The Thousandth ManBy Helen Parkinson
"Blake, she greeted him pleasantly, setting his teeth on edge. "You don't look at all well, do sit down." She indicated a chair and the mutoid who guarded her, interpreting it as a command, pushed Blake down into it. "I have something I wanted to show you," Servalan continued.
For a brief moment Blake was afraid. Could she have discovered the plan? He doubted it, but the idea was worrying all the same. They were so very close to completion. "You have nothing of interest to how me," he told her. "Don't let's waste time. Sign the warrant." False bravado. He knew it and suspected she did too. But it was all he had left now; her guards and interrogators had long ago stripped him of his dignity.
"So impatient," she chided gently, smiling. She pressed her fingertips together and contemplated the blood red nails. "I think," she mused without looking at him, "you will be interested in this." She pressed a small button on the desk and the screen on the wall behind it came to life.
Blake recognised the scene at once. A standard Federation interrogation cell. A figure was strapped in the chair that occupied the centre of the screen. A guard could be half seen in the background by the door and a white coated technician and black clad interrogator bent over a table. As Blake watched, the interrogator moved away from the table, a needle in his hand, towards the figure in the chair. This figure had his back to them, but Blake had the terrible feeling he knew the man. To cover his fear, he turned to face Servalan. She had turned to watch the screen. Now, aware of his eyes upon her, she turned back to face Blake.
"I know what your interrogators do," Blake told her coldly. "I've been there. You cannot think to threaten me with that." He smiled. "Surely you must have realised that by now?"
"I am not threatening you, Blake," she replied. He shivered at her emphasis on the word 'you'. Could she have one of his people? He couldn't see how; none of them would have been crazy enough to try a rescue and she had no way of knowing where they were. He had told her people nothing.
Servalan smiled at his discomfort. She touched a second switch on her desk to open a channel to the room. "Maunders?" The interrogator stopped moving, looking away from his subject directly at the camera. He came to attention as he recognised the voice. "Turn the chair round. I have someone with me who knows your... guest."
Blake couldn't take his eyes from the screen as Maunders obeyed Servalan's orders. The chair spun to face the camera. "Avon!" Blake whispered in horrified recognition of the brutalised figure now facing him.
Servalan, watching Blake's face, smiled at his reaction. "You may continue," she told Maunders.
"Madame President," he acquiesced. The man in the chair stirred. Perhaps at the sound of Servalan's voice, perhaps at her title, surprising Blake, who had thought him unconscious. He opened his eyes to stare directly at the camera. Blake couldn't help but react, pulling back slightly in the chair as Avon appeared to stare directly at him.
"I will tell you nothing, Servalan," Avon said, his voice a harsh parody of its normal tones.
"Oh, Avon," Servalan replied. She had turned now to face the screen and seemed almost to caress the name. It made Blake shiver. "You underestimate my powers of persuasion." She paused as if considering something. "Your friends have abandoned you, you know, as Blake has. They all seem to do that, don't they, Avon?" She glanced at Blake briefly and for a moment he was afraid that she would tell Avon he was here. Then her attention went back to the man on the screen. "You have no chance of escape or rescue. I am your only hope."
"Go to hell," Avon said unequivocally. He closed his eyes then, sagging back against the chair as his strength failed him. "Go to hell," he repeated softly.
"Do you have any special requests, Madame?" Maunders asked.
"Yes. Keep him conscious a little longer. I may be bringing a friend down to see him." Avon's eyes opened at the word 'friend,' but Maunders turned the chair slightly so that Blake couldn't see his face properly, couldn't see what he was thinking.
Servalan cut the sound but not the picture as Blake found he couldn't take his eyes away from the screen. Avon was now in profile as Maunders picked up the needle he had discarded and injected the contents into Avon's arm. Blake noted, as he did this, numerous needle marks on Avon's arms he hadn't seen before.
"He is remarkably resistant to our standard drugs," Servalan told Blake conversationally. "Like you in that respect. My geneticists are working on the possibility that this drug resistance and your anti-social behaviour are somehow linked. If this proves to be the case, we will be able to detect potential rebels in the newborn."
"So you can kill them?" Blake asked, tearing his gaze from the scene on the viewscreen.
"Oh, no. Nothing so crude," she told him. "A little reprogramming will stop any rebellious tendencies. It works so much better on children, you know. Their minds are infinitely pliable."
Blake felt sick that she could contemplate allowing puppeteers loose on children, and that it would work. If she was prepared to tell him this much, the scientists would have all the data. They wouldn't dare offer this woman half a story. He found his attention drawn back to the scene on the screen; even the sights it offered were preferable to the visions of mindwiped children his imagination had conjured up. Maunders was bending over Avon talking rapidly; Avon's head moved from side to side, whether in denial or pain Blake could not tell. Servalan too was watching the screen.
"It is a pity," she mused at last. "We are going to have to try something a little more... old fashioned on Avon." She smiled as Blake looked at her. "Unless of course, you..."
"I what?" Blake asked. "What do you want from him?"
"Details of the Liberator," Servalan replied. "The teleport, the drive systems, even that little detector shield he appears to have constructed for you."
"The Liberator was an alien ship. We never understood it ourselves."
"Come now, Blake, are you telling me that a first class engineer and Alpha elite computer specialist - his contemporaries say he's a genius, you know - couldn't work out at least some of the systems in over two years?"
"We were rather busy doing other things," Blake told her. "I doubt very much Avon can give you any technical information, not that he'd admit it to you. He says he's a genius, too."
"You have been away for some time now, Blake. Since the invasion, I understand. He might just have had the time to study while you were gone. You cannot fault me for continuing to try to find out." A light on the desk communications panel flashed and she depressed the switch. "Yes?"
"Madame President." The voice was Maunders. Blake turned to look. Maunders was standing close to the screen; in the background Avon could be seen, head down, slumped in the chair. "The prisoner is still resisting," Maunders was saying. "And Shrinker has reported in the building."
"Splendid." Servalan smiled. "Do nothing more for the moment. Return Avon to his cell."
Servalan looked at Blake, "He has been here for five days," she told him, "and has told us nothing. He wasn't even recognised at first." She spoke softly, almost to herself, remembering when she had received the news of her very important prisoner. It was only when an alert guard had recognised the prisoner that this matter had been brought to her attention. Avon had been a prisoner for three days then, three days during which he hadn't even admitted his name. "Like you, he believes help is on its way. It is not. He is alone, as you are alone. The Liberator has gone. He has, as you have, two choices. Answer our questions now or later. The only difference is the amount of pain you must suffer, the amount of damage your bodies sustain before you talk to us. Shrinker is very good. A specialist who enjoys his work." She waved to the guards, who pulled Blake to his feet. "I have, however, an added incentive to help persuade you to talk to me."
"You said it yourself, Servalan," Blake said. "There is nothing you can offer me."
Servalan rose elegantly. "A swift death?" she suggested.
"I talk and you have me shot?" Blake shook his head. "I understood that was the original offer. The answer is still no."
"Oh, Blake." She stepped out from behind the desk and came to stand directly in front of him, a small woman next to his height and bulk. "You misunderstand. A swift death for Avon if you talk." Blake felt the blood drain from his face as the room darkened until all he could see were Servalan's eyes glowing yellow. She smiled and lifted a hand as if to touch his face. "You understand, I see. He is going to die either way. You can choose the manner of that death. By slow torture - and Shrinker is the best - or death by firing squad. You see, I believe that he can't tell me about the Liberator, that he knows nothing of value, and that without him it will not be long before my space fleet captures or destroys it. While you... I know you can give me useful information. It is up to you."
"You can't," Blake protested, but he knew that she could.
"Do not be foolish, Blake, you spoil yourself. I know the rebels are planning something. I know you know all about it. You will talk or you will watch while Avon is tortured. Take him to his cell. You may have a little time to consider your reply."
The mutoids had marched the shocked and appalled Blake out when Servalan's intercom sounded again. "Yes?"
"Madame President, your personal flyer is here."
"Yes, Madame. You wanted to check the arrangements for the reception personally."
"Very well. Tell the pilot we want flight plans for tomorrow."
"Tomorrow." She cut the connection. Normally she would have been furious with Leese for taking such liberties, but not today. Not when she had Avon and Blake in her grasp, to play with as she willed. Blake would tell her all she wanted to know; his personality profile proved he would not allow Avon to be hurt for his sake. Then later, when the rebels here on Earth were dealt with, she would use Blake to work on Avon. Servalan considered a moment longer, the re-opened the communications channel.
"Madame President?" The response was immediate and contrite. Leese was aware he had overstepped the accepted boundary.
"Has Shrinker been given his orders with respect to the prisoner Avon?"
"Very well." She cut the connection. "Let it begin." Shrinker was very good at his job. Avon would suffer if Blake did not talk, but Servalan had no doubt Blake would surrender. He would suffer a great deal for his cause, but he would not watch Avon suffer. All the psych reports confirmed that, and when she was finished with the rebels here, Avon and Blake would give her the Liberator. She had failed with Avon on Sarran, something for which he would pay dearly, and soon, but she had the measure of his price now.
Blake sat on the ledge that pretended it was a bed, head in hands, his mind racing in circles. He could not tell Servalan what the rebels were doing - so many people would die if he did so - but he couldn't watch someone else hurting for his beliefs. If Avon believed it too, it might not have been so bad. Avon, he knew, would suffer for what he believed in, for people he knew, but for strangers? Avon never had any time for the nameless rabble. Blake had to choose. The lives of a number of rebels, people he didn't really know, had never met for the most part, against the suffering of a man he called his friend. He knew which way his heart wanted to jump. The thought of watching Avon hurt actually made him feel physically sick, but to talk was to condemn Avon to death, an idea with no more appeal. There was no good on either side: hope only one way. Abruptly, that made up Blake's mind. He would keep silent, not simply to protect the people he did not know, but who believed as he did, but because he would not condemn Avon to death and because he still believed that 'where there's life there's hope.' He would not give Servalan the information she wanted; he would allow Avon to suffer in the hope a chance for escape would come. He would take the chance for life, however small it was and whatever the cost. Avon would understand the reasoning, and if he did not, it as still better that Avon should live, even hating him, than that he should die.
Blake jumped as the door to his cell opened and a man walked in.
"Get up," the guard ordered. Blake obeyed, considering for a moment jumping his visitor. However he could see other guards outside the cell, and then Servalan walked in.
"Have you decided to cooperate?" she asked.
"Go to hell," he replied.
Servalan smiled. It was as she expected. Blake didn't really believe she would do as she promised. "Oh, Blake, you have no idea, do you? It is Avon you have condemned to hell." She turned away abruptly. Again Blake considered acting. He knew he didn't have a hope of succeeding, that getting himself killed was probably the best result he could expect, but if he were dead, they could not use him to hurt Avon. Then she was gone, the moment passed. A guard pushed him in the back.
"Move," he barked. Blake shuffled forward, still looking for a way out and finding none. A door opened in front of him and he was pushed inside. The room was bare save for a chair set with restraint straps facing a blank viewscreen. An observation room, Blake realised. He was forced into the chair and the restraints were applied. Trapped now, able to do nothing to help either himself or Avon, haunted by thoughts of what was to come, plagued by doubts about his decision, by the fact he might have misjudged Servalan, that she could be capable of worse things than he believed, Blake waited.
The interrogator was speaking a he came to stand in front of Blake. "All you have to do is answer my questions. Simply indicate you are ready to speak and this will stop. Otherwise it continues as long as he lives."
"You won't kill him," Blake stated with a certainty he wished he felt.
"You think not?"
Blake opened his mouth to reply; when the screen in front of him came to life, he closed it with a snap. This wasn't a viewscreen, he realised. He wasn't even going to be able to console himself with the fact that he was divorced from the action. It was simply a glass wall and he was looking directly into the interrogation room. There would be no camera tricks here, no doubting it was real. He was to see it all, as it happened.
A stocky, darkly bearded man was checking some equipment in the other room. He glanced their way briefly. "Are you ready?" he asked. The man with Blake activated the wall communicator.
"Yes," he said. He glanced at Blake, who shook his head. "Blake is being uncooperative."
"Good. I hate to waste my time," the other replied. He moved to the door and spoke briefly to one of the guards. The man left, returning moments later with Avon.
Blake couldn't help but react to Avon's arrival. The other was flanked by guards, not to watch him but apparently to see he stayed on his feet. He was dressed in a dirty prison coverall, the twin of Blake's, barefoot, unshaven and most unlike the fastidious man Blake remembered from the Liberator. His hands were bound behind his back and he ought to have been a picture of defeat, but as he came into the room he straightened and looked around, carefully appraising the contents, occupants and even the mirrored glass that covered one wall. In that cold stare directed just for a moment directly at him, Blake saw the man he knew. A chill crept along his spine as Avon's eyes appeared to meet his in cold disdain, but Avon showed no sign of recognition, no sign hat he had seen anything at all. Blake realised that from Avon's side the glass was probably a mirror.
Avon recognised the mirrored wall for what it was. Someone would be watching all of this, unseen. That someone would, he assumed, be Servalan. She would enjoy this after Sarran and that debacle on the Liberator, of that there was no doubt in Avon's mind. Suddenly he felt quite sick. A black clad man stepped into his field of view, and Avon looked at him.
"I hear you haven't been cooperating," the man asked him softly.
Avon hesitated for a moment, watching the mirror. He didn't like providing entertainment. Still, he had chosen this hand; now he had to play it. "What's the matter?" he asked bitterly. "Did I bleed on the wrong bit of floor?"
Blake's stomach cramped at Avon's question. He didn't hear the interrogator's reply, but Avon's quiet "Don't let me detain you," was pure spite. Avon hadn't surrendered anything yet, Blake realised. He watched as Avon studied the dark man for a moment, straining to hear what was said.
"You wouldn't be Shrinker, by any chance?" Avon asked.
"You've heard of me," Shrinker said, waving Avon's guards to take him towards the waiting chair. Blake, watching Avon's face, was puzzled to see something like relief flash in his eyes at the other's confirmation of his name.
"I was waiting for you," Avon said. He couldn't help the relief that was surging through his veins, though he knew it was most inappropriate. He couldn't signal the Liberator now. Even if his hands had been free, he couldn't call the others down into the middle of this. He was almost finished, however, and with an end in sight perhaps the present would be just a little more bearable. He glanced backwards to look at Shrinker's face. The expression was hungry. "Then again," he muttered, "perhaps not."
"That says more for your nerves than your brains," Shrinker replied.
Avon turned properly. "You think so?" he asked, reflecting that Shrinker could very well be right. One of the guards unfastened the restraints from Avon's wrists and pushed him towards the chair. Avon went along with it. At the last minute, Shrinker spoke.
"Wait." He glanced up to where he knew Blake was watching. "Soften him up a bit," he suggested to the guard. The guard was surprised. In his opinion the prisoner was softened up quite enough. However, as his company commander would say, 'orders is orders.' He glanced across at his partner and shrugged.
Avon was aware enough to react to Shrinker's orders, but there was little he could do to resist or evade the guard's blows. One grabbed him from behind while the other punched. They avoided his face, going instead for his chest and abdomen. When he was finally released, Avon dropped to his knees, but that didn't stop them.
Blake's companion moved closer to him as the beating began. "How can you let this go on?" he asked Blake softly. "This man is your friend. How can you let them do this to him? One word from you and it will stop," the voice went on, softly persuasive, and Blake couldn't shut it out, just as he couldn't shut out the events in the other room. He gripped the arms of the chair, fingernails digging into the uncompromising metal, sickened and afraid, but he didn't look away.
Finally Shrinker called a halt. He looked at the shivering heap on the floor, then across at the monitor. The light still shone red - Blake still wasn't talking. "Get him up," he ordered. The guards pulled Avon to his feet, but he couldn't stand. As soon as they let him go, he collapsed, hitting the floor hard, and was sick. Ever fastidious, Shrinker stepped rapidly away from the mess. "Strip him to his waist," he said, and glanced again at the monitor. "I need a little flesh to work with. And get him in the chair." He turned then to the instrument tray, standing for a long moment regarding the laser probe that lay there. He liked to use that, but Servalan wanted Avon recoverable, at least for the moment. Reluctantly, Shrinker picked up a neural sensor rod and turned to face his subject.
