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Excerpt for Sunset in Silvana by
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Sunset in Silvana



by





Paul Sims

&

Robert Warr





Copyright



This electronic edition published by Paul Sims & Robert Warr, 2015



First Published in Great Britain by Paul Sims & Robert Warr, 2015



Smashwords Edition



Copyright © Paul Sims & Robert Warr



The authors assert the moral right to be identified as the authors of this work.



Cover design by I.Designs – www.indyscribabledesigns.com



The people and events described in this book are fictitious and bear no intentional resemblance to any real person living or dead.



No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, scanning, recording or otherwise, without the express written permission of the authors.





Chapter 1



Talia Milanova woke that morning with a smile on her face, as she had for as long as she could remember – though that, she had to admit, was only a few months. I’m so lucky to live in Silvana Zelyna, she thought sleepily, especially as a Hero of the Republic.

She stretched and yawned, luxuriating in the soft cotton sheets, a privilege provided by the state. I really don’t think I deserve such special treatment, whatever Major Valentine says. And I don’t feel much like a ‘role model’. Perhaps one day I’ll wake up and it’ll all have been a dream. I’d better make the most of it.

She rose and walked over to the window, where she leaned on the windowsill to watch the city awaken. The sun was still below the horizon, but the ringlight gave plenty of gentle illumination. The view over the bay and along the chain of islands that reached out into the distance was beautiful. It was softened by a light sea-mist that partially obscured the detail, lending an air of fantasy to everything but the large concrete tenement blocks that marched down the hill with regimented precision.

Talia had seen pictures of the area before the liberation of Silvana, with its attractive but wasteful arrangement of small villas in landscaped parkland, all set about with glow-trees. Unfortunately, the need to house several thousand good Zelynan families, many of them refugees from Pregeor, took precedence over the comfortable existence of a few hundred privileged Silvanans. Since I’m one of those who benefited, I shouldn’t really be critical, but it was rather beautiful.

As she watched the water lapping at the docks, a shuttle rose from the Skyport on a plume of flame, starting its journey to Restavic High Space Station. I wonder if Johan’s at the controls, she mused. It’s a while since we’ve seen much of him – he practically lives at the ’Port nowadays.

The sun rose, and a melody played through her mind, as it did every dawn. I wish I knew what this song is. I ought to sing along, but I’ve don’t remember the words. I’ve forgotten where I first heard it, but it speaks to me of peace and freedom, and fills me with optimism for the day ahead.

Once the sun was fully revealed, the music faded, and Talia breathed a happy sigh and began her daily exercise routine. It wouldn’t do for a Hero of the Republic to get flabby. She usually found the exertion invigorating, but today she felt a tinge of sadness because of the absence of her friend and regular exercise partner, Anoushka.

They were the only females in their small group of Heroes. That, and being set apart from the normal citizens by their status, thrust them together a great deal – an arrangement both of them enjoyed. Anoushka wasn’t Talia’s equal physically or intellectually, but she had a light-heartedness and a gentle nature that Talia envied. Whenever Anoushka entered a room she brightened the atmosphere, which – besides making her company a real delight – also proved of great value at the Restavic Down Medical Centre, where they both worked, Anoushka as a Senior Nurse and Talia as a Nurse Manager.

As she stretched, Talia thought back to when they’d first met – as far as she knew – when they were recovering together from the incident at Pregeor in a small private ward in Restavic City General Hospital. They – and the other survivors of the disaster – had amnesia, their whole past erased by the trauma.

Since they had been kept in medically-induced comas as their bodies healed, the physical effects of the incident had largely been mitigated when they’d recovered consciousness, and their doctors soon began encouraging them to regain their full fitness through physiotherapy. Talia had found the recommended exercises rather basic and boring, and had soon graduated to her own set of dance-based katas. As with so much, she’d forgotten where and when she’d learnt these, but her muscles still remembered them well.

She remembered Anoushka watching her for a while, and then asking if she could join in. Indeed, once she’d started, tentatively, to copy Talia’s movements, Talia remembered some sequences that were meant for two people, where the actions of each of them complemented those of the other. From then on, they’d exercised together whenever possible.

Despite her relative inexperience, Anoushka enjoyed every moment of their shared callisthenics: sometimes, when they moved in true harmony, her pleasure was almost palpable, and even when she lost her balance and ended up flat on the mat, she took it in good heart.

Talia smiled as she remembered when, three days previously, Anoushka had landed on her bottom during a particularly tricky manoeuvre. When Talia had leaned down and offered her a hand up, Anoushka had grabbed hold of it and jerked Talia off balance. That she had ended up spread-eagled on top of Anoushka was enough of an indignity, but Anoushka had the temerity to tickle her as well. Talia had retaliated, and they probably would have been late for their shift if Boris hadn’t looked in and commented on the lack of decorum displayed by some Heroes of the Republic. It was later that very day that Anoushka had a flashback to Pregeor, and now she was back in the hospital, undergoing treatment in its psychiatric wing.

Talia’s exercises seemed rather flat without her friend, so once she'd done enough to work out the kinks in her muscles and generate an internal glow, she showered, dressed, and went in search of breakfast.

“Morning, Talia.” Boris Dechorsky was another of her tight-knit group. He was actually her closest friend, apart from Anoushka. He was a couple of inches taller than she was, and a few years older, but they rarely disagreed about anything, and often seemed to know what each other was thinking. On the other hand, though he knew no more than she did about their lives before Pregeor, she somehow felt that his history was a sad one – maybe it was the lines on his face, which seemed to indicate that he’d faced a lot of pain in his past.

“Good morning, Boris. Is there coffee brewing?” She knew there would be, and he nodded as he poured a steaming mug and handed it to her. “Thank you, Comrade. How are things at the Skyport?”

He grimaced. “A bit slow at the moment. The tension with Telphania means we get less traffic, which means less to fix. Ivan and I fill our time doing maintenance checks, but it’s hardly entertaining. Speaking of Comrade Baranov, I wonder where he is? I don’t want to be late.”

