A Fine Collection of AlliesBy Sheila Paulson
Page 2 of 24
|Kerr Avon materialized on the Liberator without a moment to spare and with a great many questions. Orac had reported Blake had returned to the ship and was sleeping, making Avon wonder if his wound was worse. From his own less than gentle landing in his life capsule, he realized that Blake, still weakened from Travis' shot on Star One, might have had an even rougher landing. Orac had temporarily lost contact with Liberator, but had been able to restore it later, informing him of Blake's survival. Servalan didn't know that, and Avon had no intention of enlightening her. She hadn't told him any secrets either.
Avon was certain the battle had gone badly--how could it be otherwise when one ship, even a ship as well equipped as the Liberator had been left for some hours to fight off a fleet of six hundred ships? Too many alien vessels had penetrated the Defense Zone and though the Federation had arrived in great numbers to fight alongside the Liberator, it was inevitable that some of the enemy survive. Avon's experience with the Andromedans on Star One had convinced him that even Servalan was preferable, though it was a moot point, but it had not enabled him to trust her, and he had been glad to leave her behind.
He had no choice but to bring Dayna Mellanby back with him. Thanks to his war with Servalan, Dayna's father was dead, and Avon felt a bitter responsibility for that act; though had Servalan encountered Dayna and her father without Avon's intervention, Hal Mellanby would still be dead and possibly Dayna with him. She had nowhere else to go, and her expertise with weapons might prove useful.
Now she and Avon stood on the teleport platform staring at the total stranger who came striding into the section, a weapon in his hand. When he saw them, he lowered it but did not put it away. "Avon, I presume," he said with a smile that Avon didn't trust.
"Who are you?" Avon demanded suspiciously. Orac had not reported this man's presence--the computer had much to answer for. "Where Is Blake?"
"Sleeping on the flight deck," the stranger replied. "His wound reopened when his life capsule landed. He needed the rest. I'm Del Tarrant."
"You seem to have made yourself at home," Avon observed sourly, noting Tarrant's use of a Liberator gun. He suspected he'd seen the outfit Tarrant was wearing in the wardrobe room too.
"Zen had to make use of me," Tarrant returned. "A Federation death squad boarded before I did, but your ship's defenses finished them."
"And not you?" Avon asked. Interesting. He remembered the difficulty of resisting the image projected by Zen's defense system. It had taken Blake to break the spell. That Tarrant had resisted it said something for him, though Avon was not yet certain what. He did not trust the young man. "I'd like to see Blake," he insisted deliberately.
"Then we'll go to the flight deck." He cast an interested look at Dayna. "And who is this? Neither Cally nor Jenna, surely?"
"Dayna Mellanby, Del Tarrant," Avon returned, taking Dayna's bracelet and storing it in the tray along with his own.
Avon was inclined to be angry with Blake. The man had been driving them far too hard even before Gan had paid the price of his obsession. Lately Avon had begun to believe if he did not put an end to Blake's influence, he would die himself--or become too drawn in to escape. He had started holding Blake at bay with hard words, fueling his anger with every grievance he could find, until, driven to the breaking point, he had informed Blake he wanted it ended. Blake had assumed Avon hated him, but Avon did not quite do that. He simply wanted free of him, another matter entirely. He was not surprised that Blake did not understand it for he did not understand it himself. He only knew that not even his resentment of Blake's manipulation of his crew--especially himself--did not prevent him from going to Blake's rescue on Star One when he learned Travis had arrived. Blake was a dangerous man, and Avon resented the hold he had over him. Better if they could have parted then, cleanly, but it had not worked that way, and Blake, fool that he was, had insisted he had always trusted Avon, from the very beginning.
Avon knew that could not be true, that it was most likely only one more form of manipulation. Bad enough Blake had forced him to stay and fight off the Andromedan fleet until the Federation arrived. Worse he should try to tie Avon to him still further.
