Magic Bullet Productions

 

The Mark of Kane

Part 2 - Friendly Fire

Novelisation by Martin Odoni

based on an original script by Alan Stevens and David Tulley

 

Chapter 1

"Is your name Morik?"

"Could be. Who wants to...?"

The man whose name could have been Morik gave a brief squeal of agony as the blade swept across his throat. He managed to die and slump across the floor so quickly that the squeal never had the chance to turn into a full cry of mortal anguish. The blade quietly popped back into the hub of his assailant's false hand, while the barkeeper looked on in disapproval.

"I've told you about this before, Kane," objected the barkeeper, pouting in distress at the scarlet pool that was slowly growing on his lovely clean floor. He lowered his voice a little when he saw that he was only attracting attention of the non-commercial kind from the other punters, "I don't want you killing people in my bar."

Kane, his single functioning eye still pointed in the direction of the man whose name could have been Morik, gave an unmoved grunt, and replied, "Pr'haps you should aim for a better class of customer. This guy's wanted in six quadrants for..." He started counting off the fingers of his only real hand, "...rape, murder and theft."

Standing a little way behind him and to his right was a woman. Or at least that would be a close approximation, insofar as she clearly had been a woman once upon a time. But her untidily-parted blonde hair, her black, tendrilled uniform, weathered and soiled by a thousand days of inattention, and her grimy, parchment coloured face, punctured by eyes of the blankest comprehension, marked her out as something less than a human. Less than a mutoid even. A renegade mutoid. She stepped up to Kane with a gait that did not exactly flow.

In a halting, jamming voice, one that echoed with slow, dizzy computations, she helpfully added, "He is alssso... w-wanted... for tax... ev-vasion... Comm-an-derrr."

Kane looked over his shoulder at her blankly for a moment, as though surprised that the mutoid still had the power of speech, then nodded. "Oh yeah, and tax evasion. So he's got to be a villain."

The barkeeper seemed unimpressed. "Aren't you supposed to get a bonus for bringin' them in alive?" he protested, even though it was a bit late in the day for discussing matters of strategy.

"Well," shrugged Kane with a wobbly frown, "yeah, you do on some, but, er..." He shrugged again, this time with just a hint of doubt as he gestured at his half-human companion. "Got a mutoid to feed haven't I?"

"Can I rrr-re-charge my... blood s-seeeeerum level... now?" asked the mutoid with eyes that, in any other class of humanoid, would be regarded as pleading.

"Yeah," grunted Kane, scarcely interested.

"Not in 'ere it doesn't," interjected the barkeeper, giving the mutoid a leery look. He lowered his voice again. "We've 'ad complaints." His eyes most certainly were pleading.

Kane scowled at him but nodded. He turned to the mutoid impatiently. "Take the body outside, do it there!" he instructed her.

"Yes, Comm-an-derrr..." answered the mutoid obediently.

"And don't do as you did last time!" the barkeeper called after her, as she hauled the corpse of the man whose name could have been Morik toward the door. The mutoid stopped and looked blankly at the barman, who let out an exasperated sigh. "Keep it away from the door. Puts customers off from comin' in, avin' to step over you like that!"

The mutoid seemed to acknowledge this instruction and resumed dragging the man whose name could have been Morik outside. The barkeeper shook his head as he watched, wishing he could find the nerve to just ban Kane from visiting the establishment at all in future. But he couldn't find the nerve, because Kane was a dangerous fellow.

"Bloody mutoids," hissed the barkeeper, hoping that Kane would take the hint for once. But he never had before, and he wouldn't this time. The barkeeper sighed and walked round the counter with a large cloth to start mopping up the blood. "Where did you get that thing from anyway?"

Kane looked up at him, surprised that anyone had dared to ask, and not welcoming the opportunity to explain. He opted for a traditional non-answer, "It's a long story."

*****

The crunch of their booted feet on the gravelly path had a pleasantly rural sound to it, but these days the Bounty Hunter was all too used to the idea of deception, and was careful to assume nothing from it. So, while Gauda Prime was undeniably rural, there was little about it that was pleasant. It was a grey early evening, it was damp, it was cold. But none of that was the reason for the chill that he felt. It was one that he had felt almost constantly on this lawless hellhole, so much so that he was almost desensitised to it by now.

"You've met Kane before then?" he asked his large, ungainly companion.

"Yeah," answered Tando. It was only one word, which turned to steam in the crisp air, but one word was always enough to get a very clear idea of this man's crude nature. His voice was full of psychopathic grizzle, his beady eyes hinting at the dark, unsophisticated thoughts bubbling away behind them.

"What's he like?"

"Nasty." Again only one word. This time it was not enough, for what was required was not a personal impression, but information.

"Really?" the Bounty Hunter probed, hunting for more details. Tando, being Tando, missed the invitation entirely. The Bounty Hunter suppressed a sigh of impatience. "What does he look like?" he demanded, hoping that he wasn't sounding testy.

"Tall... and thin," came the answer. "Takes the piss," Tando added sourly.

Well, I've dealt with people like that before, thought the Bounty Hunter, allowing himself a moment of amusement at all those colourful rows he used to have with Avon.

The Bounty Hunter's failure to respond hadn't been an invitation to elaborate this time, let alone start using real names out in the open. Tando, being Tando, went and did both.

"Oh, I don't like 'im, Blake," Tando grumbled. Blake gave him a black look for using his real name in such an exposed location, but there was no one else in earshot, so he decided to keep his cool. Tando continued, "'E's got a funny eye. Sort of blue and... cloudy." He then did something Blake had never expected to see him do. He seemed to shiver with disgust, as though there were something in this vast Universe that was too repellent for even Tando's depraved tastes. "And 'e 'angs around with a vampire."

Blake looked puzzled. "A vampire?" Whatever else Tando was, he had never struck Blake as being a student of the supernatural. Unless he meant... oh yes, of course, he was using an old colloquialism. "You mean a mutoid?"

"Yeah," grunted Tando. "They say he sometimes lets it feed off 'im." He pulled another face. "It ain't natural. I don't like neither of 'em."

"Anything special I should look out for?"

"Well," explained Tando, after a pause for thought that was quite out of keeping with his general behaviour (and was therefore longer than would have been necessary for most people), "his left 'and's false, and 'e's got a spring-loaded blade in it."

That too sounded vaguely familiar to Blake. "Well that's colourful," he admitted, not wanting to go into details about his past misadventures with Travis right now. They trudged along the path through the trees for a few more moments until suddenly Blake came to a halt and pointed up ahead. "What's that over there?"

They could see the low tavern they were heading for, which was not much more than an ugly steel shack in the woods. To be fair, by virtue of being merely ugly, it was one of the most attractive bits of architecture on the planet, because the few other buildings that were still standing after all the legalised terrorism that had raped Gauda Prime in the decades since the legal code was suspended were very, very ugly indeed.

The tavern itself was not what Blake was pointing to. Instead he was pointing to two figures who were on the opposite side of the footpath from the door, one lying down, the other kneeling next to it.

