The serrated blade designed to grant Sergeant Blair Randolf a second mouth flashed through the air a scant fraction of an inch from his throat. The momentum of the assault kept the attacker twisting a bare second too long. As realization of his error dawned on the anonymous bar patron, his expression of contemputous rage transformed into one of alarm melting deeper into fear. Before he could recover his alcohol-unhinged balance and renew his offensive, the bearded stranger faced the consequences of his mistake.
With the habital ease of a soldier's career-long training and practice, Blair stepped in closer to his adversary to bring to a climax the conflict he had orchestrated from opening insult to final cut. Shoving the unwitting pawn of his play on a vector adding to his motion, he snatched his own gleaming stainless blade from its black belt sheath. A twitch of a callussed thumb activated the vibra-blade.
As the drunken braggard spun about, Blair grabbed his victim's right wrist in a grip like a steel band winching tighter. The nicked blade meant for his neck dropped from half-numbed fingers and clattered, forgotten, to the dirty wooden floor of the dilapidated Midnite Retreat. Ignoring the unshaven man's surprised grunt of pain, Blair buried his fingers in the fellow's greasy hair and yanked back his head. In a blurred strike, he brought up his vibra-blade towards that exposed, quivering throat and --
At that shouted protest, Blair's smoothly executed maneuver stuttered and died in mid-stroke. Still holding his target as though the man were a lifeless doll, Blair paused, his blade's energy field flickering off to reveal the weapon's razor-edge.
Throughout the entire sequence, his grim countenance never faltered or changed.
Sweating and cursing, Blair's drinking companion and host during his visit to Tefra Prime pushed his way through the packed, ogling crowd, ignoring their disappointed jeers and rough grumbling. Like some apparation from the past, Davik Ing stumbled through the bar's smoky haze and into the small clearing that had formed around the two impromptu combatants. The short, gray-haired former soldier winced at the strain on his artificial foot but did not stop until he stood face-to-face with his friend and guest.
"Damn it to new hell, Blair!" Davik shouted hoarsely. The renewed bar babble faded a bit in anticipation of a sequel to the earlier hostilities. "Are you trying to get me banned from my favorite bar and yourself tossed into jail?" He gestured angrily towards the still-poised knife. "Energy weapons are forbidden in Gavinberg. What do you think your superiors will say if they have to save your sorry butt from a few months in the pit?"
Slowly, Blair lowered his weapon.
Davik swallowed dryly. "And if you kill this drell-head -- even if you claim self-defense -- not even the Silence Corps or the CSC will be able to pry you loose from an official investigation. Life may be cheap here on Tefra Prime, but it's not that cheap."
Blair glanced at the man dangling at the end of his hand like some intimate puppet. Swelling hope leaked into the fellow's panicked eyes.
"So what?" Blair asked flatly.
Davik cursed at the floor and ground his teeth before locking his gaze with Blair's. "You started this fracas, damn it, just as you always do."
Blair's brown eyes narrowed. "He drew his knife first. I merely responded to the threat he initiated."
Shaking his head in exasperation, Davik said, "You also say that every time. Sometimes I don't know why I let you stay with me when you come here on leave."
"I've often wondered that myself." Blair's soft, cryptic reply hold a wisp of genuine curiosity.
A wince washed over Davik's scarred features. For a long moment, he struggled with a reply. His final sign of resignation marked his defeat. "You know that as well as I do." His forlorn words came out barely audible as the now-bored bar crowd resumed its previous activities, any likelihood of fresh blood apparently exhausted.
A flicker of chartreuse caught Davik's attention. "Oh...nuts!" Grabbing Blair's arm, he tugged. "Come on. Let's get out of here before Paul calls in the Patrol."
Blair's iron-hard body held firm for an instant longer before yielding to Davik's insistence. Almost as an afterthought, the Silence Team trainer and former Silence Team member released his hold on his unfortunate near-prey's hair. Staggering, the lucky man fell into the arms of his glaring friends and reached for the half-empty bottle of spicer resting on their dirty table.