Blake wasn't watching Shrinker; his attention was fully taken up with Avon and he was horrified by what he saw. Avon's flesh, when exposed, was a mass of cuts, some still bleeding, and numerous bruises. A burn ran across his right shoulder, days old and untreated, and helped explain the guards' attention to that area during the beating.
"Look at him," the voice at his elbow said, tempting, beguiling in its soft intensity. "He's been to hell already. How can you let this go on?"
"No," Blake said, and it was the hardest thing he ever did.
Avon, semi-aware, was forced into the chair. He hurt and he held on to that hurt and to growing bewilderment in order to stay conscious. He was puzzled, because although he was still being hurt, they hadn't asked him anything. For days his life had consisted of pain and questions. Now there was still pain, but the questions had stopped. It didn't make sense. He became aware of Shrinker; the interrogator was standing in front of him with something in his hand. He didn't consider what the something might be; he hadn't helped before, knowing what they were using to hurt him. It didn't make the pain any less. But this was different, he remembered. This was Shrinker.
"I have nothing to tell you," Avon said. Talking was difficult, he found. He couldn't seem to breathe properly round the fire in his chest, the ache in his abdomen. He saw Shrinker smile slightly. The touch of the neural stimulator to the burn was pure agony. It drove out his mind in one blinding white flash; a flash that swallowed everything. Avon screamed, arching against the bindings that held him to the chair, tearing the skin at his ankles and wrists.
Blake had bitten his lip. He could feel a thin trickle of blood on his chin, taste salt in his mouth, but it didn't hurt. He hadn't felt anything since Avon screamed. Avon wasn't screaming now, though his body shook convulsively, but the sound still seemed to echo round the room.
"The pain won't stop, you know," Blake's tormenter said. "It can be kept at that level, or even higher, for days before there is actual damage save that which already exists. How can you let him suffer this?"
Unable to speak, Blake shook his head.
Again Shrinker applied the stimulator, seeming to push it into the burn. Avon's cry was sharp, but he choked it own, trying for control. The first shock had taken him by surprise; now he knew what was coming. To be honest it wasn't the worst he had endured recently, but that didn't seem to help, didn't seem o make it any easier. Shrinker probed further. Avon jerked as if to pull away, but there was nowhere to go. Then Shrinker pulled back. Avon gave a sort of sob and slumped in the chair.
Shrinker paused a moment, considering. Avon was still conscious, but not fully aware so he gave him time to collect himself. If he were after information, now would have been the time to ask. Now, while the memory of the pain was still fresh and the senses confused, but that wasn't what this was about. Blake was the one who mattered. The longer Shrinker could keep Avon conscious and aware with the pain levels high, the more likely Blake was to capitulate. He allowed Avon the time he needed.
Avon shook his head to clear it, blinking to get the sweat out of his eyes. His chest felt as if it were on fire. The burn was hurting, he thought, more than it had when inflicted, something he wouldn't have thought possible. He was hot and tired and thirsty. Avon looked up to find Shrinker smiling down at him. The man's tongue shot out like a snake's tasting the air. Briefly he licked his lips. Avon shivered.
Blake was shaking, his knuckles white as he clutched the arms of the chair, and still the soft voice of his tormenter droned on. Now he was describing what else would be done to Avon. How it would feel. Telling him how easy it was to stop it all. Blake shook his head, not trusting his voice anymore. This couldn't go on much longer. Avon was almost unconscious now; to continue if he passed out was pointless, and they weren't going to kill him. Avon had to be too important to be allowed to die, he had to be. Blake clung to that.
Shrinker was ready when Avon recovered enough to once more take in his surroundings. He picked up a simple medical laser and held it before Avon's face, lose enough to be a threat even switched off.
"Do you know what this is?" he asked. Avon shook his head, turning his face away. Shrinker nodded to one of the guards, who ambled over.
"No," Blake protested to his tormenter, the first word he had spoken for some time. Sensing the nearness of his collapse, the other drew closer to him.
"Tell me your plans," he whispered seductively. "That's all you have to do, and I will stop this, let you talk to your friend."
Blake twisted to look at him. "No," he repeated, but it was only a tiny refusal now; he was very close to breaking point. The other man smiled - he was really rather enjoying this.
"A laser probe," Avon's voice came then, soft and afraid. Blake turned back to the glass, horrified and yet mesmerised by the scene as it unfolded. The guard was standing behind Avon now, holding his head still.
"That's right. A laser probe," Shrinker encouraged. "I'm going to burn out your eyes." This was a calculated gamble; he couldn't disobey Servalan's orders regarding this man, but it paid off. For the first time he saw fear in Avon's eyes. Avon believed him and Shrinker had no doubt that Blake did too.
Avon attempted to turn his head away, but the guard held him still. Burn out your eyes. Shrinker's words echoed in his mind. To blind him! He was afraid and he knew it had shown, that Shrinker knew his fear. He swallowed it down. To show fear was to let them win and he weren't going to win. But to blind him! If only there was a chance to call the others - but he couldn't do that here, not now. And later, later when he was blind and helpless, he couldn't do it then, either. Avon realised that he had miscalculated, and the fear was replaced by a kind of resignation, and with that, oddly enough, came defiance. Avon looked straight at Shrinker and allowed the hate, the defiance, to show in his face. Shrinker hesitated. He was used to terror from his victims. He could despise them as they grovelled and begged, as they offered him anything for their lives or their sight. But not this man. This man simply waited, his face reflecting hatred and contempt. The stare was unnerving. Suddenly Shrinker wanted nothing more than to destroy those eyes which disturbed him so. He glanced briefly at the light - it still glowed red. Blake still wasn't talking. He turned back to that face, to face that stare, and knew he had to destroy it.
Blake half rose from his seat as Shrinker swept the probe downwards towards Avon's' face. He heard Avon scream, a shrill sound that choked off abruptly, and Blake collapsed backwards. Avon, too, was slumped in the chair, head down, unmoving. The guard grabbed a handful of hair jerking is head back to expose the burned and bleeding flesh to Blake's horrified eyes.
"Bastard," Blake said, unsure even as he said it if he meant one of the interrogators or was referring to himself.
Shrinker watched Avon for a moment. The man was out cold, hardly surprising considering the amount of pain the laser inflicted, and he hadn't exactly been 'fighting fit' to begin with. It ought to have made him feel better, to see the creature who had so disturbed him thus destroyed, but it didn't help at all.
"Shall I bring him round?" the guard who had held Avon's head asked.
Shrinker shook his head. "Take him back to his cell," he said. He glanced at the mirrored glass. "Blake, this will continue as soon as h is conscious, unless you decide to talk to me." There was no response. "Take him to his cell, too," Shrinker said finally.
A guard moved to clip the restraints that held Blake to his chair. The tormenter had moved away. Blake peered around the guard, watching the screen as Avon was released and dragged out of the other room.
"Up." The guard pulled him to his feet and shoved him towards the door. Blake stumbled slightly as he tried to walk; his legs were shaking as if he had been running too long. As the door opened in front of him, Blake realised that the men passing were the guards he had just seen with Avon, and that the unmoving lump they dragged between them was the unconscious form of his friend. He dived forward, away from his own guard, to fall to his knees in front of the other man. Avon was still unconscious, his head hanging. Blake reached out with shaking hands to hold Avon, lifting his head so he could see his face. A guard moved to intervene, but Shrinker waved him back.
"Avon?" Blake said, appalled as he finally saw Avon's face. One side was masked with bright red blood which ran freely from his horribly injured right eye. "Oh God, I'm sorry," he whispered to the unresponsive man, moving his thumbs as if to caress the ruined face. Shrinker nodded once and the guard who had moved before thudded the butt o his gun between Blake's shoulder blades. Blake fell forward, releasing Avon, whose guard dragged him on. Twisting on the floor, Blake was able to watch as they hauled him into a nearby cell.
"Very touching," a voice taunted him. Blake twisted further to find Shrinker leering down at him. "It might have been more convincing, however, if I didn't know you could have stopped all of it at any time. What kind of a man are you?"
"Why you..." Blake launched himself at Shrinker, fully intending to tear the man's eyes out with his bare hands if he got the chance. Shrinker sidestepped him easily and the guard clubbed him to the floor.
Shrinker wiped the back of his hand across his mouth as he studied the furious man. "Take him to his cell," he said, and turned away.
As the guards pushed Blake into the cell, one of them spoke to him. "That wasn't very bright, you know," he advised. "You get him mad and he'll take it out on your friend. Still..." He considered. "Maybe that's how you like it, eh? Rather his skin than yours?" The door slid shut on Blake's enraged face before he could respond.
Blake collapsed onto his cot. He was shaking with impotent anger. He tried to slow his breathing, to control the response, but it didn't help one bit. He wanted to stop this, he wanted to personally tear Shrinker limb from limb, he wanted to tell them everything and beg them to let him talk to Avon, but he couldn't give way. Not when Sula's plans were so close to completion. Anyway, it was too late; Avon was blinded. The idea was too horrible to contemplate, but it was done now. To surrender would be to make that sacrifice a vain one, and he couldn't do that. Very soon now Servalan would know the full extent of their plans, would understand why he had kept silent. Bleakly, Blake wondered if even that was worth the price that had just been paid.
Servalan listened with interest to Shrinker's report as it was relayed to her personal shuttle en route to Residence One. She bitterly regretted missing the interrogation, but the meeting with the heads of the Federation policy committee could not be put off, and it most certainly could not be allowed to take place in her absence. She consoled herself with thoughts of what she could do with Avon and Blake when she returned to the capitol. Explaining to Avon that it was Blake's fault he had been hurt would be a real joy and would, she had no doubt, go a long way towards bringing him round to her point of view. If it didn't, however, she had a second plan of attack - introducing Avon to Sula Chesku. Perhaps if he proved really recalcitrant, Servalan thought, he would have Sula replace Shrinker as interrogator. Now that would really be interesting. Servalan smiled and drew a blood red fingertip across her lips. She was very much looking forward to seeing Kerr Avon broken and was certain she had the means to do it.
Blake tried banging on his door, demanding to se Avon, but the guard who eventually turned up simply shook his head. Unless, of course, Blake wanted to talk first. Dispirited, Blake turned back to his bunk and sat down. Worry and anger gnawed at him mercilessly and every time he closed his eyes he could see the blood and burn on Avon's face.
He was still slumped on the cot, head in hands, when he heard the door click open. He groaned quietly. It couldn't be time already. He didn't move as a single guard walked into the cell and stopped, staring down at him.
"Blake," the guard hissed. "Damn you, man, will you get up? The tape will only cover us for another ten minutes."
As the sound of his voice registered, Blake looked up. "Grant?" he asked, disbelieving. The guard moved closer.
"Who the hell were you expecting?" Grant asked. "What have they done to you?" Blake got to his feet and the look on his face made Grant regret asking the question. "OK, forget I said that. We have to move."
"Only you?" Blake asked as he took the gun Grant offered him.
"Only me," Del Grant confirmed. He pushed the helmet off slightly to show his face. "Satisfied?" Blake nodded. "Good. Can we go now? The surveillance loop won't last much longer." Grant pushed Blake out the door, pulled the face plate of his helmet back down, and locked the door. The closer things looked to normal when the cameras came back on, the better. He sighed heavily as Blake turned the wrong way. "It's the other way out," he told the other man. Blake shook off the restraining hand, only stopping when he reached the door of another cell. "Can you open it?" he asked Grant.
"We haven't time to free all the prisoners," he protested, "I'm sorry, I feel for them too, but I..."
"Grant, open the door," Blake demanded.
for getting mixed up with this crazy man. He opened the door easily with his stolen key, only to be pushed roughly aside as Blake entered the cell. Grant followed more slowly. There was a lump on the cot. A man, dressed in local costume, dirty prison overall. He had his back to the door and didn't react as Blake barged his way over.
"We can't carry anyone," Grant protested. Blake ignored him. Reaching out, he grasped the prisoner's shoulder and rolled him over. "Avon!" Grant exclaimed, shocked. He recognised the other despite the blood, He moved to join Blake, allowing the door to close behind him.
"Makes a difference, doesn't it?" Blake asked. He shook Avon lightly, trying to wake him.
"Just enough of a difference to get us killed." Grant muttered. But he had no intention of leaving Avon behind, even if Blake had given him that option.
Avon stirred lightly under Blake's shaking, lifting an arm to ward off the expected blow.
"Avon, it's all right," Blake reassured him, taking the raised hand in his own. "We're here to help you."
"Blake?" Avon asked as he tried to open his eyes. The right one was swollen shut and it hurt. He moved a hand as if to touch it and the hand was held by another. Disoriented, he looked up. Blake felt sick. Close up and in the light, the injury looked dreadful. Avon's face was swollen and burned.
"We have to move, now," Grant said. "You'll have to carry him. Can you do that?" he asked Blake.
"The alternative is leaving him here," Blake replied. "What the hell do you think?"
"No," Avon protested. He was afraid, in pain and in darkness. He could hear voices, voices of people he knew, but they couldn't be here. He forced himself to sit up and almost fell again as the pain in his head increased. Strong arms held him, freely offering support. "Can't see," he told the owner of those arms, and lifted a hand to explore his face. Someone caught hold of that hand.
"You've been hurt, Avon," Blake's voice told him. "We haven't time for explanations; we have to get out of here now."
"No," Avon protested. "Must wait for Shrinker." The words came out slurred, as if he had been drinking.
"What the hell! Wait for Shrinker? What does he mean?" Grant asked. Blake shrugged.
"Must wait for Shrinker," Avon insisted. "He's hurting her."
"Her?" Blake demanded urgently. "Who's 'her', Avon? Cally?"
Avon shook his head. "Anna," he said very softly.
Blake looked at Grant, who had paled noticeably. "Anna's dead, Avon," he said gently, and moved closer.
"Yes," Avon hissed. He reached out one hand. Peering lopsidedly at Del Grant, he grabbed the other's shoulder and pulled him down closer. "He did it," he told Grant. "Shrinker. Got to stop him."
"Oh hell, Avon," Grant whispered. He closed his own hand over the one that clutched his shoulder, ignoring the bloody marks it left.
Blake sat on the bunk and put a gentle hand around Avon's shoulder, half afraid to touch lest he hurt the other man further. The sight of the burn and bruises across Avon's chest and shoulder were still bright in Blake's memory. He looked up at Del Grant and saw compassion for Avon in his eyes - as well as anger. "We have to go now, Del," he reminded him.
Grant nodded and pulled away, taking his eyes from Avon's ruined face with difficulty. "Yes," he agreed, but before he could do more, there was a soft sound at the cell door. The sound of the lock clicking open in response to the insertion of the real key. Grant waved Blake over to the door and moved to cover the other side. Avon didn't seem to react at all.
Avon remained on the bed. Blind and confused, he didn't wonder at the sudden departure of Blake and Grant. He'd been seeing things for some time now. He did, however, offer brief thanks that it had been a benevolent vision this time. Not like the times he had seen Anna, body broken and twisted, eyes filled with fear and hate - and pain. Vaguely, he registered a sound that might have been gunshots, but they didn't begin to intrude on his dark, private domain.
Blake and Grant waited, one either side of the door as it slid open and a guard walked in, followed by a single member of the interrogation team.
"Ready for another session, are you?" the interrogator said before he realised that Avon was not alone. The guard went for his gun but he was too slow. Blake shot him and the interrogator made a dive out the door. Grant followed, killing him. Out in the corridor were two more guards and another interrogator. Del Grant killed both guards and aimed his gun at the unarmed man. The interrogator raised his hands in surrender. It was Shrinker. Avon's words ran through his mind. This was the man who had killed Anna. Avon never got his facts wrong. Grant lifted his gun.
Blake appeared at the doorway, Avon hanging onto his shoulder, as Grant pulled the trigger.
"Grant," he protested. "He wasn't armed."
