Songs of Innocence and ExperienceBy Nova
'A very ingenious solution,' Vila said bitterly, for the twentieth time. 'I particularly like the bit about only being allowed to order one item a month. I thought we were supposed to be freedom fighters, Avon. How about letting us feel free to order what we bloody well like?'
'I have told you before,' Avon said, without looking up. 'We are not in a position to justify weekly jaunts to Valoonica. If your supply of pornovids exceeds the space in our alloted locker at the delivery centre, we run the risk of attracting the authorities' attention. Therefore, you will continue to limit yourself to one item a month - unless you wish to give the Xenon Base address to **Naughty Nights Holos**, on the assumption that they rate your continued custom more highly than the chance to sell us to the Federation.'
Vila muttered and subsided, flipping pages with an intentionally irritating rustle. Beside him, Soolin suppressed a grin. Somewhere along the line, she'd formed the impression that Avon restricted their mail order activities as a way of prolonging the entertainment, just as much as for security purposes. After all, keeping the crew occupied and amused was one of the responsibilities of leadership.
**Rather Avon than me. I don't envy him the job of playing nanny to this bunch of rampant egos.**
She lounged back on the couch and watched the others pore over their catalogues. Tarrant sprawled in an armchair, leafing through the Federation Space Academy Gazette and reading out paragraphs from the gossip column about his fellow students from the academy, with equal amounts of scorn for those who were diligently working their way up the Space Command hierarchy and those who had failed to fulfil their potential.
I don't think Tarrant's ever really decided whether he rejected the Federation ethos or whether he's still a good little officer ... for the other side.
Dayna sat cross-legged on the floor, absorbed in Laserguns & Ammo, sniffing disdainfully at armaments that fell short of her own experiments, yelping with excitement when she came across a new development that she could use. And Vila was curled up on the couch, presumably assessing the latest pornovid stars, although when Soolin peered over his shoulder, she caught a glimpse of - **good god, is that a rubber chicken?** - before he whisked the catalogue away.
'Actually, I asked Orac for the Comedy Collection this month,' he announced, glancing round impartially but pitching his voice at Avon. 'They've got an interesting ad here for a course that teaches you to invent your own jokes. I made up a joke myself, from reading the examples in the catalogue. Want to hear it?' He smoothed a hand across his receding hairline and said, before anyone had time to answer, 'What's more tragic than a balding man without a hairdryer?'
Avon ignored him. Dayna rolled her eyes at Soolin, who giggled. Tarrant sighed and stretched his long legs.
'Oh, all right,' he said. 'Anything for a bit of peace and quiet. What is more tragic than a balding man without a hairdryer?'
Vila eyed Avon sideways. 'A balding man with a hairdryer,' he said snidely.
Avon lifted his head and aimed an impassive stare at Vila. As he turned the next page of his catalogue, an elaborate performance designed to ensure that he didn't smooth his own hair, Soolin craned her neck and tried to read the catalogue's title. Intensive research in the Xenon Base shredder basket had convinced Vila that Avon sampled a different catalogue each month - anything from astrogation to zoology - but, since Avon adamantly refused to share his catalogues, Vila's theory remained unproven.
Avon's monthly packages provided their only clues so far, containing memory tapes on asteroid geology, cybernetics and selsium ore processing, along with recurrent evidence of his passion for first calendar crime novels. They had all read their way through his collection of Agat Xti reprints, drawing ironic parallels between Xti's hermetically sealed country villages and life on Xenon Base.
'Long periods of boredom, interspersed with short periods of acute terror,' Tarrant summed up, quoting the definition of a soldier's life from his set of FSA mugs.
Soolin sometimes wondered whether Avon's free-range reading habits were part of a crash course in rebel leadership or merely a symptom of boredom. She knew the symptoms well. At other times - right then, for example - she wondered why she remained on Xenon Base, even though she already knew the answer. Neither Helotrix nor Casper, Bucol-2 nor Domo had exactly enticed her to jump ship and, while there were more attractive options in the galaxy, Soolin had never summoned the energy needed to make a choice and then pressure Avon into ferrying her there. So she stayed out of a general sense of ennui, not - **absolutely not** - because she felt part of the gestalt that Dorian had claimed to sense.
**My life's work ended on my twenty first birthday, when I killed the last of my family's killers. From that moment to the day I die - which on current estimates may not be too far distant - I'll just be marking time.**
'Come on,' Vila urged, cutting across her thoughts. 'Time to pool the catalogues. There's nothing new in mine. I'll have to see whether I want something to improve my mind from Soolin's catalogue - or a nice FSA scarf, to keep the draughts out - or a gun, to shoot myself.'
Tarrant scowled, Dayna groaned and Avon produced another impassive stare. Satisfied by having provoked a reaction, Vila flicked his wrist and sent his printout skidding across the floor, like a stone skimming a pond. The others tossed in their catalogues and pounced, elbowing and jostling each other under Avon's monitoring gaze, as they fought to grab the catalogues they wanted - although, when Soolin returned to the couch with **Laserguns & Ammo**, she found herself wishing that Vila had asked for **Naughty Nights** as usual. After three years with Dorian, she'd assumed she had outgrown the need for sex but over the last few weeks she'd observed a wash of warm secretions plumping her vulva, as though her body disagreed with her mind. In which case, a suitable pornovid seemed to be her only option, given that the Hommiks didn't appeal and she'd already explored the other possibilities.
Convinced by Dorian's theory that sex was the quickest way to get to know anyone, Soolin had slept with Tarrant (eager, guarded, posturing) and Vila (inventive, guarded, lazy) during their first week on the base. She'd then proceeded to beam the same signals at Avon, who hooded his eyes and said, in that indescribable voice that contrived to be both smooth and abrasive, 'I don't fuck crew.' By the time Soolin had come to terms with the juxtaposition of Avon and obscenity, she realised she'd missed the moment when she might have added Dayna to her list.
**Not that it mattered, of course. Sex may be the best way to understand men but there's a whole range of ways to get to know another woman.**
'Change catalogues again,' Tarrant commanded, pitching the **Comedy Collection** onto the floor with a grimace of distaste.
Soolin glanced up, running a quick systems check, to see whether she could be tempted to change her rules and try him a second time. No, not really. As she turned to run the same check on Vila, he hurled the **FSA Gazette** onto the pile and Dayna reached out to scoop it up. Fluorescent light powdered her tawny arm with silver: and the world changed, although Soolin didn't register it at the time, because she'd just noticed Avon setting his catalogue aside.
'Avon,' she said, claiming his attention before it was distracted, 'what should I order from the **Universal Education Compendium**? I've worked through their memory tapes on mathematics, physics and geography but I can't decide whether to learn history or literature next.'
Avon's hand swung out in one of his edgy flourishes. 'Oh, marvellous,' he said. 'Academicians spend their lives mastering a single aspect of a single discipline but **you** can encompass the whole of human knowledge in a matter of months.'
'I'm very focused,' Soolin said, unperturbed. 'It only took me three years to make myself the best shot in the galaxy. I don't see why getting the education I missed should be so much harder.'
'All right,' Avon said, losing interest. 'Start with history. You'll find it more useful in -'
Then he broke off, because Dayna was reading a retrospective tribute to President Servalan from the **FSA Gazette**, spitting the words out with full-throated venom. She and Avon launched into their ongoing competition to establish which of them hated Servalan more, while Soolin - who couldn't have cared less about Servalan's past record or her current incarnation as Commissioner Sleer - tuned out the sense and listened to the sound of their voices. Dayna's voice was, in its own way, as remarkable as Avon's - deep, melodic and infinitely expressive, a lilting counterpoint to his stylised precision. And her face transformed itself continuously, illustrating her points with widened eyes or a twist of her full mouth, while her hands shifted and settled, catching the light on their tawny skin ...
Soolin swallowed a gasp and braced herself against the back of the couch. **Oh. What's happening to me? The world's changing. For the first time in years, something seems important.
Correction: Dayna seems important.**
Over the next few weeks she had plenty of time to test this strange new growth in her heart. Time was something they never ran short of on Xenon Base. Long mornings, beginning with a basic fitness session in the gymnasium, after which Dayna and Soolin danced through their karate katas, Tarrant jogged for twenty kilometres on the running machine, Vila played happily with Dorian's collection of antique locks and Avon monitored the galactic news. Long afternoons, beginning with basic target practice at the rifle range, after which Dayna and Soolin stayed on at the range, Tarrant worked on Scorpio, Vila picked pockets (generally practising on a coat hung over a multi-alarmed dummy: but not always) and Avon disappeared into his study. Even longer evenings, watching holovids in Dorian's entertainment centre or playing board games and card games and word games, occasionally inventing reasons to cook elaborate dinners and then trying to expand their comments on the day's routine into something resembling civilised conversation.
All of which left them plenty of time to follow up on their own private projects, bicker and squabble, develop shifting alliances and hidden resentments. Plenty of time to study the changing expressions on a mobile oval face and the play of light across tawny skin. Soolin could watch Dayna for sixteen hours a day, if she wanted to, and apparently she did. Within a week, she'd memorised every aspect of Dayna's body so thoroughly that she could recognise Dayna's shadow falling across a doorway. Her muscles vibrated at the sound of Dayna's footsteps in the corridor. Her heart expanded when Dayna dropped onto the couch, her long strong thigh slightly overlapping Soolin's thigh.
