Fire and RainBy Nova
Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone ...
Although actually he'd found out a week ago, not that it made things any better. Worse, if possible. He'd managed to fend off some of the pain while the children were still there - stately Dayna, cool blonde Soolin and gawky persistent Tarrant, all of them looking absurdly young to him, despite their professional swagger and ferocious weaponry. Blake had liked them immediately, even before he'd discovered that they were the crew from the Scorpio, and he'd been touched by their awkwardly earnest way of breaking the news. Dayna kept saying, 'I feel as though I know you, because they talked about you so often.' Tarrant kept mumbling, 'We would've come and told you straight away, except that we had to establish a new base first.' And Soolin kept repeating that Vila was, quite possibly, still alive: as if repetition could make it true.
Altogether, the three of them had been so respectful and concerned that Blake felt obliged to offer the same respect in return. So, rather than hiding in his tent or stalking off into the forest to howl at the Gauda Prime moon, he'd nodded gravely and thanked them and spent the rest of the evening listening to a series of stories about life on Xenon Base, while he watched the youngsters gradually unwind and start to joke about the past, as though sharing their memories had helped shift a heavy burden of grief. Impossible to load his own grief onto them after that: impossible and inherently unfair. Instead, he'd hugged the pain close to his chest and played guru to his three new acolytes, who followed him round the camp for the rest of the week like orphan ducklings imprinted on a passing farmer. A damp patch on his pillow one morning hinted at night tears but other than that, his eyes remained as parched as his heart.
But now Tarrant and the women had headed off to continue their career of vaguely rebellious piracy and Blake was listening to the same song for the tenth time in an hour, mesmerised by the lyrical pity in Larsen's voice, crooning along with the chorus, still unable to make it through the last line without his throat tightening around the irony of it all.
Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain.
Seen sunny days I thought would never end.
Seen lonely nights when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again.
The camp fires smouldered, scrawling curlicues of white smoke across thin sheets of rain. A light touch on Blake's arm made him jump and swivel and smile up at one of the few friends he'd managed to find and keep. 'Avalon,' he said, digging the sound chips out of his ears. 'I thought you'd still be busy negotiating with the leaders from the other frontier planets.'
Avalon grinned and squatted down beside him, a porcelain-pretty doll who dressed and moved like a trooper. 'No, it was easier than we expected,' she replied. 'They were so impressed by the way we chased the Federation off Gauda Prime that they're practically begging for a chance to join the fight.'
Blake hitched one shoulder into a moody shrug. 'You chased the Federation away, you and your squad. I wouldn't say I had much to do with it. A spot of recruiting and the occasional terrorist action - that's all I've achieved over the last few years.'
He frowned down at his hands, clenched around the control unit, and Avalon thudded a fist into his thigh to get his attention. 'You underestimate yourself, Roj,' she said in the bell-bright voice she used to encourage their small army. 'You're a hero of the resistance, you know. Our soldiers still tell stories about the Liberator's exploits. It gives them hope.'
Blake's mouth twisted into the wry rictus of a tragic mask. 'So I'm a symbol now,' he commented. 'That seems somehow appropriate. I couldn't claim to feel entirely real these days.'
'Especially since the Scorpio turned up,' Avalon agreed with unnerving accuracy. 'What did those children say to you, Roj? Are you going to tell me about it?'
Another scatter of fine rain, folding around the tent and enclosing them in a pale cocoon. Blake stared at the changing patterns, white on white, until his eyes blurred. 'They're all dead,' he said finally. 'All my old Liberator crew. Cally died in an explosion on a planet appropriately named Terminal. I'd already killed Gan with one of my more pig-headed decisions and as you know, Jenna hit the self-destruct button when she was caught running the blockade. Then Vila disappeared from Xenon Base, almost a year ago now. They never found his body but I could tell Soolin believes ... At any rate, she mentioned that Vila seemed to be fairly depressed, for a week or so before he went missing.'
He twisted the control unit between his fingers, pressing its sharp edges into soft flesh. Avalon waited for a while and then said gently, 'And Avon?'
Gold-brown eyes flicked briefly towards her, faltered and fell. 'Yes, well, he's dead too,' Blake said. 'No doubt about that, I'm afraid. I thought he'd settle for making himself rich and safe, once I was out of the way, but for some reason he chose to keep on fighting the Federation, just as I'd done. Avon never really wanted to be a leader, Lon. Apparently, it all got too much for him in the end. He tried to set up an alliance between the non-aligned planets out in the border system and when that failed, he took Orac and ran for the nearest bolthole. I suspect he was heading for a breakdown by then, because he didn't even bother to erase the coordinates. The others followed him, of course, and - oh hell, Lon, he must've walked straight into a Federation ambush. Orac was a sticky heap of melted plastic and Avon ... well, death by fire isn't pretty but at least there was enough of his clothing left for Vila and the children to identify.'
The rain veils lifted abruptly. Blake clenched his jaw and scowled at the petals of flame flaring up around the camp site, yellow blossoms in the milky mist. **Fire and rain. I always thought that I'd see you again.** His eyes burned and his muscles throbbed, locked so tightly round his grief that they were beginning to twitch and spasm when Avalon touched his arm and said, 'You loved him, didn't you?'
Blake sighed and slumped. 'I suppose so,' he admitted. 'I just wish I'd realised it while he was still around. You always think there'll be time, don't you? Time to bring down the Federation and make some sort of life for yourself, if you don't die trying. But I can't even hope for that now, Lon. I don't have any fight left in me.'
Avalon studied him for a while, kneading the muscles stretched taut under her palm. Then she rose to her feet and said briskly, 'Burnout. You need a break, Roj, and as it happens, I've got the answer. Have you noticed the latest craze around the camp - silver juggling balls with a fluctuating antigrav device? The children love them.'
'Not just the children,' Blake said with a reluctant smile. 'I had to take one away from Deva halfway through the last strategy session, because he wouldn't stop playing with it. What's your point, Lon? Do you think I can solve my problems by learning to juggle?'
She swiped at him, pulling the punch just short of his bicep. 'Shut up and listen, for a change. My point is, those toys were a gift from our most important backer, the man who's been supplying us with stunguns and heat-sensor detectors. I haven't told anyone else about him, partly because he asked for secrecy ... and partly because there's nothing to tell. I don't know who he is or where he is. He uses the code name Magician and he has a sense of humour - the silver balls came with a note saying that even revolutionaries need to relax occasionally, although I suspect they're the prototype for some sort of antigrav weaponry as well. But that's the limit of my information.'
Blake rubbed a thumb across his lower lip, pleating it thoughtfully. 'Yes, I was wondering about the stunguns,' he said. 'We've been cut off from the rest of the galaxy for a while now but I was fairly sure those guns weren't standard issue. So your Magician designed them himself? He sounds like an ingenious character.'
'Altruistic too,' Avalon told him. 'He hasn't asked for anything in return, at least not until yesterday. Now he wants me to lend him an engineer, if I can find one. Well, Roj? What do you think? You could inspect our mystery benefactor, do some manual work to take your mind off your troubles, then come back here to the base and fall in love with one of my soldiers.'
'Nice idea, Lon, except that I've tried the last part already,' Blake grumbled. 'It didn't work.'
'But you'll go,' she said: a statement, not a question.
'If you're so determined to get rid of me,' he sighed and Avalon grinned back, saying, 'Yes, Roj. I'm determined.'
'Then I don't really have much choice, do I? When should I leave?'
'Tomorrow. I warn you, it'll be a long journey. The Magician's obsessed with covering his tracks, so you'll be passed from one contact to the next, as a security measure. Good luck, my dear - and don't forget, this is your chance to take a holiday from being a symbol.' She hesitated, shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her combat pants and added brusquely, 'Although you're a powerful symbol, Roj. Remember that too.'
She saluted and went marching off, a small straight-backed figure with a deceptive air of fragility. A gust of wind followed her, shepherding the fine rain ahead of it, setting a white wall between Avalon and Blake. He shivered, possessed by a sudden conviction that he'd just seen the last of her. Ridiculous, of course. Avalon was a survivor - unless, perhaps, he was facing a premonition of his own death. Oh well, he'd cheated death often enough. By now he was ready for it, even eager ... although he'd rather like to meet Avalon's Magician first.
Reaching into the tent, he retrieved Deva's silver ball and started tossing it from hand to hand. On the third throw it hung suspended in midair for several seconds and then plummeted to the ground. Blake laughed. **Vila would've liked that trick.** He picked the ball up and continued to experiment, keeping count and trying to secondguess the Magician's random programming, while the technical area of his brain began to puzzle over the design of the antigrav device. Ten minutes later, he went to fetch a laser probe and three hours after that, he looked up from the scattered components of the silver ball to see the night sky arching above him, cleared of rainclouds and blazing with stars. Blake smiled and stretched.
**Yes, I know the Magician a little better now. I like the way his mind works. And I enjoyed that. Maybe Avalon's right. Maybe I need to walk away from being a symbol and spend some time working with my hands again.**
The following morning, a gunrunner arrived to take Blake from Gauda Prime to a Federation Defence Academy asteroid and for the next nine days he steered a zigzag path across the galaxy. On the asteroid he was met by an undercover rebel who outfitted him in Federation blacks and smuggled him onto a troop ship heading for R&R leave in Space City. There a supercilious Beta waitron gave him a compressed lecture on the etiquette of service and turned him into an attendant on a cruise ship bound for the ski slopes of Helvetia. Blake jumped ship at the Helvetian capital, alerted by a message from a snowfox trapper, and spent two days as a bouncer in an elite cathouse, before a free trader walked in and gave the signal he'd been waiting for.
Now he was crammed into the makeshift passenger seat of a remodelled flyer, knees angled sideways to avoid the control panel, while the free trader glared at his flight computer and muttered a series of ethnic curses. 'Dunno why the drongo couldn't give me the bloody coordinates in advance,' he snarled for the dozenth time. 'I know my way around. Could've cut a few corners, if he'd bloody told us where we're bloody going.'
'You're not being paid to cut corners,' Blake observed and the free trader scowled harder.
'Listen, sport, for once in a while I got a lot of work lined up. The sooner I get shot of you, the better.' He glanced at the display again, snapped his fingers and said, 'At bloody last! Freaking wombats, it's a deserted mining planet. Why in the name of Ned Kelly do you want to go there?'
Pointing out that it was none of the smuggler's business would only have triggered another tirade, so Blake stayed silent. He stretched his legs cautiously, found a marginally more comfortable position and lounged back, studying the firefly specks of light that swarmed across the darkness ahead of them, amusing himself by trying to pick the mining planet out of the swarm. An hour later the planet was looming large, a sapphire and bronze ball, three quarters sea and a quarter land. It expanded till it filled the viewscreen, then changed from a single entity into an accumulation of detail. Dazzling sweeps of ochre sand, jagged mountains shouldering abruptly out of the desert, gaping quarries and a tangle of stunted grey trees under a ponderous grey cloudscape. Blake squinted at a spire of silver light, glinting from a clearing near the forest's edge, the first indication of any human presence since they'd started to skim the planet's surface. He leaned forward to look closer and caught another gleam, the final set of coordinates scrolling luminous across the terminal.
'Shouldn't you be changing course now?' he suggested and the free trader shrugged.
'Bugger that for a joke,' he rasped. 'I don't have time for fancy piloting. Near enough's bloody good enough. I'll put you down on the edge of the forest, sport. You can walk to the clearing from there, no sweat.'
Before Blake could argue back, the flyer spiralled into a flamboyant nosedive. Thorny branches reached up, grabbed for the undercarriage and missed. They landed with a jolt that slammed Blake's knee into the control panel. Hard. As he sucked his breath in, blindsided by pain, the free trader reached past him and wrestled with the vacuum lock, swung the door wide and tipped him out.
