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The Carmenta Trilogy
Compromise with Evil
Chapter One

Frances, Julie, Merlin and Simon were dead. Merlin had died first. The searing heat of the Carmentan deserts had proved too much. Exhaustion and heatstroke had finished him and he had died quietly on the tenth day of the expedition. Later, Frances and Simon had died in a hail of bullets from the Command gunship, their flesh ripped apart by the murderous fire. Julie had lingered a few days but died of her wounds and there had been nothing Aleck and Timber could do to help her.

But the expedition had been a success. The small group of guerrillas had succeeded in installing the radio relay station that allowed contact between headquarters – Paradise – and the forward groups in North. The deaths were something to be remembered in the future when Command had been overthrown and democracy had returned to Carmenta. Aleck and Timber would assuredly remember – and one day ... one day they would settle the score.

They had struggled on against what some had said were insuperable odds but they had survived. It had been almost two months since they had last washed and, for the past two days, they had had no food and less than a litre of water each with which to sustain them. With air temperatures at night barely falling below the blistering daytime maximum of sixty degrees, literally hot enough to cook a person’s brains if shelter could not be found, it had not been enough and the fifth night of what had been intended as a two night walk across the Carmentan desert had brought them both near to the end of their strength.

Gazing now at the dark pool of water sheltered by the overhanging cliffs, Aleck could hardly believe they had reached their immediate goal but the eerie, blue-green colours created by their nightglasses gave the scene an unwelcoming, even intimidating, aura. Nevertheless, it was water. Without discussion, they both knelt on the bank and, dipping their faces, slurped up the tepid water, slaking their thirst until Timber said, “We shouldn’t drink too much too quickly.”

Aleck took a last gulp and stood up. “Yeah. I suppose.”

In his exhaustion, Aleck thought about ‘their’ pool, deep in the sunny forest near their home where Timber had first introduced him to the delights of skinny dipping – being goslings they called it.

Timber, too, had stood up and, as if she had read his thoughts, she said, “Goslings?”

“Goslings? You betcher!” Then he hesitated. “On second thoughts, we’d better take it in turns. You go first and I’ll watch for predators.”

“Predators? At night?”

“Especially at night. It’s not worth taking the risk without someone on watch.”

“No. I suppose. Well, you go first.”

“I’ve already said, you go first’”

“OK.” She removed her night vision glasses, kicked off her shoes, peeled off her clothes and turned and looked at Aleck. He gazed back frankly, allowing his eyes to explore her body, enjoying the way the dim light of Little Moon shone on her bare skin, highlighting its contours. His eyes were drawn to her thigh and to the awful, unhealed scar, the size of a tea plate, where the lamp-hound had attacked her.

After moment Timber said, “You’re looking at me again, Robbie.” She laughed, walked to the edge of the pool and dived in. She came up giggling. “It’s gorgeous, Robbie. Bloody marvellous”. Again she used their private version of his code name. She turned, swam to the other side and then spun round and came back. She climbed out of the water.

“You next. We’ll take it in turns.”

He stripped while she watched. “You’re watching me this time.”

They took it in turns to swim, enjoying the water that, tepid or not, was so much cooler than the surrounding desert. Eventually Aleck said, “It’ll be morning soon. We’d better get the shelter up.”

When the shelter had been erected, they felt hot and dusty again and couldn’t resist the urge to have another swim.

Later, Timber said, “You’re right, we’ve got to keep watch for predators here. Turn and turn about. This is where that lizard thing went for you.”

“I’m not likely to forget.”

“I’ll take first watch. Three hours on, three hours off?”

“OK.”

But the prospect of safety the following day, was unsettling and Aleck found his thoughts taking charge and preventing him from sleeping. He tossed restlessly, thinking over the past weeks, nearly an orbit now, he reflected ruefully. It had started with the execution of his brother – he still felt the nausea he had felt then as the laser bolt burned into Stair’s head and his naked body had fallen to the ground within inches of where he stood. He had met Emma – Timber, he now thought of her exclusively by her code name – and been captivated by her feisty, determined attitude as much as by her looks. He had joined Leading Light, the guerilla organisation whose aim was to overthrow the tyrannical government of Command but he and Timber had had to go on the run when their mentor had been captured. It had been a desperate ordeal but their love for each other had developed and matured and, at the same time, they had come to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They had captured a Triple-S officer, stolen his car and ...

“Do you remember Desmond?” Aleck asked.

“Desmond? Oh! Yes! The Swine captain! I’ll never forget his face when you pulled the stunner on him while he was having a pee.”