At first she worried that the growth in her heart was malignant, an unnatural obsession hothoused by confinement and isolation. But she felt too happy for that, happier than she'd been since the lost, long-ago time that she could barely remember. So instead she decided she must be putting on emotional muscle, recovering the ability to care.
**A sister again. Dayna's my new sister, filling the gap the crimos left, when they walked into our family room and swung their laser cannon in a casual half-circle. Comforting to know I could never lose Dayna that way. She'd shoot first.**
She might have gone on seeing Dayna as a sister for longer, if Vila hadn't ordered a memory tape of popular songs through the centuries from the **Universal Education Compendium**. After their next trip to Valoonica, he began to annoy everyone even more than usual, by whistling and humming and warbling his way round the base. The tunes were so banal and catchy that they imprinted themselves on everyone's brains. Tarrant kept crooning:
'Flying too high
With some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do',
then breaking off and scowling. Dayna threatened to shoot Vila if he sang 'You can't get a man with a gun' one more time, although a few days later she cornered him and made him teach her the lyrics. Even Avon succumbed, murmuring fragments of Jek Larsen's 'Lost (without you) in Space' to the main computer, until he caught himself at it and erupted into one of his sudden violent rages.
'You've got to stop this,' Dayna told Vila later in the recreation room. 'It was funny, at first, but you're upsetting Uncle Avon. He doesn't like music.'
'I thought maths and music were supposed to go together,' Vila said, unrepentant.
'Ah, but music's the emotional side of maths,' Tarrant cut in. 'Uncle Avon definitely doesn't like emotion.'
Vila shrugged. 'Who does? That's the best thing about those stupid songs - they cut emotions down to size, so you can handle them. But oh well, if you're all going to turn against me, I'll just have to find another hobby.'
He rummaged through the games box, hauled out his magician's kit and started to check the knots on a string of coloured scarves. Seconds later, he was singing to himself again.
'I would swear I was falling -
I could swear I was falling -
Why, it's almost like being in love.'
Dayna and Tarrant jumped up and advanced menacingly. Vila wailed, 'Leave me alone! I didn't even know I was doing it, honest.' And Soolin rose to her feet, circled round them and glided out of the room, possessed by an urgent need for wider horizons. But Avon was on sentry duty and she didn't feel like facing Avon just then, which meant that she couldn't go and stare through the scanners at the Xenon hills. So she hurried off to the entertainment centre, slammed a travel vid into the projector and collapsed into a padded seat, gazing at images of Obsidian volcanos and the Stardust Blizzard Field, biting at a spike of hard skin on her thumb until it tore and bled.
**Oh, shit. Oh, no. Is that what's happening to me?
Am I in love?**
A subdued clatter indicated that someone had sat down in the row behind her. When she turned, Vila was frowning at her, forehead wrinkled with concern.
'Sorry,' he said. 'That song got under your skin, didn't it? Oh dear, I hope you're not falling for Avon.'
'Hardly,' she said, curt and clipped. 'I do have some sense of self-preservation.'
Vila grinned. 'It's been known to happen. And you're obviously not pining for me or Tarrant, because you could fix that by crooking your little finger. Which leaves -'
'No, it doesn't,' Soolin said, panicking. 'I need to visit one of the sex-houses on my next Valoonica run, that's all.'
Vila leaned forward, propping his arms on the seat beside her. 'Listen, I know how it feels,' he said, ignoring her rationalisations. 'There's itches the sex-workers can't scratch. I saved up three months of what Avon humorously calls a salary and bought myself a whole afternoon with two of Casa Cock's best - but did that stop me thinking about Tarrant? Answer: no, it bloody didn't.'
Despite the misery shadowing his eyes, Soolin couldn't help laughing. 'Tarrant?' she said, momentarily distracted from her own problems. 'The same Tarrant you wanted Avon to abandon on Helotrix?'
Vila shrugged. 'You may've noticed that Avon's not exactly responsive to suggestion. It's easier to make him do what you want by pretending you're drunk ... or by telling him to do the other thing.' He hesitated and added, 'Fact is, I've saved Tarrant's life three times now, if you count Helotrix - first on Terminal and then when Muller's android attacked him. I used to think he was a pompous little prat but - oh well, if you keep saving someone's life, you want it to be worth something. Actually, Tarrant's worth quite a lot: to me, at any rate.'
'And how does he feel about you?' Soolin prompted.
'Wouldn't know,' Vila said briskly. 'Wouldn't have the nerve to ask. I mean, just suppose I made a pass at him and he knocked me back. We'd be stuck here together, day in and day out. It'd be impossible. One or other of us would have to leave. I don't want to leave and I don't want to lose him, so ... I keep my mouth shut and my hands in my pockets.'
He rested his chin on his folded arms, fixing sad-monkey eyes on the viewscreen. Without his usual comic mask, he looked almost handsome. Soolin might have found herself suggesting that a good fuck could purge their mutual obsessions, if she hadn't established a policy of never sleeping with anyone more than once. Besides, repaying Vila's honesty with sex seemed somehow inequitable.
'All right,' she said, opting for her own brand of honesty. 'It sounds as though we do have something in common. Where does that leave us?'
'Up the creek without a paddle,' Vila sighed. 'Never mind, I won't tell anyone about you and Dayna, as long as you don't let on about me and Tarrant. And if you ever want to have another little chat -'
'Thanks, Vila,' Soolin said. 'But I doubt it.'
She turned and gazed up at the fiery surface of Pyrrhus, blazing ferociously from the screen. When she glanced over her shoulder again, Vila had gone. Soolin watched travel vids till her eyes blurred and her stomach gurgled, then drifted down to the kitchen, heated a bowl of Tarrant's specialty - somewhere between a thick soup and a thin stew - and carried it to her room. Ten minutes later, she slid naked into bed and placed an experimental hand on her cunt.
**Vila's afraid to make a pass at Tarrant ... but Vila's a notorious coward. I'm not. If I've fallen in love with Dayna - and it appears that I have - I'll chance my luck. And if she's furious or disgusted? Well then, I can ask around Valoonica Mall till I find someone who needs a bodyguard or an assassin.
As a matter of fact, I can't think why that idea didn't occur to me before.**
She pressed her trigger finger down and began to stroke the cleft between her labia, shuffling images in her mind. Images of Dayna striding round Xenon Base like one of the old hunting goddesses; Dayna patiently filing the rough edges from the butt of her latest gun; Dayna languorously naked on a bench in the sauna. Oh, yes. Images of herself reflected in the mirrors that lined Dorian's orgy room, wiping her mouth triumphantly as she lifted her head from the splayed legs and soaked bush of the woman sprawled breathless on a heap of cushions. Soolin knew what to do with a woman. Well, of course she did: she was doing it now - but she also knew how to gauge other women's responses and track the patterns of other women's orgasms. If she could shuffle the two sets of images fast enough, then presumably she'd soon identify the way to lure Dayna into her bed.
Her finger accelerated, scooping warm liquid from her vagina and spreading it up the labia to the tip of her clitoris. As its arrowhead sharpened, Soolin sent her mind travelling back to the orgy room. I knelt between her legs: but Dorian had already arranged her on the cushions. I said, 'Yes, why not?': but Dorian suggested it. All right then, no clues in the orgy room about how to make the first move. Time to look further back or further forward. Soolin had marked down scores of men - in bars or the training camp, the orgy room or on Scorpio's flight deck - and they'd all obediently followed her lead. How had she gone about seducing Tarrant and Vila, for example? Slow smiles and looks that lingered, with a touch here and there to confirm the promise, after which, of course, they'd done the rest ...
Somewhere in the last few seconds her clitoris had gone numb. She rolled it with the pad of her finger, trying to squeeze out some sensation, but it remained obdurately dry and flaccid. No more images left in her brain either, except for the image of Dayna striding down a corridor: walking away from her. Soolin riffled desperately through her mental files but she couldn't find a way to stop Dayna from leaving. Because Dayna wasn't a man. Because Dayna wouldn't take a smile and a look and a touch as a promise. Because she and Dayna already smiled/looked/touched all the time.
**Men are easy. Indicate that you're available and, in general, you have them. But how can I show Dayna what I want? Apparently, even though I believed I'd experienced every possible combination of human bodies, I have no idea of how to send sexual signals to a woman.
And besides, Dayna's hardly likely to be watching for indicators of availability, the way Tarrant and Vila were.**
Her mouth warped, biting back an Avonic surge of inappropriate fury. Dayna was so bloody innocent - but then, that wasn't Dayna's fault. She'd grown up in isolation on Sarran, with a devoted father, a loving foster sister and a relay of wonderful tutors. She hadn't been forced to learn about life on the streets, in mercenary training camps or on the cushions of Dorian's orgy room. Soolin sighed, regretfully acknowledging that Dayna's relentless innocence was one of her prime attractions.
Unfortunately, it also raised a barrier between them that appeared to be impassable.