The sky split open, dumping a solid mass of rain onto the earth. Nothing like the gently insidious rain on Gauda Prime: Blake was drenched before he touched ground. His knee buckled, flinging him sideways. As he gaped up at the sky, lightning knifed between bruise-coloured clouds, a steely streak instantly mirrored by another bright trajectory. The shimmer-ray from a laser rifle, whistling past his shoulder.
Blake ducked and rolled. White fire lanced through the downpour - either lightning or a laser volley but both possibilities seemed equally dangerous, so he struggled to his feet and went skidding and wading towards the forest. Gusts of rain slapped his face and tore at his clothes. A thunderclap shook every molecule in his body and sent him sprawling headlong into the mud. When he peered back, the flyer was buckling and contorting in slow motion, trapped at the heart of a gigantic scarlet flame. Blake gasped and heaved himself upright and kept on running, fire roaring in his ears, rain pooling in the sockets of his eyes: like tears.
A crooked branch clawed at his arm, slowing him down. Blake took a quick circular scan of his surroundings and discovered that he'd reached the forest. The laser rifles were still hunting him - at least ten of them, judging by the smeared silvery blurs reflected across sheets of rain. He dodged and weaved, jogging steadily through the maze of trees, while his brain worked on a series of frantic calculations to establish the position of the clearing. By some minor miracle, he got it right, fighting his way out of a thorny thicket to stare, breathless with disbelief, at a silver tower shining like a beacon from a still point at the centre of the stormy world.
Lightning crackled. Rain pelted down with renewed force. As the tower's clear lines wavered, distorted by the watery screen, Blake stalled, suddenly uncertain. The dead trader had told him to steer back to the clearing and yes, the silver tower definitely looked like the sort of place where you might expect a magician to live. But on the other hand, his hunters presumably had a base somewhere - and even if they weren't quartered in the tower, they would be able to pick him off easily once he stepped out into the open.
He was still hesitating when someone shouted, 'This way. Over here.' Blake recognised the voice and ran. After a dozen strides he tripped on a grassy mound, wrenched his knee and almost fell. A sickening jab of pain, followed by a spasm of terror as he imagined the sightlight from a laser rifle settling between his shoulder blades, but he clenched all the muscles down his legs and forced himself to forge on. As he stumbled over the mound, the rain stopped, abruptly and completely, and at the same moment Blake's memory attached a name to the voice he'd heard.
**Olag Gan. I thought Gan was calling to me. But Gan's dead.
Oh, that's marvellous. I'm being hunted by unknown enemies, heading towards a fairly dubious sanctuary, and I've lost my mind into the bargain.**
Half a dozen more paces, eyes fixed firmly on the toes of his boots as they slogged through the mud, and then Blake heard the voice again. 'This way. Over here.' He looked up, almost gagging with apprehension, and saw Gan's burly silhouette outlined against a metal wall, pointing urgently; Gan's flattened profile creasing into a familiar frown.
**Yes, no question about it. Clearly, I must be certifiably insane.**
To confirm his diagnosis, Gan melted and vanished, not a trace of him left on the empty air. Blake sighed and took a step forward, realised he hadn't seen any sign of the hunters since Gan called to him and glanced over his shoulder. While his back had been turned, the forest had vanished as conclusively as Gan, obliterated by a silver mist. No, on second thoughts, not a mist. A glistening dome that fitted over the clearing as neatly as the silver plate covers they'd used on the cruise ship and went soaring upwards to graze the top of the tower.
Blake groaned, clutched a handful of curls and tugged hard. His scalp twinged, which at least indicated that he wasn't dreaming. He stared at the surface of the dome, a living and changing pattern of glassy swirls and runnels, like ... like water sluicing over an invisible protective shield. Interesting. That theory would explain why the rain had stopped so suddenly and it also suggested that he was indeed heading towards the Magician's headquarters. What's more, it proved he was still capable of rational analysis, a thought that cheered Blake enough to send him striding in the direction that the Gan-ghost had pointed out.
A thin dark crack in the curved metal wall turned into a door when Blake pushed against it. One last backward glance at the rain-washed dome, spattered with ineffectual bursts of fire from the laser rifles, and then he shrugged and stepped inside. The air was tropically warm, which paradoxically made him shiver. He tugged off his sodden boots, found a long robe on a hook by the door and wrapped it around him.
And turned to see Jenna Stannis poised in the narrow hallway, wearing a red leather suit that he remembered from their Liberator days.
'Welcome back,' she said, blonde and smiling. 'Come inside.'
Blake's heart kicked at his ribs. 'Jenna, you're supposed to be dead,' he said hoarsely. 'As dead as Gan - and by the way, where is Gan?'
Not entirely to his surprise, Jenna ignored the question, swinging away to shashay down the corridor and disappear. Blake hurried after her but was distinctly unsurprised when he burst into a silver-walled, sparsely furnished room and found it empty. Although a second later he realised the room wasn't quite as empty as he'd assumed. While there was no sign of Jenna, a slight balding man in a red skullcap, jagged red robes and yellow leggings was squatting beside a chrome cabinet in an alcove, studying an exotic array of bottles. He straightened up, held out a glass, winked and said, 'Want a drink, then?'
A tidal wave of joy swept through Blake's body, battering his abused heart muscle. He grabbed for the door frame and slumped against it, croaking, 'Vila! Vila Restal!' Unlike Gan and Jenna, Vila looked older than the last time Blake had set eyes on him. He'd never seen Vila dressed as a surrealist's version of a jester. And hadn't he already thought that Deva's unpredictable silver ball was exactly the sort of toy Vila would have loved? It all added up to a very satisfactory conclusion.
'Vila,' he repeated. 'So you're alive and you're the Magician - or the Magician's apprentice.'
He pushed himself away from the door and stretched his hands out, reaching towards the jester: and then through him. Blake's heart shrank into a small tight ball of disappointment. As the Vila-hologram shimmered and evaporated, he heard a new voice say, 'Wrong again.'
Blake whirled around. A man was watching him from the far end of the hall, framed in the arch of another doorway. A long blue robe, overlaid by a rose surcoat patterned with heraldic emblems, swathed his angular body and swirled across the silver floor. Dark hair brushed forward in a serrated fringe and a neat beard, trimmed as close as an animal's fur, made him seem at once supremely civilised and oddly feral. His eyes reinforced that impression, scanning Blake with a mixture of cynical resignation and subdued fury. One hand played restlessly with an oblong medallion on a chain round his throat; the other hand clasped a slender silver wand.
**Well, a laser probe, actually.**
He looked like one of the figures from Vila's ancient tarot pack, stepped out into a streamlined world of xenium walls and chrome furnishings. Blake stared until his eyes burned dry. Rage shivered through him, pumping his blood faster and inflating his lungs.
'Avon, you bastard,' he yelled. 'I thought you were dead.'
'And that bothered you?' the Magician asked, detached and mocking.
'What do you think?' Blake demanded. 'We spent two years together on the Liberator and -'
'And as I remember, there were times when you would have liked to kill me yourself,' Avon cut in smoothly.
Blake's fury drained away and left him hollow and exhausted. He turned his back, bracing his arms against the cabinet and bowing his head. 'Oh, I wouldn't say that,' he muttered. 'You always knew how to provoke me, Avon, but not to the point of murder.'
The silence expanded until it filled every corner of the hall. By the time Blake heard boot heels click in an uneven pattern across the floor, his senses had been tuned to such a high pitch that he could tell exactly how close each of Avon's unwilling steps brought him.
'All right,' a terse voice said finally, half a metre behind him. 'I admit that joke was in questionable taste. I have been a recluse for a year now, Blake. I suspect I may have forgotten how to conduct a civilised conversation.'
'Tell me, why **did** you leave Xenon Base?' he asked without turning and Avon said lightly, 'Well, you see, I was bored.'
Blake's head drooped lower and his eyes squeezed shut. In the darkness he heard the Scorpio crew's faltering voices and saw the gruesome images that their story had conjured. He spun round, snarling, 'That doesn't explain why you decided to fake your own death. An unnecessary refinement, surely. Those children were still pretty shaken when I met them a fortnight ago.'
Avon's eyes hooded. He tilted his chin and stared back, refusing to give any ground. 'My association with you had the regrettable effect of making me an object of interest to the Federation,' he pointed out. 'I wanted to throw them off the scent and I hardly expected Tarrant or Soolin or Dayna to care what became of me.'
'Really?' Blake growled. 'Are you sure it wasn't the other way around? Somehow I find it easier to believe that you didn't care about them.'
A feline smile quirked the corners of Avon's mouth. 'As it happens, I am not particularly pleased to see you either, Blake,' he retorted. 'I asked for an engineer, not a conscience. If that idiot hadn't disobeyed orders and incinerated himself, I would have sent you straight back to your comrade Avalon. Unfortunately, since a Federation blockade arrived on my doorstep yesterday evening, I have cut communication with my usual contacts. I'm afraid you will have to stay here, for the time being.'
'Well, well. So the Federation found you, after all?' Blake said with a grin.
'Purely by accident,' Avon assured him. 'My sources confirm that they believe Kerr Avon to be dead. At any rate, there is no need to concern yourself. The force wall should keep them out indefinitely.'
Blake's eyebrows shot up. 'Ah, then the dome's a development of your designs for the force wall? Nice work, Avon.'
The compressed smile relaxed fractionally. 'A sphere, actually, rather than a dome,' Avon explained. 'We are protected from all angles. The troop set a series of depth charges yesterday, attempting to blast out an underground tunnel, and lost three of their men in the process.'
Blake chewed meditatively on a knuckle, constructing a mental diagram of the tower and the force sphere: rather like a silver toy suspended in a glass ball. 'You're playing a fairly dangerous game, aren't you?' he asked. 'Do you really intend to sit here and let the Federation try out all their weaponry on you?'
Avon's eyes rounded, limpid and innocent. 'Well now, I can't imagine a more effective way of testing my design. If it works, I may consider myself invulnerable. If it fails, then at least I will have no further worries. Although I suppose I should apologise for exposing you to risk.'
The heavy pleats of his robe stirred and shifted, as though an invisible breeze were disturbing them. When Blake looked closer, he could see Avon's chest rising and falling, impelled by his quickened breath. He looked directly into agate eyes and laughed out loud.
'Don't apologise,' he said. 'I'm no more afraid of death than you are. In fact, there have been times when I would've welcomed it.'
They held the gaze for a second longer: a twist of eyebeams, electric with unspoken communication. Blake realised that he was breathing as fast as Avon, elated by the wordless exchange. It had always been like this between the two of them - one minute feuding more bitterly than tribal enemies, next minute linked together in a bond of understanding closer than anything else he had ever shared, even with Avalon.
'I've missed you,' he said spontaneously and watched the bond shatter.
'Yes, you were always sentimental,' Avon remarked, aggravatingly dispassionate. 'Let me remind you that this is a business arrangement, not a reunion. As I have already indicated, I would have chosen any other engineer in the galaxy ahead of you. But since you are here now, I may as well show you around.'
He swung away abruptly, long robe billowing, and strolled towards the door. As he crossed the threshold, the Vila-hologram shimmered into view beside the cabinet, winking and repeating, 'Want a drink, then?' Blake chuckled.
'Interesting company you keep,' he commented. 'I've met Gan and Jenna already. Where's Cally?'
'In the medical unit, naturally.'
'And -?' he began but Avon cut across him, saying, 'No, Blake, you won't see yourself here.'
'Of course not,' Blake agreed, absurdly disappointed. 'You wanted to be free of me, didn't you? I'm sorry I've imposed myself on you again.'
'Not as sorry as I am,' Avon said blandly. He swung the laser probe up, pointing along the corridor and adding, 'This way, Blake.'
