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A Price to Pay

By Julia Stamford
He hurt, and the cell was cold, and the bench was hard, but it didn't really matter. Very little mattered any more, and certainly not a few hours of minor discomfort before he was either taken back to Earth for trial, or executed here and now. Not that he'd be left on Gauda Prime, either way. Too valuable a showpiece, dead or alive. Too bad Servalan wasn't here. At least she had an incentive to kill him, unlike this motley gang of troopers who couldn't believe their luck.

      There was a sound at the door, and then it slid open, revealing a small, delicate figure in clothes quite out of keeping with the battlefield. "Avon. How nice to see you again."

      He should have known. No possible reason for Servalan to know he would be here, so here she was. "Hello, Sleer. News travels fast, I see."

      Servalan smiled, perhaps in acknowledgement at his use of her pseudonym, and gestured dismissively at the guards. "You may go." She waited until they had stepped back, and then returned her attention to him. "Not quite. I was on my way here to report on the policing structures that will need to be put in place if the Federation is to accede to this planet's request to rejoin civilised society. They are very eager to rejoin, and have been quite... co-operative. You can imagine my surprise when I was informed that my first duty would be to deal with the dregs of a group of terrorists who had infiltrated the local law enforcement agency."

      "Your surprise at who the terrorists were must have been even more enchanting."

      "Oh, indeed. I am quite delighted. A large problem has been... eliminated." She walked a little closer to the bench where he sat, out of the line of sight of the guards. "However, it leaves me with a small problem. What to do with you. There are a number of options, and it is my decision. It will be some days before any other judicial authority could get here."

      Another step closer. Not quite close enough for a lunge, but he tensed slightly in anticipation. Another step, Servalan, just one more, and I will have my escape.

      She smiled again. "The guards have instructions not to kill you if you kill me." And as he sank back to the bench, she said, "I know you very well, Avon. Even better than Blake did."

      He couldn't help flinching at that. The pain was too new, too raw. She was right, she did know him, she'd proven that more than once.

      And he knew her. That had not been hurt inflicted simply for its own sake. She was after something. "What do you want from me? A live trophy to present to the President?"

      "Perhaps. I have an offer to discuss, one that you might listen to now that your crew are all dead. Yes, they are, and yes, I will show you the bodies. After we have discussed my offer."

      All dead? Unlikely, not when he was still alive. "Now. Or I will assume that you had them killed." And if they were all dead, then all claims on him were gone. No obligation to remain alive, to do anything anyone else wanted. No last doubts to hold him back if he did get a chance...

      Servalan sighed. "Oh, very well. But I want your word that you will then at least listen to me before doing anything else. It's a simple enough request."

      Puzzled, he said, "Very well, I will listen to you. After I see them. Why tell me about them now, instead of waiting?"

      "It got your attention, and your co-operation, at least temporarily. You won't be quite certain they're dead until you have seen them, and you need to be certain, don't you, Avon? Would you simply accept my word for it?"

      "I was stupid enough to accept your word for it once before." He'd believed her, when she'd told him she'd seen Blake's body burn. She had been so convincing, for all that he knew her to lie as readily as any other politician.

      Her expression clouded. "It wasn't a lie. I believed it to be the truth, and I thought you had the right to know." Then she was the cynical, lying, arrogant politician again. "Someone lied to me. The body looked like Blake, and I believed it. They paid for it."

      "When have you had the time?"

      "Oh, quite recently. He was quite surprised."

      I'm sure he was. Madam President's survival must have surprised a good few by now. Fatally, no doubt. "Very well. Let's get it over with." He stood up, found a small flicker of malicious amusement in the way she hurriedly stepped back. Didn't quite trust her control of him, then. "Oh, don't worry, Commissioner, I usually keep my word. And it's difficult to listen to a corpse." Or for them to listen to you. I'm sorry, Blake.