The young man in question chose that point to appear. He was still half-asleep, and had not yet shaved. Ivan Baranov was another of their small band – the youngest, apart from the boy Josef, he found his new-found celebrity a great advantage when it came to his social life. His devil-may-care attitude sometimes grated, but he could be good company – when he didn’t have a hangover. Boris glowered at him, but he just yawned noisily and scratched himself, poured himself some tea, slumped down in a chair, and rested his head in his hands. “Just gimme a couple o’ minutes,” he muttered.

“Have a fun evening, Comrade?” Talia asked brightly.

“More fun than this morning.” Ivan gave her a slightly resentful glare. He knew she realised how much he drank on poker nights, and the delight she took in teasing him. As recompense, despite Boris’s look of disapproval, she poured Ivan a small measure of vodka, which he downed gratefully.

“Thank you, Comrade Talia – you’re a life saver.”

“I hope so. Yours would be the third life I’ve saved this week – though the others were in more danger, and their conditions were hardly self-inflicted. Now go and shave before Comrade Boris here has apoplexy."

Boris raised an eyebrow as Ivan shuffled off. “Yes – you stopped Leon bleeding to death yesterday, didn’t you?”

“I suppose so – but to lose half his arm like that… a turbine, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Didn’t look where he was going, the young idiot – but at least half a future is better than none.” They sat in silence until Ivan returned and he and Boris set out for the bus.

Talia wondered how less enlightened nations managed without such a fine public transport system. Boris and Ivan would be at work exactly on time. She was on the afternoon shift, so she had time to eat a good breakfast and study for a couple of hours before she caught the shuttle herself.

She felt fortunate to have been made a Nurse Manager at the Medical Centre. Though she couldn’t remember it, she’d been told that she’d been a Senior Nurse at Pregeor General Hospital. Apparently, when the disaster occurred, she had succoured and treated the injured, and, like her fellow Heroes, had refused to leave before the last of the survivors had been rescued. The Comrade President had been so impressed by her bravery and dedication that he had personally appointed her to her current position.

She had made many friends at the Medical Centre. One of them, Dr Julia Romanova, had noticed how quickly she mastered new techniques, and had been sponsoring her medical studies. She had been given an exemption from pre-medical training and the first year of a part-time medical degree due to her training and experience as a nurse, and she was three months into her second year. That morning, she became so engrossed in her studies – she had just completed a course on ‘The Effects of Gradual and Explosive Decompression’, and was beginning to get to grips with ‘The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Exotic Atmosphere Leaks’ – that she nearly missed her bus.

Being a Hero of the Republic could have its downside: because of your celebrity, you had no privacy when in public, and always had to be ready for the curiosity of other citizens. She could cope with formal occasions, but found impromptu encounters difficult – it was like being continually on parade.

Normally, she travelled with Anoushka, and they could lessen interference by sharing a seat and talking to each other. People are less likely to interrupt a conversation than to address someone sitting on their own. But on this occasion she was by herself, and the bus being nearly full, had to share a seat. The elderly man she sat next to noticed the starburst on the collar of her uniform. He kept looking at her, then looking away, but in the end he plucked up the courage to address her.

“My apologies, Comrade Hero, but I notice that you were at Pregeor,” he began. “Are you by any chance Comrade Hero Talia Milanova?”

She nodded and smiled, but her heart sank within her. Yet again she missed Anoushka, who always took these encounters in good heart, and shielded her from the worst of them.

One passenger, a girl of about eight, said proudly, “My name’s Talia, too – and when I grow up I’m going to be a Hero, just like you.”

“Good for you,” Talia replied, forcing another smile. “But remember that every citizen who does their duty for the Republic is a true hero.”

The girl nodded vigorously. “What was it like at Pregeor, Comrade Hero?”

“Hush, Talia,” said a middle-aged woman who sat next to the girl, who Talia judged to be her mother. “Don’t bother the Comrade Hero. I’m sure she doesn’t like to be reminded of that horrible day.”

Talia gave the woman a look of gratitude. “Thank you – you’re right. I’m sorry, young Talia, but I don’t even like to try to remember it. When I do, it makes me shiver and shake, and all that I can remember is the fire, and someone’s face melting.” Even as she tried to talk dispassionately about Pregeor, Talia could feel her heart beginning to race and the sweat building, but luckily she was just about to reach her destination, and could wrench her thoughts back to her duties. She made her exit to a chorus of sympathetic farewells.

The day passed uneventfully. Since, apart from providing emergency treatment for workers at the Skyport, the Centre primarily catered for tourists, they had few patients for the same reason that Boris and Ivan’s workshop was lightly loaded – the tension with Telphania meant few traders and even fewer passenger liners were currently visiting Ruine.

There had been border troubles for many years, especially since the citizens of Silvana chose the joys of freedom as part of the Republic over slavery to the repressive government of Telphania, but recently tensions had escalated. When the investigations of Zelyna’s security forces had laid the responsibility for the devastation at Pregeor squarely on the shoulders of Telphania and its allies, the citizens of Silvana had become incensed, and had volunteered in droves for the armed forces. Reports of Telphanian soldiers massing on the border meant it was likely to be only a matter of time before violence erupted.

The journey back that evening was quieter, and mostly spent in pleasant anticipation, as Talia was to have dinner with Major Valentine. She knew it was part of his job as Security Liaison Officer to talk to them all regularly, but somehow these evenings had become more to her than just duty. She spent especial care preparing, and chose her best dress - something Ivan noticed only too well.

“Oh, Comrade Talia, you do look seductive tonight,” he said.

She felt her face redden. “It’s only a security briefing, Comrade,” she replied tersely.

“I bet you wish it was more than that.”

She dug her nails into her palms, and would have slapped Ivan had she been near enough. She knew he was only teasing and meant no harm, but it was near enough to the truth to hurt. The Major was attractive, as well as being considerate and charming company, and she sometimes found herself imagining what a deeper relationship with him would be like. However, as Ivan well knew, the Major seemed to harbour no reciprocal desires – indeed, although he seemed friendly most of the time, there were some days when he treated her with an icy, almost inhuman, detachment.

