Brothers and Blood

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PERSONAL CELL ENTRY #1123: Brothers and Blood

It was early in the day, and the shadow of Midland still stretched almost three-quarters of a kilometer across the land and into the forest northwest of the mall. The sky was clear and relatively cloudless today, so the edge of Midland’s huge shadow was well defined along the grassy hills, and only lightly scattered where it reached the tree line. It was noticeably cooler in the shade of Midland, though not uncomfortably so.

Almost at the edge of transition between light and shadow, a man came out of the forest, heading for Midland. He rode on a tall horse, reddish-brown with a single white spot between his eyes. The horse was saddled, and harnessed to a small two-wheeled cart that rolled along behind. The square bed of the cart was covered with bolts of cloth and blankets, all handmade and of fine quality.

Once the man, horse and cart were past the tree line and out in the open, the man headed for one of the ground openings on the sunlit side of Midland. He knew how well the sun would catch the colors in the cloth, and was smart enough to exploit such an effect. Sure enough, before he was close enough to hear the conversation-level voices of the people working and milling around the ground entrance, people were pointing at him and calling back into the mall. After a moment, he heard someone shout his name: “Long Sun! Will Long Sun!” and he waved back casually.

By the time Will Long Sun reached the wide concrete apron at the ground entrance, a few people had come out of Midland and were approaching him, smiling and waving. “Hey, Will!” “Long time no see, Will!” “How’ve you been keeping?” When he reached the first of these greeters, Will stopped and swung down from his horse, and extended a hand to the closest of the men. They all greeted each other like long-lost friends, swapping quick questions and answers about weather, family, business, ages and the miscellaneous things that develop between friends over the years.

Eventually, they were joined by two more, a man and a woman, both older than most of the group gathered there. The woman held out her arms when she saw Will. “Hello, Will, you charmer! How are you?” Will accepted a strong hug from the woman. “Fine, fine. How are you, Millie? Ben?”

“Oh, we’re fine, Will,” the man addressed as Ben nodded. He reached out and patted the horse on the snout. “How are you, Lightfoot? Still strong as a bull, aren’t you?” The horse tossed back its head and whinnied, causing laughter among the crowd. “So, Will, how was the season for the South Cayache?”

“See for yourself,” Will replied. He stepped back to the cart and grasped the edge of the blankets on top of the pile. He pulled the blankets back, exposing the cloth bolts below. The bright colors of the cloth glowed in the morning sun, and garnered quite a few approving noises among the crowd. Then he rolled the bolts back, exposing small wooden cases below.

Will opened two of the closest cases, stepping out of the way for everyone to see. Inside the cases were painted figurines, from five to fifteen centimeters long. They ran the gamut from men and women, to various animals, to totem poles and spirit sticks. Each was exquisitely done in fired clay and hand-painted with natural paints by members of the Cayaches, just like the cloths and blankets. The Cayaches sold these hand-made items seasonally, in exchange for supplies from Midland. Will Long Sun was a regular visitor to Midland, being the one who brought the crafts in from the frontier on a seasonal basis and carried the supplies back to the Cayache.

“Ah, looks like a fine collection, Will,” Ben said after examining the cartfull of merchandise. “We’ll give you a good price for this lot. Why don’t we take it into the post, and you can sit yourself down while I go through the cart?”

“Yes,” Millie agreed, “I’ll fix you something to eat. Come on.”

Will agreed, and after a minute’s more allowing the others to examine the products on the cart, Will led the horse and cart into Midland behind Ben and Millie.

The entrance opened into a wide concourse, lined with numerous small shops and crafts stands. This open market area was set-up to cater to visitors, travelers and landers, who often entered through the ground entrance and carried on transactions with the vendors for everything, from food to tools, from art to clothing. It had a timeless look to it, appearing not too different than what a similar street in Morocco might have looked like 500 years ago. And it sounded very similar to an ancient market, as well, with vendors hawking their wares to passersby, arguments over prices, quality discussions, and general camaraderie. The real difference was in the atmosphere, for although there was a spirit of competition between the many vendors, there was no real urgency to the event, since none of the people in the market were in any danger of starving if their wares remained unsold. So even beyond the bickering and dickering, a general feeling of boisterous fun permeated the market.

Ben, Millie and Will Long Sun reached the entrance to their shop. Theirs was larger than many others, due to the fact that they did not sell to the individuals in the market; rather, they bought or traded goods with traders, like Will, and sold the goods to the other vendors, around the market and throughout Midland. It was more of a warehouse than a shop, and Ben and Millie were considered brokers. Will brought Lightfoot to a stop under the front awning, and began unloading the blankets, cloth and cases onto a large table in front of the shop. Millie went to the back of the shop, where a kitchenette was set up, and busied herself preparing a plate of food for Will. Ben, in the meantime, hunted around for a moment for his IS pad, found it on a back counter, and came back to the table of Will’s merchandise, ready to tally up the totals and work out a value for the collection.

So it usually went, four times a year, with Will and Ben and Millie. Will had his list of goods that his people, the Cayache, expected him to bring back with him. Just glancing over the items he’d brought to Midland, Will expected to have no trouble affording all the things his people wanted, and some nice extras besides. He might even stay a few days and take in a hospitality house, or see a show, he mused, as he leaned against a counter eating a bowl of couscous and beans, watching Ben go over the totals.