Deftly, Blair sheathed his blade and nodded. "All right. Let's go."
As the owner of the Midnite Retreat parted the customers still shielding the site of the altercation, Davik thrust a hand into a pants pocket and pulled out a fistful of crumpled credit notes. Before Paul could voice his threats and complaints, Davik slapped the money into the glowering owner's hands and said, "Sorry, Paul, sorry. Our fault. This should pay for any damages or loss of business." Pushing the slow-to-comply cause of his problems ahead of him, Davik shrugged and offered a weak smile of apology. "Too much to drink, I'm afraid. You know how soldiers on leave get. I'll take care of him. I appreciate your understanding, Paul, I really do, and I'll be in next week, as usual. Thanks. Thanks a lot." Retreating behind that torrent of words, Davik sought the exit.
As he and Blair faded towards the door, Davik felt his heart ease its staccato beat. Counting through the bills, Paul waved the troublemakers a good riddance and returned to his duties.
Stepping gratefully into the cool of late evening, Davik stalked away. With no hint of remorse, Blair kept pace. Furious, Davik wondered how much his friend's outrageous display had cost him this time.
"I trust you realize my pension only stretches so far," he said accusingly.
As though the incident at the Retreat carried no more significance than a dispute over a parking slot, Blair strolled along, his hands stuffed nonchalantly in the pockets of his Silence Corps' blue pants. "I always reimburse you for your expenses, don't I?" he asked matter-of-factly. His bloodshot eyes slid towards his companion. "No one's forcing you to come along."
Davik frowned and stared down at the toes of his black boots as they rose and fell on the concrete sidewalk. His jaw clenched and unclenched as he fought an inner battle of his own. "You stupid drell-head," he spat out, at last. "If it weren't for me, you'd never survive your so-called R and R."
Blair shrugged. "Maybe."
For another half-block, they passed among the late-night revellers bent on having fun no matter what the cost.
"Where shall we go now?" Blair asked.
Davik's weary blue eyes widened. "'Go'? I thought we were headed home."
Blair barked a laugh. "Hardly. It's barely past midnight. I have a week left to 'rest and recreate.' I intend to make the most of that respite." He grinned. "How about the north end?"
At that suggestion, Davik stopped as though he had smashed face-first into a brick wall. "The north end? First you cost me who-knows-how-many credits with one of your stupid 'challenges' and now you want to bankrupt me by wasting more on those over-priced tourist traps? A glass of whiskey there won't get you any drunker than one in the Retreat."
"You need to loosen up. It's the atmosphere you're paying for, not the alcohol." Blair's voice became mildly taunting. "Explore fresh environs, my friend. Get out of your rut. Expand your horizons."
"Watch it, Blair," Davik said in a surly tone. "Booze and our friendship will only excuse so much. Don't stretch them too far."
"Sorry," Blair said more seriously. He extended a hand but did not quite touch his friend's arm. "Really, though, I'm still feeling restless, and I'm anything but tired yet. I could go there alone, I suppose... But I'd enjoy the visit much more with your company."
Davik gazed into his guest's earnest expresion and burst out laughing. Blair answered him with a faint curving of his own lips.
"I don't know who's more full of it," Davik said with wry wonder in his voice. "You, for the way you act, or me, for putting up with it." He slapped his arms along his body. "Fine. Let's do it."
Blair clapped his cohort on the back. "That's the Davik I remember. And don't worry. The rest of the night's expenses are on me."
A short rail ride brought them to the refurbished neighborhoods circling the main spaceport. Like expanding ripples of wealth from a dropped stone, the concentric rings of the city's various districts displayed the influx of the Silence Wars commerce. Old, rusting warehouses and crumbling homes had been remodelled and converted or razed and rebuilt into trendy stores, overly-priced domiciles, and mind-bending entertainment spots. As troops on leave added their own funds to that of Corps driven investment, the waves of prosperity slowly spread to outlying areas.