Chastened by the result of her meditations, Soolin tried to rein in her runaway emotions and immerse herself in the Xenon Base routine. She concentrated more fiercely than ever on the morning karate katas: and caught herself studying Dayna's mirrored reflection. She scored twenty sequential bull's eyes at the afternoon target paractice: and felt her guts melt when Dayna congratulated her with a boisterous hug. Even the **Universal Education Compendium** betrayed her. At their next mail order session, she opted for the literature memory tapes, only to find that half the galaxy's poetry and prose was devoted to love and its consequences. When Avon inquired politely about her current tape, Soolin had to think quickly, in order to move beyond Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenin and Vronsky, Kel Tan and Jek Brunov.
'I like the Alice books,' she said. 'They're amusing. At one point the Red Queen tells Alice to run - and then explains that in Looking Glass Land you have to run very fast to stay on the same spot.'
'Yes, that sounds hauntingly familiar,' Avon agreed. 'As I remember, there is also an existential debate about whether Alice is dreaming or whether she is, in fact, part of the Red King's dream.'
It was one of Avon's fey days, when his skin looked ghost-pale, his eyes turned misty, his mouth was bleached and set and even his hair seemed ashen. He gazed wistfully at the chart of the galaxy tacked to the rec room wall, as if he'd have been relieved to find himself part of someone else's dream. Soolin understood the attraction, although she knew more about running to stay on the same spot. The harder she worked at exorcising her obsession with Dayna, the more she watched Dayna, thought about Dayna, examined her reactions to Dayna ...
**Stop it. That's enough.**
'You were right,' she told Avon. 'Literature isn't very useful. I'll try something less subjective next time, like computer science or political theory.'
Avon's eyes stared mistily at her and then through her. 'Oh, everything's subjective, really,' he said, infuriatingly perverse.
He wafted back to his study and emerged next day in brittle manic mode, lecturing on the properties of feldon crystals and admitting that he'd been doing deals with an avaricious Federation geologist. That launched the crew into another short period of acute terror, where they competed with the Federation for the feldon crystals (Vila became a temporary hero, rescuing Tarrant and Dayna); passed some life-and-death tests set by the controller of the crystal mines (Soolin finally found a game worth playing, outshooting a simulation of herself); and at the last minute, as the perfect end to a perfectly futile mission, narrowly escaped being dragged into a black hole.
When Tarrant swung Scorpio away from Mecron-2 and set a course for Xenon, Soolin settled beside Dayna, comparing notes on their respective roles in the mission, while she surreptitiously studied Dayna's Nefertiti profile.
'Avon takes too many risks,' she said abruptly. 'Suicidal risks, sometimes - in which case, it's suicidal of us to go along with him.'
Dayna wrinkled her forehead. 'None of us have much to lose,' she observed. 'If we did, we might do things differently. But I don't think we're actively suicidal, not unless we're very incompetent.'
Soolin laughed, charmed out of her bleak mood by Dayna's artless candour, reminded that she liked the woman, as well as loving her.
'True,' she agreed. 'We'd all be dead by now, if we were really working at it.'
Back on the base, every shape seemed to be in sharper focus and every colour sang. Soolin danced down the corridor to the weapons room, enjoying the adrenalin rush brought on by facing death at very close quarters, feeling uncharacteristically glad to be alive. She returned her gun to the rack and swung round to find Vila at her elbow. One look at his downturned mouth and melancholy eyes was enough to spark her heightened perceptions.
'Well, if it isn't Tarrant's one man back-up team,' she observed with cutting humour. 'You saved his life again, I hear.'
'Yes, it doesn't get any easier,' Vila said moodily. 'And you? How's my cold calculating Soolin these days?'
Soolin started to frown, then replayed the conversation and realised she'd asked for that. 'No better,' she admitted. 'I wish I could learn to relax.'
They were exchanging rueful smiles, acknowledging the impossibility of relaxing around Tarrant and Dayna, when the sound of footsteps speeded Soolin's heart and set her muscles vibrating.
'Yoga,' Dayna said over her shoulder. 'Cally told us that was the best way to relax. But Uncle Avon doesn't like yoga, probably because he's hopeless at it, so in the end she gave up. We could see whether she was right, if you're interested.'
'Not me,' Vila said firmly. 'I'm with Avon there. But why don't you girls have a go?'
He glanced conspiratorially at Soolin, urging her on. She hesitated, annoyed by Vila's matchmaking, even more annoyed at herself for noticing it.
'Why not?' she said, to cover her hesitation, and melted for the hundredth time when Dayna aimed a companionable grin in her direction.
'We'll need an interactive holovid, to tell us what to do,' she announced. 'I'm sure there'll be something in Dorian's collection. I'll have a look tonight and we can start tomorrow, after karate.'
She slammed her gun into the rack and bounced out, with Vila scuttling close behind, to avoid any potential fallout from his meddling. Soolin groaned softly and slumped against the wall, arms folding like a shield across her heart.
**Oh, wonderful. Even more time alone with Dayna. Thank you, Vila, that's just what I needed.**
She was shaking as she pushed the gym door open next morning but a quick survey established that, even though Dayna had arrived before her, there was no vid unit anywhere in the room. Soolin bit her lip, unable to decide whether she felt reprieved or disappointed. She stripped off her jacket and boots and they worked through the karate katas, kicking and striking and punching, until the familiar discipline took over and wiped her mind clean of thought. At the end of the final kata, she smiled across at Dayna with uncomplicated pleasure.
Dayna smiled back. 'Now for the yoga lesson,' she said. 'Not here, though. I've found the perfect place.'
Soolin tensed, alerted by some obscure premonition. She choked down the bubble of hysterical laughter rising from her diaphragm and followed Dayna through the base's maze of corridors. When Dayna flung a door open and paused for her approval, she glanced inside and felt the bubble burst in her throat.
**Well, well. My guess was right. It's Dorian's orgy room.**
'Yes, perfect,' she said with private irony, surveying rainbow mounds of satin cushions, reflected back and forth across the mirror walls.
Dayna beamed. 'I thought you'd like it. Look, there's even a lifesize vidscreen.'
As she strode across to switch on the vid unit, Soolin flinched and ducked her head. She waited for a gasp of shock or horror, waited a little longer and then looked up, laughing with relief when she confronted a cross-legged woman in an iridescent skinsuit, instead of the tape from Dorian's last orgy.
'This is Galina Fel's introduction to yoga,' the woman purred from the screen. 'We will begin by learning the sequence of asanas that comprise the salute to the sun.'
For the next hour, they concentrated on mimicking Galina Fel's poses. It looked easy enough, compared to their gym work, but every time Soolin threw herself energetically into a new pose, the holovid's magnetic resonance imaging detected some new flaw and Galina's measured voice responded by ordering her to move more slowly and calmly. Before long, Soolin was yearning to wring the yoga teacher's supple neck but she gritted her teeth and persisted, consoled by a series of Sarran curses, indicating that Dayna found calm slowness equally frustrating. When Galina purred, 'Relax those muscles' for the dozenth time, Dayna snarled and dived for the STOP button.
'That's enough for one day,' she said emphatically. 'Relaxation makes me tense. Right now, I'd happily wrestle a warg strangler.'
'So would I,' Soolin agreed. 'Well, perhaps not a warg strangler. But ...'
She broke off in mid-sentence, swung her leg sideways and hooked a foot round Dayna's ankle. Taken by surprise, Dayna flailed and toppled, skidding down the slippery cushions. Soolin rolled with her, arms extended, but Dayna managed to bring a knee up, just in time to fend her off. They strained against each other for a few exuberant seconds, giggling so unrestrainedly that neither of them could break the lock. Then Dayna went deliberately limp and flipped Soolin as she pitched forward, landing on top of her and pinning her to the floor, palms flattened against her shoulders, knee wedged against her groin. Soolin arched and struggled, intending to fight back, although somehow she only succeeded in moulding her vulva round the welcome solidity of Dayna's knee.
Dayna stared down, suddenly expressionless. 'On Sarran, the women always wrestled naked,' she observed. 'They said it was more of a challenge. Shall we try it?'
Soolin heard the words but their meaning escaped her, swept aside by a tidal wave of embarrassment. **Two months of careful concealment and then I give myself away, mounting Dayna's leg like an untrained puppy. It's lucky she's too innocent to register the implications.**
She shrugged and nodded and scrambled to her feet. They faced each other, wary and serious as duellists, reached simultaneously for their zipper tags and peeled off their coveralls. The sight of Dayna's bare brown body, ricocheting round the mirrors, hit Soolin like a bullet in the gut. Her knees folded and she sank down onto the cushions, squeezing her eyes shut.
'Got you now,' Dayna said with satisfaction.
She dropped to her knees, catching Soolin in a headlock. When Soolin's eyes opened, a brown breast was curving towards her cheek and a nipple like a dark raspberry bobbed centimetres away from her mouth. The temptation was - yes: no: yes - irresistible. Soolin's tongue flicked out, tasting the raspberry. As it puckered and swelled, Dayna yelped and let her grip slacken.
'Soo!' she said. 'That's cheating!'
