim’s eyes and sense of smell like it was a flood. He wiped it off hastily with an oily rag, and when the kid latched onto his arm he didn’t say anything, just let him hang on.

“You shut them out,” Blair said, as if that explained something. “I can’t do it right since you broke the walls. There are too many people here.”

Well the last bit made sense. Jim glanced back though too many pushing bodies and saw Sis Annie waving him to go on out. “And look after that boy!” she called. She didn’t miss much. She’d do more for Fendris than he could have.

He kept Blair close until they were out of the worst of the crowd—didn’t want him doing anything crazy. It was a relief to get to a clearer area, though at least the headache Jim had had recently whenever he was in crowds hadn’t come on. Now they could move faster, he walked rapidly along the dirt road, past two warehouses and a fuel depot and along to a smaller repair lot which was the last bit of industry before the dust bowl.

“You let me do all the talking,” he told Blair.

Ron BenIbrim, the owner, had met Jim once before, but luckily he was more interested in machines than people and didn’t recognise him. He sent one of his sons to bring a jug of lemonwater and they shared it as Jim explained what he wanted.

“Any small shuttle will do; doesn’t matter how old it is if it’s in working order,” Jim told him. “Something that’ll do a long hop without too many stops, but it needs to be ready to go.”

BenIbrim was a good man, by Beylix standards. He was kind to his wife, kept his kids in order and gave a helping hand to a neighbour in trouble. That didn’t stop him making a healthy profit on the wrecks he refitted. Most of his customers weren’t in a position to haggle. Like Jim.

Not that cash was a problem for Jim; his emergency stash had held plenty. But he wanted to keep up the impression that he and the kid were two crewmen desperate to catch up with their ship before the captain hired on someone new to replace them. That, and needing something that would take them to Prospect without a stop, had him looking and rejecting for a while.

“That one!” Blair said suddenly, forgetting, if he’d ever listened, that he was supposed to be keeping quiet.

“Now that is a true classic,” BenIbrim said, polishing up his enthusiasm again—Jim had worn it down.

It was old, if that made it a classic: a Volcor shuttle that had been obsolete before Blair could have been born. But all the Volcors had been well built and good for long distances. Jim looked it over carefully.

“One careful owner,” BenIbrim told them. Jim hadn’t believed anyone actually said that. To his surprise Blair must have thought the same, and almost grinned. It was an oddly normal moment.

“Not a bad choice, chief,” Jim said.

“An old professor owned it,” BenIbrim went on. “Came from Ariel, but liked to travel about collecting stuff from all over—stories and that, culture stuff. He had it adapted to travel further without replacing fuel cells which is what you wanted. The living space isn’t much, but if you want to get to your ship’s next planetfall, it should do you.”

The living space was cramped, with a couple of narrow bunks, a galley kitchen and a surprising amount of storage, some of it adapted for carrying fragile stuff. It was okay; the kid would probably be driving him crazy too by the end of four days, but the shuttle was in good repair, its engines were powerful and from what he could see of the adaptation they should be able to make Prospect in one hop easily enough.

“Okay, we’ll take it,” he said, and didn’t haggle BenIbrim down as far as he might have.

“You know I have to take your details and destination,” BenIbrim said. “That’s the law.”

He said it in exactly the way he’d named his first, outrageous, price for the shuttle.

“Of course,” Jim agreed, in the same tone. “But I’d like to make a trial run—just to get used to the controls.”

“You’ll have to pay first, but we can leave the paperwork till you come back,” BenIbrim agreed. “That is, if the payment is cash?”

Jim grinned. They understood each other. He wouldn’t be back from the ‘trial run’, and Beylix’ tax system would never see anything from the cash payment. He handed over the wad of assorted, acceptable, currencies.

“My sons will make sure the shuttle’s ready for the trial run,” BenIbrim said. “Maybe they should just fuel her up now?”

Another bit of haggling; Jim didn’t mind too much if he paid over the odds. He’d come here because BenIbrim was as near an honest man as he’d find in the ‘verse, and at least he’d get what he’d paid for.

“You might want to use the time to buy some stores,” BenIbrim suggested. His wife ran that side of the business; she drove an even harder bargain than her husband. Jim bought basic clothes and stores enough for a week rather than the four days he expected to take. No point giving away anything about where he was going.

Two of BenIbrim’s younger children packed the goods into boxes and carried them to the shuttle. Jim turned to follow, and saw Blair staring at a pile of books in the corner. Jim hesitated, because there wasn’t much call for books away from the core; those that made it this far mostly got used for other things than reading. How likely was it a crewman would buy books? But Blair was rapt, practically drooling, and maybe they’d keep him quiet for the journey.