The tower was silver inside as well as out. Walls made of xenium panels riveted together, reflecting metal back off metal - too cramped for Blake's taste, after almost two years on Gauda Prime, but it would probably suit someone who'd lived in the Domes and then on a series of spaceships. A galley kitchen, a medical unit and a tiny bedroom, now Blake's room, were slotted into a rectangle the same size as the main hall. Blake smiled at the Cally-hologram as it materialised by the bench in the medical unit, murmuring, 'My people have a saying, "Prevention is better than cure".' He noted that the food synthesiser in the galley resembled the alien-designed synthesiser on the Liberator, used the miniscule toilet-and-shower room opening off his tiny bedroom and then paused in the corridor to examine a corkscrew flight of silver steps and say, 'What's up here?'
His head jerked back with vicious suddenness. There was an arm wedged across his windpipe and a pinpoint pain at his throat, just below the jaw. The laser probe, digging deep into his jugular. Cold breath numbing his cheek and a voice at his ear, molten with rage, hissing, 'Nothing that concerns you, Blake. Stay away from there, if you want to remain alive.'
'Avon, this is ludicrous,' he protested. 'You wouldn't really kill me.'
The probe quivered, poised on the verge of opening the vein, and Avon whispered, 'Don't be so sure.'
Blake forced himself to hold still. 'Point taken,' he said, as calmly as he could manage, calm being the strategy that in his experience worked best on rabid dogs and soldiers in the grip of battle madness. It worked this time, too. The arm relaxed and released him. When he whirled round, Avon was toying idly with the medallion around his neck, withdrawn and tranquil, as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
'And you have seen the main hall already,' he told Blake with a host's insincere smile. 'So that completes the tour.'
Blake's hand levitated and began to massage his throat, probing incipient bruises to reassure him that he hadn't imagined the entire episode. It was disconcerting, to say the least. He'd always suspected that, under his facade of reserve, Avon hid an anger that equalled or surpassed his own: but he would never have guessed that Avon's anger could mutate into violence. Something to think about later. For now, he'd better accept the amnesty that had been offered and give Avon a suitably banal response. He swallowed convulsively and said at random, 'You've lived alone here for the past year, have you?'
That tapped straight into some source of private amusement. 'Not quite,' Avon murmured. 'An old friend came to visit me. Anna Grant. You may remember the name.'
Blake remembered. He hoisted a quizzical eyebrow and said casually, 'That's odd. I was under the impression that Anna was dead, until the children told me you found her again on Earth: and shot her.'
'I did,' Avon agreed, imperturbable as ever. 'However, as you must have noticed by now, death can be a transitory condition. Anna was engaged in a military coup when I encountered her and apparently she was wearing a laserproof vest under her uniform. She feigned death, to avoid awkward explanations, but followed me here and asked me to forgive her.'
'Very touching. And when did she leave?'
Avon's eyebrows arched into dark half-moons. 'Did I say she left?' he asked, politely puzzled. 'She didn't, Blake.'
'Ah. So when am I going to meet her?' he asked with an involuntary glance at the stairs and Avon replied, 'Never.'
That hurt, far more than the bruises on his throat. 'I see,' Blake muttered. 'Thanks for letting me know my place. I'm just the hired help, am I, not good enough for your princess in the tower?'
'Your words, Blake.'
'Your decision, Avon.'
It had been a heavy-handed attempt at a joke, revealing more than he intended, but right at that moment his heart felt unaccountably heavy as well. An irrational reaction. Avon hadn't exactly shown any sign of interest in him so far. Still, some vague, numinous aura of possibility had started to gather around the idea that they were marooned here together and Blake, a perennial optimist, had been telling himself that he could always hope.
Not any longer. Not with Avon's precious Anna ensconced upstairs.
Despair reached for him but he shrugged it off. **Look on the bright side, Roj. Avon's alive. He's never going to be mine but he's still alive.** He stretched and smiled, which had the entertaining side effect of causing Avon to look faintly disconcerted.
'Well then,' he said, 'if I'm the hired help, I'd better get to work.'
'A commendable attitude,' Avon approved, recovering his poise. 'But I'd prefer not to let you near my equipment in this condition.' He looked pointedly at the muddy sludge pooling round Blake's bare feet, adding, 'Clean yourself up, eat a meal and get some rest. I shall meet you in the main hall in eight standard hours, to issue your instructions.'
A last swirl of the patterned robe and he was gone, spiralling up the silver staircase. Blake stared after him and sucked moodily on a knuckle. Ever since he'd landed on this planet, he'd felt as though he was on a Space City fun ride, whirled up and down and roundabout from one emotion to the next. While part of him was devastated by Avon's sudden departure, another part was longing for a bit of peace and quiet. He smiled sourly at the empty stairs and went to investigate his quarters.
An hour later, washed and fed and satisfyingly exhausted, Blake flung himself down on the bed and tumbled straight into a black pit of depression. So much for equilibrium. His psyche seemed to have changed from a fun ride into a battleground. As he tossed on the hard mattress, jealousy showed him pornographic pictures of Avon entwined with Anna in the tower overhead. Envy knelt on his chest, cramping his lungs, making him gasp ineffectually for breath. Regret obsessively recycled every memory from the Liberator that could, just possibly, indicate that Avon might've responded favourably, if only he'd been able to recognise his own attraction in time. **If only. If only. If only.** A sad, ugly litany, like a vampire's seductive whisper, draining him and weakening him. In the end Blake pushed the words away, dismissing the turmoil of jealousy, envy and regret around his mental image of Avon, and instead thought about the man himself.
Or rather, he thought about two separate Avons, past and present. The same and not the same. On one side, his tensely vigilant opponent from the Liberator, challenging every decision Blake made, constantly questioning his cause and his commitment: poisoned words from a beautiful mouth, choirboy-innocent face and implacable eyes. And on the other side, the worldweary Magician hiding in the ultimate bolthole, his overlay of cynical resignation imperfectly covering a store of volatile rage. More defended than ever, if possible, and yet at the same time obscurely more vulnerable. Blake yearned to make it right for Avon: admitted that he wouldn't know where to start: acknowledged that he'd never get the chance to try.
Not any longer.
His cock was stiff, tenting the starsilk blankets, mocking his attempts at analysis. Blake sighed. Oh, all right. Just this once. His hand sneaked down to grasp the shaft, brutally tight, and his balls jerked in ecstatic recognition. (Avon's blunt-fingered workman's hand, the hand that had thrust a laser probe into his jugular.) He milked his cock with sadistically efficient strokes, kneading and squeezing just below the hood, while his head rolled in slow arcs across the pillow and his lips parted, expecting the warm touch of another mouth. (Avon's tautly controlled but infinitely expressive mouth, now disguised by the Magician's feral beard.)
The dubious pleasures of memory heightened the even more dubious pleasure of dreaming about someone he could never have. It was over too soon, the pressure in his balls too insistent to be stalled for long. As he came, Blake found the tears that had escaped him when he'd thought Avon was dead. He flung his arm up, instinctively hiding his face, and vomited dry soundless sobs into the pillow, then rolled onto his side and dragged the blanket over his head, recognising as he closed his eyes that he would sleep like the dead.
Like the dead free trader who had made a mistake and paid for it in fire. Like Gan and Jenna and Cally, who'd died trying, and Vila, presumably dead by his own hand. All dead, all of them except for Avon and Anna, miraculously resurrected, making love in a silver tower. Blake groaned, soft as an echo, wiped his sticky hand across the sheet and let sleep take him away into a brief oblivion.
He woke feeling unaccountably purged, so charged with energy that he was under the shower, singing, before he'd fully remembered where he was and why. When he checked, the pain was still there, wedged securely behind his ribs, but it was an old familiar pain: easy enough to operate around it. Blake rescued his boots from the corridor and polished them, entered the data for a work shirt and pants into the clothing synthesiser (another Liberator lookalike), ate a leisurely breakfast and wandered down to the main room, five minutes before Avon appeared.
Another small shock at the sight of heraldic robes and that neatly trimmed beard but an ordinary shock this time, just the dislocation of expecting a familiar face and finding an altered stranger. Once he'd adjusted his mental image, Blake relaxed again, unexpectedly reassured by the discrepancies between the Magician and his companion on the Liberator. No pangs of lust or love this morning. They were part of the past now. He'd exorcised them overnight with dreams, tears and semen. Time to start establishing a different relationship - engineer and employer, nothing more fraught than that.
'All right, Magician,' he said, 'where would you like me to begin?'
Dark eyes darted towards him, wary as a forest animal alerted by a sound breaking a long silence. Avon touched the silver medallion at his throat and drawled, 'Well now, perhaps I should introduce you to your co-worker.'
Instantly one level of Blake's mind started to wonder whether Avon had relented and allowed him to meet the mysterious Anna, while another deeper level indulged a wild hope that Vila Restal was, after all, alive. But before he could frame a suitably ambiguous question, Avon turned with a stately flourish of his magician's robes and strolled over to press a button on the far wall. A silver panel slid open, revealing a bank of computer terminals and, at the centre, a plass box iridescent with a relay of rippling lights.
'Orac,' Avon said, 'we have a visitor. Come here and say hello.'
Blake hesitated, then slouched over to stand at Avon's side. 'Hello, Orac,' he said, ostentatiously obedient. 'Nice to see you again.'
The lights pulsed faster and the box whirred. 'Roj Blake?' Orac said testily. 'This is an anomaly. Your voice matches the voiceprint in my memory bank but Federation bulletins record that Roj Blake was shot and killed during a raid on a rebel base at Gauda Prime.'
'Shot, yes,' Blake agreed. 'Killed, no. Luckily, we had a cryogenic unit on the base - a fairly indispensable piece of equipment, when you're using a bounty hunting operation as cover. Deva decided to let the Federation believe I was dead and by the time Avalon had taken over the planet and made that secret redundant, we were cut off from the rest of the world by a Federation blockade.' As he watched Orac's circuits flash and glitter, processing the information, Blake found himself processing a few facts of his own. He glanced sideways and added, 'So you thought I was dead too. You didn't let it show, Avon.'
'I didn't let what show?' Avon asked, his voice iced with an extra layer of hauteur. 'My grief, perhaps? You flatter yourself, Blake. Don't imagine the news disturbed me. I have become accustomed to living in a world where rumours of death are greatly exaggerated.'
Blake examined him covertly but the blank gaze directed onto carefully folded hands offered no evidence that Avon had been more affected by the rumours of his death than he chose to say. He sighed.
**Stop it, Roj. You're slipping back into old - and bad - habits. Avon's involved in a complex web of betrayal and redemption with a woman he's loved for half a decade. Why on earth would he be interested in some old crewmate who'd fancied him at a distance without ever realising it?**
Shunting sentiment back into the darkest recesses of his mind, where it belonged, Blake ran a professional eye across the wall of computers, saying briskly, 'This is a modified version of the Liberator's computer network, isn't it? I assume you're using Orac to coordinate all its functions, rather than some kind of Zen-replacement.'
Avon inclined his head in a nod of mildly startled approval. 'There are times when I could almost believe that you are brighter than you look,' he observed. 'Yes, Blake, I have managed to reconstruct a great deal of the alien technology that built the Liberator, although regrettably the Zen-programming continues to elude me. Still, Orac makes a satisfactory substitute, providing that I monitor its tendency to veer off on its own investigations. Over the past twenty four hours it has been working on the designs for a system of battle computers, to complement the force sphere defences. It will be your job to install that system. You can begin by checking the blueprints that Orac has produced.'
Blake opened his mouth to say, instinctively insubordinate, 'No, Avon, I'll choose where I want to start.' Then, just in time, he clenched his jaw on the words, teeth grinding together audibly. While it was true that he'd been the leader on Liberator, Avon was master here in the tower, which gave him the right to issue orders.