All around the market, people wandered about, making deals, or just socializing. Will had his back to the rest of the market, but he could hear quite a number of conversations clearly, and mostly ignored them or tuned them out. Millie joined him in the front of the store while Ben worked over the table, and the two engaged in animated conversation over the last season’s news.

At one point, in the middle of Millie’s description of a day she’d spent in Parador, Will suddenly realized he wasn’t listening to her. He had been distracted by something, but he didn’t know what. Suspecting he might have heard something from some other conversation nearby in the market, he tried to split his attention between Millie and the market behind him. He could hear a man and woman bantering over a dress, other men discussing a fight somewhere in the mall, three others trying to move a large cabinet, an old man teaching a younger…

Suddenly Will started. Millie, who hadn’t noticed his attention wander earlier, stopped speaking abruptly when she saw him jerk to attention. He swiveled his head about, trying to look over the crowd outside the shop. Millie watched Will’s rapidly bobbing head for a moment, then asked, “Will? What’s wrong?”

Will swung his head back to Millie. There was a look of shock and anger reflected in his eyes, and he seemed to look past Millie. She shrunk back slightly, and again asked, “Will…?”

Then Will’s head snapped back out at the market, and he seemed to fix on something. He swung his head back to Millie, and barked, “I’ll be back!” Then he pushed past Millie, dashed around the counter, and flung himself across the market, heedless of the people he jostled along the way.

He angled for the men discussing the fight in the mall. As he approached, he could hear their voices more clearly. “…of animals! They had half the bar torn up before the PKs showed up!” “…should have seen the way Beak bounced that punk off the wall and pitched him out the window!” …a big guy, that Beak! I’ve seen ‘im, he can move, man…” “Beak and half the regulars tossed them kids outta there…”

Will Long Sun barely managed to stop when he reached the men, and ended up running into two of the men closest to him. His sudden impact with the group brought them all up short, and they turned to stare at the interloper.

“Beak!” Will barked out. “Beak! Thomas Beak! Is that who you’re talking about?”

One of the men stared at the wild Cayache, as if afraid of being attacked by him. He managed to stammer, “Y-yeah… Thomas Beak. That’s the guy…”

“Where is he?” Will demanded of the crowd, looking at each man in turn. “Where can I find him?”

“He…” one man started to say, and when Will turned his wild eyes towards him, he had to pause to swallow a lump in his throat. “…he’s the new PK Commander. You know, the Peacekeepers. Go to the station. On eighty-six…”

But Will was moving after he heard the word, “Peacekeeper.” Leaving the men standing flabbergasted behind him, he ran over to one of the IS kiosks around the market. He had spent enough time in Midland on his visits to know how to operate the kiosks. He stabbed at the control surface and demanded, “Locate Peacekeeper Beak!” After a moment, the kiosk displayed a map of Midland’s interior, a three-dimensional diagram that rotated in the imaginary space behind the screen. It spun about its axis, showing two flashing lights: One showing Will Long Sun’s location, on the ground level; and another shown moving along level 65, marked as a residential level.

Will paused over the map for only a moment, then spun and bounded out of the market, his long black hair flying. He located a bank of declifts, the cars designed to transport passengers rapidly between groups of ten floors at a time. Entering one, he blurted out, “Seventy.” Another passenger started to enter the car with him, but Will unceremoniously stiff-armed him away, and stabbed the button to close the door.

~

“I told you, you wouldn’t get away without being wrapped up, didn’t I?”

Frank grinned at Thomas, who was testing his left leg by shifting his weight on and off of it. He’d had a chair brought down against it during the fight in the hospitality house, and it had taken on an ugly purple bruise that ran from his knee midway to his ankle. When they had brought some of the brawlers down to the hospital for treatment of their fight-related injuries, Thomas had tried to pretend the leg did not bother him, and had even told Frank and San to keep it to themselves. But his limp was obvious to the doctors in attendance, and one of them practically pushed him into a wheelchair to get him off the leg and into a treatment room.

The injury was not bad, just sore, and the doctor had wrapped his leg in a treated bandage. He was already feeling silly for protesting so much, considering the chemicals in the bandage that were leeching into his leg were already speeding the healing process, and making it feel less tender as well. But the cane someone had pushed into his hand was definitely unnecessary, and Thomas refused to use it, instead resorting to carrying it at the midpoint like an umbrella.

“Yeah, I know all the doctors here,” Frank was continuing. “You’re lucky they didn’t put a cast on you.”

Thomas brandished the cane at Frank, who jerked back in mock alarm. “Don’t give ‘em any ideas, Frank. Is everyone taken care of, then? Where’s San?”

“She was just checking on… oh, there she is, now.” Frank indicated the hallway beyond, from which San was approaching. She took a look at Thomas’ leg, and the bandage that clearly bulged under his pants leg, and smiled.

“Not a word out of you, either,” Thomas growled, but didn’t bother to hide a smile. “Are the boys secured?”

“All of them,” San replied. “They’re in the security ward, mostly resting. They’ll be all right there until tomorrow morning.”

“Fine, then, let’s get out of here,” Thomas said. “We’ve got some reports to process, and Benoit isn’t going to get his insurance for the bar until we do our part.” He led the other two Peacekeepers out of the treatment area and through the hospital lobby, emerging onto the level sixty-five concourse.