"That," Grant told him, "was Shrinker."
"Shrinker?" Avon's head came up, blindly seeking the man he had come to kill.
"He's dead," Grant told him. Blake moved closer to the corpse, pulling Avon with him, and now he could see it was the man who had blinded Avon.
"Who?" Avon asked, attempting to focus on Grant. "I want to..."
"I did," Grant told him. "Anna was my sister." Avon seemed to accept that and allowed Blake to pull him away from a corpse he couldn't even see.
"Where?" Blake asked Grant.
"The waste disposal." At Blake's look of fastidious horror, Grant couldn't help but grin. "Beggars can't be choosers," he said, shrugging, and Blake could hear the grin in his voice even if he couldn't see it through the helmet.
"Tell him that," he said, indicating Avon. Grant didn't reply.
"I have an old plan of this place. It should be possible to use the old cellars to get out of here. If we use the right disposal chute, anyway."
"And if we don't?" Blake asked. Grant's reply, whatever it might have been, was drowned as the security alarms went off. Avon jumped.
"Easy," Blake calmed him.
"My tape just ran out," Grant said unnecessarily. "We have to move, this way, now." He grabbed Avon's other arm, making the man moan in pain. Grant's expression was apologetic, but they didn't have time for refinements. The lock he had placed on the outer doors wouldn't hold long, then the place would be crawling with guards.
Even with Grant's help, moving Avon wasn't easy. The man was confused and hurt and not at all cooperative. Blake was himself bruised and sore. He was fairly certain one of the early sessions had broken a rib, and that was making itself felt now in no uncertain terms. They stumbled a few steps when Grant had an idea. The plan of the prison had included quite a lot of information about the type of people held in this particular set of cells.
"Keep going that way," he told Blake, pushing a small plastic sheet into his hand. "The plan's on that."
"What are you going to do?"
"Create a diversion," Grant told him.
"I'll catch up with you," Grant promised, and he meant it. Heroic suicidal gestures were no more his forte than they were Avon's. "Just get him out of here."
As soon as Blake was moving, Grant went to the first cell door and opened it. Pushing it wide, he didn't even bother to look inside.
"You're free," he shouted as he moved on to the next door. "Now get out." He had opened about eight doors, paying no more attention to the cells' occupants than he had to the first, when the outer door crashed open and the guards appeared. Grant pressed back against the wall as the troopers took in the scene.
Grant's actions had freed about twelve prisoners. They were very confused, in various states of undress and of health. They filled a narrow corridor with a noisy, dirty tide of abused humanity. They had been concentrating their attentions on the bodies. One, a young woman, was repeatedly kicking Shrinker's corpse while tears rained unchecked down her face. Blood now spattered her feet and legs, which were bare. No one had made any attempt to talk to Grant or to escape. Abruptly, a man near the door spotted the stunned guards, and with a cry, he threw himself at the first. He actually managed to knock the guard down before anyone else could react. The guard disappeared under stamping feet as his companions came to life, shooting his attacker. Grant smiled grimly. The noise and general chaos should keep the guards busy for a while. It might even hide the fact someone had actually escaped, at least briefly. How he had to find Blake and Avon.
Blake half carried, half dragged Avon round a corner as Grant had insisted. He didn't know what Grant was up to, but he trusted the man's judgement and his word. He would come after them.
Avon was semi-conscious, not really aware of what was happening at all, but he knew he was being forced to keep moving and that moving hurt. He tried to pull away from the man who hauled him along and failed. The other was far too strong and determined. Anyway, he couldn't see properly, didn't know where he was, barely remembered who he was. Hard as he tried, a blood red haze seemed to cover everything. Avon blinked, but it wouldn't clear, and the pain from his right eye was almost unbearable. He tried to break free again from the other man.
"Avon, stop fighting me," Blake gasped out. He was exhausted, and fighting Avon was rapidly becoming too much. He hurt too.
"Blake?" Avon twisted as if to look at him, but his eyes were closed.
They had reached the hatch marked on Grant's plan. Blake lowered Avon to sit on the floor and looked back. There was still no sign of Grant and Blake could hear odd noises, but no sounds to indicate that the guards had arrived. He turned his attention back and keyed the hatch open. The smell that escaped made him gag and turn his head away, fighting the urge to be sick. Once his stomach was stable, he bent to kneel in front of Avon, who hadn't moved, his head slumped forward onto his chest. Concerned, Blake reached to touch him. Avon flinched away from the gentle contact, a groan escaping him.
Avon had been quite happy; the moving had stopped, and with it a little of the pain. He was so tired and glad of the rest, he had no curiosity as to why they had stopped or even who was with him. It was rather difficult to care about anything at the moment. To care meant to think and Avon wasn't sure he wanted to do that just now.
"Avon, I'm going back to find Grant," Blake said. Avon's moan convinced him he was awake. Now all Blake had to do as get his attention, and get him to understand what was happening.
Apparently he did. Avon grabbed Blake's arm. "No?" he asked.
"I'll be back," Blake promised. "You have to go down the chute, it's the only way out. It's a slide, so that bit's easy." Blake didn't mention the smell. "But the landing might be a little rough. Avon, you have to stay awake." He reached under Avon's arms and lifted him to his feet, at the same time turning him towards the open hatch. Blake hated to do this, to send Avon off on his own, but they might be in a hurry when he came back with Grant. Avon shied away from the hatch, gagging at the small. "It's the only way out of here," Blake repeated, sitting him on the edge of the opening. The smell was worse now, almost overpowering. Blake turned Avon slightly, so he wouldn't have to go down head first, and Avon grabbed his shoulder. Blake twisted his head to look at Avon's face, something he had been avoiding. Avon looked terrible, his eyes screwed shut, his features obscured by blood. "Oh Avon..." Blake moaned softly. "Of all the places..." A gun shot sounded from round the corner. Blake pushed Avon, who made a futile grab for him, then turned back to find Del Grant.
As he ran, Blake pulled the gun from his belt. He was, he thought, ready for anything, but when he turned the corner, he froze. It was like a scene from hell. The hall was filled with people, all fighting the guards, or each other or simply milling backwards and forwards, and the guards were shooting them remorselessly. Corpses strewed the floor, the living slipping in the blood of the dead and dying, or stumbling over sprawled limbs, uncaring.
Del Grant barrelled into him, knocking him backwards into the wall.
"I told you to get out," he hissed, pushing himself away from Blake.
"I thought you might need help," Blake explained, firing past Grant at the guard who was closest.
Grant twisted to look. "Thanks," he said. "Now I think we ought to go."
"Agreed," Blake said. Then Grant crashed into him hard, his full weight slamming Blake into the wall once more, knocking the breath from him. "What the..." Blake began. He grabbed Grant's elbows as the other man slumped. One glance, however, told Blake that Grant was dead. He let go and the body slumped to the floor. Blake stared down for a long moment, then a noise made him look up. One of the guards had a clear shot at him. He wasn't sure if this was the man who had killed Grant, but it was certainly the man who would kill him. Blake remembered the gun he held, but it was pointed down, while the guard's blaster was trained directly on him. From barely eight feet away, he couldn't miss.
The woman who had been kicking Shrinker's corpse chose that moment to look up. She saw the black clad man and dimly, in what was left of her mind, she remembered such men as this had killed her family, had hurt her. With a scream that wasn't really human, she launched herself at the figure from her nightmares.
The guard's shot went wild as the woman clawed at his face. He had lost his helmet in the original melee, and she drew blood, narrowly missing his eyes.
"You bitch!" he shouted, pushing her against the wall. He lifted his gun, but didn't have the chance to fire as Blake shot him.
"Come on," Blake shouted to the women, but she ignored him, intent now upon her new victim. This one was more fun that the other; it moved when she kicked its face and stamped on its fingers.
Blake realised that more guards would arrive any minute, that there was really only this one chance for him and for Avon. He had to go now. Avon needed him. He didn't know yet how badly Avon was hurt, but it was certain he wouldn't survive if Blake got himself killed. Knowing the scene from that corridor would haunt him forever, Blake turned back to follow Avon.
Blake's push had sent Avon careering he knew not where. He couldn't see and he hurt; his head, his side, everywhere. The stench was appalling. His frantic grab for Blake had been an attempt to prove to the other man that he was still alive, for it seemed to Avon that he was being forced down into the grave, pushed downwards into darkness, a darkness that stank of death and decay.
"I am not dead," he shouted as he fell away from Blake, or at least he thought he shouted; he couldn't swear any noise came out. Anyway, perhaps he was dead. Blake wouldn't bury him, condemn him to this hell, if he were alive. Perhaps that was what was wrong with his eyes, why the world seemed so dark. There was hardly any light at all, and what there was was the colour of blood. Abruptly, his journey ended. The stop was shocking, taking his breath, and his ribs ached so much that he wasn't sure of it was worth taking another, but he did it anyway, just to see if he could. The smell was all round him now, sickly and overpowering. The smell of death. He was pressed close against something, a long plastic shape, cold to the touch and carrying that smell with it. Revolted, Avon pushed away slightly, but he didn't seem to have the energy anymore. He decided to be still a moment, to sort out what was happening. If this was death, if he was really dead, and there didn't seem to be much doubt about that at the moment, then there wasn't really much point in doing anything more.
The menial, Aric, moved slowly back to his work and Seth, his supervisor, sighed in relief. There was a backlog of 'greys' on the rack. They had to get them cleared or the masters would not be pleased. Seth's tiny figure danced around Aric, urging the slow giant on, then turned to open the heavy door to the furnace. The heat and light of the flames lent the vast chamber even more of an aspect of hell than before, but neither Seth nor Aric could appreciate that. Hell was not a thing they understood; the very concept of such a place required much more imagination than the pair of them could muster. Aric couldn't even speak; he was no more than a work animal, a genetic mistake, hardly human. And as befitted his state, he was kept all day chained to a task no one else would do, a task he didn't understand the reason for, barely recalling what it was unless he was actually doing it, and even then Seth had to keep reminding him. They worked together, with a number of others, all day in a vast chamber illuminated only by the light of the flames they fed. The room was old, dark, hot, and it stank of death, but they knew no other world than that of the incinerators, and they never would. They had no rights, no purpose other than this one thing. 'Lift the greys and put them in the flames, four at a time, in each of the fires,' was a litany drummed into Seth until it was second nature. Always there were the fires and always there would be greys to burn on them. Some days were busy; the flames kept high, the menials working all the time. Other days it was quieter, but they greys never stopped coming down one chute or another and there were a dozen all round the chamber, all ending on the metal shelf, all attended by the same subhuman monsters.
Avon lay on one of the shelves trying to breathe round the pain in his hest. The grating noise as the door to the furnace opened was almost painful and succeeded in rousing him a little. He forced open his eyes. The light, limited as it was, hurt, sending spikes of pure agony into his brain from his right eye. He lifted a hand to touch, but could not even bear the light contact of his own questing fingers.
Carefully, he cupped his hand to cover the eye, trying not to let the palm touch the tender flesh, and opened his left eye a little. It didn't help much.
It seemed to Avon that he had fallen into hell. All was darkness lit red by fire. Dimly, a shadow in the darkness came toward him. Ugly, like the demons of childhood stories, it served only to reinforce the image as it bent over him. Avon could hear it breathing, smell the hot, foul breath. He heard an animal grunt as it lifted one of the cold, grey things away from him and then stumbled with its burden towards the fires.
Avon tried to move when he heard the monster coming back, but his vision was fading an the fire in his chests growing. The thing lifted a second grey shape from his side, the shape he had first felt when he arrived here, and as it did so the grey covering peeled away. A naked human arm, shoulder and head flopped out to dangle obscenely over Avon. Shocked, he threw up an arm to knock it away. Cold fingers trailed across his face, then were gone as Aric turned towards the fire. The arm lapped against the giant's back, but he didn't seem to notice. The shock and attempt to protect himself proved too much for Avon's fragile consciousness. As the darkness claimed him, he felt almost relieved. At least the devil wouldn't have his screams to feast upon when they threw him into the fire. Even in his death, Kerr Avon would keep his dignity.
Aric paused when he returned to the shelf of greys. The thing that lay there now was different. It wasn't a grey and anything outside his normal routine bewildered him. He had no way to cope with the unexpected. He reached out and grasped the thing's chin in his large, clumsy hand. Turning Avon's head this way and that, he tried to puzzle it out. Sometimes the greys had bits like this, but this grey was all bits. Seth shouted at him and Aric, his curiosity gone, picked the thing up. Roughly, he tossed Avon across his shoulder and turned towards the fire.
At the hatch, Blake paused to set the controls to lock it after he was gone. It might just give them a little more time. He stopped again when he sat on the ledge and the smell hit him. To pitch oneself feet first into a darkness that smelt like that was insanity, but Avon was down there, alone and injured, and it was the only way out. Blake let go of the edges and slid, just resisting the urge to cry out when the hatch shut and he was falling into darkness.
It truly was a descent into hell for Blake. At the end of his slide was a room of red darkness and stifling heat, filled with the smell of decay. He came to a halt on a long metal table and stayed there while he tried to get his bearings. Monstrous shapes moved slowly in the red light, casting odd shadows that shrank and grew with the flames. Blake couldn't take it all in at once; he hardly noticed the tiny creature, the only denizen of this chamber which reacted to his arrival. His attention was captured by one of the lumbering giants, a black silhouette against the flames.
"Where have you sent me, Grant?" He wondered out loud. "Hell itself?" He watched as one of the giants scooped up a sack, then turned towards the open furnace. With shock, Blake realised that the giants were all putting whatever came down the chutes into the fire, and he had sent Avon down here...
"Avon!" he called, hoping the other had moved out of danger's way, but doubting he had even realised the danger. The giant near the furnace closest to him half turned at the noise. The fires flared, illuminating the thing for a moment, reinforcing Blake's impression of a creature from hell, but they also lit the thing it carried so carelessly over his shoulder. Avon! "Stop!" Blake shouted, sliding off the table and lifting his gun. "Put him down!"
Aric hesitated. He could hear shouting, and shouting usually meant he was in trouble. He didn't understand anything save the first word, "Stop." He knew what that meant and he obeyed.
Blake relaxed a little as the giant stopped with Avon still across his shoulders. He was close to the fire still. Blake moved nearer and the tiny being he had barely registered appeared in front of him.
"The menial has offended, sir?" the creature asked. Blake realised it was a man, small and ill-formed but a human being none the less. It peered up at him anxiously. Clearly it saw him as one of the 'bosses' and it was afraid. Blake decided to use its mistake.
Seth was terrified. Here was one of the masters, where the masters never came, and that moron Aric was causing trouble. Why did he always have to get the really stupid menials. It just wasn't fair. He smiled ingratiatingly.
"I want that." Blake pointed at the giant. "Here."
"Yes master," the tiny man said and scuttled over to the giants. For a moment it seemed the giant was determined to toss Avon into the fire, then he turned and lumbered over to Blake. Blake had to crane his neck to see the creature's face; it was barely human, made worse by the darkness. Its eyes were slits of nothingness. No light glittered there, no curiosity, no anticipation, no interest. Sickened, Blake pointed to Avon's limp form, then the table.
"Put him down there." The giant hesitated and the tiny man stabbed at it with a small metal rod. Aric grunted in pain, then obeyed.
Blake had to dive forward to catch Avon's head before it slammed into the metal of the table. The giant had no more concern for his burden than if it were a corpse, which Blake fervently hoped it was not. The giant was still again when Avon was down. Not so the little man, who danced back and forward, watching Blake cradle Avon's head. "Something is wrong?" Seth asked him.
"No. Go back to work. Both of you," Blake told him. Seth nodded and turned to obey. Aric remained where he was until Seth poked at him with the rod again.
"Work," Seth said. Aric bent over Avon. "Not that," Seth said as Blake bent closer over Avon to protect him. "Other." Seth pushed at the giant. He might as well have pushed at a mountain for all the physical good it did, but Aric got the message and lumbered away.
