Lying on the hard bunk, eyes closed, Tanard allowed the background hum to carry him into blackness and oblivion. It was but a small step to make, for the ship was carrying him into oblivion. It wasn't exactly death, but it might as well have been. Death was preferable to the nightmare of eternal imprisonment that waited for him when the transport made its last planetfall. Grounded, he would never again feel a deck beneath his feet or the tug of far stars. No, the tug will always be there, but he would not be able to answer it. It was perhaps a greater cruelty. They should have shot him, it would have been a kinder fate, but they had let him live and he planned to exact full toll for that oversight.
The ship whispered to him in the darkness of his mind.
Gravity changed and the deck shifted slightly, almost a tremble, as the transport dropped normal. His skin prickled and a hot flush raced through his body. Oblivion will have to wait, for a little while anyway. He lifted his head to meet Winn's steady gaze.
"Not long now," Tanard rasped and swallowed, absently touching the scar running across his neck and mangled throat. He ignored the dull burning that followed his touch. The pain was familiar now, almost a friend - another companion in the dark and one that was slowly killing him.
Winn grinned and slid his long legs off the bunk. His large black eyes, framed by a narrow triangular face, shone with anticipation. Freedom! Or at least a chance. He turned and shook the prone figure on the next bunk. The figure groaned, looked up and blinked vacantly.
"We there?" Railee mumbled indifferently.
"Depends on how far off we transited," Winn said.
Their eyes connected, the same thought clear on both their faces. After two years of hell it would all end soon, one way or another. That it could also end in their deaths did not even occur to Winn. He was past caring. It was a luxury that got in the way of simply surviving and he had gotten tired of that too. A real death now or death on Cantor later, there did not seem to be much of a difference. Still, he was not about to give up on life just yet.
Railee did not particularly care whether he lived or died either. Captivity had toughened him and the interrogations, first on Anar'on, then on Kalakan, made him hard beyond his years. His jailers were not cruel or in any way mistreated him physically. That would have been a sign of consideration, an acknowledgment that he existed, that he mattered. No, what they did was far worse. They had taken away all hope. But he did not hate, not exactly. His captors did what they had to do. It was inevitable really. His fate was decided when he made his choice to join Tanard and become a raider. He could pretty it up with words of patriotism, a fight for Palean imperialism, because that is what it was, but when the facade was stripped away, he had forsaken his commission in the Fleet and sold his soul to prey on helpless merchants. What price idealism?
It was a cosmic jest, but he was still to get the joke.
He planted both feet on the hard deck, stole a quick glance at his commander's scarred face, the disfigurement a comforting sight now rather than a shock it once was, nodded and strode into the bathroom.
Tanard watched his weapons officer and the corner of his mouth twitched. He caught Winn's amused expression and jerked his head at the bathroom door.
"He has come a long way."
"We have all come a long way," Winn said fatalistically, crossed his legs and stifled a yawn. Tanard grinned.
Was that his first officer talking? Railee may have lost his youth and innocence, lamentable perhaps, or perhaps not, but Winn had probably changed most of all. No longer timid and hesitant, he was now confident to the point of indifference. With nothing to live for, Winn now dared to even challenge him. Tanard approved of the transformation and wondered mildly if his first officer would revert to type if they ever managed to get off this rust bubble. He hoped not. For what he had in mind, he needed Winn cold and hard. They will all need to be cold and hard.
Railee emerged tugging down the tunic of his prison blues. He plopped on the bunk and propped himself against the bulkhead, hands locked behind his head.
"What's the name of this dump again?"
"Feron," Winn said and bobbed his head, his thin hands twining in a characteristic nervous gesture.
"Feron," Railee repeated in a high voice like it was something dirty and made a face. "Picking up more unfortunates for Cantor's fodder mill, I'll bet."
"Like you cared."
"You're right, I don't care. Why should I? Do any of them care what happens to me?"
"Probably not, and I don't care either."
"My friend." Railee looked disgusted.
Tanard frowned and the two of them fell silent. He was not conscious that he had shown any displeasure. He only knew that the inane chatter had distracted him. Over the last two years the other two had come to know his moods intimately and acted without him having to say anything. They were better than a partner, he mused sardonically and his irritation evaporated.