Boris sprang gallantly to her defence. “Leave her alone, Ivan. Remember, she lost more than you at Pregeor. You weren’t married.”

“It’d take someone special to catch me,” Ivan boasted. “Until that happens, I’ll play the field. There are untold benefits to being a Hero of the Republic.” He gave a sly smirk, and Talia was about to retort when the intercom buzzed. Her lift had arrived.

The limousine drew up outside the best restaurant in Restavic City, and she was escorted to the usual booth, where Major Valentine was waiting. He smiled, got to his feet, and took her hand.

“Comrade Talia, thank you for joining me.”

“My pleasure, Comrade Major. I always enjoy your company – and the food here is exquisite.”

“Please, sit – I’ve taken the liberty of ordering you an aperitif.”

“Thank you.”

Only inconsequential matters could be discussed while the waiters fussed around them, but once their main course was delivered, the Major broached more serious concerns.

“How is your memory?” he asked. “Is it becoming any easier to recollect your past?”

Talia shook her head sadly. “Not really – someone asked about it on the bus today, and… well, let’s just say I still don’t want to try.”

“I’m sorry.” He seemed frustrated at her lack of progress, but also, for an instant, she felt he was oddly relieved. “What about your comrades? Have they remembered anything?”

“I think Boris is a little nervous about what he’d find if he dug too deeply. Ivan couldn’t care less – he’s too busy revelling in being a Hero – and you know what happened to Anoushka. It’s only the amnesia that’s keeping her sane at the moment.” He nodded understandingly. “I haven’t seen much of Johan recently. With the current international tension, he tends to spend more time at the Skyport than in his apartment, and our shifts don’t often coincide anyway. As for Goran, you know how he and I don’t really get along. He spends most of his time at the Comet, and keeps young Josef with him. He treats the poor boy as a kitchen slave — it’s easy to see how much Josef resents it. Still, it’s not my place to criticise.”

“It’s important for the young to do their duty.”

Talia grimaced. “I know, but it seems a bit harsh on an orphan who went through such hell to make him the ward of such a man.”

“That man led the resistance at Pregeor.”

“That’s true, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a good father-figure. Anyway, enough about him – is there any news of Anoushka?”

“She’s doing well, and should be back with you in a few days.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Talia smiled, but shook her head in exasperation. “I blame myself.”

“For what?”

“Her breakdown.”

“Surely not.”

Talia sighed. “If only I’d been quicker… I know all about her sensitivity, and everyone on the permanent staff knows not to involve her with burn victims, but that paramedic wasn’t one of the regulars. It’s true it was an emergency, but there was no call for him to manhandle her like that. When he forced her to look at that poor girl’s flash-burnt face and she collapsed, I just had to go to her. I deserve a reprimand: I should have left her where she was and helped with the emergency.”

“It was an understandable reaction.”

“Yes, but not very professional. Nobody said anything, but I could feel their disapproval.”

“You’re imagining things. From what I’ve been told, you couldn’t have done anything more than your comrades did to save the burns victim, and nobody I’ve talked to has any complaints about your behaviour.”

“But it is the duty of a Hero of the Republic to act in an exemplary fashion at all times.”

“Psh! Don’t put too much of a burden on yourself – or your comrades. You’re human, all of you, and your very humanity shows the rest of our citizens that they, too, can aspire to be Heroes. Anyway, what about Comrade Ulanova? Fainting like that was hardly exemplary.”

Talia bridled. “That’s different.”

Major Valentine looked her in the eyes. “No, it’s not. I’ve noticed the pressure of duty you put yourself under, and if you don’t cut yourself some slack, it could be you in the psychiatric ward – and not because of Pregeor either. Heroes of the Republic should not have nervous breakdowns, so from now on, please regard it as your duty to relax as much as possible.”

Talia’s shoulders sagged. “If you put it that way…”

“I do – and I’ll do my best to enforce that duty,” he said with mock severity, but after a second or two, his face softened. “And on the subject of relaxation, have you any plans for the weekend?”

“Well…”

“Well what?”

“We were hoping that, since it is the weekend of the President’s Birthday, and we have four days off instead of three, we could go to that dacha up the coast that you sometimes let us use. It’s so beautifully peaceful, and the weather’s not yet too cold for swimming.”

“I thought you might ask for that, so I’ve already ordered it prepared.”

“That’s marvellous. You take such good care of us.”

“Nonsense. I’m simply doing my duty.”

Talia wondered whether she was imagining things, but she felt the look in his eyes belied his words. “I wish there was some way I – we – could thank you.”

“There is.”

“Oh? And what is your wish, O master?” Talia bowed her head in mock obeisance.

He laughed. “My masters would be grateful if you would visit a couple of our schools the day before the holiday – and perhaps you could persuade Boris and Ivan to do the same?”

“That shouldn’t be a problem – the lure of a long weekend at the dacha will easily entice them, and things are pretty slow at the Skyport at the moment.”

“That may well change.”

“Really?” She gave him a speculative look, but he seemed unwilling to divulge anything more, so, after a short pause, she continued. “Anyway, they won’t mind – and you know I’m always ready to spend time inspiring future Heroes. You’ll have to provide cover for me at the Medical Centre, though.”

“Everything’s already arranged.”

“You know, you seem to almost know what I want before I do.”

“As I said, it’s part of my job. There’ll be a helicopter waiting for you at six that evening. Take some clothes for Comrade Anoushka.”

Talia’s heart leapt. “Of course.”

As they were finishing their coffees, the Major said, “Comrade Talia, I don’t want you to be alarmed, but because of the increased international tension, you may notice a little more security around than you’ve been used to.”

“Are we in danger?” She bit her lip and he laid his hand reassuringly on her bare arm.

