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His Brother's Keeper

By Betty Ragan
None of it would have happened at all if the explosions hadn't gone off early. But I don't care what Blake says, it wasn't my fault. It was Cally who set the timers; I just planted them. Didn't even touch the dials. I mean, it's not as if I'd wanted to nearly get us all blown up, is it?

Anyway, whoever's fault it was -- and I'm not blaming Cally, who knows, maybe it was a mechanical failure, all I know is it wasn't me -- but, like I say, whoever's fault it was, the explosions started going off before we got out of the base, and suddenly it was so much for Blake's "in and out before they even know we were here" plan. Pity, too, after the beautiful job I did disabling the alarm at the entrance. Not that I ever got any credit for that, of course.

So there we were, running for the exit while loud bangs were going off and bits of the ceiling were falling around us and alarms were screaming and we were all expecting to meet up with a horde of homicidal troopers any minute. Pretty typical day in the rebellion, in other words, except that I was seriously beginning to think that it was maybe going to be my last day in the rebellion, or anywhere else for that matter. No, come to think of it, that's pretty typical, too. Bloody suicidal business. Don't know why I stay on.

Where was I? Running for the exit, right. Well, there we were, running for our lives, as usual, when Blake suddenly stopped and grabbed me by the arm so I nearly fell over, and said "Where's Avon?"

Well, it wasn't my job to watch him, was it? And, anyway, he'd been right behind me a minute ago. But, sure enough, he wasn't there now. Which was a little worrying, I suppose, but I figured Avon could take care of himself and we should be doing the same: in other words, running like hell for the exit before the whole building fell in on top of us or something even more painful happened. But this is Blake we're talking about, and nothing would do but we had to go back -- towards the explosions, mind you -- and look for Avon. So he called out for Cally and Gan to cover for us, and started dragging me by my elbow back down the corridor.

Now, does that make any sense, I ask you? I mean, Cally, all right, but what's the point of asking Gan to cover for anybody? He can't even use a gun! But Blake didn't seem inclined to listen to me when I tried to point this out to him.

We did find Avon, thank goodness, not all that far back down the corridor. He was just standing there, staring at something on the floor, and I was going to complain at him for hanging about in the middle of all this hideous danger -- which isn't very much like him, really; Avon's the only person I've ever met even fonder of his own skin than I am of mine -- but then I saw the look on his face.

It's hard to describe that look, really, even though I can see it perfectly in my mind, because it's just not a look that ever, ever belonged on Avon's face. It was... Well, the only word I can think of for it is... stricken. He looked like I felt the first time I killed someone, in that knife fight on Cygnus Alpha. Horror and guilt and that awful thing that happens to my stomach at the sight of blood. I'm getting the shudders just thinking about it now. But that's me, you see, and Avon just isn't like that. Nothing bothers him. Well, certainly not that sort of thing, anyway.

So I looked down to see what on earth could possibly put that look on Avon's face. And I saw it, all right, but I still didn't understand.

It was a mutoid. A male mutoid, funny enough -- you don't see many of those -- half-buried under a bunch of rubble where part of the roof had caved in. He looked dead, or at least unconscious, which, if you have to have a mutoid around, strikes me as the best state to have them in. I've never liked mutoids. They give me the creeps. But that certainly didn’t explain Avon.

Blake figured it out though. Real quiet and gentle-like, he said "Someone you knew?"

And Avon -- I don't think he'd even realized we were there until Blake spoke up -- said, "My brother."

I don't think he realized he was saying it, either, until after he did, because right after that his face got all hard and blank again, and he turned away from the mutoid like he was going to leave it there and head down the hall to the exit.

I just stood there staring, and I remember that I was thinking two things at once, and neither of them was about how stupid standing there waiting to get caught was. I was thinking "Oh my god," and I was thinking "Avon has a brother?" I don’t know why that should have shocked me more than the fact that his brother was a mutoid, but I guess I normally just don't think of Avon as human enough to have a family. The mutoid didn't look very much like him, either, but then they all kind of look alike to me.

Blake bent down and looked at it -- him, whatever -- and said, "He's still breathing."

Avon said, "We need to get out of here," and he had a definite point, really, but Blake ignored him, of course, and started hoisting bits of the ceiling off of… of Avon's brother. He yelled at us to help him, and it was pretty apparent that he wasn't going to go anywhere until he'd dug the poor bastard out, so we both pitched in and started hauling rubble with him, so we could get out of there faster and hopefully not end up as mutoids ourselves. Well, that's why I was doing it. I think. And I'm pretty sure that's what Avon would say if you asked him, but I did catch him at one point giving Blake a look that might have been gratitude or something, so who knows?

Anyway, we managed to dig him out -- there really wasn't that much of the stuff on top of him, even though it seemed to take forever -- and Blake had me take his feet while he grabbed the shoulders and we went pounding down the hallway as fast as two people carrying a mutoid can possibly go, which wasn't nearly fast enough for me, let me tell you. I also don't know why Avon couldn't have carried the feet -- I mean, it was his brother, after all -- but I suppose it was his turn to cover us, and, anyway, I didn't really want to take the time to argue.

