By xBryn Lantry

You chose a lion to be your lover.
Me, who in joy such doom greeting,
Dared jealously undertake
Cruel ordeals long foreseen and known,
Springing a trap baited with flesh ™ my own...

Gratitude and affection I disdain
As cheap on any market:
Your naked feet upon my scarred shoulders,
Your eyes naked with love,
Are all the gifts my beasthood can approve.

Robert Graves

Vila nudged Avon. "What do you say to a limerick contest?"

Avon said no more to a limerick contest than to anything else since teleporting. Deep in his inappropriate fur-lined jacket, he was looking down at nothing in particular. The play of light and dark happened to paint shadows where his eyes should be, giving his morbidity a theatrical air. However, he did liven a little, to watch Vila's big toe tracing suggestive patterns in the sand.

"Strip poker, then?" asked the thief.

"You may be desperate for excitement, but I doubt strip poker in this company would be much of a thrill."

Vila sighed. "What I want to know is, what's the point of all this surviving we do if we never do anything but survive? I mean," he complained, "surviving may be a twenty-four hour a day job for the likes of us, but the effort is wasted if we don't enjoy ourselves."

"No one's playing strip poker," Blake spoke up. "Not where I can see them."

"Play it solo," Cally added.

"Story of my love-life." Sprawled on his stomach, Vila pulled a glum face at his wistful artwork.

"And Vila, when we find these people, the Ulus ™ behave yourself. They're a religious sect as well as political dissidents, and Kisir Kadin is a primitive world with a morality to match." Even when joining in a conversation these days, Blake had a miles-away frown. He was as moody as Avon, though instead of going torpid he snapped twigs into pieces one after another with restless hands. "That means, too, no boasting about that last fat wallet you plucked or your latest grand bank swindle."

"Not to mention that last child you molest™"

"Don't say that, Avon." Blake's eyes swivelled round, vehement and tense.

"Ah." Avon smiled. "I forgot you're no common criminal. The name rebel, I tend to think, is a misnomer. It's the criminal who's the individualist, the pioneer. You weren't imprisoned for rebellion, in any meaningful sense, but for hackneyed idealism. Those false charges probably had more daring originality than your true sins. Not being a criminal, you know, hardly makes you a representative leader on the Liberator."

"That depends on what part of you you want represented."

Cally was dishing out the evening soup. Toying with his, Blake ignored the indecipherable stare Avon apparently thought he had earned. Once Blake had sunk back into abstraction, forgetting the tent and the desert beyond and his shipmates, Avon began again. "And not being a crim, Blake, you're not even aware of the opportunity you're wasting. There's nothing quite like the license given to the condemned. We're free in a way you never considered.

"What distortion of liberty have you managed to see in a rope about your neck?" asked Cally, since Blake wasn't going to.

"In the eyes of the state and its citizens, we've no virtue left to worry about losing ™ so we needn't even try to be virtuous. We can't fall any lower, no matter what heinous things we care to do. Since we're under sentence of execution anyway, additional crimes won't make any difference. They can't do worse than kill us, so we're exonerated from further punishment. For myself, I'd like my list of crimes to be as long and as gruesome as possible. Just for the triumph of turning our inevitable deaths into only a pathetic retribution."

"Anarchic talk," Cally dismissed this. "There's no such thing as moral anarchy, not even in you. Everyone has their laws."

"There's no such thing as exoneration," said Blake more quietly.

Avon pursued, "So it was fitting that Jenna named the ship Liberator, after all. Unlimited freedom for a limited time. Though Blake had a triter idea in mind."

"You've been on the run too long," Blake said. "The stress is telling on you."

This annexed farming world of Kisir Kadin, Avon couldn't help but suspect, had been chosen by Blake for its utter obscurity. Blake spoke ambitiously of questing for Star One ™ and then buried himself here, to help a nomadic goat-herding sect of religious terrorists scare the Federation off their backwater. The only conclusion possible was that Blake needed time to think. Among yokel dissidents far enough away from the action to still welcome a no-longer-so-popular rebel hero. So Jenna was left with the ship to herself for two weeks.