Despite her nervousness, a shiver of pleasure ran through her, and she almost missed what he said next. “You’re in no more danger than any other public figure, Comrade, it’s only a precaution. Unfortunately, the Telphanians and their allies, the Silvanan Free Army, have been becoming more active recently.”

“I wish I understood why the Telphanians hate us so much,” she said. “It’s probably the result of the trauma of Pregeor, but I can’t remember anything about how we got into this situation. Peace between neighbours – especially neighbouring countries – is what we need. We don’t want another incident like that.”

“No indeed, but that’s not just up to us. Since Silvana chose to secede from Telphania and join our Republic, the Telphanians have used all the means at their disposal to destabilise our government in the hope of recovering their lost province. Pregeor is only the worst of it – they sponsor the SFA, and their agents infiltrate everywhere. We must be on our guard at all times.”

“Surely they wouldn’t actually invade Silvana? They wouldn’t stand a chance with their soft, undisciplined troops against our elite forces.”

“They have help – mercenaries and advanced weapons provided by their off-world allies. But we have friends too – the Dainworlds Federation have proved staunch comrades-in-arms.”

“But what do these off-worlders hope to gain in return for their aid? Our small planet seems pretty unimportant in the cosmic scale.”

“This planet was once vital to older galactic powers. You probably don’t remember much of our history, but most of Ruine was ravaged some thousands of years ago by the Forerunners and the Ancients.”

“Forerunners? Ancients?”

“The light and dark forces of legend. They fought over this planet, and in its skies, which is why so much of the surface is barren and dead, and why we’re surrounded by a ring of debris where there used to be several moons. From what I’ve been told, having devastated much of the galaxy, both races simply disappeared. Nobody today knows much about them, but they did leave several strange constructs on Ruine, on the only continent left relatively untouched – our own. From what I can tell, the major galactic forces of today are curious about these artefacts, and want to access them – which is why they’re so interested in us.”

“But where are these ’artefacts’? I can’t remember hearing about them before now.”

“That’s because they’re mostly in Telphania – apart from the strange spiral of monoliths in Duplif-al-Starel. Now, I mustn’t take up any more of your valuable time. Thank you for your company, which has been as delightful as always.”

“The pleasure is all mine. I do so look forward to these occasions.”

He took her hand and led her back to the limousine for the return trip, which passed in a happy reverie. The threat of Telphania seemed unreal, and anyway, she had Major Valentine to protect her. She changed into her sleepwear and lay down on her bed thinking happily how good life was.

Chapter 2



Boris Dechorsky woke the next morning bleary-eyed and depressed. His head told him that he should be grateful for his privileged life as a Hero of the Republic, but his heart told him otherwise – somehow, almost everything about his life felt empty and hollow. He yawned, stretched and tumbled reluctantly out of bed. He stood under the shower, hoping that the cold water would wake him up and lighten his mood. It managed the former, but signally failed at the latter. He sighed and began to dress.

He dragged himself to the washbasin and began to shave. He sometimes felt that he’d look better with a beard, but Senior Mechanics at the Restavic Down Skyport did not wear facial hair. Anyway, even if he had wanted to stop shaving, the official policy for all the Heroes of Pregeor was that they should look as similar as possible to their clean-cut images on the patriotic posters, as reproduced on the new set of stamps celebrating their actions during the disaster. The special framed cover on the wall looked down on him with an air of superiority; how could anyone hope to live up to those heroic archetypes?

A noise from outside the window caught his attention, and he looked out to see a van from one of the local co-operatives draw up outside the block. The concierge, Olga, came out to speak to the driver. They haggled for a few moments, and Boris could see that he was a rather surly lout. Boris judged from his manner that he wouldn’t help Olga with her purchases, but would leave her to struggle with them on her own. He turned from the window and ran to the hallway and down the stairs, pulling on his coat as he did so. He emerged into the cool air just as the van drove away leaving the old lady to cope with the boxes and a large, heavy-looking sack.

“Let me help you, Mother Olga,” he said as she strained to lift the sack. “After all, you bought some of this for me and my comrades.”

She glanced up, surprised, but when she realised who it was, she gave him a broad smile. “Thank you, Comrade Boris,” she said with a sigh. “You’re up early. I was wondering how I’d manage to carry it all in. I’ve purchased a good selection of vegetables, and I managed to persuade the driver to sell me a small crate of freshly-caught flickerals.’ She gestured at the uppermost box, which was full of the slender finger-length fish.

Boris lifted this and the carton of bread beneath it and put them into Olga’s arms before slinging the sack over his shoulder. “Lead on, little mother – let’s put this stuff away before it loses its freshness.”

He followed her into her ground floor apartment and helped her to separate the provisions that she’d bought for him and his comrades from those that were for her own use. “Would you like a coffee as a reward for helping a poor, frail old lady?” she asked, as she started to put things away.

“Yes, please,” he replied. “But you can’t fool me – I’ve seen just how hard that ‘poor, frail old lady’ works keeping this block clean for us.”

She laughed. “A lifetime of toil builds the muscles, but I am getting less flexible – and I’m truly grateful for all your help this morning.”

As he sat down and accepted a mug of strong coffee, one of Olga’s cats, a grizzled black-and-white tom that she called Vanya, landed heavily in his lap. “Comrade Olga,” he said as he scratched the intruder behind his ear, “I’d be interested in buying some of your flickerals – or, if you are going to use them to make some of your delicious chowder, perhaps you could spare a pot of that?”

The old lady nodded her agreement. “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement,” she said with a smile.

“For a pot of your chowder, whatever you wish to ask.”

She laughed. It was a good system: she would supplement her wages by dealing with the co-operatives – and occasionally cooking her tenants some food – while freeing them from the need to go out to the vans early in the morning.

A thought seemed to strike her and her face took on a troubled cast. “Comrade Boris,” she said half hesitantly, “there’s something I feel I should tell you.”

“Yes, little mother?” he replied, expecting some routine matter.

“Major Drovsorsky’s assistant came to see me yesterday – and something about her manner chilled me.”

“More than normal?” Boris chuckled. “Captain Reynard is the original Ice Queen.”