We made it back to Cally and Gan (who looked about as surprised as you'd imagine but didn't seem to want to take the time to argue, either), out the exit and past the edge of the shielded area just in time, because I could hear what sounded like a whole squad of troopers coming after us by that point. Blake slapped a spare bracelet on the mutoid, yelled for Jenna to teleport, and then, amazingly enough, we were back on the ship and reasonably safe. With a mutoid that used to be Avon's brother.

**

Well. So, we took the mutoid to the medical bay, and it was up to Blake and me to answer the inevitable flood of questions from everybody else, because Avon wasn't saying a word. They all reacted about like you'd expect, the appropriate expressions of shock and pity. Cally looked about ready to be sick, and kept going on about how barbaric it was, even though for once I don't think anybody in the room disagreed with her. Even Jenna looked upset, and she never did have much sympathy for Avon. It all seemed to be bothering Avon even more than seeing his brother like that, though -- I could see his lips getting tighter and tighter -- so I mostly stood there and didn't say anything.

Then it was pretty quiet for a while, while Cally tended to the mutoid's wounds, which turned out not to be very serious, and gave him something to keep him under until we could decide what to do with him.

At which point Avon finally turned to Blake and said, "It was stupid to bring it onto the ship."

"I couldn't just leave him there," Blake said.

Avon said, "If I could, Blake, you certainly could." Which would have been funny coming from Avon, if it was anyone else they were talking about.

And Gan, looking all outraged, said "Your own brother?" like he couldn't believe even Avon could be that heartless. Avon's right, Gan can be kind of naïve sometimes.

Avon said, "My brother is dead."

Which, normally, I might have tended to agree with. I mean, if they've erased everything that's you in there, maybe you are dead. On the other hand, it seemed a bit... I dunno, inappropriate, I suppose, with the person he was talking about lying there breathing perfectly normally about five feet away. "Where there's life, there's hope," as my old gran used to say, and, after all, my own conditioning never did hold for more than a month or so, so I started thinking...

"Couldn't we maybe... fix him?" I said. "I mean, I don't know anything about mutoids, but whatever they've done to him, couldn't we maybe undo it? We've got all this fancy medical equipment..."

I would have gone on, probably, but Avon was giving me his best "shut up, Vila" look, so I did. On the other hand, Blake's entire face had lit up like it was his brother we were talking about. Well, I seemed to remember that Blake's brother was dead, so maybe he was just glad of the chance to save somebody's brother. Or maybe he was just being Blake.

Jenna, always the practical one, said she'd never heard of a Modification being reversed, but Gan pointed out that that was because the Federation wanted its mutoids to stay mutoids, and then Avon said that that was a good reason for them to make the process irreversible. Blake just ignored them all and went over and stuck Orac's key in.

Orac used a lot of big words, of course, most of which I admit I didn't really bother paying attention to, but the general gist of it was that he'd never heard of a Modification being reversed either, probably because the Federation wanted it to be irreversible.

Avon said "I told you so" -- or words to that general effect, anyway -- which caused everybody to look a lot less sympathetic for him, but Blake kept pushing, and eventually Orac admitted as how it might just be possible, but it would involve surgery and tissue transplants and mental reconditioning, and a lot of other things I didn't really understand but which sounded pretty nasty, and even then it probably wouldn't work.

But Blake had that look in his eye, and I knew we'd be doing it anyway. Blake likes doing unpleasant things that probably won't work, or else we wouldn't be running around blowing up Federation bases in the first place.

Me, I was beginning to regret bringing it up, especially if it meant I was going to have to do any poking around in mutoid guts or anything similarly awful. Then I caught the look in Avon's eye, and I really regretted it. You'd think the man would be happy that his brother had a chance, even if it was a slim one, but maybe it would have been easier for him to deal with if he believed his brother really was dead and there was nothing he could do about it. Some people just don't deal very well with hope, I guess, especially if they don’t get much of it. Either that, or maybe he really didn't care very much about his brother, but thinking back to the way he looked back there in the base, I didn't think that was it at all. In any case, he looked about ready to kill somebody right then, and I figured better Blake than me, so I remembered something urgent I suddenly had to do on the other side of the ship and got out.

**

The whole ordeal had given me a terrible headache, though, which is why I finally came back to the medical unit later. The mutoid was still unconscious, and Orac was monitoring him, so there wasn't any reason for anybody else to be there. Otherwise they would have made me go through Cally instead of helping myself to the medical cabinet, and Cally has this funny idea that too many drugs are bad for you, or something. What Cally doesn't understand, of course, is that I am a big Delta and was successfully medicating myself for years before I ever met her, but she gets such satisfaction out of mothering us all that I hate to disillusion her. Stealing's easier than arguing, anyway.

