Frontier Fleet

By Gil Hale —

Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.

Author’s Notes: This story was written for the 2005 “Christmas Ficathon” and features a new AU.

Preacher Sanchez looked from his small dilapidated church across the spreading graveyard. Was this the most populated part of their outpost colony now? The obscure planet of Jericho—its only claim to fame, four barren moons—had never been a popular destination, even when travel on the frontier had been safer. Now it was a shrinking and often lawless community, only protected from pirate raids or the attacks of the Aryan Alliance because the remnants of the Frontier Fleet still patrolled this area of space.

“Meditating, Preacher?”

He turned and smiled. Nathan Jackson was one of the few encouragements in his life. Much too poor to travel to a planet with a proper medical school, Nathan had learned all he could from Doctor Laird before the old man celebrated his retirement by drinking himself to death. Now for everyone too poor to afford the colony’s one private clinic, he was the only medical help there was.

“I was wondering if we’ve reached the point yet on Jericho where the dead outnumber the living,” Josiah said.

Nathan looked tired, and he winced slightly at this. “Well, I’m afraid I’ve another for the cemetery, unless his friends opt for a space burial.”

“The crewman from the Antelope?” Josiah asked. Someone with a sense of irony had named that ship. The Antelope was a scarred, clumsy, ugly heap of outdated design and cobbled repairs. It was one of the most regular of the ships that brought in supplies and carried off the colony’s few products.

“He was their second mechanic,” Nathan said. “That leg he gashed was festering too badly long before they got here. He was going into septic shock by the time I saw him. He couldn’t have been saved, even if they’d paid up and gotten him into the clinic.”

“You can’t blame yourself then, brother.”

Nathan sighed. “I don’t. But his crewmates do. I just saw them drinking in Sal’s and they were calling me a nigger murderer and worse.”

Josiah frowned. The influence of the Aryan Alliance went further than the border skirmishes. “They’ll be leaving in a day or so,” he said. “They’ll probably see sense when they stop drinking, anyway, and recognise you did all that could be done. You look as if you were up all night with him.”

“I was. Poor guy suffered.”

“Stay here and I’ll go make us some coffee,” Josiah said. He thought the silence of the empty church might ease his friend while he went through to his adjoining house. He had a little real coffee left, and now seemed a good time to use it. He dialled the setting on the ancient kitchen computer, but before the coffee was ready he heard an eruption of noise next door.

Chris Larabee couldn’t bear to visit the graves of his dead wife and son, and couldn’t bear not to. When he stood there looking at the small headstones that were all that was left of his family, the anger and guilt rose thick in his throat; but not to come here seemed a bitter abandonment of all they’d once meant to him.

They should never have been in this god-forsaken place. The fools at the Fleet should never have thought of re-establishing the base here. It had never been properly manned anyway. All that was left now were three non-coms seeing out their time, and a state-of-the-art computer connection that was used for next to nothing. The only officer in the Fleet on Jericho was Chris, and he’d been absent for the last three years, though Admiral Travis was still calling it compassionate leave and refusing to accept his resignation.

He stooped and set the flowers down on Sarah’s grave. Empty gesture. They’d be dust soon, like Sarah herself, but what else could he give her? Filled with a cold fruitless anger at it all, he turned away, just as an outburst of shouting disturbed the peace of the cemetery.

Chris strode in the direction of the noise, not sorry to find an outlet for his rage. Men in the coarse blue uniforms of some merchant vessel were dragging a young black man across the dusty ground from the church. The Preacher was protesting but another crewman held some kind of weapon on him. Chris didn’t slow, but he was computing the odds. Five of them, drunk, angry and with the build of men used to loading and unloading heavy cargo. Chris was armed with two of the dual use projectile and pulse guns; he could get off two stun shots, then switch to projectile—there was a marginal delay as the charge rebuilt, maybe two seconds, and they might be seconds he needed.

It was clear enough the men meant murder. Shockingly primitive murder, at that. One of them was already firing a cable over a tree branch at the edge of the graveyard, another was dragging forward a broken chair from the church and prodding the negro to stand on it. It could have been a scene from a holo of the twentieth century.

Chris went on walking at the same pace, aware they’d seen him now, aware that it was making them hesitate, even if only briefly. They might well know who he was. He hadn’t worn uniform since the day Adam and Sarah died, but the black he did wear marked him out almost as much, and his cold permanent anger had drawn him into enough fights that a lot of people knew him and avoided him.

It wouldn’t buy him much advantage though, not against five of them. He knew the burly preacher well enough to decide that Josiah would probably be able to take out the man near him if trouble started—on Jericho the churchman’s fists had sometimes needed to be as eloquent as his words. Still not great odds though, not if the men really were set on hanging their prisoner…

The slightest of silent movements to his left startled him into breaking his steady approach, and he turned and was ready to fire in a heartbeat. Cool, unintimidated blue eyes met his—definitely not another crewman; this was a young man, long-haired in the style of the Old Ones, and carrying a battered old PEP rifle. He was here to help, Chris realised, taken aback, because even the Preacher hadn’t managed to give Jericho the idea of the Good Samaritan. For the second or so it took Chris to assess him and decide not to fire, the man appraised him in turn. At a second look, he was even younger than Chris had first thought, but there was a quiet confidence about him that made him seem a good man to have on your side. Chris nodded, and the youngster dropped into step beside him without a word.

The lynching party saw that the chance of their hanging being interrupted had just doubled, and hurried to get the noose around their victim’s neck.

“Let him go!” Chris said, in range now and keeping his approach steady.

“Reckon y’d all be happier if y’ just walk away,” his new ally said, his voice tinted with the accent of the tribe-camp.

“Fuck that!” one of the men shouted. “He killed our friend. He ain’t no proper doctor, just a nigger who don’t know shit.”

“Your friend was dying before you docked,” the Preacher said. “Nathan eased his going, and that was all that anyone could have done for him.”

For a long slow moment, Chris thought it could go either way. Then the man who’d shouted at them went for his weapon, and one of the others kicked the chair out from under the medic. Chris took out the first man before he could fire, hitting him with a heavy enough stun to keep him down for hours. He saw the tree branch explode to a shot from his companion’s old rifle, and saw Josiah lift his captor clean off the ground with a punch like a piledriver, then run to remove the noose from the negro who was desperately wrenching at it. At the same time Chris was firing. A second man went down stunned and Chris had switched to projectile before that one hit the ground, aiming for the shoulder of the fourth and seeing blood blossom from it. The last man was screaming out his surrender with the young tribesman’s rifle trained on him, and placed his hands on his head in a gesture as old as firearms.

It had lasted a couple of minutes at most. It was definitely over.

Chris went to check on the two men he’d stunned. Both breathing; both probably in need of some medical attention if they were going to be off the sick list by the time the Antelope was due to depart. The one with the bullet wound had his hand pressed to it and was cursing steadily with disbelief at the blood seeping out. Projectile weapons weren’t that common these days, even on the frontier; Chris had had to make a trip off world to get these, and put in a rare communication to Travis to obtain the licence.

The man who’d so nearly been hanged was getting to his feet with Josiah’s help. He was coughing, and clearly very shaken, but it didn’t look as if he’d come to real harm.

“Nathan Jackson,” the Preacher introduced him.

Chris realised he’d heard the name. The guy provided the only doctoring that a whole lot of Jericho’s poorer inhabitants could afford. He brushed off Nathan’s thanks. “You going to be okay?”

“I’ll be fine, but what about…?” He gestured at the injured men. “I ought to take a look at them.”

Chris shrugged. As far as he was concerned, his involvement in all this was just about over. “Suit yourself. Preacher, you’d best call Wark and the contact for whatever shipping company the Antelope’s working for. Get these bastards dealt with one way or another.” Probably another. Cyril Wark was chief of what passed for law enforcement on Jericho, and was about as corrupt and incompetent as you could be and still keep office on a small planet no one gave a damn about. But at least Wark wasn’t too stupid to realise that without men like the preacher and Jackson his own job would be more difficult. He’d take a bribe to see the men released in time to leave, but he’d also see Nathan Jackson wasn’t subjected to another attack.

Chris turned to the long-haired young man who’d just finished tying the last crewman’s wrists and ankles with the cable. For once, this was someone he was reluctant to simply walk away from.

“Chris,” he said, holding out his hand. He’d gotten out of the habit of introducing himself with his full name—too many people knew it; it carried too much baggage.

“Vin,” the younger man said, about to return the grip. Then his face changed and he pulled back as suddenly as if Chris had been holding a snake.

“Vin,” Josiah said, a note of warning in his tone.

Vin spat out some words at the preacher in a language Chris didn’t understand, turned abruptly and walked away.

It was a long time since Chris had been so taken aback. The deliberate rudeness should have stoked his anger, but instead he felt there was something very wrong about the situation somewhere. There had been such a calm confidence about Vin. Chris had known with almost unnerving certainty exactly how he could rely on him in the confrontation, even though they’d not only never met before but hadn’t time to exchange a word. He was fairly sure Vin had felt the same. The last thing he would have expected was this reaction. He couldn’t remember having cared to know the answer to a question in years, but curiosity, even concern, stirred in him now.

Instead of leaving as he’d planned, Chris walked back to the preacher’s house and called Wark to the scene himself. Nathan, the mark of the cable still raw on his neck, took his bag and went to help the injured men, stopping the bleeding on the one who had a bullet in him and making sure the stunned men were in a safe position, while Josiah informed the shipping company and waited for Wark’s officers to arrive. The men would get some sort of medical care once they were under arrest.

Chris accepted the coffee the preacher offered him, and watched Nathan from the doorway. “He’s a fool,” he commented. “Though I suppose Jericho should be grateful for a few fools like that.”

“He’s a good man,” Josiah said. “I’m glad you were here this morning. It would have been ugly otherwise.”

“Hanging? Where the hell did they get that idea?”

“Plenty of extremely unpleasant holovids around that have been pirated from the Alliance. Especially on Jericho. No one seems very interested in stopping the trade.”

“Wark wouldn’t stop anything if he was paid a cut from it. You think we’re going to get more of this sort of racist violence?”

“I hope this was a one-off. Those men were angry about their friend—a lot of the anger probably because they felt guilty they hadn’t acted more quickly. And they’d been drinking. The fact Nate’s black wasn’t the biggest factor, it just gave them another focus for their grievance. But I think we should be more wary of the Alliance’s ideas than we are of their scout ships.”

“They’re no match for the Fleet, even now,” Chris agreed. “And talking of the Fleet…” He lifted the coffee cup so that the Fleet insignia on his wrist showed. It was the only thing he could think of that Vin might have been reacting to; it had showed as Chris held out his hand.

Josiah sighed, but answered the unspoken question. “Vin is… not particularly rational on the subject of the Fleet. He blames them for the deaths of his parents. He’s … well, you saw for yourself how he is.”

“He lost his family in some kind of accident the Fleet were involved in?”

“He certainly doesn’t think their deaths were accidents. I’ve tried to talk to him about it—he often comes here just to stand near his mother’s grave—but it’s a subject he won’t listen to reason on.”

“Go on,” Chris said shortly.

“I don’t really know much more. In fact, I don’t know Vin that well—except to be sure he’s just what you saw today. He’d go out of his way to help anyone in trouble, whatever the risk, but he’s generally well able to take care of himself. There’s a sort of natural honesty to him, maybe because he’s spent a lot of his life out with the Old Ones. His mother was from the tribe, and I don’t think he ever knew his father. Knows what his name was though—I asked him once if he had another name beside Vin, and he said one day he’d take his father’s, when he’d gotten justice for him.”

“Justice for what?”

“I don’t think he knows the details himself. I’ve seen his mother’s grave, and from the date on it he can only have been about five years old when she died. She was the one who told him the Fleet killed his father, so we’re talking old history here.”

“Didn’t look like that was how Vin felt.”

“Vin ended up back with the tribe when he was seven or eight, took in a whole lot of their suspicion of authority, paranoia about modern organisations. I suspect that built on what he remembered of his mother’s words and her death. He came back here a couple of years ago, got arrested several times in the first year for trying to get into the Law Enforcement centre. Then he realised that he wasn’t going to manage it, and anyway the Fleet presence on Jericho is two or three old guys and a computer. After that he decided to work ’til he had enough money to get off world and find someone to take his case up. At the present rate, I reckon he’ll be an old man before he manages that.”

“How does he earn money?”

“He’s been working with a gambler, a young guy from somewhere else on the frontier. Vin acts as bodyguard and general handyman—Ezra doesn’t believe in manual work—and gets a cut from Ezra’s winnings. They’re not hooked up with any of the gangs. As Jericho goes, they’re two of the good guys.”

And that said a lot about Jericho, Chris thought. A gambler and a half-wild kid on some sort of vendetta and the two of them probably had more morals than Wark and his officers.

“He blames the Fleet for his mother’s death as well?”

Josiah nodded. “Says she went to the Fleet office to get justice over what happened to his father, and the next thing was, she was dead. But it’s a child’s memory, it’s how he perceived it as a five-year-old. The idea that the Fleet somehow disposed of her because she knew something against them is unbelievable, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible to say that to Vin though. It’s too mixed up with his memories of his mother, with losing her so young.”

He looked at Chris. “It might help him to talk to someone who’s actually in the Fleet.”

“I’m not in it these days, Preacher. And I wouldn’t be much help, because I’ve no idea what the hell could have happened however many years ago it was.”