The old lady didn’t smile. He reached across and reassuringly patted her shaking hands, but she just shook her head. “Comrade Boris,” she said, “there is never anything remotely funny about that woman, but this time she was so intense that it frightened me – it was as if she was a predator and I was her prey.”

He started to speak but she waved him to silence and, having taken a sip of coffee, she continued.

“The Captain was very interested in how you and the other Heroes were behaving. She reminded me of the time that you and your friends spent in hospital last month. She said that you had been suffering from paranoia brought on by a drugs imbalance and that she wanted to ensure that none of you were suffering any sort of relapse. She actually seemed rather disappointed when I told her that you were all quite well.”

“Surely she’s just doing her job,” he interjected. “Isn’t it just an indication of the Republic’s solicitous care for us?”

“Perhaps – but she insisted that I should report any odd behaviour directly to her, rather than to Major Drovsorsky, and there was something about the way that she said it that made my blood run cold. What’s more, the Major had actually spoken to me about the same matter himself just last week.” She paused. “I thought I should tell you, that’s all.”

“Thank you for your concern, Comrade Olga. I know you find Captain Reynard unsettling, but perhaps it’s just the weight of her responsibilities that make her so intense?”

“I don’t think so – the Major has greater responsibilities than she does, but he never seems threatening. When he comes to see me, we just chat over coffee and he always pets any of my cats who are around, and sometimes he even brings them a tin of pluny – but when Captain Reynard visits, the cats all hide, and I feel like joining them.” She paused and sipped her coffee. “No, I never look forward to interviews with her, but there was something different about her this time – a focussed cruelty that I didn’t like – I didn’t like it at all.”

They finished their coffee in silence and, having thanked her for her hospitality, Boris lifted a protesting Vanya from his knees and dumped him on the sofa. He paid Olga for his group’s share of the food, and carried it upstairs.

As was customary when Talia was not on early shift, Boris had been the first to rise, and had both coffee and tea brewed by the time she joined him.

“Good morning, Talia.”

“Morning, Boris.” She yawned decorously, covering her mouth with the back of her hand.

“How was your evening with Major Valentine?”

“As pleasant as always – he’s very good company.”

“Anything I should know?”

Her brow furrowed. “Anoushka’s doing well, and should be back with us any day now… Oh, and I’ve arranged for us to have the dacha at Plune over the weekend…”

“Good. It will be nice to get away for a while.”

“But in return, the Major wants us to do some school visits the day before.”

“Of course – it’ll be better than another day of tedious maintenance.”

“He said that might change…”

“Oh?”

“That’s all he said. I couldn’t get him to elucidate any further. Now, I’m sure there was something else… Oh, yes – there’s going to be a bit more security about because of the situation with Telphania.”

For some reason that made Boris uneasy, but he simply shrugged. “Coffee?”

“Please.” She took the steaming mug, sipped and gave a deep sigh. “Oh, that’s better… Standard shift today?”

“More of the usual, I reckon. I hope this trouble blows over soon, or I’ll go mad from the tedium. At least you have your studies to keep you interested.”

She looked at him sympathetically. “Up to a point – but you’d be surprised how often I read something which should be new to me and find that somehow it’s already familiar.” She gave a little puzzled frown. “Anyway, if things come to a head, we’ll all be busy enough – me with casualties, and you and Ivan repairing battle damage.”

Pat upon his cue, Ivan arrived. He looked as dishevelled as always, but at least he’d already shaved, and he didn’t have a hangover this morning. “Battle damage?” he said quizzically as he poured himself a cup of tea. “Have I missed something, Comrades?”

“No, Ivan. Comrade Talia was simply talking about how busy we’d be if a war breaks out.”

Ivan frowned pensively. “D’you think they’d send us to the front?”

Talia shook her head. “We’re too valuable. They might send us to a base camp or two to raise morale, but they won’t risk us getting killed.”

“You’re right,” Boris said. “People seem to have taken us to their heart. Now, Comrade Ivan, drink up – we’ve got a bus to catch.”

“But Comrade Talia hasn’t told me the sordid details of last night’s encounter with Major Valentine yet.”

Talia stuck out her tongue and retorted, “The only thing in here that’s sordid is your mind.”

Ivan laughed.

“Come on, you dirty old man.” Boris took Ivan by the arm. “I’ll give you the news on the way.”

“Not so much of the ‘old’ – I’m a good few years younger than you.” He shook Boris off, but downed his drink, got to his feet and headed for the door.

Being on early shift had its compensations: it meant they shared the bus almost exclusively with their workmates each day, and with them, they had long since lost the status of celebrities. The journey passed in companionable silence, but as they approached the ’port, it was obvious that something unusual was happening outside it: not only were there more mechanics around than normal, but there was also a heavy security presence.

“What’s going on?” Boris asked a guard as he and Ivan were escorted into the machine shop.

“We had a special delivery of agricultural machinery from our allies in the Dainworlds Federation.” A familiar voice came from behind them, and they turned; to their surprise, the speaker was Major Valentine.

“What brings you here, Comrade Major?” Ivan asked.

“Has Comrade Talia told you about the increase in security because of the threat from Telphania?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m simply here as part of that extra security.” He turned and made his way back toward the gate.

Boris looked at Ivan, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “It makes sense, I guess – at least now we’ve got something useful to do.” He turned and made his way to their workshop, and as Boris followed him, he realised that Ivan was right – this was more like it: transit damage to repair, the odd replacement part to fit or manufacture – real work.

It was about mid-morning that Boris got an inkling of something odd: he realised that the part that he was straightening was a firing pin from a 45mm cannon. How he recognised it, he had no idea – he could only assume he’d come upon something like it in the past. He had a sudden flash of memory: he was standing beside such a cannon, dressed in armour and carrying an advanced combat rifle. He tried to hold on to the vision, but it shredded to tatters as his heart began to race. Better not to think on the past, he decided.