Avon went to the flight deck prepared to annihilate Blake with words for everything he had done to him.
Blake was still sleeping, curled up on the forward couch, his hair tousled, his face a little flushed. He slept with the fierce abandon of the very young or the pure at heart, and it was so ludicrous that Avon almost stepped forward to shake him awake, but at the last moment, he held back. Looking down at Blake he asked impartially, "Is it serious?"
"No, he's recovering nicely," Tarrant replied. "He's lost blood and he's been through a lot. He needs the rest."
Dayna joined Avon, staring down at the sleeping man. "So that's Blake," she said softly. "My father enjoyed listening to reports of Blake. We followed any news we could get of all of you and the ."
Dayna was one of the least maternal women Avon had met, but here she stood looking down on Blake sympathetically. Avon remembered her care when she had rescued him from the Sarrens. He could not remotely imagine Servalan caring for an injured man, not unless she stood to gain for it.
Finally Blake stirred as if alert enough, even in sleep, to feel eyes upon him, and he shifted restlessly and opened his eyes, blinking up at Avon blankly. Then his expression changed and to Avon's considerable astonishment--and discomfort--a smile of world-class proportions lit his face. A moment later he damped it as if suspecting Avon would not welcome his delight, but it didn't go away entirely, banked behind his eyes and still smoldering. "Avon," he burst out, sitting up so quickly that it must have twinged his re-opened wound, for he paled, gasped and clutched at his shoulder. Avon was surprised to note that his own (purely instinctive) gesture to help Blake get his balance was backed by Tarrant's, the younger man drawing back at once as if he feared he was poaching on another man's preserve. Avon's eyes narrowed.
"Well, Blake," he said levelly, setting Orac aside on the table. "I see you have failed to take proper care of yourself. It's a wonder you've survived as long as this."
"You seem to be intact," Blake returned, the warmth that had initially been visible retreating behind a wary stiffness as Blake put himself on guard. That was just as well. Avon found it much easier to deal with Blake that way. The open, caring Blake had always been the most dfficult to shield himself against. He wondered if Blake realized that. But now, he must be remembering their furious exchange before going down to Star One, instead of Blake's attempt to convince Avon he trusted him.
Avon's lips twisted sourly. "Intact?" he echoed. "Oh yes, perhaps. Certainly back here, on my ship, Blake. Did you conveniently forget it was to be mine after Star One?"
"Even if I had, you wouldn't have allowed me such a lapse," Blake returned, shifting slightly as if to ease his wound. This time Tarrant did intervene, checking to make certain the pad was still in its proper place. Casting an unreadable glance at Avon he withdrew to the opposite couch, sitting down and folding his arms across his chest as if he were prepared to be entertained.
Avon shot him a resentful look before turning back to his primary target, Blake, aware of Dayna joining Tarrant on the couch and conversing with him in low tones. Realizing he was another newcomer she might want to learn what had been happening, or maybe she was simply curious about the ship. Without shutting them from his awareness, Avon concentrated on Blake. "Zen informs me we will next retrieve Vila, then Cally," he said in neutral tones. "Orac reports that our attempt to halt the Andromedans until the fleet could arrive was not entirely successful. Are we now to align ourselves with the Federation to defeat this new threat?"
"I've considered it, Avon," Blake replied.
"Using my ship?"
"Using any vessel we can lay hands on, Avon. Surely not even you are selfish enough to refuse to fight this particular enemy."
Avon hesitated. "Perhaps not. Servalan was on Sarren, Blake. I left her there. She had shelter and no doubt she will find rescue, but whether or not it will be by her own people is debatable."
"You let her live?" Blake asked, eyes narrowing. "I'm surprised at you, Avon. Every time I do something like that you find fault with me."
"It was not by choice," Avon returned. "Had it been possible, I would have left a corpse behind. But she was necessary for a time, since she alone knew the location of Orac. After that, there was no option."