As they turned to the left and headed in the direction of the lifts that would take them back to their station’s level, they did not notice the figure that had been loitering just outside of the hospital lobby. The figure detached himself from the wall he’d been leaning on, rapidly walked up behind the three Peacekeepers, and put a large hand on Thomas’ shoulder. Thomas was pulled about by the hand, before Frank or San noticed anything was happening. Thomas fixed a startled gaze on the person who had spun him around, and his mouth fell open. “Will!…”

That was all he managed to get out. As Frank and San realized Thomas had been detained, and looked over their shoulders to see what was going on, Will Long Sun was already throwing a massive fist. It caught the surprised Thomas full on the jaw and snapped his head to one side with a loud smack. Thomas toppled backward against Frank, who tried to twist and catch him at the same time, with the result that they both ended up sprawled on the concourse in a heap.

“What the..!” San leapt at Will instantly. He tried to feint and block her lunge, but she slipped expertly past his block. Grabbing his outthrust arm, she brought it up behind his back and, in a second’s time, had him in a tight headlock. He snarled and twisted, but he could not break loose from her grip. She put an extra squeeze on him to quiet him down. “Who do you think you are,” she grated at him, “jumping a Peacekeeper? Say something, or you’re getting an express trip to ground level!”

Before Will could speak, however, Thomas put out a hand. “Let him loose, San.”

Frank, still struggling out from under Thomas, stopped and stared in disbelief. “Let him loose? He hit you from behind!” San stood stock still, continuing to hold Will in her grip. San and Thomas locked eyes for a good five seconds, before she finally relaxed her hold and pushed Will free.

Will, once released, did not turn to look at San. He had kept his eyes on Thomas during the entire incident, and they still burned on him now. He stood before Thomas, who had lifted himself up to one good knee and regarded Will from there.

“Thomas Falcon Beak, William Long Sun calls you Murderer and Coward!” Will bellowed, loud enough for everyone within fifty meters of the busy concourse to hear. “According to tribal law, I demand you meet me to prove your right to survival!”

Everyone within earshot of the accusation—which was a considerable crowd of people—all went still and silent, focusing on Thomas and Will in the center of the concourse. Someone from a balcony above craned his neck over the side, trying to see what was going on. Will stood heedless of all this, and waited for Thomas’ reply.

Thomas took the scene in from his crouch before Will. Then, leveraging himself up on his uninjured knee, he stood and stepped up to Will. He moved to within inches of him, cocking a warning hand at Frank, who was moving towards them. After casting an eye around the crowd once more, he fixed Will in the eye.

“I was already heard by the tribe, and I have been absolved of any crime. You have no conflict with me.”

“You were not heard by me,” Will snarled back. “It was my sister you killed out there.” This brought a nervous murmur from the nearby members of the crowd, but Will and Thomas ignored it. “You will answer to me for the death of Gail Long Sun.”

“I was absolved of any crime by the tribe,” Thomas repeated. “Read the tribal cells, Will. It was a horrible accident, that’s all.”

“Then why did you run?” Will cocked his head mockingly, pushing his head closer to Thomas’. “Because you knew you could not tell the same lies to me?” He pulled back and shouted again, “I demand you meet me to prove your right to survival—”

“I am not going to fight you, Will, there’s no reason. You know what happened. The tribe knows what happened, and they’ve recorded it.”

“You lied to the tribe, and you ran to avoid confronting me! By tribal law—”

“Stop it, Will—”

—By tribal law, I demand you meet me! You will answer to me for the death of Gail Long Sun!”

Will Long Sun took one precise step back, still staring down Thomas. “Sunrise, east of Midland. Weapons of your own choosing.”

“I’m not going to fight you, Will!” Thomas said, exasperated.

“Oh, yes you are, Thom.”

And with that, Will spun on a heel and stormed down the concourse, the crowd parting like a wave to let him past.

Thomas watched him go, very aware of the eyes of the crowd upon him. Just behind, San and Frank watched him, too, confusion and silent concern in their eyes. Finally Thomas turned, and looked at both of them in turn. “We’d better get back to the station,” he said in a casual voice. He turned, wincing a bit as he realized he’d landed on his injured leg, and limped in the direction of the lifts. Frank and San paused a moment, watching him go, then looking at each other. Frank pursed his lips in a disgusted fashion.

“Well,” he stated calmly, “this is gonna suck.”

~

Teez and Reva were waiting in the station when the three Peacekeepers arrived. Both came up out of their seats when the three senior officers walked in, though Reva was just a bit faster at it.

“So how’d it go down there?” Reva asked. “Heard you got your leg banged up. Are you okay?”

“Sure, it was just bruised,” Thomas replied. He tried to hide what little was left of his limp, as he walked over to his desk and lowered himself into the seat. “Everything quiet up here?”

“Yeah.” Teez stepped around the desk and sat on the couch on the opposite side of the room. “There was a report about a fistfight on 65, but the caller said one of you was on the scene.” Frank and San exchanged silent glances, and Teez picked it up. “What?”

“Actually,” Thomas said, “we were all there. I was the one who got hit.”

“What!” Reva and Teez exclaimed together. Reva, who had been so busy watching Thomas for signs of serious leg injuries, looked Thomas in the face and finally noticed the light bruise, barely visible against his jet-black skin, that was forming on his chin. She came around the desk and unabashedly put a hand to Thomas’ jaw, lifting his chin to the light. “Someone hit you? Who was it?”

“Believe it or not, he was an old friend.” Thomas pulled his chin back down and brought a hand to it, massaging the bruised area. “A Cayache named Will Long Sun. We grew up together.”