But that's why I got a little nervous when I heard someone coming just as I was re-arranging the contents of the cabinet to make it look like there wasn't anything missing. I figured it may or may not have been Cally, but if it was Gan or Blake, they'd probably report me to Cally, or at the very least make me put my "headache powder" back, and given those three-out-of-five odds, I figured it would probably be prudent to hide. There's a lovely little hiding space behind that big rack of diagnostic equipment -- er, not that I've had to use it on a regular basis, of course -- so I finished locking the cabinet back up and ducked behind there, just in case.

It wasn't Cally, as it turned out. It was Avon. And he had a gun.

I'd been about to get back up, because Avon doesn't care what I put into my body when we're not on a mission, but when I saw that, I froze. Avon with a gun is a pretty frightening sight, at least when he's not pointing it at someone who's trying to kill you. And he wasn't. He was pointing it at his brother.

I honestly don't know whether I would have done something or not. I mean, I like to think I would have, but... Well, anyway, I didn't get the chance to find out, because by the time I could have moved or anything, Blake had come in.

I don't know if he'd seen Avon with the gun and followed him, or just come to check on the mutoid and found him there by accident, but whatever the case, he didn't look at all surprised. He just said, "Avon. Don't," in that very calm, quiet voice he does when he wants to get you do what he says before you've even taken the time to think about it.

Avon said, "Go away, Blake."

Blake came up behind him and curled his fingers over Avon's and pulled the gun down to point at the floor. Avon said, "Damn you," but he didn't pull the gun back up.

I almost sighed with relief at that point, but remembered just in time not to make any noise, because I was pretty sure that if Avon found out I was there, he'd probably be wanting to use that gun on me.

Blake looked at the gun, then at the mutoid, then back at Avon, and said, "This isn't the answer."

Avon said, "It's the only answer. Look at him, Blake! That thing is no longer my brother. They raped his mind and erased everything that made him human. Would you want to live like that?"

And Blake said, "I did."

They just stared at each other for a minute, then, and there were all kinds of things in their eyes that I really didn't want to think too much about. I felt bad enough for seeing all this, anyway, but I could hardly have stopped watching, could I?

Finally, Blake said, "I got my life back, Avon. Maybe we can do the same for him."

Avon said, "You're an overoptimistic fool," but when Blake held out his hand for the gun, he let him take it.

"Orac says talking to him might help," said Blake, and then he took the gun and left.

Avon stared after him for a moment, then he came and sat down next to the bed. He had one of those peculiar half-smiles on his face that he gets where other people would have some sort of normal emotional reaction, like tears, or pouring themselves a drink.

"Well, Sarl," he said, "you always used to tease me about wanting to be a machine instead of a human being. Rather ironic that it is you who achieved that state instead of I."

He took the mutoid's hand and just sat there for a long time, examining it like there was going to be a quiz later and he was determined to get an A. Maybe there's something really fascinating about mutoid fingernails. Probably it was just easier than looking at his face, though.

Enough time passed that I was starting to cramp up, and I'd about decided that I would have to come out of hiding and hope that Avon wouldn't actually manage to kill me now that Blake had taken his gun. I'd just started to straighten up when Avon let out a sigh, and something about it told me that I'd really be better off staying put for the moment. Particularly when it ended it a sob. Or maybe it was a laugh. That'd be more in character for Avon, anyway. I couldn't really make out what he said next, because he said it real quietly, and he'd raised the mutoid's hand up to his face so I couldn't see his lips. But it sounded like "You, as well." Then he lowered the hand, said, "I'm sorry, Sarl," in a perfectly expressionless voice, and left the room without even glancing over at where I was hidden.

It was that last bit that got to me: the "I'm sorry." I couldn't stop thinking about it, while I was waiting for the pins-and-needles in my leg to go away so I could walk. I had wondered, you see, just what it was that Avon's brother -- Sarl, apparently; Avon hadn't bothered telling the rest of us his name -- had done to get himself picked for conversion. Mostly they use crimos, deserters, people like that. I'd kind of figured that it just meant Avon wasn't the only criminal in his family, or, for that matter, the only one to get caught. But a really, really horrible thought was starting to come to me.

You hear about it, of course. Deserter's families sold into slavery on Ursa Minor or someplace like that. Families of resistors being rounded up and shot; I suspect that's what happened to Blake's siblings, although I'm not going to ask him. But they don't do that sort of thing do the families of embezzlers and thieves. Not even highly successful, recidivist thieves. But…

To the extent that I ever really thought about it, I must admit, I'd always kind of liked the idea of being a Famous Rebel Terrorist. People back on Earth knowing my name, telling stories about me. I've had this lovely image of myself, years after Blake's finally managed to topple the Federation, sitting in a pub somewhere telling a room full of enthralled strangers about how I was with Blake -- yes, the Blake -- and impressing pretty girls with only slightly-exaggerated tales of my heroic exploits.