“Nearly fifteen years ago the mother—the father I suppose five years before that.”

“Anyway, he looked like he’d sooner shoot me than talk to me,” Chris said, though he knew that what had actually been in Vin’s eyes had been more like a sort of desperate disillusionment.

“He saw you come to Nathan’s aid,” Josiah said softly. “He saw you face down those men, and shoot at a speed I’ve never seen a man equal. He must have felt he’d come close to betraying himself by looking up to you.”

“He handled himself well. He doesn’t need to be looking up to anyone,” Chris said, though why he felt any need to defend the young man he couldn’t imagine.

“He needs something more than he has at the moment,” Josiah said.

“So do most of Jericho. If he wants a hero, he can look at you, Preacher, or the doctor out there. All he’d learn from me would be about dying, not living.”

He finished the coffee and strode off, but not fast enough to miss Josiah’s parting shot. “He knows a lot about death already.”

In spite of his dismissive words to Josiah, Chris found himself thinking of calling in at the Fleet office on his way back to his apartment. It was probably a waste of time, and was hardly his concern anyway, but he could at least use the computer to see if anything from fifteen or twenty years ago threw any light on Vin’s parents’ deaths.

“What happened to you?” Ezra asked after one quick glance.

Vin sat down, accepted the glass that was pushed in his direction. “Bastards from th’ Antelope tried t’ lynch Nate Jackson. He’s okay though.”

“As stories go, that appears to have a gripping opening and a satisfactory conclusion, but to have omitted some vital events in between.”

“Did you stop them, Vin?”

Vin sighed as he looked at JD, their most recently acquired problem. JD asked the question with a complete confidence in him that really hassled Vin. “Helped,” he said briefly. “Tell y’ later. Got more important things t’ worry about just now. There’s men all over town askin’ about you JD. Reckon that attack we got y’ away from wasn’t a one-off. But why would people be after you?”

JD, too young, too green, too kind of wholesome for Jericho, looked at Vin with unfaked bewilderment. “I can’t think of any reason. I don’t know anyone here at all. Ma wanted us to come. She said she’d explain once we were settled. Then she had the stroke as we came through immigration. She couldn’t speak after that… she couldn’t write or anything. She really struggled to tell me something but she could only show yes or no, and I just couldn’t find the right question…”

He broke off, miserably. Ezra put an awkward hand on his arm, and said to Vin, “When you say people are looking for JD, what sort of individuals do you mean?”

“Ones he don’t want t’ meet.”

“I’d deduced that. It was their… faction, or allegiance I was querying.”

Vin frowned. “That’s what bothers me. If it made any sense, I’d say there was big money behind th’ search. There’s all sorts, Ez. And if there is money in it somehow, well you c’n bet Wark’ll have been bought off. We’re on our own.”

“It makes a difference whether Wark and his men are actively involved or merely not interfering,” Ezra said, thinking it through. “A thorough search of their security footage might show the two of us with JD. I wouldn’t describe this apartment as a secure location in those circumstances.”

“Uh huh. That’s why I think we should get packed up.”

“Where will we go?” JD asked, though the answer wouldn’t have meant anything to him. When they’d picked him up a couple of night’s earlier, rescuing him from what they thought was an attempted mugging, he’d been walking in circles near the spaceport, looking for cheap accommodation with no idea of the layout of the town.

“Just follow us, keep quiet, and assume that nobody in Jericho can be trusted,” Ezra said with unusual bluntness.

“But won’t the street cameras be a problem again?”

“Not th’ way you’re going to look,” Vin told him. He and Ezra—always knowing they might need a bolt hole some day—had for some time used a small part of their cash to rent a tiny one-roomed apartment nearer the space port. But not in their own appearance…

Vin wasn’t really in the mood to be amused, but he enjoyed the expression on JD’s face when Ezra opened the box that contained the dresses and wigs. Ezra, as he had been when they signed the rental agreement, was the smartly dressed ‘daughter’. JD got Vin’s role—a frumpy skirt and hooded coat to be the silent old ‘mother’.

“What are you going to do?” Ezra asked Vin.

“I want t’ see if I c’n find out any more about why they’re looking fer JD. And I need t’ talk t’ J’siah about somethin’.”

Ezra glanced at him, again too perceptive, but didn’t ask. Instead he said, “Perhaps when I have JD safely ensconced, I could rendezvous with you there? We should probably avoid our normal haunts for a while.”

Vin didn’t want to talk to Ezra about the man at the cemetery, not yet, not until he’d gotten things straighter in his own mind. “Early this evenin’,” he said. “Th’ church, not J’siah’s house. Maybe I’ll know somethin’ by then.”

He wasn’t real good at putting Ezra off—he could see the question in Ez’s eyes deepen to concern. But he and Ez had an unspoken deal about giving each other space. “This evening,” Ezra confirmed. “I’ll be there when the first moon’s up.”

Vin left hastily, before he could give away any more of the torment in his thoughts. He was careful to check around as he left the building, though. No hint of anything wrong. They were almost certainly still ahead of whoever wanted JD. He wouldn’t give it too long though.

On his way back to the Preacher’s, he dropped into a bar and struck up a conversation with a bounty hunter he knew slightly. “Heard there might be money in looking for some green kid new in from off-world?”

The bounty hunter grinned. “If you don’t mind the fact all Jericho’s in on it. Hell, I even heard a rumour that the Fleet are sending someone in to look for him. Makes you wonder what the kid’s done—or what he’s got.”

“No problem with the law if I do try my luck?”

“Hard to say. Word is that Wark’s looking for him too, which means you’d need to be damned sure who to turn him over to in order to see the money. Think I might sit this one out.”

It was information, Vin thought, as he went on his way. Just not the news he’d hoped for. His thoughts were even more troubled, and he redoubled his caution through the streets.

“Captain Larabee? You got the message then?”

Chris had been in the Fleet office maybe five times in three years. The last thing he expected was that the man on duty would be waiting for him. “I don’t take Fleet messages, Stevens. You know that.”

“Yes sir, but, well, you’re here, and as it was about Commander Wilmington coming…”

Chris stopped on his way to the computer console. “I hadn’t heard about it. When did the message come in?”

“Just this morning, sir. No explanation of why he’s coming, just that it’s a direct assignment from Admiral Travis. It must have been urgent though, because I keep up our records of officers’ movements and he was due on a run to the space station.”

“When does he get in?”

“In about three hours, sir.”

“I’ll wait then. I’ve got something I want to do on the computer anyway.”

His first instinctive angry thought was that Travis was sending Buck to try to persuade him back onto active duty, but that didn’t fit the sudden change of assignment. Chris, in spite of the fact they’d parted with hostile words on both sides, kept an eye on where in the galaxy Buck was, and he knew Stevens was right about the space station run. This must be something more urgent.

He sat down at the console and logged in. As usual, the office was silent except for the man on duty, and that suited him. He typed in his questions rather than speaking them, trying to refine his search with very inadequate information. Some kinds of accidents fifteen to twenty years ago? Something that had been covered up? He wasn’t even sure that was what he was looking for, but he felt an odd determination to persist. The look on Vin’s face as he saw the Fleet insignia wouldn’t shift from his mind. Chris was about as far from an idealist as you could get, and he was still, unreasonably maybe, angry about his assignment to Jericho. But he knew a lot of damned good men in the Fleet, men who risked their lives daily to keep the people of the frontier safe and its trade routes protected. Maybe he was more of a fool than he thought, but he found it very hard to believe that the sort of corruption you got in the Local Law Enforcement departments could ever have existed in the Fleet.

And maybe he was less of a fool than he had been, because he was able to admit to himself he was actually looking forward to seeing Buck Wilmington again.

Josiah wasn’t surprised when he turned around in his kitchen and found Vin standing there. Well, he was in one way of course, jumping nearly out of his skin and dropping the pan he was holding. But in the deeper sense, he wasn’t at all surprised by the fact Vin had come back—or by what he wanted to know.

“Th’ man who was here this mornin’,” Vin began abruptly.

“The one who saved Nathan from being hanged?” Josiah asked. He knew perfectly well who Vin meant, but he didn’t want him to forget that point.

“Th’ one from th’ Fleet. I seen him around the cemetery b’fore, noticed him because he wears black like that, comes early or late most times. He’s been around near as long as I have. How come no one ever told me he was a Fleet officer?”

How come Josiah didn’t, was the implication of that.

“I respect the privacy and the confidence of everyone who comes here,” Josiah said. “I wouldn’t break that for you or for anyone, Vin. Chris Larabee’s wife and son were killed in a bomb blast not long after he was stationed here, and he’s been on compassionate leave ever since. You ever accost him in the cemetery, you’ll have me to answer to. And probably Nate as well. The man’s entitled to grieve in peace. And it was damned lucky for Nathan that he was here this morning.”

He could see that his words had only added to the conflict in Vin; saw Vin try to harden himself.

“Ain’t your business what I do away from here,” Vin said. “You know his rank?”

“Captain, I think.”

Vin nodded. “Makes sense. Looked like he was used t’ givin’ orders. So he’s a man’d have th’ clearance t’ find anythin’ out.”

“He’s not a man to be threatened—nor manipulated, if you’re thinking of involving Ezra,” Josiah said. “If you want anything from Chris Larabee ask him, and show him some respect.”

“Like he’s goin’ t’ tell me anythin’,” Vin said scornfully. “Why sh’d I show th’ Fleet any respect anyway?”

“You could show the man some, whatever you think of the organisation,” Josiah said. “Chris Larabee may be hard, but he’s as straight a person, and as good a leader, as any man I’ve ever met.”

He saw the flicker of clashing feelings on Vin’s face again. Vin had instinctively liked and respected Larabee. Josiah had seen it. Unfortunately, now that made Vin feel he’d somehow betrayed his parents’ memory—and made him angry with himself and everyone else. The anger won.

“Ain’t goin’ t’ argue with you, Preacher,” Vin said. “Just stay out of this.”

Josiah watched him walk rapidly away, very much as Chris himself had done earlier. The echo half amused, half alarmed him. If these two clashed, the fall-out was going to be huge. He’d been surprised, hopeful even, at Chris’s reaction to Vin that morning. For a man who was reputed to prefer violence as a first, last and only resort, Chris had been remarkably tolerant. It would take something like a miracle for that to last in the face of Vin’s apparent determination to treat him like the enemy.

Josiah headed into the church and knelt before the altar. Miracles, at least were something he could understand—better than he’d probably ever understand Chris or Vin anyway. He’d stay out of their confrontation himself—he’d probably only make things worse if he didn’t—but that didn’t mean he couldn’t ask for a bit of grace for two stubborn and suffering people.

Chris had spent a frustrating morning with the computer, but his feelings about that were muted by the fact he knew the real problem was he hadn’t enough data to work with. He’d no names except Vin’s mother’s tribal name, no date, no idea of what sort of incident he was looking for. He searched over the period he thought must be correct, but no one from the tribes had had any official dealings with the Fleet. That didn’t mean much—anyone who came regularly into the city tended to take a standard name for anything to do with the authorities, but he hadn’t even found any plausible transaction to look at more closely. As for accidents, he hadn’t found any fatal ones associated with the Fleet at all in that period. Two officers had been killed in action, there had been an explosion at the port, but without major casualties, and otherwise it was all minor incidents. Even then, when the Fleet hadn’t been struggling to maintain numbers, it had never been a major presence on Jericho.

He looked again at the accounts of the officers killed in action, both protecting a passenger ship from the pirates who’d been such a scourge at the time, though not usually near Jericho. The accounts were still classified—there’d been a major blockage on news of the pirate attacks to avoid frontier-wide panic and it had never been lifted. He wondered if it was possible some passengers had been killed or injured, and the lack of news could have led to the worst suspicions of the Fleet. But even here, the information was definite: no casualties, except the two young Fleet officers. It was shortly after that that a major action against the pirates had been undertaken, and by the time Chris had joined the Fleet they were no real problem to passenger shipping.

He wondered for a moment if Vin’s father could somehow have been linked to the piracy and killed in the campaign, but that didn’t square at all with what he’d seen of Vin, or heard of his story from Josiah. The pirates had been criminals, vicious ones who’d shown little mercy to the passengers they’d attacked. It was too big a leap to get from there to the sort of memory Vin seemed to be defending.

He pushed the problem to the back of his mind for the time being and walked down to the incoming gate to meet Buck. He hadn’t seen him in more than a year, and they hadn’t parted on good terms, but unless Buck had changed a hell of a lot, his grudge wouldn’t have lasted longer than it took to make his next port of call.

Sure enough, Buck’s one reaction to seeing him was to drop the bag he was carrying and grab Chris in a bear hug, regardless of the crowded spaceport. “Chris! Damn, it’s good to see you. Did you get Travis’ message?”

“Nope. Why’s the Fleet suddenly developed an interest in Jericho?”

“It’s kind of hush-hush.”

“Guess that must be why Travis thought you were the man for the job…”

Buck grinned. “I did wonder about it myself. But he hasn’t got many officers—things are getting worse not better—and there was no-one else available who knew Jericho. Besides, maybe he thought I was the only one who wouldn’t chicken out of working with Chris Larabee!”

There was just a trace of hesitation in his manner as he said that, a hint of wariness that hadn’t shown in his greeting.

“I’m not back on duty,” Chris said, but without the angry force he’d normally have given it.