"Uuughh!" Tando half-vomited, as he recognised the kneeling figure as a creature drinking blood from the prostrate figure, which he recognised as a corpse. "I hate mutoids!"

Blake, seldom one to display a weak constitution, also gave the scene a slightly queasy look. "Come on," he suggested, heading past the mutoid toward the door of the tavern. "Best not to disturb it."

They pretended to ignore the mutoid, and the mutoid ignored them. Tando was therefore much relieved as they stepped through the doorway and into the (comparative) warmth of the tavern. However, as soon as they were inside the door, the temperature seemed to drop a little, not rise. It was not cold air insinuating its forceful way in from the outside world, but the familiar frost of paranoia and suspicion in the manner of the clientele. Just being on this planet, after all, created enemies, even if you had never committed a crime in your life, so every time you saw someone you didn't know you made ready for anything. And perhaps even more so if it was someone you did know.

This suspicion did not manifest itself in obvious visible ways. There were no sudden sharp looks from all directions toward the door, no sudden sharp terminations of the quiet hubbub that filled the room, no sudden sharp slams of alepots onto the tables of the bar, no sudden sharp movements of wary hands to gun holsters. But it was still unquestionably there. It could be perceived in the gentle apprehension, the refusal to aim any look Blake or Tando's way, bar the occasional sidling of eyes. More particularly, it came from the unmistakable certainty that, although no one spoke to them, and although no one looked at them directly, and although everyone carried on their own conversations with each other with scarcely a break in speech, everyone's attention was still on Blake and Tando.

That was not unexpected, but it was not good news for Blake. He had business to discuss, and he didn't want any outside attention. He felt Tando nudging him in the shoulder with plenty of clumsy force, and turned to see him gesturing in the direction of the bar where there sat a tall gangly man with short dirty hair and narrow shoulders that were hunched over his drink. His left arm looked slightly out of kilter with the body it was attached to. It ended in a gauntlet-clad hand that didn't appear to have proper fingers, but instead was shaped rather like a short, narrow scoop. He had a tiny copper earring on his left ear, and a small badge on the lapel of his jacket that read "I luv GP". These were presumably purchases from that souvenir shop that had recently been opened on the edge of plantation seven by the new local Governor, in a half-hearted and entirely perfunctory attempt to give the planet the pleasant, homely image of a holiday resort.

If Blake had noticed the badge, his response would have been either a derisive smirk or numb astonishment at the very idea of somebody having affection for this miserable world. But he didn't notice it, because even from here at the entrance, the blue, milky aura in the man's damaged eye was sickeningly distracting.

As the two newcomers stepped toward them, the barkeeper regarded them with polite curiosity. He leaned over toward Kane and whispered, "Friends of yours?"

"Mine?" said Kane, clearly shaken by the very idea. "Nooo. Haven't got any friends."

This was a fact that the barkeeper was well aware of. Kane was simply taking the inquiry a bit too literally. "Bounty hunters, though?" pressed the barman, pointing to the larger of the two newcomers as they weaved their way between the not-very-sensibly positioned tables and chairs. "That real ugly one's Tando."

Kane nodded mildly. "Oh I know Tando," he confirmed with drab amusement.

The inside of the tavern was not as bad as Blake had feared it would be. In that respect it reminded him of the dungeon on Cygnus Alpha, in that although it was not a nice place, it was still a damn sight nicer than practically anywhere else he could go. The low ceiling was a bit annoying, and the sparseness of decoration was rather sad, but at least the reinforced windows were large, allowing plenty of the fading evening light in, and giving a rather pleasantly framed view of the mighty trees outside. Overall, he was pleased to realise that he didn't find this place particularly antisocial.

"Sir?" the barkeeper greeted him, carefully rather than politely, after Blake had finally managed to negotiate his way through the awkward mini-labyrinth of uncomfortable oak furniture. "Can I get you a drink?"

"And 'ow about some fruit for the gorilla?" suggested Kane, jerking a derisive thumb in Tando's direction.

Tando bristled angrily. "I 'ate sharkaz-..." He tried again. "...Sark-at- ... Sarcat-..." With a frustrated sigh he gave up on words of more than two syllables, and instead he settled somewhat feebly for, "...People bein' clever-like."

Kane shook his head. "Oh, you can almost 'ear the brain cells dyin' can't ya?" he wheezed to the barkeeper, who laughed, and then stopped laughing and tried to disguise it as a cough when he saw the look that Tando was giving him. Tando did nothing more than look menacing though. He simply remained where he was, just behind Blake, and glowered at Kane with resentful savagery.

"My name's Dev Varon," lied Blake. Not a very original pseudonym, but it had proven lucky for him in the past.

"Well, I can't 'elp that," sneered Kane.

Blake ignored the insult - not difficult seeing that it wasn't his real name that was being insulted - and quickly got to the point. "I've been told that it's you who's been given official authorisation to hunt Lafayette." This certainly wasn't a question, nor was it voiced as such. And he wasn't waiting for a reply either. "Have you got him yet?"

Kane let out a long, impatient sigh. He hated all these daft rows that broke out in the mercenary community over the rights and wrongs of bounty hunters shooting at each other. It was all so tediously political, and that was just wrong. Surely the first rule for any bounty hunter was not to take an interest in the politics of anything they were hired to do, even to each other. The only thing that should have mattered, in Kane's single eye anyway, was the finance.

He looked up at this 'Varon' person, and got ready for another of those tiresome little arguments about the dishonour in killing one of their own. "No," he answered, "not yet. Look, I know he's supposed to be one of our lot, but..." Kane pulled a defensive shrug, "oh hell, Lafayette's 'ad it comin' a long time..."

"I agree," interrupted 'Varon', much to Kane's surprise. "That's why I want to come with you."

"What?" chortled Kane. "No way. I never share a bounty with anyone."

'Varon's' response was again surprising. "You can claim the bounty," he said fiercely, "I just want to kill Lafayette."

Kane looked at this man curiously. His dark eyes had a steady gleam in them that was not actually hostile but nonetheless suggested a menacing zeal. It was not dishonest, but nor did it seem entirely likeable or trustworthy. His unshaven face and wiry black hair at first glance made it easy to dismiss him as just another lowlife Gauda Prime blood-dealer. But there was something undeniably unique about him, and, loath as he was to admit it, Kane found the eerie impression of being entirely assessed in a single gaze by this man, and yet at the same time of 'Varon' staring right through him, really quite fascinating.

It meant he was unable to resist trying to learn more. "And why's that?" he asked, managing to sound jeering instead of genuinely interested.

Blake looked away for a second. He'd hoped that Kane would just accept some free help and not be interested in the details, as they were details that were painful to relate. "That... smuggler he set up..." said Blake awkwardly.

Kane nodded. "Jenna Stannis? The one who were killed running the blockade?"

"Yes that's her," confirmed Blake. "She was running arms for me."

Kane was a little bemused. So Lafayette had interfered in a supply route? Was that all? "Well that's no problem," he replied. "GP's flooded with arms and..."

"It's not that!" interjected Blake, with just a touch of pain in his voice.