"If there had been, I would have killed her," Dayna put in coolly, causing all three men to look at her, Blake in surprise and Tarrant with a startled consideration as if forced to revise his first impression of her. Avon introduced her to Blake.
"We've left Sarren behind," Tarrant reminded her.
"It's more important to crew this ship again than to worry about might have beens," Blake chided, looking around the flight deck. "Once everyone's on board, we can plan our strategy."
Avon sat down beside him, rather worn from his exertions on Sarren. "Plan our strategy?" he enquired. "Assuming the rest of us will be interested, Blake?" He eyed Tarrant and Dayna suspiciously. "And what of our passengers?"
"Zen seems to have accepted Tarrant," Blake replied mildly.
"Whether the rest of us shall do the same remains to be seen," Avon returned.
"He's a pilot, Avon."
"So is Jenna, and we are familiar with her motives."
"You mean you trust her?" Blake asked with some amusement.
"I trust no one. But I know what to expect from her." He frowned at Tarrant. "This ship is mine now. Fighting alien hordes is not how I would choose to use it."
"Perhaps not," said Blake, watching Avon through slightly narrowed eyes. "Would you turn your back on the rest of humanity?"
"The rest of humanity has already turned its back on me," Avon responded. "But I see you will allow me no peace if we do not discuss the subject. We will wait until everyone has returned before any decisions are made."
"It may be your ship, Avon," Tarrant spoke up suddenly, "But you're not a pilot. Zen accepts me. I intend to stay here, with Blake. I doubt you'll put him off the ship. I have as much right to fight the Andromedans as anyone, and with this ship, I can do it better than I could anywhere else."
"If Blake is fool enough to trust a stranger..."
"Blake is cautious, as he should be. He'll find he has no cause for alarm. I don't love the Federation. But I don't like the idea of an alien invasion either."
"And you have chosen to follow Blake," Avon observed smoothly. "Be very careful, Tarrant. Blake may be charismatic, but his followers are not his primary concern. For his cause, he will sacrifice anything."
"Yet you're still here," Tarrant pointed out with a dazzling smile.
"For the Liberator," said Blake quietly, and Avon turned a suspicious look in his direction, wondering at the faintly mocking note in his voice.
Tarrant's smile turned into a knowing grin and he relaxed again. Avon's eyes narrowed at the sign of easy understanding between the two men. Surely Blake had not welcomed him without question. Or perhaps he saw in him someone ardent enough to follow him into hell without question. Avon doubted Tarrant would be an unquestioning follower, though he seemed drawn to Blake's personal magnetism.
"What about me?" Dayna asked abruptly. "I've nowhere to go. Have you need of a good weapons designer on this ship? Tell him I know how to fight, Avon. I could easily earn my way."
"You will like her, Blake," Avon said promptly. "She's very bloodthirsty. If we come face to face with Servalan, you must watch her carefully for she is primed to kill her. Now that Servalan is president, she will be all the more dangerous. Perhaps you will need a huntress at your side."
"Presidents in time of peril can gain an amazing amount of support," Blake replied thoughtfully. "Servalan is not my choice of ally, but she might be best equipped to defeat the Andromedans."
"You'd side with Servalan?" Dayna cried, looking at Blake in considerable disillusionment.
"Servalan is human, Dayna," Blake returned. "I don't trust her and never will, and I have no intention of putting myself and my crew into her hands. But she will defend the Federation against the invader."
"Gaining strength for herself as she goes." Avon stood up and walked forward to stand before the main screen, turning to face the others, his hands clasped behind his back. "This invasion may play right into her hands. She will use any tool that comes to hand to defeat the enemy, including you, Blake. Then, when the Andromedans are beaten, she will turn on you. It you believe anything else, you are a far bigger fool than I believed possible."
"How could I ever be that, Avon?" Blake asked with a sudden smile, and Avon felt his annoyance melting away. He wouldn't let it go, however, schooling his face to retain its impersonal glare.