      

      They were indeed all dead, and the evidence suggested that they'd died in the firefight. Dayna had been shot by a different weapon, but Servalan had an explanation for that, and he was too tired to worry about whether she was telling the truth. It seemed plausible enough, and his own memories were of no use whatsoever. Tarrant had died as much from the wounds inflicted in the crash as from gunshots; neither would have been fatal alone, but together, with no medical treatment... Soolin and Vila had the typical gunshot to the head used by troopers quelling a riot and not looking for live prisoners. Possible, since they were apparently dealing with a rebel base.

      The one body he desperately wanted to see wasn't there.

      "Where is he?"

      "Come with me." Servalan led the way from the makeshift mortuary, through another room with bodies laid out.

      Looking at the clothing, he guessed that these were the people from the base. Perhaps they'd put Blake with these, instead of with the Scorpio crew. Logical, he'd never been part of the Scorpio crew, but it still hurt, another small drop to add to the flood.

      Servalan kept going, through to a corridor. He followed, bewildered. Blake was dead, had to be dead with those wounds, so if he wasn't in the mortuary where was he? Certainly not outside, which was where Servalan was now standing, waiting impatiently for him.

      She motioned away the guards. "He's not dangerous, and you don't have the security classification to listen to my conversations."

      "But ma'am, he's a notorious criminal..." one of the guards started to protest.

      She turned to smile sweetly at the guard, who looked frightened. Very sensible of the man. "This man is of personal interest to the President. He is indeed a notorious criminal. A notorious criminal genius, who has developed technology that would be of enormous benefit to Space Command. Such benefit that even the reports on what he is suspected to have achieved are rated triple A. Are you quite sure you wish to listen to what he has to say by way of plea-bargaining?"

      Unsurprisingly, the man backed away. Avon had encountered the upper levels of the security rating system while working on the Aquitar Project, and could well imagine what obtaining that sort of clearance retroactively might be like for someone who was of no value in themselves. At best it would involve a twenty year posting to somewhere where nobody else ever went.

      Servalan watched until the man had moved well out of earshot, then linked her arm through Avon's. "A short walk, and you will listen. And then I will answer your questions."

      "Blake."

      "In a few minutes. Please try not to look dangerous, dear, you're upsetting the guards. It would be a waste to have to kill them if they tried to interfere."

      He looked at her. She was quite serious. What was going on? "All right, I'll listen."

      Servalan started walking, and he let her lead. "You are too useful an asset to kill, Avon. Oh, a public appearance will be arranged, the people must have their bread and circuses..."

      "...and be shown what happens to those who do not obey."

      "Quite. But you will be working in a research facility, willingly or not. Keep walking."

      His steps had faltered, as he'd realised what they intended. No, the guards wouldn't be allowed to kill him just because he'd killed the Commissioner. He picked up the pace again. "It won't work. The sort of reprogramming that turns someone into a puppet - turns them into a puppet. No original thought. No original work." He thought of Blake, and shivered inside. The firebrand he'd known was nothing like the docile reformed rebel that had once urged everyone to support the administration. Blake had found his mind again, but not everyone was that lucky.

      "It doesn't have to be original. Simply... persuading... you to reproduce what you have already achieved would be of great value to us."

      "And to yourself, as the one with the credit for capturing me."

      "Of course. But it would be an even greater credit to persuade you to return to us voluntarily."

      "Do you really think I'd walk into a jail cell voluntarily, no matter how comfortable it was?" He glanced at her. "You know me better than that, Servalan."

      "You've done it before, for the sake of someone you love."

      God, but she knew how to twist the knife. "And you saw what it got me."

      "Yes." Her hand squeezed his elbow. Sympathy? From Servalan? Wonders would never cease. "But I do have something to offer you."

      "My crew are dead. Anna's dead. Blake's dead. And you are not enough." Especially not when she'd brought him to a burial site. "What are we doing here?"