The pain was enough for Kane to catch on. He smiled knowingly, and unpleasantly, showing off all his yellowed and blackened teeth - what few of them he had left. "Oh, I see," he drawled. "But still," he added with a shrug, before returning to his drink, "that's one for your conscience. I mean you must have known that Lafayette were 'ere on Gauda Prime. You shouldn't have used her." He smiled again, even more hideously than before. "Lafayette always goes for the celebrity kill."

The barkeeper, in common with so many in his trade, was never one to keep his nose out of other people's conversations, and he'd followed these little exchanges with great interest. "He tipped off the Gun-Ships, didn't he?" he commented.

"Yes," answered Blake a little stiffly.

"You know what I'd do, Kane?" suggested the barkeeper. "I'd give the man a chance. You might need some help out there anyway - I've heard that Lafayette's got some company."

"Ah, just trekkers," sneered Kane irritably. "Maggots out for a thrill."

The barkeeper frowned at Kane's complacency. "Don't forget, it was a trekker that killed Farnham," he pointed out.

Kane sniggered. "Yeah. With a dose of the clap."

The cynical gutter nature of the conversation was now starting to get on Blake's nerves. He'd hardly been expecting to like this bounty hunter, but the truth was that with every ugly, callous word that passed through the man's lips, Blake was rapidly growing to hate him. Carefully, to make sure that no one assumed he was about to draw a gun, Blake reached inside his pocket and pulled out a small cloth pouch tied with string. "Look, if it's the premium you're worried about..." he started.

Kane cut him off rudely. "There is no premium," he answered sourly. "They just want 'im dead."

Blake looked at him for a moment, a bit lost. "Oh," he finally said. What else was there to say? This whole journey was starting to look pointless.

But Kane's interest had been piqued again. "Well, go on. What were you gonna say?"

"Well," explained Blake holding up the pouch and untying the string, "you let me kill Lafayette and I'll let you have this."

Blake dropped the pouch onto the counter, and it fell open, revealing a quantity of very small but very rare - and as such, very valuable - precious stones. There was a moment's silence as Kane's single eye fixed on the pile of stones. That is to say, there was silence of the vocal kind, but the sound of Kane's avaricious thoughts was deafening to all who were paying attention to them - and they didn't have to be from Auron to be able to hear them.

Kane swallowed once as he picked up a few of the stones and eyed them longingly, pouring them from hand to hand. "Well," he conceded, much impressed, "that's, er... quite a bit of money." He glanced up at 'Varon' again, studying the determined gleam in his eyes once more. "She must have meant a lot to you," Kane noted, although that fact was self- evident. "Okay," he sighed at length. He nodded in the direction of 'Varon's' ape-like companion. "Does Tando come along as well?"

Blake shrugged. "If you want him."

"Yeah, all right," sniffed Kane, hauling himself to his feet and leaving money for his drink on the bartop. "We can use his ugly face to scare off the trekkers."

Tando pouted. "Shut up..." he growled, struggling to think of a witty and cutting rejoinder, "...one-eye!" was the best he could manage.

Kane gave him a condescending pat on the shoulder. "Oh good one, Tando. I'll have to write that one down." He pushed past Tando towards the door. "Now let me just collect Blossom..." He came to a halt as he saw his pet mutoid walking back in, attracting fresh glowers of revulsion from most of the punters, and carrying a large leather bag. "Oh, she's 'ere," he noted, sounding glumly matter-of-fact rather than delighted.

"Yes, Comm-an-derrr..." confirmed the mutoid, in answer to a question that had not been asked. There was a thin but glaring trickle of human blood on the gauntlet of her arm, from where she had been syphoning her recent meal.

"Varon, I take it your flyer's nearby?" asked Kane. If he felt any embarrassment at his companion's appalling table manners, he made a good show of concealing it.

"About a five-minute walk. We're going after him tonight, are we?"

"Yeah," Kane affirmed with more complacent nasal tones. "He shouldn't be too 'ard to find. According to the data sheets he's out in plantation three. Looking for Kimmler."

Blake looked amazed as he heard this. "You mean Lafayette doesn't know yet?" he gasped. "About what's happened?"

Kane allowed himself an undisciplined chuckle. "No. It's good innit?"

 

Chapter 2

 

"Why 'ave I got to be the one who 'as to sit by the vampire?" whined Tando as he took his seat next to 'Blossom' in the back of Blake's flyer. "The smell's 'orrible!"

Kane, who was strapping himself into the front passenger seat, glanced over his shoulder at him. "Oh, don't worry," he answered in mock reassurance, "she'll get used to it."

The mutoid, for her part, simply sat where she had been instructed to, and stared ahead, as though there was something overwhelmingly fascinating about the back of Blake's right earlobe.

Blake strapped himself into the pilot seat, rolling his eyes at the childish exchanges between Kane and Tando. They made all that sniping between Avon and Vila that he used to have to put up with on Liberator seem mature. He checked the map computer as he engaged the flyer's engines, and noted that, thankfully, plantation three was only about ten minutes away. All the same, if the general level of the conversation so far among this mismatched platoon was anything to go by, it was going to seem like days.

Is revenge worth this aggravation? Blake wondered silently, as the flyer's drive warmed up. He then thought of Jenna once more... loyal, beloved Jenna, and the gleam flooded into his eyes again. He heard the sharp beep from the control panel indicating that the engines were now fully powered up, and he hauled on the flight yoke.

The flyer lifted off. The hum from the drive heightened in pitch, as the machine put more distance between itself and the ground. The trees on this planet were very high, and it took the flyer some time to climb above them. During this time, the engine had to strain so noisily that conversation was, mercifully, impossible.

Eventually they reached the open air of the skyline, allowing Blake to straighten out the flight path. The flyer began cruising steadily above the treetops toward plantation three. Sadly, this now made it possible to talk again, an opportunity seized upon with relish by Kane, who, to general annoyance, couldn't resist another dig at Tando.

"When I 'eard you were carrying some dope around, Varon," Kane quipped smartly, "I thought they meant drugs, not old Tando here."

"Har bloody har!" growled Tando. "I'm pissin' myself Kane."

Kane grinned smugly. He knew that any time someone responded to a dig with the pseudo-words "har har", it meant that they couldn't think of a funny response. Not that such an indicator would ever be necessary in the case of Tando, who had all the clever wit and smart turn of phrase of a mutoid with its tongue cut out.

Kane's curiosity about this 'Varon' character was still not satisfied though. "So, how come you two have teamed up then?"

Blake kept his expression polite and even, but the truth was he'd been hoping that they could avoid talking as much as possible on the way. Not just for secrecy's sake, but because Kane was proving to be such a monumental pain in the ass. "It was Tando who got me this job," answered Blake briskly.

"Oh really?" noted Kane, glancing back at Tando again. "Why'd you do that, Tando?"

Tando shrugged. "'E knew Olag Gan."

Kane thought about this. Olag Gan? Yes, that name sounded familiar. "What? The guy who killed all them women?" Tando nodded quietly. "Oh yeah, of course," continued Kane, his voice full of patronising mockery, "Olag and Tando used to go around together didn't they? Before Olag got 'imself arrested, that is."