Released from the headlock, Soolin had instinctively lunged forward, fitting her mouth over the dark circle of the nipple's aureole. But once Dayna's protest penetrated the erotic haze fogging her brain, her sense of fair play reasserted itself and forced her to withdraw. Distracted by the raspberry nipple, she'd forgotten that 'fair play' was a concept that had never meant much to Dayna. She growled like a lion cub and pounced, wrestling Soolin back into the same position as before, except that this time Dayna's right hand was wedged firmly against her groin.
'That's cheating too,' Soolin pointed out, holding still with an effort.
'Is it?' Dayna asked. 'I thought you'd just changed the rules.' She flexed her wrist experimentally, adding, 'Do you really want to go ahead with this?'
Soolin gasped and squirmed. 'Do you really need to ask?' she said wryly.
'Well, you set your sights on Tarrant, Vila and Avon in our first week at the base,' Dayna said, blunt as ever. 'Since you didn't make a pass at me, I assumed -'
'That I drew the line at sleeping with women? Hardly, Dayna. After all, I was Dorian's last apprentice. By the time I met him, he'd passed the point where gender was even remotely relevant - and he'd invented more ways of inserting Tab A into Slot B than you could possibly imagine.'
She fixed Dayna with a challenging stare, daring her to ask for details. Round eyes absorbed the stare and reflected it back.
'That wouldn't be too difficult,' Dayna said. 'I'm not very imaginative.'
As her shoulders lifted in a dismissive shrug, her hand clenched, bringing her thumb down on Soolin's clitoris and knuckling the walls of her vagina. Soolin gasped harder.
'Not very imaginative?' she echoed. 'Then how did you come up with that particular technique?'
Dayna's eyes widened. 'Lauren taught me,' she said, as if it should have been self-evident.
'Your sister?' Soolin demanded, shocked to discover that she was shocked.
'Oh, calling Lauren my foster sister made it easier on my father,' Dayna said airily. 'For a lifelong rebel, he had some very Earth-bound ideas about sex and reproduction. The Sarrans were quite different. The men are always out hunting and fighting, so the women tend to bond together.' Her voice deepened abruptly, caressing every word, as she added, 'That's why I'm going to kill Servalan one day - because she was responsible for the deaths of my father and my lover.'
Soolin shivered and looked away. The room seemed colder and darker, as though shadows had been gathering around them - Lauren and Dorian, Hal Mellanby and Servalan, crowding close and blocking the mirrors' reflected light. To shut them out, she reached up and framed Dayna's face with her hands, pushing her fingertips through tight lambswool curls and bringing Dayna's mouth down on hers. A startled buck of Dayna's hips, a mutual sigh and then they were locked together, kissing as frantically as if it was their last chance.
Tongues darted out on lightning raids. Hands sallied and skirmished. Mouths joined battle. Soolin tossed and thrashed, trying to capture the elusive sensations sending signals from her lips down to her groin. Her hands clasped round Dayna's waist, then parted to explore the lush flare of her buttocks. When she groaned appreciatively, Dayna's hand, still steadfast in her cunt, retracted and thrust so accurately that Soolin plunged headlong into shuddering orgasm. She reared and shouted, fell back and contemplated the ripples of pleasure spiralling out from her vulva.
'Oh,' she said. 'That was good.'
While the ripples widened and subsided, she raised her head and peered into the mirrors, accessing her file of Dorian-memories. But before she could select the best way to reciprocate, Dayna's hand pressed down harder, holding her in place. Soolin wriggled impatiently - what more does she want? - and felt her labia open like fleshy petals, enclosing Dayna's fingers. Dayna held her there a moment longer, making her intention clear, then arched her hand and let her fingers dance lightly across the vagina's swampy hollow, up to the peak of the clitoris and back again: and again: and again.
As the dance continued, the light glancing contact seemed to illuminate everything it touched. Soolin spread her thighs wide, protecting their skin from heatburn, momentarily convinced that her cunt, rendered radioactive, would glow in the dark. She moaned, half fearful and half elated, and felt a galvanic jolt lift her off the cushions.
'What ...?' she said inarticulately against Dayna's shoulder. 'How ...? I never ...'
'Never had multiple orgasms before?' Dayna asked, amused and disbelieving. 'Is that really true?'
Soolin consulted her files. 'Oh, I usually came more than once during Dorian's orgies,' she drawled. 'I'm just surprised to find it's possible with only one person.'
She was sure she'd achieved a tone of detached sophistication, so it came as a shock when an energetic gurgle of laughter almost shook her off Dayna's shoulder.
'That's silly,' Dayna said, affectionately scornful. 'Your other lovers obviously didn't spend enough time on you.'
Soolin was about to debate the term 'lover', when Dayna leaned down, slipped a finger through damply clinging curls and startled another spasm of pleasure out of her. After that, she abandoned her belief in Dayna's innocence without regret and settled for enjoying the benefits of Dayna's experience. Dayna sucked and licked and probed, coaxing an uncountable series of orgasms from the flooding well of her vulva - orgasms like thunder, orgasms like spring rain, orgasms like sleepy summer heat. An infinite progression, as interactive as the mirrors, timeless and scriptless, with no defined beginning or end.
At one point, Dayna straddled Soolin's hips, drawing her thumb back and studying the dark shine of her extended forefinger. 'I don't understand why people call guns phallic symbols,' she complained. 'Children always start by shooting each other with finger-guns.'
Soolin smiled, picturing a brown child fighting imaginary battles on the Sarran beaches, then pulled Dayna down and rocked her gently. More lingering kisses. More teasing touches. More orgasms. At another point, Soolin found herself squirming with impossibly sustained excitement, while Dayna's raspberry nipple stiffened and grew in her mouth.
'Harder,' Dayna gasped and Soolin breathed, 'Are you sure?'
'Nipples were designed to feed babies, who suck like black holes,' snapped the weapons designer writhing beneath her. 'Of course I'm sure. Come on, Soo.'
So Soolin sucked one nipple and milked the other ruthlessly, feeding on the ripe scent of Dayna's body until, still hungry, she twisted round to crouch over a dark-furred mound, encompass it with both hands and split it open like a pomegranate. She gazed awestruck at the glistening complexity of its folds, then simplified matters by closing her eyes and burying her face between Dayna's thighs. Her tongue parted the folds, finding a slippery seed and rolling it to and fro, while her mouth tested varying degrees of suction and her fingers yielded to the whirlpool tug of Dayna's vagina. When Dayna let out a yell like a battle cry, Soolin clamped both hands under her buttocks and clung tight, riding Dayna's hips as they battered the cushions, lunged at the air and slammed down, pulsing to a standstill. She kissed the juice-soaked mound and sat up, trailing a suggestive finger towards its springy curls, but Dayna reached out and arrested her hand.
'Not now,' she said. 'Sometimes I'm like you - I can keep going till my energy runs out. Other times, I come so hard that there's nothing left.'
'That doesn't seem very reciprocal,' Soolin apologised and Dayna chuckled drowsily.
'Oh, I'm not the altruistic type. Believe me, I enjoyed everything you enjoyed.'
She sounded sincere and besides, Soolin didn't have the energy to challenge her, so she lolled against the cushions and watched their linked hands rise and fall on Dayna's belly, studying the crosshatching of dark fingers and pale fingers, until they blurred and merged. Suspended between sleep and waking, she almost believed she was back on her home planet, playing the childhood game that her older sister had invented, spinning in dizzy circles and making a wish for every turn.
**I wish ... I wish ...**
But before she could come up with an appropriate formulation, her hand dropped to the floor and cool air tickled her side. When she prised her eyes open, Dayna was standing in the middle of the room, wriggling into her coverall. She strode across to the door, hesitated briefly and turned back.
'Thank you, Soo,' she said politely, like a good child leaving a birthday party. 'That was nice.'
Then the mirrors flashed and the door clicked and Dayna was gone. Soolin lay on the cushions for another hour, gazing into the mirrors, watching Dayna walk away: and walk away: and walk away. When she finally struggled to her feet, the room lurched like a shipwreck. Soolin steadied herself and rubbed the salt sting from her eyes: and, just for the space of an eye-blink, the mirrors were empty. She blinked again and her reflection appeared but the mirrors had made their point.
She'd got what she wanted.
Dayna had closed the door on any further possibilities.
So that was that.
There was nothing left.
2. It hurt.
Worse still, it went on hurting.
Soolin had forgotten about that. Although she couldn't recall her family's faces, she knew how it had felt to love them but in retrospect, love had become something bright and smooth and easy. Now she remembered the spikes that had pierced her whenever she disappointed her father, snapped at her mother or fought with her sisters. Not as easy as she'd thought. She'd had good reasons for deciding she would never permit anyone to get that close to her again.
But somehow, having let Dayna in, Soolin couldn't shut her out. Over the next few weeks, she was forced to observe, with detached horror, how the spikes tore every time Dayna went bounding past her to sit beside Tarrant - or addressed her complaints about being bored to Avon, instead of grumbling with Soolin - or chuckled spontaneously at one of Vila's jokes, proving that her heart wasn't seething like an Obsidian volcano. It seemed that Dayna had been able to walk away from their enounter in the orgy room without a second thought, just as Soolin had walked away from all those men in all those bars. True, Dayna never mentioned their yoga lessons again and she carefully avoided any physical contact in the gym or at the rifle range. But apart from that, she was so magnificently unchanged that Soolin found herself wondering at regular intervals whether she'd dreamed the whole experience.