But it never occurred to me to stop and think about the possible downside of being a Famous Rebel Terrorist… well, except for the obvious one that involves people trying to kill you.

I have two brothers and a sister.

I think I started to shake. No, I did start shaking. I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Orac was still sitting there, humming away, and... Well, I hadn't heard anything from my family in over a year, of course, and I'd always assumed they were fine because, well, they're Restals and Restals are survivors. Ask anyone. But suddenly I was utterly convinced that... Well, I had to contact them. So I staggered over to Orac -- I still had pins-and-needles -- and yelled at him that I needed him to do something for me right now.

The stupid plastic box got halfway through his usual spiel about how busy he was and how he didn't have time to handle my petty affairs, when the voice of reason kicked in and said that if they weren't OK, there wouldn't be much of anything I could do about it, and if they were OK a transmission from me would only call attention to them. Annoyingly, the Voice of Reason sounds just like Avon, but I listened to it, anyway, and just got Orac to look through the Federation records for them instead of calling them up.

They're fine. The Federation doesn't consider Deltas worth bothering with, apparently. But I don't mind telling you, that was one of the worst moments I've ever had in my life.

**

Over the next few weeks, I tried keeping that feeling in my mind; every time I got too annoyed at Avon I'd try imagining it was my brother lying there, and how I'd feel about it. That got harder and harder to do, though, not just because Avon was being even more of a pain in the arse than usual (and the more he thought you might be feeling sorry for him, the bigger of a pain in the arse he got), but because it got to be a worse and worse thing to imagine the more we did to the poor bastard…

And I got to see a lot of it, lucky me, because Cally had decided that I was going to be a nurse.

I tried to argue with her. Pointed out that I tend to faint at the sight of blood and so forth, but she wouldn't have any of it. I think it was when she said "But Vila, you have such dexterous fingers. That is very useful in a medical context," that did it. I never could resist flattery from a pretty lady. She was right about me having a better bedside manner than Avon, too, but that's not exactly difficult...

So, it was Dr. Cally and Dr. Orac and Nurse Gan and Nurse Me tending the patient, with Blake popping in every five minutes to "see if there was anything he could do," and mostly Avon standing there making snide comments and trying not to look worried. He did a better job of it than me, I must say.

Personally, I thought it was all a bad idea from the start. I mean, what does any of us know about medicine? Well, surgery, anyway; Cally and Gan may be good at first aid, but rebuilding a mutoid is a pretty far from slapping a healing pad on a burn. Orac knows everything, of course, and if Orac had fingers I'd be happy to leave it all to him, but none of the rest of us are doctors. I'm certainly not. So I was all in favor of finding an actual doctor, like we did for Gan, kidnapping one if necessary. Blake would have gone along with that, I think, but Avon wouldn't hear of it. Made an annoying speech about how dangerous it would be, and how we had Orac this time to tell us what to do so there was no reason we shouldn't be able to manage it ourselves ("ourselves" being me and Cally and Gan, of course), and, besides, look what happened last time, so on and so forth. And Cally said, well, Avon was the next-of-kin, so it ought to be his decision, and Blake agreed, so that was that, apparently.

I just hope Avon never has to make any medical decisions about me, because I certainly wouldn’t want me poking about in my insides.

We needed to do the surgery and the other physical stuff first, according to Orac, because it would leave the mutoid feeling weak and confused afterwards, and that ought to make the mental conditioning easier. Which seemed pretty callous to me, but then nobody ever accused Orac of being compassionate.

Mostly I handed Cally and Gan instruments and clamped things where they told me to clamp them and tried not to look at what they were doing as much as I possibly could. And, no, I didn't faint, but then there wasn't actually any blood, just this green stuff... Which was disgusting enough, really, but disgusting in an entirely different way than blood is disgusting, if that makes any sense.

So, we -- well, they -- fixed up his digestive system (which Orac said was still functional, but had to be hooked back up and turned back on or something, because mutoids don't need to eat) and removed that horrible needle from his arm, and took out the transponder that Orac, annoyingly, had neglected to tell us about right away (leading to a lot of swearing and Jenna running up to the flight deck to make a course change when he finally did), and one or two other things that, frankly, I'd just as soon not think about too much, thanks.

It all seemed to go smoothly enough, anyway. Orac only had to yell at us that we were doing it wrong twice.

**

We gave him a day or two to recover from the surgery, which he seemed to be doing OK… Well, no he didn't, really, at least not as far as I could see. To be honest, he looked terrible. All pale and sweaty. But Orac said that was only to be expected and would I stop bothering him unless the patient did something interesting, please. Not that he said "please," of course.

But he never did do anything Orac considered "interesting," so eventually we moved on to the next bit, which Orac said was replacing his green stuff with actual human blood.