Suspiciously eying the garish lights banishing the night with unearthly wavelengths of color, Davik tried to guess how much time remained before the well-connected nuevo-elite of Gavinberg turned their restless attention outward and focussed their energies on displacing him yet again. How many times could he hunker down still further on the fringes of the city and society before there came nowhere else to hide?
Such melancholy musings found themselves vanquished by the dawning of excitement in Blair's dark eyes. Dour brooding could not long compete with and survive an encounter with his outlandish friend in such an ebullient mood.
"Let's try here first," Blair said, dragging him towards an open doorway through which ear-punishing soundwaves emanated.
As they passed through the holographic sign proclaiming the location of The Kendrik Connection, Davik abandoned himself to the sensory overload engulfing and immersing him.
Blasts of atonal music interlaced with heavy, booming bass and screeching electronic overlays pounded at them from ten-foot tall speakers situated strategically in all corners of the massive space forming the club's interior. What goods this now-defunct warehouse had once harbored, Davik could not guess. When he had retired to Gavinberg after his lengthy rehabilitation, the initial push towards revitalization of the old city around the resurrected port had nearly completed its first phase.
In any event, The Kendrik Connection now sheltered a sweaty, bumping sea of young humanity swaying and carousing to a beat unlike any his own generation found enjoyable. Heady aromas wafted above and through the crowds, mingling with and interpenetrating them into a synchronized organism devoid of individuality or thought, an essential distillation of pure sensory experience. Inhaling the odd vapors, Davik felt snaking tendrils of euphoria and a swelling release of raw emotion slithering through the buried interstices of his brain. A tiny corner of his mind, rapidly crumbling under the unexpected pressure of his unleashed limbic system, cried out for him to escape while he still could. But the force of that urging dwindled and diminished into a faint echo with each step he and Blair took into the center of that fleshy morass of animality.
Licking his lips, Davik idly noted the tingling sensation from the tenuous mist swirling within the haze of strangely scented smoke caressing his body and filtering into his lungs. A brilliant kaleidoscope of intensely pleasurable tastes burst upon his tongue, changing and writhing about his mouth with a speed he could neither control nor fully comprehend.
Even walking through images of gorgeous couples locked in impossibly erotic athleticism failed to shock him from the stupor ensnaring his will in its wily clutches. Glimpses of straining genitalia and hardened, sculpted bodies combined with the pungent smells of vigorous intercourse became merely a patina overlying the incredibly overpowering stimuli in which they swam.
"Here. Drink this!"
Dazed and dazzled, Davik gazed at the perfect smoothness of the glass Blair thrust into his nerveless fingers. His friend's bellowed instructions barely registered on his awareness. As though he had been reduced to an imbecilic primitive, he stared at the amber fluid nestled in the glass, his incomprehension of the obvious somehow vaguely disturbing.
"Drink it!" Blair shouted into his face. In demonstration, his companion lifted a glass to his own lips and magically caused the mysterious elixir to disappear.
Blindly mimicking Blair, Davik imitated the behavior. As the brew splashed into his mouth and down his throat, an analytical fragment of his mind identified the substance as an incredibly expensive and incredibly smooth imported whiskey. Only once before had he imbibed that brand, imported all the way from neutral Terra. Blair had brought a bottle of it when he visited Davik in the field hospital where the sergeant's younger comrade had recuperated from the loss of a foot burned away in the searing heat of a Consortium battle beamer. Davik's heroic action had saved Blair's life and the integrity of his Team. Unfortunately, the destruction of the soldier's appendage had only postponed the inevitable. When Blair returned to his unit, both his Anjehnian and Sandalian Teammates had been killed during a Consortium raid on their Federation base.