"Olag was me friend," replied Tando, simply but very firmly.

Kane was not intimdated at all. In fact, his amusement only seemed to increase with Tando's unhappiness. "What did they used to call him now?"

"The Cat Strangler," answered Blake, who was doing a good job of hiding his own discomfort at the direction in which the conversation was heading.

Kane couldn't resist a cruel laugh. "The Cat Strangler, yeah!" He gave Blake a look that could have been anything from curiosity to admiration. "You've kept some strange company, Varon," he commented, shaking his head.

"I only got to know Olag after the limiter had been fitted," explained Blake, trying to keep an inevitable edge of defensiveness out of his manner.

"Yeah, bet he were like a kitten weren't he?" Kane chortled. He looked at Blake again, suddenly turning a little more serious. "But you must have been a bit suspicious, surely? I mean they only fit the worst with limiters."

At this point, Blake's discomfort began to turn to embarrassment. This, after all, was a question that he had often asked himself in recent times. How, in all the time that he had known Gan, had Blake never suspected the awful possibilities? For that matter, was he the only one on Liberator who hadn't known? Jenna probably hadn't, Vila seemed to get on really well with Gan, so probably not him either. What about Avon though? Had he known? It would have been just like him to figure it out, and then to have kept it a secret. And then what about Cally? Certainly she wouldn't have known at first, but had Avon found out, he might well have let Cally know.

Still, there was no point in constantly going over all that old ground yet again. Even though he knew at least some of them must still have been alive, there was no way he could ask them now - for the simple reason that they obviously didn't know that he was still alive. All he could say for sure was that for some reason he, Blake, had not suspected a thing about Gan. And it hurt to know that he had been so easily taken in. In fact, it hurt to know that Gan had lied to him at all.

"He told me that he'd got it after killing a Federation guard that had murdered his woman," was all he would offer Kane by way of a response. It was perfectly true, but didn't really explain anything.

"God, that's pathetic!" snorted Kane, giving Blake a reproachful nudge that might have been quite dangerous in his less experienced days as a pilot. "And you believed 'im?"

"I was more trusting in those days," Blake admitted distantly.

"I'll say," hooted Kane. "He ended up on a penal planet, didn't he? Cygnus Alpha?"

"Something like that." Blake was now feeling nervous again. He was just hoping that Kane wasn't about to ask the obvious question, when he went and did so.

"So, how did you get to meet...?" he started.

Blake hastily cut him off, changing the subject in as matter-of-fact a way as he could manage. "Where did you get the mutoid from?"

Kane looked a little put out at being interrupted so suddenly, as he was very much enjoying the prospect of hearing all the dirt about Gan. After a brief pause though, he answered, albeit in a slightly subdued tone. "I picked it up on Goth about five years back. Just before the war."

Goth? thought Blake, his eyes narrowing a little. "What were you doing there?" he asked, hoping that he sounded curious and not anxious.

"I was trying to track down some ex-Fed psycho bastard called Travis," said Kane. "Ever 'eard of him?"

Blake paused deliberately, making a big show of looking only vaguely familiar with the concept. "Er, yes, I think so," he answered finally. "He had an eye-patch, or something, didn't he? And a... a... false leg?"

Happily, Kane was clearly not suspicious in the slightest. "No," he murmured, gazing wistfully at the trees as they passed, "it were a false arm."

"Oh yes," nodded Blake, "that's right." Travis? thought Blake, now finding his own curiosity piqued. But he wasn't sure it would be safe to indulge it. He was therefore not entirely pleased when he heard himself asking, "Did you ever find him?"

"No," admitted Kane, sadly. "Last I got to hear, he were heading out towards the island galaxies with Blake on his tail."

There, Blake thought to himself, see what happens whenever you ask questions to the wrong people? Now he's mentioned your real name, and that means you've got to be really careful what you say for the remaining hundred years, or however long it is, that this damn conversation's going to last and even then you'll... Damn it, aren't we there yet?

He snapped out of his reverie as the flyer wobbled slightly, an indicator that he was holding onto the steering vane too tightly. Again he decided to bare-face his way around things, by trying to make out that his temporary slip of control was caused by confusion. "Er, Blake?"

"Oh, you know!" scowled Kane, annoyed at having to explain the basics. "The revolutionary."

"Oh, yes, yes," nodded Blake again. "So you think the mutoid was left behind by Travis then?" he suggested, trying to draw the conversation away from his own alter-ego and back to the Federation's most infamous Space Commander.

"I feel it's a safe bet," agreed Kane, almost losing himself in sour memories. "I found it wandering, brains scrambled, 'alf-dead." He let out a humourless chuckle. "More 'alf-dead than they usually are, that is. I don't know what 'appened to it. Implant burnout probably, caused by a belt round the head. Bit of blood plasma brought it round..."

"See?" spat Tando. "His own blood. Sick."

Kane, now warming to this splendid opportunity to talk about himself, ignored him and carried on telling the story. "The thing appears to have been programmed to obey one specific person only, which does seem a bit unusual."

No prizes for guessing who that was, thought Blake.

"Anyway, now it follows me and obeys my orders," finished Kane.

"Why do you think that is?" asked Blake, although again he knew the answer full well. A one-eyed man in black, whom she addressed as Commander? It didn't even pass for a puzzle, let alone a full-blown mystery.

"Well, pr'haps I remind it of its old boss," suggested Kane, putting Blake's own thoughts into words. "Which ain't surprising really when you consider that it was him who caused my injuries."

"It was Travis who damaged your eye?"

"Yeah," said Kane, bitterly, "the eye and the arm, on Cynra. It happened when I was just startin' out." As he spoke, he stared ahead and seemed to disappear into all sorts of unhappy memories again. "He were walking round as bold as brass, so we jumped him in this alley. But I didn't know about that laser he had built into 'is 'and." He glanced up at 'Varon' as he added, "Hadn't read the notes properly, see. Like I said, I was just startin' out." He then stared toward the horizon again. "Well, 'e killed Royce... then 'e beat me to a pulp, before blowin' half me arm away. I think he were a bit pissed off that I'd got his name wrong and called him 'Trevor'." He frowned and pointed to his ravaged eye. "Same with tryin' to kick me eye out. He wanted to leave his mark on me, so's I'd never forget 'is name again."

Tando experienced a rare moment on this trip - one of real pleasure. "If I ever see 'im, I'll buy 'im a drink."

"Oh nice one, Tando, you're improving," scoffed Kane. He then added as a cruel afterthought, "Glad to see the brain grafts are working out."

There was another pregnant pause. Blake was a little bothered about how to approach this. His earlier discomfort and embarrassment in the conversation had lifted as he learned a few interesting details about his obstreperous new colleague, and now he had come to realise that he and Kane in fact had something very much in common - Travis. The question for Blake was, how could he let the man know the important detail that Travis was dead and that there was no need to hunt him anymore, without also revealing too much about himself.