In the end, she decided she had to talk to someone, if only to affirm her own reality. Dayna, normally her first choice, was out of bounds. Tarrant was unacceptable - pompous little prick - and she felt disinclined to tell Vila any more of her secrets. That left Avon, an equally unlikely confidant but, as one of the first calendar crime writers on her literature tape had said, 'When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
Accordingly, Soolin began to track Avon round the base, monitoring him until she identified a moment when he was alone and the others were occupied. As she deactivated the palmplate on the study door, courtesy of Vila's private lessons, Avon looked up from the papers littering his desk and fixed her with a basilisk stare.
'I thought that door was locked,' he said forcefully.
Soolin shrugged. 'I need some advice,' she said, standing her ground.
Another of Avon's sudden changes, metamorphosing from basilisk into black dragon. 'Apparently, the others failed to warn you,' he said in a voice like liquid fire. 'I don't give advice.'
'Why not?' Soolin asked, genuinely curious.
Her question seemed to startle Avon back to his comparatively normal self. 'I once advised a friend to leave her husband,' he said, rather bleakly. 'The results were nothing short of disastrous. Undeterred, only a few years later, I advised another ... friend to reconsider his plan of action, which he construed as proof that I hated him. Both of those people are now dead. Consequently, I decided to spare my future acquaintance the benefit of my wisdom.'
Soolin's brain raced, correlating a year and a half of Vila's gossip. Evidently, despite Avon's discovery that Anna Grant had been an agent provocateur, he still irrationally held himself responsible for her involvement in the bank fraud. Hmm. That's interesting. And his second friend, presumably, was the mythical Roj Blake, which explained why he'd hesitated before using the word. Vila said that Avon and Blake had argued their way through two years on Liberator, although never more vehemently than over Blake's plans to destroy Star One ...
'All right,' she said, 'you don't trust your own judgment. But I trust you, Avon - and frankly, I'm more likely to be killed because I'm brooding about Dayna during a raid than because of any advice you give me.'
She marched across the room and seated herself in a chair by the desk. Avon instinctively swept the nearest stack of papers aside, securing it with his hand.
'I would have liked to watch you and Blake play poker together,' he observed. 'Two master manipulators, oubluffing each other. Very well, Soolin, you have five minutes. Make the most of them.'
Soolin glanced at the time flash on the wall. 'I slept with Dayna three weeks ago,' she said economically. 'I want to sleep with her again but she's ignored me ever since. What should I do?'
Avon smiled tightly. 'Oh, you really have chosen a very poor advisor, Soolin. If I knew the answer to that, I might not have been sentenced to Xenon Base.' His eyes clouded briefly, as though he were turning his gaze inward. Then he looked up and said with self-mocking irony, 'I believe offerings of flowers and books of poetry or invitations to expensive dinners are standard practice in the circumstances.'
His hand clenched, belying the lightness of his tone, and a sheet of paper escaped and fluttered in slow circles to the floor. Soolin bent to scoop it up, automatically scanning the page. As her eyes widened at the sight of Blake's name, the page was ripped from her grasp.
'A private project, to entertain my idle hours,' Avon said crisply. 'Servalan claimed on Terminal that her scientists had recreated Blake in their computers, using voice tapes, images, memories and other data. That knowledge might prove useful to us at some point, so I decided to replicate the experiment - and I chose Blake as my subject because Servalan's project had, apparently, already been successful, although Orac and I don't seem able to achieve the same results.'
'Then maybe Servalan was lying,' Soolin suggested. 'Maybe you saw Blake himself, not an illusion.'
Avon held himself completely still for half a second. Then he swayed slightly and started to laugh, too loudly and far too long. His hand lifted to screen his mouth, clutching the sheet of paper and compressing it into a crumpled ball.
'Oh, that's very good,' he gasped, breathless and manic. 'I see you've been consulting Vila's joke books. Blake is dead, Soolin. He has to be. Otherwise, he would have contacted ... us.' He frowned, suddenly vexed at having imparted so much information, and said, 'Now, get out. You are beginning to bore me.'
Soolin rose and strolled to the door. 'Thanks for those ideas,' she said, turning back at the last minute. 'May I take your place on tomorrow's Valoonica run?'
'By all means,' Avon sighed, demonstrating his boredom. 'I recommend Wilde Imaginings for your love poems - and while you're there, you might ask the proprietor whether she has the next Agat Xti reprint in stock.'
Soolin grinned, relieved by the return of Avon's characteristic opportunism, after all those mood swings. Too many mood swings. When she'd first met Avon, he'd been ground down by the disaster on Terminal but his logic had still impressed her. Now, for reasons she couldn't fathom, his judgment seemed increasingly erratic.
**And yet you chose to ask him for advice?
Yes, and I'll take it, too.**
She found Tarrant and informed him that she'd be coming to Valoonica. Next day, she headed down to the docking bay, charged with the controlled tension that usually carried her into a raid. Dayna was lounging by the security door, chatting with Tarrant, but she stepped back to let Soolin pass, then drifted off like a stately shadow. Soolin trudged up the boarding ramp and slumped into the nearest seat, gazing morosely at the viewscreen while Tarrant activated the controls. As Scorpio took off, he said unexpectedly, 'Soolin, are you and Dayna having a row?'
Soolin hastily assumed one of her ice princess expressions. 'Now, what makes you think that?' she drawled.
'I'm not sure,' he admitted. 'You don't bicker, the way I do with Avon or Vila, but you haven't exchanged more than a few words over the last three weeks.'
'That's very observant,' she said in surprise. 'I hadn't realised you watched everyone so closely.'
Tarrant shrugged. 'What else is there to do?'
'Apart from bickering with Avon and Vila?' she asked, raising an eyebrow.
'Oh, Avon enjoys a good argument,' Tarrant told her. 'It keeps him on his toes. As for Vila - well, I got into the habit of ordering him around, back on Liberator, and it turns out to be a difficult habit to break.'
'But you'd like to break it?' Soolin suggested, eliciting another shrug from Tarrant.
'I had friends at the Space Academy,' he said obliquely. 'People I could talk to, because we'd been through a lot together. I thought you and Dayna were friends like that and, to tell the truth, I rather envied you.' He squared his shoulders, dismissing the subject, and added, 'The stardrive makes this an easy trip. We're almost there now. How long do you want to spend at Valoonica Mall?'
They separated at the landing bay. Tarrant loped off to collect the mail order parcels and find a part for Scorpio, while Soolin leaned on the rail of the mall's gravity well and surveyed the tiers of shops, radiant with artificial light and redolent with synthoharp symphonies, giving herself time to become accustomed to this new Tarrant, who apparently ordered the FSA Gazette every month as a substitute for friendship. She wondered how to convey that information to Vila, then wondered whether she wanted to start intervening in other people's lives.
**Much safer to remain a loner, accountable to no one - but I suspect it's already too late for that.**
She sighed and straightened and went striding off to the pod rank, where she keyed in the coordinates for Wilde Imaginings, closed the lid of the pod and plummeted down the gravity well. In contrast to the upper levels, Level 300 seemed dark and silent and deserted. Soolin glanced into a bar called the Gay Blade - bare and empty, hung with androgynous portraits - and squinted through the dusty window of a shop selling Chinese herbs. The next shop was Wilde Imaginings. She braced herself, pushed the door open and walked in.
The shop smelt of untreated paper, a complex organic scent familiar from Avon's Agat Xti novels. Books lined the walls and piled precariously on a desk, where a woman was pacing round a spread of loose papers.
'Secondhand books to the right, books published by Wilde Imaginings on the left,' she said and continued to pace.
Piqued by the bookshop owner's lack of interest, Soolin elected to study her, rather than the books. Grey hair, sculpted into hairdryer waves. Deep monkey-lines, framing a rosebud mouth. A quilted smoking jacket, electric blue embroidered with gold dragons, highlighted small effete hands, alternately fidgeting with the page proofs and a twig-thin cigarette. She wasn't good-looking by any galactic standards but she moved as though she hadn't noticed it.
**And she's blatantly queer, which feels somehow reassuring. Although I'm not attracted to her, the way I'm attracted to Dayna.**
'That's because we're both femmes,' the woman commented in a deep voice, layered with amusement. She glanced up, flourished the cigarette apologetically and said, 'Oh dear, was I picking up your thoughts? Sorry about that. My great-grandmother was Auronar, back in the days before cloning. Don't let them fool you - the Auronar can read minds; they're just too polite to mention it. I haven't had the proper training, though, so I sometimes tune into other people by accident.'
She pounced on the page spread, crossed a word out and scribbled in the margin. 'Femmes?' Soolin asked, to keep her talking. 'I wouldn't describe either of us as excessively feminine.'
'No, no, butch and femme have nothing to do with masculine and feminine,' the woman snapped. 'They're slang terms for the great divide in the human personality - yin and yang, the first calendar Chinese used to call it. Yang types initiate, yin types respond.' She stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray no bigger than a two credit piece, adding irritably, 'Some people think that means yin types are passive but then, they don't realise how much effort goes into responding.'