He forced himself to sit still when every fiber in his body ached from the strain of waiting. Would the plan work? Will they be able to get off the ship? Once on the surface, how will they evade the inevitable hunt that would ensue? It could all be an elaborate trap, a plot to kill them. He was being a paranoid fool and knew it. Le Maran would not go to all this trouble merely to have him killed. If the Alikan Union Party Provisional Committee had wanted him out of the way, he would already be dead. There would be no need for such elaborate sidestepping. His frown deepened. The worst part of it was that none of them dared talk openly to vent their feelings and frustrations for fear the cabin might be monitored. It probably wasn't, but they could not take that chance. It was maddening. What he craved was a release, to pace around, to rage and storm, to let his bottled emotions free before they consumed him. But of course, that would never do. Even on a prison hulk a commander's dignity had to be preserved, which amused him intensely. Any dignity he may have had was stripped away on Anar'on by the unsmiling, shadowy Wanderer interrogators.
He sensed the ship slow and stop. It was a subtle change in the background throb of small ship noises that after a lifetime of Fleet service, he recognized instantly. The alarm siren wailed then, which made everyone jump, and the milky ceiling changed to pulsing amber. The hatch snapped open into the bulkhead with a sharp clang.
"Abandon ship! This is not a drill," the computer blared. "Everyone to their assigned survival blister."
Le Maran has done it!
Instead of excitement, Tanard felt a calmness that surprised him. Then again, it was not all that surprising. Training had prepared him to face action with calm resolution and he was certainly facing action now. He grunted, stood up in a single flowing motion and gathered the other two with a glance.
Now that the moment had come, Winn hesitated, mortified that he could still feel indecision. Was he a coward after all? Then his mouth firmed and his eyes darkened as he turned to Tanard.
"Just don't let them take me..."
There was a wealth of emotion behind those simple words and Tanard was touched. Winn had changed, enough to realize that there were many kinds of death, not merely losing one's life.
"Then let's make this work, okay?"
Satisfied, Winn nodded, glanced at Railee and jabbed a long finger at the open hatch.
"Right! Let's get it on!"
Tanard lunged and grabbed his arm. "Wait!"
The young fool would get himself killed! He stepped to the hatchway and carefully peered into the corridor. Dazed prisoners peeked cautiously out of their cabins and looked uncertainly at each other. The computer repeated its warning and the passage began to fill. If the ship was indeed in danger, there was no time to waste. At the end of the corridor a hatch cycled open and two burly marines stepped through. Several prisoners made a dash past Tanard toward a row of four survival blisters at the far end of the passageway, their access hatches already gaping open.
"Stand to!" one of the marines bellowed and leveled his phase rifle. A pale violet beam struck one of the fleeing prisoners in the back. The man yelped, flung up his arms and crumpled to the deck in an untidy heap, unconscious.
With the siren still wailing the prisoners now turned their attention on the marines. They had perhaps moments to escape from what may be a doomed ship and the guards were gunning them down. A heavyset individual, teeth bared, eyes glowing with blood lust and hate, launched himself in a flying leap at the two guards. The violet beam sizzled along the ceiling as others rushed into the melee, the ungainly, heavy rifles useless for any close-in work and the guards were dumb to bring them.
Tanard nodded. It was time to go.
"The far blister," he said and slapped Winn on the back. The three of them ran toward the open pods. Several inmates were already scrambling through the hatches.
The siren stopped its wail.
"Disregard! Disregard!" an angry voice boomed over the intercom. "Computer error. Everyone into their cabins now. Repeat. Disregard abandon ship!"
Hearing the command, some of the prisoners stopped and stood still, not quite sure what to believe. The downed guards lay still on the deck. The heavyset man picked up one of the rifles and marched deliberately toward the blister pods.
"Disregard be damned," he growled, trailing cronies in his wake.
Winn did not relish arguing it out with the guy. He reached the blister and dived through the hatch. Railee gave a triumphant yell and plunged in after him. A body sailed out of the hatch a moment later. Tanard elbowed aside the luckless individual trying to scramble back in and jumped into the gloomy interior.