“We’d never have hi-jacked his car if he hadn’t been taken off guard like that.”

She laughed. “No-one’s at their intellectual best with their willy hanging out! But, Robbie, you’re supposed to be going to sleep. You’re supposed to be taking over from me in a couple of hours.”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Well, shut up, anyway. I’m supposed to be concentrating on being look out. What’s the good of me guarding you if you won’t go to sleep.”

He was quiet for a moment then he said, “Do you remember attacking the control tower at the airport?”

She sighed. “Attacking an airport? You and me? Really? Now, let me think. Of course I fogging remember! We were both nearly killed and I killed the Special. Of course I remember attacking the airport. Now, if you’ve nothing more intelligent to say, go to sleep.”

“I was just wondering if you did kill him.”

“Anyone who’s on the receiving end of a full blast from a stunner at point blank range gets dead, Robbie. You know that.”

“I suppose.”

“I’m not about to get sentimental about a Special. It was him or us. And after all the people they’ve killed over the last few days, I’m even less likely to worry.”

“I’m not worrying – just wondering.”

“Well, stop wondering. Be glad we pinched the plane and got to Paradise. Be glad they didn’t torture Emma to death. Be glad they didn’t kill more people with their bombs. Be glad we’ve managed to get the radio relay station working again – and be glad I’m not the sort of girl who bashes a guy over the head because he won’t stop chattering. At least I never have yet. There’s always a first time for everything. So shut up and let me keep watch.”

But sleep continued to be elusive. Timber had said ‘be glad they didn’t torture Emma to death’. Emma was the code name for George Bayajida, their mentor in Leading Light and the one amongst all the others that Aleck admired most. The big man, always so thoughtful and gentle, had been tortured by having his fingers broken, one finger every two hours, but he had not given away his mates or become bitter. Instead, he argued that revenge was for the weak and that seeking revenge was to put the avenger at the level of the torturer.

Aleck said, “Do you think it’s right to take revenge?”

“For fogg’s sake, Robbie! What’s got into you? You know I don’t think it’s right. You also know I killed that governor for revenge and you know I’m glad I did. And you said you think revenge is wrong and you also said that you’d have killed the fogger as well if you’d had the chance after what he did to me when I was little. But I killed him because he had my father murdered not because of what he did to me.”

“Perhaps it’s all right to avenge someone you love but not to avenge yourself?”

“Perhaps. Now go to sleep. We’ve had this conversation before. We didn’t come to any conclusion then and we’re not going to come to any conclusion now – especially when we’ve both been up all night tramping across the desert. Go to sleep, why don’t you?”

He must have done so because Timber awoke him at four o’clock.

“You’ve let me sleep into my watch,” Aleck complained.

“You’ve not had much sleep even so. Don’t go to sleep now it’s you’re turn on watch.”

Timber lay down and, in the way that Aleck envied so much, she was asleep before he had struggled to his feet. The pool was in deep shade but it was still searingly hot and, a little distance away, the sun burned into the desert, bleaching out the reds and blacks of the rocks and causing the landscape to dance and shimmer. Even with the protective glasses they had been provided with, it was difficult to pick out details against the glare.

“How am I supposed to spot predators?” Aleck asked himself morosely.

But there were no predators and, later, as soon as it was dark and after another swim, they contacted the guerrilla base they called Paradise to get the co ordinates for the emergency landing site from which they hoped to get air lifted to safety. The pilot, the prisoner of Leading Light ever since the plane had first been hi­ jacked, came through on the commer.

“I think they sort of trust me not to crash an aircraft I’m flying,” she said. “So this is what you do. Go to the landing zone you’ve been given. There’s a possible landing strip running from north west to south east. It’s about seven hundred metres long. The best you can do is to walk around it a few times and ... jump up and down I guess. If it seems hard all over ... can I repeat that ... all over, then comm the base here and we’ll come and pick you up. Try to see if there’s a hard crust with soft ground underneath. We don’t want that. Remember the plane is heavy. We’ll let you know when we’re fifteen minutes away then one of you stands at one end of the runway and the other stands at the other end with the hard ground between you. We’ll be coming in from the south east and whoever’s at that end should lie down just as we come in so you don’t get blown over. Got that?”

“Yes.”

“But, look. Don’t risk the plane by reporting the ground’s safe if it’s not. We can look for another landing zone if we must. There’s a place not too much farther on that looks OK, too.”

“Understood. We’ll be with you, don’t forget and we want you to land and take off safely as much as you do.”

“Good stuff. See you later.”