“My friends should treat me so nice,” Frank commented. “Was he serious about the… his sister?”

Thomas looked up at Frank, and there was a tinge of sadness in his eyes. “I’m afraid so.”

“What about his sister?” Reva asked.

“You didn’t really…” San started to ask, but couldn’t bring herself to finish.

“No. I didn’t kill her.”

“Kill her!” Reva blurted out. “What happened to his sister?”

Thomas put up a hand to calm Reva and Teez, who were both starting to crowd him. “It’s a long story, okay? And, since we’ve got no place to go right now, sit down. All this is in the Southern Cayache public cells, by the way… available for examination… but I’ll tell you what happened.”

Thomas leaned back in his chair, and the others got comfortable around him. “Like I said, I grew up with Will, and his sister, Gail. For most of our lives, we were part of about eight of us kids who were inseparable… we did everything together. Drove our parents crazy. Some of the people in the tribe had little to do with my family, because we were black, but the kids I hung out with couldn’t have cared less, so they were my closest friends.

“As the years went by, we all began going in different paths, but still tried to spend time together when we could. Will was beginning to go on regular visits to Midland with his father. The others were often going off on lone hunts… you know, boys and girls trying to be adults. I was doing all of that, too. But I was also spending a lot more of my time alone with Gail. We were really too young to know we were in love with each other at first… but we figured it out later.”

Thomas paused long enough to look at Reva, perched on the edge of the desk as she was listening to him. She had a slight smile on her lips, but her eyes reflected the sadness in his own. Frank had poured himself a cup of coffee, and was regarding him silently over wisps of steam.

“Anyway… uh, Will didn’t have a problem with this,” Thomas continued. “We were all still good friends, and he never showed any reservation about my courting his sister. And I wasn’t the only one of the group that was discovering the opposite sex… most of us were involved with someone at the time. It just tended to make our group a bit larger when we got together.

“So. One day a group of us were away from our settlement, camping a few kilometers from the tribe. We’d been out hunting for wild spices, because our crop had gotten ruined in a heavy rainfall. Will wasn’t with us that day… he was on a trip to Midland at the time. We’d collected a good supply, and we were planning to go back the next morning. That evening, we started settling down for the night.

“Well, a few of us couples headed off on our own for awhile, for a little privacy. Gail and I were walking through the brush, looking for a comfortable spot to relax in. We started playing around, chasing each other, not really paying attention to what we were doing.

“The next thing I knew, I ran around a boulder and found myself face to face with a cougar and her cubs.” Thomas heard Reva suck in a mouthful of air, but no one else said a word. “I mean, I ran into her. About the worst thing you can do to a mother cougar. She jumped at me before I knew what was going on, and put me out like a light with one paw.”

Thomas sagged visibly then, before he continued. “The others found me in moments, but they couldn’t bring me around for awhile. When I woke up, I was back at camp. They said they’d heard Gail’s screams for help, and found her being mauled by the cougar. She’d rushed in and tried to help me, and…” Thomas had to pause, and bowed his head for a moment. When he brought it back up, he spoke in a labored voice. “When they arrived, they scared the cougar away, but it was too late to do anything for Gail. She died before I could be revived.”

Thomas had to take another moment before continuing. For a moment, he appeared to be on the verge of tears, but an instant later, he seemed to regain his composure. “I wasn’t in great shape myself: I’d been cut up pretty badly by that paw. They had to carry me halfway back to the settlement, before I was able to walk on my own. When we got back, I told them what happened. The Elders convened a tribunal, which was customary in those circumstances. The others spoke on my behalf, and described the events they had witnessed, and the signs they had seen. The Elders agreed that Gail was killed trying to defend me. They ruled her death as accidental.

“It wasn’t really over, though. Many of the Elders voiced the opinion that I was not a fit warrior, because I had fallen to the cougar in one blow. Many of them looked down on my family and me before this, and now they said that anyone else wouldn’t have let this happen to Gail. They were branding me inferior, and made sure the rest of the tribe knew their opinion.

“I was crushed. Although I wasn’t officially blamed for Gail’s death, I was a pariah in the eyes of the tribe. For days, no one would speak to me or my family, and I spent most of my time removed from everyone, including my family. In my grief, I was beginning to believe what they were saying.

“But soon, grief turned to rage: I knew I wasn’t at fault, I was being wrongly blamed for Gail’s death. I decided I owed nothing to a tribe that would treat me like that, so I committed myself to leaving. I’d thought in the past about joining the Peacekeepers, and this seemed like the perfect time to go. I came to my parents to inform them of my decision, and started packing. My father suggested I wait for Will and his father to return from Midland, but in my heart I felt I knew what they would say, and I didn’t care to see them.

“So I left. I didn’t know how angry I was back then, or how much of my decision to rush away was caused by guilt, and shame. But those feelings were helpful to me during my first year in the academy. They helped me work harder to prove myself, to be the best at my job. And I never spoke to Will or his father. Of course, they knew I was in the academy, and they could have left me messages if they wanted to see me, but they didn’t. Which was fine with me, because I wanted nothing to do with my past at that time… I was too busy hating them to want to talk to them.

“After awhile, I lost any remaining guilt about my past, or my appearance. But I’ve never forgiven the Elders for casting me out. I’ve visited my parents often, outside of the settlement, and we communicated regularly until they died, but I haven’t visited the Cayaches since I left. Once I became a peacekeeper, I was assigned to other locations… this is the first time I’ve been back to this territory in years.”