“How much for the books?” he asked. “Kid here has ideas he could be a big book learner, though I can’t see the good of them bar the ones on engines and the Book.”

He hoped Blair was listening, and didn’t make it obvious he’d come from someplace where kids had books as soon as they could toddle.

“Those were the professor’s books,” BenIbrim explained.

“He’d be glad for them to go back into the shuttle,” his wife agreed, and named a price which was around half what Jim was expecting. “Such a kind man, the professor was. He always came here if the shuttle needed work. He liked to listen to my mother.”

“Not as much as she likes to talk,” BenIbrim muttered, too low for his wife to hear, but audible to Jim. He piled the books into Blair’s arms.

“What happened to him?” Blair asked.

“The professor? He had a heart attack on his last trip,” BenIbrim explained. “He was near here luckily, managed to make it to us, but he was too sick for anywhere out on the rim. He went back to Ariel in the medcentre of an Alliance cruiser, but they wouldn’t carry all his stuff. He took the paintings and carved things and such, and some of the books, but I found these left in the shuttle. I’d given him a fair price, so we put them in the store. He won’t be back now; heard from him that he’d stay at the big university on Ariel—Athena?—till his heart gave out altogether. Going to write some big book himself, about all the peoples of the ‘verse.”

Blair had been listening to this more intently than Jim was happy with, and now he said suddenly, “Professor Stoddard!”

“You’ve heard of him,” BenIbrim said, pleased but surprised.

“He’s famous,” Blair said. This comment was nearly as dangerous as the more crazy stuff he might have come out with. How many space crew knew the names of professors?

Jim said hastily, “Only famous to kids like you, always wanting to read and watch tutorvids like some rich brat. Don’t matter how much you read, you won’t be like them.”

To his relief, Blair finally seemed to wake up to the idea of danger. “Yeah,” he said. “But books are good.” He started for the shuttle with his pile of them clutched to his chest, and Jim followed quickly, only stopping to give a few coins to the BenIbrim kids who were hurrying back for the next boxes.

“You got good workers there,” he said.

BenIbrim nodded. “They’ll stay, too. Brought them up to know family’s important. That kid you’re with—he’s your family?”

“Cousin’s son,” Jim lied without hesitation.

“Thought so. Missed your ship because you had to get him out of trouble? Yeah. They’re always trouble at that age.”

“I did some damage to the ones who hurt him,” Jim said, pushing the story as hard as he dared. “They might come looking.”

“I’ve a bad memory sometimes,” BenIbrim said thoughtfully.

Jim handed him the last of the cash he’d planned to use.

“I’ll forget I ever saw you,” BenIbrim told him. Jim nodded. He’d BenIbrim’s safety—and his family’s—in mind as much as his own. Best thing for everyone if this whole deal was forgotten.

He went through the controls, made sure he knew what he was doing, then headed out in the direction of the most popular shipping route. He wasn’t worried about taking a few extra hours; better to take all the precautions he could think of. Once they were well out into the black, he finally set his course for Prospect.

Although he kept his central vid channel tuned to the shipping alerts like all vessels, he found that the Professor had had quite a fancy comm set-up—maybe he’d kept in touch with other academics, or taught school from way across the ‘verse. Womack watched the interverse news vids on it and found he could get the local ones for various planets. Big rewards were being offered on St Albans, so that bit of misdirection was still paying off. Nothing special from Beylix. It could only be a matter of time before the enforcement ship he’d abandoned was picked up, but with every hour he was further away.

There was ‘verse-wide coverage of the hunt still; the kid was branded some kind of genius- gone- wrong super-terrorist, which probably covered the authorities for the awkward facts journos might find out, and Jim was damned as a crooked cop using Blair to hold the ‘verse to ransom. Without giving details, the vids suggested failing to find them meant catastrophe, death, destruction, take your pick. Over a couple of days, the pitch of hysteria of the official broadcasts rose, and there were a couple of stories of unlucky spacers arrested by mistake. Getting desperate, Jim thought. His satisfaction was damped by wondering what that desperation might make them do next.

He found out half way through the third day.

Blair had been kind of quiet till then. The books had been worth a hundred times what Jim had paid; the kid sat reading them practically all the time he was awake. He slept quite a lot, and that was more than okay with Jim. In spite of the fact they were stuck in each other’s company in the cramped living space, he found it better than travelling with Skunk and Fendris. The kid needed some training in how to keep the place ship-shape, but he’d stopped the weird talk, in fact he wasn’t saying much at all, and Jim was getting kind of used to him.