Ghostly recollections of that disastrous and traumatic episode in his life threatened to intrude into Davik's current spectator view of his surroundings. As the rich alcoholic fire burrowed seductively into his flesh, however, those disturbing reflections fragmented and flowed back into the hidden recesses of his battered soul.
Other drinks followed in rapid succession until the boundaries between his physical and mental selves and the external world blurred and melded together in a strange metamorphosis that dissolved what had always before been so clearly demarcated and delimited.
A frantic slice of sanity scrabbled in terror at that loss, attempting vainly to alert him to his precarious condition.
A beautiful woman with long golden cascades of hair, breasts full of promise and life yet soft as a pillow of downy feathers, and full, red lips moist and parted engulfed him in her slim arms, locking her mouth with his, her tongue playing madly as her breath blended sweetly with his. Her thrusting pelvis pushed achingly against him before her slender, tapered fingers cupped him gently yet firmly in a senuous embrace holding the promise of both pleasure and pain.
Just as abruptly as she came, his temptress vanished, leaving Davik wondering if she had truly existed as flesh and blood, been an image projected from outside, or been conjured up, a mere mirage and hallucination generated from the fuel of his long repressed desires newly emancipated from their dreary dungeon cells.
Another jarring picture solidified before him. Blair's faintly smiling visage, observing him, enjoying his friend's reactions...using him? Clarity crystallized out of the confusion like minerals in a supersaturated suspension that is abruptly pushed beyond its equilibrium point.
"I know what you're up to, Blair!" Davik yelled.
He saw his friend's brows knit in wary bewilderment.
Davik nodded in confident certainty. "I know why you came here."
Blair waved inclusively. "Amazing, isn't it?"
Shaking his head, Davik stabbed Blair's chest with a bony index finger. He paid scant attention to the soldier's scowling expression. "Not here, you idiot," he said. "Here in Gavinberg. Here with me."
"Doesn't matter," Davik said, swaying. With befuddled dignity, he straightened his rumpled shirt. "You're one hell of a friend, Sergeant Blair Randolf. A hell of a friend."
"Let's go home," Blair said, digging his fingers into Davik's arm.
"No!" the younger man said, shaking loose. "You don't trust me. Won't be honest about what's going on here."
Saying nothing, Blair dropped his fists to his sides.
"You felt sorry for me," Davik said, wagging a finger lazily through the fog drifting between them, "but you feel sorrier for yourself."
"Go on," Blair invited, his features a blank slate.
"How long are you going to keep returning here to find someone to kill you? Since you don't have the guts to kill yourself."
In a flash, a fist hammered into Davik's face. Numb, he barely registered the pain, though his head rocked backward from the force of the blow. Mesmerized, he touched fingers to his nose. They came away crimson and dripping blood.
"Feel better?" he asked.
A long moment crawled by before Blair's hands relaxed. Tension leaked from his stout frame like electricity from a damaged circuit.
Grinning insanely, savagely, Davik held a grey handkerchief up to his nose. "I've been a lousy friend. Watching you commit suicide on the installment plan. Letting you. Helping you unearth the executioner who will release you from your misery, your loneliness. And you...hanging around only as long as I agree to play by your one-sided rules."
"You're wrong, Davik. I nearly kill them, remember?"
Davik sneered. "A whiff of your former honor. You can't simply throw the fight, but you will allow yourself to prod the river dragon in its own lair. Eventually you'll succeed in disturbing one strong enough and mean enough to tear you limb from limb. And if, by chance, you decide at the last second that living is not so bad, after all, it'll be too late. "
A line of young men and women, half-naked or nude, with elaborately designed hair threaded between the pair of sparring men. Struggling to maintain his balance, Davik screamed. "I used to be amazed that someone so important in the Wars would hang out with a cast-aside casualty. Now I know. I'm a 'safe' friend. Someone who'd be so grateful just for the company and attention of the mighty warrior, Blair, that he'd never protest, never tell him just how big an ass he really is."