Blake sighed with relief, then quested for a pulse in Avon's throat. He found it. "Avon," he said, gently shaking the man. In the red light, the blood on Avon's face and the top of the prison coverall looked black. "Come on, Avon. The chaos up there won't keep them busy for long. We can't afford to hang about." Avon stirred under his attentions, giving a groan of pain. So Blake shook him again.
Avon felt someone shaking him, but resisted waking up. Last time had hurt just too much; he wasn't sure he was ready for it again. Then he realised it was Blake's voice he could hear, Blake shaking him. He reached out and closed his hand over Blake's arm. Conscious now, he started to take things in. The vile smell was still there, as was the stifling heat and the roar of the flames.
"Followed me into hell, Blake?" he questioned softly. "Now isn't that going just a little too far?"
"This isn't hell, Avon," Blake told him. "But unless we move soon it might as well be." He pulled Avon into a sitting position. Avon came up with a gasp that might have been surprise but sounded more like pain, ending up with his head on Blake's shoulder. He was so still Blake feared he was out again. "Avon?"
"Still here," Avon muttered.
"Can you walk?"
"No," Avon replied, but he lifted his head and slid off the table all the same. "Can't see," he complained.
"It's very dark down here," Blake replied. He studied Avon. Standing, leaning against the metal table, he was on his feet, but for how long? Half of Avon's face was masked with black blood; the other half appeared blood red in the fire light, the flames casting and recasting shadows across his features. Blake had no way to know how long he would stay upright, and he didn't feel too bright himself.
"Where is here?" Avon asked him, half turning his way, but not opening his eyes.
"Waste disposal," Blake told him. "Grant's idea."
"Trust him," Avon muttered, and it sounded almost affectionate. "Where is he?" He peered round, blindly searching for the other man.
"He's dead," Blake said. Avon turned to look at him, but gave up when his eyes just would not open. He lifted a hand to rub at the right one, the one that hurt so much. Blake caught that hand, stopping him before he could make contact. "Leave it, Avon," he advised. "We have to get out of here now." He pulled Avon away from the support of the table, shouldering his full weight when Avon's knees buckled. Blake pulled Avon's arm across his shoulder and wrapped his own arm round his waist. Now all he needed was the way out.
The tiny man appeared in front of him. "For fire?" he asked, indicating Avon. Avon shifted slightly, pulling away from the prying hands,
"No," Blake said, shocked. "Which way is out?"
"Out?" the creature repeated blankly.
"Yes. Out of here, back to the upper levels."
"There." The creature pointed back up the waste disposal chute.
Blake sighed. "I was afraid you would say that."
"What?" Avon asked, the word slurred slightly.
"No way back," Blake told him.
"Don't want to go back," Avon replied. "It hurts." And his voice was very strange.
"I know it does," Blake soothed him as he would a child. He pulled Avon closer. His ribs ached and protested at the extra weight, but he ignored them. "Where do you go," he asked Seth, "when you're finished?"
"You want to see quarters?" Seth asked. Blake nodded. "Come. You." He pointed to Aric, who had taken the opportunity to squat against the wall. "Work." Aric lumbered to his feet in silent compliance as Seth showed Blake the way to his sleeping quarters.
The two men stumbled along behind the tiny creature. Avon was moving his feet but with little skill and no purpose. Blake struggled to hold them both up and follow the small man in the hellish gloom as he slipped past other beings who carried out their grim unending task, feeding the flames with neither thought nor pause, nor even a single glance at the injured men. A door slid open as Seth approached it and he stopped, pointing the way.
"Show us," Blake demanded.
"No. Not end of time," Seth replied. He started to turn back to his work. Blake grabbed him, his hand closing painfully on the skinny shoulder.
"Can't," Seth moaned.
"Leave him, Blake," Avon muttered. "He's terrified."
Blake let Seth go and the little man fled back to work. He would take his fear out on Aric later.
"So how do we find our way out?" Blake asked Avon, glad the man seemed himself again.
"Didn't Grant say anything?"
"He had a map," Blake remembered. He glanced back into the room for just a second, then moved so the door could close behind them. Once outside, he lowered Avon to the floor, leaning him against the wall, and squatted beside him. Blake studied the map he pulled from inside the prison coverall for a long time, trying to get his bearings. It showed the incinerator connected with an old sewage outlet, long disused (at least Blake hoped so), and that this, as long as it was still clear, led to the outside. Quite literally outside, Blake realised. This path would take them both outside the dome.
"Well?" Avon asked. Blake was surprised; Avon had been silent since he sat him down. He had thought the other man unconscious.
"There is a way out," Blake told him.
"And leave you?" Blake asked, not sure if he had heard correctly.
Avon leant his head back against the wall. "I have to wait for Shrinker," he said. The light was a little better out here than it had been in the furnace room and under its glare, to Blake's untrained eyes, Avon looked terrible.
"Shrinker is dead," Blake told him. "And even if he were not, I'm not leaving you." He put an arm round Avon's shoulders, pulled Avon's arm up across his own, and lifted him to his feet. Blake ignored the moan of pain this evoked, and Avon's ineffectual attempt to pull away. "Together," he told the other man.
Avon turned his head to look at Blake. His right eye was closed, encrusted with blood, the flesh round it swollen, burned and discoloured, but the left glared at Blake. Baleful, bloodshot and watering, it still got the message across. "I know, Avon, but that's the bargain," Blake told him. Now walk, or do I carry you?"
The walk was a nightmare for Blake. Avon, in his opinion, was lucky. Judging by his condition, he wouldn't remember most of it. For Blake, every detail was etched on his mind with horrible clarity: a slow, unsteady and painful stumble along a poorly lit corridor, always with the danger off pursuit and capture. Every so often they came across one of the lumbering giants and Blake jumped in alarm, but they paid the escaping prisoners no heed. Curiosity was just not a trait of their damaged minds. Very little that was human lived behind the heavy foreheads and dead eyes. Blake came to the conclusion that these things were soulless, even further from humanity than the mutoids, even less to be pitied than those modified soldiers of the Federation.
The corridor angled and twisted as its smooth walls became rough unfinished fibres, then still older materials, stone and brick, and still it went on. The light gradually dimmed and Blake began to stumble more often on the uneven ground. Each step jarred his ribs, and with each stumble Avon seemed to grow heavier, less able to help. The only indication Avon was still conscious was the fact that he still put one foot in front of the other, just about, and once, when Blake stumbled and really hurt himself, a concerned calling of his name checking he was all right.
They were in almost total darkness when the texture if the ground beneath their feet changed from artificial to natural, the feel of soil. The change took Blake by surprise. He stumbled and Avon fell, pulling them both down. Blake lay still a long moment in the darkness, getting his breath back and waiting for the red blackness that threatened his consciousness to recede. He pulled himself to his hands and knees at last and looked for Avon. The darkness wasn't total, whatever his first impression, and now his eye had adjusted he saw the dark shape of his companion huddled on the ground close by. He crawled over.
"Avon?" Blake asked, and shook the other's shoulder.
"Go," Avon replied. He sounded exhausted. Blake shook him again. "Leave me be."
"You can't stay here," Blake told him. "We have to go on."
"Why?" Avon asked. "It hurts." And it seemed to Blake as if a child was speaking, so unlike the man he knew was the tone of voice. The pleading and despair made his throat ache in empathy.
"I know it hurts," he told Avon gently. "But we can't stay." He rolled Avon onto his back, then lifted his shoulders, pulling him into a sitting position, allowing the other to lean against him.
"I can't," Avon said. He sounded a little more like himself now and Blake relaxed slightly. "Too tired. No point. Never really planned..." He stopped speaking.
"You giving up, Avon?" Blake asked him. He felt Avon's nodded reply. Tired, cold and hurting himself, Blake knew just how Avon must be feeling. He wrapped his arms round the other, laying his head against Avon's.
"I can't see," Avon told him. "I can't walk." He paused and drew a ragged breath. "I just can't do it anymore." He didn't mention that it hurt to breathe. A heavy weight seemed to press upon his chest all the time. Not did he confess to the terror his continuing blindness caused, He felt sick and dizzy, hot and tired and he just didn't ever want to move again.
"Avon, you have to keep going. Just a little further and we'll be outside."
"And then what?" Avon asked. He still sounded weary, but at least he was listening.
"Grant must have had something planned. Transport, something."
Avon shook his head. "No more."
"So that's it, then? You're giving in to the Federation, letting Servalan win, are you? I should have let that thing throw you into the furnace, shouldn't I?"
"That 'thing'," Avon said, drawing a deep breath, "was one of your huddled, enslaved masses. That 'thing' is the reason you got into this mess."
"And you? What's your excuse?" Blake demanded, grateful to at last have found a spark of fire in Avon.
"I was stupid," Avon replied.
"You don't want to tell me," Blake translated. Avon didn't deny it. He was still for a long time, then he slowly, stiffly began to climb to his feet. Blake moved with him, providing the strength when Avon's failed him. Once he was standing, Avon lifted a hand to his head, cradling it gently, but the ache didn't fade.
"Which way?" he asked. Silently, Blake wrapped an arm around his waist, ignoring the way he stiffened in resentment, and pulled them onwards.
Nothing was said for a long time. Both men were feeling the cost of the last few days. Avon's walk was slower than before, more clumsy, and Blake was less able to help him. His chest hurt with each breath, an each step was a supreme act of will, but he kept going because Avon kept going and they went on. The air changed gradually, becoming damp and cold and carrying with it a smell than neither man knew. There was a sudden scuttling noise and Blake had the impression something brushed against his ankles. The Avon stumbled, falling to his knees, his hands landing in cold water. Blake pulled him up again and carried on, mindlessly walking onwards.
"Where are we?" Avon asked, jerking Blake out of his reverie.
"An old sewer outlet," Blake told him. "It's not used any more, but it should connect with the outside."
"I wouldn't count on that," Avon muttered, but he didn't pursue the matter. The ache in his head was throbbing in time with his heart beat and it made thinking difficult. It seemed all right to lean on Blake now, to trust the other to find the way out. Avon knew he should be fighting all of this, but he couldn't find the energy, or even pull his thoughts together for long enough to form coherent sentences.
Gradually, the tunnel grew lighter and the thin trickle of water into which Avon had tumbled widened to a stream, until finally they had no choice but to get their feet wet. Avon balked at that idea at first.
"It's a sewer, Blake," he protested weakly.
"Disused, Avon," Blake reminded him. "It's just water." Avon was still doubtful, but he couldn't fight as Blake led him in. The water was icy, chilling both men almost at once. The air, too, was cold, and fresher than before. Up ahead Blake was certain he saw daylight. The thought of the open after so long a confinement spurred Blake on, gave him the strength to keep on, to keep Avon going, and then they were outside, standing free in the bright clear light of day. The tunnel emerged at the base of a sheer cliff, part natural stone, part old brick. The two men found themselves in an old river bed. A thin trickle of water - the stream from the tunnel - ran in the centre of a flat expanse of dried mud and rocks. The sides rose steeply, loose soil held up by the plants that grew in wild disorder everywhere. It was the middle of the day and reasonably warm. Blake thought he had never seen anywhere more lovely. Avon stumbled as they stepped out into the light.
"Perhaps we should rest here a while," Blake suggested. If this was Grant's way out, he was certain there would be someone waiting, or something nearby to help. No need to waste any more of Avon's clearly limited strength. Blake led Avon out of the water and towards a patch of sunlit grass and warm rocks. Gently he lowered Avon to sit against one of the rocks. "Wait here," he told him. "I won't be very long." Avon's lack of response alarmed Blake; he didn't know if Avon had heard him, let alone understood. He hated to leave him alone here, but there seemed little choice. Somewhere close by would be Grant's backup, and he had to find it.
Avon was relieved when Blake finally allowed him to stop moving; he was so tired. He heard Blake talking to him, but didn't even try to make sense of the words. Then Blake was moving away, leaving him. Just for a second Avon wanted to shout, to call Blake back. The moment passed, and then it didn't matter any more. Avon sagged back against the warm earth and allowed the darkness to take him.
Blake crossed the river bed, surprising himself a little by the ease with which he cleared the narrow stream, then regretting it as the landing jarred his ribs. He was still following Grant's map. As well as the path of the sewer and a brief, poorly detailed outline of the area outside, the map bore a symbol Blake recognised from long ago when he had worked with the Freedom Party on earth. It meant that nearby there was something he could use. Food perhaps, or transport, medical supplies, a communicator, something. He had been walking for about fifteen minutes when he arrived at the place indicated. He had been sure the cache would be transport, In that he was disappointed. Grant had clearly been working in a hurry. The spot indicated was a clump of some sort of low growing vegetation. Blake prodded about under the bushes for a while, once surprising some small animal he didn't recognise and which ran too quickly for him to have any hope of catching it for food. His first find cheered him a little - it was a kit of emergency food rations and a water bottle. Then he found a field medical kit of the type carried by Federation troops and a small short wave communicator. This was his first proof that Grant wasn't working totally alone, his first indication that he hadn't been abandoned by the rebels. He could have shouted with joy at this last find. They would be all right. Avon would be all right. Someone was waiting for Grant to call.
Clutching his precious collection close to his chest, Blake made his way back to Avon at a sort of stumbling run. He slid down the slope on the wrong side of the river and paused a moment to catch his breath. From here he could see Avon clearly. The other man lay just as he had left him. Then Blake noticed something odd. Although there was no wind, Avon's hair was moving, blowing across his face. With horror, Blake realised what the dark mass was. He dropped his supplies and ran across the water, waving his arm and shouting. The flies lifted from Avon's still form, hovering briefly over him, then were gone. Avon didn't move.
Blake stumbled to his knees at Avon's side. Avon couldn't be dead. Not now, not having come so far, not when he had the means to get them both out of this mess. His shaking fingers searched inexpertly for a pulse at Avon's throat, and he sagged in relief when he found it.
In the daylight, Avon looked bad. The right half of his face was a terrible mess of blood and dirt, his eye swollen shut and encrusted with dried blood, the flesh round it burned. To Blake's touch he felt clammy and his breathing was odd, strained. Blake vividly remembered the burn on Avon's shoulder and the bruises. He needed help and he needed it soon. Blake sat back on his heels and noticed for the first time the dark bruises and bloody abrasions on his own wrists, the ache as he breathed and the fire in his chest. His face and feet were scratched, and he was so very tired.
"Hang on, Avon," he muttered and trudged back across the river to collect his abandoned supplies. When he returned, Avon still hadn't moved. He put the food pack aside after taking a drink of the water. It tasted wonderful. Too warm and tainted with the plastic of the container, but Blake had never tasted better. He tried to get Avon to drink, but the other was too deeply unconscious and Blake gave up, afraid that he would drown him. He turned his attention to the medical kit. Its contents were pitiful, considering the condition of the two men, but it seemed to Blake a veritable treasure trove. Sterile wound dressing, painkillers, water purifiers, a small knife, antiseptic, even antibiotics. However Blake was no doctor and he had little idea what to do for the best result. Occupational first aid classes at work had never interested him; he knew the basics, but not much more. First he used the antiseptic to try to clean the wound on Avon's face. But the blood was dry and encrusted with dirt. He got nowhere. Giving it up as a bad job, he settled for just covering it to keep the flies and dirt away. The sight of those dirty insects feeding upon Avon's blood had revolted him. The thought they might do more - he had heard all the horror stories about maggots feeding on human flesh - made him sick. Once Avon's eye was covered, Blake pulled open the prison overall to expose the burn on Avon's shoulder. The injury had bled and the fabric stuck. As he pulled, he clearly hurt Avon, who gave a sharp cry, half coming to and pushing Blake away.
"Easy," Blake said, putting a restraining hand on Avon's shoulder. "It's only me."
Avon squinted open his eye. "I thought you'd gone," he muttered.
"No. Still here," Blake confirmed as he covered the burn with soft clean gauze. It was more than just a burn now, hot to the touch and weeping bloody pus. Blake didn't dare to do anything save cover it for fear of making it worse. "Thirsty?" he asked when he had done.
Avon had closed his eye, but he opened it now. "My face?" he asked, lifting a hand and gingerly exploring the bandage.