And it'll make the next few weeks a lot easier if you decide you aren't going to challenge Avon's orders as often as he challenged yours.
For the next two hours they studied Orac's designs, side by side on a couch in the main hall, printouts spreading out across a long low table and spilling over onto the floor. At first Blake controlled every movement rigorously, expecting to find himself disturbed by this degree of closeness. But last night's exorcism seemed to have been successful. Before long, he was gesturing extravagantly as he suggested a modification to the plans, reaching across Avon to retrieve a missing page, touching Avon's arm to underscore a point: just as he had always done. It was a relief to escape from the self-consciousness that unrequited love had imposed on him. Even more of a relief to be given a finite and practical task, instead of the endless, thankless job of bringing about galaxy-wide revolution.
By the time Avon stacked the last sheet of printout onto a neat pile, Blake's head was heavy with ideas and his hands were flexing on his knees, itching to make a start. 'Maybe you could show me where you keep your equipment,' he suggested. 'If I need any more information, I can ask you later - always supposing you'll be around to ask.'
'Occasionally,' Avon said, clipped and dismissive. 'However, I expect you to make your own decisions, just as you have always done.'
He rose and led Blake down to the end of the corridor, palming the lock on a door that led into a triangular store room, piled with boxes. Blake frowned, his engineer's instincts activated by the unexpected dimensions of the space. On the evidence in front of him, the curved outer wall of the tower must be leaf-shaped, rather than the hoop-shape that he'd assumed - not a circle but two shallow arcs, intersecting in a point.
He turned to check this theory with Avon but the doorway was empty. Another abrupt departure. It was starting to look like a habit - hardly surprising, given that the man had been cut off from the rest of the human race for the past year. Except for Anna, of course, but presumably Anna was enough for him. Get used to it, Roj. He smiled ruefully, pulled the nearest box towards him and began to sort through a jumble of tools.
For the next few days Blake worked alone, first reviewing the plans, then finding half a dozen sheets of xenium and marking out the patterns for each section of the battle consoles. When he paused for a break at the end of the second morning, he realised he was beginning to feel mildly claustrophobic, so he went to lean in the doorway of the tower, gazing up at the cobalt sky and flinching slightly whenever a bolt from a Federation laser rifle slammed into the invisible sphere. He closed the door with a sense of relief but later that afternoon he found himself drifting back down the corridor, nudging the door open, taking a cautious step outside. It was raining again, the same waterfall cascade coating the dome with a silver glaze, making the force sphere seem more solidly believable.
**Hmm. I could assemble the consoles outside. Better than cluttering up the main hall or trying to use a laser saw in a confined space.
I'll think about it.**
Early next morning he hauled the xenium sheets out into the clearing, stacking them against the grassy mound that had tripped him on his way to the tower. A pair of troopers in Federation black were lined up two metres away, which was more than a little unnerving. Blake managed to stop himself from blinking when they fired at him and then veered off for a tour around the tower. He'd guessed right. The lower section was indeed leaf-shaped, topped by a round silver turret: the room where Avon kept his fairytale princess. Blake sighed and completed the circuit, glanced selfconsciously at the troopers and realised that Federation training wouldn't permit them to look him in the eye. He grinned, resisting a childish temptation to pull faces at them, and started work.
By the fourth morning Blake hardly noticed the troopers' presence. He was pacing around a jigsaw of xenium pieces, whistling cheerily, when an unusually fierce laser volley made him stop and look up. A figure straight from a medieval tapestry came gliding across the grass towards him: Avon in his rose and blue magician's robes, tossing and catching one of the silver balls.
Blake's heart lurched but he forced himself to say, casual and offhand, 'Avalon thinks those toys are a prototype for an antigrav weapon.'
He'd struck the right note. Avon nodded and said, 'Avalon is an intelligent woman. That is why I decided to let her benefit from my research. How are your researches proceeding, Blake? Have you found everything you need?'
'More or less,' Blake told him. 'You've collected a rather odd assortment of tools but I can make do. I've been a bit worried about your circuitry, though, ever since I had a look at the cables in the service channels down the side walls. Frankly, the wiring's a mess.'
Avon's eyelids drooped, signifying boredom. 'Then fix it,' he said. 'That is why I brought you here. I am a programmer, not a technician, Blake. Mechanics were never my forte and after two years of the Liberator's self-regenerating circuit boards, I am even less handy than when I began.'
He turned away, deliberately angling himself towards the troopers, flipped the silver ball into the air, watched it hover and reached out with negligent accuracy to catch it as it fell. An infuriated volley of laser fire bombarded the invisible wall, silver sparks ricocheting back across the troopers. Avon tossed them a taunting smile, pocketed the ball and went drifting away to the tower. Blake watched until he disappeared inside, then shrugged and reached for his laser saw.
**Message received, Avon. I won't pester you with details next time.
If there is a next time.**
During the week that followed, Blake established a regular routine, mornings spent in the service channel rationalising Avon's cavalier approach to the circuitry, afternoons spent outdoors constructing the consoles for the battle computers. The mining planet's weather seemed to alternate between torrential downpours and blazing sunshine, ten times brighter than the dying star that Gauda Prime orbited. Blake liked the warmth, although he missed the breezes that had eddied round Avalon's camp site: the force sphere seemed to block out wind as efficiently as it blocked the rain. He liked the work too, partly for its own sake but partly because it formed a tenuous link with Avon. While he assembled the consoles or tracked a single connection through a tangle of spliced and respliced cables, he sometimes caught his memory returning to a folk tale he'd read in a first calendar text - the story of Jacob, who'd laboured for seven years to win his beloved Rachel.
**Well, well. So, apparently, my subconscious hasn't entirely given up on the idea of winning Avon.
But then, I've always been addicted to hopeless causes.**
In all that time he only saw Avon once and then they were separated by a gulf of air, Avon standing high above him on the battlements of the tower, robes fluttering like a blue and rose pennant as he gazed at the jagged line of mountains guarding the horizon. Well and truly out of Blake's reach: the metaphor seemed a little too ironically apt. He sighed and went on labouring, pausing to greet the Jenna-holo every time he entered or left the tower, occasionally detouring into the medical uni to hear the Cally-holo explain that prevention was better than cure. True enough, of course, but it was too late for that. He hadn't been able to prevent this futile and unwanted attachment, any more than he was able to cure it.
Then, just when he'd decided that Avon had retreated into his tower until the battle computers were in place, Blake looked up halfway through a tricky piece of soldering and found the Magician at his elbow. Afterwards he couldn't remember what he'd said but it must have worked, because Avon stayed for a full five minutes. Unnerved by his success, Blake almost electrocuted himself in the service channel next morning, while planning gambits to try on Avon in the afternoon. He headed out into the clearing, nerves thrumming with tension, and proceeded to ruin a square of xenium because he kept swivelling round to glance at the door. By the time a shadow smudged the surface of the silver sheets, he had to clench every muscle in his body to stop himself from jumping.
'They detonated a force-ten depth charge directly under the tower this morning,' Avon said without preamble. 'Did you notice anything unusual?'
When Blake turned, Avon appeared to be examining the invisible dome, although behind their heavy veil of lashes his eyes were skimming sideways to monitor Blake's reaction. 'Not a thing, I'm afraid,' he apologised and Avon said, 'Precisely. The force sphere held. We are invincible, Blake.'
Anyone else would have opened a bottle of starwine or, at the very least, gloated a little. Avon merely folded his hands and fixed the Federation guards with one of his more provocative stares. For some reason, this studied composure seemed oddly touching. Blake swung back towards his work trestle, to indicate that he wasn't going to embarrass Avon with compliments, and said, 'By the way, how does one convert a force wall into a sphere?', to give him an opportunity to prolong his moment of triumph.
Explaining the mechanics of the force sphere kept Avon there for ten minutes. From that time on he continued to drop in at random intervals and Blake continued to produce a series of conversational lures. Stories from his travels, social theory, scientific gossip, questions about Avon's researches - he tested all of them in turn and watched Avon pick over his offerings, accepting some, rejecting others. Finally, to his carefully concealed delight, Avon settled into a habit of watching him while he worked, lounging on the grassy mound, one arm hooked around his knee, alternating between lazy gibes and comfortable silence. Blake felt like a falconer who'd tamed a particularly fractious hawk through long vigils of patience: or like a medieval troubadour entering the last stages of a ritual courtship, although, as he constantly reminded himself, he was courting Avon as a friend, nothing more.
He was hammering at a dent in the xenium sheeting one afternoon when he sensed Avon's presence behind him. Not just lover's intuition: Blake had often noticed the sharp tang of ozone wafting from Avon's robes as he approached. A fresh air smell and, come to think of it, he'd spotted Avon on the battlements earlier that afternoon. He'd rather suspected that the force sphere only shielded the body of the tower, leaving its roof free, and now he was sure of it.
'Been out in the open, have you?' he asked, glancing over his shoulder. 'I wouldn't mind a chance to feel the wind on my skin again.'
'Your requests have never been modest,' Avon observed. 'So you want me to cancel the force sphere and get us both killed?'
It was a deft parry, neatly bypassing Blake's hint that he'd like an invitation to the top of the tower. He grinned, said, 'No, that's probably too high a price for a few minutes of fresh air' and returned to his work, breathing a silent sigh of relief when Avon glided past him and seated himself on the mound. Apparently he hadn't startled his wild hawk into another retreat, which was fortunate.
**I'm doing better than I expected - but that always makes me want to push a little further. Not any more, though. It's time I learnt to be content with what I have.**
He settled back into their established rhythm of comments and silences, practising contentment. But next morning, drinking his mug of breakfast kaff in the main hall, Blake blinked at a reflected shimmer on silver walls and turned to see the Vila-hologram activating as Avon crossed the threshold. No robes today - instead, he was dressed in a thigh-length blue tabard and high boots, with a blaster holstered at his waist. When Blake stared in surprise, he murmured, 'On consideration, I decided you deserve a holiday. Do you fancy a walk in the mountains, Blake?'
'Yes, of course,' he said, still staring. 'But how -?'
'Nothing easier,' Avon told him, strolling over to the chrome cabinet and giving it a casual push. As its castors skidded across the silver floor, he tapped out a set of coordinates on a panel concealed behind it and whisked two chunky bracelets from a rack, tossing one to Blake.
'Well?' he asked. 'Are you coming - or would you prefer to sit there and gawk for the rest of the morning?'
Blake heaved himself to his feet, snapped the bracelet round his wrist and hurried into the alcove. 'Amazing,' he breathed, while he strapped on the gun-belt that Avon offered him. 'You've actually recreated the Liberator's teleport facilities. That's more than the entire Aquitar Project managed to achieve.'
Avon's mouth tightened, suppressing a gratified smile. He shrugged and said, 'It wasn't particularly difficult. I had the theory already, from our Liberator days. I only needed an uninterrupted stretch of time to experiment with the technology.'
'Time and a touch of genius,' Blake insisted. 'You chose the right code name, Avon. You really are a magician, aren't you? This is an astounding breakthrough. If Avalon had a fleet of -'
Before he could finish, Avon's hand darted across to the panel and hauled on a pair of levers. The teleport took them. A nanosecond later Blake was gazing up at a line of jagged brown monoliths, so high that he needed to lean backwards in order to locate their peaks, so solid that he was almost convinced he could see the sky revolving while the planet remained still. He reeled, suddenly giddy, and felt a hand close round his elbow to steady him.
'Gawking again?' Avon said with friendly mockery. 'Come on, Blake.'
Avon obviously knew the mountains well. He steered Blake up a series of goat-track paths, edging through narrow canyons, skirting sheer rock faces, crossing knife-sharp ridges with the ease of a tightrope walker. Blake followed wherever he led, eyes fixed on the graceful sway of Avon's back. Breathtaking vistas opened around them - to the north a glittering span of tawny desert, to the south the thorny forest fringing an endless plain of rippling green grass. They stopped for lunch in a sheltered gully, Avon producing sandwiches and a flask of water from the pockets of his tabard, and then continued their climb.