That conjured up all kinds of horrible thoughts in my mind, that did. My mum used to threaten us with that sort of thing when we were kids. "You get caught stealing, Vila, and they'll give you to the mutoids to drink your blood!" It worked, too. I got very, very good at not getting caught. I remember, I always imagined them sinking vampire fangs into my neck, and it occurred to me that now we'd removed this one's needle, so how was he going to take the blood? No way was I going to let him sink any fangs into me, I don't care whose brother he was, and I'd just as soon not have any sucked out of me through needles either. Blood belongs on the inside of the body, especially my blood.

But Gan just laughed and said, "Don't be silly, Vila. We'll use the artificial blood from the Liberator's stores. It's exactly the same as real blood. And we'll feed in into him through the tube in his chest."

"Oh, that's why we left that in!" I said, feeling greatly relieved. I had been wondering why we didn't take that out along with everything else while we had him open.

Avon looked about ready to hit me, though, and he made some sort of remark about how very glad he was that his brother's life was in the hands of an incompetent like me who couldn't even pay attention when Orac was putting it into baby language for me. Or something like that. And I said "Listen, if you think you can do better, you be the nurse!" He didn't say anything to that, just glared at me, and Cally quickly changed the subject.

Now, if you know Avon, you're probably wondering why he didn't cut me into little pieces -- verbally, if not literally -- and then insist that, yes, he could do better than me and my services would no longer be needed, thank you very much.

Well, I'll tell you a little secret. Avon does not have "dexterous fingers." Avon is, not to put too fine a point on it, a klutz. Oh, he manages to compensate for it when it's really important; he's got pretty good with a gun, for instance, after lots of practice. And he hides it well; you'd never know it watching him fixing all those delicate little computer pieces, but the main reason he has to fix them so often in the first place is that every time he fiddles around with the circuitry, he breaks something. I hear him swearing about it all the time on the flight deck, when he thinks I'm asleep. Thank goodness for auto-repair, that's all I can say, or he'd probably have broken Zen well past fixing by now.

The point is, it's not just my bedside manner that got me elected as nurse instead of him. But don't tell him I said so.

Anyway, Avon didn't say anything more for a while after that, and the blood replacement thing turned out to be simple enough that even Avon could have done it without breaking anything.

There was one minor complication, though, which was that rinsing out all the green blood-substitute stuff also rinsed out all the drugs we'd given him to keep him unconscious all this time. We could have given him some more, of course, but Cally didn't think it was a good idea, for reasons I'm not too clear on... Maybe it was just her usual dislike of drugs again, I don't know. At any rate, it wasn't too long after we finished that he started to come out of it.

We were all gathered around the bed at this point. Well, no, not all of us: Jenna was up on the flight deck on the principle that "someone has to be," or so she said. That's not strictly true, of course; after all, that's what Zen's there for, isn't it? Personally, I think she was just being smarter than the rest of us. Wish I'd thought of it first.

At any rate, the mutoid finally opened his eyes and looked right at Blake -- what is it about that man, anyway? -- and said "Where is my commander?" His voice was all shaky and pale like the rest of him. It was also totally expressionless, otherwise, but I couldn't tell whether that was due to being a mutoid, or due to being Avon's brother.

Blake said, "Your commander isn't here. Do you remember what happened? Do you know where you are?"

Apparently he didn't. He just lay there for a moment, looking like he was trying to access memories he didn't have -- I suppose even a mutoid is going to have trouble remembering things that happened while he was unconscious -- and said, "I have been damaged."

Gan patted him on the arm in a friendly sort of way and said, "We're fixing you up. Don't worry."

The mutoid asked Gan if he was a cybersurgeon, and Gan kind of stuttered a little and admitted that, no, he wasn't, exactly. Sometimes Gan is a little too honest for his own good. Or anybody else's, for that matter.

At this point, Cally took the mutoid's hand in one of hers, and Avon's in the other, and said "Sarl," -- it seemed Avon had told Cally, at least, what his brother's name was, which was interesting -- "Do you know who this is?"

Sarl looked at him for a long moment, in this utterly blank kind of way, and I found myself thinking how totally different his eyes were from Avon's: a pale, washed-out sort of brown, and just totally… empty. He said, "No. Should I?"

Then, before anybody could think of what to say in response to that, he suddenly looked past Avon, like he was seeing the room for the first time, and he frowned. Well, not a frown, exactly, but a definite frowny expression around the eyes. "This is not a Federation facility. You are not Federation personnel."

And I said, "Well, that's very perceptive. You can tell he's related to you, Avon!"

I know, I know, it was a stupid thing to say. I was feeling nervous and uncomfortable, all right? And the thing is, Avon was looking… Well, very not well. Very, very not well. And sometimes the best way to deal with Avon when he's in a black mood is to get him started on an exchange of insults and let him blow some of it off verbally.

Unfortunately, it didn't work this time. He just dropped Cally's hand like it had burned him and turned and stalked out of the room.

Blake gave me a really nasty look and went off after him, and Cally and Gan both looked at me liked I'd just kicked a puppy. Wonderful.