      "What I have to offer you is here. We can talk freely, I've sent the troopers on burial detail for an extended lunch break." She slipped her hand free from his arm. "This is where they're burying the people from the base. Rebel and innocent alike, they're not bothering to distinguish them. They're not even bothering to identify them. Your crew go back to Earth as exhibits, but not these. These were little people. They don't matter."

      He would have strangled her then, but he had given his word, and he needed to know what it was she thought would be a high enough price for him to betray Blake one last time. "Servalan."

      "They don't matter, Avon," and she sounded tired. "No one will rise up to avenge them, no one will use their name as a rallying cry. No one cares that they lived, or how they died. You need to be famous for that. And even then, in a hundred years' time, who will care?"

      He found it horribly depressing, hearing his own cynical creed from Servalan.

      "We lost eighty percent of the fleet at Star One, Avon, and the civilians don't care. My people died to protect them, and they don't care. Damn them. They don't deserve to rule themselves."

      How odd. He agreed with Servalan in a warped sort of way. "The money men don't like having a military dictatorship, something as blatant as that makes it too difficult for the middle classes to ignore what their rulers are doing. That's why they tipped you out at the first opportunity." Not because she was an incompetent dictator, she'd been all too competent until she'd allowed herself to become distracted by his own antics, but because she wasn't their dictator. If she hadn't been willing to act on the message Jenna had sent her, he'd have died uselessly at Star One, trying to hold off an invasion fleet with a single ship. If she hadn't been willing to take responsibility, make a decision, when it mattered.

      "I shall make them regret it. And you are going to help."

      "All very well, but I still haven't heard your offer."

      She stepped away from him, stood by one of the stretchers laid by an open grave. "Oh, you'll find the price I'm offering to pay for your co-operation worth your while."

      The price she offered him would have to be very high indeed, to be able to match the one he would pay for accepting it.

      She bent and flipped the sheet away from the stretcher.

      Blake.

      He sank to his knees, feeling as if he'd been punched in the gut. Or shot in the gut. This was reality, this was Blake, dead, by his hand. He wanted to shut his eyes, block out the sight, he wanted to look as long as he could before the sight was taken away from him forever.

      "I can give you Blake. Not Blake alive, nobody has that to give, not with the Clonemasters dead. It was a clone I saw on Jevron, but the clones are dead now, and those who created them."

      "Then what?" he whispered.

      "Blake's legend." She looked down at Blake's face. "All of his colleagues are dead. The troopers didn't recognise him - he was supposed to be dead, so he was removed from the Wanted list. He would almost certainly have been put back on it in a few months, there have been rumours circulating for some time now that he didn't die on Jevron, verified sightings of him since then. People don't believe he is dead. It was a mistake to burn the body, it couldn't be produced as evidence of his death." Servalan looked around at the open graves, the little group of covered stretchers. "Of course, there are times when it is wise to burn the bodies, so that they cannot be produced as evidence. Apparently, this base was suspected of having been infiltrated by rebels. An undercover officer was supposed to identify those to be taken for questioning, but the troops were somewhat overzealous. I shall mention to the troop commander the difficulty I face in liaising with the local law enforcement officers at this base when they are all dead. The ones carrying unauthorised guns on the base were clearly rebels, but there might be questions asked by what passes for a planetary government about unarmed corpses. Embarrassing questions. We've found that it's so much easier when the embarrassing corpses aren't there to have to explain."

      And Blake, of course, had been unarmed, although he hadn't thought about that at the time.

      Servalan looked back at him. "They are not bothering to formally identify the bodies. You and I are the only ones here who could identify him by sight. If he's cremated here, there will be nothing left to identify by the time the rumours are so widespread that the High Council cannot ignore them. And with the right things said in the right places, he could be put back on the Wanted list now. It hasn't happened yet only because it would have been an admission that he was still alive."

      "And?"

      "Come with me, work with me, and Blake can stay here. We will know that it is a warrior's funeral pyre we watch, even if no one else does. He can rest in peace, and his legend will grow. If we say nothing, he will never die."