As they emerged onto a rocky ledge that ringed the peak, Blake staggered and halted, momentarily blinded by an infinity of light and colour. Avon took hold of his elbow again, swinging him towards the forest. 'You need a reference point,' he observed. 'Look down there, Blake. That's the spire of the tower, as you call it.'
Blake squinted at the silver needle and felt the world settle into place around it. He laughed and let his eyes roam across the dizzying panorama, from horizon to horizon. A planet at his feet, sunlight warming his skin and the even more insidious warmth of Avon's hand, still cupping his elbow. **I could die happy.** He stared at the bleached-bright leaf that was the tower - something unaccountably familiar about it, now that he was seeing it as a whole - and tried to pretend that they could stay here on the heights forever. But the last few weeks had taught him the tactical advantage of quitting while he was ahead. Blake yawned and stretched, dislodging the warm hand.
'Back the way we came?' he asked, his voice as casual as he could make it. 'I'll go first this time.'
He was scrambling down a zigzag path, relishing the touch of wind and sunshine, when he spotted the boy. A young man in his early twenties with a lion-face and a tangled mane of blond hair, basking on a stony outcrop, brown chest bared to the sun, a gloss of sweat highlighting rockhard muscle and rosebud nipples. Blake hesitated in midstride. **I thought this planet was supposed to be deserted.** Then he noticed the laser rifle at the young man's side and thought again.
**Wait a minute. I know that face. He's one of the troopers.**
He backed hastily, dislodging a pellet of stone that bounced lazily down the hillside and went rolling across the rock. In one smooth continuous movement, the trooper gathered up his rifle and leapt to his feet. Blake's hand dropped onto his holstered blaster: and stayed there. He stared helplessly, registering the flecks of brown on the hazel irises of the trooper's shock-wide eyes, a dewy moustache of sweat across the boy's smooth skin, a bird crying mournfully somewhere in the arch of blue sky above them.
**Oh, wonderful. This is a fine time to discover that I've lost the ability to kill. Never mind, I haven't lost the ability to die - and today's as good a day as any. Better than most, in fact.**
As he squared his shoulders and waited for the laser line to pierce his chest, he heard a rattle of pebbles and saw a rapid blue blur. Avon, launching himself from one corkscrew bend to the next and landing on the path in front of him, arms spread wide. Blake gasped in protest. He swung his wrist up, activating the bracelet and shouting, 'Orac, teleport now!' The trooper hazed, xenium walls took shape around them and Blake stumbled out of the teleport bay, knees weak, mind reeling.
'Well done, Avon,' he managed. 'Thanks for saving my life.'
Avon frowned down at his bracelet, all his attention focussed on undoing the clasp. 'Now, where did you get that idea?' he asked. 'My foot slipped. Any suggestion of heroics was completely inadvertent.'
'And the way you threw your arms out to protect me?'
'Unintentional, Blake. It was -'
'An automatic reaction?'
As Avon nodded with relief, Blake's mouth twitched slightly. 'You've said that before, you know,' he commented, unable to stop his grin from spreading.
Avon looked up, revealing eyes like empty silver mirrors. 'Quite possibly,' he sighed. 'I warned you earlier that I have lost the knack of civilised conversation.'
The grin wilted. 'So you did,' Blake said, resenting the rebuff. 'I gather you don't converse much with Anna, then?'
'No,' Avon agreed. 'I don't.'
He fingered the medallion at his throat and gazed serenely at Blake, long eyelashes dipping to cover a gleam of amusement. A jealous pang twisted through Blake's intestines. His hand jerked towards his mouth and his teeth sank into the fleshy pad below the thumb, a last ditch attempt to distract himself from images of Avon and Anna rolling together across silver sheets: not conversing much.
**Stupid of me. I asked for that. Avon's always been better at malicious banter than I am. Don't know why I even bother to try.**
All the same, he smiled and said, 'Strange, I never pictured you as the uxorious type,' firing off a last shot at random.
To his surprise, it hit the target. Avon stiffened and snapped, 'An odd criticism, surely, from someone who nearly got himself killed while admiring a young man's physical perfections.'
Blake frowned and then shrugged. 'Yes, Avon, I'm homosexual, if that's what you're implying,' he said pleasantly. 'I took a long time to recover that particular set of memories but I'm not ashamed of it.'
'No, you wouldn't be,' Avon murmured, swinging away before Blake had a chance to interpret the equivocal reply. He thought fast, searching for a reason to call Avon back, found it and said, 'Oh, by the way, I finally recognised the shape of your tower, while we were up in the hills. This is a spaceship, isn't it?'
Avon stopped and turned. 'Every now and then you surprise me by showing signs of intelligence,' he remarked. 'As you have surmised, when I left Xenon Base, I used my fund of accumulated credits to purchase a ship and the means to remodel it. The undercarriage is currently resting in the hollow of a quarry but we can take off at a moment's notice, as soon as the ship has an attack capacity to match its defences. I'm sure you'll be as relieved as I am to know that we will be able to part company soon.'
His voice vibrated with the same manic fury as when he had warned Blake away from the tower room. He clutched his medallion, glaring resentfully, then spun around and stalked out of the hall. Blake watched him every step of the way, caught between laughter and reciprocal rage and a curious elation, as though, despite appearances, their precarious balance had at long last shifted in his favour.
Predictably, he saw nothing of Avon for the next twenty four hours. Rather less predictably, when Blake was sprawled on the couch scanning a book plaque that evening, Avon appeared in the doorway of the hall carrying a tray loaded with dishes, which coincidentally turned out to contain enough food for Blake as well. They chatted about Ensor's theory of temporal circularity while they ate. Next night Avon arrived later but stayed longer and on the third night Blake stopped work early, showered and changed and went hurrying into the main hall to find Avon already seated on the couch, studying a chess problem.
'Do you still play?' he asked, eyes slanting towards Blake with the mocking glance that turned the most innocent questions ambiguous.
'I remember the rules,' Blake told him. 'But I haven't had a game in a long time.'
Avon smiled: another exercise in ambiguity. He restored the pieces to their original positions and swivelled the board around, saying, 'White for you, then. You will need every advantage you can get.'
When Blake began with the millennia-old Vienna gambit, Avon nodded, tolerantly scornful, and countered with the Klute defence. They marched their men across the board, setting up ingenious ambushes and organising daring rescues. As Blake whisked his knight out of a trap he'd almost overlooked, Avon stretched luxuriously and said, 'That is one of the things I miss about life on the Liberator. Four companions who were all relatively skilled at a range of games - and Gan who was too amiable to resent his lack of skill. Quite unparalleled in my experience.'
'You didn't seem particularly appreciative at the time,' Blake observed and Avon shrugged.
'It's a common enough occurrence. People often fail to recognise the positive aspects of a situation, until they realise how much worse things can get.' Dark eyes scanned Blake swiftly, shielded by a screen of lashes. Avon frowned down at the chess board and said, 'You don't agree?'
'I knew how good it was, while it was happening,' Blake said curtly and watched Avon propel one of his bishops along a vicious diagonal towards a white pawn.
'And yet you left,' he commented as he transferred the pawn to the sidelines.
'What else could I do?' Blake asked. 'There really wasn't any other option, not after I'd destroyed everything that was good about our fellowship.'
'By overriding the rest of us and pushing for the annihilation of Star One? I'm glad you realise that was an error of judgment.'
He sighed. 'Oh, I knew at the time that I was alienating everybody, especially you. But I took a risk and chose the cause over my personal feelings.' He sent his knight on a zigzag course towards Avon's bishop, taking another risk and noticing too late that the black queen had that square covered. Blake laughed and said, 'And I was wrong. After the Andromedans decimated Star One, I wandered round the galaxy for six months, observing the chaos and misery on a score of planets, increasingly more horrified by what I'd planned to do.'
Memory claimed him. He was drifting away into a holocaust of images from the past when a touch recalled him: a fingertip exploring down his cheek. 'And that was when you acquired the scar?' Avon asked, so Blake took a deep breath and began to describe the process of rescuing a woman from a posse of rapists, drawing out the story for as long as possible while he tried to curb his reaction to the touch still etched across his skin.
'There, you see the disadvantages of risk taking,' Avon told him, so lightly that his voice sounded almost gentle. 'Admit it, Blake. My way of doing things is a good deal safer than yours.'
'Your way?' he echoed, raising a sceptical eyebrow. 'I seem to remember you taking as many risks as anybody on the Liberator.'
'Against my better judgment,' Avon cut in swiftly, adding, 'And, indeed, against my basic philosophy of life.'
'Remind me,' Blake murmured. 'It's been a long time, after all.'
Avon stretched out a casual hand and took his knight, saying, 'As I told you five years ago in the computer room on the London, wealth is the only reality. I always planned to make myself so safe that no one could touch me.'
'And I told you then that no one will ever be truly safe, until we live in a galaxy where men can think and speak freely.'
Avon tossed the knight and caught it. 'Look around you, Blake,' he said, eyes lustrous with triumph. 'I am free now.'
'Here?' Blake asked, exaggeratedly incredulous. 'I see a prison, Avon, complete with guards at the gate. Do you get some sort of perverse satisfaction out of having the Federation on your doorstep?'
'I prefer not to leave until your work on the battle computers is finished,' Avon informed him, while the white knight tumbled between his fingers like a restless acrobat. 'But yes, I suppose I do derive a certain entertainment from flaunting my superior technology. You are not the only one who lost family and friends to the Federation.'
'Anna?' Blake said, frowning. 'But you found her again.'
Avon slammed the knight down on the table. 'Ah, but some people remain dead,' he said. 'My father and brother, for example, executed as traitors thirty years and three days ago. No, Blake, hold the sympathy. I betrayed them. Accidentally, as it happens - telling the wrong story to the wrong classmate, the son of a Federation inquisitor - but I was responsible for their deaths nonetheless.'
Blake reached out instinctively, forgetting for a moment that Avon was impervious to comfort. He twisted away from Blake's hand, snarling, 'Fool. I don't need your pity. I make my own choices, just as you have. If you consider me a prisoner, I suppose you see yourself as a shining example of liberation?'
'Hardly,' Blake sighed, withdrawing his hand and accepting the distraction. 'As a matter of fact, I see myself as a burnt out wreck. I sometimes suspect my main achievement over the last few years has been accepting that I probably won't see a new social order in my lifetime.'
A slow handclap echoed towards him, accompanied by an ironic smile. 'Bravo,' Avon said. 'At last your revolutionary zeal has been tempered with some degree of realism. The Federation took a century to evolve. It is unlikely to be dismantled in a few short years.'
Blake looked down thoughtfully at the chessboard, eyes roving across the placement of the pieces. 'True,' he agreed. 'Unless ...'
'What?' his opponent asked sharply. 'I don't trust that mild speculative look of yours.'
'Unless Avalon had a fleet of spaceships like this one,' he began, breaking off when Avon reared back, hands flattened across the cushions, as though he were bracing himself against attack. He scowled and said, 'Come on, Avon. You obviously have some sort of residual interest in the rebellion. Why else have you been supplying Avalon with weapons? Even if you don't want to work with her directly, you could at least pass on the blueprints for the teleport.'
'A pointless gesture, given that Avalon has no one capable of interpreting them,' Avon snapped.
'We could -,' Blake said and then stalled, shocked into silence by the bleak bleached outline of Avon's profile.
'We?' he repeated, rising so abruptly that his sleeve hooked the edge of the chessboard. Knights and pawns went spinning across the floor but Avon ignored them, standing erect and defensive, saying, 'Blake, you may sometimes seem to model yourself on the messiah of Christian legend but in reality you come closer to the tempter. If I listen to you any longer, you will have your usual effect.'
