SorcererBy Jean Graham
Page 2 of 7
|_"An intelligent man can adapt."_
When he'd said it to Blake aboard the London, Kerr Avon had believed it with all his being, believed it because he'd no other choice -- he knew of no other way to survive the living hell of a prison ship, or a penal planet. Since then, he'd had cause to doubt his confidence. An Alpha's Earth-dome upbringing did little to prepare one for adapt-and-survive procedures in an open atmosphere, even under the best of conditions. And Cygnus Alpha could hardly be said to offer the best of anything.
The makeshift cloth bag rattled as he shifted its weight on his shoulders, finally easing it to the ground as he paused for a minute's breath. Gazing up the hillside at his home of the past fifteen weeks, he allowed himself a brief, sardonic smile. As castles went, it was less than impressive -- a crumbling ruin left by some unknown previous inhabitant, designed in a mockery of architecture similar to that of Vargas' temple, though this one was larger and in worse repair. Vila had once quite accurately described the style as 'early maniac.' On occasion, albeit rare occasion, Vila displayed something remarkably akin to incisive intelligence.
Surrounding Avon at the base of the citadel's crag, the ruins of what had once been a city stretched for better than a square mile. He had no idea who the one-time inhabitants had been, though he'd been grateful to discover they had at least possessed computer-age technology. It wasn't difficult to speculate, however, that they'd differed with Federation expansionism and paid the ultimate price for their noncompliance. Discernible from the citadel's height, the yawning missile crater into which most of the city had collapsed lent a certain morbid credence to his theory.
Sighing, Avon hefted the bag and went back to his task amid the rubble of a one-time foodstore. The radiation-sealed packets joined the rest of today's profitable haul in the sack: one miniature andyne power generator, five cracked but serviceable dynamon crystals, numerous useable computer components -- and two lead-protected cases of decontaminant drugs. This last was by far the most valuable of his finds to date. He had no means of measuring just how high the residual radiation level stood -- but these drugs would mean freedom from the tainted supply he'd stolen from Vargas' temple. Freedom from the mind-numbing paranoia the mad priest's additives had inflicted on his fellow exiles.
He wondered idly how Vargas was supplied with the drug. Surely not from these ruins -- he and his encephalitic followers considered the city 'cursed,' as well they might. Yet the medicine, as well as other stray odds and ends about the priest's fanatical little community (their shoes, for example) did not add up to the homespun anti-technology they claimed to embrace. The answer was only too apparent. Obviously, the Federation shipped more than prisoners to this place. Which in turn meant that Vargas' decontaminant was in all likelihood laced with suppressants and tranquilizers as well as the paranoia-inducing compliance compound. Small wonder he'd had difficulty concentrating on his tasks within the castle...
It was a pity, he reflected grimly as he gathered the last of the food packets and prepared to head back up the hill, that Vargas' sleep chamber had been vacant the night he'd affected his escape. There had been no time to track the night-prowling high priest. But Avon would have taken immense and unreserved pleasure in sliding a quiet knife between the obese fanatic's third and fourth ribs.
It would have been a summary and well-deserved execution.
_"There's a punishment scale for infractions, which starts with long periods of confinement in your launch seat, and ends with the Commander's right to order execution."_
The echo of Subcommander Raiker's words shadowed him up the hillside, along with his own, spoken not long after.
"We had once chance -- you wasted it. There won't be a next time."
"In which case you can die content," Jenna's hard voice had said behind him, and when he had echoed the final word, querrulous, she'd added bitingly, "Knowing that you were right."
Small consolation that would be.
And when they came for him, he had no doubt that his death was indeed their intention. The bloodlust was manifest on Dainer's bearded face; Raiker wore it as a smirk behind the casual threat of his pararifle. He was going to enjoy this.
"You. On your feet."
Avon's restraints retracted as Raiker snapped out the command, and Dainer's gun directed him out of the flight chair with a sharp, jerking movement. "You heard him. Move!"
He debated refusing to comply -- let them kill him here, in front of the fool who had caused this mess to begin with -- but before he could complete the thought, a beefy hand grabbed the collar of his tunic and hauled him from the chair, nearly choking him. Dainer snarled something in his face, and incredibly, he heard Blake shouting some sort of protest behind him. Once a fool...
"You won't be so cocky an hour from now." Dainer twisted the collar still tighter, forcing Avon to gasp for air. "Alpha bastard..."
He reacted without thinking -- there was nothing but the desperate need to breathe and the desire, almost as great, to wipe that damnably smug expression from Dainer's face. He brought one knee to bear against the larger man's groin and shoved with all the leverage he could manage. With a muffled grunt, the man released him and Avon drew in a strangled breath before the butt of Raiker's gun slammed into his side, sending him reeling. He tried to grab the flight chair for support, to regain his feet, but Raiker had him by the hair, yanking him backward so that he fell face-up at the Subcommander's feet. The rifle barrel was shoved into his throat then, hard enough to cut off his wind once again, and Raiker's hellishly cherubic face loomed above it, leering.
"So you want it right here and now, do you? Stupid son of a bitch--"
"No, wait." That was Dainer, still breathing hard and unabashedly rubbing at his wounded manhood. Blake was still squeaking something-or-other in the background, something none of them heard. "Let me do it," Dainer panted, belatedly adding a hopeful, "sir."
Raiker's laugh held all the warmth of a death rattle. "All right. I'll not deprive you of the pleasure." The rifle barrel pressed itself savagely into Avon's throat and then abruptly was gone, replaced by Dainer's hands at his collar once again. Avon forced his muscles to remain limp as he was hauled up off the deck, and Dainer interpreted the lack of resistance as he'd been meant to do -- until Avon's own hands flew up to strike him a double-fisted blow across the face. Dainer fell away, plunging toward the flight chair. There was a loud, sickening _snap_ as his head struck the metal arm, then an oddly prolonged silence that lasted until the body had settled heavily and with finality to the deck.
The wild rage in Raiker's ice-pale eyes was the last thing Avon remembered of that day's events aboard the London.
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