We tried talking to Sarl some more, but he wouldn't give us anything but his serial number (not having a name or a rank). Eventually, he fell asleep (or the mutoid equivalent, anyway, I guess they don't really sleep), and I went off to introduce some green liquid into my own body in an attempt to forget the whole mess. Though I wasn't terribly successful, I'm afraid.

**

As for Avon, I don't know what Blake said to him -- and I'm not sure I want to know, either -- but at least the next time I saw him he looked a little less uptight. Which was good, considering that I'd walked in on him sitting in the medical bay watching over his brother at an hour when he should have been sleeping, and he can get especially nasty when you catch him doing something that might tip off the world at large that he cares about anybody but himself.

I nearly turned around and walked out again, but… Well, the truth is I did kind of feel bad. Not that I had any reason to, after having gone through all those grueling hours in the surgical unit striving heroically to bring his brother back to him and all that, but I did. So I sort of sidled up next to him and said something like, "Umm, listen, Avon, you know, about earlier... Well, me and my big mouth, you know. I'm always saying things without thinking about them..."

Avon just kind of shrugged, which I interpreted as, "Why, thank you Vila. Please don't mention it. After all, I value your companionship and thus am willing to forgive you almost anything." Well, it might have been something like that. The "please don't mention it" part was probably accurate, anyway.

Seeing as he hadn't bitten my head off, I pulled a chair up next to him, and we sat there for a while, looking down at the man in the bed.

Actually, now that I really looked at him closely, he did look like Avon, at least a little bit. At least with his eyes closed. It was the pale blond hair that made them seem so different, I think, but there was something about the shape of the face, the curve of the mouth…

Of course, he still looked like death warmed over. And the mutoid wasn't looking so great, either. I wondered if Avon had got any sleep at all in the last few days.

I started thinking about my own brothers again… I suppose if it was Danis or Ven going through this I wouldn't be getting any sleep, either. Probably wouldn't be dealing with it nearly as well as Avon, if I'm to be completely honest about it. Funny, though, to think of Avon having as close a relationship with anyone as I had with Danis and Ven. Particularly Ven. "Girls will leave you," he used to say, "and friends will desert you, but your family, that's forever." And then he'd grin and say "Like it or not!" I miss him something terrible, sometimes. He was the one person who ever really listened to me.

I guess I got to wondering if Avon had felt the same way about Sarl, strange as the thought was, and I found myself saying, out loud, "You were very close, weren't you?"

I expected him to tell me to mind my own business, but all he said was, "Yes."

We sat there for a long time, and he never did say much, but he also never told me to shut up once. Eventually, the soma finally started to kick in and I trundled off to go to sleep.

For all I know, he sat there all night.

**

He looked more or less OK the next morning, though, which was good, considering what we had to do next. See, according to Orac (and, boy, was I really starting to hate the sound of that machine's voice), just switching out all of Sarl's blood with the fake stuff wasn't good enough, because he didn't have any way to keep making blood. I don't know exactly why you have to keep making blood -- maybe it evaporates in there or something -- but there's this stuff inside your bones, apparently, that you need to have to keep making blood cells, and Sarl didn't have any. And, unfortunately, we didn't have any artificial version of that. Which meant we were going to have to take some of the real stuff out of somebody.

I got pretty nervous when I heard that, because it seems like I always get all of the really dirty jobs, and I can just imagine Avon immediately volunteering me as having the most expendable bones. But it turned out that Avon got this particular nasty job, by virtue of being Sarl's brother, and thus having compatible bones or something.

He was bound and determined to be difficult about it, though, just to prove he really was feeling more like himself. First he told Cally he didn't want her to be the one sucking the bone-stuff out of him, and she was getting kind of huffy and offended at that, and I thought she was going to take that giant syringe and… Well, anyway, it took us forever to get him to admit it -- well, not admit it, really, but admit it without admitting it -- but it turned out the reason he didn't want Cally in the room was because he had to take his pants down to get the needle jabbed into his hip, and he didn't want Cally ogling his bum! I'm afraid I said something at that point that I'd be rather ashamed to repeat, but it did lead to the interesting discovery that Cally blushes a very pretty shade of pink when you actually succeed in getting past all that Auron calm and embarrassing her.

At any rate, she left, which left Gan and me to do the bone-sucking thing. Gan wanted to put him to sleep while we did it, because that's how Orac said it was supposed to be done, but Avon wouldn't go along with that, either, and made Gan give him something to numb the area where the needles would go in instead. Personally, I'd want to be as unconscious as possible while a needle that size was poking into me, but then, I'd rather like Cally looking at my bum, too, so there's really no accounting for Avon. Goodness only knows what he thought we'd do to him while he was unconscious and had his pants down. No trust at all, that man. Well, OK, if it were just me, I admit, I'd be sorely tempted to do him a tattoo while I was at it -- I Love the Revolution, maybe? -- but Gan would never have gone along with it. But, no, I wouldn't have done anything, really. Not in the circumstances, anyway.