'I will begin to believe that your ideas are halfway reasonable, which they are not. Goodnight, Blake.'
He turned and strode out in a stormcloud flurry of drapery. Blake knelt and started gathering up the scatter of chess pieces, while he tried to work out whether he felt amused or frustrated or bereft.
**I got to Avon that time, all right. He's obviously terrified by the idea of working with other people. Can't face it any longer, if he ever really could.
So much for my grand plans of breaking into his isolation. It's more entrenched than I thought.**
Even though he'd confidently expected Avon to disappear again, Blake was desolate when time proved him right. By the end of the first day he felt so lonely that he only just managed to stop himself from smiling at the blond-maned trooper. When he dropped the laser saw and hurried indoors, he ended up loitering around the corridors and chatting to the holograms. A childish craving for company, absurd and pathetic: although, come to think of it, Avon had presumably installed the holos in the first place because he needed company too. What's more, he'd elected to recreate his old companions from the Liberator, which proved that, no matter what he chose to say, he missed the people themselves, not just their game-playing skills. Avon had always been a master of the double standard but this seemed exceptionally hypocritical, even for him. Hardly fair to pose as a self-sufficient recluse, when he had a tower populated with memories and Anna in his bedroom. Blake scowled, fuelled by a gush of righteous anger, and went marching back out into the clearing.
**Time to finish the job and get away from here. I want to be free of him.**
That anger sustained him for the next two days, right up to the point where he shouldered the front door open, nodded to Jenna, kicked off his boots and realised, through some strange sensory osmosis, that Avon was waiting for him in the main hall. A useful intuition, enabling him to hold back a curling grin of delight when he spotted a chess board at the end of the long low table, flanked by a bottle of amber wine and an array of small dishes piled with Sarranese salted fish, Destiny greens, Lindorian nuts and Gallican wafers, which was Avon's idea of a meal. As he dropped onto the couch, deliberately grunting and scratching like a Deltan labourer, Avon wafted over and began to set out the chess pieces.
'So you're not running off to Anna tonight?' Blake asked, refusing the oblique detente.
Avon sighed and nudged a bishop into the exact centre of its white square. 'You do harp on about Anna, don't you?' he commented. 'Jealous, Blake?'
Blake scowled at the heraldic pattern in front of him, black and white squares couped by the blue and rose quarterings of the Magician's robes. **Trust Avon to say something particularly provocative with his back turned. He's counting on me to be civilised but I'm tired of that game.**
'Yes, of course,' he said bluntly. 'What else would you expect? I -'
But before he could complete the sentence, Avon's arm whirled backwards in a perfect arc: Avon's hand came curving up, unerringly accurate, to find and gag his mouth. 'No!' he gasped with an urgency that sounded close to panic. 'No more, Roj. Please.'
They stayed like that for a moment, caught in a bizarre tableau, as though time had stopped and left them stranded there. Then Blake prised Avon's fingers loose, cupped them with his own hand and drew his lips across the palm in a kiss like a soft-mouthed bite.
'All right,' he said. 'No more ... on one condition, Avon. Don't walk out on me this time.'
Avon turned slowly, face inscrutable, hands clasping behind him. 'How could I?' he asked, light and uninflected. 'We have a game of chess to finish.'
When Blake looked more closely, he realised that the chess pieces were arranged in the same pattern as when Avon had tipped the board over, three nights before. He grinned, unwillingly impressed by this feat of memory.
'Fair enough,' he said. 'Whose turn is it, yours or mine? I've forgotten.'
They played in silence this time, with long meditative pauses between each move. By the end of the first hour, Blake noticed that all his senses were unnaturally heightened - finetuned, perhaps, by the intensity of his concentration on the game. He was simultaneously aware of every detail in his surroundings: the subaudible creaks as the outer walls cooled, the salt-and-spice smell of their supper dishes, light catching on a vein in Avon's hand as he shifted his knight, a hundred different possibilities branching out from every move. Blake strategised and defended like a man inspired, doing everything within his power to extend the game and keep Avon with him a little longer. Not that Avon seemed to be in any hurry to leave. He was brooding over the board as intently as Blake, smiling with combative pleasure whenever Blake made a move he hadn't anticipated, hand stretching out impetuously towards one of his pieces and then pulling back to reconsider.
Blake had spent a dreamy interval listening to the hissing impact of laser blasts on the force sphere and breathing an Avon-scent like night wind and dark water, before he finally noticed that it had been a long time between moves. He turned and saw Avon's head pillowed on the couch beside him, translucent eyelids fluttering, mouth relaxed into a sleepy curve. While he watched, Avon shifted position and started to slide down the cushions, one hand grasping aimlessly at the air. Blake sucked his breath in. **No! Don't wake up. Not yet.** He edged sideways and Avon's hand latched onto his shirt, steadying himself as he settled into the hollow below Blake's collar bone.
Time passed. After a while Blake cautiously eased his arm up and tucked it around Avon's shoulders. Avon murmured and snuggled closer, flinging an arm across Blake's chest. His fingers scrabbled across the rough surface of the work shirt, found a loose handful and clenched around it. A contented sigh and a warm body slumping more heavily against him. Blake frowned down at the top of Avon's head, heart aching with bemused tenderness.
**Dear God, at some level of his convoluted psyche, he must actually trust me. I wonder what I did to earn that.**
Time passed. Light shivered across the metal walls. The night noises played endless variations on a theme. Avon slept, quiescent and peaceful, in Blake's arms. They breathed in unison, ribs welded together. At one point Blake lifted his hand to smooth a soft spike of sleep-ruffled hair. Some time later he bent his head and settled a phantom kiss on the silky strands. But apart from that he sat as still as a mother nursing a fractious child until Avon, drifting in an unfathomable dream, relaxed his grip on the work shirt, muttered and squirmed and came to rest in his lap. Blake's eyes widened. **Oh hell. Even more trusting.** He focussed his attention on his cock, suddenly anxious, but while it wasn't exactly flaccid, he wasn't going to shake Avon awake with an erection. Apparently his body recognised the limitations of the situation as clearly as his mind did. Erotic, no doubt about that, but with a diffuse sexuality that could last as long as time allowed, without demanding any end or any release.
Time passed. The light changed. The night noises repeated. Blake cradled Avon in his lap, stroking his hair, stroking his cheek. A knight's vigil, his solitary chance to pledge love's allegiance. A brief retreat from the realities of daytime life, expanding interminably until, somewhere around dawn, his long night watch crystallised into two opposing thoughts.
**If this is to be the high point of my life, it's not much of a life.
But I wouldn't change places with anyone.**
A shuddering sigh escaped his lungs. He touched Avon's cheek again - skin like the paper in the ancient books he used to own when he'd been a privileged Alpha, smooth but not glossy, the subtlest of textures. A luxury item, that was Avon, too dear for his possessing. Blake slid a gentle hand under Avon's head, lifted him and twisted away: quickly, before he could change his mind. He shunted a cushion across the couch and settled Avon carefully, stepped back and strode towards the door, without looking behind him.
Quickly. Before he could change his mind.
The minute he'd dimmed the light in his room, Blake fell into a dreamless sleep. Understandable: after all, he'd already achieved everything he had dared to dream about. He woke late, collected a bowl of breakfast mush and wandered into the main hall, noting without surprise that there were no traces of Avon's presence. Judging by past performance, he probably wouldn't set eyes on Avon for the next few days, which was torture in one way and a relief in another. Either way, it was time to get back to work, a satisfying prospect after the painful pleasure of the night before. When this job was over (soon, too soon), he might hand Avalon his resignation from the revolution and become an itinerant engineer, freelancing round the galaxy.
**Roj Pilgrim, that sounds like an appropriate alias.**
Blake grinned and went outside to examine the second console. It passed inspection, so he lugged it into the tower, welded it to the floor and started to connect the circuitry. By mid-afternoon he was testing both blasters on a pair of thorn trees at the edge of the clearing, chuckling as he imagined the Federation troopers' reaction. He dusted his hands on the seat of his pants, reached for his list of tasks and froze, palms chilly with sudden sweat.
**All done? No, not possible. I was sure I hadn't finished yet.**
Then again, looked at from the right angle, there was always more work to do. Blake scanned the list, retrieving a couple of words from the tangle of crossed out lines, and decided that he needed to doublecheck his repairs on the wiring. For the next few hours he padded back and forth between the computer wall and the service channel, activating each function in turn until finally he came across a link to the clothing synthesiser that failed to respond. He beamed, pleased to have discovered a fault that needed fixing, and dived back into the service channel.
He was halfway through testing the connections in the fourth knot of cables when his shoulder blades prickled and he spun round to find Avon hovering behind him. Only an arm's length away but the shadows seemed to distance him further, silhouetting his heavy robes and darkening his priestly tonsure into the rough fur of a pagan animal-mask. A remote hieratic figure in the half-light, not a vestige of resemblance to the sleeping child from the night before. Blake shivered and thought of stories told around camp fires - sorcerer kings, beast-men prowling empty palaces, midnight sabbaths and secret sacrifices.
**Ah well, too late to worry about that now. I set myself up as a human sacrifice long ago.**
He tilted his head, opening himself to Avon's gaze. While he stood there, fighting an impulse to rip his shirt and bare his heart for a ritual knife, a tense and hurried voice said, almost apologetically, 'May I help?'
It was the first offer that Avon had made since Blake arrived at the tower. He smiled back, shaking off the demonic images, and said, 'As a matter of fact, you can. I think I must've crossed two of these three cables. It'll save time if you try the different combinations for me, while I check the results on the computers.'
He gestured at the makeshift scaffolding - a xenium plank balanced across two stepladders: it hadn't seemed worth bothering to assemble a complete scaffold for a single task. As Avon nodded and began to strip off his robes, Blake ducked his head and frowned down at the floor, watching the rose surcoat puddle on its silver surface, submerged by a tidal ripple of blue folds. When he looked up, the Magician had vanished and the Avon of the Liberator days was poised in front of him, black silk shirt and tight black pants, deceptively slight and defensively arrogant and terrifyingly desirable. Blake stared at him, throat tightening.
**Damn. I thought I'd be over this by now.**
'Well, Blake?' Avon said impatiently. 'Are you going to assist me or do you expect me to levitate?'
Blake swallowed and bent to make a stirrup with his hands, hoisting Avon onto the scaffolding. He pointed out the relevant cables and was heading off to keep watch on the computer screens when Avon, as unhandy as he had claimed, let a cable slip and lunged to catch it. The plank tilted and the ladders rocked. Blake swung back, yelling, 'Jump!' One stride and he was plucking Avon out of the air, hands encircling his waist and lowering him with careful reverence. Although even after Avon's heels touched ground, Blake's hands refused to let go, which might have seemed like a rather badly timed confession, if Avon's arms hadn't been locked equally tightly around his neck. He looked down, visibly startled: Avon looked up, pale and expressionless: and then, without any apparent transition, they were kissing.
Avon's mouth was as pliant as magnolia petals and as soft as the flesh of some tropical fruit. Blake feasted there for a while, nibbling and sucking, tracing the arched upper lip with the tip of his tongue, brushing his smooth cheek against the sleek roughness of Avon's beard. A dream in slow motion, every movement languorously deliberate, until at precisely the same moment they groaned into each other's mouths, straining closer and kissing more frantically. Blake's tongue probed slippery skin and hidden crevices, desperate to memorise every detail - the wet satin lining Avon's cheek, the pearl-shaped pad behind his front teeth, the cathedral-rib vaulting his palate - while Avon clung to him as convulsively as though he were still falling, thrusting with his hips, thrusting with a tongue as hard as the cock that nestled, fat and full, beside Blake's erection.