As the day wore on, he found himself recognising more and more military components among those he was servicing. He kept his suspicions to himself, however, until Ivan came over with a puzzled expression and said, “This panel I’m flattening out is too heavy for a tractor – it’s some kind of armour. I wonder what’s going on.”

“I don’t know,” Boris replied, “but some of these parts are definitely not for agricultural equipment – unless they’re building cultivators with mounts for surface-to-air missiles nowadays.”

“Should we talk to Major Valentine?”

“Oh, he must know – and he must realise we’ll work out that these parts are military. The foreman told me that he wants to address us all at the end of the shift. Let’s wait and see what he has to say.”

Ivan nodded his agreement.

“Anyway, at least we’ll have something interesting to tell the others this evening.”

“Too right.” Ivan returned to his task.

-------------------------------------------

It should have been Anoushka’s turn to cook that night, but since she was still indisposed, the duty fell to Boris. Ivan wasn’t around – the usual situation when there were chores to be done – so Talia volunteered to help him prepare the vegetables.

“How was your day?” she asked as she peeled a potato.

“Different,” he replied, and she looked up at him, one eye-brow raised. “We spent it doing transit repairs on some new agricultural machinery.”

“Really?”

“Yes – sent by our allies in the Dainworlds.”

“We could do with it – just look at this.” She held up a scrawny excuse for a carrot. “What sort of equipment? Tractors? Combine harvesters?”

Boris thought for a moment. “That’s funny – do you know, I can’t remember precisely what it was – just general farming equipment, I suppose.” He shrugged. “Anyway, how was your day?”

“A bit tedious – I’m looking forward to the weekend.”

“So am I.”

The stew was bubbling nicely when Ivan turned up. “Anything I can do to help?” he asked with wide-eyed innocence.

Talia raised a cynical eyebrow, and he had the grace to blush. “Well, you could help us eat...” she said.

“Hah! I’m always ready to do my duty for the Republic – however onerous.” He grinned.

Talia shook her head slowly and sighed. “Pour yourself a drink and sit down. Boris tells me you had an interesting day.”

“It was certainly a change,” he said as he sank down into a chair. “A shipment of agricultural machinery – and your lover-boy was there, too.”

Talia’s cheeks coloured slightly. “Oh?” she said with careful nonchalance.

Boris could see that Ivan wanted to tease her further, so he gave him a warning look. “Isn’t today check-up day?”

“I guess so.” Ivan sighed. “I’m getting fed up with being pushed and prodded every week. How much longer is this is going to go on?”

“As long as necessary,” Talia told him as she served the stew. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed the way you ogle some of the nurses.”

Ivan gave a wicked laugh and tucked into his meal.

The medics turned up at ten o’clock precisely. They always arrived just as everyone was preparing to go to bed, as their patients needed to be sedated in order to perform the more intrusive tests. These were, Boris and his comrades had been assured, simply intended to ascertain how well their bodies were recovering from the effects of Pregeor.

Boris lay on his bed as the nurse assigned to him expertly located a vein in his left arm and he felt his mind dissolve in warmth.

Chapter 3



Talia woke on the eve of the weekend in an even happier frame of mind than usual; of all her responsibilities as a Hero of the Republic, visiting schools was the least onerous. Addressing young, enthusiastic students on the glories of the Republic, and the necessity to work hard and be vigilant in its service, could actually be enjoyable. She showered, dressed and exercised, in keen anticipation of the pleasures of the day, and of the four days of holiday that would follow it.

The visits all went well: the children welcomed her with true revolutionary fervour, and listened intently. She autographed so many of their books that her wrist was beginning to go numb. She had a slightly guilty feeling of relief when she was introduced to her last group, a set of eleven-year-olds at the President’s High School for Girls.

Their teacher, Miss Sikorski, introduced her: “Class, as you will all be well aware, this is Comrade Hero Talia Milanova, one of the Heroes of Pregeor. Karla Karensky, please remind the class of what happened at Pregeor.”

One of the girls rose to her feet and began the familiar description:

“A year ago, foreign agents incited a treacherous group of deviant, recidivist, counter-revolutionary malcontents to plot against the Comrade President and to attempt to seize the Pregeor region for their sponsors. These criminals were well armed with off-world weapons and overcame our peace-loving police force. But in the moment of their victory they lost everything when the loyal people of Pregeor, realising what had occurred, rose up against them.

“Armed with chair legs and spades they fought against gauss rifles and plasma guns. Fought and won, although hundreds had been slain by the time Goran Ardy, an unassuming worker from the Pregeor Tractor Works, was able to lead a group of patriots into the rebels’ strong point. Knowing all had been lost, the rebel leader, whose name has been expunged from history, decided that he would destroy the city he could not steal. To this end he triggered an atomic demolition charge he had placed at the city’s chemical plant. It exploded, releasing a devastating, burning cloud of corrosive and radioactive gas.

“A small band of heroes worked in this cloud of death to save their fellow citizens and restore power to the monorail system. They saved over twenty thousand people from dreadful injury and agonising death, but only a few of them survived, all badly injured. Physically and mentally scarred, they spent months being treated at the Restavic City Hospital.

“The Comrade President declared all those brave men and women to be Heroes of the Republic, and decreed that on recovery they would take up new and important positions in the capital city, where they would be a living example to us all.”

After a brief pause, the teacher said, “Thank you, Karla. Now, everyone, the Comrade Hero will address us. Please be as quiet and attentive as you can.”

Talia delivered her standard speech of encouragement to the eager youngsters. There was a moment’s silence as she finished, then a spontaneous cheer that warmed her heart. She smiled and, aware that she had a few minutes to spare for the first time that day, asked if anyone had any questions. A forest of hands shot up and the teacher indicated a bespectacled girl in plaits.

“Olga Korsova.”

Olga blushed and got to her feet. “Comrade Hero, what’s it like being a hero?” One or two of her classmates giggled at her presumption, but most looked at Talia intently.

She paused and considered. “I... I’m not sure, Olga… I don’t feel very heroic most of the time… I just try to do my best for the Republic – and the Republic is very generous in its appreciation.”