Unfortunately, after that bit of comic relief, the rest of it wasn't the slightest bit funny at all. Well, OK, when Blake came in and Avon yelled at him to get out because he didn't want him in the audience, either, that was mildly amusing. But mostly it involved these really horrible, horrible needles, and it just never seemed to stop. Gan jabbed the needle of this huge syringe thing right into Avon -- and you could tell it bothered him, even with the anaesthetic, by the way he snarled when Gan apologized -- and it filled up, very slowly, with this awful red stuff, on and on until it looked like we must've sucked out half of Avon's insides. I was tremendously glad when he finally pulled the thing out, because never mind Avon, I felt about ready to faint just from watching it… And then he pulled out another one and jabbed it in, and I had to go and sit in the corner for a little while. Which led to both of them yelling at me. Can I help it if I'm a sensitive soul? Cally would have appreciated my empathy, I'm sure, if Avon hadn't made her leave the room.

When it was finally over, Avon looked... Well, a lot like a man who's trying to look like he hasn't had half of his insides sucked out with a giant syringe, actually.

On my way out to get Cally (once Avon had his trousers back on), I passed by the bed where Sarl was lying and mumbled "I really hope you turn out to be worth all this," but he just stared at me with that blank, empty look.

Maybe that was the point where I started to wonder if it really was going to be worth it all.

**

As bad as all the surgery and everything was, what came after it -- the psychological stuff -- was much worse. Which is kind of funny, really, because I wasn't much involved in it at all.

Oh. That didn't come out right, exactly. What I meant is, you'd think that since my part in things was pretty much done, life would've at least got easier for me, if not for anyone else. But it was almost easier having something to do, to sort of, well, take your mind off things.

At this point, though, it was mainly just Avon and Orac. Orac had worked out some kind of de-programming program that involved talking to Sarl and flashing lights at him and things, while Avon sat there monitoring his brain activity with a set of electrodes taped to his head. To both of their heads, I mean. I didn't like to look at that much. It brought back some bad memories. But that was OK, because Avon didn't seem to want anybody in there with him, anyway, and this had turned out to be yet another thing that only Avon had any chance of doing properly, due to knowing Sarl and having similar brain-patterns to him or something.

So five or six times a day, half an hour at a time, he'd go in there and hook himself up to Orac and hook Orac up to his brother and they'd do whatever it was Orac did. And the longer it went on, the worse they both looked. By the third or fourth session, Avon was practically staggering out of the medical bay, looking as white as if he'd just seen a ghost, and Sarl would be all covered in cold sweat afterwards, so that we'd have to change the sheets.

That's what I was doing, in fact, after the last session on the first day, when Sarl looked at me. Not that blank mutoid stare he was always giving us, but actually opened his eyes and looked at me, like I was a human being. Like he was a human being. This puzzled, confused look came onto his face and he said, "What… Who?" Just like that. I'm not sure if he was asking who I was or who he was, but it was the first thing he'd said, other than repeating his serial number, since he figured out that we weren't Federation.

I punched the intercom and said "Avon, come to the medical bay, quick!" Ordinarily, of course, Avon would've challenged that, just on the general principle that he doesn't take orders from anyone, least of all me, but this time, even dead on his feet as he was, he was coming in the door almost before I'd taken my finger off the button.

He took one look at Sarl, and it was obvious that he could see the difference, too. And Sarl took one look at him, and… Well, something just got very bright behind his eyes, like he'd just got home after a long absence and had finally found the switch to turn on all the lights inside his skull.

Avon said, "Sarl?" And he must have been tired, because I could hear all the hope and everything in his voice.

And Sarl said, "Avon?" Which threw me for a minute, until I realized that it was that Alpha thing, that the real upper-crust ones do, anyway, where the oldest in the family gets called by his last name.

Avon smiled, real tentatively, and said, "You know who I am?"

And then, click, just like that, all the lights were out again. He just stared at Avon for a moment, and then he said. "Yes. You are Kerr Avon. You are an enemy of the Federation." And then he repeated that damned serial number of his. Again.

Avon's face went all blank, but he couldn't make it reach his eyes -- kind of ironic, really -- because he had that stricken look in them again.

He almost bumped into me as he turned around and left. I don't think he even saw me at all.

I tried talking to Sarl for a while after that, but it didn't do any good. Orac said he thought that was good sign, though, so I tried to believe him. Stupid plastic box.

**

He came out of it several more times after that, too, over the next few days, but it was always the same. Lights on, lights off. Avon finally told us to stop calling him in when it happened. I think that made Cally unhappy with him; you could tell she was trying not snap at him and tell him off for being such a cold bastard. She gave me a lecture at one point about what a great strain Avon was under, and how it was important to cut him some extra slack, but I think it was really herself she was trying to convince. Cally can be the most incredibly patient person I've ever met, but it's only because she tries really hard.