Thomas seemed to wind down, and the room became quiet. San was the first to break the silence. “What about the other friends you left behind?”

“A few have kept in touch since then,” Thomas replied. “We never talk about those days, though.”

“Well,” Frank said finally, “at least we know why this guy wants to fight you so bad.”

Reva, realizing she had missed another part of the original incident, threw up her hands. “I hate this!… what fight, now?”

“Long Sun challenged Thomas to a fight outside the mall. And I’ll bet he’s not expecting more than one of you to survive, is he?” Thomas looked at Frank, and shook his head.

“To the death?” Teez spoke plainly. “You’re not going to do it, are you?”

“I’m not planning to, no,” Thomas said. “Most likely, when I don’t show tomorrow morning, he’ll go back to the Cayache, proclaim me a coward, and that’ll be the end of that.”

“No, don’t let him do it, boss. Prove he’s wrong. You don’t have to kill him, maybe, but talk to this guy, at least.” Frank put down the cup of coffee he’d been nursing, and waved a hand in the air before him, as if trying to erase the last few sentences he’d heard. “Thomas, you don’t want to give those Elders more reason to believe you’re an unfit warrior, do you?”

Thomas looked Frank in the eye. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

~

That night, for the first time in years, he’d had the dream. Even he thought of it simply as “the dream,” the one that had been with him since that day, and had been mercifully coming less and less often over time. It was a surprise that he hadn’t had it since returning to the region so close to his land of birth. It was no surprise that he had it now.

As it always did, the dream forced him awake and pitched him forward, almost to the point of lunging out of bed, his heart beating as if he’d run a marathon, his body covered in sweat. He caught himself before he fell out of bed, and settled into a seated position. He sat there, eyes open, waiting for them to adjust to the darkness and reveal his bedroom to him. He almost expected to see Will Long Sun standing at the foot of the bed, waiting for him. But that would have been another nightmare to deal with, and as far as Thomas was concerned, one repeating nightmare was enough for any person.

Presently, his heart calmed. He thought about Will’s challenge, and he was glad to realize he had no desire to fight him… though, if he pictured Will’s father, or any of the Elders, what he wouldn’t give to pound a bit on them… no. In truth, he didn’t feel that way, either. Thomas had settled his heart long ago, and held no more malice against the Elders, or Will’s father. They were unimportant. In truth, there were only two people to whom he’d ever owed anything.

One of them was long dead. The other was her brother.

~

The next morning came and went. Thomas carried on with his usual morning routine, started his shift on time, and had a fairly normal and uneventful day. There was no reason for him to go outside the mall, so he never discovered if Will Long Sun had actually shown up to confront him that morning. He didn’t need to see him out there, though. Like the old philosophical question about trees falling in the woods, he knew if Will said he would be there, he would have been there, as inevitably as falling trees made plenty of noise, regardless of who was there to hear them.

About midway through the day, Thomas received a call from Kena-Jo Dolorain. “Commander Beak, I wonder if I could ask you a few questions about your altercation with a lander trader yesterday?”

Thomas smiled. He was a bit surprised that no one had called him the day before about the incident. He found it hard to believe that Kena-Jo, considered one of the best of Midland’s news reporters, had only just heard about his “incident.” Generally, news was compiled from official reports and rewritten by Secretaries, so only stories described as “human interest” were actually written or covered by… humans. But Thomas knew his story would be all over the mall eventually, and had been waiting to hear from someone. “Sure, Kena-Jo. What did you want to know?”

“I understand you were accosted and challenged to a frontier duel yesterday. Is that right?”

Thomas rolled his eyes, but said, “Yes, it is.” He didn’t like the idea of someone referring to Will’s challenge as a “frontier duel”… a phrase that suggested that everyone in the frontier was some kind of barbarian whose idea of justice was Survival Of The Fittest… but he decided to let it go without an argument.

“And I understand the duel was regarding the death of a girl you once knew.”

“That’s right,” Thomas said. “And you’d be doing a great service to her family if you didn’t mention her name in your story.”

“I understand,” Kena-Jo nodded on the sec screen, and Thomas hoped she was being sincere about it. “And I take it then that there is something to the allegation. Can you tell me what happened?”

“Actually, it’s all on Southern Cayache public cells. I’ve looked up the reference number, and I’ll forward it to you. You can study the cells to your satisfaction.”

“For the record, did you kill the girl in question, Commander?”

“No, I didn’t,” Thomas replied coolly. “And the cells will support my statement.”

Kena-Jo nodded again. “You didn’t go out to meet your accuser this morning.” It was a statement of fact, not a question, and Thomas did not reply. “Why wouldn’t you face him?”

“Because,” Thomas said, “I don’t want to see either of us hurt or killed over an accident and a misunderstanding.”

Kena-Jo nodded once more. Thomas guessed she already had her slant on the story ready, and was just looking for a few statements to make it all look good. She would probably read the cells, then decide how well or badly to portray her subjects. “Thank you, Commander Beak. I’ll be looking over those cells, and if I have any other questions, I’ll call you back.”

“No problem.” The screen went blank, and Thomas considered the interview. At the very least, he would probably look like the coward he was accused of being, since he hadn’t met Will outside. Here only a few weeks, and already his reputation would be smeared. Still, if that was the worst he got, he’d be thankful.