      "And if I refuse?"

      "He comes back with us for public display. And I will tell them who killed him."

      He looked at Servalan, and he looked at Blake, and he knew himself trapped. Which was the lesser of two evils? He owed Blake, he owed it to Blake to do whatever would best help Blake's cause, but which choice was that? Refuse to give Servalan what she wanted, deny the Federation ready access to the teleport technology that would give them military superiority, but give them the propaganda coup of Blake's death at his hands? Or play the traitor to the last, give Servalan the products of his mind, and hope that Blake's cause would be better served by the rumours of Blake's ongoing battle? Rumours that the Federation could never completely deny without a corpse as evidence.

      "You will be gambling, of course," Servalan said. "With your help, the Federation might become unstoppable, at least until it goes the way of all empires and collapses in on itself."

      He glanced at her.

      "I did study military history, after all, Avon. All empires end, sooner or later. You can have a direct influence on whether it is sooner, or later, for the Federation. It might become unstoppable, for a while. Or Blake's legend might grow, become a rallying call. People care whether he lived, and how he died. And he is famous. They'll remember him in a hundred years. He does matter. They'll remember you as well, of course. You will be reviled as a traitor, by both sides, but when has public opinion ever bothered you? His ghost will know why you're doing it, and that's the only thing that matters to you."

      Get thee behind me, Satan. So tempting, to give in, to tell himself that he was doing it for Blake's sake, that the potential long-term gain mattered more than the short term losses. She was telling the truth, he might do better for Blake's cause in the long run by betraying it now. And they'd have some of it, at least, out of him whether he was willing or no. Maybe if he was working of his own volition, he'd have the chance for subtle sabotage... and that was yet another excuse.

      He needed to think. And he didn't have time.

      "What about my crew? Are they included?"

      "No. I'm sorry, my dear, they deserve better, but the mob must have their pound of flesh. If I have you, I need to explain where the rest are. I have to have something to satisfy the appetite for dead rebels."

      Logical enough, there would be questions asked, questions that might lead to digging up graves looking for important corpses, if the expected roster of important corpses wasn't present and correct. Even the sort of forensic team who would know how to sift through the ashes. No get-out there.

      So.

      "Why are you doing this, Servalan? Why would you risk bringing down the Federation sooner rather than later?"

      "Even if it is sooner, it is unlikely to be within my lifetime. Why should I care what happens after that? The spineless fools dithered while the Andromedans used our own systems against us, and then when it was safe to come out they betrayed the people who had protected them. They turned against Space Command, they turned against me. Why should I care if the moneymongers lose it all after I am dead?"

      That was vicious enough to be believable. And yet...

      "And giving Blake a peaceful rest? You hate what he stood for."

      "Not his ideals. His methods, but not his ideals." She knelt, and touched Blake's face. "He was wrong to fight the Federation. It offers stability, protection, he offered only anarchy. But when it mattered, he made the right choice. He sent the message from Star One, he held the gap until the fleet could get there. He could have chosen to let the Federation fall, but he put the human race ahead of his own political dreams." She drew the cover back over over Blake. "Why should those cowards have him?"

      Jenna sent the message. I held the gap. Not Blake. But of course it was Blake who'd done those things, for he and Jenna had only done those things because Blake would have wanted them to, Blake would have done those things himself had he been able to. Jenna had made the decision for herself, he had promised Blake. But without Blake, they would have run.

      Blake and Servalan were more alike than either of them would be comfortable with. They both thought they knew what was best for humanity. They were both right, some of the time. It would be up to history to judge whether either of them was right more often than wrong. Let history do the same for him.

      He knelt, and pulled the cover back, just enough to see the face, not the dreadful wound. His enemy, his friend, the man who had tried to make him care, and succeeded all too well. "Goodbye, Blake," he whispered, and replaced the cover. Then he stood up.

      "Deal, Servalan."


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