"All too easily. But this discussion is pointless. Perhaps when the others are back on board, we can talk sense into you."
"I am talking sense, Avon," Blake returned. "Not necessarily an alliance with Servalan, no. That might be too great a risk. But we must stop the Andromedans quickly. They're shapechangers. Leave them too long and they'll go to ground. Even if we defeat them ship to ship, enough of them will survive to be an ongoing threat. Eventually they'll take positions of power, replacing prominent Federation officials just as they replaced the technicians at Star One."
Avon smiled slightly at the thought of Servalan being replaced, her body hanging empty and discarded in some darkened room. But even less than that did he relish the idea of an alien in the body of the President of the Terran Federation, manipulating the galaxy. Eventually there would be no safe place left, no bolthole for him to run to when he finally had enough of Blake.
That thought pulled him up short. Only days before he had been proclaiming loudly that he wanted to be rid of Blake and his influence immediately. Blake had taken it as hatred, but it hadn't been. lf so, he would never be thinking of staying with Blake now, especially when he knew how it would all end. Blake would get him killed yet, and if he failed at that, he would get the others killed or manage to die himself, leaving Avon in the unenviable position of assuming Blake's mantle. Avon didn't want it. He had no desire to be a leader, only to be left in peace. But a corner of his mind nudged him with the thought that it was preferable to be left in peace on the Liberator while Blake played his war games than to be left in peace in a safe bolthole away from Blake. That made it all the more imperative to end Blake's hold on him.
But not yet. With an alien force at large in the galaxy, the Liberator was the safest place going, and Avon valued his safety--or claimed to do--above all else. He would have to stay, at least for now, at least until he saw what happened next. If nothing else, he could talk Blake out of alliances with Servalan. Maybe they could use her without risking themselves. But he owed Blake nothing and he would not commit to anything.
"Perhaps you are right," he temporized. "At least with regard to the Andromedans. We must wait and see what they intend." Turning to Orac, he inserted the computer's activator. "Orac, you will monitor the Andromedan fleet, keeping us informed of its movements, of any planets visited by Andromedan ships. Your task will be to insure that no Andromedan replace a human and begin a rise to power."
+My circuits are presently engaged, and the task you specify is impossible.+
"Oh, come, Orac," Blake prodded, entering the fray. "You've always boasted that your powers were tar beyond our puny expectations. Now Avon gives you an important task and you fail us. I shall be forced to conclude that you have been exaggerating."
Tarrant grinned at Dayna at Blake's tone, but Orac snapped back, sounding quite angry, +If anything, my abilities have aIways been understated. Very well, I shall monitor the Andromedan fleet. But not even I can kill every Andromedan at a distance.+
"That's where we come in," Dayna explained.
"We?" asked Avon.
"It's to my advantage to defeat the Andromedans," she returned. "I'm human too. I won't side with Servalan, but short of that, I'll do whatever is necessary. What do you say, Blake? May I join you?"
"We'll need qualified recruits," Blake replied. "Seven of us can run this ship, but with more, we can accomplish far more than we have achieved so far."
Dayna looked delighted, and her scrutiny of the flight deck suddenly became possessive, as if she now considered it her ship. Avon nodded. He had seen Dayna fight and knew that once her considerable appetite for mayhem and danger was toned down she would be a good companion in a fight. Blake would learn that for himself as time went on.
As for himself, Avon preferred to avoid Blake's obsessions, whatever they were, and his only reason for remotely considering going along with Blake was to keep the Liberator intact. He was fairly certain Cally would support Blake especially if he had toned down his fanaticism. Perhaps even Blake was capable of learning from a mistake. Jenna, too, would back Blake as long as he was remotely reasonable, and Vila would complain all the way but would tag along. These two new recruits were unfortunately gung ho, but perhaps that could be turned into an advantage later. Avon regarded at Blake sourly. This was not working out as he had hoped.
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