As the echo of her words eddied round the bookshelves, the room seemed to expand and brighten. Soolin blinked, convinced that the lighting on Level 300 must have been adjusted, although seconds later she realised that her mind had been illuminated by an idea.
**Hold on. Dayna's not a man ... but she's not a femme either. I've been assuming we see things the same way, because we're both women. Maybe that was a mistake. Forget about flowers and poetry. If I accept the dragon lady's theory, I should just give Dayna the gift of a direct response and let her make the next move.
Oh, shit. That's so terrifying that it's almost bound to be right.**
Adrenalin pumped her heart and then ebbed away, leaving a calm certainty in its place. Soolin stretched like a cat and smiled at the bookshop owner.
'I came here to buy a book of poems for a friend,' she said, not needing it now but wanting to express her gratitude. 'Can you recommend one? I don't know much about poetry.'
The woman beamed. 'Oh, good. In that case, I'll sell you an advance copy of the book I've just published. Something for everyone - poems about love, poems about politics, poems about heroic adventure, although the poet does tend to take the piss out of heroism. You won't find his name on the cover - in fact, I don't even know it myself - but the book's called **More Songs of Innocence and Experience**. I'll be launching it later today, over at the Gay Blade.'
A memory itched at the back of Soolin's brain: something to do with literature. She reviewed the last few weeks, remembered Avon's request and said, 'By the way, I'm supposed to ask about the next Agat Xti novel.'
'So you're a friend of Chevron's,' the woman said, rather sourly. 'Tell him the reprint's on its way - and you could also explain that nagging won't make me proofread any faster. Frankly, Chevron doesn't get out enough. Here, give him an invitation to the launch and, for that matter, why not come along yourself ... and bring that other friend of yours? I think you'd like it.'
Her eyes swept across Soolin: another blatantly queer gaze. Soolin smiled demurely, handed over a wad of credits and received a small leather-bound volume and a holocard in exchange.
'I see you call yourself Bel O'Scar,' she said, examining the invitation. 'A strange choice, when you don't have any scars.'
Bel grinned. 'Funny, that's exactly what the poet said, when he came here to give me his manuscript. I pointed out that some scars are on the inside but he informed me that he had both kinds.'
She turned back to her proofs, clearly exhausted by the effort of responding, so Soolin pocketed the book and left. Tarrant was waiting for her, perched on Scorpio's landing steps, looking uncharacteristically withdrawn and dejected. There was no repetition of their previous confidences. Tarrant didn't say a word during the return flight and after he'd docked Scorpio, he went stalking off to deposit the parcels in Avon's study. Soolin followed him as far as the rec room, dropped Bel's book on the table and leaned against the wall, toying idly with the invitation, while she revised her plans.
**Ask Dayna to the launch. Show her how I feel. That sounds easy enough.**
Lost in the imagined future, she didn't notice Avon's approach, until he'd breeched the circle of her personal space. As she frowned, disconcerted by her failure of vigilance, he leaned even closer, scanning the holocard.
'Ah,' he said, almost surprised. 'So you took my advice and visited Wilde Imaginings. I hope Dayna will be impressed.'
'That sounds fascinating,' a voice purred from behind them. 'Tell me, Avon, what's supposed to impress Dayna?'
Soolin's heart skipped a beat. When she spun round, Dayna was poised in the doorway, resplendent in a white silk shirt, scowling dangerously at Avon. He stared back, momentarily paralysed by his lapse of judgment, then blinked and tapped the holocard.
'Apparently, Soolin charmed the proprietor of Wilde Imaginings more than I ever have,' he said, a little too late. 'Citizen O'Scar even tendered an invitation to a book launch. I thought you'd be pleased, Dayna, given your recent complaints about the monotony of life on Xenon.'
'Oh, well saved,' Dayna said, visibly unconvinced. 'I'm glad you didn't tell me what you really meant. That would've come as a shock, after our last few missions.'
Her eyes flicked from Avon to Soolin, searching for evidence of conspiracy, which didn't seem like an auspicious start to the intimate conversation that Soolin had planned. She was comforting herself with the reflection that matters could hardly get worse, when Vila popped up from one of the armchairs, sudden as a warg-in-a-box.
'An invitation?' he echoed. 'You mean someone's actually asked us somewhere? Is it a personal invitation, Soolin, or can we all join in?'
Soolin clutched the holocard reflexively, then shrugged and tossed it onto the table. 'Why not?' she said bitterly. 'Although I warn you, it may involve listening to poetry.'
Vila waved a dismissive hand. 'Anything for a chance to get out of this place. I'd like to come. Tarrant'd like to come too, wouldn't you, Tarrant?'
'As a matter of fact, I would,' Tarrant said over Dayna's shoulder. 'Just tell me where we're going, Vila. I missed that part.'
Soolin groaned silently. **Oh, wonderful. The gang's all here. Whatever made me think I could conduct any private negotiations on Xenon Base?**
She watched, numbly acquiescent, while Vila hoisted himself out of the chair and pounced on the holocard. As he ferried it across to Tarrant, Dayna elbowed past him, nudged Avon aside and confronted her. Soolin sidestepped instinctively but Dayna kept advancing, moving continually closer until she'd herded her across the room and backed her into a corner.
'I bought you a book of poems,' Soolin blurted, then cursed herself for letting panic wreck her sense of timing. Not that it mattered, because Dayna wasn't listening.
'You've been talking about me,' she said, electric with fury. 'To Uncle Avon, of all people. I can't believe anyone could be so stupid. Haven't you noticed he's been pretending he's dead from the neck down, ever since he lost Blake?'
Her fists clenched and lifted. She started to pummel Soolin wildly - not hard enough to hurt, just hard enough to add emphasis to her staccato yelps of, 'What would Avon know?' and 'Stupid, stupid' and 'Why didn't you talk to me?' Soolin ducked and weaved, captured Dayna's wrists and yanked them down sharply.
'Avon and Blake?' she said, focusing on the only part of the diatribe that made sense right then. 'What the hell do you mean?'
Dayna sighed. 'You didn't learn much from your gender-bending friend Dorian, did you? Uncle Avon's always been queer as a thirteen credit piece.'
'Anna Grant?' Soolin asked, summing up forty hours of Vila's gossip, and Dayna shrugged impatiently.
'Don't be so pedantic,' she said. 'Everybody's entitled to one mistake.'
Soolin's eyes shuttered. She collated a dozen disparate facts about Avon, acknowledged her failures of perception and went travelling further back in time to review her apprenticeship in the orgy room. In retrospect, it was starting to seem as though she and Dorian had been the real innocents, naively intent on bodies, neglecting the hearts inside them.
'Dorian was my mistake,' she said ruefully. 'And I suppose Justin was yours.'
'No, I'm still working on mine,' Dayna said and kissed her.
Soolin had spent hours trying to recreate the textures of Dayna's mouth but the reality surpassed her memories. She wreathed her arms round Dayna's neck, lapped at a cat-rough tongue and waited for the kiss to dissolve all their misunderstandings. Instead, a stern voice, located somewhere deep in her consciousness, kept reminding her of the resolution she'd made in Bel O'Scar's bookshop. She argued back, citing the directness of her current response, but the voice insisted that she was supposed to be responding emotionally this time. Soolin frowned.
**But ... but I don't know how I feel.**
Then tell her so, the voice commanded.
**Oh. All right.**
She pulled away and drew in a long breath. 'Dayna, I'm confused,' she said. 'Why do you think this is a mistake?'
'Isn't it?' Dayna said flatly. 'You only sleep with people once. We all know that. If I want more, it's my problem.'
Her chin tilted defiantly, revealing the misery in her eyes. Soolin gazed into the dark mirror and watched all their misunderstandings dissolve.
'Is that why you walked out on me?' she asked. 'It used to be true. But not any longer.'
Dayna blinked twice, processing the information, then made a small exultant sound and flung her arms wide. As Soolin sank into the embrace, a hiss of white noise echoed through her head, like the backwash from a concentrated silence. She glanced up to see the three men lined along the opposite wall, all registering approval in their separate ways - Avon arching an indulgent eyebrow, Tarrant pink with embarrassment but smiling broadly, Vila openly clucky.
'I hate to break up the party,' he said with a grin. 'But if we're going to this other party of yours, we'd better get a move on, soon as I fix the security systems.'
'No need,' Avon told him. 'I can take the next watch. I am not in the mood for socialising. I'd prefer to stay here and read.'
He took a step forward, reaching for the book on the table, but Dayna detached herself from Soolin and cut him off. 'Not so fast, Uncle Avon,' she warned. 'You heard what Vila said. It's party time. You're coming with us.'
'Uncle Avon?' he repeated with a quelling stare and Dayna giggled.
'It's a mark of respect,' she explained. 'After all, you're older than the rest of us.'
Avon's hand lifted instinctively to smooth his hair. 'Older than Vila?' he demurred. 'I think not.'
'You mightn't be older in years but that's not the only criterion,' Dayna informed him. 'Vila still likes to party. **You** want to stay home with a good book.'
Avon glanced down regretfully at the leather-bound volume. 'Oh, very well,' he said. 'If it will persuade you to drop that ridiculous nickname, I shall accompany you, even though it is against my better judgement.'