He decided to resort to making speculative noises. "A lot of people believe that Travis got himself killed during the Galactic War."

Kane was clearly not convinced. "Yeah, I 'eard that as well, but deep down I know he's still alive." Blake pursed his lips, about to try saying something with a little more certainty, but Kane hadn't finished. "And really that's the only thing that keeps me going, the thought that one day I'll catch up with 'im."

Blake thought about this with a very quiet sigh. He just had to be one of those ones didn't he? Unable to rest until he knows that the man who harmed him is dead. Well, he is. The question was, would it matter to Kane who did the killing?

Blake glanced at Kane briefly, trying to take the measure of him a little better. The man's injuries were not of the sort that could just be forgotten of course, so he would doubtless have taken great pleasure in killing Travis if the opportunity had ever presented itself. But still, for all his surly energy, Kane didn't seem obsessive. Not lacking in fortitude or determination, maybe, but not obsessive. So perhaps it wouldn't matter to him that much...

Well, maybe the best way to find out was just to ask, but Blake wasn't sure how to do so in a way that wouldn't compromise himself.

"The mutoid didn't provide you with any information then?" he probed hopefully.

"No," said Kane, "like talking to a Delta Grade - a complete waste of time."

This fellow really could have been Avon if he'd had a better education, mused Blake with a gritty smile.

"And as for me only other lead, Blake 'imself," continued Kane, "well, Lafayette killed 'im three year ago."

"On Jevron."

"Yeah, that's right," sighed Kane, betraying no surprise that this companion, who had had virtually no knowledge of Blake a moment ago, suddenly knew the circumstances of his death. "It were definitely 'im. The Feds did DNA testin' - the lot. Servalan even went to the cremation, and that was after she became President." He smiled tightly. "'Course she's dead now an' all."

That seemed, for just an instant, to be the end of the discussion. Blake was pleased. He had been pleasantly surprised to find that in patches it had been genuinely interesting, but for the most part it had made him deeply uncomfortable, and he didn't want to risk it heading back in an unwanted direction again.

No such luck it seemed, for Tando decided to take this moment to chime in from the back seat. "Lafayette got Bayban too," he drawled.

"Did 'e bollocks!" scoffed Kane.

"He said 'e did," protested Tando, a little defensively.

"Yeah, he said 'e did," Kane acknowledged, "but..." His voice tailed off and his eye widened as a nasty thought occurred to him. "Oh shit, that reminds me!" He looked over his shoulder at the mutoid. "Did you get Morik's head?" he demanded frantically.

Blossom responded by holding up the leather bag and unzipping it. "Yes, Comm-an- derrr..." she announced. "It'sss... here... in the ba-ag." There was a loud and unpleasant rustling noise as she reached into the bag to extract its rather gruesome contents.

"Yeah, all right," Kane snapped hurriedly, "put it away. I don't want to see it now." He was never one for protocol, but even Kane knew better than to start distributing dismembered body parts around the cockpit of someone else's flyer.

"Yes, Comm-an-derrr."

"Anyway, as I was saying..." resumed Kane, still oblivious of the fact that his audience had no yearning desire for him to continue, "yeah, he, er... he says he did it, but he never proved it did he? No body, no pictures, no nothing."

Blake again found himself unable to disentangle himself from this unending, and at times rather morbid, conversation. "But Bayban did disappear," he felt compelled to point out, "together with the rest of his team."

Kane was dismissive. "Aah, I reckon one of the other independents got him, perhaps that lot from Scorpio, but I'm certain it weren't Lafayette." He paused for thought, then added conversationally, "I met Bayban once, you know."

"You 'unted 'im?" yelped Tando, truly shocked.

"'Course I didn't bloody 'unt him!" hooted Kane. "No one in their right mind would try to hunt down Bayban the Berserker! Skin you alive. No no, I met him by chance.... On one of the frontier planets."

Blake found his curiosity piqued again. He'd heard a fair few things about Bayban over the years, and he couldn't help wanting to know how many of them were true. And anyway, as long as they were talking about Bayban the Butcher, they wouldn't be talking about Roj Blake, which meant it was a safer curiosity to indulge. "What was he like?" he asked mildly.

Kane puffed out his cheeks and waggled his head from side to side in a noncommittal way. "Er, mean. And a bit nuts... but to be honest he weren't half the man his mother was." Kane's eye narrowed and his mouth seemed to curl up at the corners. "Now she really was an evil bitch."

The next question was inevitable, and Blake was never going to be too afraid to ask it. "Does Lafayette claim to have killed her also?"

"No, thank God! But then he couldn't, because Bayban had already admitted to doing it 'imself." Blake's face turned ever so slightly white. "I don't think he had any choice but to kill her really..." continued Kane. "She were completely out of control. I think it still upset him though, and he never collected the bounty - which I thought was a nice gesture." He didn't see the looks he was getting from Blake and Tando. "He also gave her a decent star orbit burial. It was all very tastefully done..."

There was the sound of a loud beeping pulse from the detectors on the control panel, cutting off all remaining conversation, to Blake's quiet relief. He looked at the radar screen. "The heat tracer's picking up a stationary reading at ground level," he announced. "Could be heat residue from a flyer's drive system." A second pulse soon joined over the first, and a second trace appeared on the screen. "I've got a second reading, same strength... Again, stationary."

Kane grinned a blood-thirsty grin. "I think we've found Lafayette," he said quietly. "He booked two flyers out yesterday."

Blake nodded in agreement. He switched off the heat scanner and started bringing the flyer in to land. "I'll put us down about a quarter of a mile from the heat source. Then if it is him..." The dark gleam flooded across his eyes again, "...we should catch him unawares."

From the back seat, Tando announced with considerable relish, "I'm gonna enjoy this."

Blake glanced over his shoulder at him briefly, then looked ahead again. "We all are," he replied impassively.

 

Chapter 3

 

Four mismatched soldiers of fortune climbed out of the flyer and into the damp open air of a marshy forest clearing. Night had now fallen, and it had arrived in the company of a strong breeze. The sound of it as it rushed through the trees was eerie, like the ghostly moan of a forest phantom. Most of them just ignored it, although Tando did seem a little unsettled as he glanced around at the howling tree trunks. There was a narrow dirt track that ran back into the woods on a downward incline. The dark trees that it was quickly swallowed into looked less than enticing.

"Right," snapped Kane. "Everyone check their weapons. I don't want any foul-ups."

At Kane's instruction, they all started sorting through their weaponry and ammunition. Tando and Blossom each had a plasma rifle, Kane himself had... well, Blake and Tando at first couldn't make out exactly what his weapon was supposed to be. Meanwhile Blake plugged the cable from his own gun into the power pack on his utility belt.

"Wh-...!" stammered Kane as he saw the peculiar weapon that 'Varon' was carrying. It looked like a complicated torch with a gun barrel. "Where'd you get that fancy toothpick from?"

Blake glanced down at the handgun he'd taken with him from the Liberator at the end of the war. "What, this?" he asked, in a tone full of casual dismissiveness. "Oh, I got it a couple of months back from a consignment of arms Jenna brought in from Sector Twelve."