“Tatiana Golova.”

“Were you scared at Pregeor, Comrade Talia?”

Talia shook her head. “I wish I knew, Tatiana – I expect I was terrified, but I still can’t remember it at all. One final question.”

“Jana Klevik.”

“Are you still ill, Comrade Talia?”

“Well, I – like all my fellow Heroes of Pregeor – still have to carry two small auto-injectors that dispense drugs into my system every day, to prevent any cancers that might be caused by lingering effects of the fallout and to promote the continuing regeneration of my body.” Talia indicated the bulge at her waist, and with that her duties for the day were over, apart from the last batch of handshakes and autographs.

She’d arranged to meet up with Boris and Ivan afterwards at their favourite café, and they brought along Josef, who had been freed from servitude at the Tangled Comet to visit an Old Comrades’ Home. They ordered drinks, and the youngster cupped his hands around his mug of hot chocolate and gave a deep sigh of contentment.

“You seem happy,” Talia commented.

“Why shouldn’t I be? I’ve no tables to wait on, no washing-up to do – and no-one looking over my shoulder all the time, making sure I’m always busy.”

“Well, the weekend should be fun.”

“Old Grumpy will find things for me to do – and I bet he’s arranged more boring lessons, even over the holiday.”

She looked at him sympathetically. “Doesn’t Comrade Goran ever let you have any fun?”

“Not that I noticed. I wish I was your ward – or Comrade Anoushka’s – or even Comrade Boris’s.” He took a pensive sip. “Comrade Talia, did you and your husband have any children?”

“No…” He hit a sore point: Talia had been told she had been married at Pregeor, but somehow that didn’t seem right. She couldn’t be certain whether or not she’d ever been married, but, as a nurse, she could tell that her body had never borne a child.

“What about the others?” Josef persisted.

Talia shook off her confusion. “Comrade Anoushka has never been married, and as for Comrade Boris, –” (she looked over towards the latter and pondered the haunted look in his eyes) “well, I don’t know, but I think he’d make a good father.” She paused and looked back at Josef sympathetically. “Look, I know you’re not happy where you are, and I’ve told Major Drovsorsky so, but I’m afraid you’re stuck for now.”

He gave a grimace, then shrugged. “That’s a strange-looking couple.” He inclined his head towards the door.

One glance told Talia what they were. “Tourists. Off-worlders – just ignore them, and they’ll go away.” Indeed, their garish clothes and crude manners labelled them indelibly. The Heroes all tried to follow Talia’s advice, but the female tourist’s tone grated and they couldn’t avoid hearing words such as ‘quaint’ and ‘adorable’, so they soon drank up and left.

As they passed the visitors, Josef stumbled slightly and knocked into the male tourist. “I’m sorry, sir – please excuse my young friend,” Talia said, noting that Josef did not intend to apologise. She glared at the boy, but he simply shrugged.

“No problem,” the man replied, but as they went through the door she heard him comment to his wife about “backworld manners”, and for once she had to agree.

They walked back to their block to pack for the dacha. Though public transport was copious – and free to Heroes of the Republic – it was an idyllic autumn day, and the stroll along the banks of the river was truly delightful. The air was clear and sharp, with none of the pollution that Telphanians had to put up with, and each lungful made Talia glad to be alive. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn golden, and a few seasonal pioneers crunched beneath their feet. A skein of geese flew over, their melancholy cries echoing off the buildings lit by the afternoon sun.

While the rest of them prepared for their holiday, Josef sat and watched a programme on the television about the history of Silvana, and its fight for freedom from Telphanian tyranny. From the glimpses Talia caught of it, it was very inspiring, and featured many interviews with happy citizens of the liberated province. They had finished packing and were waiting for their lift to the helipad when the youngster looked up and asked, “Comrade Talia, what’s a swan?”

“A big white bird with a long neck.”

“I’ve never heard of them before. Have you ever seen one?”

A flash of memory: a lake, a flock of swans, a man – Jimmy? – by her side; then it was gone. “I have… but I can’t remember where or when… Why do you ask?”

He flourished a piece of paper. “One of those tourists dropped it.” Talia looked at him speculatively. “Well, I’m sure he would have if I hadn’t liberated it from his pocket.”

“Josef!” She acted shocked, but wasn’t really. He always was an inquisitive child.

It was a news sheet from something call the Lyric Swan, which, from the context, had to be the space-liner that the tourists hailed from; hence his question. They all knew they shouldn’t soil their minds with enemy propaganda, but even Heroes of the Republic can be curious, so they gathered around him to read it. It was primarily concerned with information for visiting tourists about their planet, including a warning about wearing nose filters to counteract the sulphur in the atmosphere.

One item annoyed Talia intensely, so much so that she burst out with, “What do they mean, branding our Republic a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’? Who do they think they are? Don’t they realise that under the benign rule of the Comrade President we enjoy a standard of living undreamed of by those who live elsewhere?”

“Calm down, Comrade Talia.” Ivan gave her a pitying look. “They clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. Look – they say here that our government has purchased some grav tanks and is preparing for war. That’s poppycock. If they had, Boris and I would have heard something about it.” Boris looked a little perplexed, but nodded his head in agreement. “Anyway,” Ivan added, “we have a right to protect ourselves from those Telphanian warmongers.”

There was one further surprise in store: what did the sheet mean by calling what happened at Pregeor an accident? Talia was about to draw this to the others’ attention when the intercom buzzed; the car had arrived to take them to catch their helicopter. She screwed up the contentious document and threw it in the rubbish bin, dismissing its uninformed drivel from her thoughts.

It was a brief but pleasant flight to the dacha, which was some miles up the coast from The Tangled Comet. The sun was low in the sky, and the rose-pink sky boded well for the morrow. Even Josef seemed happy, though his separation from his guardian obviously had an influence on his mood. The fact that Anoushka was due to join them during the weekend also lightened Talia’s heart.