First to finish eating was Vila, who promptly fished for more. Doing significant things with his eyes, he told Avon, "It's time you tried a novel form of satisfaction. Instead of eating that last bit of pitta, you deny it to yourself. Used to be thought quite a kick in the religious age."

"I'm no monk. Try Blake."

Glancing at this daunting prospect, Vila continued with Avon. "People don't live by bread alone." A nonchalant hand lay on his pack.

"With Blake they do."

"What wouldn't I do for just a bite more..."

"What wouldn't you?" Avon sounded curious.

"Don't get too novel. Which reminds me ™ I'll tell you a limerick for it. Brand new one. Or at least you'll have forgotten it since the last time I told you." As Avon didn't verbally object, he trotted it out. "An anal erotic named Herman, had a passion for buggering mermen. He'd lure the poor swine from their haunts 'neath the Rhine, with songs in execrable German."

Cally mulled this one over. "Must be Terran, I don't understand some of the references."

"I understand none of them," claimed Avon. But he was being entertained out of his misanthropy.

"Thirsty climate, isn't it?" Vila remarked, not quite irrelevantly. "Avon, you're a man not of mere appetite, but of discerning taste..."

"Are we talking weight for weight here? So many grams of my pitta for so many millilitres of..."

"I thought petty theft was beneath you. At least a two-hundred to ten ratio, when one takes into consideration the relative market value..."

By now the pitta had been consumed, and negotiations broke down.

"For the love of heaven, have mine if it will keep your mouth clamped," Blake said, tossing it over. "Haggling over a crust of bread. I'm not hungry anyway." Thrusting a hand through his knotty hair, he wandered out of the tent.

Cally and Avon contemplated the space where he no longer was, and then each other. She cocked her head. "I think your idea of humour isn't his."

"My idea of nothing is his. After two years I begin to doubt it's mere coincidence."

"Can't you let him be, just for this mission?"

"Blake scouring desperately for friends. A blatant wild goose chase. The odd thing is, I can't remember why I went along with it."

"When he asked your opinion, all you troubled to say was I don't care. Blake's going through a crisis."

"Why are you telling me? Blake's crises are always self-induced."

"He bends over backwards for you of all people, because you kick up such a fuss. In reply you push him ever nearer paranoia."

"Tell me, Cally. When last did he say anything noteworthy to you?"

"Hassling him for being too self-involved will only drive him further in. If he talks to no one, it's probably your doing. You've cured him of all desire to try working together. So when he gives up completely and charges off alone for some suicidal finale..."

"If he can't take the things I say it's his failing. The day he's tough enough to beat me, I'll know he's tough enough to run a chance beating the Federation. Then I might give him a little credence. You help him your way, Cally. Keep him happy and soft. My way might just keep him alive."

"You could relent enough to mention it's for his own good."

"That's rather counter-productive. Now is when he needs the attitude everybody's out to get him. I always knew one day it would be true. Why should I display a change of heart just when he's as tarnished in his allies' eyes as in his enemies'? Blake's going off the rails and the rebellion is disenchanted." Avon stood, eyes following Blake outside. "I never was enchanted, so don't look at me." He left.

Twin white moons bled a cold, spectral light over the desert. "I like the tattoo. It doesn't suit you at all, which explains why."

Blake glanced up to see Avon, then down at the dulled rose on his left breast. Washing, he wasn't pleased to have company. But he had to bite back a grin. "At the time I was never going to catch sight of daylight again. More to the point, daylight was never going to catch sight of me. So I decided what the hell."

"You had it done in prison? Alphas don't wear tattoos."

"Everyone gets tattooed in prison, don't they? There's never much else to do inside."

Avon observed each movement as Blake soaped vigorously. In company Blake clung with faint neurosis to his shirt, and now shot him a tight look. "Don't you ever need to blink?"

The chest was without any hair, and heroically built. But it was a museum for scars ™ he had a grand odds-and-ends collection. Blake seemed to consider it indecent exposure to let them be seen.

After a while Avon said, "Have you told anyone the history of those?"

"Most I don't know myself. Gives me something to muse on. Wondering what was done to me that time."

There was a weal about his lower ribs, like a frail milky drawing in the alien moonlight. Unabashed as ever, Avon gazed. "Funny, I still don't have any."

