Darkship Revenge – Snippet 37

“No,” Kit said.  “They’ve been delirious enough, they’d have told.”

Nat nodded again.  “So, you see, I can’t take just anyone, because I can’t risk their recognizing one or all of the boys and… well… turning,” he told me.  “I can’t ask your husband to go, because he’s a stranger in the Earth, and because his mutations are obvious.  Should he be captured he’d risk his entire world, but worse, should be captured, I don’t suppose you could make it out of here and back home on your own.”

“No,” I said.  “Probably not.”  It wasn’t so much a problem of navigation, but more that if both Kit and I were under suspicion in Eden, I’d be under a hundred times more suspicion if I returned without Kit.  But I didn’t need to explain this to Nat.

“I can’t take Simon because he’s very ill.” A look at me.  “Not physical.  He really was in love with his wife, and the shock of her death, combined with the events of the last few months have been too much for it.  Simon…”  He shrugged.

I had some idea what he might mean.  Simon had always seemed to me an unstable concatenation of personalities beneath a brittle shell he’d fashioned for himself.  It was quite possible under the stress of several months of hell, he’d split wide, or was in danger of doing so.  “Also, frankly,” Nat said, “Since the Emperor Julien threw in with the Usaians, he’s even more hated than I am on that side.”

“Luce,” I said.

“No!  He’s more important than I am to the cause.  He’s the figurehead that holds us all together.  I couldn’t do that.”

Whether that was true, or whether Nat was trying to protect Luce and not risk him was unknowable.  He probably didn’t even know it himself.

I cleared my throat.  “There’s Fuse,” I said.  “I know what you’re going to say, but he’s really in much better shape than he ever was, and he would go, if you asked him.”

Nat shook his head.  “No way, Thena.  No way.  You have no idea how actively his father is hunting him.  We’ve been keeping track of that, so we can keep him alive.  His father could die at any minute, and knows it, and is trying to capture Fuse with all the desperation of a dying man.  I would not risk him.  Even though this cluster of Good Men is not the same as Fuse’s father belongs to – because their overall alliance is a patching together of small alliances, of course – if they caught Fuse, they’d have a valuable bargaining chip, and they do know it.”

I looked at Kit.  He nodded almost imperceptibly, and I heard him mentally, I’d tell you no way, he said.  But if the situation is as Nat says, we can’t go till this is solved.  We can’t risk carrying the infection to the normal people of Eden.  And if they really need more specimens, and he goes and fails, it won’t do any good.  Nat will just be dead.  I don’t want to risk you, but I’ve long ago realized sometimes I can’t protect you.  If something happens to you, Eris still has a parent.  And anyway – He smiled – Fuse is right about you.  You tend to be all right in the end.

“I could go with you,” I said.

Nat looked horrified, which was a fine thing for a man who had gone on uncountable broomer raids and one attack on Circum Terra with me, and who knew very well I was trustworthy in a fight.  “Oh, come,” I said.  “You know you can trust me.  Remember when I –”

“Hell, Thena,” he crushed his cigarette on something that he took from his pocket, and which appeared to be a portable ashtray.  “I know I can trust you in a fight.  More than I trust myself, some ways.  There’s no one I’d rather have at my back, actually, but Thena, it’s not that simple.  If the Mules want the Earth, and I’m fairly sure they do, what do you think they want to do with it?”

“Uh… live in it.”

“Yes, thank you.  Give the woman a star.  Seriously, they want to replace homo sapiens sapiens.  I have no idea what they call themselves, but I’m sure they call themselves something different.  I’m sure they think they’re different.  If they get wind of your existence, you’ll become one of the main objectives of whatever they’re planning.”  He put up a hand, to stop me, and I realized I’d opened my mouth to protest that we weren’t dealing with those mules, the ones in orbit, the ones who planned to inherit the Earth, but only with their cousins who’d stayed behind on Earth.  “I know, Thena, that we’re not going into the Je Reviens.  But the Good Men are also Mules, and some of them might even have put two and two together.  They might know what’s being done, and what’s in store.  I’m not sure how it would stand between the two groups, the mules who stayed and those who left.  From… from things we understood and read, the ones left behind were judged unfit to go to the stars, and might have some definite animosity against the ones who went.  But in either case, either as a peace-offering, or to gain their group an advantage over the other mules, possessing the ONLY female of their kind and one who has proven herself by birthing a daughter, would definitely be a coup. And some of them probably know who they are, and an exam would tell them you have a child.  No, Athena, you’re too important to risk.  Or at least you’re too much danger to risk.  I’ll have to do this alone.”

“She isn’t the only woman,” Kit said.  “Zen –”

“Zen married one of Simon’s retainers and disappeared into the unexplored and newly forested continental territories in North America.  Yes, we’ve tried getting in touch with her through this, but from the character of her husband, and from her own experiences, I’d guess they’re both trying to stay lost.  At any rate, she doesn’t enter into this equation because only a handful of us know what she is, and none of us talks, even in code, except face to face in places we’re sure aren’t bugged.  As far as the Good Men are concerned, you are the key to their future.  And as soon as the Mules hear of you, you’ll be the key to populating the Earth.  I’ll do this alone.  I’ve done crazier things.  Trust me.  We have the best intelligence.”

I trusted they had the best intelligence.  I did not trust he could do it alone.  Look, Nat was one of the best, an amazing fighter on broomback, and as fast and efficient as any bioengineered person.  I suspected he, like many descendants of families who’d served a Good Man for a long time, had in fact been extensively improved.  But he was one man.  And the Good Men were paranoid and had the ability to indulge their paranoia with guards and systems of surveillance.

In a way it was one man going up against an army.  Even if he got to the boys, if they were in as bad a shape as the ones here had been, how did he propose to bring them all out?

Of course, in my heart I was sure he meant to rescue one of those boys, even if the others died.  But I don’t think he’d admit, even to himself, that any of them were disposable.  And there was no way he could carry three of them, if they were very ill.

In some tales, the lone man goes up against the evil army and emerges unscathed, because his heart was pure.  I could say many things of Nat, but I’d never say his heart was pure.  And at any rate, I was fairly sure no one cared about purity of hearts.  If he went alone against an army, he was going to die.  And we needed him not to die.  And he was so stubborn there was nothing I could do.

I got dressed and Kit and I walked him to the entrance of the refuge, and the flyer he’d left parked there.

“Why a flyer?” I said.  “A broom would be less noticeable.”

He sighed.  “Because I’ll need to bring boys back, and considering how they were raised, agoraphobia is a consideration.”

“Um.  I can’t convince you to let me come?” I asked.

“Definitely no,” he said.  I cannot in good conscience put you in danger.”

Kit was walking around the flyer, as though inspecting it, which got him a weird look from Nat.  “I … I hope it’s armored in some way?” Kit said.

Nat shrugged.  “As much as flyers are these days.  Even civilians get shot at.”

Kit nodded.  Nat shook both our hands, and left to meet his doom.