The shadows were beginning to lengthen when they arrived. They dispersed to their rooms and unpacked and, having put away the things she’d brought and stowed her suitcases under the bed, Talia changed into her swimsuit. Since men have much less luggage than women, Boris had finished well before she did, and he had already made up some punch. He, Ivan and Josef had changed into casual clothes and were sitting on the veranda, drinking and taking in the view.

“Anyone else fancy a swim?” she asked.

“It’s not really my idea of fun,” Ivan said with a grimace.

“Perhaps tomorrow,” Boris added, more kindly. “Let’s have a walk along the shore, Ivan.”

“Why not, Comrade?”

“And I want to make a sand-hovercart,” Josef said as he jumped down.

After the bustle of Restavic City, the peace and calm were delightful. There was a broad sandy beach which ran back towards the woods behind the dacha. Since it was early autumn, there was a sprinkling of reds and golds among the many shades of green.

Talia lay out on the beach for a short while, breathing the clean, resin-scented air and soaking up the setting sun. As its last rays bathed the sands in a warm glow, she decided to have her swim. Boris and Ivan had returned from their stroll, and had sat down a little way up the beach. The water was deliciously cool and invigorating, and she lingered for some time; eventually, however, she decided that she needed a drink and made for the shore. As she was leaving the water, she was surprised to see a young woman approaching her along the strand, wearing a rather attractive flower-print dress and carrying a shoulder-bag.

“Hello.” Talia smiled at her. “We don’t usually have visitors here – this place is pretty remote. Come and have a drink.”

The girl glared back at Talia. “Murderer!” she snarled.

Talia’s jaw dropped. The girl seized the opportunity to pull some sort of contraption from her bag and point it at Talia. The analytical part of Talia’s mind screamed that she ought to react, but the rest of her was too dumb-founded to move. Luckily, the girl was no expert, and the contraption jumped in her hand as she pulled its trigger. A metal ball flew at Talia’s eye, but at the last second she moved just enough so it buzzed past her left cheek. She staggered backwards.

The girl muttered a curse, took another ball from her bag and started to reload her weapon. Talia came back to her senses. Instinct was telling her to run, but she realised that if she did, she wouldn’t get very far. She glanced at Boris and Ivan, who had started in her direction, but could see that they wouldn’t reach her in time.

As the girl pointed the weapon at her again, Talia swallowed her fear and launched herself at her attacker. She caught hold of the girl’s wrist in both hands and twisted it sideways before she could fire again. The girl grabbed Talia’s hair with her free hand and snapping her head back. In her pain and shock, Talia loosened her grasp, and the barrel of the gun swung inexorably toward her face. She covered her eyes with her forearm, and her world exploded in agony.

Chapter 4



Boris and Ivan sat in relaxed silence, gazing at the setting sun. They were a little way up the beach from where Talia was bathing, and were alone, apart from the birds and a slender spotted feral cat that wandered the dunes. As they watched, the interloper waded out some yards, stood in rapt attention, waggled its rear, and pounced. There was a splash or two and the sodden feline returned to the shore with a fish in its jaws.

Boris idly picked up a small stone and hefted it into the water. The ripples spread out, catching the golden rays of the sun. As they died away, he picked up another pebble, intending to send it after its fellow, but Ivan interrupted him.

“It’s a bit cold for a swim, I’d say.” He indicated where Talia was cleaving the clear water, sending up splashy diamonds that caught the low beams of light and split them into rainbow colours. “Still, she doesn’t look bad in a swimsuit.”

“Getting ideas?” Boris gave Ivan a sardonic grin.

The younger man grimaced. “What? Me and Talia? Nah – she’s not my type: too serious. I’d have thought you might be attracted to her, though.”

“I might – it’s just that she’s not – oh, I don’t remember who she’s not, but she definitely isn’t…”

Ivan laughed. “You’re getting senile, old man. Anyway, Anoushka’s more my style.”

Boris was suddenly serious. “Just be careful. You hurt Anoushka, and Talia will happily gut you with one of her scalpels – and if she didn’t, I would.”

“Only joking, honest. Anyway, what about the bit in the news sheet about grav tanks? I just don’t know where these people get their information.”

“I don’t know – there’s been something odd going on at work the last few days: all that security, just for a few tractors – and have you actually seen any agricultural equipment?”

“Sure I have.”

“What sort?”

Ivan’s brow furrowed. “Well… Nah – you’re imagining things.” There was a long pause, and Boris was about to push the point when Ivan shrugged and said. “Look, there’s a girl coming our way. Now she looks more my type.” He scrambled to his feet.

He was right: the sun’s last rays picked up the outline of a slim young woman in a light summer dress. She looked exceptionally pretty, with long, shapely legs and long blonde hair. Talia had just reached the shore herself, and seemed to be greeting the newcomer when the latter shouted something. They couldn’t hear what it was, but it certainly wasn’t friendly. There was a cracking sound, and the two women grappled with each other.

By this time, Boris was up and running towards the scuffle, some yards behind Ivan, who had a head start. There was another crack and a scream, and Talia collapsed in a heap at the other woman’s feet. She stood over Talia, muttering to herself and struggling with something metallic.

Boris’s instincts took over and he did the only thing he could: he threw the stone in his hand at Talia’s assailant. It missed her by a whisker but she was so engrossed in her task that she didn’t appear to notice. By this time she was aiming the mechanism in her hand straight at Talia’s head. It looked as if they would arrive too late, so Boris stooped as he ran, gathered up another rock and flung it at the girl in a single, instinctive, fluid motion. The missile hit her temple with surprising precision and she dropped as if pole-axed next to her intended victim.

“I didn’t know – you could do that.” Ivan gave Boris a surprised glance as they continued sprinting towards the two prone figures.

“Neither – did I.” Boris shook his head in mystification as they reached the women. Of the two, only Talia was conscious, and she only barely. She was curled in a ball holding her right wrist and whimpering. Boris could see from the unexpected angle of her hand that the joint was badly damaged, but his priority was to ensure that the newcomer could do no more harm.


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