Tying Up Loose Ends
Commissioner Sleer studied the file, wondering how much of it to edit out before filing it. At least she had the option of editing it, she could quite truthfully claim that field conditions had made it necessary to rely on old-fashioned recording methods. And in amongst the little useful intelligence data she’d been able to extract, there were questions she’d asked, answers she’d been given, that were… private.
There had been a security camera covering the tracking gallery, but nothing covering most of the time that Tarrant had been in Blake’s custody. She still had no idea why the young man had behaved as he had. “I saw the recording, Tarrant. Why?”
“Why what, Commissioner?”
“‘He’s sold us, Avon. All of us. Even you.'” She quoted his own words back at him, emphasised the emphasis he’d put on them, but only a little, only enough to make her point.
“He said he had. Then I managed to get away from him.”
“And you had to warn Avon, yes. But why such relish?” Why twist the knife? Such bitterness in the boy… When had that happened?
“He had to know…” Tarrant paused, apparently looking for the right words, “he had to know that Blake wasn’t what he thought.” Blue eyes finally lifted to meet her gaze. “Wasn’t what I’d been told.”
“By Avon and Vila?”
“By Avon and Vila. By Cally. By my crewmates, before…”
“Before you deserted?”
“You’ll need to get the propaganda working a bit better in the Academy, some of us weren’t quite as enthusiastic about chasing rebels as we should have been.”
“It’s been even more difficult since the defence of Star One. Word does get around.” She couldn’t resent it, even though she’d tried. Most of the fleet had been lost, even with Blake holding the gap for those crucial few hours. Without his warning, his ship, they might have gone under. And the ship commanders had known that. For a few weeks, he might have had a pardon, if he’d cared to ask for it. “So you had a case of hero worship, and were disappointed by reality?”
He looked at the tabletop again. “It wasn’t reality, though, was it?”
“No, but then he didn’t look very heroic. An easy mistake to make.” Blake must have gone to town on the bounty hunter act. Her own memories of the man were of something quite different. Charismatic, a born rabble-rouser. It struck her that even though Tarrant was known as one of Blake’s people, he’d probably spent less time in the man’s presence than she had. No wonder he hadn’t seen through the act.
She went back to the question she’d actually asked. “Why ‘even you’?”
“He had to understand. It wasn’t just me and the girls, people Blake didn’t know. People Avon might think Blake could sell even when he wouldn’t sell his friends.”
“But you only looked at Avon when you said it. Not Vila. What was it, Tarrant, you wanted your lover to know that the man he was going to dump you for wasn’t worthy of it?” That motivation she could understand. It only took a second or two, that impulse to hurt in return, and then you regretted it forever.
“Lovers? We were never lovers.”
Not that, then.
But Tarrant kept talking. “By the time I might have… he wouldn’t have.”
She waited, quietly, not pressing him. After a minute, he went on.
“Loyalty’s important. You need to be able to trust your team-mates. You need to know they’ll back you up.”
Still the proper young officer, Tarrant? Even now?
“Avon didn’t know the meaning of the word. It was something he did by rote, when he had to, out of self-interest. Doling out just enough to get it in return, because he understood that he needed to, even if he didn’t understand why.”
Not true at all, but had Tarrant learnt that? “And you didn’t want to go to bed with someone you couldn’t trust not to stab you in the back.”
“Oh, I can manage that,” he looked at her, and she remembered a planet of sand, “but lovers is another matter.” He picked up the glass of water. She’d let him have the minor comforts, he was co-operative and he was battered enough that he needed the comforts to be able to be co-operative. A dry throat makes it difficult to talk.
A few sips, then, “Only I was wrong. He does know how to be loyal. He put himself through five days of torture, just to get a chance at the man who killed Anna Grant. Not even to rescue a live woman, but just to avenge a dead one.” Another sip. “And while I was thinking over that, he threatened me because he thought I’d threatened Vila. He put it in terms of our relative usefulness, of course. But by then I’d been doing some thinking. I thought it over for a bit longer. Too long.” He paused for a few seconds. “Because then there was Terminal.”
Oh yes, then there was Terminal. Terminal, where she had taken Avon’s extreme if narrow capability for loyalty, and equally extreme unwillingness to admit it, and crafted a trap for him to walk into with eyes wide open, each of them knowing that the other knew. “And at Terminal you learned about his loyalty to Blake. When I told him that Blake was dead.”
“Oh, I learnt before that, I just didn’t know it at the time. On our way to Terminal, when he was ready to kill me if I tried to delay him, let alone stop him. And he wouldn’t even tell me why.”
Oh, and that must have been an entertaining scene. “And after that?”
“And after that, I knew Avon was capable of loyalty, and love. Except that I knew I couldn’t compete with memories, and I didn’t want to try, not when Avon had obviously decided he’d had enough of trying.” He rubbed his face. “Could I have some coffee, please?”
“Of course.” There wasn’t much left, so she topped up the machine. Real coffee, one of the perks of the job. She was supposed to tantalise the prisoner with it. Well, he could have his cup. She’d rather share it with him than with the brain-dead idiots she was supposed to be working with.
“Why ‘even you’?” Tarrant said, finally returning to her original question. “He trusted Blake, more than he ever trusted me, he was willing to kill me to get to Blake, we did lose the Liberator for Blake, and Blake had sold us. Not just me, I could understand Blake not caring about me, but Avon. Especially Avon, and his particularly high price. Or so I thought.”
He stared at something that wasn’t in the room. “And at the end he was loyal to me rather than Blake. Why did he have to pick then?”
There were a number of things she could have said to Tarrant then, and all of them would have revealed how she felt about it. About Avon, and about Avon and Blake. So she said none of them. She poured another mug of coffee for herself, and one for Tarrant, and when they were both ready to go on, she asked one last personal question. “One more thing, Tarrant. Why answer my questions?”
“Because I need to talk to somebody, and you’re the only person who’d understand. You’re the only one left who knows… knew them.”
“The only other one left who will miss them,” she said gently, offering it not as gloating, but as comfort that there was one other person who would remember them with at least a little regret. It was all the mourning she could allow herself for people she had no business mourning at all.
Sometimes a loyal enemy is more precious than a fair weather friend.
They had been rebels, they had been terrorists, trying to tear down the system she had tried to uphold. And yet she’d felt more empathy for them than for the Federation’s politicians. Blake’s little group of malcontents had at least been honest in their contempt for the Federation.
She’d seen him alone for his preliminary interrogation. At the end of it, she told him that he would be transported back to Earth for further interrogation and then reconditioning, to be displayed as one more failed deserter, one more reformed rebel without a mind of his own. And she told him that the guard outside had instructions to shoot him if he tried to escape. It was all she could offer him without more risk to herself than she was willing to take. The second’s comprehension in his eyes was all the thanks he gave her, the only thanks she wanted.
As he left, she added one final note to the file. The only survivor, Del Tarrant, was killed whilst trying to escape.