"Leave it," Blake advised, pulling the hand away to push the water bottle into it. "Do you want a drink?"
Avon nodded and tried to sit up. He failed, succeeding the second time as Blake lent an arm for support. Blake continued to hold him while he drank.
"Slowly," Blake advised. "You'll be sick." Avon lowered the bottle.
"Yes," Blake told him. "There's food, too, if you want."
Avon shook his head. "Tired," he offered by way of explanation. "Hot."
Blake was well aware that Avon was hot. He could feel the heat through his clothes. He allowed the other to settle back, using the water bottle himself to swallow a couple of painkillers. The ache in his ribs seemed to be growing with each breath. As he swallowed, Blake glanced across the river and saw the communicator lying just where he had left it. In his horror over the flies, he had forgotten all about it.
"I'll be back," he told Avon, but the other man didn't reply. The water was as icy as he remembered, and it made the cuts on his feet sting again. Briefly Blake wished that field first aid kits came with carpet slippers.
When he got back, Avon was curled over on his side. He looked to be sleeping, so Blake pulled the single grey blanket from the supplies and put it over him. Avon pushed it away crossly.
"Hot," he muttered.
"I know," Blake replied as he put the blanket back and sat next to Avon. He rested a hand for a moment on Avon's shoulder, holding the blanket until Avon settled again. Only then did he turn his attention to the communicator. It was a very basic short range model and Blake couldn't help but wonder who was at the other end. Avalon's group on Earth were all involved in Sula's planned attack on Residence One. All except Grant. Sula had been most insistent on that score and though it had seemed odd, both Blake and Avalon had gone along. The plan was Sula's; it was up to her who was best for the job. Blake had cause to be grateful for Sula's insistence now, as it had left Grant free to perform heroic rescues. And get himself killed, the voice of his conscience muttered. Blake pushed that thought aside. He couldn't dwell on Grant's death yet. There would be time enough for mourning the dead later; now was time for the living.
Avon shifted under the blanket, recalling Blake to their present problem. He thumbed open the channel. Nothing, no response at all, not even the hiss of static. Blake hit all of the controls in turn. There was no response; the thing was quite dead. He didn't know if it had been faulty to begin with, damaged where it was hidden, or if his less than gentle handling were at fault. All he knew for certain was that it was quite useless now. He flung it away in frustration, and anger, almost in tears as it smashed against a rock.
"Bloody useless thing," he shouted. Avon moved again, muttering something Blake couldn't understand, but he didn't waken.
Blake sat alone and dejected by the side of the river as dusk fell and the land darkened, and he wept. The tears were tears of rage and frustration as well as pain, regret and grief. He had lost. Whatever the outcome of the attack on Residence One, he wasn't going to see it. Avon wasn't fit to travel and he couldn't, wouldn't leave him, so here they stayed. As the darkness deepened and night began proper, Blake wound down. He was exhausted, defeated, and he ached everywhere. All he wanted to do was to curl up beside Avon and sleep, but he couldn't. There had to be another way. Slowly, a little of his fire crept back. He wasn't going to surrender anything, least of all their lives. There had to be something he could do.
Trooper Rankin was nervous. He was also sickened by what he had just witnessed. All right, he thought, so two prisoners from the centre were unaccounted for and video records indicated they had come down to the sub basement via a disposal chute, of all things. But Section Leader De Vere's behaviour was unpardonable. The things in the cellar couldn't lie to them. They had barely understood the Section Leader's questions. There had been no need to start killing them. Rankin knew the others in the troop despised him for his weakness, but he couldn't help it. The killing of the unarmed and defenceless revolted him.
Trooper Conrad swaggered towards him as Rankin watched, silently resentful. Conrad loved a little trouble among the lower orders, liked to stamp his authority. He was Section Leader De Vere's right hand man.
"They talked," Conrad told Rankin. "The skinny one, face like a rat. Got more brains than the rest of them put together." He grinned. "Not that that's saying a lot. Says they came down here. One of them nearly got put on the fire. They went outside."
"There's a way outside?" Lewis asked, coming to life for the first time since the troop had arrived in the hell hole. He, like Rankin, had been watching, not participating, in the questioning. Not, however, out of any sense of revulsion. Trooper Lewis felt he was above the questioning of lower grades; a question on upbringing, he would say. He was in there quickly enough when it was an Alpha, or a pretty woman for that matter, but he wasn't interested otherwise. As he informed Rankin when they had first arrived in the incinerator room, the things down there were worse than animals. They hadn't even the sense to be scared, and Lewis rather liked them to be scared. He was fast track promotion material, university graduate to section leader in under two years. That was, as long as one of the other troopers didn't kill him first. Lewis was also, Rankin knew, sulking. He was angry he had not been chosen to go with the assault force to Residence One. Dashing heroically to the President's rescue was just his sort of thing.
"Yeah," Conrad answered Lewis. "The Section Leader's asking headquarters for directions."
Conrad and Lewis watched as De Vere spoke to the command post, but Rankin found his attention distracted by the subhuman denizens of the cellar. Now that the questioning had stopped, they were beginning to work again. Slowly, mindlessly, they tossed bodies into the flames, even the bodies of their colleagues recently slaughtered.
De Vere put the communicator away and looked across at his men, then he swore softly. Rankin looked as if he were about to be sick; Lewis had pulled his helmet down to cut off the smell; the only one worth anything was Conrad and he was unnerving. A man after De Vere's own heart - quite literally, De Vere suspected sometimes. He needed watching. It didn't do to have someone like that too close on your heels. Still, he had his orders. Follow the prisoners and bring them back. Alive or dead, it didn't matter to the administration. They had a new set of problems at the moment.
"You lot over here," he shouted.
"Sir," they replied and arrived in accordance with their training.
"We're going outside after the prisoners," he told them. "They can't have gone too far, but be careful. At least one is reported armed."
"Any orders on the way we bring them back, sir?" Lewis asked.
"No. Alive or dead. They just want them stopped," De Vere said. "Can't have the prison authorities undermined, can we?" He pulled on his own helmet, thankful at last to cut off that dreadful smell. "This way." He pointed and they moved out.
Behind his helmet, Conrad's smile was predatory. Although it hadn't been officially admitted, Section Leader had told him the names of the prisoners. Roj Blake and Kerr Avon. To go down on the company records as the man who brought in those two was a dream come true. Let them try to keep command from him then. He checked the charge on his rifle. Life, on the whole, just got better and better.
"Sir?" Rankin's voice came over the communicators, echoing oddly in each man's helmet. "It's some time since they escaped. How can security be so sure they are still in the area? That they weren't picked up as soon as they got out?"
"Tracer signal," De Vere replied.
"Security planted a tracer on them?"
"No. One of them had a tracer implant in his neck when he was caught. Presumably so his friends could find him and get him out," De Vere said. "It's been sending for five days and they haven't shown. So we use it, and find them."
Got friends just like mine. He glanced at his fellow troopers.
The sound of a flyer broke into Blake's thoughts and he looked up. A squadron of about six could be seen by their lights, flying away from the dome. Blake wondered where they were going, but his sense of direction was gone, and he couldn't tell. Avon shifted slightly; he seemed to be waking.
"Avon?" Blake asked softly. Avon lifted his head. The white dressing seemed to glow in the darkness as he turned towards the sound of the voice.
"Cold," he said. Blake reached out to touch his face: it was icy. Avon shied away from the gentle contact. Blake moved closer, trying to lift Avon, to pull him closer, hoping that by sharing body heat, he could warm the other man. Again Avon shied away.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Blake said. "I'm cold, too."
"Blake?" Avon reached out and Blake let him catch hold of his hand. Questing fingers ran rapidly up his arm to his shoulder. Then Avon used the leverage, on his own terms, to pull himself up. The blanket fell away. Avon held still then, getting his balance. He released Blake, who moved to pull Avon closer to lean against him. Avon resisted the closeness of the contact at first, then the benefit of the shared heat seemed to communicate to him and he relaxed. Blake pulled the blanket up to cover his legs.
"Better?" he asked, resting a hand on Avon's shoulder. Avon moaned softly in pain and Blake remembered the burn. He snatched his hand away. "I'm sorry," he said, and it was for more than the accidental pain he had just caused. Avon didn't reply; he seemed to be drifting off again. Suddenly that was more than Blake could bear. They were going to die here, and he couldn't let that happen, not without talking to Avon at least a little.
"What did you do, Avon?" Blake asked him softly. "What did you do to upset Vila so much that he left you?"
"Vila?" Avon came to life a little at Vila's name. "Vila's not here?"
"No. Not here. Where is he? Do you know?"
"With Cally. On the Liberator," Avon replied. "Why did they leave you?" Blake asked the question that bothered him the most. If Vila and Cally were safe and well, why the hell hadn't they tried to get Avon out? "Call him a 'Delta grade idiot' once too often, did you?"
"He is," Avon said, the words a rush of sound with his expelled breath. There was a long pause before he spoke again. "Not left. Waiting for me."
"Waiting for you where?"
"On the Liberator. Waiting for my signal."
"They're waiting for you? Why, and are you sure?" Blake asked him. "And how the hell are you supposed to signal them from inside a Federation prison cell?"
"Promised," Avon replied. Bewildered, Blake tried to make sense of it all. Avon didn't believe he had been abandoned. He was certain the others were waiting for him to signal them, but Servalan said he had been a prisoner for five days. Surely in that time, Cally would have realised he was in trouble. Avon shivered. Blake pulled him closer and touched his face. The flesh was icy. Blake realised that Avon was dying, that he couldn't warm him no matter how he tried. He couldn't let that happen, couldn't just sit back and allow his friend to die this way. Not without at least trying to fight, to get Avon to fight. He shook Avon lightly, trying to get his attention.
"Why haven't they come yet?" he demanded.
Avon lifted his head. "Not sent for them yet. Have to wait for Shrinker," he explained.
"Shrinker? What the hell..!" Blake almost shouted and Avon flinched. He lowered his voice. "Why?"
"For Anna," Avon said. "Then they will come." He lifted a hand as if to touch his head, then let it fall back into his lap. "They will come."
"Shrinker's not coming, Avon," Blake told him. "He's dead."
"Grant killed him," Blake reminded him.
"No. He killed Anna," the confused Avon argued with Blake.
"Del Grant, Avon. He killed Shrinker when he rescued us, don't you remember?"
"Shrinker's dead?" Avon asked. His voice was low; he sounded far away. Blake hugged him closer.
"Yes! Shrinker is dead," he said. "Very dead," he repeated, recalling the corpse he had seen being kicked by the freed Federation prisoners.
"I can go, then?" Avon asked, a little boy's voice. Blake's throat constricted painfully at the sound.
"How? You've no bracelet."
"Implant," Avon answered smugly.
"Implant. Vila will come."
Blake turned Avon to face him, although in the half light all he could really see was the white bandage. "What do you mean, 'implant?'"
Avon again made that abortive movement, hand to head, and stopped. "Tired," he explained and slumped in Blake's hold.
"Avon." Blake shook him. "If you have a way out of here, we could really use it now."
Avon lifted his arm. His fingers closed on his neck, squeezing briefly. Then he dropped the arm; it was just too heavy.
"Can't," he muttered.
Blake put his hand where Avon's had rested and felt a strange pulsing just beneath the skin, a mild electrical field. The device, whatever it was, was working. It had probably been sending all the time Avon had been a prisoner. The others weren't coming, Blake realised. He pulled Avon closer, wrapping his arms around the dying man, the dying man who still believed his friends were coming for him. He rested his chin on Avon's uninjured shoulder as a wave of pain and regret flowed through him. he thought, And he could have wept again, there in the cold and dark, wept for chances lost, for lives thrown away, for trust offered and trust betrayed. For himself and for Avon.
Avon shifted, uncomfortable in the close embrace. "Vila's coming," he muttered. "Switch it off when Shrinker's here. Waiting for Shrinker." His voice trailed away into vague mutterings, but Blake had heard.
"What?" He pulled away. "You have to switch it off?" He reached again to feel the tracer pulsing regularly beneath the skin, "Avon? How do you switch it off?"
"When Shrinker comes," Avon repeated, almost sing-song.
"Yes, yes, Avon. But how?"
"Pressure," Avon said, twisting away from Blake. Blake held him still and pressed, kneading the flesh of Avon's neck around the tiny device, and the gentle pulsing stopped. "Vila's coming," Avon muttered.
"Yes, Avon," Blake agreed and pulled him close once more. "Vila's coming."
"It's stopped!" Vila's excited voice echoed round the flight deck. "Avon's stopped sending."
"All right, Vila," Tarrant replied calmly. "Get the coordinates from Orac. We'll be right down." He cut the connection and looked at the two women who had shared the watch with him. "Shall we go?"
Dayna was already on her feet, gun strapped round her waist, ready to go. "Yes," she replied and marched out. Tarrant had the feeling she was half looking forward to this, but whether it was thought of getting Avon back or the idea of action that pleased her most, he wasn't sure. He looked at Cally. The Auron woman hadn't moved, and that apathy concerned Tarrant.
"Cally?" he asked.
"Yes, I am ready." She got to her feet, putting aside the headset with which she had been trying to follow events at the president's palace.
"Two minutes, Avon said," Vila told Tarrant as he entered the teleport section. "He could be in any kind of trouble down there. You don't know what Shrinker could be doing to him."
"It was his idea," Tarrant reminded the thief. He didn't need Vila's worry, he had enough of his own. Worry about Avon. After five days with the Federation, he could have told them anything. Everything? Tarrant wondered. Tarrant had always said it was a crazy idea, but he had promised he would stay, promised he would give Avon the time to do what he had to. "You have the coordinates, I take it?" he asked Vila.
"All ready for you," Vila said. He practically manhandled them into the teleport. "Just go."
"Wait a moment," Cally said as she fastened on her gun. "We may as well find out where in the complex we are going. Orac, do you have information about where these coordinates are on the planet?"
*Naturally. The signal was coming from outside the dome, an area of wooded countryside.*
"What!" Tarrant interrupted. "Outside? Are you sure?"
*There is no possibility of error.*
Tarrant considered his options rapidly. "What the hell is he doing outside?"
"Does it matter?" Vila asked. "Two minutes, you said. Two minutes after it stopped sending."
"Shut up, Vila," Cally told him. "Tarrant is right. Something has happened. We must be careful. I will move these coordinates, put us down about half a mile away. Then we can avoid any traps."
"That half mile could kill Avon," Dayna said.
"Rather him than all of us," Tarrant told her. "Ready? Put us down, Vila."
"Down and safe," Tarrant said. "Stay alert, Vila."
"I am," Vila replied. "You're the ones who are late," he reminded them. Tarrant cut the connection without replying. Dayna pointed off into the darkness.
"That way," she told them. She was in her element now, outside in the wilds and the best suited of them to lead. It was early evening, almost full dark, and Dayna could hear the night's hungers all round. It was almost like coming home. "Come on."
Cally picker the way with a torch. It wasn't very bright but Tarrant was glad of it all the same. Dayna might be happy here but he most certainly was not. He wasn't used to the wilds of nature, and he jumped at every sound, drawing exasperated glances from both women. Tarrant tried to relax, but along with his discomfort at the strangeness of his surroundings, he had a feeling of guilt. Guilt that he hadn't, as the others had all suggested, come to Avon's rescue before now. He had insisted that they wait for Avon's signal as they had promised. Tarrant's problem now was that he was no longer sure why he had been so vehement about sticking to that promise. Had his insistence come from the need to keep his word, from loyalty to Avon, or was there the unspoken thought that if he waited long enough, Avon might not come back? The Liberator was quite a prize, and Tarrant feared he was learning the price he was willing to pay for it.
"It should be just ahead," Tarrant muttered. "The last place Orac picked Avon's signal up from." He looked at the two woman, dimly perceived in the darkness.
Dayna smiled. "I'll go and check it out," she said. Tarrant hesitated, but he knew logically that she was best suited to this sort of thing.
"All right. But Dayna, nothing too noisy, eh?"