“I know, I know, but all I want is some updates on the seedier parts of Jericho, some names of people I can lean on.”

The seedier parts of Jericho. Yeah, Chris knew those only too well, and they knew him. He nodded, a bare gesture of acceptance, but he could see the relief in Buck, and something more… maybe a memory or hope of friendship not after all quite dead. “The Fleet office hush-hush enough for you, or do you want to come back to my apartment?” Chris asked.

“Let’s make it the apartment.” Again there was the slightest pause, as if Buck was weighing up his next words, then he went on. “I’ve got something that’ll brighten up the place for you—picked it up on the space station. They were selling real well to the guys!”

For some reason even this didn’t make Chris regret his welcome. Maybe shooting people before breakfast was the way he should always start his day…

“Don’t wiggle,” Ezra hissed at JD. “You’re an elderly woman, not some budding sex symbol.”

“It’s the way the shoes make me walk,” JD complained. “Do we have to do this? I feel really stupid.”

“But really alive. Never underestimate the importance of that.”

Nobody was paying any attention to them at all, a tribute to Ezra’s skill with the costumes. He hadn’t risked purchasing anything except from stores with automated checkouts, just in case JD tried his extremely unconvincing falsetto, but now that they were laden with tempi-bags of goods, they looked exactly like the other women out in this part of town. Curious, really, that after all these years of expanding the frontiers of inhabited space, at this level of society it was still the female of the species that did the shopping.

He often thought that Jericho itself bore more resemblance to the Earth of a few centuries ago than the gleaming well ordered haven of prosperity the planet appeared to be now. But Earth was an extremely long way away, and the only interest it took in the dirty, ill-run, crime ridden frontier was to complain about the low profits on investment and to fund the Fleet just adequately to maintain Democratic Federation territory in the face of the Aryan Alliance.

“How much further?” JD whispered. He’d somehow managed to skew his skirt so that it looked even less flattering, and like something no elderly lady would be seen out in.

Ezra tugged it straight for him. “We’re almost there. If we see the landlord, allow me to do the talking.”

They didn’t see anyone though. Ezra thankfully sealed the door of the tiny apartment behind them, filled the store cupboards and ancient refrigerator and went to wash off the make-up.

“The kitchen doesn’t even have a computer,” JD said, amazed. “How do you control things?”

Ezra showed him the wonders of antique appliances, and the single, equally antique laptop that was their only means of accessing information networks. To his surprise, JD suddenly stopped being a naïve and gawky problem and sat down to work at the laptop with unexpected confidence and skill. He was still at it when Ezra finished his ablutions and was restored to his normal elegant masculinity. Not only that, sites were appearing which Ezra certainly couldn’t have accessed.

He watched in astonishment as JD circumvented a variety of walls and passwords and logged into the Port shipping schedule.

“I just wanted to see if I knew the names of any of the people who’d come in,” JD explained. “Vin thought some of the ones looking for me were from off world.”

“Good idea,” Ezra said. “There are some other sites which might be useful to us if you can find a way into them … but in the meantime, perhaps you’d like to change your clothes?”

Chris logged in the complex system of codes to his apartment and pressed his hand to the scanner.

“Now you wait ’til you see this,” Buck said, following him into the silent, sterile living space with an enthusiasm that seemed to colour the grey emptiness of the walls. “This is the latest craze.”

Without waiting for Chris to answer, he went over to the apartment computer and tinkered a moment with the programming selection. A figure appeared in the kitchen area with such suddenness that Chris had drawn his gun before his brain kicked in just in time to prevent him shooting the hologram.

“Shit, Buck, that’s horrible,” he muttered, staring at the thing.

Buck looked at it critically. “Hey, that’s Busty Bess. She’s one of their most popular models, her and Long-legged Lou. You talk to her just like you’d use the speech option on the computer normally. Go on, tell her to make us a cup of coffee.”

Chris looked at the very busty blonde, who wasn’t dressed for any kitchen he’d ever seen. Even holographically he wasn’t sure he wanted her wobbling over his coffee cup. The thought suddenly hit him that Sarah would have laughed at this so much she’d have had to dash for the bathroom, and he was silenced by the realisation that he’d almost let himself forget her laughter.

“You can adapt it too,” Buck said, not noticing any of this. “You can programme it with anything you’ve got a holovid of. She’s my favourite, though.”

This was going on Buck’s account, Chris thought, but he gave in. “Two coffees,” he snapped at the hologram.

To his relief, the kitchen produced them in the normal way, Busty Bess just hovering a little around the appliances.

“That’s beautiful, darlin’,” Buck said to her, and Chris winced as the hologram—obviously coded for this—wiggled suggestively at the praise.

“Computer off,” Chris said firmly, and cut through Buck’s protests by reminding him that if this meeting was about something classified they didn’t want it to be recorded.

“What is it all about, anyway?” he asked. “There’s been no unusual port activity, no trouble on the streets.” He might not be on duty, but that didn’t mean he was unaware of the shifting tide of crime on Jericho.

“Travis wants me to find a kid,” Buck said. “I know—it doesn’t exactly sound like a secret assignment. But that’s what he’s ordered it to be, and I don’t go asking him to explain himself.”

“He wants you to find a kid? Who is he? And why’s he hard to find come to that?”

“His name’s JD Dunne. Why he’s important wasn’t on Travis’s need-to-know list. Dunne landed on Jericho ten days ago with his mother, and she had a massive stroke while they were still in the spaceport. She lingered a couple of days, then died. The staff at the clinic think the kid spent almost all the money they had on her care for those two days, and must have been looking for somewhere cheap to live after she died—he definitely didn’t ship out again.”

“That’s all you know?”

“Travis doesn’t want to alert anyone to the fact we’re looking for the kid. The information was in the public domain except the clinic part, and he got Mary to call them, pretend she was doing a story on the medical dangers of space flight. It was a safe bet they’d want to talk about this case.”

“It’s not going to be easy finding the kid without all Jericho knowing your business,” Chris said doubtfully.

“The local law enforcement?”

“Even worse since a guy called Wark was appointed chief. Corrupt, inefficient. If there’s any money involved you’d need to be sure you could bid higher than the other interested parties if you want the LLE on your side.”

“Great. So what do you suggest?”

“I can work from this computer to get all the routine recorded street surveillance. We can try to sift through that. If you’ve got an image of the kid, that’ll speed things up. And you can talk to Josiah Sanchez, Jericho’s one and only Preacher. He’s rebuilding the church, looks after the graveyard.” He caught the briefest glance of pure sympathy from Buck, but went on hastily, “He’s a good man, and he’s got his finger on most of what’s going on in the poorer areas. Knows how to keep things confidential too. I’ll go there with you early this evening, that’s the quietest time.”

Buck nodded and looked at him for a moment without the bluff determination to keep a cheerful manner. “Can’t tell you how good it is to work with you again, Chris,” he said quietly.

“Yeah.” Chris felt it too, as if without his realisation something unperceived but vital had shifted in him. He hadn’t exactly lost the grief or anger that walked his days with him, but it was as if somehow he’d turned around, was looking ahead at last.

“I stopped a lynching this morning,” he said, thinking aloud about what seemed to have made the difference today. “Young doctor—well, he’s not qualified but he does the job. Some idiots from one of the merchant ships thought they’d hang him from the end of a cable because he hadn’t saved their shipmate. He’s a friend of the preacher’s. It’s just possible he might know something about this JD Dunne, too. There’s a few places we could start—but trawling through the surveillance files had better be the first. I suppose Busty Bess isn’t programmed for this sort of thing?”

“She’s more kind of… decorative.”

“Next time bring me a nice watercolour,” Chris muttered, but they settled down amicably enough to the search.

Vin was relieved to find Ezra waiting in the dim recesses of the half-repaired church.

“You got JD stowed safe?”

“Waiting at the apartment. He shows an unusual talent for the computer. I’ve left him trying—with a surprising degree of success—to access the LLE and port records, and search for some reason why he’s wanted so badly.”

“It’s getting’ worse. Don’t think there’s a bounty hunter anywhere in Jericho not lookin’ for the kid. We’ll have t’ keep him under wraps.”

“But no indication our own connection to him has been noted.”

“Not yet, but it’d be worth keeping out of sight on the way back. I’m goin’ t’ see a few men I know, try t’ find out if they’ve any idea who’s behind all this. And how much Wark is in on it.”

“Take care,” Ezra said, which wasn’t like him.

“Always do,” Vin said.

Ezra looked as if he’d like to say something else, but didn’t. Vin knew why Ez was edgy—it had showed this morning, how much Vin’d been shook up. It was that Fleet captain, Larabee. Vin hadn’t been able to get him out of his head all day. How could he have gotten it so wrong? He’d looked at Larabee and seen… hell, some kind of hero if he was honest with himself. He’d reached out for the man’s hand like he was making a friend, a partner even against the crap that was messing up Jericho.

And then he’d seen the emblem of the Fleet.


Shit. He was worrying Ez even more. “It’s nothin’ t’ do with this,” he said quickly. “There was a man, this mornin’, when those bastards tried t’ hang Nate. Turned out the guy’s some kinda Fleet captain.”

“Taking part in the lynching? Surely…”

“No. Stoppin’ it.”

“Ah.” Ezra understood, Vin could see it. Ez was quick at picking things up, which was good because Vin wasn’t much for talking.

“Even when an organisation is at fault, not every individual in it shares culpability,” Ezra went on cautiously. “This officer is most likely quite unaware of any events that took place before his arrival here.”

“He’ll have t’ find out about them.”

“When you say ‘have to’…?”

“Think if it came t’ it any captain’d choose t’ listen t’ someone like me make charges against th’ Fleet?”

“I can’t hypothesise…”

“Nope. Nor me. So I aim t’ make him listen—in my own way. But it won’t stop me helpin’ keep JD safe. Now, you’d best get back t’ him.”

They left the church cautiously, and went in different directions, Ezra to check if Josiah had anyone there and if not, to ask him to keep an eye on their normal apartment, Vin to walk through the cemetery to his mother’s grave. He wished he could remember her more clearly. It was just a jumble of images, a sense of what it had felt like to have her arms around him… her telling him his father had died before he ever knew she was going to have a baby. He did remember what she’d said about his father, because she’d said it often: that he was brave and he’d loved her and he’d died because of the Fleet.

Naria, the old woman who’d taken him in, had told him that too. “The Fleet killed your daddy, boy, you remember that and stay away from them.” She’d refused to talk about him more than that, but she often talked about his mother. Vin remembered clearly the awful time in the city with Naria just after his mother had died, before they went back to the Old Ones. Naria used to bring him here to the grave, tell him over and again how his ma had gone to the Fleet office to get justice for Vin, and how the same night they’d brought back her body. Naria had died quite soon, too, but Vin had been back with the tribe by then. He’d found a place with his mother’s father, and loved the old man, who’d taught him most of what he knew. Grandfather had never spoken of the dead, but it was clear every time he looked at Vin how much he’d loved his daughter.

Vin had come back to the city when Grandfather had died. He was old enough by then to want answers and to understand the idea of justice. He didn’t need to lose sight of that now. He didn’t need to think how for a brief while this morning he’d walked side by side with a Fleet captain, and felt closer to the man than kin.

He stood by the grave, waiting for the determination to build in him again, angry that he’d shared that moment of utter understanding with one of his enemies. It was completely dark before he moved again.

Ezra ran faster than he could recollect running in his life before—except perhaps for that time his mother had involved him in a disastrous scam on Spacestation 27. His heart pounded in his throat, his legs ached, he was hot and gasping for breath, but he dared not slow even for one instant. He had no idea what the penalty might be for disobeying a direct order from a Fleet officer, but there was sure to be one. Of course, it had been a relatively trivial order the man had issued: ‘stand still, I want to speak to you’… anyone might have misunderstood its urgency…

The officer hadn’t been in Fleet uniform either. Admittedly, the ID he’d shown had been unmistakeable, but perhaps Ezra could feign myopia… How could anyone have guessed there might be two Fleet officers at the cemetery? Ezra had seen the one in uniform inside Josiah’s house and naturally assumed it was the man Vin had referred to. It had been entirely innocent to be interested enough to approach the window more closely. Admittedly the handheld listening device might require more explanation…

He had suffered a startling and unpleasant surprise when the second officer accosted him. The memory lent speed to his feet even now. The man had looked more like some cemetery-haunting grim reaper—black clothes, blacker expression—than any kind of authority. That would probably be Ezra’s best excuse if they did catch up with him.

Excuse enough for hurling at the man the window pots Josiah had been patiently cultivating? Could a container of herbs really constitute an offensive weapon? It had been an error of judgment to do that, but thankfully not a really dangerous one. Panting, aching, forcing himself on, Ezra nevertheless had time for the realisation that the officer had actually been less fearsome in practice than appearance. Although he’d drawn his gun, he hadn’t used it.

That wasn’t to say that there wouldn’t be unpleasant consequences if Ezra was caught though, and humiliation was inevitable if not actual pain. He swerved down a narrow sidestreet and kept on running.

Chris was a black shadow among other shadows as he ran through the darkening city. Street lighting was sparse, and repairs were seldom done. He realised he’d lost the man he was chasing. Might as well go back to the Preacher’s house and collect Buck. He’d taken the hov-car there, and could link from that to the Fleet computer. There were better ways to look for someone than on foot.