That night, after his shift was over, he settled into his apartment and began to prepare supper. Discovering he was out of peanuts for his salad, he put in an order to Midland Stores for two cans. He had to wait for the cans to be “blown” up through the mall’s delivery network, so he stepped into the living room to pick out a program to watch that evening.

A few seconds after stepping into the living room, he heard a thump behind him. He turned back to the kitchen. “That was fast,” he muttered, as he walked over to the delivery chute and opened the panel. His peanuts were not there, however. He glanced around the kitchen, to see if anything had fallen, but he didn’t see anything. A sudden rush from the delivery chute made him pull his hand back, just before the two plastic cans dropped into the chute with a pneumatic whoosh.

Thomas removed the cans from the chute, popped one open, and started to mix the peanuts in with the rest of the salad. He was immediately interrupted by a chime from his door. He put the peanut can down, stepped around the corner to the front door, and raised his hand to open it. He paused over the sensor for a moment, realizing the possibility that Will Long Sun might be on the other side of the door. Instead of using the intercom, however, he simply set himself, and palmed the door open.

Frank was on the other side of the door. Considering Frank was on-duty, the station and his apartment were adjacent to each other, and connected by a private door, Frank was one of the last people Thomas would have expected to see at the public door at that moment. He even glanced to the left, in the direction of the private station door, as if something was wrong with it.

Then Thomas noticed the others behind Frank. A crowd, in fact. None of them were within six meters of Frank or the door, but they were all staring intently at them. Thomas returned the glares with confusion, turned back to Frank, and said, “What…”

“Better come out and see this,” Frank cut him off. He looked meaningfully to the wall to the right of Thomas’ door. Thomas took a step outside and turned to see what he was indicating.

There was a dead cat on the wall. It had been run through with a short spear, which had in turn been driven into the wall beside Thomas’ door. Blood ran slowly down the wall, and began to pool on the ground. “It must have just happened,” Frank observed.

The thump. “It did,” Thomas replied. He reached up and pulled the spear out of the wall, cradling the dead cat in his arms. “Call a maintenance crew to clean this up and fix the wall.” He used an elbow to close his apartment door, then walked over to the door to the Peacekeeper station. It admitted him silently. Frank remained outside the station and inquired among the crowd for any possible eyewitnesses.

Inside, Thomas found a plastic bag to place the cat inside, sealed it, and placed it on the desk. Then he went into the restroom in the side hall of the station, to clean the blood from his hands and arms. He walked back out silently, stopped at his desk and regarded the animal, both his fists down on the desk on either side of the bag.

Frank entered from outside. “No one out there saw anyone. I’ll check the security cameras and see if we got anything.”

Thomas nodded. “There’s a tag here. You’d better check and see if anyone’s missing a housecat at the D’monet residence.”

Frank stared at the bag, then said, “You can’t let him get away with this.”

“I won’t,” Thomas said. He stared at the bag again, then turned to go back to his apartment. “Damn it.”

~

The air was cool east of Midland, but the approaching light from the horizon seemed to chase a warm breeze ahead of it. Thomas stood, about a quarter mile from Midland’s east face, watching the sun come up. His stern visage, his eyes constricted into slits against the oncoming dawn, made him look like countless of the ancient drawings and caricatures of native Namericans contained in Midland’s historical cells, with the noted exception of his white hair and jet-black skin. He silently scanned the horizon ahead, looking for any sign of Will Long Sun against the reds and yellows of morning. Seeing nothing, he began to walk east.

Shortly after he started out, he noticed a slight humming being carried on the breeze. He looked over his shoulder, searching for the source of the noise. In a moment, he spied a small metal oval floating on the air behind him. Thomas could make out tiny circles of black on the metal object, all on the side facing him. Someone was sending a remote camera after him, and he sighed at the thought. It was possible that San sent it out. Much more likely, it was sent by Kena-Jo. He briefly considered dropping the camera with a well-aimed rock… since he’d left all his weapons behind, that was the best he’d be able to do… but decided it would just make him look foolish to be seen pitching rocks at the camera. Especially if he missed. Instead, he flashed it a look that would have been plain enough to anyone watching, and kept walking, trying to ignore it thereafter.

A kilometer along, Thomas saw a thin line of smoke crawling up from the horizon, cutting the sky neatly in half. He made for that. Soon he saw the low flames of a campfire, and a cloaked figure crouched before it. The figure tossed dirt on the fire, extinguishing it, and set about scattering the fuel and ashes into harmless, almost invisible stains on the ground. Then the figure stood, reached a hand up, and pulled the hood of the cloak back from his face. “About time you got here. You forget what ‘sunrise’ means, living in the big malls?”

“You forget how low it is to kill house pets, living on the frontier?” Thomas countered, shedding his light jacket. Shiny highlights from reflected sunlight cast off his jet-black chest.

“I didn’t kill the cat. And I’m sure you’ve discovered I stole the tag, by now.”

“I know you stole the tag, yes. How’d you get the cat?”

“Found him on a factory level. Don’t you put up barriers to keep pets out of factory levels?”

“You ever try to keep a cat out of anything?” He held out his well-sculpted arms, to demonstrate that he carried no weaponry.

“Hand to hand, eh?” Will sneered. “That’s okay. I can still kill you with my bare hands.”

Before Thomas could respond, Will brought his other hand into view and up to his face. He held a longbow, with an arrow already poised between pinching fingers. Will brought the longbow up, took the arrow in the other hand, and drew back.