It made it all the more of a shock when he suddenly erupted.

They’d been doing their own thing, as far as you could with less than a couple of metres between you. Jim was running standard flight checks; Blair was intent on one of the books, the same one he’d been reading over again for hours. There’d been a flash on the news vids earlier telling everyone to tune in at this time for an important update on their main story, the manhunt, and Jim wanted to know what that could be so he made sure they were listening.

The update was crap, nothing new at all, but less than a minute into it Blair started to scream. Worse than screaming; it was a wild inhuman shrieking that shocked Jim so much he was too late to catch the kid as he pitched off the bunk to roll around the deck, still screaming and driving his fists into the side of his head.

Jim had to pin him down before he could stop him. Blair didn’t seem to know him or anything else and the noise was shattering Jim’s hearing, but he caught the clenched fists and flattened Blair to the deck, holding him there with a knee in his back. It had to hurt, but the kid stopped as abruptly as he’d started.

Ta ma duh,” Jim cursed. “What the hell was that?”

He started to ease off, but Blair said, “Don’t let go! No, please, don’t let go! You’re stopping them. Don’t…”

“I’ve got it,” Jim said. He should have known the craziness wasn’t far away. Better to hold on to him than suffer that shrieking though. He pulled Blair up, and when the kid sagged, let him fall against his shoulder, and he made damn sure he had an arm around him all the time.

Blair was gasping, and the smell of his sweat was sharp. He turned his face against Jim like Stevie had sometimes when they were kids and thunder and hail lashed the cabin. Jim’s whole career had been one long, mostly failing attempt to protect the ‘verse in general, but he’d forgotten what it felt like to protect just one person. The feeling crashed into him now, and he couldn’t shut it out whether he wanted to or not.

Blair’s gasping breaths slowed down and though his heart was still banging in his chest it wasn’t so dangerously fast. His nose was bleeding a bit, and it was probably a good thing he’d been to the head only a few minutes before it all started, but he seemed to be past the worst. Though Jim would have been more confident of that if he’d known what the hell was happening.

Blair worked it out first. Maybe the genius label wasn’t far wrong. Once he’d gotten a few good breaths he lifted his face out of Jim’s overalls and said, “Shut the vid off! They’re doing it through the vid!”

Jim didn’t try to ask questions. He pulled Blair up with him and kept a grip on him while he got rid of the news feed. “What about the shipping channel?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s okay.”

They couldn’t manage without it for long, so Jim decided to find out. He helped the kid to the bunk, sat him down and let go of him without warning. No screaming. Blair realised why he’d done it, and nodded. “It’s okay.” He showed no resentment, which made Jim feel more of a bastard than he would have if the kid had yelled at him.

He’d bought a bottle of Boron brandy from BenIbrim—intended to be a present for Rucker, but it’d be a while till he saw Rucker now. His original idea had been to land in Scott Mills, but that was before he realised just how far around the ‘verse, and how often, they’d be showing those pictures of himself and the kid. After seeing those, he’d decided to land up at the old logging site nearer his Granma’s cabin. He’d probably know, by sight if not by name, whoever was monitoring incoming traffic at Prospect’s one checkpoint; if he didn’t he’d refer them to Rucker, who everyone knew. Unless Prospect had changed a hell of a lot more than he was expecting, they wouldn’t care if he landed up country and did the paperwork in a week or a month—not if he was an Ellison.

Anyway, he had a more immediate need for the brandy. He poured several fingers into a coffee mug and fixed Blair’s hands firmly around it. He’d already noticed the kid shaking, it seemed to make the bunk shudder, though he guessed that was maybe his senses being over the top. Now he felt how icy Blair’s hands were.

“Take a good drink of this,” Jim said, helping him get the mug to his mouth.

Blair took a gulp, and coughed frantically, his eyes wide and watering. Jim rescued the mug and had a mouthful himself. It was good stuff, not like the gutrot on Beylix, but maybe the kid wasn’t used to it. He handed him the mug again.

“I’ve never…” Blair started.

“You need it,” Jim said. Kate, the law-station doc on Silverhold was always telling them that alcohol wasn’t the best treatment for shock, but she got no takers.