Late that afternoon, Chris and Buck had finally found some surveillance footage of young JD Dunne—of him being saved from a mugging by one rescuer who was definitely Vin and another who Chris had guessed might be the gambler Josiah had mentioned. Startled by the coincidence, he didn’t try to explain to Buck what he knew about Vin, just told him he recognised a face and thought the Preacher would too.

They’d recorded the scenes onto a handheld, and taken them along to show the Preacher.

“That’s Vin and Ezra all right,” Josiah agreed. “You’re not complaining because they stopped a mugging are you?”

“Hell no,” Buck said. “Looks like they were just in time. But we’re looking for that kid they helped. He’s called Dunne, JD Dunne. Do you know him?”

Josiah shook his head. “No, but there are a lot of people looking for a kid on Jericho this last couple of days—bounty hunters, gangs, all sorts. I keep catching snatches of information about it when I’m out.”

Chris glanced at Buck. “Travis suggest you’d have competition?”

“Not in so many words, but he told me to keep the assignment quiet unless it became obvious it was too late for that.”

“Looks like it might be. You didn’t know Vin and this other guy were involved, Josiah?”

“Ezra, Ezra Standish, the gambler I told you about. No, before this morning I hadn’t seen Vin or Ezra for more than a week.”

There was a hint of something in his manner that alerted Chris. “You seen either of them since this morning?”

“Haven’t had either of them in the house in a long time,” Josiah said, which was roundabout enough to convince Chris he was onto something. The Preacher didn’t like to lie, and that mention of ‘house’ was rather precise.

“I’ll leave Buck to get some suggestions from you then, Preacher. It sounds as though it would be better for Dunne for us to find him first. I need to get some air.”

Josiah had shifted uneasily, but there’d been nothing he could say. Chris made his way quickly and silently to the rear of the church where the broken wall would allow him to see inside without being seen.

There was no one there. Chris would be happy to bet there had been, but if so, he’d missed them. He moved to where he could see through the deepening dusk across the graveyard. A slight figure, barely more solid than a shadow, was walking in the distance. Heading towards the part of the cemetery Josiah kept for any of the Old Ones who died in the city—not that they had any one tribal background, they were a hotchpotch, all sorts of people who rejected technology and the system, and only a few with genuine earth tribal origins, but some of them did have special burial customs that were important to them.

If that was Vin, and even in the near-darkness Chris was sure of it, he was probably heading to his mother’s grave. Chris walked around to the front of the church, a rare moment of hesitation slowing his steps.

Then he saw the other man, the gambler, Ezra Standish. Chris had no problem acting here, especially as Standish appeared to be listening at the Preacher’s window.

“Stand still, I want to speak to you!” Chris said sharply, holding out his Fleet ID as the young man turned around. He failed to anticipate the speed of the gambler’s reactions though. Without any apparent break in his movement, Standish scooped the Preacher’s clay pots of herbs from the windowsill, hurled them at Chris with enough accuracy to send him ducking, and headed for the city gate as fast as if the graves had opened and sent the dead after him.

Chris had drawn his gun, but hadn’t fired. He’d some respect for the Preacher’s opinion, and it was clear enough that Josiah thought these two were two of the good guys. Anyway, Chris had seen for himself their rescue of Dunne and Vin’s readiness to help Nathan. He wasn’t quite ready to stun the gambler in order to talk to him—not this time, at least.

He’d sprinted after Standish, but the brief start the man had gained was enough. So now Chris was walking back to the cemetery at his own pace. With the computer link he could log into the city-wide surveillance and see if he could spot either of the young men that way.

The Preacher was sweeping up earth as Chris got back. “I suppose this is a judgment on me for not speaking the whole truth,” he said wryly.

“I didn’t throw the pots, Preacher; your gambler did that.”

“And you didn’t shoot him?” Buck asked.

Chris used the remote to bring the car down to ground level, and established the link with the main Fleet computer. “Josiah—keep in touch,” he said. “Buck—I’ll drop you at the port?”

“Yeah, thanks. I ought to check in with Travis, especially if Josiah here’s right about other people looking for the kid. Anyway, I’ve been travelling all day; I could use a shower and a meal.”

Chris fed the images of Vin and Ezra Standish into the link while they were on the way over to the port. The search wouldn’t be quick, even though there were a fair number of surveillance points—the streets were too badly lit for easy recognition at night. It was his best option though.

“If I get nowhere with this, I’ll try some other contacts,” he told Buck as he brought the car down a couple of lanes to dock at level two, where the Fleet guest rooms were located. “You want me to pick you up, or are you going to get a car?”

“Can I get hold of a hov, or do they only have street level cars available?”

“You’re entitled to a hov. I’ll sign whatever you need.”

The Fleet, the Local Law and a few individuals wealthy enough to pay the punitive airlane tax, had hovcars. The rest of Jericho drove street-level vehicles powered by every known variety of fuel; rode horses bred by the Old Ones if they were out of the city centre, or walked. Chris rarely used the hov; he preferred the feel of the streets, but sometimes it suited him to have the option of speed.

It did tonight, after he’d left Buck.

The computer, which had been continuing its search while Chris was dropping Buck off, finally threw up a hit. The picture which came up on Chris’s screen was slightly blurred, and from some back street, but the camera was near a working light. The figure running, glancing back, looking around desperately for some kind of cover was definitely Vin. He looked up, as if he was hoping for some fire escape or walkway to give him a chance, and the camera caught his tense face.

Chris was snapping orders at the computer before he had time to wonder at the strength of his own reaction. The recording was from fifteen minutes earlier. Chris headed for the coordinates at full speed, easy enough because the upper lanes were virtually empty. The area the computer directed him to proved to be one of the most run-down and dangerous parts of the city. As Chris stopped at the surveillance point, and moved down to cruise at a lower level searching with the infrared, he decided these streets called for some additional firepower.

While the computer searched for any concentration of running people, Chris took the massive old extreme pulse weapon from under his seat. Buck had always called the thing the ‘megablaster’, said Chris lit up when he first saw it like a kid with a squirt gun. Chris still liked it. Dialled down, it could stun a whole lot of people in a wide arc; dialled up he’d once taken the side out of a building with it. He felt it put a bit more force into enforcement.

When he found what he was looking for on the screen, he knew he was barely in time. The pursuit was closing in on the running figure. They were armed and hadn’t stunned him—there could be a few reasons for that, some more unpleasant than others. Chris powered over them just as they caught up to Vin, saw Vin fall, brought the hov straight down towards the group.

The men jumped back, but not far; they were startled but no more. They weren’t the street thugs Chris had been expecting either. And one of those who’d been holding Vin down had a ‘Jectorspray in his hand, which he’d obviously just used on him.

They wouldn’t stun him but they’d drugged him? Chris had more urgent things to do than work that one out. “Away from him, all of you, now!” he ordered as he jumped out.

It probably wasn’t the voice of authority so much as the sight of the megablaster, but they did reluctantly back a little further away. Vin rolled over, rose unsteadily to his knees, swayed there. Chris stepped forward to his side.

“What did you use on him?” he demanded, and his voice carried the deep anger he felt.

“This isn’t your business, Larabee!” one of the men said. Chris knew his face vaguely, didn’t care where from.

“I just made it my business,” he said, briefly taking one hand from the gun to haul Vin to his feet. There was no recognition on Vin’s face, his eyes were open but wide and unfocussed.

“We’re taking him in to Captain Wark,” another of the men protested. “We have to question him urgently!”

“Not if the Fleet want him first.”

That was the law, and they’d know it. Chris had a feeling that one or two of the men might actually be some of Wark’s officers undercover. “Now, what the hell did you give him?”

He could see anger, frustration, fear in different individuals. He swung the gun so that it centred on the one who looked most nervous. “What was in the ‘Jector, and why the hell did it need using on the street, if Wark wants him?”

“Don’t answer that,” the spokesman said quickly to the others. “He’s no right to…”

Chris didn’t bother with a warning; he fired the blaster straight at the road in front of the nervous man’s feet. It made a noise like a thunderclap and opened a crater a couple of feet deep. The man screamed and ran, leaving a trickle of urine running down into the hole. Chris let him go and swung the gun to the next man, whose nerve cracked.

“Veracin, all right! We gave him veracin.”

He was too frightened to lie, otherwise there was no way Chris would have believed him.

Veracin was the most expensive item in the whole expensive pharmacy of ‘truth’ drugs. It was so hard to synthesise, its use was supposed to be restricted to the highest federation agencies so that supplies were adequate. And it was effective. He’d never heard of anyone failing to answer questions under its influence.

He could understand why they wouldn’t have risked administering it at the LLE department; it was way out of their league, and major trouble if information about its use leaked out. What he really wanted to know though was who the hell had the money to pay for veracin and the power to obtain it—and what Vin could know that they wanted. It had to be something to do with the location of the missing kid—he’d merited a secret Fleet assignment; someone else must want him as much as Travis did.

That someone had spent his money for nothing; he wasn’t going to be very pleased. “You’d better go and tell your boss he’s wasted his investment,” he told the men. “Now get out of here.”

Furious, panicked faces met his words. They were just realising how badly they were screwed.

“You don’t know who you’re fooling with, Larabee!” one of them shouted. “There’s some interests even the Fleet can’t go up against.”

“Wrong,” Chris said, tiring of the conversation. “I’ll give you three seconds, then what anyone else will do to you will be the least of your worries.”

He fired a couple of parting shots as they backed away—lowest setting now, they only dug grooves, but it speeded their departure. And then, finally, he could turn to Vin.

Vin’s head was tilted back slightly, as if he was watching the stars. He rocked on his feet, but when Chris said quietly, “This way. Get into the car,” he obeyed like an automaton.

Chris hadn’t been thinking about the time, but it was probably less than ten minutes since they’d pumped the veracin into him. Chris had seen the stuff used on a couple of occasions. You got maybe half an hour of total compliance like this, which was your window for asking questions; after that it degenerated into hours of hallucinations and nightmare fantasies. He hadn’t liked the use of veracin when he saw it, even though he could understand the reasons and it was approved and documented. Injecting it into someone this way was the worst kind of assault.

He pressed the button to fasten Vin’s belt, tilted his seat back a little for him, then went up to the highest level while he decided what to do. What Travis would probably say was his duty was to use the opportunity he’d been given and find out where Dunne was. Chris wasn’t prepared to do that. The thought of benefiting from what had just been done turned his stomach. Anyway, he was beginning to think he’d like to know more about why exactly everyone wanted the kid before he played a part in bringing him in.

He also had to consider that Vin was going to get worse as the night wore on, probably a lot worse if Chris’s memories were correct. Someone ought to be with him. He could take him back to the Preacher, or call up the doctor, Nathan Jackson. They were both good men. But something in Chris rebelled at that course of action too. He set the car to return to his own apartment. At least he knew exactly what to expect, and no one else needed to see Vin this vulnerable… the way he sprawled in his seat, long hair adrift, made him look nearly as young as the kid they were all searching for. Chris’d take him back to the Preacher’s in the morning, when he was something nearer normal.

“If you’re lucky, you probably won’t remember anything,” he muttered to Vin as he docked at his apartment. He was talking to himself really; he didn’t expect an answer, but he’d forgotten how the veracin seemed to produce an urge to talk even in the most unlikely subjects.

“Remember I’m a Tanner,” Vin said drowsily. “Ma says, always remember. He never knowed I were comin’ but he’d’ve give me his name.”

Chris was brought up short; first by the knowledge that Vin wouldn’t have told him this willingly; more so by the fact he was sure he remembered that name. Tanner. He’d seen it this morning…

He half-carried Vin into the apartment, made him as comfortable as he could on the couch and sat beside him, because he’d need to be in reach once the side effects got bad. They’d a little while yet though. “Computer,” he ordered, and winced as Buck’s gift bounced into focus. “Show me the history of everything I searched this morning in Fleet archives.”

Josiah Sanchez always woke early. This morning, troubled by a sense of many people in need of prayer he’d been in the church before it was light—not that he doubted God heard him wherever he was, but the silence and the sense of the building being a place turned to God rather than the worlds calmed his mind and focused his thoughts a little.

It was dawn, and the last moon was setting when he came out. He was surprised to hear the soft noise of a hovcar so early, but he didn’t need to see the sleek black outline of this one to guess who his visitor was.

Larabee jumped out. He looked tired and red-eyed as though he hadn’t slept much. “Give me a hand here, Preacher,” he said, opening the passenger door.

“Vin?” Josiah hurried forward, alarmed as Larabee lifted Vin out.

“He’s okay, will be anyway. I brought him to you because I’ve no idea where else to take him. Might be a good idea to get Nathan to check him over. He ran into a gang of these people hunting for Dunne and they tried to use a truth drug on him. I don’t know what he’ll remember, but you’ll probably need to reassure him he didn’t tell them anything.”

Josiah blinked, trying to take it all in. He helped Chris carry Vin towards the house. “Bring him inside,” he said quickly. “How did you…?”

“I was on the lookout for him or the gambler,” Chris said briefly. “Luckily, I picked up what was happening before the men had had time to do more than use a ‘Jector on him. They didn’t stay to argue, and I thought you’d take care of him ’til he was up and about. I made sure no one saw me coming here.”

He set Vin down on the couch and eased him into a comfortable position, so naturally that Josiah wondered if there’d been more of a time lapse than Chris’s words had suggested and the captain had already been tending to Vin for a while. He didn’t ask. He’d left it all with God, who knew anyway.