He swung his hand out in an extravagant gesture, securing Dayna's elbow and escorting her onto Scorpio, where he seated her with malicious gallantry at her usual console, trapped between him and Vila. Fortunately, Valoonica was only thirty minutes away. The instant Scorpio touched down, Soolin leapt to her feet but Vila moved faster, dodging in front of her.
'Oh no, you don't,' he said. 'If the two of you start cuddling again, we'll never get to the party. Take us there first, Soolin. After that, you can do whatever you want.'
She sighed resignedly and followed Vila to the pod rank, waited for the others to regroup on Level 300 and led them across to the Gay Blade. The bar had been decorated with strings of glowlights, haloing the androgynous portraits and festooning the ceiling. Their erratic glimmer selected random faces from the crowd - an imposing patriarch whose grey beard contrasted with his china doll make-up; an improbably tall thin woman encased in green rubber; a Domo strongman, contemplating his overloaded posing pouch; two baby-faced girls, linked together by loops of iron chain. On a raised platform, four clones in black skinsuits plucked and blew and scraped on antique wooden instruments, releasing plangent notes that cohered into an unexpectedly lilting melody. Bel O'Scar surged towards them, surfing the wave of sound.
'Tea or dancing,' she announced. 'Which would you prefer?'
Avon raised an eyebrow, clearly surprised that she needed to ask, and Bel swept him away, saying, 'We have five kinds of tea - and cucumber sandwiches as well. Agat Xti would be proud of us.'
As they blended into the crowd, Tarrant glanced sidelong at Soolin and Dayna. 'I'd rather like to dance,' he confessed. 'But I don't suppose either of you ...'
'I'll dance with you, Tarrant,' Vila said promptly. 'More appropriate, really, in present company.'
He cocked an eyebrow at two beautiful boys in silver loincloths, waltzing sedately past, and looked up at Tarrant, first challenging and then beseeching. Tarrant hesitated briefly and held out his arms. When Vila fitted himself into place and steered Tarrant onto the dance floor, Dayna heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief.
'At last!' she said. 'I thought we'd never get rid of them.'
She hustled Soolin across to a shadowy corner of the bar, folded long arms around her and held her close. For a while they simply swayed in time to the music, content to breathe each other's scent and relearn the contours of each other's bodies. Soolin brushed her cheek across the cool silkiness of Dayna's shirt and nuzzled into warm firm flesh. As she ran her tongue along the smooth ridge of a chocolate collarbone, Dayna groaned and pulled her head down.
'Please, Soo,' she whispered. '**Now**.'
So Soolin nosed through folds of white silk, found a bullet-sharp nipple and greeted it with a soft-mouthed bite. At the same time her hand lifted and spread, screening Dayna's right breast from view, compressing its nipple between thumb and palm. She sucked and squeezed, rocked by the rhythm of Dayna's pelvis, until Dayna quivered and arched her back, clamped Soolin's thigh, shuddered and subsided. Soolin lifted her head and met a luxuriantly sated smile.
'That's better,' Dayna said. 'Your turn next. Dance for me, Soo.'
She angled her right hip to conceal the rapidfire movement of her left hand, hoisting and aiming and darting between Soolin's legs. The heel of her palm warded the mound, while her middle finger stroked the elastic material of Soolin's leggings and forced their rolled seam deeper, marking an insistent trail along the valley of her labia. Dayna followed the trail, locating the nub of the clitoris with an unerring accuracy that made Soolin gasp out loud and then bite her lip, grateful for a sudden surge in the music. As the waltz tune meandered towards a climax, she rose and fell with it, dancing on Dayna's hand, collapsing against Dayna's shoulder. They glanced fleetingly at the dancers beside them, to make sure no one had witnessed their illicit interlude, and exchanged conspirators' smiles.
'Two men couldn't have done that,' Dayna said complacently. 'Women are far better designed.'
That prompted Soolin to turn and search the dance floor for Vila and Tarrant. They were still waltzing together and Tarrant had somehow contrived to rest his head on Vila's shoulder - a combination of bending his knees and compressing his spine, Soolin decided, after she'd examined them more closely. She smiled, pleased that Vila was sharing her good fortune, and looked up to pass on the news. But the glistening arc of Dayna's mouth distracted her, enticing her into another kiss, so seductively engrossing that it took her a while to realise that the music had stopped and a deep amused voice was insinuating itself into every corner of the room.
I hold to the edge of the console
with my belly dangling over my belt
and I glare at the scanner
the clouds clearing
some random world
My people put their weapons down
their cry a deafening cheer
as I fall forward off the bench
kiss console like
close as I've been in a long time.'
Soolin laughed, interrupting the kiss. She turned and saw Bel O'Scar looming above the crowd, a leather-bound book in her hand, a voice amp floating in front of her. Bel gestured imperiously and the dancers separated, clearing a space around the stage. As Vila towed Tarrant towards Soolin and Dayna, Avon materialised beside them, raising a fragile fluted tea cup in an ironic toast, like a refugee from the Mad Hatter's tea party. Soolin was about to make the comparison out loud, when Bel coughed fruitily at the amp.
'G'day, freeloaders,' she said. 'It's time to remind you that you're actually here to launch Wilde Imagining's latest production. The poet isn't with us, so I'm going to read some of his poems. Listen, enjoy and buy the fucking book - which, by the way, is called **More Songs of Innocence and Experience**.'
Avon's tea cup clashed against its saucer. 'Blake,' he whispered, reanimating the itch at the back of Soolin's brain.
'Of course!' she said. 'Thank you, Avon. I knew there was something familiar about that title.' She accessed the Universal Education Compendium memory tape and recited triumphantly, 'William Blake, first calendar poet, **Songs of Innocence**, 1789, and **Songs of Experience**, 1794, usually published together as **Songs of Innocence and Experience**.'
Before Avon had time to respond, Bel cleared her throat and flipped the book open. Soolin leaned against Dayna's side and studied her companions' reactions, as a method of assessing the poetry's effect. As Bel read a series of poems devoted to love and its consequences, Tarrant smiled and fingered the downy hair at the nape of Vila's neck. While she worked through a long poem charting the poet's political convictions, Dayna frowned with an abstracted seriousness that meant she was planning modifications to her latest stungun. When Bel's voice hardened, launching into a vituperative poem that began, 'I never realised how much you hate me ...', Vila stiffened and strained forward, absorbing every word. The poem ended with an eloquent cry of despair. Bel leafed on, pages rustling audibly in the silence, and started the next poem.
'the things I do for the resistance -
running and hiding
when I'd rather stand and fight..
Dead on Jevron
resurrected on Gallica
with new scars and a new identity ...'
At the word 'Jevron', something snapped - a sharp final sound, like dry bones breaking. All through the room, concealed weapons sprang into vigilant hands. Soolin whirled round - **dear god, how did those boys manage to hide daggers in their loincloths?** - and found herself staring at Avon, intensely still at the centre of the commotion, shards of broken china at his feet, more shards spiking his lacerated palm.
'Please continue, Bel,' he said politely, apparently oblivious to the blood dripping from his hand.
Bel swallowed hard and resumed the reading. Soolin caught a few passing phrases - 'mindraped again, condition terminal ' and 'I see you there: more drug-induced electronic dreams' - but her attention was mainly occupied by Avon, standing rigid as a statue on a war memorial, bloodstained hand suspended in midair, eyes fixed on Bel with painful concentration. At the last line, Bel snapped the book shut and signalled urgently to the musicians. As they hoisted their instruments, an elbow nudged Soolin's ribs.
'That's the first time he's ever cracked up in public,' Vila muttered. 'I better move fast, before he does something that'll make him hate himself in the morning. Avon hates himself enough already. It wouldn't do to let him have a reason for it.' He reached back and tugged on Tarrant's hand, adding, 'Ready for a bit of team work? Come on, baby.'
Tarrant blushed ripe-red, then cantered after Vila, who was stumbling against Avon and looking up with a foolishly cross-eyed smile. 'Drunk again?' Avon snarled, shaken out of his trance, and Tarrant moved in straight away, saying, 'I'm afraid so. We'll have to take him back to Xenon, before he does something that might constitute a security risk.'
When he seized Vila's elbow, Vila tilted sideways and Avon automatically reached out to steady him. They lurched towards the door, so entangled that it was hard to tell who was supporting whom. As Soolin and Dayna nodded admiringly and followed, Bel O'Scar emerged from the crowd and intercepted them.
'Let me know how it ends,' she ordered. 'I hate unfinished business.'
She turned away to light one of her thin cigarettes and they hurried out to the causeway, where Vila was bandaging Avon's hand, while Tarrant summoned the pods. By the time they arrived at the landing bay, Avon had retreated into catatonia again. Vila steered him onto Scorpio and began to prattle indefatigably about the knife-carrying clientele of the Gay Blade and how nice it was of Bel to offer a choice of tea with milk, lemon or soma. Soolin recognised and approved his tactics but at the same time she wished he'd stop talking and give her a chance to think things through. Avon apparently agreed with her.
'Shut up, Vila,' he said abruptly, halfway through an exhaustive list of the musicians' repertoire.
Vila ducked his head, to hide a satisfied smile. 'So you're back with us again?' he said. 'All right, Avon, if you don't like my idea of conversation, why not tell us what you thought about those poems?'