The details blurred. Blake burned, trapped in a brighter flame than the fire that had devoured the trader's flyer. He reached down to grasp Avon's buttocks, splicing them together, and Avon rubbed sinuously against his chest while their hips rocked in supple unison, like partners in a wild and complex dance that they had been practising for years. Then, just as the flame was about to consume the last remnant of Blake's will power, Avon settled both hands on his shoulders and pushed gently, easing them apart.
'One moment,' he breathed, a softly intimate whisper, followed by another gentle push that spun Blake away in a semicircle.
He stared down the service channel, seeing nothing, smiling fondly as he wondered about Avon's reasons for needing a respite. Time to get used to this new development, perhaps? Or time to strip off the black silk shirt and tight black pants? An appealing speculation but, on the whole, unlikely. No need to fuck against the wall of a service channel, not when there was a bed waiting for them upstairs.
Reality hit like a bucket of cold water. Blake spun round, raking floor and walls with a single despairing glance. He saw precisely what he had expected to see. The service channel was empty.
Avon and his magician's robes had gone.
For half a second Blake wavered on the edge of despair. Then he smiled grimly and pulled back. **Oh no. Not this time.** He centred his mind, subduing the insurrection in his heart and groin, and scrambled through the exit hatch. A burglar-swift search of the ground floor - not that he expected to find Avon there but he was in a methodical mood. A return visit to the computer wall, where he entered a command that overrode all the locks in the tower. Fifteen more paces took him out to the silver staircase, saluting the Vila-hologram as he passed. He paused briefly in the corridor, acknowledging that his next move would be irrevocable, set his foot on the first step and began to climb.
The door at the top whirred open when he touched the access panel. Blake walked in and looked around a circular room, rippling with watery light from the narrow band of plass window inset below the ceiling. He narrowed his eyes and focussed on the details - a bank of security monitors, a work bench crowded with blueprints and data crystals and an eclectic mixture of tools, a plush armchair and a scatter of book plaques, an oval bed mounded with rumpled black starsilk sheets. A human-sized mound.
**Anna? Well, there's one way to find out. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.**
As he strode across the room and reached for the sheets, the air beside the bed shimmered and changed. Blake halted, staring and clutching his heart, simultaneously shocked and unsurprised: like a man in a dream, dredging images from his own unconscious. At first he thought he was confronting a mirror but the man standing a few centimetres away was years younger than he was, unscarred, unharried, shoulders braced by a casual confidence. **Dear God, did I ever look that sure of myself?** Not a reflection then but another hologram, which meant that Avon had lied when he'd told Blake he wouldn't see himself here - or perhaps only meant that Avon had never intended to let Blake into his bedroom.
He was still trying to fathom all the implications when the Blake-hologram bowed its head, smiling down at the bed with an expression that could only be described as tender. 'Goodnight, Avon,' it whispered. 'Sleep well, my dear.'
Blake's heart skipped a beat and his mind moved faster than light. He lurched forward, jerking roughly at the nearest handful of starsilk. The sheet billowed up, high as a canopy, draping itself across the air in the same elegant illusory folds as when Vila had demonstrated the Vanishing Lady trick on the Liberator, the one time Jenna had agreed to indulge him. Apparently, Blake had managed to perform the same conjuring trick without even needing to practise. When the starsilk settled back on the bed, it lay smooth and flat, eddies of light pooling in the occasional wrinkle: nothing underneath it: nothing at all.
**Methodical. Remember to be methodical. Don't jump to conclusions, Blake, not yet. There's still one more place left to search.**
Scanning the room, he located a xenium ladder clamped to the wall behind the armchair. Halfway up, his head bumped against an invisible roof, reminding him that the force sphere skimmed the top of the tower. He groped around and pressed a control embedded in the wall, climbed a few more rungs, hit a second control that presumably reinstated the force sphere and shoved at a metal hatch. As his head emerged, a gust of wind came skidding towards him, pinching his cheeks and filling his lungs. Blake tasted rain and tree sap, a whiff of cordite from the Federation's explosives and the indefinable smell of ozone.
**That's right, I'm out in the open air now.**
He wriggled through the hatch, buoyed by another rush of energy, and scrambled to his feet. When he looked round, Blake realised he was standing in a three-sided alcove like a sentry box, ringed by an elbow-high silver wall. The clouds seemed much closer here, their leaden weight pressing down ominously on the horizon, releasing irregular bursts of stinging rain. Laser lines divided the night into segments and bounced off the invisible dome, marking out its shape in firework sparks. A camp fire flared at the edge of the clearing, shadows came creeping through the trees and Avon leaned on the battlements, back towards Blake, eyes fixed on the encroaching darkness. He was wrapped in his robes again, like an image from Vila's tarot pack: the Magician on the Tower.
'So you followed me,' he said without turning. 'I might have guessed it. You were never particularly merciful. Stay where you are, Blake. No, I am not afraid of you but since this part of the tower is not protected, I can't guarantee your safety.'
'And your own safety?' Blake rasped, which wasn't the question he'd intended to ask, except that apparently he couldn't continue until he was sure he wasn't about to see Avon shot in front of him.
'Oh don't worry about me,' Avon drawled. 'I lead a charmed life. Just say what you came to say and get it over with.'
A laser blast whistled towards him and glanced off, proving his point and shattering Blake's protective aura of detachment. Anger blazed through him, a redhot glare illuminating all the casual slights and dismissive scorn and elaborate insults that Avon had ever made him take. He clenched his hands into fists and snarled, 'You lied to me, Avon.'
'Did I? When?'
'When you told me that Anna Grant never left this place.'
The wind whined at them. Avon laughed, sharp as the crack from a laser rifle. 'You are reasoning ahead of the evidence, as usual. Anna is, in fact, still here. Under that mound in the clearing, if you want the specifics.'
'You - you killed her?' Blake stammered and Avon swung towards him saying, 'Don't I always? I killed my family, inadvertently but effectively. I killed my partner in crime, Tynus. I shot Anna - twice, as it happens, although for the same reason on both occasions - and shortly before I left Xenon Base I almost pushed Vila out of an airlock. When Orac finally located you on Gauda Prime, I decided I couldn't risk killing another ... old acquaintance. So I came here instead.'
He was shouting by now, his voice battling the wind, his face a pale oval blur suspended in the night, difficult to decipher until another spurt of silver fire revealed the darkness behind his eyes and the white-knuckled hand grasping his medallion. Blake's pulse raced, driven by a manic elation. He hesitated for a moment, torn between saying, 'So you exiled yourself out of guilt' and 'So I'm on the list of people you care about.' In the end the conflict propelled him forward, wordless but certain, hands outstretched, fingers already shaping themselves into a grip on Avon's arms. Except that, instead of closing around living flesh, his fingertips slammed into something smooth and hard: and invisible.
At first Blake assumed that he was hallucinating. He tried again, jarring his arms up to the elbows, before he was prepared to believe the evidence of his senses. His labile heart sank, so deep this time that it plummeted beyond despair into a cold hell of indifference.
'Congratulations, Avon,' he said flatly. 'You always wanted to make yourself so safe that no one could touch you and you've finally pulled it off. I should've realised sooner. After all, a man who can set a force sphere around a tower wouldn't find it too difficult to set a force sphere around himself. But you needn't have bothered, as far as I'm concerned. I'll stay out of your way from now on, till you can drop me off on some convenient planet.'
He spun away and covered the distance to the alcove in three quick strides that seemed to last a lifetime. As he dropped to his knees, struggling with the lid of the hatch, a voice said, 'Blake, don't go.' Avon's voice, presumably, although it was unrecognisable, stripped for the first time in his experience of all Avon's usual artifice and irony. Blake hesitated, reluctantly curious, then rose and turned.
The clouds hung dark and heavy, their pendulous folds rimmed by the reflected glow from livid patches of sheet lightning. Thunder growled behind the clouds, laser rifles blazed and Avon came walking towards him, hands extended, just as Blake's hands had been a moment before.
**Not this time, though. I don't fall for the same trick twice.**
As he willed himself to take a step backwards, Avon reached out, seized his shoulders and shook him hard. 'Damn you,' he railed. 'Oh, damn you, Blake. Why the hell did you have to invade my life again?'
Blake bared his teeth in a wolfhound grin. 'You sent for me,' he pointed out and Avon, still clutching him, said, 'Unwittingly, I assure you. I asked Avalon for an engineer, that is all. Remember, Blake, I thought you were dead.'
'And if you'd known I was alive and Avalon's chief engineer, what then?' he asked, remote and dispassionate, watching Avon's shadowed profile closely while he waited for the final cut.
An unsteady exhalation of breath, not quite full enough to count as a laugh, and then Avon said, 'I would have sent for you sooner. But then, I have never been entirely rational where you are concerned.'
Lightning flared. The night shifted and realigned around them. 'What do you mean?' Blake said, shaken. 'I don't understand.'
Avon shrugged. 'Why do you think I stayed here?' he demanded, averting his face before he supplied the answer. 'Because I no longer wanted to be part of a world where you did not exist.'
Blake smiled into the darkness. 'Careful, Avon,' he said, clinging to a cynicism that was starting to feel like his only protection. 'If I didn't know better, that would've sounded perilously close to a declaration.'
A whiplash of rain flicked across his face. Blake rubbed at the welt and discovered warm drops trickling down his cheek, between the cold drops. He was still puzzling over this when Avon reached out and wiped away both the rain and the tears.
'You can be irritatingly obtuse at times,' he said and kissed Blake.
His mouth was warmer than Blake's tears and more pervasive than the night. He threaded his fingers through Blake's curls, holding him in place until he had kissed him breathless, then stepped back and said, 'There. Is that obvious enough for you?'
'After everything else you've said and done, I'd call it confusing,' Blake muttered. He dragged a hand across his eyes, staring down at the silvery trackmarks and whispering, 'Don't change your mind out of pity.'
'Pity?' Avon repeated, eyes rounded to the point of parody. 'Having problems with your memory, Blake? You appear to have mistaken me for someone else.' He leaned forward to kiss Blake again, light but inexorable, adding, 'Believe me, I have wanted to do this ever since we met on the London.'
'Then why didn't you?' he growled and Avon said, 'There didn't seem to be much point. You bullied me into joining your wretched rebellion. I assumed that if you'd wanted to sleep with me, you would have bullied me into that too.'
'Yes, I probably would've, if I'd known what I wanted,' Blake agreed ruefully. 'Unfortunately, the Federation psychosurgeons did a particularly good job of suppressing my sex drive. I could never work out why I kept ignoring Jenna's invitations, until a friendly young man from Avalon's advance guard helped me to fill in the gaps.'
As he sighed at the memory, Avon's eyes narrowed. 'Clearly, a momentous experience,' he observed with an edge of sarcasm.
Blake grinned. 'That depends on your definition of momentous. I came thirty seconds after he touched my cock and then wept for an hour, while a decade of memories settled into place.'
'How disconcerting for the friendly young man,' Avon said, sounding gratified. 'And after that?'
'After that, I realised I'd always loved you, from the very beginning. And you? Come on, Avon, don't tell me you remained faithful to my memory for two years.'
'Not intentionally,' he said, a little too quickly. 'But ... you are a hard act to follow, Roj.'
'A burnt out wreck?' Blake asked wryly. 'You have strange tastes, my dear.'
If he was fishing for a compliment, he failed. 'True,' Avon agreed, leaning against him. 'I did everything within my power to resist you, then and now. Anna Grant was always useful in that respect. A secret sorrow over a conveniently lost love can be an effective way to distract attention from one's susceptibilities in the present. Indeed, after you left me, I even attempted to believe my own alibi - but Anna proved to be a fraud, which made you the only person who had ever lived up to my admittedly eccentric standards.