Blair drank more cautiously this time, swallowed enough to satisfy Jim before he started coughing again. Jim finished it off and put the bottle away. Boron brandy was the strongest in the ‘verse and he wanted to be able to focus on the instruments when he got the chance to finish running that round of checks. He looked at Blair carefully, maybe seeing more than normal eyesight could, he wasn’t sure any more. The kid was already looking flushed where he wasn’t bruised and Jim reckoned they’d drowned the panic.

“I need to clean up your face,” he said, looking at the new marks on it and the drying blood trickling from Blair’s nose. Hard to believe the kid had done it all to himself.

“They thought it would kill me,” Blair said, not listening.

Jim started to wipe the blood off him. “What would?” he asked, because crazy or not, Blair might have more of a clue than he did.

Blair blinked, not quite focussed thanks to the brandy. “I don’t know exactly. But… they experimented on us. They found out what we could do with our minds and then how they could control it or use it. Or destroy us. But they didn’t know about you.”

“Not making sense yet,” Jim said, but not too roughly.

“Does that stuff always make the room go round and round?”

“Yep. What didn’t they know about me?”

“That you’d already broken the walls.” His chin rested heavily on Jim’s hand. “And that you could build them up afterwards.”

It was kind of like a cheap hall of mirrors Jim had once been in on Dyton; there was a real shape there in what Blair was saying, just distorted enough to make it hard to recognise.

“The walls in your mind,” he said.

“I always scored in the top 1% at school,” Blair said, lost somewhere in his thoughts, probably not helped by the brandy which Jim could sense warming him. “That’s why they offered me a place at the Academy, and my parents… they had important careers… it seemed best… I used to write to beg them to take me away, until I understood the letters weren’t being sent…”

Jim put the bloody cloth in the waste and settled on the bunk. Blair was still in the past. “They set you up and knock you down and if there’s anything interesting in your head they find it with needles and knives.”

Yeah, Jim could believe that. He nudged the kid so he knew he wasn’t on his own, and Blair leaned hard against him.

“They made me so I could feel it all, everything anyone near me was feeling, and that wasn’t useful so they made me shut it out. ‘Learn to be detached’ and I was detached away into a sort of bubble where there wasn’t any feeling at all. And that wasn’t useful either, but they’d found a sort of side effect that was. I couldn’t change other people’s feelings, but I could affect the way they saw and heard, even tasted.”

“All the senses,” Jim muttered.

“Only one in most people, but it was like…” A shudder rocked him again. “…like you saw. If someone is really focused on seeing something tiny, it’s like he loses the rest of the world. Zones out on it. That’s why they didn’t run…”

“You were a victim too,” Jim said. It was kind of a cop clich´, but in this case it couldn’t have been truer, and Blair seemed to draw some kind of comfort from it. “Why didn’t it work on me?” Jim went on quickly. It wasn’t just a question of keeping Blair from that part of the past; he really wanted to know.

“I didn’t know that could happen,” Blair said. “I didn’t understand then. I tried to do the same to you, and it was like the world rushed back in and I could feel all the feelings and there was hate and pain and the screaming inside and…”

“And I could feel all my senses work about a hundred times better than normal.”

As distractions went, that one was the hands down winner. Blair turned to him, intent now on the present, his eyes losing the wild look. “You do have heightened senses, don’t you? All of them?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand now. It’s actually in this book.” He reached vaguely for the one he’d been reading, but it had fallen across the floor. “I remembered the name. Way back at the Academy, when I first realised I could affect people that way, I was trying to research it before they did, and that’s when I saw Professor Stoddard’s name, writing about senses. I never had a chance to read what he wrote. But it’s here. I thought if I searched it might be, though I guess he’s written a lot more as well.”

“What’s here?”

“About sentinels.” He sounded almost excited; he sounded like the person he might have grown to be if the Alliance had never twisted him and screwed him up. It made Jim want to shoot someone. “I think you’re a sentinel. The professor found accounts all over the ‘verse, some of them handed down maybe even from earth- that- was, about sort of guardians with heightened senses. He met one on a moon which had gone tribal, and the guy used his sense of smell to find water, and he could feel storms coming and hear game.”

“I’m not in a tribe.”

“No. But you must be a guardian?”

“I’m a cop.”

Blair took that as agreement. “Yeah. So you could use your senses in your work, and it would be protecting well, anyone I guess—like the whole ‘verse could be your tribe.”

Jim’s enthusiasm for this was way way less than the kid’s. “The senses were more likely to finish me than help anyone,” he said.