This was news to Kane in more ways than one. "Twelfth Sector, eh? I didn't think we 'ad any colonies out there." He eyed the weapon again. "It looks pretty advanced too." Kane clipped an ammo magazine into his own rifle, the type of which Blake now recognised.

"Well it is if you compare it to that museum piece you've got," he sniffed, holstering his handgun.

Kane looked absolutely horror-struck at this churlish remark. "Museum piece?" he cried, holding the rifle up and waving it around defiantly. "Don't you know what this is?"

"Yes," answered Blake, unmoved. "It's a machine gun."

Kane was appalled. He wasn't going to allow such a slur to pass. "This..." he thundered, almost shaking with reverence, "...This is a Boucher, high velocity, nine-millimetre automatic assault rifle!" he proclaimed. "Look," he continued, gesturing toward the elegantly crafted body of the rifle. "Walnut stock! This is what you call a gentleman's weapon. Not like that..." he waved a contemptuous hand in the direction of Blake's holster, "...bloody... curling tongs thing you got there." Blake just blinked at him. Kane scowled. "You can't buy this in the shops, you know. This is handcrafted, all the way from Outer Gal. The only way you can get one of these is through mail order." He pointed a warning finger at Blake. "And then you've got to wait a bloody long time."

"Mail order?" The philistine's tone was disbelieving at best.

Kane responded slowly, carefully, as though talking to a child. "Exclusive catalogue. Restricted mailing list. They personally select ya."

Tando was also unimpressed. "You should get y'self a decent plasma rifle," he suggested, "instead o' usin' that crap."

Kane, normally so quick with a sharp tongued rejoinder, was so livid that it took him three full seconds to find his voice. "You... thick bastard!" he shouted, priming his gun, "I ought to..."

As amusing as teasing Kane had been, Blake realised that things were now in danger of spilling over. He quickly stepped up and redirected the barrel of Kane's rifle away from Tando. "Look, save it for the firefight," he suggested. "If we don't set out now, it'll be morning before we get there."

With a sullen look on his face, Kane managed to bring his temper back under control. "Come on then," he sighed, "let's move out. Blossom?"

"Yes, Comm-an-derrr?"

"I want you to scout ahead and find Lafayette's encampment," ordered Kane. "When you've done that, come back and tell me how many others there are with him, and whether they're armed or not. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Comm-an-derrr."

"Oh, and on your return," he added testily, "use the homing device to find me. It'll save time."

"Yes, Comm-an-derrr." The mutoid waited, as though expecting further orders.

"Well go on then, get going!"

The mutoid turned and started off along the dirt track at speed. Her half- mechanical mind felt no superstition or hesitation in the face of darkness, even darkness as oppressive as within the woods. The others set off in her wake at a much slower pace.

*****

"Kane?"

Kane was still annoyed about how little respect his choice of beautifully crafted classic weaponry had inspired, and he was not in the mood for more natter as they trudged through the murky trees toward... whatever. "What?" he growled crabbily.

"You said earlier at the bar that there was no premium for bringing Lafayette back alive," Blake observed.

"So?"

"Why is that?"

"Because the Federation consider 'im an embarrassment," explained Kane.

"Really?" To Blake, this sounded like a huge overreaction even by the Federation's standards. How could some miserable little bounty hunter be such a huge embarrassment that the Federation were perfectly happy to pay full price for him dead or alive? "Why?"

Kane seemed to brighten a little, as though they'd moved onto a subject that was a source of amusement. "Well, 'e's a self-publicist, ain't he? Every time 'e kills someone famous he takes loads of pictures, then he zooms off to some un-aligned planet and flogs 'is story." Blake looked absolutely astounded. "Hey, ya know what?" added Kane. "He even appeared on a game show last month."

Blake tried not to choke. "A game show?"

"Yeah!" nodded Kane, sounding amazed by the very story he was telling. "No wonder the Federation want him dead. 'E's just using their dirty washing to make 'imself a name."

Blake's anger began to stir again at the thought of that. No doubt it included scoring cheap publicity points from helping the blockade pilots to murder Jenna. He had to pick his way over some awkward undergrowth at this point, which was just as well, as it gave him something else to think about and a chance to keep his temper in check.

"In fact, I'm surprised they've let him get away with it for so long," continued Kane. He was about to say even more when he glanced up ahead and saw a lithe figure running toward them through the trees. The figure was making an odd noise through the nose and lips, like a hoot from an owl.

Blake's hand snaked to his gun as he spotted the figure as well, but Kane calmly waved it away, recognising the sound.

"Hey everyone," he snapped, "Blossom's coming back. Hold your fire." The mutoid picked her way at speed through the last of the trees and came trudging to a halt in front of them. "Okay, what did you find out?"

"They are... just... up ahead," stammered Blossom. "Eight of th-... th- them... all... arrrmm-med."

"Right then," nodded Kane in approval, "lead us to them."

"Yes, Comm-an-derrr."

With the mutoid taking point, they set off at a single file jog through the trees. They soon came to a wide clearing that was brightly lit.

*****

Kane was crouching, hidden in some high grass, watching out into the clearing beyond, by the time Blake finally rejoined him. Keeping watch on the clearing wasn't too difficult as there was a small group of people sat round a rather snug, bright campfire right in the middle. Beyond them were a few tents. The gathered trekkers appeared to be toasting small nubs of candy in the flames and idly chatting away to each other with scarcely a care in the world. In fact, the whole scene was so nauseatingly tranquil that the trekkers could almost have been on suppressants. Blake knelt down next to Kane and peered between the high grassy stalks, surveying the oddly twee gathering for himself.

"Which one's Lafayette?" muttered Blake quietly.

"That one over there, with the stupid hat," Kane whispered back, pointing to a man of modest build with a pointed moustache, a dark beret and a cravat. Blake looked in the indicated direction, and recognised him. "Did you check to see if there were anyone guardin' the flyers?" asked Kane.

"There was no one there. It's all clear," Blake promised.

"Right, good." Kane turned to Blake, with an expression that visibly meant business. "I've sent Tando and Blossom round the other side, so that we can catch Lafayette and 'is trekker buddies in a crossfire." Blake nodded, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Lafayette. "My idea," continued Kane, "is that when Tando signals that he's in position, we just stand up, walk to the perimeter and then start firing."

Blake looked down at Kane in disbelief. What kind of a plan was that supposed to be? "We stand out there in the open?" he hissed, somehow managing to keep his voice to a whisper. "I thought the mutoid said they were all armed?"

Again Kane looked complacent. "They are. But shit, they're only trekkers." He gestured towards the clearing with an overconfident sweep of the arm. "I mean, look at them sat round that campfire. They'll be singin' songs in a minute!"

Blake really didn't like this man. "I'll carve those words on your gravestone," he promised darkly.

"Gravestone, my ass," scoffed Kane.

"All right," shrugged Blake, "I'll carve them on your ass, then."