When they had disconnected, Timber said, “This may be our last desert walk for a while. Enjoy it.”

They did. It was still early evening and as appallingly hot as usual, but, as they walked, the hills became noticeably less rugged, the ground became progressively firmer and there were increasingly extensive areas of gravel interspersed with the softer sand. Twice they heard a night flyer calling. It was the first sign of flyers for weeks but, despite their night vision glasses, they saw no other sign of life. The prospect of meeting with the rescue party and a short flight to Paradise spurred them on and, after the hardships of the past few weeks, the trek seemed more like an evening stroll than the end of an exhausting and dangerous trek during which most of their companions had been killed. By the time they reached the landing zone, the ground was flat and distinctly hard but, all too well aware of the dangers of the aircraft landing on soft ground and, possibly, flipping over as it touched down, they walked and jumped over the whole area for more than an hour but could find no soft patches. There were no hollow sounds, just reassuringly solid thuds.

“It’s a good thing no one can see us,” Aleck said.

“You’d better comm Hamlet and tell him the good news.”

Immediately after dawn, they heard the distant sound of jet engines although the promised call from Paradise had not materialised. Aleck speculated that the daytime atmospheric conditions had prevented it. So early in the day, the slightly pinkish glare of the Carmentan sky was still barely discernible but, even with protective glasses it was still too bright to search for the aircraft against the sun. Aleck headed for the south eastern end of the primitive runway while Timber ran towards the north west to mark its other limit. The A40 came in low and flew past before circling and coming in on a straight run from the south east. As it approached, only a few metres from the ground, Aleck threw himself down as instructed. The plane passed close overhead, its slipstream dragging at his hair and clothes and the noise of the jets battering his ears. He leapt up again as the aircraft touched down and, ignoring the heat and the flying dust, ran at full stretch to where Timber was running towards him.

They met and flew excitedly into each other’s arms, kissing each other passionately and without inhibition. The A40 had turned and was taxiing to the end of the runway where it had touched down but at first they barely noticed. It turned to face the north west, the thrust from the jets flinging gravel and sand in their direction and forcing them to cover their faces to avoid its worst effects. In their euphoria, they were almost oblivious of the grit lodging in their hair and clothes.

Once the aircraft was pointing in the direction for take off, Aleck and Timber were able to turn and watch. The A40 was an old machine with the boxy shape typical of STOL technology and with little of the slim elegance of aircraft of the of pre Abandonment days or of the functional sophistication of more modern aviation design.

“Did you ever see anything more beautiful, Robbie?”

“Only you, Timmie love. Only you.”

They walked deliberately, even reluctantly now their ordeal was over, towards where a doorway in the plane’s fuselage was opening to reveal the figure of George Bayajida, invariably known by his code name of Emma, their mentor in Leading Light. Most people found it odd that the big man should have chosen for himself a woman’s name for his code name but, as he himself always said, it added to the confusion if anyone inadvertently mentioned his name when questioned by the security services. A crewman threw a rope ladder from the opening and it bounced and jerked before settling into a slow swing half a metre from the ground. They were safe but, now, they had to share their space with everyone else and they held hands tightly as if subconsciously wishing to keep their independence as long as possible.

The sound of the still active jets drowned out most other sound but Aleck just made out something about ‘passengers’ and ‘boarding’.

Correctly interpreting the words to mean ‘come on board as fast as you can,’ Aleck and Timber hurried up the ladder, leaving their gear on the ground.

“One of you go back and get your stuff, we can’t afford to hang about but we can’t afford to lose stunners and sextants either.”

Aleck hurried down the ladder again and collected their belongings together. A sling on the end of a rope dropped beside him and he quickly flung their possessions into it. It was as quickly hauled aloft and disappeared into the aircraft. Aleck followed them and the ladder was pulled up.

The interior of the plane had been largely stripped of luxury since Aleck and Timber had last been on board when they had escaped from North – although neither of them had, at that time, been in a state to notice anything of the plane’s fittings. Now, Aleck simply noticed a Spartan interior, organised as if for military personnel and cargo – to save weight for take off on the short landing strip at Paradise, they were later told. Emma pointed to two of only half a dozen reasonably comfortable seats and Aleck and Timber flopped into them. There were no safety harnesses but Aleck was far too pleased to have escaped alive from the terrible journey across the desert to notice any shortcomings in the accommodation.

The plane had begun accelerating for take off even before the door had closed. The ground which had seemed so smooth when they had walked and jumped on it a few hours before, now seemed excessively bumpy and even the small undulations in the surface they had noticed when surveying the runway caused the plane to vibrate savagely. Aleck thought it might break up but but the pilot continued to gain sped down the strip. Suddenly, the vibrations ceased and the plane pulled sharply away from the ground and swung onto a southerly course.