"I'm a natural for them. Avon, I assume you're not gracing me with your company to trade tales of our war wounds."

"Maybe I am. Your ship is going to be sinking pretty soon, Blake." He used the same conversational tone. "Do you plan on going down with it?"

Towelling himself, Blake said nothing.

"Lately you've been voicing moral qualms."

"Not to you."

"Imprecise of me ™ you voice nothing. Instead you've been prowling round and round the flight deck with a confused scowl replacing that gentlemanly charm and wit they used to like you for. We tacitly agree, don't we, that the purpose of this mission is to fix you up with a hasty shot of self-confidence?"

"I wouldn't try to psychoanalyse me, you'll only regret it."

"On the contrary, I always figured my survival chances improve if I can follow the quirks, cliches and contradictions that make up your brain. Parts of you still puzzle me. But give it a week in a cramped tent and I'll have the remainder of you down pat."

"I'm here," said Blake tightly, "because I can't find Docholli."

"I rather thought you were here to postpone finding Docholli. Wisely enough, since he's likely to be your death warrant. Once you know the location of Star One, your fanaticism will take you over completely. Maybe you're not looking forward to that."

"Look, I have noted your disapproval and accept that this mission is entirely my own. You needn't get involved."

"Which isn't what I was after ™ it's what you are after."

"Then I fail to understand what you're badgering me about."

"I merely want an answer to my original question. Whether you're suicidal enough to continue your war. If all I'm hanging around for is a tear-jerking farewell as you kamikaze into the sunset... well, then I have more fruitful things of my own to be getting on with. But, Blake, if you're beginning to get doubts about whether it's worth the ultimate sacrifice after all ™ why don't you tell me?"

Squinting at him through the dimness, Blake misunderstood. "Everyone but me is allowed to doubt, is that it? Me, one piddling doubt and the image is ruined. What am 1, some kind of proxy idealist for you? The day you of all people use me for vicarious heroism is the day I throw it out the window."

"Vicarious heroism?"

"What else am I but a wish-fulfilment fantasy to the populace at large? By believing in me they can feel virtuous without doing any bleeding themselves. Let's have no ambiguity ™ you're perhaps the only one who never gave a hoot."

"And what am I for you, some kind of proxy scoundrel? A bit of iconoclastic relief when you need it? Why don't you simply say you prefer me not believing in you? You need someone who agrees with you on the days you don't believe in yourself."

Dressed again, Blake planted himself frankly near Avon, though with his arms wrapped round himself. "I want a truce. Only for these two weeks. While planetside we can't run away from each other. I always believed that in a particularly bad patch I could ask for leeway. And that you would understand enough to lighten up, when I was serious. Listen, I'm staring chaos in the face. It's gone further than I originally imagined. Hell, I've given half my mind, don't think I'm reluctant to give my life in this fight ™ I promised it years ago, I knew what I was saying. Only, because I stated that willingness in years past they don't consider me any more as still alive, damn it, and prey to common mortal fears just like any human, which after all is all a fated martyr is until the martyrdom actually happens. I've not been dramatically shot dead yet." He stopped, as if he feared he were raving.

"I get the impression your rebel friends are pushing you with indecent haste into the mourned hero category. Alive, you're becoming too fractious."

"Oh, I dare say I'll be a sight more influential dead. If the Federation recognised that, the rebels can't have failed to figure it out. But the truce, Avon. I need a while of peace. To keep me calm and collected. So I'm asking, one outcast to another ™ a little grace."

Avon lifted his brows. "Well, don't imagine anyone else is going to give you any." Maybe he was no longer interested enough to make Blake do without his truce. Bored with Blake, so bored with fighting him.

That was that ™ Blake considered it shaken on. "What's your opinion, then?" He smiled at Avon. Not the easy smile the technician had left for others to be won by. This one was spiritless ™ but somehow he found the loss of charisma poignant. "Do I slog on trying to prove I knew what I was doing all along ™ or do I abandon it before I wreak irreparable havoc?"

"I'm not convinced you want me to answer that. I'll tell you precisely what I think ™ if and when you're likely to listen."

Continued in Puppeteer

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