Conscience of the QueenBy Marian Mendez
Page 2 of 8
Arlen was not successful. Sleer knew that before she arrived at the rebel's base. The Federation ground-effect troop carrier landed nearby was proof enough. Incompetence was rampant. She couldn't depend on her most expensive spies, and even the rebels weren't what they once were. What could Blake have been thinking of--to allow Commander Fernal's ship to set down practically on his doorstep? When they parted, Avon must have taken all of Blake's common sense with him.
She wondered if Avon had already arrived. From orbit, her crew had identified the wreck of a planet-hopper. If it had been Scorpio , she was probably too late. They were either dead, or ahead of her. She strode forward, impatient of any delay. Gunfire from further in the rebel's headquarters led her to a startling scene--Avon standing alone in a ring of Federation troops. Warn him. Save Avon.
"Avon! Down!" Sleer didn't know why she'd said it. She didn't know why Avon obeyed. But he did, flinging himself to the floor as her troops opened fire on the other Federation guards. He remained there, crouched protectively over one of the bodies while the guards were slaughtered by Sleer's men. "Someone shut off that blasted alarm," she ordered. She hated having to shout to be heard. Silence descended on the chamber, broken only by the shuffle of her troops and the reptilian slither of Sleer's long, sheer gown as she entered the room.
Avon lifted his head, roused by the stillness. His hand tightened on the projectile rifle that lay beside him. Sleer recognized that look in his eyes, having seen it in her own mirror on occasion. Avon was beyond desperate. She should order him killed, too, but . . . Let him live. He is invaluable.
"Take him alive! Get the gun!" Sleer snapped. She was tired, irritable, and not at all in the mood to put up with any more incompetence. Her men had nearly given themselves away when they came upon the garrison commander outside the rebel's bunker. She'd had to dispose of the man herself. At least this brief firefight had heightened their reflexes. One of her men stamped on Avon's rifle while two others grabbed the rebel's arms and yanked him away from the body, forcing him to kneel before Sleer.
She stepped forward, and smiled at Avon. "It's been too long, Avon." She stretched out her hand to caress his hair. He stiffened and glared, but said nothing. "You're not speaking to me today? What have I done to offend you?"
"You set this up," he accused her. His eyes weren't as dead as they'd been a few moments ago. Hate brightened their depths and harshened his voice. It was almost a pity to correct him, but she was curious to see how he would react.
"Not I. The credit goes, posthumously, to a Space Commander Fernal. He was overly ambitious. I merely arrived in time to save you, Avon. You could show a bit of gratitude."
Avon struggled futilely against the guards. "You should have arrived sooner, then. Or later." Hate appeared to be losing out to despair. It was disappointing. She had thought Avon an equal opponent. Was he emotionally dependent on his crew?
Sleer looked past Avon, taking in the still forms. "Come now, Avon, do cheer up. It may not be so bad as you think. Commander Fernal wanted your people alive for trial. His men used stun weapons. And my agent, Arlen, had similar orders." She stepped past Avon to turn Arlen's body over with the toe of her shoe. "Ah, well, someone here was not so restrained. Poor Arlen has a broken neck, it seems. Pity." She moved behind Avon, gesturing for her men to pull him around to watch. "Oh, dear. Whatever happened to Blake?" She glanced back at Avon, gloating over her old enemy, at her mercy at last. "My people didn't do that. Neither did Fernal's. You had a projectile rifle, didn't you, Avon? What was the matter? Didn't your reunion run according to plan?"
Avon said nothing, his eyes on Blake's corpse. Sleer tired of him. It was boring teasing someone who was too involved in their own misery to notice you. "Take him to the ship. Search him and . . ." Avon does not appear stable. It would be a waste of effort to have him suicide now. ". . . have him tranquilized and secured. If anything happens to him, I will be most displeased." As Avon was dragged from the tracking gallery, Sleer turned her thoughts to Avon's crew. They can be disposed of at any time. Alive, they may prove useful. She pointed a graceful fore-finger in the general direction where Dayna, Tarrant, Vila and Soolin's unconscious bodies lay. "Take these rebels to the medical unit aboard the ship. Once they are stabilized, have them searched and confined separately in the cells." She smiled down at Vila. "Strip this one down to the skin. He's an accomplished escape artist and undoubtedly has tools concealed about his person."