"You worry too much," she told him, patting his arm lightly. Then she was lost to the night. She hadn't been gone long when Tarrant's bracelet signalled.
"Tarrant," he said.
"It's a dried up river bed," Dayna's voice came softly. "And there is something down there. It's just too dark to make it out. I don't think it's a trap. I'm going down."
"Dayna, no," Cally said. "We'll be with you in a moment."
Dayna glared at her bracelet, then looked back to where she was almost certain she could see a dark shape among the rocks. She was sure it was Avon, but there was something odd about it, something that wasn't quite right for the shape of a man, and so she held her ground.
Suddenly the darkness was split by two beams of light. They swept across the river bed. Dayna ducked, then risked a look. A small group of Federation troopers had appeared at the base of a rock wall, and were scanning the area. Obviously they were searching for something, or someone. The light hit the shape Dayna had seen before and she understood why it had looked odd. It wasn't one man but two. There was a shout of surprise from one of the men, and he dived sideways, taking the other with him. By good luck or fortune, a large rock outcropping provided some protection. The trooper's first volley went wild.
Dayna's did not. Her first shot killed one of the troopers and the others dived for cover. The lights went out.
"Tarrant!" Dayna shouted into her bracelet. "There are two people trapped here, and a group of troopers. I could do with some help now." She fired again, but the light was gone and it was impossible to see. A shot was fired by one of the pair sheltering just below her. Clearly he had a better view, for it produced a cry of pain. Dayna grinned, certain now that it was Avon.
"You called," Tarrant hissed as he skidded to a halt next to her.
"Keep your head down," she replied. "There are two men down there. Over there, by the rock wall - troopers, three or four. They've got Avon pinned down."
"Are you sure it's Avon?" Tarrant asked over the sound of more shots from the river bed.
"Yes." Dayna had no doubt.
"He has a gun," Tarrant noted. Not bad going.
"Only one, though. I think whoever is with him is hurt. He certainly didn't react to the troopers' arrival."
"Shrinker?" Tarrant hazarded.
"I doubt it," Dayna said, watching the river.
"There." Cally pointed as a dark shape detached itself from even darker shadows and began to move towards the hidden men. Dayna fired and it dropped.
"Two down," Dayna said, "two to go. Cally, if you and Tarrant could provide cover, I could get down there."
"And do what? Apart from get yourself killed?" Tarrant asked.
"Bracelets," Dayna said.
"All right, but why you?" Tarrant asked.
"Because, Tarrant, I'm better at this than you are."
"Agreed," Cally said, effectively shutting Tarrant out. She lifted her gun and fired at the troopers' hiding place. Tarrant followed suit and Dayna slipped away.
Blake jumped and shook himself awake. He had been drifting to sleep, he was so tired and he hurt so much that sleep was a blessing. It didn't seem worth fighting. Avon was dying, of that he had no doubt, and he couldn't do anything about it. The tragic thing was that it all might be so pointless. If Sula's plan had worked, they had no need to hide, no need to die, but he didn't know. He pulled Avon a little closer, fingers moving to his throat to check for a pulse. Avon shifted and muttered something, but Blake didn't catch the words. It was almost comfortable to stay like this, to die like this. So peaceful. Better than many of the deaths Blake had considered might be his lot. But he didn't want to share his death with anyone, least of all with Avon.
The eruption of light took Blake totally by surprise, but he reacted quickly, diving sideways to take cover in the rocks and taking the unresponsive Avon with him as shots were fired. He fumbled with his gun then, with stiff, clumsy fingers, but it was taking too long. There was a shot then, from out of the darkness above and behind him, and one of the troopers fell. Blake didn't have time to wonder who had fired as the troopers took cover and the light died. He did, however, have time for one shot and was gratified to hear a grunt of pain. Two to us. Blake smiled grimly.
A sudden volley of shots from behind his position made Blake jump in surprise. Then he realised they were aimed at the troopers, not at him. He grinned down at Avon's still form.
"Vila's here," he said. There was a new noise behind him, the rattle of loose soil and rocks. Blake spun around as a shape slid to a halt some five or six feet to his left, crouching low in the darkness. The firing had stopped and Blake watched as the shape - female, he was certain - lifted her arm to her mouth and muttered something.
"Cally?" he asked, and the figure turned to him. It was a young black woman he didn't know.
Dayna had miscalculated her slide down the slope slightly. She arrived safely enough, but too far away from the man to see them clearly or to pass them the teleport bracelets.
"I'm down," she told Tarrant. "You keep the guards occupied while I get over to Avon."
"Just make sure it is Avon." Tarrant told her. She didn't answer because at that moment one of the two men turned and whispered something. Dayna looked his way; she could have sworn he just called her Cally. The firing started up again. Dayna braced herself to run, and the man behind the rocks, discerning her intent, lifted himself to fire over the rock protection, providing additional cover. As he did so, Dayna saw him clearly for just a moment. She swallowed her disappointment that it wasn't Avon and ran. As she arrived behind the rock's protection, the man gave a grunt of pain, and dropped down.
Blake felt sick as he dropped, clutching his shoulder. It hurt. "Damn!" he muttered as the woman caught him. Her face was the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness.
Dayna eased the unconscious man to the ground. In the dim light, she studied his face. It wasn't Avon; she didn't know who it was, but he wore a dirty prison overall and looked like he'd had a rough couple of days. She turned to the other figure. He was facing away from her, tangled in a coarse blanket. Gently, she turned him over. The sight of Avon's face brought a gasp of shock from Dayna. Even in the dim light she could see the rough dressing covering his eye.
"Avon!" She reached as if to touch him and he opened his eye.
It took Avon a moment to focus. The light was dim, the world fuzzy. Then he recognised the face so close to his.
"You sound disappointed," she said, leaning over to protect him as another volley of shots went over their heads. In the brief quite that followed, she thought she heard the sound of boots on rock.
"Promised Blake it would be Vila," Avon muttered disjointedly.
"That's Blake?" Dayna exclaimed. Her bracelet beeped before she could say more.
"Dayna." Cally's voice. "Have you got him? Is it Avon?"
"Yes. And a surprise." As she spoke, Dayna fastened bracelets on both men's wrists. "Vila," she contacted the Liberator. "Teleport now."
Trooper Rankin rounded the rock just in time for Dayna to shoot him. Then the teleport swept them away.
"Dayna," Tarrant's petulant tones cut the air as soon as they materialised. "You might at least ask before you bring strays on board."
Cally pushed him out of the way. "Blake!" she exclaimed, and knelt beside the big man.
"Blake?" Vila echoed from behind the teleport controls. "Blake!"
"Blake?" Tarrant asked Dayna.
"So Avon said," Dayna replied, indicating the man she held.
"It is Blake," Cally confirmed. She looked at Dayna, then at the brutalised figure in her arms. Her heart fell at the mess she beheld. "How is he?"
"Not good," Dayna replied. "And Blake?"
"About the same. Tarrant, get us out of here. Vila, help me get these two to the medical unit, please."
Tarrant glowered for a moment, then grudgingly moved to let Vila pass him. He didn't like being left out of things, and he didn't like being told what to do.
Vila froze when he saw Avon's face properly for the first time. "Dayna?" he asked, indicating the bandaging.
"I don't know," she told him. Relenting snapping when she saw his face, she continued, "He was conscious down there, just for a moment anyway. He seemed disappointed that it wasn't you coming to his rescue."
"He did?" Vila asked incredulously.
"Yes. It seems he promised Blake that it would be."
Vila bent down and took hold of Avon's shoulders, wincing when Avon moaned as he was moved and shied away from the gentle touch. "You help Cally with Blake, Dayna. I can carry Avon," and true to his word, he did.
Tarrant was alone on the flight deck when Dayna walked in. "How is he?" he asked her at once.
Dayna shook her head. "Not good," she said, pleased to note his concern. It was nice every so often to have the concern she was sure Tarrant felt for Avon confirmed. "Blake will be all right, though."
Tarrant made a dismissive gesture. "But Avon... his face?"
"It's nasty," Dayna grimaced. "Cally says someone used a medical laser on him. They didn't get his eye, but they made a mess all the same. We don't know for sure if his sight's affected until he wakes up."
"Oh," Tarrant said in his seat as the enormity of that struck him. Avon blind!
"He has a nasty burn on his shoulder; that's infected. Broken ribs, cuts, bruises and mild pneumonia," Dayna continued, looking for the concern again. "Blake's in a similar state, except he's been shot, too. They've both been beaten, but it looks like Avon took the brunt of it."
"I wonder how they got together?" Tarrant mused out loud.
Dayna shrugged. "No doubt they will tell us," she said. "Eventually."
"Vila and Cally seem pleased to see Blake," Tarrant hazarded. Dayna looked startled, then her eyes narrowed in comprehension.
"But you're not?" she guessed.
Tarrant hesitated, unsure how to put into words the thoughts that had been racing round in his head. He had just begun to feel 'at home' on the Liberator, as if he were a welcome part of the crew and not an interloper. He had had a place. How what would happen? Now Blake was back, where did he stand? Would any of them have time for him now?
"Tarrant?" Dayna asked, concerned by his silence. She walked to stand next to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Where does that leave us?" he asked.
"Avon's got his Blake back, Cally and Vila too," he explained. He reached out to touch her face. "You were invited on board. I just sort of pushed my way in."
Dayna smiled gently. "You are a member of this crew," she told him. "Just you wait and see." Tarrant looked doubtful but said no more.
Blake woke slowly, lingering happily for a while in that half-state that was neither sleeping nor waking. Finally, however, his curiosity drove him to full consciousness and he opened his eyes. His shoulder hurt. He ached all over, really, but that actually hurt. His throat was dry and scratchy, and for a moment he couldn't work out where he was, or how he got there. Then it all came back.
"Avon." Blake came up on his elbows, the name escaping not as the shout he had intended but as a tiny squeak.
"Ssshh," Cally's voice advised him as she gently pushed him back down. "Drink this."
Blake accepted the water gratefully. "Avon?" he tried again in a voice more like his own.
"He's here," Cally reassured him. "He will be all right, you both will." Blake turned slightly as she had indicated and saw Avon lying on a bed close to him. He watched for a while until he was certain Avon still lived, not disbelieving Cally, but needing to see for himself. Watching the rise and fall of the other man's chest as he breathed, Blake was surprised at the force of relief he felt, so surprised, in fact, that it took a moment to register that Cally was talking to him.
"What?" he asked, suddenly very tired.
Cally smiled down at him. "I said you should rest. The injury is not serious, but considering your condition, it could have been. You are going to be sore for a while." She paused a moment, considering. "Welcome home, Blake."
Blake smiled, then sobered. "Avon?" he asked. "I thought he was dying."
"He will be all right."
Cally looked across at Avon then. A clean white dressing covered his face. "The main injury was not to his eyes," she said slowly.
"He's all right then, he can see?"
"It is too early to say," Cally began, and Blake's stomach seemed to turn over. "Orac says there may be some damage. We don't know yet."
"My fault," he stated bleakly.
"No, it was his own idea," a bewildered Cally corrected him. "Sleep now, Blake. We can talk later."
Blake nodded and closed his eyes. The truth was that much as he wanted to, he couldn't keep them open any longer.
"Aren't you being a little premature?" Vila asked Cally softly from the door.
Cally turned around. "Avon will be fine, Vila," she said.
"It still hurts," he told her as he walked over to stand looking down at his unconscious friend. "But I didn't mean that. I meant the 'welcome back'. He," Vila pointed to Avon, "might not agree with you."
"Of course he will. This is Blake's ship."
"They never did agree about that," Vila reminded her. "Avon arrived at the same time Blake did, you know. Anyway, Blake might not want to stay. He doesn't seem to have been all that eager to find us, does he?"
"We do not know what he has been doing," Cally said. "We must wait until they are both well."
"Yes." Vila turned to go, then stopped. "I came to tell you..." He faced her again. "That raid on Residence One? It failed. Orac hasn't got the facts sorted yet." He grinned. "It's all very messy down there, but I think Servalan may be dead."
"Servalan dead?" Cally gazed down at Avon's shuttered face.
"Orac's not sure," Vila repeated. "I wouldn't tell him yet," he added. "Orac should have more information soon. You know what he's like for being helpful. Only Avon ever gets real sense out of him. Comes of them both being machines, I suppose."
"Machines don't hurt," Cally reminded him.
"Yes. Well..." Vila sounded almost resentful.
"Vila?" Cally took a step towards him. "What is the matter?"
"Nothing," Vila replied. "I just wondered what it will be like now Blake's back." He turned abruptly and left. A very puzzled Cally settled back to care for her two friends.
When Blake woke again he felt better than he had in days; rested, no real aches or pains and very much at home. He turned slightly on the bed and saw Cally watching him.
"Still here?" he asked.
She smiled back. "I've been away and come back," she replied. "You have been sleeping for twelve hours."
"I feel marvellous," he told her, stretching on the bed. "Better than I have for months."
"Part of that will be the drugs for your shoulder," she said. "So be careful. The computers said you were very run down, even before the Federation got to work on you."
"Yes. Well, I've been busy," he said evasively as he sat up.
"Too busy to let us know, to let him know..." she indicated the man still sleeping on the other bed, "where you were?"
"Was he... were any of you bothered?" Blake asked in return. He didn't look at Cally as he spoke; he didn't want her to know how very much the answer to that question mattered.
"Yes, he was. Which is more than you deserve," she snapped.
Astonished, Blake looked up at her. "Cally!"
"What kind of man forces an admission of friendship and loyalty out of someone, then promptly disappears?" she asked.
Blake lifted a hand to his face. "I didn't mean for it to happen like that," he said. "I've been keeping track of you. When I could, anyway." He paused and looked again at Avon's still form. "Will he be all right, Cally?"
Cally nodded. "The medical unit took care of the bruises and broken ribs, the pneumonia is clearing nicely. The worst problem is the burn on his shoulder."
Blake nodded, wincing as he recalled that mess. "And his eyes."
"We cannot tell if his sight is impaired until he wakes," Cally said. "I don't want him to waken yet. His shoulder needs more time immobile. The computers advise that we keep him sedated another twenty four hours."
"A whole day without Avon," Vila's voice cut in from the door. "I must have been really good lately."
"Vila," Cally admonished him, but it was said with affection and Blake was glad to hear that. "hasn't he been gone long enough, lately?"
Vila wandered over towards Blake. "That was his idea, Cally," he reminded her. "Nice to see you awake, Blake." He smiled. "Always knew Avon had a screw loose somewhere." He then informed Blake conversationally, "I mean, to let yourself get caught deliberately. Maybe you should have the medical computer check he's still got a brain. Might have leaked out somewhere, you know." During the latter part of his speech, Vila went to stand almost protectively over Avon's sleeping form. "Could of course be he's spent so long trying to keep a promise to someone who didn't care, he's just lost it altogether."
"Vila!" Cally snapped, really annoyed now. Which was, Blake thought, most unfair as she had just said very much the same thing.
Vila shrugged. "Yeah, well, what do I know? Delta grade ignorant, hardly fit to polish your shoes," he muttered.
"Vila," Blake began, "I'm sorry if you feel I let you down, not contacting you, not coming back. But it was dangerous. I was involved with so many groups..."
"It was dangerous for us too, Blake. You made this ship the most wanted vessel in space. Servalan got so annoyed she decided to take it all personally..."
"Avon did that, Vila," Cally corrected.
"Yes? Well, maybe he did. I wonder why." He looked at Blake. "You're gonna have to tell us why you didn't come back."
"It's a long story," Blake replied. He was, truth to tell, a little annoyed by their attitude, by their apparent need to protect Avon, by the fact they felt Avon needed protection from him. "I wanted to wait until Avon was up and about. So I don't have to tell it more than once."
"I'll buy that," Vila accepted.
"There is one thing I want from you, though. Something I want to know," Blake said.
Blake sat up properly and his eyes blazed with anger. "How the hell did you manage to lose Avon for five days on Earth? You must have known he was in interrogation, and what they would do to him for information?" He stopped, as he remembered all too well what they had done and why. Vila's eyes, too, reflected a more than theoretical knowledge of Federation questioning techniques. "You had this ship, the teleport, the detector shield, presumably. Why the hell didn't you get him out?"