“Perhaps it’s always like this,” Aleck thought realising that, on the only previous occasion that he had taken off in a plane, he had been unconscious. In fact, the whole process from touch down to take off had taken exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds, said a man with a stop watch. He seemed pleased and didn’t appear to have noticed Aleck’s tension – but Aleck noticed that Timber was holding his hand tightly so perhaps she had had the same concerns.

Emma and, they now noticed, Hamlet, the guerrilla leader, were sitting across the aisle.

Hamlet said, “Well done, both of you.” He paused and then said, “Emma says you like directness. OK, then. I’ll be direct. I know we got off on the wrong foot when we first met back at Paradise. I’ve been getting stick from Emma about that, but I think I was in order saying what I said.” He raised his hand slightly as he saw Aleck was about to protest and Aleck subsided. “However, that’s past and I just want to say, now, that I think you’ve both done marvellously. When we first met I said ‘welcome on board’ or some such thing. Now I want to say I’m proud to have you on board. If Leading Light went in for medals, you’d both get one. Thank you for helping to get the radio relay re established. And congratulations on getting back.”

Emma said, “Well done, you guys. We’re all proud of what you’ve achieved and we’ll do a detailed debrief in the fullness of time. Just now, we’re heading for the southern base and Katherine will be there to give you a once over.”

“Why the southern base?” Timber asked.

“Safety for the plane. Now we’ve got you back the plane’s the most important thing.”

“More important than us, I bet,” said Aleck, sounding more cynical than he intended.

“Fogg off, Robin,” Emma said. “We risked the plane to get you back. That airstrip wasn’t properly tested by an experienced surveyor. We didn’t have to risk the plane for you. We could have left you to make your own way back overland. The operational requirements wouldn’t have been affected.”

“I’m sorry.” Aleck was contrite. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was supposed to be a joke but it wasn’t funny. It was true, though, wasn’t it? The plane is more important than two people. Without the plane we’re stuffed. You shouldn’t have risked it. But I’m glad you did. Thank you.”

“Once upon a time,” said Emma, “you told Lucy that Leading Light was all wrong because you thought it wasn’t prepared to risk a whole team of Pathfinders to rescue me. You were wrong then. You’re wrong now. Personnel are far more important than planes or equipment. It was you who said that was what separated us from Command. You were right. It is.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it so sound like it did. I’m sorry.”

Hamlet said, “I think that’s all the apology that’s needed. Apology accepted. I think, Emma, that these two have done enough in the last nine weeks to compensate for any slips now and they must be exhausted beyond endurance. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“I’m Robin’s mentor,” Emma said a little sourly. “My students don’t make slips – not if they want to survive. Robin likes directness. At least, he’s direct enough with other people. Right, Robin?”

Aleck smiled a bit ruefully. “Yeah. The trouble is, it’s usually me that’s in the wrong. Thank you, Emma. Thank you, Hamlet.”

“Try and get some sleep. You look as if you need it.”

“They look as if they need a shower, even more,” Emma said. “Did you ever see such a couple of disreputable freedom fighters in your life?”

The plane continued south, away from Leading Light’s main base at Paradise. Only a few days ago, Aleck and Timber had been yearning to fly North in order ‘to take the war to Command’ so it seemed to Aleck to be a little perverse to be flying south at nine hundred kilometres an hour. However, although he had never been there, he thought of the southern base as his private property and he looked forward to the visit. It had been he who had suggested setting up the base there as a place where the stolen A40 would be safer from attack by Command forces – or where it would, at least, be difficult to locate.

Frances had said that Hamlet and the other leaders had already had the idea but he still felt a proprietorial interest. The problem with the main base at Paradise was that hiding the A40 there was impossible because its location was no longer secret. Although it was reasonably well protected by high cliffs there had been several aerial attacks and the safety of the plane could not be guaranteed. But, whoever had had the idea, the southern base was two thousand kilometres away from the baking, dry heat of the equatorial zone, there was no need to live in caves and, it had been reported, it actually rained sometimes.

Hamlet and Emma became involved in a private discussion. Aleck and Timber held hands and looked at each other almost shyly. Nude swimming was not a problem for either of them – it brought back happy memories of skinny dipping in the forest pool near their homes when they had first met. Then their privacy had been complete. Now, in a strange way, perhaps perversely, and although they were fully dressed, the presence of Emma and Hamlet and the rest of the plane’s crew seemed an intrusion.