She contemplated Blake. He had changed, but was still quite recognizable. She surveyed the body. The wounds still bled, so Blake wasn't quite completely a corpse. Perhaps he can be revived. It might be wiser to let him finish dying. Presenting a corpse to the Council would still be a fait accompli, and much safer than a live Blake. But a live Blake could be used as leverage against Avon. You could see he regrets killing Blake. And there is still Orac. Yes. Orac. "Take Blake to the medical unit as well. Tell the doctors I want him saved if at all possible. If not, the body is to be cryogenically preserved."
Sleer glanced about the room. Orac was not in evidence. Since Avon had distrusted Blake enough to kill him, she doubted he'd brought the computer into the base. Still, it was worth a try. "You," she pointed to one of the sub-commanders. "Take six men and search this base thoroughly. The rebels had something I want--a clear plexi-box of electronic components. The man who finds it will be well rewarded." That seemed to take care of everything. She delicately lifted her skirts, fastidiously avoiding the puddle of Blake's blood as she surveyed the tracking gallery once more. She threw her head back and laughed. It was turning out to be a very good day after all.
* * * * * * *
Sleer sighed, dropped the last computer cube into the erasure slot on her desk and pushed herself to her feet, stretching catlike to ease her tired back. She accepted the administrative portions of her profession as necessary, but that did not make them enjoyable. Now she had done her duty, and could attend to more personally satisfying matters. She gazed idly at a monitor displaying a motionless figure sitting in the cell reserved for non-expendable prisoners. Avon would have had time to think, and to wonder why she had not begun the interrogation immediately. She rather wondered why she hadn't, herself. Opposition will merely make Avon's resistance stronger. Ignore him for a time, and he will resent the implication that he is not your first priority. Yes, that was how she had reasoned it. She clearly recalled her imprisonment in the cellar of her own palace. She would have preferred interrogation to the humiliation of being left alone, chained up like some ill-mannered domestic animal. And so would Avon. She had made Avon wait long enough. By now, he must be seething.
She took a moment to assess herself at the floor-length mirror set between panels of simulated teak. She could have afforded the genuine article here on her own specially outfitted ship, but it was only sensible to abide by the safety regulations prohibiting such flammable materials. But there was nothing in the regulations that said she must be surrounded by squalor. Her personal quarters had lush carpeting under foot and swirling pastel shades covering the walls. Avon would not be as comfortable in his present accomodation.
No, he would not be comfortable at all. She walked past the guard who stood just inside the entrance to her quarters. "Guard. Follow me," she ordered, and continued on her way, without looking to see if she was obeyed.
Avon sat on the floor of the bare cell, staring at the dull gray, padded walls. His studded tunic and overvest had been replaced by a coarse fabric jacket that encased his arms, pulling them tightly across his chest before the long sleeves tied in the back. He would have found movement awkward--if he had cared to try. The cell door opened, hissing as it slid back into the recessed frame to one side of the doorway. He flinched, then stilled again.
Sleer entered and frowned at Avon, wrinkling her nose in distaste at the aroma of unwashed, blood-spattered male. He'd been sitting for hours just as the guards left him. Every few minutes she had glanced at the monitor motivated by an irrational fear that he would somehow elude her again as he had so many times, but he had simply sat, undecipherable emotions occasionally twisting his features. He hadn't so much as examined the cell. He hadn't eaten either, although a tray of food had been left conveniently beside him. She nudged the tray with her foot. "You must be hungry, Avon. Why haven't you eaten?" His stone face never changed expression--if you could call that vacant-eyed stare an expression. "It isn't drugged." She waited for a response, but receiving none, continued, "Perhaps you dislike the indignity of having to eat off the floor, like an animal?" She moved closer, irresistibly drawn by the pain behind those blank, brown eyes and knelt beside him. She stroked his hair, then ran her hands over his neck, slowly, coming around to the pulse point. He would hate that, hate the gentleness of her touch as she cherished him, her hard-won prize. He would be worth possessing even now that he was broken. Indeed, his shattering was what made her ownership possible. Especially as she was not the one who had destroyed him. She was a trifle jealous that he had broken at another's hands, but this way was better. He would hate her, but he would also know she had saved him. He would have to respond to her, even if only to deny the debt.