“I’ll call Nathan,” he said. “Have you any idea what they used?”

“Stuff called veracin. I’m not sure he’ll have heard of it. It’s rare and extremely expensive, and shouldn’t have been available to anyone on Jericho.”

Josiah’s morning had barely started but he already felt the day had gotten away from him. “That’s… alarming,” he said.

“Yeah. I’m going in to Fleet headquarters now, see if I can find out what the hell’s going on. If you can keep Vin here with you, that might be a good idea. If he needs to go anywhere, you’ve got an old car haven’t you?”

“I’ve the car, but no current fuel tokens.”

Chris took out his wallet and handed over a couple. “Use these. Josiah—Vin and the other one—Ezra was it?—they’re out of their depth. Try and convince them to trust us.”

Josiah nodded. “I think he’s having to struggle not to,” he said quietly of Vin. He paused, and took a risk. “You didn’t ask him about the boy, when you could have done.”

Larabee’s grin was unnerving. “You sure of that, preacher?”

Josiah was now, he saw it in Chris’s eyes. “Yeah. And that should go a long way to convincing him you’re on his side.”

“Maybe,” Chris said, and for a moment his tiredness showed. “I’m going to leave it with you. And if you need me, call the Fleet with this code. It’s a priority one—they’ll get hold of me wherever I am.”

He glanced once at Vin, and went.

Josiah called Nathan, and hoped he’d arrive before Vin woke up.

Vin woke slowly, aware mainly of a thudding headache and the need to breathe slowly or throw up. He lay with his eyes closed for a while, the soft sound of voices reassuring because he recognised them, Nathan and Josiah talking not far away. The feel of the couch, the faint smell of candlewax and herbs, told him it was the Preacher’s house. It was safe to lie still and recover.

Memories came slowly and full of confusion at first. There’d been colours: gold and slow and soft, then the scarlet of nightmares, and the flying beasts from the stories he’d heard as a child, but so real the recollection of it made his heart pound even now. Horrors had swirled around him in multi-coloured terror, but safety had been black and held him with bands of steel, protecting him from whatever came. He must’ve been fevered… but that didn’t sit quite right with his thoughts … he’d been fine yesterday.

He lay still a while, then struggled to think what was the last thing he could remember. He’d been here. Yeah. Twice yesterday he’d been here, and Ezra was okay with JD, he did remember that. He and Ezra had been at the church and talked… Had he had some kind of accident after that?

“Vin, you awake?” That was Nathan, his voice quiet and concerned.

Vin opened his eyes and wished he hadn’t as the light hurt them, but he forced himself to keep them open.

“How are you feeling?”

“What happened?”

“You don’t remember?”

There was something about the way the two of them were looking at him… Vin decided to ignore the pounding in his head and damn well make himself remember. He had to stumble outside and throw up, but after that and a cup of Josiah’s coffee, things suddenly began to get alarmingly clear.

“I was tryin’ t’ get back t’ Ez and JD, but there were a lot of gangs lookin’ fer me by then. Must’ve found me and Ez with JD on some surveillance—we didn’t know fer a day or two that he was wanted; never known anythin’ like this anyway… I dodged some, then just about ran into another lot. Bad choice, too. They were some of th’ pro ones; reckon a couple of Wark’s guys were there, and at least one bounty hunter. I ran…”

He was silent for a while, searching his memory. Running, never quite getting away, knowing he was at the end of his rope… “They caught up with me,” he said slowly, and knew he was right. “They got me down, they were askin’ about JD, then… Someone hit me on th’ head?”

“No,” Josiah said. “They injected you with something to make you talk, but you didn’t, they didn’t have time to question you.”

The hiss of the ‘Jector… total panic… then a slow golden world where nothing mattered at all. Vin went outside and threw up again, but slower this time, so he decided he was probably mending.

“I got t’ call Ez,” he said when Nathan tried to help him back to the couch. “J’siah—you know for sure I didn’t talk? It might be JD’s life on it. Who got me away?”

Who the hell could have got him out of a situation like that? Five men, all pros, all armed…

“Shit!” he said, suddenly recalling a voice giving orders, cutting through the haze in his mind. He’d known the voice; he’d been so off his head he’d felt it was a friend, he’d felt safe, but he knew now. “It was Larabee, wasn’t it?”

“That’s good,” Nathan said. “Your memory’s coming back faster than I expected.”

Vin turned to Josiah. “You’re takin’ Larabee’s word I didn’t talk! Fuck it, Preacher…”

“That’s enough!” Josiah said, in a tone he almost never used. “Yes, I am. He says he got there before they had a chance to ask you any questions, and I know when a man’s telling the truth.”

“He’ll have asked me about JD himself!” Vin said, already using the computer to call Ezra. “Ez? Ez? You’re okay still? Listen! Go t’ plan B. No, not Wark, probably th’ Fleet. I’m goin’ t’ do what I can. Get movin’ now, Ez.”

He cut off the connection as Josiah reached over to stop him. “Vin!”

“I’m done here,” Vin said.

“Vin, all Chris Larabee did was help you, and that’s all we want to do. Whatever you just told Ezra to do, I don’t think it’ll make him or JD safe. Let me talk to him.”

“And tell him t’ give themselves up t’ the Fleet?” He saw in Josiah’s eyes that he hadn’t been far from the truth.

The feeling of betrayal hurt worse than the pounding in his head. He would have turned and walked away, but he wasn’t even sure they’d let him go. Making sure to look worse than he was feeling—and that wasn’t easy—he stumbled over to the couch. Sure enough, the conversation was forgotten, they both came worrying over him.

It wasn’t too hard, what with the fact the light really was hurting his eyes, to work it so Nate suggested he went into the dimness of the bedroom and lay down there. He rolled over, faced the wall, listened to them in the other room a moment. When he was reasonably sure they weren’t about to come back in, he slipped out of bed and left by the window. His head protested, and a wave of giddiness rocked him as he tried to hurry, but he made it safely. He hadn’t any idea where his rifle was, but in a hole behind some loose stone in the church, he and Ezra had stashed a small but adequate low energy pulse gun. Better really, because he didn’t want to kill anyone.

He walked away through the graveyard, keeping the church between himself and the Preacher’s house. The thought of Ez having to take care of JD on his own gnawed at him, but he’d no idea what he might have said to Larabee… not yet. He was going to find out though, and find what it was the Fleet, and every other group on the frontier, wanted with JD, and maybe find out some truth at last about his folks. Yesterday he’d spent money he couldn’t afford to discover Larabee’s address. Fighting off the dizziness and nausea that still rocked him, moving cautiously on the streets, his hair bound up hastily so he looked more like one of the Old Ones in the city for a day, Vin went hunting for answers.

Ezra shut down the laptop and made a hasty mental list of what he could take with him, while JD once more struggled into a skirt.

“Keep your normal clothes on underneath,” Ezra said. “And here—carry what you can.”

“What does Plan B mean?”

Ezra hated the name and had complained about clichés. Vin had said what the hell, it was easy to say and they both knew what it meant.

It meant Vin was in trouble and might have given away their hiding place.

Ezra had wanted to ask questions, lots of questions. Vin hadn’t sounded right, and Ezra would have been even more alarmed if he hadn’t traced the call to Josiah’s computer.

Perhaps once they were somewhere relatively safe, he could call Josiah from a pay link. For now, though, he had to move fast. Vin hadn’t been sure they’d be all right, had been relieved to hear Ezra’s voice, so whatever had happened must have been a while ago. He glanced again out of the window, but the street looked exactly as it ought to look.

“What’s Plan B?” JD persisted, managing to put on his top so that the bosom appeared vertical rather than horizontal. Ezra would have found it amusing in any other circumstances, but he couldn’t manage humour this morning. “It means you and I go to a place which I have chosen and the location of which is unknown to Vin. He would have a similar choice which I don’t know about if our positions were reversed. It means Vin’s not safe, and he’s afraid he could be forced to give away where we are.”

“Vin wouldn’t.”

Ezra sighed. “Vin would endure any amount of pain. Unfortunately, there are other ways of making someone talk.”

“But Vin said the Fleet. My Ma always said the Fleet are the last heroes left. She said she’d trust the Fleet above anyone else.”

“No organisation is perfect,” Ezra said, trying not to let the thought creep into his mind that the Fleet was a subject on which he and Vin had never entirely agreed—or at any rate, on which he didn’t share Vin’s comprehensive paranoia. Even the black-clad captain who’d accosted him the previous night… The man had been alarming, true, but Ezra had sensed what might be called rectitude in him, which was very far from the normal corruption of Jericho’s law enforcement.

However, this was not a time to be second-guessing Vin. Ezra patted and pushed JD into some kind of shape, handed him another tempi-bag filled with food and drink, lifted a larger one of his own and led the way back to the street. His choice of a temporary place to disappear was one he was rather pleased with. In its slightly more prosperous past, there had been enough vehicle owners on Jericho to warrant high-rise parking lots. None of these were now full even on the lower levels. The top was cleaner and better-serviced and reserved for hovs, but the couple of levels below that were always deserted.

Ezra had spent a useful couple of hours some weeks ago, first decoding the lock of the empty maintenance room on one of those levels, and then replacing the code with one of his own. He punched that in now, and he and JD were able to make themselves adequately comfortable.

“We ought to have brought the laptop,” JD complained.

“Nothing electronic. It’s too easy to trace.”

“But what do we do then, just sit here?”

“For the time being.” He looked at the dismay on JD’s face. “Later, I may go and call the Preacher, see if Vin has left any further message. JD—if there’s any time I go out and fail to come back, leave here. I can’t tell you where to go, because I don’t know who’s safe and who isn’t. You’ll have to make your own judgment. But I hope it won’t come to that.”

JD nodded solemnly, and Ezra felt a pang of regret at having to put it so harshly. “In the meantime,” he said, “let’s turn our intelligence to the vexed question of why all this is happening. I want you to tell me about your life, especially leading up to your arrival on Jericho—perhaps we can work out just what it is that everyone wants.”

“There isn’t much to tell,” JD said.

“Nevertheless, we may as well occupy our time in a way that has some chance of bearing fruition.”

He settled himself on the grimy floor, and turned his concentration to the extremely ordinary life JD seemed to have led.

Chris left Buck to try the repeated calls it was taking to get through to Orrin Travis. On the other side of the room, he could hear him trying first to charm and then to bulldoze his way through the layers of bureaucracy that seemed to be surrounding the admiral. He guessed Orrin must be in a high level meeting; it was never so difficult to get to him when he was on his own. It was hard for Buck, too, to stress the importance of speaking to him when he couldn’t give any details of why he was making the call.

Chris left him to it. Two of them trying would just confuse the issue further. Instead, at his own console, he started to look at the story that was the key to Vin’s past. He’d barely begun the attempt the previous night when Vin had started to toss and writhe, fending off some imagined flying monsters, creatures from a myth he’d heard as a child from what Chris could make out of his mumbled words. The rest of the night, the last thing on Chris’s mind had been the computer. He’d found in the end, that if he held Vin very firmly, so that he couldn’t flail at all, it actually seemed to calm him, so he’d spent more hours than he liked to remember doing that and talking quietly to him until the hallucinatory side-effects wore off and Vin fell into a heavy sleep.

He wondered about calling Josiah, asking if Vin was okay, but decided against it. If Vin hadn’t remembered Chris being there, better for him never to know. Josiah would have more sense than to volunteer the information. Chris wasn’t planning to reappear in Vin’s life ’til he had some answers for him.

He found the twenty-year old story and saw that he’d remembered correctly. Killed in action, defending the passengers of the New Dawn, none of whom even knew they’d been in danger, there was the name Michael Vincent Tanner. Chris found that by using his high-level security code he could see the action and hear the communications with headquarters. A half-forgotten pride in the Fleet stirred in him. This kid—he’d only been twenty when he died—had flown like a veteran and held off the three pirate ships single-handed for long enough for reinforcements to come in range. The cool young voice reminded him painfully of Vin’s the previous morning. His death, a silent sacrifice known to no one except his closest comrades, had been a hero’s.

How could the story that came down to Vin have become so badly screwed up?

He went out into the main Fleet office. It was Alvi on duty this morning, and he was past official retirement age. He might even have been in this sector twenty years ago.

“Alvi?” he asked quietly. “You know anything about a young lieutenant called Michael Tanner, killed in Jericho space twenty years ago?”

Alvi looked up at him, surprised, maybe by the question, maybe simply by the fact Chris was taking an interest in something beyond the bottle and the cemetery.

“Yes sir. I was stationed here when he died. It’s damned unfair, the way those pirate attacks were all covered up then. Mike Tanner should have had medals, a proper memorial. He had a great future Captain Larabee—you know what they used to say about the Fleet long ago, that our pilots were the best and the brightest guys on the Frontier. Mike was like that. He was one to be proud of.”

“You never had any idea he could have had a girl, one from the Tribes?”

Alvi shrugged. “He wasn’t the sort to talk a lot about himself, but if he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me. He liked it out towards the Old Ones’ lands—used to say he liked the open space, to ride miles without seeing anyone.”

“But you didn’t have a girl from there on his list of people to be informed if he died?”