'So I passed your tests?' Blake said, surprised. 'I thought I'd failed them all. That was part of the reason I didn't return to the Liberator. I drifted round aimlessly for two years and when I realised what I'd been looking for, I laid a trail of clues, trying to lure you to Gauda Prime. But that failed too and then the children told me you were dead ...'
When his voice faltered, Avon slid a hand inside his work shirt, tweaking imperiously at a nipple. 'But, as you see,' he said, 'I am very much alive.'
He coiled his arm around Blake's neck and wrenched him into a longer kiss, hands rifling Blake's body with an abrasive speed that seemed to sear straight through to the skin. Blake gasped, fired by the sudden urgency, then gasped again as the wind tossed another rain gust at them.
'We'd better go inside,' he said reluctantly but Avon lifted dark dazed eyes and murmured, 'No need.'
He thumbed the silver oblong of his medallion - once, twice, three times, as though he were tapping out a code. The rain stopped. When Blake glanced up, he saw a watery canopy arching over them: the upper half of a tent-sized force sphere, with the lower half embedded in the roof of the tower.
**Of course. I should've guessed that the medallion controls Avon's personal force sphere. That explains why he kept clutching it like a protective amulet.**
As he laughed, amused and enchanted, Avon whisked off his magician's robes and pressed the medallion twice. The roof warped beneath Blake's feet, throwing him off balance, toppling him onto a rose and blue cushion. Avon straddled him, legs braced and arms spread, suspended in a silver circle like a Leonardo da Vinci study of human proportions, until Blake laughed again and said, 'Oh, very clever. I see you've levitated your sphere.' He wriggled and squirmed, adjusting his spine to fit the lower curve, hooked his foot around Avon's ankle and caught him as he fell.
Although there were still some gaps in Blake's memory, he felt sure he had never made love in mid-air before. Not that it bothered him. At that moment he felt as though he could have fucked Avon in the middle of a minefield without setting a foot wrong. Removing each other's clothes became a ballet, rather than a clumsy preliminary, each segment of smooth silk or rough work cloth peeling back to reveal another stretch of skin to be explored and adored. By the time they were both naked, lust and love and an awestruck sense of wonder had combined to send Blake into a dreamily elated trance. He cradled Avon against his chest, rocking him gently, while the wind buffeted the hanging sphere and etched dark hieroglyphics across its rain-glossed surface.
Then Avon shifted abruptly and sat up, thighs splayed wide across Blake's hips, every line of his body expressing a concentrated tenderness. He steadied Blake's cock, aligning it with his own erection, wrapped his hands around the twinned shafts and drew them steadily upwards. Lightning flared, illuminating the sphere. Blake gazed into a sharp-planed soft-eyed face - a new Avon, neither the Magician nor his old adversary but someone he'd never seen before. I love all three of them. White fire flooded the gaps between the storm clouds, raindrops struck sparks off their invisible shield and Avon milked Blake's cock with ardently efficient strokes, kneading and squeezing just below the hood.
'I believed you were dead,' he whispered. 'I knew it to be true and yet somehow I always thought that I would see you again.'
Blake shivered, vibrating to the echoes roused by words and gesture. For a moment he was almost convinced that he and Avon must have been listening to the same song, half a galaxy apart, but then logic told him that Jek Larsen's ballad had lasted so long because it expressed something as timeless and universal as fire and rain.
'Always, my love,' he breathed, echoing the echo, as the night blazed around them and he thrust convulsively into Avon's fist.
Orgasm came as a vertical lightning stroke that turned the sphere and him incandescent. When his eyes cleared, endless seconds later, Avon was bending over him, silhouetted against silver. Blake's heart cramped. **Dear God, this is real. I'm not just dreaming.** He reached up, digging his fingers deep into Avon's buttocks and grappling him close. Avon shuddered and moaned and rammed his cock down the groove of Blake's pelvis, hard flesh impacting on solid bone. His face was a white mask, scarred with lines of anguish, and his breath jerked from his lungs in harsh tormented gasps as he thrashed and laboured, striving desperately for release. Blake smiled. **I know it's real now but he's not completely sure, not yet.** He smoothed sweatdark hair from Avon's forehead and whispered, 'Ah, my dear,' imitating the inflections of the hologram beside Avon's bed.
Smiled again as Avon bucked and stilled, said 'Blake?' in a soft startled voice and came.
As they snuggled into the silver hammock of the sphere, legs tangled and arms overlapping, Blake remembered the question that had brought him there. 'Why did you let me believe you were hiding Anna in the tower room?' he asked and Avon murmured drowsily, 'I was afraid.'
'Afraid of me? Why?' he demanded.
Avon looked up and said, uncharacteristically earnest, 'While we were on the Liberator, I came to rely on you, far more than I realised at the time. In consequence, after you disappeared, I became ... somewhat unbalanced. Your unexpected return threatened the rather precarious detachment that I had achieved during my voluntary exile. Detachment was all I had left by then. I felt compelled to guard it, even against you.'
He relapsed onto Blake's shoulder, exhausted by the effort of confession. Blake sighed, marvelling at his lover's infinite capacity for resistance. Clearly, Avon's definition of extreme vulnerability more or less matched the level of trust that the other Liberator crew members had achieved by the end of their first week.
**Although, of course, for Avon, trust and vulnerability amount to much the same thing.**
A gusty breath tickled his chest. As a smile twitched the corners of Blake's mouth, he realised that Avon's confession was continuing. 'Besides, I felt - and indeed still feel - that I haven't much to offer you,' said the muffled voice. 'I have lived among machines for the past year, Blake. I am not entirely sure that I remember how to be human.'
'You were always more human than you liked to pretend,' Blake said roughly, tilting Avon's head back and kissing him to demonstrate his point. He smiled into lambent amber eyes and asked, 'What now?'
'Now we can go anywhere we wish,' Avon told him and Blake echoed, 'We?'
'Of course,' Avon responded, clipped and intense. 'You don't think I intend to let you leave me again? Once was enough, Blake. We could start by visiting Vila and his Kerrill on Homeworld, perhaps.'
'Vila? He's alive?' Blake asked, startled, and Avon frowned back at him.
'You didn't know? I assumed the Scorpio crew had told you.' He thought for a moment and added, 'Ah yes, I can guess what happened. As an apology for my attempt at murder, I established the coordinates for Kerrill's planet and left Vila a time-delayed message, explaining that a flyer would be waiting near the base at the end of the week, if he chose to follow his lover. The fool must have delayed his decision until the last minute and then left without informing the others. Well, it will be easy enough to rectify that by stopping at their new base on our way.'
'I'd like to see the children again,' Blake agreed. 'And after we've been to Homeworld, we can find a suitable bolthole and settle down to make ourselves rich and safe.'
'That appeals to you?' Avon asked, elaborately disingenuous. 'You surprise me, Blake. Since you seem convinced that I am a revolutionary at heart, I assumed your next move would be to bully me into building a fleet of spaceships for your friend Avalon.'
It was the old Avon from their Liberator days, twisting the facts and demanding the impossible, just as he had always done. Blake laughed out loud, everything suddenly right with his world.
'We could do both,' he suggested. 'They aren't mutually exclusive.'
Avon's finger dawdled meditatively down the line of Blake's scar, then tapped at the silver medallion. 'Well?' he said, eyes glinting with impatient arrogance. 'What are we waiting for?'
In the shadows of the thorn trees, a young man with a mane of blond hair and a creased friendly lion-face lets his breath out in a long sigh. The silver bubble has burst and the lovers are leaving the tower but he can't turn away. The images of their love-making have burnt into his retina, like the afterglow from a firework display or a laser battle. He has to keep on gazing at the empty patch of air where they hung suspended. He has to keep on thrusting his fingers urgently into his companion's clenched palm.
'Ah, Bran,' Lew whispers, shifting closer, nudging against his shoulder. 'Bran, they've gone.'
When he looks up, Lew's face is an unreadable moon-pale smudge, his forehead shadowed by a wing of raven-black hair, his tall thin body in its Federation blacks swallowed up by the darkness. It doesn't matter, though. Bran has shared a tent and sentry duty with Lew for the past six weeks and he knows Lew's moods almost as well as he knows his own. He grips Lew's hand harder, remembering how his friend caught hold of his gun-arm when the taller man - Roj Blake - stepped out unprotected into the middle of the tower. Not that Bran needed to be restrained. After all, he'd never told their captain about coming across Roj Blake and Kerr Avon in the mountains, when he was sunbaking on his day off. He had instinctively reached for his laser rifle then but he's sure that he couldn't have fired it, any more than Lew was able to fire at Blake tonight.
Their troop had landed on the mining planet at the end of a long journey, quartering the northwest sector of the galaxy in search of Bartolemew, the Federation's most famous **agent provocateur** who'd disappeared while following a mysterious lead that she had refused to explain. They stayed because their captain had identified first Roj Blake and then Kerr Avon: having failed to find Bartolemew, he hoped to redeem himself by bringing back a pair of legendary terrorists. Blake and Avon were supposed to be their enemies and yet, talking together on duty or in their tent late at night, Bran and Lew had tacitly agreed that they respected the rebel leaders more than any officer they'd ever served. Lew admired the casual insolence with which Avon baited and mocked the guards. Bran was more impressed by Blake's ability to ignore the troopers and concentrate on his work. But they both agreed that the two men, separately and together, had a presence powerful enough to challenge all their previous assumptions.
Sympathising with the rebels has been a game up until now, part of the passive insubordination that helps soldiers to endure their regimented life. But tonight is different. Tonight Lew raised the stakes, when he reached out to stop Bran from shooting Blake. Tonight they stood side by side and watched a magical moon rise above the tower, scintillating against the night until a squally wind wiped away its veneer of rain and revealed two men, naked and entwined, moving together in the unmistakable rhythm of desire. Bran should've been shocked - after all, he'd been listening to Federation strictures against unnatural practices for half his life - but instead he felt triumphant, as if that shining vision had confirmed something he'd always known. And Lew felt the same: he could sense it from his friend's sudden stillness, even before Lew's hand closed tight around his own. Duty forgotten, Bran had gazed entranced at the lovers as they floated in their silver orb, his fingers fucking Lew's palm with hectic abandon, while his mind recalled and questioned everything he had ever been told.
**If the Federation was wrong about this, where else have they gone wrong?**
He's still staring at the empty battlements when they lurch forward and then tilt back into place. The ground shudders beneath his feet and the tower heaves and levitates. As Bran gapes and knuckles his eyes, a silver ellipsoid lifts from a rocky crater and hovers above them like an overweighted satellite.
'Myrddin be praised!' Lew exclaims. 'It's a spaceship.'
Guards tumble out of the tents and mill round the clearing, shouting and shooting. Laser fire bounces erratically off the sphere's surface, rain hisses and the captain bellows frantic orders. But Bran and Lew can't move. They stand there, hands clasped together, laser rifles dangling useless at their sides: two Federation troopers mesmerised by the sight of a rebel ship, bright as a reversed lightning flash, soaring through fire and rain and streaking off into the night.
Bran watches the spaceship receding, eyes fixed on the line of light. He can see his future written in silver across the sky. At the first chance he gets, he'll desert and go looking for a group of rebels, with or without Lew, although every instinct insists that Lew will be with him. Maybe he'll even meet Blake and Avon some day and tell them what a powerful symbol they were and how symbols can change lives. Maybe not - after all, the galaxy is wider than any man's imagining.
But either way, he knows how he wants to spend the rest of his life. The rebels, making love in a silver sphere, have offered him the greatest gift he's ever seen. Bran has a dream now. He intends to love someone in the way those two men love each other.
He intends to fight for freedom: or die trying.
Note: This story was inspired by Suzan Lovett's cover for Powerplay 4, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Pat Fenech's stunning and very different story 'Journeys End' and Judith Proctor's deadline. It is, accordingly, dedicated to all four of them.
Back to B7 Top