"That was his idea," Cally replied calmly. "He wanted to kill a man." Vila snorted at the term but Cally ignored him. "Named Shrinker."
"So I gathered from him," Blake said darkly. "And you just went along with it?"
"Yes," Vila replied. "Just like we went along with your attempt to contact the Terra Nostra. We knew it was wrong, that it would all end in tears, but... well, I guess we're plain stupid." He shrugged.
"You did it because Avon wanted it," Blake translated. "The others, too? The girl I saw down there..."
"And I had a feeling I heard a man's voice. It wasn't you, Vila?"
"That's Tarrant," Vila said. "You'll really like him, you know."
Blake ignored that. "You did it because he wanted it. Loyalty." He looked at Avon, still sleeping peacefully. "Does he know that you care so much?"
"No," Vila said. "And don't you tell him." He paused. "If you want to know why we did it, ask Avon, then duck. It's about Anna Grant."
"Hmmm," Blake said. "Shrinker's dead."
"Avon?" Cally asked.
"No. Del Grant."
"Grant was there, too?" Vila remembered the blond mercenary. "What was it, some kind of club reunion?"
"He came to get me out. Ended up rescuing both of us." Blake's voice was bleak.
"He's dead," Cally guessed. "Does Avon know?"
"I told him, but I don't think he took it in," Blake replied truthfully. He turned to sit on the edge of the bed, facing Avon. "I don't suppose you have a cabin I could borrow? Just temporarily," he asked. "And could I talk to Orac for a while? I have some friends to check up on."
"Your old cabin do?" Vila asked, coming to stand in front of Blake.
Blake looked up at him. "It's still mine?"
"Yes. Avon seemed to think you might need it. He put Tarrant in one of the others." Vila smiled as he remembered Tarrant's annoyance at being so far from the flight deck. Blake's old cabin had been so much nearer, so much better placed.
Blake smiled fondly. "He thought I'd be back."
"Yes, well, he's a dreamer sometimes," Vila said, straightfaced. Blake choked on his laughter. "But only temporary? Don't you want to stay?"
"Would I be welcome?"
"What do you think?"
"I daren't," Blake replied. He slid to his feet, "Give me a hand, Vila?" he asked, and Cally let them go. Vila could, and would, fill Blake in on Avon and the Liberator very efficiently, she had no doubt.
Avon was walking along a dark corridor. He didn't know where he was or how he came to be there. He was just there. Ahead, he kept thinking he could see light, and once he had even thought he heard voices. It reminded him of home, only better. Home had been quite lonely and impersonal, but the light up ahead was friendly and safe.
He kept walking towards it, though walking was hard work and he was very tired. He realised at last that the light was the light of the Liberator, that he was heading towards the flight deck and up ahead the voices he could hear were the voices of Vila and Cally and Blake. Avon stopped walking. That was foolish. Blake wasn't there any more. He was somewhere else; Avon couldn't remember where but he had a feeling he ought to. Then the light went out. The sense of loss, the pain, was unendurable. Avon sank to his knees, collapsing to lean against the corridor wall. He shouldn't have questioned, he should have just kept on walking, accepted his fortune and not argued with it. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms tight round them. Afraid and desperately lonely, Avon began to rock slowly backwards and forwards, making a low moaning noise.
Cally jumped as Avon shifted on the bed. A faint smile crossed his face, only to be replaced by a frown, and then he began to mutter. He was very close to consciousness. Cally dimmed the lights. Although the damage inflicted by the laser was not to his eyes directly, there could have been some harm done. She didn't want to take any risks, and followed the computers' advice. She left the dressing over his right eye, and now he was waking, kept the light low.
Avon was still muttering under his breath. Cally couldn't make out the words. She reached out to touch his shoulder lightly and called his name. "Avon," she repeated when he didn't respond. "Avon, you are safe on the Liberator."
Avon shifted away, turning so his injured shoulder was off the bed. Then he opened his eye. It was dark. For a moment, Avon panicked, then he realised it was not the total darkness of blindness, that he could still see.
"Cally?" he asked as he made out the dim form that hovered close to him. "Why is it so dark in here?"
Cally relaxed slightly. "Zen advised care with your eyes.," she told him.
Avon lifted a hand to his face. There was something wrong with the way he saw the world. His fingers encountered the dressing that covered his right eye.
"It is all right," Cally attempted to reassure him.
"Yes?" he asked.
"The laser did not touch your eye. Give the pad a chance to heal the skin and I will take it off."
"And then?" Avon asked. He moved as if to sit up, but the sharp needle of pain that ran from his eyes to his brain seemed to set off a fire in his chest and he almost blacked out.
"Patience," Cally told him, pushing him to lie back again.
"Tell me?" he ground out through teeth gritted against pain.
"You had a couple of broken ribs, a nasty burn here." She touched his chest lightly where the fire had been. "Cuts, bruises, and the laser burn to your face." She smiled. "The computers have taken care of most of it; just give yourself a little time."
"And my eyes?"
"Will be fine. According to Orac, you will just have to take it easy for a while. Avoid bright lights, close work, that sort of thing." That wasn't strictly true. Orac hadn't been definite in his prognosis. The computer had admitted there was some chance of permanent damage to the optic nerve, but Avon, much as he might deny it, needed reassurance right now, so that was what Cally gave. "Blake will be all right, too," she offered.
"Blake!" Avon looked startled for a moment. "So he was there. I was beginning to think I might have dreamt that bit." He paused. He was suddenly very tired, as if someone had flipped a switch. He needed to know one thing. "Where is Blake?"
"Vila took him to his quarters to rest. I have no doubt he will be back to check on you soon," Cally told him. "Sleep, Avon. It is what you need. Liberator is safe. Everyone is safe," she rested a hand on his shoulder. Sleep, or do I have to sedate you?"
He opened his mouth to speak again, then subsided. She was, he knew, fully capable of drugging him into submission if he persisted. This was much more dignified. He closed his eyes and Cally watched, smiling as he drifted into a natural healing sleep
Avon tried to appear relaxed as Cally removed the dressing from his face, but the clenched fists in the blanket belied any attempt at nonchalance.
"Well?" Cally asked at last, stepping slightly away from him.
"Turn the lights up," Avon said. Cally did as she was asked. Avon winced, screwing his eyes closed. "I can see," she said. "But Orac may be right about needing these." He lifted the dark glasses Orac had recommended and put them on. It helped. The pain receded and he didn't need to squint anymore, but he didn't like wearing them.
Cally watched him carefully. It looked as if, even with Liberator's facilities, he would be left with a faint scar over his right eye. The prognosis for his sight, however, was good. Given time, it would return to normal, and the sensitivity to bright lights would fade. The broken bones and bruises were healed too, leaving behind only mild reminders in stiffness and the odd twinge that would fade soon. The burn on his shoulder still needed care, but all in all he had been very lucky. They had all been very lucky. Avon swung his legs over the side of the bed, breaking her musing.
"Where do you think you are going?" Cally demanded.
"I think," Avon began ironically, "I'm going to the flight deck. I want to see how much trouble Blake has managed to get us into."
"Blake?" Cally echoed. "Why should you think Blake has done anything? Tarrant will not let him near Zen."
Avon looked at her in surprise, and she was pleased to note she could still see his eyes through the dark material of the lenses. "Tarrant won't..." He grinned slightly, then it faded into puzzlement. "I thought as I hadn't seen him..."
Avon stopped. Left unspoken, because he couldn't say it, was his bewilderment at Blake's failure to visit him. During the forty-eight hours since he had first woken, he had been visited by all the crew. It had been commonplace to drift to sleep listening to Vila prattling about nothing and wake to find a concerned Dayna checking up on him. Even Tarrant had visited, and it had been Tarrant's visits that had puzzled Avon. Tarrant's moods had ranged from hesitant and unsure to brash. Brash Avon could cope with, but the nervous Tarrant had tried his patience. He had eventually decided the reason for this behaviour was Blake, that Blake was up to something in his absence, and Tarrant couldn't decide whether or not to tell him about it. Now that Avon knew this was not the case, he had both mysteries back. Why hadn't Blake looked in on him, and what the hell was the matter with Tarrant?
Cally knew Avon was puzzled by Blake's absence, maybe even a little hurt, thought he would never admit it. And if Blake had come, Avon would no doubt have sent him packing with a few well chosen words. She had been to check on Blake herself, to make sure he wasn't ill again, that the computers hadn't missed something, and she had found a preoccupied and guilty man. He asked after Avon's health and if the other had asked to see him. On being told Avon had not, he had withdrawn further and would not be persuaded to change his mind.
Avon climbed to his feet. "You've passed me fit?"
"Except for your eyes," she replied. "You must not rush them."
Avon nodded and smoothed down his jacket. "Then I think I should go and check on the flight deck, don't you?" he smiled that bright smile she so rarely saw. "Can't have Tarrant thinking he's in charge, can we?"
Cally smiled back. "He wouldn't dare."
Vila had finally talked the reluctant Blake into visiting the flight deck, having tried and failed to persuade him to see Avon. He was reasonably sure Blake's refusal to visit the medical unit stemmed from guilt. He had, after all, seen Blake do guilty before, but couldn't work out why he should feel that way. Avon had been hurt by the Federation; it had nothing to do with Blake. Blake was the one who had got him out. His refusal to visit the healing man, where once he would have had to be pried away with a crowbar, was odd, and Vila was determined to get to the bottom of it.
Dayna and Tarrant were both on the flight deck when Vila arrived, Blake in tow. Dayna actually looked pleased to see them, Tarrant wary and uncomfortable. Blake looked around, almost nervously, Vila thought, before coming down the steps, Vila wondered if he were looking for someone. Couldn't be Jenna; he knew she wasn't there.
"How are you feeling?" Dayna asked.
"Well. Thank you."
+Welcome, Roj Blake,+ Zen said abruptly. Blake jumped, while Tarrant turned to face the computer, the betrayal he felt writ large on his face.
"Zen" Blake greeted the computer, both delighted and surprised. "You still have my voice print on file?"
+Confirmed," the computer replied.
"There seemed no particular reason to remove it." Avon's voice cut across the flight deck. Blake's expression became haunted for just a second, then closed - a very near approximation of Avon's best stone face, Vila (the only one who saw) thought, and it didn't suit him at all. The others all turned to watch Avon.
"After all," Avon said as he came down the steps, "I gave you my word I would take you back to Earth." Only someone who knew Avon very well would see the caution with which he spoke, the questions he hid in the words. Vila saw it and waited for Blake's reply. Blake, however, seemed to have forgotten that which had once been almost instinctive, how to read the meaning behind the words. He turned slowly to face the other man, paling a little at the sight of the dark glasses and the slightly stiff way Avon held himself as he walked. Avon simply waited for his reply.
"Well, as you can see," Blake began, "I didn't need you."
Avon jerked slightly, as if he had been slapped. Whatever he had been expecting, it hadn't been that. Vila was appalled. He had such high hopes for this meeting, and it was all going wrong before it even began. Dayna took a step towards Avon. She was uncomfortably reminded of her father by the dark glasses he wore.
"Avon?" she asked. "Are you all right?"
Avon looked at her and gave a half smile. "Yes. The glasses..." He touched them, much as her father would when he spoke of the damage to his own eyes. "...are just a precaution." Dayna smiled at him then. "However, I fear I may have a scar." He touched the small dressing patch on his forehead.
"Quite the pirate now, eh Avon?" Tarrant suggested.
Avon turned to face the pilot, but before he could reply, Vila leapt forward.
"Yes he is, Tarrant. So just watch what you do, or he might make you walk the plank."
Avon smiled to himself. Trust Vila to know more than a Delta grade was supposed to about banned literature, and when to use it to good effect. Cally was intrigued; the only pirates she knew of were Amagons. 'The plank' meant nothing to her.
"Walk the plank, Vila?"
"I'll explain later," the thief said. "You could come to my cabin and I'll tell you all about Francis Drake."
"Drake wasn't a pirate, Vila," Tarrant said.
"That's your opinion," Vila replied, but his mind wasn't really on the discussion. He had hoped to distract Avon and Blake by his nonsense; it hadn't worked. Avon was silently watching Blake, waiting for something, and it was clear Blake couldn't or wouldn't give him what he wanted. Abruptly, Blake turned away from Avon. The dark glasses that hid Avon's eyes from him seemed an impenetrable barrier. They intensified his guilt.
Avon moved closer then. "Where were you, Blake?" he asked.
"What...?" It was not the question Blake had expected at all.
"After Star One and the invasion," Avon clarified. "Zen gave is your message and we checked, but you had moved on. Why didn't you wait? Didn't you think we would come?"
"The Federation were getting closer; I had to move on," Blake replied, watching the lights as they flickered on Zen's fascia. Avon said nothing, puzzled by Blake's refusal to look at him.
"And afterwards?" Cally asked. "There were many ways you could have contacted us, yet you did not."
"I thought you'd be safer without me." Blake turned then, taking a startled step backwards when he realised how near Avon was. Avon froze, his face changing, hardening at Blake's reaction to his closeness. "I didn't think you'd go on fighting if I wasn't here," Blake explained, silently cursing his involuntary reaction when he saw the hurt in the set of Avon's jaw. "You'd never seemed all that keen when I was. By the time I started to hear about what you were doing, I was already involved with Sula's group on Earth. It would have been too much of a risk." Blake didn't add that he had wanted to contact them, but had been talked out of it by Sula on more than one occasion.
"Sula?" Cally asked. "Sula Chesku?"
"You know her?" Avon asked.
"We have heard a great deal about her recently," Cally told him. "She was the leader of the attack on Residence One."
"The failed attack," Tarrant added. "Even though they had Servalan prisoner, they failed and she escaped."
"And they all died," Blake said bitterly.
"Your idea?" Dayna asked him.
"No." Blake ran a hand through his hair. "I knew about it, but Sula was the one with the ideas. I just supplied some technical data. The Federation picked me up three days before I was supposed to join her. They knew something was going on, wanted details. Then Servalan got involved."
"That's why they were questioning you," Dayna said.
Blake nodded. "Servalan knew something was going on and she wanted me to tell her what and when."
"You seem very healthy for someone from whom they wanted information fast," Tarrant noted.
"I bounce back," Blake said flippantly. "But I am feeling rather tired now. So if you don't mind..."
"Or maybe they tried a different method," Tarrant continued, his mind racing. "You said they stopped asking you questions, Avon?" He remembered Avon's comments when he had been less than fully aware, remembered Avon's helpless bewilderment that the questions had stopped but the pain continued. "Maybe they were using you, Avon, to make someone else talk."
"Tarrant!" Cally snapped when she saw where he was heading and how much it explained. Avon was watching Blake as the other, his guilt revealed, took a step backwards.
For Avon, in that moment the others ceased to exist. "Is it true?" he asked Blake quietly. "That they did this to me to get you to talk?"
"Tarrant doesn't understand, Avon," Blake said.
Avon shook his head. "Neither do I, Blake."
"I couldn't tell Servalan what Sula planned. I couldn't let all those people die, not..." His voice trailed off.
"Not just for me," Avon finished.
"Not even for you," Blake corrected. He took a step towards Avon, reaching out as if to grasp the other's arms. Avon turned away. No one else on the flight deck dared to move. Even Blake was still again. "You have to understand, Avon," he began again, "I would have given anything to make them stop hurting you..."
"But you could have stopped it at any time," Avon said. He crossed his arms over his chest as if trying to keep warm. "One word would have been enough. Just one word."
"They would have killed Sula and the others."
"They died anyway," Avon snapped, turning round sharply. It was his turn to take a step backwards, away from the too close figure of Roj Blake.
"Yes, they did, and I'm sorry for that." Blake paused. "Avon," he said, stepping closer now to clasp the other's arms. "We've both of us been hurt in the past protecting others. I've seen you hurt to protect this ship, its crew."