Kane laughed cheerfully at this, and it was then that Blake began to realise something that he had little taste for. No matter how much Blake might have disliked Kane, it was now becoming clear that, by contrast, Kane rather liked Blake. Unfortunately, it was also clear why. For all of the distinctions in their philosophies and most certainly their attitudes, they were similar in a number of other respects, not least their fiery determination to succeed at whatever they put their minds to. In Blake's case, it had been the destruction of Star One and the establishment of freedom for Humanity. In Kane's case it was the destruction of Travis and sheer survival. And while Kane had no idea what Blake's reasons were for his determination, he had no less recognised that quality in him very quickly and had even grown to respect it.

In fact, this even made Blake feel a little ashamed. If Kane had been so quick to acknowledge that quality in Blake, why had Blake taken so long to recognise it in Kane? It was clearly there, no matter how twisted the motivations behind it were.

"Look," insisted Kane, with a cockiness that set Blake's teeth on edge, "this'll be like shooting zombies off an escalator." He then smiled and asked conversationally, "You ever been to Zondawl?"

"Can't say I have..." admitted Blake, who was also sure he didn't want to. "Now, you're sure you've told the mutoid not to target Lafayette?"

"Yeah. Don't worry," Kane reassured him, "it's all covered."

This was the moment when things gained an unnecessary complication. A shout rang out clear and loud across the clearing. It was Tando's voice.

"Oy, Kane!" he called. "We're in position."

Kane's single eye closed in despair. Blake put a hand to his head.

"Bloody hell!" cried Kane. "I told you Tando was thick. Come on, Varon, It's now or never."

Wasting not another second, Blake and Kane scrambled to their feet and marched out of cover toward the perimeter of the encampment, which had now gone eerily quiet as the gathered trekkers looked all around for the source of the voice.

Lafayette stood up from his position by the fire, glancing around. He called out in a voice heavy with a romantic accent, "Kane? Are you out zair? Thees is Lafayette!" His voice sounded amicable, and even welcoming. But of course, there was no reply, so Lafayette tried again, this time a nervous edge creeping into his tone. "Come out, my friend.... Come out and join us...!"

Still no response. All the trekkers were on their feet, looking around edgily.

There was a sudden heavy tread in the grass behind Lafayette, who spun and saw a large moonlit figure at the edge of the clearing. "Ha...? Tando?" Lafayette recognised him. "Where's Kane?"

"Behind you!" came an answering voice from the opposite edge of the clearing. Lafayette and his trekkers all turned in time to see Kane and Blake raising their guns and preparing to open fire.

Lafayette raised his arms defensively, his voice full of horror as he cried out, "Ah! No! No! Ah, non, ne tirez pas! Don't shoot...! Noooo...!"

He carried on shouting but the rest was drowned out in a furious cavalcade of gunfire from opposite edges of the clearing. A hailstorm of plasma bullets rained from Tando and the mutoid at one end across the trekkers' path, making it impossible for any of them to turn and run, while repeated precision shots from Blake's handgun picked off the trekkers one at a time from the other end. All the while sporadic bursts from Kane's sub-machine gun ran across the clearing and made it impossible for any of the trekkers to try and recover their own weapons and fire back. Their death screams were soon ringing louder than anything else. And still the barrage continued.

All throughout, Blake's grim determination began once more to spill over into zeal. For every helpless scream, he heard the helpless scream of Jenna Stannis, for every face tortured in burning agony, he saw Jenna's face tortured in burning agony as her world dissolved around her in flames. And so it only increased his determination. And still the barrage continued.

After a while Kane started to laugh merrily at the almost comical way that the trekkers dropped, and with the confident assurance of victory. In fact, the firing from the other three had stopped, as all the trekkers were now dead, apart from Lafayette who was lying next to the fire, screaming in pain and gibbering curses in his native tongue. But Kane carried on sending raking bursts across the campsite with high abandon, still laughing to himself at the joy of the kill.

Suddenly though, his rifle cut out and instead of spitting out bullets, it spat out a series of pathetic little clicking noises. Kane looked down at it in embarrassment. "Ah! Oh! Bastard! The damn thing's jammed." He pulled the trigger time and again, struggling to get it to fire once more, but all he got for his trouble were more clicking noises.

Blake gave Kane one last withering look, then started striding forward across the campsite towards Lafayette, who was still shrieking at a dozen wounds. The gleam in Blake's eyes at that moment might have been enough to kill Lafayette on its own, if he would but look up and see it.

Meanwhile Kane, cringing with embarrassment that his 'superior gentleman's weapon' had let him down in front of everybody, suddenly got an even nastier surprise. And worst of all, its harbinger was the sound of Tando laughing.

"Look, Kane!" called out Tando, his voice full of mockery. "All 'em trekkers've got Boucher machine guns."

Kane looked up at him in disbelief. "What?"

Tando was standing next to where the trekkers had left their weapons in a pile, and he was holding up one of the rifles. It was identical to the 'exclusive' one that Kane was carrying. This wasn't fair at all.

But Blake was no longer paying the slightest bit of attention to Kane, or to Tando for that matter. His mind, always so good at becoming singular and narrow in its focus whenever it suited him, now had room to concentrate on nothing save one man.

"Lafayette?" he hissed, his voice smouldering with quiet fervour. He aimed his handgun at the fallen man's head.

Lafayette didn't look up at him at first. He was desperately cradling a gaping wound in his leg. The blood from the burning gash was running over his fingers and into the grass on which he lay, where it was joined by the tears of his own pain. "You've shattered my leg..." he wept in his Frankish accent. "Please... get away from me... don't shoot!" He directed his pleading eyes up at the man standing over him. He was planning to beg at this point, to plead for his life. Instead, all he could do was let out a gasp of misery. "Blake...?"

There was no pity in Blake's eyes, nor was there any triumph, just cold determination. His gun hand did not waver. He merely nodded. Other than that, he did not so much as flinch.

Some way behind him, Kane looked up and gaped at Blake. He had heard.

"It's you!" squealed Lafayette. He shook his head and looked away from Blake as though his mind were refusing to accept what his eyes were telling it. "But it can't be... I killed you.... you are dead..."

Blake just stared at him for a moment, waiting to see if he felt any pang of pity for Lafayette, or had any second thoughts. On both counts, there was nothing. He took one last step further forward, and poised the barrel of his gun against Lafayette's brow.

"Then here's a message..." Blake rumbled with almost sepulchral anger, "...from a dead man."

Blake squeezed the firing stud on his gun once more. There was a loud screech from the weapon, followed by an even louder scream from Lafayette... and then there was silence. Good. Silence was good. A chance for Blake to savour revenge. It could only be achieved in silence. Rest well, Jenna, he thought.

The silence was broken all too soon however, when Kane ran up to him, still carrying his faulty machine gun, his expression demanding an explanation. "You're Blake?"

Blake let out an irritated sigh and slipped the gun back into his holster. He glanced down at Lafayette's scorched face and consigned it to his memory, where it would have pride of place. It felt good to keep it there.