Alvi looked uncomfortable. “Thing is Captain, the guys used to have a lot of people on their lists. And in this case, especially, because of keeping the pirate problem under wraps, unless someone was listed as official next-of-kin, they’d just have gotten a form letter. You know how it is, you list lawyers and bank offices and so on as well as family, and I’m not sure even family would have heard much about this unless it was actually a wife or life partner. We were always on at the lads to update things, but it was difficult—sometimes they weren’t sure how seriously a relationship was going to turn out. Mike Tanner’s death was out of the blue, really; it should just have been a routine patrol. He would never have thought there was a need to sort his affairs out before he flew. Must have been the first time the pirates tried this part of the sector. Are you saying a woman’s turned up after all these years?”

“No; the woman died a long time ago. But I think I may have met Mike Tanner’s son yesterday.”

Alvi stared, speechless for a full minute. “His son?” he asked in the end. “You’re serious, sir?”

“I reckon so, yes. You could confirm it easily enough. I haven’t worked out exactly what happened, but I think the mother may have found out she was pregnant after Tanner died. My guess is that she didn’t understand much about how the Fleet worked, that the kid would have been entitled to support and education. Instead it looks like he grew up more or less wild.”

“Well I’m damned,” Alvi said softly. “I can tell you one thing for sure. If the kid was Mike’s, he’d have done right by him; in fact, I don’t see it happening unless he was really serious with a girl. We could prove the relationship quickly with DNA test, sir.”

“I know. It may be more complicated than it sounds though.” He explained to Alvi the apparent coincidence of the mother’s death with her visit to the Fleet office. “One way or another, the kid’s got a distorted impression of the Fleet.”

Alvi looked genuinely upset. “Mike would have hated that. He was proud to be in the Fleet—he wasn’t an academic type, but he was such a good flier and so cool under pressure he made lieutenant young, and I still remember the party we threw him. If this is his kid, he would hate for him to believe anything against the Fleet. We wouldn’t need much for the DNA, sir, and I’ll take a look though the records and see if I can find anything that relates to the mother. How long ago did she die?”

“Fifteen years.”

“Poor kid. Well, I’ll get right on to it.”

“Thanks.” Chris downloaded everything he’d accessed onto a handheld, and mindful of what Alvi had just told him, also managed to find some happier shots of Tanner with the other Fleet pilots at some social occasions, and when he got his promotion. Then he leaned over and spoke to Buck. “Any luck with the admiral?”

“They’re putting me on hold because he’s in with some bigwig from earth. Only just started the meeting, too.”

Chris thought quickly. Alvi was right about the DNA; the computer could match from very little. He thought about Vin twisting and struggling on the couch, long hair tangled around his shoulders. There was a good chance some was still adhering to the back or arm of the couch now, and he could take the handheld there, maybe get it to Vin at the Preacher’s…

“I’m just going to call back at the apartment,” he told Buck. “Shouldn’t be too long.”

“Okay—I’m going to check incoming while I wait for Travis.”

“Do a port wide scan for any unusual drugs or technology, even if they’ve got clearance.”

The veracin had come in in a drugs shipment, actually listed, but since it had the paperwork no one had queried anything. It wasn’t well-known enough to catch the eye of a clerk, and had been picked up by the clinic carrier. Where and how it had gotten into the hands of the men who used it, Chris hadn’t found out yet.

Buck looked up. “You know something I don’t know.”

“Hell yes, the list would take me all day. Buck—if you do pick something up that seems important, don’t call me in the car, it’s not secure enough. In fact, might be best if you come over to the apartment; it’s close enough. I don’t think you’re going to get Travis in the next couple of hours.”

Vin felt worse than he had the first time he and Ezra tried Josiah’s homemade hooch. The Preacher had said then that they deserved to suffer for helping themselves without asking, and that it wasn’t intended to be drunk from a mug. He had the same pounding headache, and he’d thrown up more than there was in his stomach. The last time he’d been sick he felt as if he’d turned himself inside out. But he’d managed to keep moving, and the small changes he’d made to his appearance seemed to have been enough—wasn’t like this was the part of Jericho anyone’d be expecting to find him.

He found the block where Larabee’s apartment was. It was one of those places where no one had to know their neighbours, every entrance separate. Larabee was up on the second floor. You could call to be let up there in an elevator, or he had an entrance for anyone docking in a hov. That one looked Vin’s best bet. He went around the back. He’d worked once on power for these sort of rich people’s places. There were maintenance shafts. You couldn’t get into the apartments from them, but the docking port, that he might manage.

He was still struggling to get a hatch cover off at the right level when he saw a sleek black hov car that he knew was Larabee’s. Somewhere in the rocking roiling muddle of his memory, he thought he remembered being in it, and that settled his determination even more. He couldn’t get out of the shaft in time to do anything though. He saw Larabee punch in some codes but he couldn’t memorise them quick enough; he wished he had Ez with him… His stomach twisted again when he thought of Ezra and JD, hiding up somewhere, maybe not safe even now.

Vin had finally gotten the hatch off, and was wondering where would be the best place to wait, when he saw another hov coming. If he chose his moment right, he’d be behind anyone who docked and waited to be let into the apartment. His face hardened when he saw the driver wore the Fleet uniform—another officer, seemed like they were getting real interested in Jericho all of a sudden, and no prizes for guessing why.

This one wasn’t like Larabee though. He didn’t have that hard edge. Looked kind of a friendly guy, but Vin wasn’t falling for that. He slipped silently from the hatch to drop down covered by the hov, and waited while the officer asked to be let in. Sounded like a friend of Larabee’s, not just a colleague. That made it easier for Vin to put the gun to the back of his neck, and say quietly, “Don’t make a sound.”

“Chris, don’t open up!” the guy yelled. “There’s a guy here with a gun on me.”

“Open up or I’ll shoot him out here and tip him off the platform,” Vin said, trying to sound as if he was prepared for cold-blooded murder. “And stay back. I want to see you away from the door when it opens.”

There was a long pause.

“I’m giving you thirty seconds,” Vin said, keeping his voice hard and flat.

He must have been convincing. At any rate, the door swung open and he saw Larabee in the kitchen area.

“Go on in,” he ordered the other officer, and was relieved when the man stepped forward. The action of the last few minutes had made him feel worse than ever, and he just wanted to get this over with.

“Walk ahead,” he said, following the guy in. “Straight over to join Larabee.”

Then there was the beginning of a movement to the side of the doorway, and he knew somehow he’d miscalculated. He barely had time to react at all, but his immediate instinct was to reduce the number of people he was facing. The pulse-gun was set on its lowest energy charge. Simultaneously as he turned to face this unexpected threat, he fired two fast shots at the officer in front of him who grunted and fell, and at Larabee… who shimmered? But the man beside the door must have been equally poised to act. As the second shot went off a hand chopped down across Vin’s wrist, numbing it and making him drop the gun before he’d had a chance even to see his assailant. Vin twisted to one side and came around fast. He found himself facing the man who’d been behind the door—and impossibly, it was Chris Larabee. Before Vin could take in the fact that somehow Larabee was both here and on the other side of the room, the captain’s fist had taken him in the stomach. He doubled over, too sick already to be able to stand a hit there, and expected to be finished off with a second blow to the head, but he was caught and held instead as he retched.

It didn’t make much difference in the end. He’d reached the end of his strength without Larabee having to do any more. The wave of giddiness that came over him now was too strong to throw off. He would have fallen, only instead of imprisoning him, the arms that gripped him now seemed to be holding him up.

Safety was black and protected him with arms of steel… The thought fluttered dizzily though his mind as his legs gave way under him, and he wondered where it came from. Then he stopped wondering altogether, and slid into the dark.

Chris took a second to check the dead weight in his arms was genuine; it wasn’t a trick to get him to drop his guard. He eased Vin to the floor and hastily checked on Buck, and on the gun’s setting. He’d seen it was a non-lethal as Vin came in; he was relieved now to find it was also dialled to its lowest energy level. Even so, Buck would be out for a while. As for Vin, it was clear now that he must have been close to collapse before Chris finished him off—no surprise really after the veracin; what was more surprising was that Vin had made it this far.

Chris stooped to lift Vin over his shoulder, and at the same time ordered the computer to call Josiah Sanchez. Chris needed a medic, preferably an unofficial one, and the Preacher might be able to locate Nathan Jackson for him. It was bizarre watching the hologram of himself move around the computer, but it had come in very useful. He’d programmed it in because it was easier than getting rid of the whole programme Buck had installed, and he didn’t think he could stand another day of Bouncing Bet or Busty Bess or whatever Buck had called her. When he’d heard Vin outside, he’d realised it would be the perfect distraction.

He settled Vin on the bed, shifted him into a safe position and put an adapting blanket over him. By the time he was back in the main room, heaving Buck up onto the couch, Josiah’s face had appeared on the screen. “Nate’s here,” the Preacher said when Chris had briefly explained what he wanted. “I’ll send him straight over. I’m sorry about what happened… Vin can’t have been thinking clearly. I handled him badly, too. If there’s any way you could…”

“See my way to ignoring the fact he just shot a Fleet officer?” Chris asked, and saw Josiah wince. He let him suffer a minute longer—they’d been damn careless to lose the kid—then put him out of his misery. “I’m going to handle it myself, Preacher, not hand him over for some official punishment.”

“Thank you!”

“Just send Jackson over here as quickly as possible.”

Vin hadn’t stirred. He looked unexpectedly peaceful. Buck groaned once but didn’t come any closer to consciousness. Chris hoped that whatever Buck had been coming to tell him wasn’t a matter of life-and-death urgency.

Nathan Jackson arrived surprisingly fast considering that he was in the Preacher’s old car, and surprisingly well-equipped. “We get a lot of stunnings around our streets,” he said. “I’ve adapted a stimulant. It should bring him around quite quickly and then if I can use your synthesizer I’ll make up a drink to clear his head.”

“Okay. Give him the injection and then come and take a look at Vin.”

Nathan administered the ‘Jector spray, and checked that Buck’s reaction to it was normal. “It’ll take maybe five minutes to start having a real effect.”

He spent that time with Vin, satisfying himself that what was wrong with him was the lingering after effects of the veracin and exhaustion after the night he’d endured. “He was throwing up earlier this morning too, so he may be a bit dehydrated. I don’t want to give him anything that could react with the veracin left in his system. Ideally, let him wake up in his own time and drink plenty of fluids if he can keep them down.”

“I hit him in the stomach,” Chris said, feeling unreasonably guilty.

“Not hard enough to do any damage,” Nathan said, checking a second time. He pulled the blanket back over Vin. “I don’t know how much Vin will appreciate your generosity over this, but his friends do.”

Chris nodded, moved to tuck the blanket in and stopped himself. “Let’s check on Wilmington.”

Buck was stirring. Nathan went over to the synthesizer and started to dial in a list of ingredients. Chris sat down by the couch, and held Buck flat when he first tried to sit up. “Steady, old dog. You got on the wrong end of a pulse.”

“No shit,” Buck muttered, holding his head as if it might drop off. “Did you get the bastard? What happened?”

“Long story,” Chris said. “I’ll explain later. What were you coming here to tell me?”

As he’d hoped, that distracted Buck.

“Cargoes,” Buck said, cautiously trying to sit up. “I was doing what you said about cargoes.”

Chris lent him an arm. “The doc here reckons he has something that’ll help.”

Buck took the cup Nathan held out, sniffed it and blinked. “I don’t want to know, do I?”

“Try and drink it down without tasting it,” Nathan advised.

Buck hesitated a moment then took a couple of gulps, yelped and clutched the top of his head again. For a moment Chris thought he was going to be violently sick, but then he sighed and leaned back again. “Hell, that was awful. What is that stuff?”

“It’s a sort of variation of a very old hangover cure,” Nathan said, offering him a cup of water to take the taste away. “It clears your head.”

“Like a rocket through the brain,” Buck muttered, but he did look more alert now. “Chris, I came over because there was a biosigns locator on the manifest for the LLE. You can’t tell me Wark and his boys have got funding for one of those. It has to be so that they can isolate the Dunne kid.”

“It’s worth a hell of a lot of money to someone to find him,” Chris muttered. First the veracin, now a biosigns locator. “Has Wark collected it?”

“No, I picked it up as it was arriving and slapped a customs restriction on it, Fleet order, but it won’t hold past Wark appealing to a senior enough judge.”

“That’ll take him a while though,” Chris said. “At least it ought to, unless whoever provided the locator has a judge in his pocket.”

“Or unless there’s an accident at customs and it’s picked up by mistake,” Buck said. “I left Alvi making sure that didn’t happen, but I ought to go back. Besides, I might actually be able to get Travis now.”

“You can’t drive,” Chris said, wondering if now was the moment he was going to have to explain Vin’s presence. Maybe he could leave Nathan with the kid, but he’d wanted to set things straight once and for all, before Vin did something no one could get him out of…

“I could drive him,” Nathan offered, understanding something of Chris’s dilemma. “Doc Laird had an old hov and I used to drive him around in it. And that way I’ve a chance to make sure he’s really okay.”

“I’ve got some details I need to tie up here about the guy who shot you,” Chris told Buck, truthfully as far as it went. “You okay with Nate driving you?”

“If his driving’s better than his medicine tastes,” Buck said, with a shadow of a grin. “Yeah. I’ll see you later, Chris—and maybe you’ll answer some questions about what just happened here.”

“I owe you some answers,” Chris agreed. He helped Buck to his feet, but hardly needed to. Buck was recovering fast. Nathan proved perfectly competent with a hov, and Chris turned back into the apartment with relief as they left. He had to deal with Vin now, and he’d rather do it without an audience.