For an instant, Thomas considered that, after all the talk of “honor,” Will planned to simply murder him outright. The instant was fleeting, however, when Thomas realized that Will was not aiming at him. All of this took place in the split-second before Will loosed the arrow, which shot past Thomas almost within reach of his hand. There was a metallic thunk behind Thomas. He turned just in time to see the floating camera, arrow protruding from one of its camera eyes, tumbling end over end through the air. It landed in a pile on the grass, throwing sparks and bits of debris upon impact.

Thomas turned back to Will, who was placing the bow on the ground. “Nice shot.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t knock it down with a rock or something.” Will pulled the cloak from his body. His much lighter skin tone helped the muscles in his bare chest stand out impressively, and he swelled them a bit for maximum effect.

“You have something to say to me?” Thomas asked. “Now’s the time.”

“You should have waited for me to return to camp,” Will said, walking forward. “We could have settled this as men… as brothers. But you ran like a coward. You deserve to be killed like a scavenger. And by the way, you’re not getting off this easy.” He stopped about ten paces from Thomas, and reached behind his back. He pulled two knives from the belt of his shorts, and tossed one to the ground at Thomas’ feet. Thomas recognized the curved blade and stylized handle of the ceremonial claw-knife, a ritualistic weapon more suited for show than anything, but still capable of killing.

“I did not run,” Thomas said, “I left. I did nothing wrong, and for that, the entire tribe turned against me and my family, even as they admitted my innocence. I owed them nothing.”

“You owed me!” Will spat, and leapt. He covered the space between them in a heartbeat, and was upon Thomas, knife flashing. But Thomas had responded by rolling backward, grasping Will’s arm, and tossing him over with a simple judo throw. Will took the throw, landing easily on a hand and both feet, never striking the ground with the rest of his body. He rolled over instantly, and was already racing at Thomas, who had snatched up the other knife and was just regaining his stance.

Will ran full into Thomas, and the two sprawled on the grass. They tumbled sideways, trying to bring their knives to striking positions, and before either could manage it, Will stopped his tumble and the two separated again. Both came to their feet in a low crouch, circling each other. Thomas could see a wild glint in Will’s eyes, and was well aware that there was no such light in his own.

Will swung an arm out suddenly. Thomas almost didn’t avoid the swipe of the ceremonial blade in his hand. Will struck out again, snarling this time, and thrust at Thomas twice. Thomas had to swing around to better ground and parry at Will to slow his advance.

It did not work. Will took Thomas’ parry, and Thomas saw his knife cut across Will’s left breast, leaving a white track behind. Will’s move blocked Thomas’ hand from returning to a defensive position, and Will twisted and charged in, roaring. Thomas caught his knife-wielding hand with his free one, but it was a close thing, and Thomas could feel the blade of Will’s knife on his haunch, where he strained to keep it for the moment. Their faces moved close together, Thomas struggling to hold Will at bay, Will grimacing like a wild animal wanting the kill. Will’s arm slowly, inexorably, brought the knife up along Thomas’ side. Thomas winced as he felt the knife’s edge scraping the skin along his side, and Will smiled through his snarl.

“My sister died for you, and you did not deserve such a sacrifice! You should have died, not her!”

“Don’t—”

“You should have saved her!”

“I was knocked out—”

“Liar! You allowed her to die, coward!

~

Unbidden, he saw the dream. It came to him in his waking state for the first time, instantly and in total clarity. He saw Gail, as young and beautiful as any memory had a right to be, perfect in every way. He felt her love for him, and the feelings he held for her were indescribable, unbounded and unreserved.

Then he saw the cougar, large as a horse, bounding up between them. It lanced out with a paw, and struck Thomas on his back. But instead of being unconscious, he was awake, eyes wide open. But he could not get up.

And the cougar turned on Gail. He fought, he struggled, he screamed against the invisible bonds pinning him to the ground, but to no avail. As he watched and wailed, the cougar ripped Gail to shreds, still alive, still screaming. He watched parts of her being thrown about the rocky ground, felt her life ebbing away, even as she cried out for him to save her. He felt the feelings he had for her turn dark, twist into his gut, and sear his insides with a palpable sickness.

Then she was no more. And the feelings he had for her had tainted and abandoned him, leaving a burning pit of emptiness in him. And the emptiness had her name, and it whispered the name, and the name echoed in the emptiness, haunting him, mocking him, taunting him…

It was not his fault.

~

Thomas growled, and Will’s knife hand stopped its slide along his side. Thomas forced the hand up between them, as the growl in his throat rose in pitch and intensity. Will tried to switch the direction of the knife’s motion, and Thomas used the moment to twist the arm outward and away from their bodies. At the same time, he brought his forehead forward, striking Will between the eyes.

Will staggered back, and their clench was broken. Before Will could recover fully, Thomas lashed out at his rising knife-hand. He struck out with two fingers, which impacted with the nerve cluster at the inside of Will’s wrist. Will’s hand spasmed, and the knife was flung away from them.

Thomas threw his knife down, just as Will brought his other hand up into Thomas’ midsection. But his other hand was still paralyzed, and before he could strike another blow, Thomas let loose with a right cross that snapped Will’s head around violently. He followed up with a left into his midsection, and another right, and Will struggled to remain upright. Thomas tried to strike another blow to the head, but Will managed to dodge, grab Thomas’ arm with his recovered hand, and pull him down.