"Yes," he snarled in elation. "I'm Blake." He noticed that Tando was looking a little concerned at hearing Blake openly admit it, but in the end he'd already done so a moment earlier, so there seemed little point in trying to keep it a secret now. Tando returned his attention to the pile of Boucher machine guns, from which he was obviously planning to start some kind of collection.

Blake didn't notice the mutoid reacting as well. "Bla... Bla-ake...? Blake?" she murmured over and over, staring at him as though there were something hidden away deep inside her mind that she was trying to bring back to the surface, and it just wouldn't happen.

Kane, his voice neutral but his expression pleading, put his hand on Blake's shoulder and asked, "Is Travis still alive? Please. I have to know."

Blake looked at Kane. He still didn't like him very much, and he still felt that lingering doubt about whether it would be altogether wise to let him know the truth. But then Kane had been instrumental in helping to avenge Jenna, so perhaps he deserved some peace of mind.

"He's been dead a long time," Blake promised.

Kane let out a breath, and looked away in confusion. When he spoke, he sounded more relaxed. "Did you kill 'im?"

Blake hesitated at that question, but then nodded. "I helped."

"You..." Kane's voice was reassuringly calm on the first word, causing Blake to let down his guard, but on the second word it suddenly exploded in fury, "...bastard!!!"

In one swift motion Kane's arm swung upward from his side, and the spring- loaded blade popped out of his wrist, sinking deep into Blake's cheek, just below his left eye. Blake cried out briefly before doubling up and cradling his face protectively.

Kane's voice was full of terrible, cold calmness as he said, "Now we're both marked." He leaned closer as the blade retracted into his wrist, and he added, "Welcome to the Travis club." Kane then launched a vicious kick to Blake's midriff.

Blake cried out again and tumbled to the ground, completely beaten. But for Kane this was not enough. There was never going to be enough. He kicked Blake again, in the ribs this time. And again in the stomach. And again. And again... Blake cried out each time. But it was still not enough for Kane, who now raised his rifle.

"I'm going to blow your head off," he whispered, his voice still strangely composed. He aimed the rifle at Blake's face and pulled the trigger. But once more the gun jammed and gave another of its feeble clicks. "Bastard!" cried Kane, losing his cool again for a moment. He threw the gun aside and stood over Blake, his voice once again finding a resonant psychopathic equanimity. "I think after this," he whispered, "me and Blossom will have to pay a visit to Outer Gal..." Then his single eye fixed on another weapon next to the dead body by the campfire. "Ha! I know. I'll use this." He picked up the weapon and smiled demonically. "Lafayette's plasma rifle." He chuckled at the irony of it. "Now there's a nice bit of symbolism for you." He took aim. "Goodbye... Blake."

There was the sharp throb of a plasma bullet being discharged from a rifle... and Kane gave a scream of pain and tumbled heavily to the ground.

The mutoid reacted with what appeared to be real concern, calling out, "Comm-man-derr!" before turning to fire at the source of the shot - which was Tando. The bullet from the mutoid's gun sank into Tando's arm.

"Aaarrgh... Bugger!" cried Tando, about the most lucid thing anyone could have said, given the circumstances. He fell.

The mutoid adjusted her arm toward Tando's new, prone position and prepared to fire again. But this moment of brief chaos had bought Blake time to recover enough to fight back. Although he couldn't open his left eye (which was hurting like mad), he still had a clear enough view in his right eye. He pulled his handgun from its holster, aimed fast and blasted the mutoid in the back. She gave a brief scream... then she fell.

Tando dragged himself to his feet in a hurry and scampered heavily to where Blake was slumped and dizzily cradling the wound below his eye. "You all right, Blake?" asked Tando, as he crouched down next to him. The question was concerned, if not shrewd.

"Of course I'm not all right," scowled Blake, but he quickly calmed down. There was no point in taking it out on Tando, it wasn't his fault. Indeed, quite the opposite. "What about you? How's your arm?"

Tando glanced down at the bullet wound on his arm in what seemed to be an attempt at nonchalance, which of course he was never likely to pull off. "I just got a flesh wound..." he answered simply. "Let's see yer face."

Blake withdrew his hand from the gash on his cheek. There was quite a lot of blood. Perhaps not as much as he might have feared, but it still wasn't pretty. That much was obvious from Tando's - not entirely considerate - reaction.

"Urgh!" he gulped. "He cut down to the bone... It's gonna be a wicked scar." Not for the first time that day, Tando shivered. "'E could've 'ad yer eye out there."

"I think that was his intention," admitted Blake weakly. He then smiled at his lumbering companion. "You saved my life, Tando."

Tando smiled modestly. He may have been a brutal psychopath in his own right, but at least Tando was seldom arrogant. "Well you know what I say," he drawled in his slow voice, "if you was a friend of Olag's then you're a friend of mine." He glanced at Kane, then back at Blake and added in a conspiratorial voice, "An' between you and me, I didn't like Kane that much anyway."

Blake smiled. He'd figured that out quite easily for himself. He'd also shared the sentiment - Kane had not been a pleasure to know. Even so, as Tando helped him to his feet, Blake couldn't help feeling a little sorry that things had worked out quite so finally. He glanced at Kane, the face stuck in a gruesome one-eyed rictus of death. Somehow Blake now felt that even Kane had deserved a little better than that.

"We'd better get you back to the medics," suggested Tando as he started helping Blake back along the path to where they'd left the flyer. "You're bleedin' real bad." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small cloth that should have been, but wasn't, white with blue pinstripes. Instead it was largely brown with green smears. "'Ere," he offered cheerfully, "use me 'anky."

"Er, no thanks, Tando," Blake declined, politely but hurriedly. "I'll use my shirt instead. It's cleaner." Blake tore a strip of material from the hem of his shirt and started dabbing his injured eye with it. Blood quickly soaked through the cloth, turning it a shade of red that shone brightly even under the night sky. "You know," muttered Blake thoughtfully between grimaces of pain, "I'm sure I've seen Kane's mutoid before."

Tando looked at Blake doubtfully, wondering if maybe he'd hit his head as well as everything else. "What? In a nightmare or summin'?"

"No..." answered Blake, shaking his head, "in some pictures. With two children. Now, where the hell would I have seen...?"

They were soon swallowed up into the woods as they stumbled away. Behind them they left a charnel-house scene. No one was left but the dead.

Well, not quite. That is to say, one figure was not quite dead. Her life had only seconds left, and it had only been a half-life for some years now in any case. It wasn't as if there was anything for her to lose in dying.

But before she died, she managed to do something tantalising, something almost heart-wrenching. If only Blake or Tando had stayed long enough to see it, it might have made it worth something, but they did not.

The mutoid, still lying in her broken final resting place, briefly opened her eyes, eyes that were suddenly full of pain, and full of love. And before she let out her final breath she uttered one last word. No, not a word in fact. A name. A name that embodied all the love and pain that she had been feeling and yet been cut off from for all these years. Her voice was quiet, whispered, as her body was too far gone to call it out loud. But it was still loud enough to make it mean something... to her. To the woman she had been, and to the woman that she now became one last time. She uttered the name of the man she had always loved.

"Maryatt..."

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