He went through to the bedroom. Like Nate said, ideally he’d have let Vin sleep, but too much was happening too fast on Jericho, and Vin was their only link to JD Dunne. He lifted him up so he was sitting propped against his arm. “Vin,” he said quietly. “Time to wake up.”

Vin mumbled something inaudible.

“Computer, coffee,” Chris said over his shoulder. He hauled Vin to his feet and half-walked, half-carried him through to the other room. The movement woke Vin a little; being seated on the couch, Chris more or less pouring the coffee into him did more. He looked white and tired and defeated, but he managed to push Chris’s hand away. “I ain’t going t’ give up,” he said. “Whatever y’ do t’ me, I won’t give up.”

“No one’s asking you to give up. You want to know the truth about what happened to your father—I’ve got it here,” Chris said. He took the handheld he’d left on the table and put it on Vin’s lap. “Your father wasn’t killed by the Fleet, he died serving in it. He was a Fleet pilot. One of the best. He saved a hell of a lot of people when he died. Watch this and maybe I’ll be able to answer any questions you have.”

It felt abrupt, worse than abrupt, brutal, but he had to get through to Vin and he had to do it fast.

Vin was silenced, looking at him to assess the truth of what he was saying, holding the handheld as if it might explode. He looked suddenly vulnerable, but Chris intended to see this through. He leaned over, started the files he’d downloaded, and went to work at his own computer to give Vin the illusion of some privacy. For a moment the silence behind him continued, then he heard Vin start the recording.

The battle was harder to listen to than it had been to see. Chris gave up even trying to work, as that young voice, so like Vin’s, came through clear and unhesitating. After a few minutes he turned to look at Vin, and couldn’t bear to leave him alone any longer. He returned to the couch and slid an arm around him.

The scenes came to an end, shifted into the more cheerful ones Chris had added, and a final clip of Alvi, today, saying how Mike Tanner had been one of the best and the brightest, and then the screen went blank. Vin turned to look at him, and his face was devastated.

“He saved a lot of lives,” Chris said softly. “No one would have blamed him if he pulled back to wait for reinforcements, but he knew the ship might be taken. I’ve never seen anyone fly better than he did.”

Vin’s eyes met his, uncompromisingly honest even when it was hurting him. “He was an officer in th’ Fleet,” he said softly, pain but no disbelief in his voice. “I been against everything that ever mattered to him.”

It was true in a way. Mike Tanner’s pride in the Fleet had shone through those later shots. But in everything important, Chris reckoned Vin was his father’s son.

“No you haven’t,” he told Vin with the same honesty. “I saw you yesterday, ready to do what it took to rescue Nate Jackson. I know you’ve risked a lot to help young Dunne. Protecting those who needed it was what really mattered to your father. He’d be proud of you.”

Vin’s face twisted, fighting not to give way to what he felt. Chris pulled him against his shoulder, felt him shudder and rubbed his hair with hard comfort. His own eyes stung, for Vin, for his own dead, for all lives cut agonisingly short. Now the angry need for revenge was gone, he hoped Vin could find some sort of peace about his past. Time was passing, but Chris sat still, held Vin, and found an unexpected easing of his own pain. After three arid years, he wept for Sarah and Adam.

Vin felt as if every familiar landmark had shifted its place; all the certainties of his life were uprooted and cast away, and the only reason he wasn’t completely lost was Chris’s hold on him. He knew now why black had been the colour of safety in last night’s chaotic dreams; the memories were as jumbled as everything else in his mind, but the sense of it was there, Chris’s arms an unbreakable barrier against the hallucinatory dangers his mind threw up, Chris’s voice a reassurance as the world went mad.

There were no wild images from his imagination now, but he’d just as much need of that hard, protective grip to hold him together. All his beliefs about his life and his plans for the future had proved as insubstantial as wind patterns in the sand. The father who’d only been a name and a cause was suddenly a real person, not much older than Vin, a guy with a job he loved and friends and a life… and he’d given it all up freely to save that shipload of passengers.

The questions piled up in Vin’s mind, and the way his head was throbbing he couldn’t think through them now, questions about his ma, and why the world didn’t know what his father had done. Bigger than that though, was his pride in the man he’d never known. Even with all the suffering that had followed, his dad had made the right choice, and Vin honoured it.

And Chris Larabee had found all this out for him…

Vin thought of the way he’d turned his back on Chris the day they met, the things he’d said to Josiah, the angry assumption he’d made that Chris would have found out about JD. Hell, the fact he’d turned up at Chris’s apartment armed, too… Vin ought to get his act together, apologise to him, but just for a few moments longer he wanted to stay still where he was and let the new world take shape around him. Chris had been there for him through it all, whether Vin knew it or not, and Vin could tell he wasn’t going to let go now.

Vin took the few moments, and a couple of deep breaths, and he was just about ready to lift his head up when the computer said, “Urgent incoming call.” He and Chris both looked up then, and Buck appeared on the screen looking angry and disturbed.

“Chris, those bastards somehow got an injunction already. Wark’s on his way to pick up the indicator. If they’ve enough details on the kid, it’s not going to take them that long to search Jericho. We need to find him first.”

Chris looked at Vin, not needing to say the question aloud.

Vin shook his head. “I don’t know where he is,” he said miserably. “I thought I might’ve given him away t’ you last night, so I told Ez to take him someplace I wouldn’t know. I made it worse, didn’t I?”

“We’ll find him,” Chris said. “Buck. Stay on Wark; if he locates the kid we’ll be right behind him. I’ll be with you in a minute. Vin, you up to coming with me?”

Vin nodded, though spears of pain went though his head when he did it, and his stomach still felt like it might heave inside out. No way was he going to be left behind with JD and Ezra in that kind of trouble.

“I’ve a friend of Dunne’s here with me,” Chris said. “I’ll bring him along. Might help the kid know who the good guys are.”

“He’s a ‘friend’ who sounds a hell of a lot like the bastard who stunned me,” Buck said, suspiciously.

“He’s with me,” Chris repeated, and that made Vin feel better. “We’ll be there in ten.”

Vin wondered what Chris was taking those few extra minutes for, but he understood when Chris went through to the bedroom and put on his Fleet uniform. Vin followed him to the hov, and in spite of the pounding that never let up in his head he felt good, like he’d finally found out where he belonged. Chris checked both his guns and the ‘megablaster’, handed Vin back his own old rifle which Chris had left in the hov the night before, and they were ready for whatever it took.

Ezra first realised something unusual was happening far too late to do anything about it. He made regular checks of the street, but in fifteen minutes the neighbourhood had gone from being empty to being full of LLE vehicles, including one with a weird and ominous looking antenna spiralling at the top.

“Ezra?” JD asked, seeing his stillness.

“We may have a problem,” Ezra said, inadequately. “You take an interest in technology—do you recognise that thing?”

JD came forward to see what he was gesturing at, and looked at Ezra in wide-eyed dismay. “It’s a biosigns indicator. They’re incredibly expensive. I thought there weren’t any on the frontier. Do you think they’re looking for me with it?”

“That, unfortunately, would be the logical deduction,” Ezra said, searching for any kind of solution to this and failing to find one. “Is there anything that can disrupt their working? Otherwise, I fail to see how we can get out of here.”

“I think they’re proofed against interference,” JD said. “That’s why they’re so expensive.”

A smooth sleek black hov car suddenly appeared in the airspace above the street, and before anyone had time to react to its arrival, its side door opened and a man in the uniform of a Fleet captain leaned out holding something that looked more like a cannon than a hand gun. No one saw or heard the shot, but the bio signs indicator exploded, sending everyone around it diving for cover.

“Way to go!” Ezra said, forgetting to be sophisticated. “Looks like the manufacturers underestimated the effect of brute force.”

“They already know we’re here though,” JD said. “Ezra—what are they doing?”

Some men from the LLE ran forward to the base of the building, an order was shouted and the street cleared with unnerving rapidity.

“This doesn’t look good,” Ezra said, wishing he hadn’t chosen a hiding place so high up. There was no quick way down from here. Not alive, anyway.

He dragged JD back to the solid centre of the building, where there was some hope of floor remaining if he was right about what had just been done. They’d only been there a second when the series of explosions he’d been fearing went off below. He lay on top of JD as the building started to collapse, settle and shudder with imminent structural failure.

The black hov and another shot past the trembling building, high then lower, pausing to send a warning blast at an LLE vehicle that came up towards them.

“They’re looking for us,” JD said. “They’re the Fleet. I told you they were the good guys. They’ve come to rescue us.”

Ezra wasn’t really convinced that there were any good guys in this scenario, and perhaps that made him all the more unprepared for JD to act on what he’d just said. Scrambling from Ezra’s protection and running to the open side of the level, where the floor was in danger of falling away altogether, he waved wildly at the second hov.

“Here! We’re in here!”

Ezra went to stop him as fast as was compatible with not precipitating the floor’s collapse. It was too late. The hov swerved down like a bird of prey, its doors swung up, and a cheerful looking officer with a moustache reached his hands out to JD.

“No JD!” Ezra yelled, but with a ready trust that was not in Ezra’s opinion a survival trait, JD flung himself out and was grabbed and hauled safely in.

Of course, there were times when mistrust was not such a great survival trait either… The building shuddered again. Ezra looked for options and could find none.

The black hov swung down to his level where the first one had been.

Ezra could see the man in it clearly now. Not only was he a Fleet captain, he was the one Ezra had run from the night before. Collapsing building, vengeful Fleet captain? Still no options.

The hov stayed, the man leaned out. “Over here!” he ordered.

Ezra’s feet moved in obedience before his brain caught up with them and he stopped again. “Damn it Ezra!” the captain yelled. He knew Ezra’s name? Not good. The building made a horrible groaning noise. Not good either. Then someone leaned out dangerously from the back seat of the hov.

“Ezra, what the hell are you waitin’ for?”

Vin? Vin was there? Vin of all people wanted to know why he wasn’t hurling himself into the arms of the Fleet?

“Ezra!” the captain shouted in the sort of voice that it was very hard not to obey. “Get your butt over here before Vin jumps out and you both go down with the building.”

The combination of the authoritative tone and the very real threat Vin might do something that stupid, got Ezra moving at last. He was barely in time. The captain caught him in a grip like a steel clamp, shouted at Vin to reach the controls and get them away, and they were just out of range of everything but small particles and dust when the parking lot finally went down in an impressive piece of destruction.

“You want a hand gettin’ him in?” Vin asked.


Ezra was hauled in a most undignified way into the back of the hov car, where there was barely room for him and Vin. The spare front seat was taken up with the huge gun that had blasted the indicator. He brushed dust from himself with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking, and saw with concern that Vin looked very pale and drawn. Vin grinned though. “You see Chris use the megablaster?” he asked.

“I feel as if I’ve stepped into a parallel universe,” Ezra said, trying to keep his voice steadier than his hands. “Since when have you been on first name terms with captains of the Fleet?” he added in an undertone.

Vin looked whiter for a moment, and he wished he hadn’t asked. “It’s kind of a long story,” Vin said.

“It’s going to have to wait, too,” Chris said shortly, swerving from the course he’d taken. “Looks like Wark reckons he’s nothing left to lose.”

Between them and the spaceport, Ezra suddenly realised that every hov the LLE owned was lined up. Chris snapped into the com link, “Buck. Think they’re prepared to try to shoot us down?”

“Lucky you’ve got the blaster,” came back the reply, but there was strain that Ezra could detect behind the cheerfulness. There were an awful lot of hovs there.

“Chris—look!” Vin said, his voice full of awe.

Ezra moved so that he could see in the same direction. Sweeping down behind the LLE hovs, a sight he’d never expected to see in Jericho airspace, came a full squadron of Fleet fighters.

The LLE men saw them at the same time and scattered in all directions.

“Well I’m damned!” Buck’s voice came through. “Looks like Travis pulled his head out of his ass in time after all.”

“We’re monitoring your communications, Commander Wilmington,” came an unamused voice, overriding whatever reply Chris had been about to make. “Report in to the Fleet offices immediately. It’s time this business was cleared up.”

Orrin Travis had received the communications from Jericho while he was actually on his way to the planet, a fact his fool of a secretary had failed to tell Commander Wilmington. Even his worst imaginings had not encompassed what seemed like all out war, however. It was clear that the information he believed was secret was much too widely known, and that there had been some breakdown, to say the least, in the law enforcement on Jericho.

He surveyed the untidy group gathered before him—untidy with the exception of Chris Larabee who looked ready for parade. It was a huge encouragement to see him in the uniform of the Fleet again, and this was making it difficult for Travis to pursue matters with the stern impartiality he favoured. Predictably, the LLE was blaming the Fleet, denying any wrongdoing and claiming they’d acted in good faith.

Chris Larabee had one hand on the shoulder of a long-haired and grimy young tribesman. The other was gripping the arm of an individual Orrin was almost sure he’d seen on the wanted shots from some space-station. And Chris made it clear from the start that he was not prepared to be diplomatic. He listed in forensic detail not only the conduct he blamed Wark for today, but a damning list of incidents of corruption he’d evidently noted while everyone thought he was too busy drinking his life away to care.

“Larabee fired first!” Wark protested. “We were looking for JD Dunne for his own safety. All sorts of low life—including those two—have been trying to kidnap him.”

“They were keeping me safe!” Dunne protested. “And you blew up the building I was in!”