Misty eyes lifted towards him, lambent in a ghost-pale face. 'The Red King has woken,' Avon said obscurely.
Vila flinched, obviously entertaining serious doubts about Avon's sanity, but Soolin sat up straighter, recognising the reference. **Lewis Carroll, pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, first calendar writer and mathematician, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1872.** She assembled the final pieces of the puzzle and slotted them into place. Avon, attempting to recreate Blake in his computers. Blake, attempting to recreate Avon in his poems. The two men had been trying to dream each other into existence but, up until the moment when Avon discovered that Blake had survived Jevron and Terminal, their dreams had only raised another barrier between them.
**And now? We know Blake's alive but even Bel O'Scar can't tell us where he is - and he's unlikely to have coded his current address into a book that any literate Federation agent could come across.**
While Soolin contemplated love and literature, the cabin had darkened. When she glanced up, Tarrant was steering Scorpio through the manufactured slot in Mount Xenon. Avon slumped in his seat, staring blindly at the shadows on the viewscreen, although when Vila tucked a hand under his elbow, he rose obediently and allowed himself to be guided into the base, leaning heavily on Vila's shoulder. As they crossed the rec room, his hand shot out and whisked the leather-bound book off the table, clutching it with white-knuckled determination.
'Wait a minute,' Dayna said indignantly, watching him disappear down the corridor. 'Uncle Avon just stole my book.'
'I'm afraid it isn't your book any more,' Soolin apologised. 'I'll have to buy you another copy.'
Dayna thought for a moment. 'Don't bother,' she decided. 'It served its purpose - and besides, I've never really liked poetry. You can buy me the **Universal Education Compendium**'s military history tape instead.'
'How romantic,' Soolin teased, which prompted Dayna to seize her wrists in a karate hold, preparing to demonstrate her version of romanticism. As Soolin canted towards her, she caught sight of Tarrant, hovering behind them and gazing at the empty corridor.
'Do you think Vila intends to come back?' he said plaintively. 'Or will he - ah, stay with Avon?'
'No, they tried that before and it didn't work,' Dayna said with her usual frankness. 'It's all right, Del. You won't make a fool of yourself by hanging around.'
Tarrant's shoulders relaxed but his eyes remained focused on the corridor, so Soolin broke Dayna's grip and turned, searching for a way to occupy his attention.
'We may as well do something useful while we're waiting,' she said briskly. 'Let's ask Orac to find Blake. Yes, I know Avon's been looking for him but according to the poems, Blake was using another name. That has to make a difference.'
Tarrant reached for Orac's activator with a negligent shrug, indicating that he knew they were humouring him but that he was grateful for the distraction. They spent the next half hour trying to formulate a question that Orac would condescend to answer. After several acerbic lectures on the relative difficulty of establishing Blake's alias and the absolute impossibility of scanning the galaxy's entire population, the computer finally and reluctantly agreed to check the records of a single planet.
'I knew I had a good reason for choosing to major in piloting, rather than computer skills,' Tarrant observed, sinking into an armchair. 'Now, how do we go about selecting a planet for Orac to play with?'
Dayna grinned. 'We could blindfold you and give you a pin to stick in the chart of the galaxy,' she suggested but Tarrant folded his arms and refused to budge.
'This was your idea, Soolin,' he announced. 'You choose.'
Soolin swung round to face the chart, dropping instinctively into the gunslinger stance that she'd used to outshoot her mirror-self on Mecron-2. She gazed at the planetary symbols until her eyes blurred and a bright image took shape on the mist - a broad-chested man, stroking his bushy auburn beard; a serene woman with a coronet of blonde braids; three fair-haired children tumbling like puppies at their feet.
'My home planet,' she said, inspired. 'Orac, check the Gauda Prime data bases for ... for a thirty five year old man whose name represents some sort of variant on the terms "Roj Blake", "William Blake" and "Songs of Innocence and Experience".'
Orac asked rhetorically whether she realised how long such a project would take, expressed its hope that this would illustrate the futility of random searches and whirred into silence. Dayna collapsed onto the couch opposite Tarrant, pulling Soolin down beside her, and they stared at each other blankly, exhausted by the computer's intransigence. Soolin's hand was just beginning to edge towards Dayna's thigh, when Tarrant stirred and looked up, eyes brimming with light. He rose and moved to the door, steady as a sleepwalker. Soolin glanced over her shoulder, just in time to see Vila slip an arm round Tarrant's waist and lead him away.
'They've got the right idea,' Dayna commented. 'Why don't we do the same?'
She jumped up and extended her hand. Soolin stretched lazily, prolonging the moment, savouring Dayna's impatient eagerness and her own sense of anticipation. As she relented and reached out, Orac flashed and crackled.
'I have the information you requested,' it snapped with more than its usual acidity.
'Already?' Soolin said, startled, and Orac buzzed irritably.
'Statistically speaking, this is a highly improbable outcome,' it proclaimed. 'My original calculations regarding the likelihood of success remain valid. However, chance also plays a part in these matters, so -'
'All right, Orac, that's enough,' Dayna interrupted. 'Just tell us what you found out.'
'The fifty second file I accessed pertained to a body hunter, listed as Wil Exper,' Orac said, still tremulous with indignation. 'Extensive comparison with my files on the Liberator's crew indicates that Wil Exper and Roj Blake are one and the same. Now, unless you require more miracles this evening, I shall return to my own researches.'
Its circuits flared and dimmed. Soolin sat very still, hardly daring to breathe, afraid that a butterfly tremor in her lungs could somehow change the world and cancel her random suggestion. She raised her head cautiously, looking for confirmation of Orac's discovery.
'We've found Blake,' Dayna said, soft and wondering. 'You found Blake, Soo.' She leaned down, hauled Soolin to her feet and shunted her towards the door, adding with sudden energy, 'Come on, let's wake Avon and tell him the news. That ought to cheer him up.'
Soolin stalled. 'Not yet,' she said. 'Avon's too volatile at present. He'd find some way to sabotage the reunion. I think we ought to contact Blake first and ask him ...' Her brain fused, overloaded with plans and revelations. She yawned and added, 'No, on second thoughts, let's sleep on it and decide what to say in the morning.'
Dayna's mouth curved into a bedroom smile. 'Sounds sensible,' she said. 'I won't argue with that.'
She ran a finger down Soolin's spine, patted her on the rump and went striding across to the corridor. Soolin blinked drowsily and watched her right foot take a step forwards, while her left foot swung out in a half circle. The momentum tipped her sideways and jolted her right foot against her left, sending it off to complete the circle. That felt pleasant, so Soolin repeated the movement, feet shuttling faster, arms outspread. As the room whirled dizzily around her, she caught a transient flash of wide-open eyes.
'Soo!' Dayna said, balanced precariously between alarm and amusement. 'What on earth are you doing?'
'I'm spinning,' she said dreamily. 'I have to spin a circle and make a wish for everybody. A wish for you and a wish for me. One for Reb - and Kai - and Kailin - and Leelin.'
Dayna frowned. 'Who are they?' she asked.
'My father and mother and sisters,' Soolin explained. 'Kailin, my older sister, taught me this game.'
'Your family?' Dayna whispered. 'I've never heard you talk about them before.'
'I thought I'd forgotten them,' Soolin said, spinning. 'I was only eight. But I hadn't forgotten.'
As she eddied giddily across the floor, Dayna stepped forward and reached for her. 'Oh, Soo,' she breathed. 'I'm so glad you remembered. Will you come to bed now?'
'Can't,' Soolin said, childishly petulant. 'I have to spin a circle for Vila - he's happy at last. Tarrant'll be happy too, because Vila likes him. And here's a circle for Avon and a circle for Blake. Did you notice how I spun both their circles on exactly the same spot?'
'Yes, that was very clever,' Dayna said, patient as an older sister. 'Soo, are you going to spend the rest of the night spinning?'
'Of course not,' she giggled. 'But I'd like to make a wish for the Hommiks. They're not as bad as they seemed at first. I'm sure we could find them a batch of mail order brides.'
While she marked out the next circle, Dayna whooped and snapped her fingers, as if she'd just made a significant breakthrough on one of her weapon designs.
'Got it!' she exclaimed. 'This is halfway between a game and a prophecy. All right then, spin me a circle for the death of Servalan.'
Soolin pouted. 'Oh, Servalan! On GP, we'd call her kadzakh, which means "hairless". Let me spin the defeat of the Federation instead.'
'Isn't that rather ambitious?'
'Perhaps. But then, according to Vila, Cally used to say, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".'
'Yes, and look where Cally ended up.'
That snaps the thread of Soolin's spinning. She stumbles and pitches forward. Long strong arms catch her and hold her steady, while the world continues to wheel in slow vertiginous circles. Soolin clamps her hands round Dayna's ribs and clings tightly, until she feels stable enough to look up and confirm her reflection in mirror-bright eyes.
Then she lets go and tests her new balance by taking a single step.
NOTE: Thanks to Dana for Valoonica Mall and to Fran and Ika for Uncle Avon and the hairdryer. And Roj Blake's first poem is by Iain J. Coleman, after Charles Bukowski - thanks for the loan, Iain.
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