Now they were back in more or less normal surroundings, Aleck was able to look at Timber more dispassionately. She was filthy dirty, he realised, although where the dirt ended and the sunburn began was difficult to judge. Her hair was tangled and matted, full of grit and sand, and her clothes were torn and well past the date when they should have been consigned a refuse dump. Through one of the ragged tears, he could see the dressing on her thigh where the lamp hound had attacked her. The wound was still not healing properly and he hoped that Katherine would be able to do something about it when she was able to examine it for herself.

“She looks a fogging mess,” he recognised, but he was smiling with pleasure and he felt himself swelling with pride that this gorgeous woman with whom he had gone through so much was his girl.

He knew he, too, that he was no less of a sight than Timber. He could feel grit between is toes and in his groin. “I probably stink, as well,” he thought with a grimace. The previous night’s swim seemed to have achieved nothing for his sense of cleanliness – the dirt was too ingrained to be removed by a dip in warmish water. He experimented by trying surreptitiously to sniff his armpit. He was pleased to discover no obvious unpleasantness and was reassured. The dry heat of the desert had not allowed smell inducing bacteria to thrive.

“You look a fogging mess, Timmie,” he said kindly. “When did you comb your hair last?”

“Fogged if I know, Robbie love. When did you?”

“I don’t know whether I ever have. About the last time I cleaned my teeth I suppose.”

“I’m looking forward to a hot shower more than anything else. I thought a decent meal instead of those bloody diet bars would be my top priority but a shower has taken its place.”

“I’m going to see if I can’t wangle a hot bath instead. There shouldn’t be a shortage of water at the new base. I haven’t had a soak in a hot bath since ... a long time ago anyway.”

“Sounds good,” she said.

After an hour, Timber said, “There’s a tree!”

Half an hour later, the A40 banked to the left and they were conscious that it was descending. Slowly, the landscape came into clearer focus and more trees and other details became visible. As the descent continued, the changes became more rapid until, suddenly, they were only a few metres above the ground. Seconds later, the wheels touched and the aircraft was rumbling over a beaten earth runway.

South Base turned out to have even fewer luxuries than Paradise. Seven or eight small, home made tents were arranged around a smaller number of larger, camouflaged and apparently professionally made marquees.

“You two will have to share a tent,” Hamlet said. “Since we re established contact with our cells in North, we’ve managed six flights and we’re gradually getting more of the things we need but the priority has been to get weapons and survival equipment.”

Emma said, “Command has been raiding Paradise more and more frequently. They’re not doing any damage but we’ve got to be able to defend ourselves. We’ve not been able to get any anti aircraft ordnance so far and you had the only machine guns but we’ve nearly got enough basic weapons for everyone. If they send in a commando unit, they’ll get more than they’ve bargained for.”

“Do you think they will send troops in?” asked Timber.

“Here or Paradise? We think Paradise is safe. Felix says they must know they’ll have a lot of casualties if they do and there’s no percentage in attacking us. Some of us think that Command doesn’t care about a few yeomen and they’ll be prepared to sustain casualties. Even so, they must know there’s every chance we’ll beat them and they won’t want that. It’d be too big a boost for us and too big a loss of face for them. Even their own trusties won’t like it made quite so clear we can beat them – inspires a lack of confidence.”

“That’s what we want, isn’t it? A lack of confidence?”

“We do, yes, but not at the expense of casualties of our own. And we want to beat them at a time and a place – and in a manner – of our own choosing. We’re more vulnerable here. There’s no hard cover – just the tents and the trees – and, although we’re pretty well OK from air attack because we’re so spread out, we aren’t well protected from a commando raid. There’s too many ways they could come in and we can’t monitor them all with the people we’ve got.”

“So what do we do?” Timber asked.

“We’ve got sentinels in the most obvious places and they’ll give us some warning of a ground attack but, if they’ve got any sense, they’ll not come by the most obvious route. Even so, we’re well armed and we’ll give a good account of ourselves. As you’ll see, we’ve got dugouts and embankments so we’re better protected than the attackers would be. It’s mortar bombs we need to worry about. Our best defence, as always, is attacking Command on their own territory, in North.”

“Robin and I want to go North when we can.”

“You need a rest and a debrief first. We’ll talk about that later,” Hamlet said.

“You said you had a project for us when we got back.”

“So we do. But there’s no immediate hurry and we need to get you properly fit again. When Katherine has seen you and you’ve been debriefed we’ll talk about it again.”

 
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