This was the most unanswerable part of the charges against the LLE, not that Orrin had any serious doubt where the guilt lay. It would take a much more talented liar than Wark to explain that away, regardless of Chris’s demolition of the biosigns indicator.

“I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of the use of explosives in these circumstances,” Orrin told the LLE chief. “It was evidently only by sheer good luck and some quick reactions by Commander Wilmington that Mr Dunne didn’t lose his life in the destruction of the parking block.” He was privately certain that most of Larabee’s other charges would be provable in time, but he wanted Wark to see immediately just how much trouble he was in. Then perhaps he would inform on the men who had bribed him in the hope of saving his own skin.

Wark glared at Larabee. Anger, or perhaps hate, seemed to have pushed him past the point where self-interest was his first thought. Rather than plea-bargaining, he was looking to get in some final blow—not at Larabee himself, that wasn’t in reach, but at the two young men he had a protective, or possibly preventive, hold on.

“I’m making formal charges against those two,” Wark said, gesturing at them. “Ezra Standish is a gambler who’s been involved in all kinds of criminal activity in this sector; the tribesman has a record on Jericho. They kidnapped Dunne and kept him from the authorities.”

Larabee smiled, rather like a predator scenting something juicy.

“This is Vin Tanner, admiral,” he said, nodding to the tribesman. “Son of Lieutenant Michael Tanner who died twenty years ago off Jericho protecting the New Dawn. He has the rights of a Fleet dependant. He’s also been working with me, so I take responsibility for him.”

Travis stared. He remembered the pirate attack on the New Dawn; he’d been a captain then. He remembered the young lieutenant who’d died, too, and thought he could see traces of his face in the pale one staring defiantly at him.

“You’re lying!” Wark protested furiously. “He’s a drifter. He’s nothing to do with the Fleet.”

“Actually sir,” Sergeant Alvi said diffidently, “I can guarantee that Vin Tanner has all the appropriate paperwork, including full DNA corroboration.”

Alvi had arrived rather breathless a few minutes after everyone else and whispered something to Larabee… There were areas that were definitely irrelevant to Orrin Travis’ enquiry though.

“As for Standish,” Larabee went on, “I’ve co-opted him—which I have the authority to do as the senior Fleet officer on Jericho.”

“You’re not a serving officer, you’re a lousy drunk!” Wark shouted, his self-control disappearing.

Chris Larabee had a better control of his temper, or maybe Wark was beneath his contempt. Vin moved as if he’d like to take up the matter on Chris’s behalf, but Chris had a grip on him before he’d gone a step. Orrin glared at Buck Wilmington, but he’d not thought of Alvi who stepped forward and unleashed a punch that sent the LLE commander flying over backwards.

“I don’t care if you stop my pension, sir,” he said to Orrin. “He’d no right to say that to Captain Larabee.”

“I agree,” Orrin said, deciding that this was becoming farcical. “Jericho is being put under Fleet control until I decide otherwise. Gentlemen,” he nodded forward the silent officers who waited behind him, “Take Commander Wark and place him in custody along with the other arrested officers. Captain Larabee, since you’re taking responsibility for these young men, I expect them to remain with you until I’ve completed my enquiries.”

To his surprise, Chris seemed content with that arrangement.

“Mr Wilmington,” Orrin went on. “I sent you here to find JD Dunne and you do seem to have achieved that, if not with the discretion I would have preferred. I’m making you personally responsible for keeping him safe and well here on Jericho for the next two days. Ask for what complement of men you think you’ll need.”

“Why, sir?” Dunne asked, quite respectfully. “Why is all this happening?”

Orrin hadn’t decided whether to inform Dunne now or in two days time, but it was obvious the information was no longer a secret. That didn’t, however, mean he wanted to share the background to the incidents widely. Chris and Buck would need to know…

“Captain Larabee, Commander Wilmington, I’d like you to accompany Mr Dunne to the Fleet Office,” he said formally. “I see no need to make this a public discussion.”

Chris Larabee looked doubtfully at Tanner and Standish, who Orrin had no intention of inviting along. Vin looked as if he was in danger of falling on his face if Chris let go of him—whatever he’d been doing with regard to Dunne had left him white and drawn and he’d been looking steadily worse throughout this last few minutes. Ezra Standish looked as though he had recognised the admiral and was weighing up whether Chris would go on protecting him once he knew his record.

“Leave them with me, sir,” Alvi offered.

A young negro—who for reasons Orrin hadn’t yet discovered had been acting as driver for Wilmington—stepped forward to join Alvi. “I’ll keep an eye on Vin,” he said to Chris. “And maybe you could give the order to let Josiah through; he’s down in the concourse.”

“If you could give me a couple of minutes, sir,” Chris said.

Orrin nodded. He was interested in the odd dynamic here. He’d known for a long time that on several colonies like Jericho the formal system of law and order had become unacceptably corrupted, but he’d not seen any option but to try to reform it. Here Chris seemed to have bypassed the system altogether. Orrin watched as he called a man in Preacher’s garb up to join them and gave quick orders to him, Alvi, and Wilmington’s driver.

“Any problem, I’m two minutes away,” Chris added shortly. “Vin, sit down and do what Nathan says. Ezra—running out on me once was an error of judgment; it happens again, I’ll assume it’s because you’d rather the Admiral took charge of you.”

Ezra winced slightly, and sat down next to Vin.

Chris looked around the small group. “I’ll leave them to you then, Alvi.”

“Pleasure, sir. I’ll send for some coffee.”

Satisfied, Chris nodded to the Admiral, who led the way quickly to the Fleet office where he could speak in privacy.

“The man your mother worked for, Professor Carrington, was something of a genius,” he began, addressing JD Dunne who had been waiting patiently.

“Carrington? The barmy one?” he heard Wilmington ask in an undertone.

“An eccentric genius,” Orrin went on. “Because of his eccentricity, not a great deal of attention was paid to his claims that he could produce a far more effective long-distance drive for spacecraft if only he had access to adequate quantities of Binium. Apart from any other consideration, the stuff can’t be produced artificially and was only known to exist in quantities so small that it would be prohibitively expensive. Carrington spent a fortune on sending geologists all over the galaxy, which only added to the general belief he was ‘barmy’.” He glared at Wilmington. It bounced off.

“So I assume they finally found some Binium,” Larabee said. “Why does it involve Dunne. And why here?”

“They found Binium on the fourth moon of Jericho,” Orrin said. “By then, Carrington was a sour and disillusioned old man, with no heirs. However, he had an affection for his housekeeper and her son, who seem to have put up with his eccentricities kindly.”

“He was a nice old man,” JD protested. “He was always generous to us. I couldn’t understand why we left when he was dying.”

“No, but your mother knew.” He saw the distress on the young man’s face and went on quickly. “Unfortunately she didn’t have time to tell you; evidently she’d planned to do that after you arrived. According to Jericho law, to inherit property here—and the moon counts as here—you must be living on Jericho for the whole of the time a will is in probate.”

“That’s a damn silly law!” Buck said.

“Professor Carrington left me something?” Dunne asked, puzzled.

“He left you the rights to allocate the Binium mining concessions and to decide who produces the stardrive, with a salary suitable to the responsibility.”

“And he didn’t think this might make JD a target?” That was Buck again, making exactly the point Orrin himself had first thought of.

“The only people supposed to know about this were in the highest echelons of the Fleet—one of the very few organisations Carrington didn’t consider corrupt. Unfortunately, he seems to have overlooked his prospector. That’s how we think the news originally leaked out, and the sorts of companies who are interested in this have extremely efficient computer espionage.”

“Shouldn’t have happened,” Chris said flatly.

“No, I agree. However, in two days the probate of the will should be completed. Mr Dunne, you may wish to take some advice on your decisions after that. Professor Carrington was convinced you would want to see his drive used for the benefit of everyone, rather than the profit of a few—and he showed remarkable trust in assuming you wouldn’t want to profit unduly from your position of power.”

“Of course I don’t!” JD protested. Orrin, experienced in judging honesty, believed him. It wouldn’t make the youngster any safer though.

Chris also had his mind on the security aspects of the situation. “Seems to me that what we need to do is find somewhere safe for the kid for the next two days and maybe beyond. I assume some groups wanted him off Jericho so the will would be invalid, and others wanted to control his decisions—the second lot aren’t going to disappear ’til the contracts are signed.”

“What do you suggest?”

“I’ve still got that ranch outside the town. It’d be easier to keep a place like that secure. I suggest we take him there.”

Buck stared in astonishment—like Orrin, he knew that Chris had never been back to the ranch since his wife and son died.

“Be best to take Vin and Ezra, too,” Chris added. “Someone’s lost a lot of money over this. Wark may be locked up, but Jericho’s not short of people who’d shoot their own grandmothers if the price was right. I don’t want to see some kind of revenge hit on people who’ve helped us.”

Orrin agreed, and they returned to the others to explain the arrangements.

“Josiah, Nathan, if you’ve no commitments that won’t wait, I’d appreciate you coming along,” Chris added. “I’d be happier if you were somewhere secure—there’ll be people who know, or guess, you’ve been involved with us.”

“A couple of days?” the Preacher said. “I can call someone in to keep an eye on the cemetery for that long. After that, I must be there at least part of the time.”

“Anyone who wants me will call my handheld,” Nathan said. “There’s a baby due at the end of the week, and some old people with chest problems…”

“Pass any calls on to me and I’ll see they get good treatment at the Fleet expense,” Orrin promised. He had his own investigations running, and he hoped soon to know which groups had been behind the attempts on JD Dunne, but he agreed with Chris that in the interim anyone who’d been involved might be vulnerable.

Vin was looking at Chris like he was the eighth wonder of the galaxy. Orrin heard him say softly, “You got a ranch? Real one?”

Chris smiled. “Yeah. Horses and all. Guy called Yosemite’s been watching them for me a while, exercising them and keeping everything in order. They’re a mixed bunch, but you might find one you’d want to ride. Admiral, you know the location. Can you have a security team out there in the next hour?”

It was hard to tell sometimes who was the admiral and who was the captain…

“Hope you’ll come to visit us later, sir,” Larabee added with a genuine welcome in his voice.

Orrin gave up and smiled. He had an idea at the back of his mind about this group of men anyway.

“I’ll be honoured,” he said.

“You really okay with all this?” Buck asked softly that night as they stood leaning on the porch rail looking out over the ranch—kept so well by Yosemite that it was hard to believe Chris hadn’t been living here.

Chris watched the dark spread of sky and the fourth moon rising, turned and glanced at the odd assortment of people sitting, lying, chatting around the long porch. “Yeah,” he said. “It feels… right, I guess.”

The seven of them did feel right. He was glad the Preacher and Nathan had come along—Josiah’s calm goodness was a help to more than JD and even though Vin denied any need at all for Nathan to keep an eye on him, Chris thought it was a good idea.

Vin had finally given in to sleep, but only on a mat on the slats of the porch. “I like th’ space,” he said when Nathan suggested he might sleep better inside. After that, Nate had come out and was sitting polishing a piece of rock he’d picked up in the yard, and the Preacher was patiently listening to JD tell bad jokes. Ezra had pulled a recliner close to Vin, partly to guard Vin’s space, Chris guessed, but also because Ezra was more shaken by the day’s events than he’d want anyone to notice.

He knew that sometime during the day Vin had found an opportunity to tell Ezra the rest of the story of his father. Chris had waited until he and Vin were alone for a while, to tell Vin what Alvi had found out about his mother.

She had been coming to the Fleet office, but she’d never reached it. Maybe someone had explained to her that her son had rights even though his father had never known about him; it seemed the most likely reason for her to brave the unfamiliar dangers of the city. Nervous and unused to the vehicles, she’d misjudged the busy port traffic, and been knocked down: a simple accident, a sad story for Vin, but not what the old tribeswoman had thought—or had chosen to believe. Chris knew that some of the older tribespeople thought everything connected with the city was evil and that the young were best warned away, however it was done.

“I’m sorry, Vin,” Chris had said quietly. “Doesn’t hurt any the less however it happened. I know that.”

“I wish she’d had a chance to know how he died,” Vin said, but he seemed at peace with it—too pale and exhausted still for Chris’s liking, but okay. “He always was a hero to her though.”

He’d stayed out with the horses until he was nearly asleep on his feet and Ezra had persuaded him back as far as the porch with the lure of chocolate cake, a gift from Yosemite’s woman.

They’d all been out here ever since, drinking coffee, not needing to talk much. Chris felt a rare peace with the way his life had been turned around over the last few days. He’d gotten an old friend back; it was good to have Buck at his side again; he’d found two of the biggest hearts on Jericho in Nathan and the Preacher; he’d JD to look out for, and Vin and Ezra to lend a hand doing it. Alvi had backdated Chris’s co-opting of them to make it legal; now he was the senior law officer of any sort on Jericho he intended to keep them one way or another. Vin would stay close anyway; they both felt the connection, and Ezra might take a while to learn to trust anyone, but he’d stay where Vin was.

“Of course,” he went on to Buck, “I may have to shoot JD if he keeps telling those jokes, and Vin and Ezra reckon they can manage to take Chaucer and Peso out riding with me tomorrow, but what the hell, we’ve got our own doctor here.”

“And a Preacher, so you you’ll have to watch your language,” Buck grinned. “Maybe I’ll come along.”

Chris watched the four moons rise up the sky, and for the first time in three years, was content.

~ End ~