"That is different. It was my choice. I wasn't given a choice here, Blake. You were. And you chose to let the Federation have me."
Blake shook his head, releasing Avon. "No. Oh, God, I'm sorry, but if I could have stopped them at the cost of my life, I would have. But I couldn't by your life with their blood."
"No?" Avon asked. "Other people's blood always seemed a currency you were eager to trade in."
"Avon!" Cally said, aghast as Blake went white then red with anger. At first she was afraid Blake would strike the other man, but he pulled himself back under control. Dayna and Tarrant kept silent; this was an argument in which they had no place, but each had tensed when it seemed Blake might physically assault the smaller, still weak man.
Avon seemed to realise he had gone too far. He lifted a hand to his head, embarrassed to have revealed to much in front of the others, but the anger, the hurt was still there. It seemed that in his centre a block of ice was forming and chilling him to the bone. He had thought Blake different from all the other people he had known in his life. He had thought he mattered to Blake as a person, not just a computer man who happened to be good with a gun. The ice was spreading now, running along his veins, freezing his soul. He tried to move, to convince himself he didn't care, that it didn't matter because he hadn't expected any more than to be thrown to the dogs for Blake's rabble should the need arise. But he had. He had been fool enough to think that a man who could appear to care so much for the faceless masses could care even more for the people he knew. Stupid, oh so very stupid. A black tide leapt up out of the ice, engulfing him completely, and when it swept away, it took his consciousness with it.
"Avon!" Blake shouted and leapt forward to catch him before he hit the floor. Avon was a dead weight in his arms, still, pale and lifeless as Cally came towards them.
Tarrant came out from behind the controls. "I'll take him to the medical unit," he offered.
"Let Blake," Cally said.
"Blake!" Dayna echoed as Blake lifted Avon gently. "Are you sure?"
"I won't hurt him, Dayna," Blake replied. One look at his face and Dayna relented. She had never seen such concern, such compassion for another on anyone's face before, let alone directed at the bad tempered Kerr Avon.
"Let us know how he is?" she asked as Blake moved, Cally close behind him. Vila said nothing. He simply bent and picked up the dark glasses, dropped as Avon fell. Then he collapsed onto the flight deck and ran his fingers through his hair. He had the beginnings of a nasty headache and he didn't see any way out of this mess at all.
Avon was already coming round when Blake placed him on the medical unit bed. He pushed feebly at Blake's hands, his strength returning all the time. Cally bent over him and caught his hands in her own.
"Be still, Avon," she said. "You should not have done so much so soon. It all takes time." Avon opened his eyes, wincing at the bright light.
"Zen, cut the brightness in here fifty percent," Blake ordered, and the lights went down. Avon lowered his arm. "Avon..." Blake began.
"I'm all right," Avon said abruptly. Blake looked over Avon's head at Cally, who nodded once.
"You should stay here a little longer," she advised.
"Very well," Avon conceded, his very acquiescence worrying. "Don't let Tarrant be talked into doing anything stupid." Blake bristled slightly at the implications of that, but Cally smiled.
"We have nowhere in particular to go," she told Avon.
"What about you?" Avon asked Blake. For a moment, Blake was puzzled. Was Avon asking if he had plans to take the Liberator somewhere? Was he offering something? Blake didn't know. "Can we drop you off somewhere?" Avon clarified.
Just for a moment, Blake's expression was one of hurt. He'd only just found them. To be thrown off was too much, and yet wasn't it what he deserved?
"Avalon is on Jevron," Blake volunteered. "You could drop me off there."
Avon nodded. He opened the intercom to the flight deck. "Tarrant..."
"Ah, Avon. So nice to hear your dulcet tones again."
Avon scowled. "Set course for Jevron, standard by six. Have Zen confirm with journey time."
"Jevron? What's there?"
"Avalon." Avon glanced at Blake, who hadn't moved. "We're dropping Blake off with his friends."
"Dropping him off..." Vila's voice began, then faded out.
"Arrival time confirmed. It'll be seventy-two hours, Avon," Tarrant said.
"Very well." Avon cut the connection.
"Thank you," Blake said, his voice bleak and empty. Cally did not understand. Blake clearly didn't want to go; he and Avon had much to discuss, to sort out, and Avon knew this too. But neither was going to admit to the fact. She touched Blake's arm lightly to get his attention.
"You should rest, too," she told him.
"I'll go to my cabin," he muttered, and head down, turned to go. Cally looked at Avon. For a moment he stared back blankly, then he surrendered. He needed some answers.
"Blake, I want to talk to you," he said. His tone was not friendly or inviting in the least, but Blake turned around at once.
"I will go to the flight deck," Cally informed them, and left.
"Thank you," Blake said. Avon said nothing.
Cally crossed her fingers as she made her way to the flight deck, an old trick she had learned from Gan. He had always said it brought luck. She hoped Avon and Blake would come to some sort of understanding. She understood that Avon felt betrayed and Blake guilty, but she did not understand why they would not talk. She could see why Blake had not talked to the Federation, why he had not given his allies away, and she was sure Avon would too, if he could just get past the hurt he would never admit to feeling.
It was very quiet on the flight deck when she arrived. Tarrant was at the controls. Vila, Avon's eyeglasses in his hands, was slumped on the couch. He sat up straighter when he saw her come in.
"Where's Blake?" Dayna asked, coming up behind her.
"Is that safe?" Tarrant asked.
"They will not harm each other," Cally said as she walked over to Vila.
"You could have fooled me," Tarrant muttered.
"Frequently," Vila quipped. "Anyway, they're not armed."
"That doesn't seem to stop them drawing blood, does it?" Dayna asked.
"Zen" Cally spoke, "remain on present course for Jevron, but reduce speed to standard by three."
"Why?" Tarrant asked.
"They need to talk."
"Aren't three days enough?"
"It will probably take Avon that long to come to the point," Vila said.
"And the point is?" Dayna asked.
"Oh, nothing very significant," Vila mused. "Just what did I do to make you let me down too?" He glanced at Cally. "Hope Blake's got a good answer for that one."
"Don't be stupid, Vila," Dayna said. "Avon is angry because of what Blake allowed the Federation to do to him."
Vila shook his head. "Oh no. he'll understand that eventually. He might not like the idea, but he will understand. It's not that that is the problem, really." He shrugged. "You have to have been here to understand, I guess," he finished.
"You could try explaining," Tarrant suggested.
"Hell, I don't really understand. They're Alphas, remember. Alphas really are a funny lot."
"You don't want to," Dayna guessed. Cally moved until she was standing behind the thief. Gently she placed a hand on his shoulder.
"It is not right that we should discuss Avon and Blake while they are not here," she said. Vila smiled gratefully. Tarrant looked as if he would like to argue the point.
"Avon's hardly likely to explain it, is he?" he said.
"Then you're obviously not supposed to know," Vila told him triumphantly.
Avon lay back, his eyes closed, half hoping that Blake would follow Cally even though he was the one who had asked him to stay. But Blake stayed where he was, waiting. Finally, Avon opened his eyes. He didn't face Blake, but stared instead at the ceiling. "How long were you a guest of the Federation?" he asked.
"Three days, before I knew you were there," Blake replied. "Servalan told me, just before Shrinker arrived. She said you had been there for five days?"
Avon considered that without replying. He had been waiting for Shrinker. If Blake hadn't known he was there until then, then Blake was not responsible for most of what had been done to him. He still had only himself to blame, for most of the mess anyway. Unconsciously, he lifted a hand to his eyes.
Blake watched silently for a moment. When Avon touched his face, Blake felt he knew just what the other man was thinking. "How did they catch you?" Blake asked at last.
"I wanted them to," Avon replied.
"You wanted..." Blake spluttered to a halt.
Avon turned his head to look at Blake. "The others haven't explained?" he asked, surprised. "I had some... business with Shrinker."
"So you let the Federation catch you. Do you realise the risk you took?"
"It was, is, my life," Avon replied.
"The others might have been killed trying to get you out," Blake told him.
Avon sat up slightly, leaning on his elbows. "They wouldn't have come until I sent for them," he challenged, and Blake saw more than he was saying.
"And you didn't plan on doing that?"
"Possibly. I had Vila set up the cave," he said softly, almost to himself. "It all depended on what happened." Avon looked at Blake, then away.
"What about the chances of them breaking you?" Blake asked him. Avon's head snapped around in shock. "Yes, Avon. Did you consider the danger you put them in? If you had broken, the information you could have given to the Federation."
"I hadn't considered it a possibility," Avon replied.
"Well you should have. You're not superhuman, whatever you may think," Blake told him. "The information you could have given if you had broken, the technical advances, the rebels you could have betrayed."
"Oh yes, of course. Your precious rabble," Avon snapped.
"All right, forget the rebel groups you know about, forget the teleport and Orac and Zen. What about Vila and Cally and the others? What about the danger of betraying them?"
"There was no question of me betraying the Liberator," Avon replied coldly.
"No question?" Blake echoed. "No matter what they did to you?"
Avon shook his head. "I know where you're going, Blake. Don't try it. I would have told them nothing. Damn it, Blake, I did tell them nothing for five days. This was my choice, my..."
"Your pain? Yes, I know. But what if it hadn't been? What if they had threatened someone else, a friend? What would you have done then?"
Avon did not reply. He was an honest man, at least with such questions as this, and to this particular man, and he did not know the answer.
Blake smiled grimly at Avon's continued silence. "And I hope you never find out, my friend." He spoke softly, his voice betraying, as it was meant to do, his feelings.
Avon studied Blake. The other man looked old and tired, older and more exhausted than he should, really, even after being a Federation prisoner. Avon found that his anger towards Blake was gone. He strongly suspected it had never been that great, but that it was a combination of surprise at Blake's admission and shock at the pain that admission had caused, that had produced the outburst on the flight deck. That it was hurt he felt, not fury. Avon hadn't realised he expected so much of Blake, and he was slightly stunned by the revelation.
Blake sat waiting for Avon to speak. In the dim light, it was hard to see his expression, to know what he was thinking, but he did know Avon was no longer angry and that there was still something on his mind.
When Avon spoke again, his tone was calm and curious. "What happened after we abandoned the ship?" he asked Blake. "I know you said you had to run, but why didn't you contact us later?"
Blake knew the answer was important to Avon but it was hard to explain. It just never seemed the right thing to do, to ask your friends to again risk their lives for something in which they didn't believe. Once away from the Liberator, he could see how he had been pushing the others, forcing them to go along with him, how even Avon seemed to have given in to him. And he hadn't liked what that had made him. Not to return had seemed the best solution. Now he wasn't so sure.
"As I said," Blake began, "I didn't think you would be interested." Avon opened his mouth to reply, but Blake ploughed on. "All right, I'm sorry, I was wrong. I should have known, but I was still hurting."
"Hurting?" Avon echoed. He didn't understand what Blake meant.
"Yes, Avon," Blake began. "What you said, about wanting to be free of me..."
"I never meant it like that," Avon protested.
"I know that now," Blake assured him. "I'm sorry. I didn't even try to understand at the time. Anyway, my shoulder injury became infected. I was out of it for weeks. By the time I was paying attention again, Avalon had moved on. There was no word of you or Liberator. I wasn't sure I still had a choice."
"But you survived, and we made little secret of a lot of what we did." He smiled. "Tarrant gets a little enthusiastic at times. Why didn't we hear from you then?"
"I met Sula. She had such plans, Avon. A people's council, elected governments." Avon snorted derisively. "Sounds like a dream, doesn't it? But she didn't just talk. She had plans, workable plans. We talked about contacting you. She seemed fascinated if I told stories about the Liberator. Especially about you. You don't know her, do you?" Avon shook his head. "Odd," Blake said. "I could have sworn... Anyway, we decided it was too much of a risk." He didn't add that Servalan's edicts against the Liberator and her crew, and her frequent trips off Earth, had left Sula free to build her army. He didn't tell Avon how Sula had cast him and the Liberator in the role of diversion. Expendable diversion at that. Something he had always said he didn't accept, but had gone along with just the same.
"They failed," Avon said. "Sula's plans."
"Yes. They all died and Servalan survived. I had hoped, for a while at least, that she was dead too."
"Servalan is just a symptom," Avon told him, "admittedly a nasty one, of the general disease."
"Agreed," Blake said, He thought he could hear interest in Avon's voice.
"So, what's on Jevron?"
+Information.+ Zen's voice cut through the silence on the flight deck abruptly. +Detectors register a small vessel in Liberator's path.+
"Federation?" Vila asked, worried. They were still, in his opinion, too close to Federation controlled Earth.
+It does not correspond to any known configuration.+
"Alien, then," Vila said. "That's worse." Cally glared at him, annoyed.
"Is it in visual range?" Tarrant asked.
"Then show it to us, Zen," Dayna interrupted.
At first the picture was fuzzy, indistinct.
"Not up to your usual standards, Zen," Tarrant commented. Then the picture cleared. A white, ovoid shape hung in space. "Motive power?" Tarrant asked. He had never seen anything like that ship in his life.
+Negative. The vessel is drifting.+
Cally stared in silence at the ship. Something about it was familiar, she thought. Then the feeling faded, but she had the distinct impression she heard her name being called.
+The vessel has stopped moving.+
Vila got to his feet. "I don't like the look of that," he said.
"Do you ever?" Dayna queried.
"Zen, signal the alien," Tarrant ordered. Vila considered for all of two seconds, then he went to get Avon.
At the surgical unit door, Vila waited, listening. He could hear voices, but they weren't raised in anger, which was a good sign. And there were two of them, which was even better. He took a deep breath and burst in.
Avon gave a cry of shock and pain as the door burst open. He had been sitting on the bed talking to Blake, who still sat in the chair, his back to the door. Avon threw up an arm to try to protect his eyes from the bright light.
"Vila!" Blake said sharply when he saw who it was. Vila shut the door and reached into his pocket. He took out the dark glasses Avon had lost on the flight deck.
"Sorry, Avon," he said. "But you've got to come to the flight deck, now."
Blake got to his feet. "Federation?" he asked.
"No. At least, I don't think so," Vila said. "There's this ship, it's got to be alien. Zen says there's no life on board but if it was alien, it wouldn't show up, would it, not as life? It was drifting, but now it's stopped, and Tarrant's talking to it."
"Slow down, Vila," Blake suggested.
"Tarrant wants to go on board," Vila continued after a breath. "And he'll take me, I know he will. I don't like aliens, especially not ones that don't show up on the sensors."
"I get the picture, Vila." Avon slid off the bed as he spoke. He looked at Blake from behind the dark glasses. "I think we had better go and see what Tarrant is doing."
"You think so?"
Avon nodded as he followed Vila out of the door. "You know what they say about fools, don't you Blake?" he asked.
"A fool and his money's soon parted," Vila suggested.
Avon glared at the back of his head for a long moment, fighting the urge to laugh. An odd sound drew his attention to Blake. He turned round. Blake was fighting the urge to laugh too. At Avon's stare, he gave up and laughed out loud. Up ahead, where neither man could see, Vila Restal grinned in delight.
"Not exactly, Vila," Avon said at last, and the laughter left a thread of light in his tone you couldn't miss. "I was thinking more along the lines of fools rush in..."
"Where angels fear to tread, Avon?" Blake finished. "Hardly appropriate on this ship, surely?"
Vila, now he was sure both men were following him, slowed down to walk alongside Avon. He was still smiling.
"Possibly you are right," Avon mused. "Perhaps we should just give Tarrant his head in this particular instance."
"Give him enough rope..." Blake offered.
"And miss all the fun?" Blake asked as he stepped out onto the flight deck ahead of Avon and Vila. Vila glanced at Avon. He felt as if he were home at last, almost anyway. Then Avon stepped forward, passing Blake, taking command.
"What are you up to, Tarrant?" he asked, and all was right with Vila's world - as right as it ever got, anyway. Tarrant jumped, turning to face the intruders, looking both guilty and defiant. Like a child caught stealing from his own piggy bank, Vila thought.
"Zen located a ship. I thought we should check it out," he said.
"Oh you did, did you?" Avon began, and Blake settled back to watch.
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