They ended up back on the ground again, rolling over and over, trying to get the upper hand on each other. They fought for enough space to land a punch or kick, but could only manage to wrestle with each other for long minutes.

Then, in a bare second of space, Thomas was upright, with his right arm free. He instantly drove it into Will’s face, snapping his head back. Will dropped, and the back of his head impacted with the ground heavily. Thomas looked up. The claw-knife he’d tossed aside was inches from Will’s head. He snatched it up, brandished it for Will to see, then put it to Will’s chest. Will stared at Thomas, not the knife, an expression of cold hatred in the face of death.

Suddenly, Thomas pulled at Will and pitched backward. He landed on his back, with Will fully on top of him. The knife was still between them, but Thomas had turned it to face his own chest. He pulled Will down upon him, until Will’s weight almost drove the knife into his own belly, and glared up at him.

“I would have given my life for her! She died for me, and I wish it had been me instead. But it wasn’t! There was nothing I could do! I loved her, Will!

Thomas held Will poised over him, just enough force in his arm to keep him balanced. If Will pressed down, the knife would be deep inside him before anything could be done. They remained so for long moments, eyes locked, saying nothing.

Then Will put a hand to the ground, and pushed himself off of Thomas’ chest. He came up off of Thomas slowly, stood up, and stared off into the distance, hands on his hips. Thomas remained on the ground. Both were breathing heavily, but trying not to show it.

Will’s eyes strayed from the horizon, to almost light on Thomas, before they came back up again. “I knew… you loved her. How could you think… I’d blame you for Gail’s death, if you’d only stayed until I got back?”

“I’m sorry… but I couldn’t stay. Not another minute. The entire tribe shunned us… my whole family… over what I’d done. Damned hypocritical Elders!… And your Father…”

“Fath…” Will started, then considered. “Oh, yeah.”

“You know, he never liked me.”

Will nodded. “He would have made a good Elder.”

Thomas looked up, and Will finally looked down at him. They both chuckled breathlessly, and Will extended a hand to Thomas. Thomas accepted, and pulled himself to his feet. The two men kept their hands clasped for a moment longer. “You were right, you know,” Thomas said. “It was cowardly for me to run… not just from you, from the tribe. I just wasn’t strong enough… I was ashamed.”

“If you’d told me then what you told me just now,” Will said, “I’d’ve stood beside you through it all. I could’ve helped you carry this burden. It wouldn’t be so heavy today.” Thomas looked at him wordlessly. “Oh, I could see it in your eyes. It’s haunted you. But it’s also given you fire.” Will gave a half-smile. “How else could you have thrown me off?”

Thomas returned the smile. “You were never that invincible a fighter, Will.”

“In our youth,” Will said, “we were all invincible.”

~

A quarter kilometer west of Thomas and Will, Reva crouched against a low boulder. Behind her, a gyro truck idled noiselessly. She wore tan clothing that blended well against the rocks around her, and her billowy white hair was buried under a tan cap. She held a pair of binoculars to her face, and she watched the two men as they talked and shook hands.

There was a beep on her sec sleeve. Without taking her eyes off the men, she tapped the sleeve. “Reva Poker.”

“Reva, it’s San. I understand you requisitioned a gyrotruck this morning.”

“Yes, I did.”

“I didn’t even know you were on duty this morning, Reva.”

Reva smiled to herself. “No, I’m not.”

“Are you going to need that truck, then?”

Reva lowered the binoculars. “No, it looks like I won’t, after all.”

“Good,” San replied. “Then you’d better bring it back in, before Thomas discovers it’s missing.”

“I’ll do that. Thanks, San.”

“Thank you, Reva.”

~

Thomas found Will, two days later, securing the last of the lines on his cart. He had gotten a good price for the objects he’d brought in, and had loaded the cart down with supplies for the Cayaches. Will looked up when he heard Thomas approaching, and smiled. Quite a few people in the market area also took to watching them closely. Even though Kena-Jo Dolorain hadn’t gotten any visuals of the fight between them (due to unexpected technical difficulties), everyone knew that they had indeed gone through with their duel. The bruises alone were enough to convince any doubters.

“Ready to head back, eh?” Thomas said as he reached earshot. “Looks like you made out pretty good on trade. Do you always manage so well on Cayache sculptures and cloth?”

“Not always,” Will admitted. “But I had a half-dozen of Anna Rabbit’s spirit sticks, and they’re very popular.”

“Anna’s still making those spirit sticks, huh? Say ‘hello’ for me, okay? Uh… on second thought, don’t—”

“Thomas,” Will stopped him. “It’s okay. She’d love to hear from you. I’ll tell her you send your regards. In fact, I’ll make sure all the old gang knows where to reach you.”

“Thanks, Will. Don’t you be a stranger, okay?”

“Never again,” Will said, and the two clasped hands. Thomas watched as Will put the finishing touches to his cart and packs, then mounted his horse. He turned Lightfoot towards the nearby gate, looked back to Thomas, and flashed a smile and a wave. Thomas waved back, and watched him ride out and turn westward, heading for the forest trails.

Once Will was out of sight, Thomas turned and walked back through the market, heading for the lifts. He was very aware of the many eyes that were upon him, just as they had been a few days ago. This time, however, they were much kinder eyes, even respectful. And Thomas became aware that he did not feel quite so empty as he had before.

 

Next story: Rosettas

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