Then there was Blake. Believe me, Avon and his brother weren't the only ones who looked awful. Blake was a wreck. Since Avon wouldn't let him in the med unit while he was working with Sarl, he took to hanging around outside the door, pacing and chewing on his fingers. Then when Avon finally came out, he'd try and act like he'd just been passing by, all Oh, hello, Avon, fancy meeting you here, and by the way, just out of idle curiosity, how did the session with your brother go? I don't think he fooled Avon for a minute, actually, but it was hard to tell whether he appreciated it or whether it just irritated him. Knowing Avon, maybe both.

On the sixth day, Blake came in while I was changing the sheets again, right after Avon had gone staggering out from the day's final session. He didn’t say anything to me, just went over and stared at Sarl, who was looking blanker and emptier than ever, then turned and pounded his fists onto Orac.

"Why isn't it working?" he said. I almost answered him, said something like, "How the hell do you expect me to know, Blake? I've been doing my best!" But then I realized he was talking to Orac. "You said we'd be seeing an improvement by now!"

"I said that if it were going to work, the odds were high that there would have been a substantial improvement by the fifth day of therapy," Orac told him. "However, I also said that chances of the reversal process being successful were less than twenty-seven percent."

That number stuck in my head, you know? Twenty-seven percent. I'm pretty sure I hadn't heard Orac make that prediction before. I'd known the chances were bad, but I hadn't realized they were that low. I guess I'd assumed... Well, never mind what I'd assumed. Doesn't really matter much, does it?

The next thing Orac said was, "Based on the patient's current rate of progress -- or rather, lack thereof -- the odds of success have now dropped to negligible levels. I would recommend terminating the experiment. I have already informed Kerr Avon--"

We didn't get to hear the rest of it, because that's when Blake ripped Orac's key out and hurled it across the room, along with a bunch of words that I didn't think Alphas actually knew.

I thought for a second that he was going to throw Orac across the room, as well, and was almost wondering if I should duck, because I was pretty sure there was no way I could have stopped him, even if I’d wanted to, which I didn't. In fact, if he had, I probably would've been happy, just then, to stomp up and down on the pieces.

But he didn't. He turned on Sarl, instead, grabbed him by the shoulders as if he could just shake the life back into him, shouted his name, pleaded with him...

But there are some things even Blake can't do, I guess. Hell of a thing to find out, isn't it?

After he left, I sat there for a long time, just, I dunno, thinking. Well, not thinking, really. Just… sitting there. I don't know how long it was, but…

Damn. This gets hard to talk about.

I was sitting there, when Sarl opened his eyes. Well, no, they were already open, but I mean opened. He looked around the room like he'd never seen it before, looked at me, started turning his head back and forth like he was searching for someone... And then he said "Avon?"

It sounded so… lost. I reached out to take his hand... And then he was blank again.

That was the last time he woke up. I wished, afterwards, that I'd called Avon, but he probably wouldn't have got there in time, anyway.

He never even said his serial number again after that.

**

As for the rest of it...

I didn't see him do it. But I heard the shot from down the hallway.

I came running in without even thinking about what I was doing, and the first thing I saw was the blood. It was seeping out of him, very red, very human, all over my nice clean sheets. He made this sort of gurgling noise, and blood came out of his mouth, and I had to look away.

So the second thing I saw, of course, was Avon, standing there with the gun.

I flattened myself against the wall. I wasn't even thinking. Avon didn't seem to notice me at all. He was just standing there, watching... watching his... watching his brother die.

God.

He was still gurgling when Blake came running in. Avon whirled around and held the gun on him and said, "Stay there, Blake" in this horrible, hoarse sort of whisper.

Blake said, "Oh, Avon." I don't think he could have sounded more hurt if Avon had shot him.

Nobody paid any attention to me. Maybe I could have done something. Maybe I should have done something. But I don't know. If it was Ven...

I just don't know.

About that time, the gurgling stopped, and it was too late, anyway. He was dead... And his eyes didn't look any different at all. I think that was the worst part of the whole thing.

Avon must've known it, too, because he lowered the gun.

"So much for your optimism," he said. He sounded as lost as Sarl had, asking for him.

"We had to try, Avon." Blake sounded lost, too, and that was scary.

"No, Blake. You had to. It is, after all, what you do. False hope is nothing more than your stock in trade." And he smiled. I swear to god, he smiled.

Then he just turned around and left.

Blake went over to the body and buried his head in his hands. I won't say he was crying. I won't say, because I wasn't sure, and I don't want to be sure. I don't want to think of Blake like that.

"I am so sorry," he said. Then he left, too, followed after Avon and left me alone with the body, and the blood, and the image of Ven playing over and over in my mind.

Blake is sorry. I'm the one who suggested it. I'm the one who put the idea in Blake's head.

And if I hadn't mis-set the timer on the explosives, none of it would have happened.

Just this once, I don't think I want the credit.

But for what it's worth, Avon, I'm sorry, too.


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Betty Ragan

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