"I could order the restraints removed. If you promise not to injure yourself." Avon's' eyes flashed at that. She knew the sting of pity, and how much worse it must gall coming from an enemy. "That's all I ask, Avon, dear. I don't want you hurt. I never wanted you hurt." Avon focused on her, but remained silent. She fancied herself standing at the opening of a cave filled with carnivorous, nocturnal creatures, just as the sky was beginning to darken. "Shall I prove it?" She rose to her feet, knowing she could awaken the beasts within Avon and make them tame.
"How?" Avon asked, wearily, his voice as hoarse as if he had been screaming and crying for hours. He hadn't, though. Sleer had kept the audio turned on as she monitored him and had heard nothing. Any grieving Avon had done had been silent and internal. She knew that kind of grief all too well, how it bit at your throat and curled up into a hard, unforgiving knot in your stomach. How you alternated between wanting to die, to wanting to kill; to kill whoever you could reach, since the true source of your pain was untouchable.
"I went to a great deal of trouble and inconvenience to rescue you from your own folly. Does that mean nothing to you?"
"No. You want something from me. That's all it means." Despite the resistance implied in the words, Avon's voice held no hostility--no life, either. He was going through the motions from force of habit.
"Well, yes, I would like to have Orac," Sleer admitted. Orac is important to Avon, but not as important as his life--or the lives of his crew. After all, Avon had given her the Liberator over Kairos when she threatened Dayna. Then again, on Terminal, he had practically committed suicide by ordering the ship away when he was her prisoner. Was that to protect the others, or out of spite for being trapped? His motivations were as delightfully complex as her own and she quite enjoyed maneuvering him.
Avon gave a thin smile at that. "Then you shall have it."
Sleer turned, surprised. But not so surprised as she pretended. "And you'll give it to me, just like that? No threats, no bargains, no proposals?"
He shut his eyes briefly, and sighed. "It's too predictable. You have my crew. You threaten them. I say I don't care. You torture them until they die, then you torture me until I give in or I die. Ultimately, you win. Why not simply go straight to the foregone conclusion?"
"Total surrender. How absolutely delightful. All right, Avon. Give me Orac, and I'll give you a present in return." This was even easier than she had hoped, and she was feeling generous. When Avon is not threatened, he is much more cooperative. She must have read that in some psycho-strategist file on Avon, back before she lost her faith in them.
"Oh, no, Avon. Orac first," Knowledge must be earned. She repeated the words aloud, "Knowledge must be earned."
Avon looked puzzled. He stared at her. "Is that right?"
Confirmed. "Certainly. Confirmed," she added, without knowing why. It had seemed important to reassure Avon. And it had an impact on him, she could see that. Avon was thinking once more. Which might make him dangerous. And definitely made him desirable.
His eyes narrowed. "After all, Orac is just a computer. Just as Zen was only a computer. You were with Zen when it was destroyed. Nothing unusual happened, did it?"
Sleer froze, remembering the terror of that near-death experience. She stared at Avon for a moment, then turned aside. "Of course not." She faltered, then went on. "Your Zen did save my life, by teleporting me to safety. I suppose, by extension, I owed you a debt, which I've now repaid. Now, tell me where Orac is."
He hesitated, then said, "Orac is hidden under the seat of a flier hidden in the woods two coordinate points east of . . .of the place where I was taken."
"Excellent. I will be back once the computer is retrieved, to give you your reward."
"A swift death?" Avon asked, softly, as if hoping the answer would be 'yes'.
Sleer looked over her shoulder in mock surprise. "Oh, no, Avon. It's something you might like--well, you might hate it, too, but that's hardly my fault." She studied Avon for a few seconds, savoring the pain and the gallant attempt at cynical disbelief in his eyes before smiling and leaving him to wonder what would happen next.
* * * * * * *
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