“That’s because you hadn’t learned to control them.” Blair looked around. “That’s in the book too. There are things you could learn to do to help you, and Professor Stoddard thinks a sentinel should have a guide as well. He says it’s just someone to help out, make sure they don’t do that zone out thing I was telling you about, but I think it’s more.” The eagerness suddenly faded out of him. “I think that’s what I was meant to be, only they destroyed it… I destroyed it…”

He’d sounded whole and sane and intelligent for several minutes and Jim was damned if he was going to let him slip back. “Hold it, chief,” he said. “If this isn’t as crazy as it all sounds, then I guess you’re my guide.”

Blair gripped the edge of the bunk so hard his knuckles turned white. “I can’t be your guide,” he said. “I can’t be a guide at all. I used what I could do to… to… to kill people.”

“Wrong. The blue-hand guys killed people. You were taken from your home at what… twelve, thirteen? You were brainwashed and I expect there was plenty of pain involved—and drugs. Not your fault, any of it. Anyway, my senses work better around you, your ‘walls’ or whatever work better around me, so you must be my guide, dong ma?”

Blair rocked back and forwards, silent.

“You said I was a wall, right?” Jim said.

Blair nodded without looking up. “I could feel the pain when I was shut in with your crewman. And feel the crowd at the clinic, too many of them, too many feelings. It stopped when you were there.”

“And just now?”

“They did it to some of us before. Just watching a vid and suddenly… One guy started to chew his own hand off… They must use something. I don’t know if it’s in the pictures or the words or what, but some sort of trigger.”

“Something that would make you open up?”

“This was worse. It was like all the feelings I’d ever felt from people started pushing back in on me at once. But it stopped when you were there.”

“Sounds to me like that makes you my guide,” Jim said. He wouldn’t claim to understand more than about half of Blair’s talk, but he’d gotten this idea quite clearly. It made sense of what had happened between them, of why the kid seemed, well, like family or something and why Jim had this need to keep him out of trouble; it made sense of what was happening with his senses; hell, it made sense of a whole lot of his life, when he thought about it.

Blair looked at him, and mumbled something that sounded like holy grail. The only Holy Grail Jim knew was an up-market bar on Athens run by a twister called Danbrun, so he let this pass. What mattered was that it was pretty obvious the kid was up for the guide thing.

“Good,” Jim said. He felt this conversation was finally going somewhere now he’d taken charge of it. “I reckon that vid-nasty was their last shot. They don’t know where we are, so they hoped to flush you out or alternatively explode your brain . They haven’t succeeded and they don’t have a clue about this sentinel stuff.” He didn’t have much of a clue either, but Blair seemed to, which had to give them an advantage they could use.

Blair looked kind of wiped out, but he was listening and he didn’t argue.

“We’re going to land in about thirty hours, and take a few days to sort ourselves out. You can read about sentinels, guides, whatever and give me the quick version. We’ll change our appearances some—I’m working on a beard, you can grow your hair, we’ll think of some other things. We’ll stay on Prospect as long as we think we need to, and until this is forgotten. Then we’ll make some plans. We won’t be running and hiding for ever. One day we’ll take the fight to the people who did this to you.”

“No more Academy.”

“Nope. And no more ‘hands of blue’ guys.”

Blair looked up. Between the rolling around the floor, the shock and the brandy he didn’t look as if he’d be awake much longer, but this had caught his attention. “River called them that,” he said.

“River?”

“A girl—at the Academy—she was the brightest person I’ve ever met—and kind of, you know, ‘wow’.”

Jim did, though he wouldn’t have bet on Blair knowing. He’d already drawn up a mental list of house rules for the cabin; he decided to add another one on approaching the young women of Prospect. But that was for the future.

“She had a brother who was a doctor on one of the core planets,” Blair said. “She really believed he’d rescue her.”

Jim thought of the young doctor he’d seen on the Firefly’s catwalk, who’d looked out of place next to the cowboy captain.

“You know, chief, maybe he did,” he said. “I never told you I’d already been told to look out for someone called Blair, did I; never had time, and anyway it was kind of weird. Lie down, and I’ll tell you about it now.”

Blair flopped back on the bunk, some of the grimmer shadows easing from his face. “I was chasing an organ-smuggler, and he’d been picked up by this Firefly with an oddball crew,” Jim began. “There was a captain who’d be hard to take down in any sort of fight, a smart, real professional woman who looked to be his second, a Shepherd who was a hell of a lot tougher than most men of the Book…”

He’d almost finished telling the story when the kid—his ‘guide’, he was still getting his head around that—sighed and fell asleep.

~ End ~