"That's enough!" Blair yelled, shoving aside the final pair of leering women in the line.
"You're damned right it is!" Davik gazed around in a drunken lurch. "Let me show you how it's really done."
As Davik dove into the crowd, Blair lunged for a handhold. He missed.
Peering about uncertainly, Davik wended a path towards the service area. There. The two he needed.
Grabbing the bare-breasted woman the tall man at the bar fondled, Davik kissed her hard upon her yellow-painted lips and slapped a palm between her long, shapely legs.
Something brittle cracked and shattered against the side of his head. More blood flooded down Davik's cheeks and into his mouth. Reeling, he groped for support.
A bottle appeared in his hand. A flash and it broke, its jagged glass teeth pointing hungrily towards the snarling lover Davik has so rudely interrupted. The lover had equally disturbed cohorts.
Rainbow lights flashed from half-a-dozen mirrored blades. Davik grinned as blackness surged over him like a crashing wave only to recede and reveal the dripping boulders littering his mental beach.
As the eager predators advanced, happy to stimulate their jaded, dulled psyches with a novel thrill, a blue-clad shape blurred past Davik. Another long blade stabbed the air, this one shimmering and humming as though alive and thirsting for the blood of its anonymous foes. Startled, alarmed expressions wiped away the smirks and laughter of the young men. A shower of credit notes drifted through the air in their general direction.
Strong hands seized Davik and hurtled him away from the other hedonists. Abruptly he discovered himself sundered from the encompassing oneness of his union with the patrons of The Kendrik Connection. Open space and fresher air splashed against him, dissipating the fumes clouding his thoughts.
An oddly toned voice said, "Lucky for you I'm inoculated against such places." The vaguely familiar fellow wavered into sharper focus. "You're crazy." The words might have held reproach. Or relief. Davik could not quite decipher or grasp the distinction.
He nodded dully, too sick to argue. "But I care," he mumbled. "I just want you to care, too." Then he occupied himself for an indeterminate time with being sick.
The next thing he remembered was waking up in a bed -- his own, he thought...hoped -- and dragging himself to the bathroom to purge his stomach of whatever poisons lingered there.
Somehow the rest of the night and most of the next day passed. Twilight darkened again before a semblance of normality returned to his addled consciousness and trembling, empty body.
Exhausted but unable to sleep any longer, Davik laboriously pulled on clean underwear and a pair of tattered shorts. Plodding downstairs, he toasted a piece of bread and poured himself a glass of red wine. Chewing on the dry toast, he sank into a living room chair.
Sometime later, he awoke, the half-eaten bread laying on his lap and a wine stain soiling the leg of his shorts.
"Damn it," he muttered dryly, trying to ignore his throbbing skull and churning stomach.
In the kitchen, he rubbed ineffectually at the splotch on his shorts with a wet dishrag. A moment crept past before he grew aware that he had company. Reflexively, he glanced to where Blair stood in the open doorway with one hand resting on the frame.
The sight of his friend's uniform did not register immediately. When it did, Davik straightened suddenly. His rashness was punished by a world spinning deliriously for a precarious few seconds.
Clearing his throat, Davik tossed the cloth into the sink and gingerly seated himself at the kitchen table on a wobbly metal chair. "Guess it's not going to come out," he said inanely, staring at his reddened knuckles.
The scrape of chair legs against tile told him Blair had joined him.
"You look terrible," Blair said softly.
Davik started to nod then winced as lightning flared in his forehead. Delicately, he probed his lacerated scalp with a fingertip.
"Thanks for cleaning me up. And bringing me home." He lifted his gaze. "I assume that was you," he said flatly.
Blair leaned sideways in his chair, one arm draped casually over the tattered back, his left hand playing restlessly with a spoon Davik had neglected to put away. Slowly he nodded.
"I have to leave," he said in an uncharacteristically subdued manner.
Davik tasted cotton and nodded automatically. "I thought you had another week left," he observed.
Blowing out his cheeks, Blair said, "I did. New orders came in while you were...sleeping." Recovering. "All leaves for trainers have been cancelled. I'm to report back to Rinok Two immediately."
Blair hesitated. Then: "Rumor has it that the Wars are not proceeding as well as the CSC and the Corps expected. We've been losing a disproportionate number of Teams, both to Consortium Team attacks on our shielded bases and to Federation Teams penetrating enemy shields. They want to drastically increase the number of available Teams, radically improve their training and skills, and open up more fronts against the Consortium." His fingers tightened around the spoon as though it substitute for an enemy's throat. "And, of course, they want it all accomplished in less time for less money."
"But, of course, you'll do it." Davik could not even muster sufficient energy to deliver the verdict with the anger he felt percolating quietly inside.
Blair made no answer. He did not have to.
"It's not your fault, you know," Davik said, raising his chin and his eyes towards his friend.
Blair raised a brow. "No need to apologize. Forget it."
Davik started to shake a negation then remembered the consequences for such a rash gesture. "No. I mean before. When you visited me in the hospital."
Abruptly, Blair sat up in his chair. "Davik, no. I don't want to --"
Davik interrupted the slashing movement of his friend's hand with a raised palm. "I mean it, Blair. It wasn't your fault you were absent when those Consortium Commandoes raided the base on Markon Five...any more than it's your fault you can never again mesh with a Team."
Clutching his hands convulsively on the table as though that somehow anchored him to face the storm he expected to erupt from Blair, Davik ground out the rest. "You can't blame yourself for the fact the Corps screened you and discovered your Team potential. Or that they removed you from your men. Even if they can't understand why you had to leave them, I do and you should. Soldiers hate the Teams for what they represent, not for what they are. We've all been drafted, big or little 'd.' We can't be held responsible for that or whatever we're forced to do. You no more asked for the special perks of Team membership than you did for your shortened life expectancy. Just be thankful you're still alive and whole and able to help others survive what so many don't."
Steeling himself, David awaited Blair's response.
But the former Team member did not shout or bluster or stalk from the room. With a barely perceptible nod, he said, "I know all that intellectually. Emotionally, though..." He shook his head. "I've never been closer to anyone than to my Teammates. They provided me what no one else ever did, not my men and certainly not my family." Light from the overhead kitchen bulb glimmered in his eyes. "A part of me wants to run as far as possible from Teams and the Corps and all the mess associated with the Silence Wars. A bigger part of me is terrified, though, of what would happen if I did." Helplessly, he lifted a hand. "How would I fill that void inside of me? Where could I hide that it would not expand and swallow me whole if my duties with the Corps didn't hold it at bay?" He exhaled along breath. "So I continue to serve even when they offer me freedom. I cover that chasm inside me as best I can with work, hoping to new hell the monster lurking in those shadows never escapes its rusting cage."
For a timeless moment, Davik sat frozen. When he started to rise, Blair gestured him down. "No. Thanks...but no."
Shoving back his chair, Blair retrieved his pack from near the door where he had dropped it. "I've got to go," he said, hooking a thumb over a shoulder. "My ship leaves in two hours."
"Sure. Uh..." Davik rose hastily and threaded shaky fingers through his greasy, unruly hair. "Want something for the trip? Food? Drink...?"
Blair smiled. "Plenty on the ship. Thanks, though." Hesitantly, he thrust out a hand.
Surprised at the offer given the incident at The Kendrik Connection, Davik grasped his friend's hand and briefly clasped it tight.
Then Blair was gone.
With insides churning now from emotions more than booze, Davik focussed on the door through which his friend had passed. He did not see its peeling paint and scarred knob, however. What had burned itself brightly in his mind's eye was the startling image of the tears filling the iron soldier's imposing eyes.
Whatever private hells Blair had endured before, Davik feared they would pale to nothingness in comparison to the torments the Silent Warrior would face in his uncertain future.