A Rebel's Best FriendBy Marian Mendez
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"Why am I not surprised? Avalon crooks her little finger and we must obey," Avon remarked, with a sly look at Jenna.
Jenna ignored him. She was tired of Avon's insinuations. Besides, she knew there hadn't been anything between Blake and Avalon except the Cause. Which she almost regretted. Jenna could compete with any woman, but how do you fight an ideal?
Vila was unhappy about the whole thing. Blake promised to take them to Del 10, but somehow an urgent mission arose every time they started for the pleasure planet. He was beginning to think Blake had an anti-fun obsession. "But why do we have to go to this Lupus place to recruit people for Avalon?"
"It does seem rather odd, Blake," Cally put in, frowning. "After all, she usually prefers to select her own people."
"The Lupans insisted on me." Blake shrugged. "It seems they only have male leaders."
"That is terribly short-sighted of them," Cally remarked. "They waste the potential of half their people."
"They are primitive," Blake agreed. "Their society is a loosely-knit tribal structure."
"In which case, why do we need them?" Avon asked.
"They are also the finest guerrillas Avalon has ever seen. Recently a small group of Lupans joined her forces. She says they're totally fearless, capable of independent action or of following orders with perfect teamwork, and able to survive in the most rugged environment. She could use them on half a dozen worlds."
"If she has some Lupans already, why not use them as ambassadors?" Avon suggested.
"Because they left Lupus without permission and will have been disowned by now. No one would listen to them."
"I know what they feel like," Vila muttered.
Avon smiled, faintly, then turned to Blake. "So we are taking the most advanced ship in the galaxy half-way across that same galaxy for the express purpose of impressing a group of savages."
"Except that they don't care about the ship. They're only interested in meeting the male crew members." Blake turned to Jenna and Cally, whose matching expressions of annoyance proved they were for once in total agreement. He laughed. "Cheer up, just think, you'll have the whole ship to yourselves."
"Won't that be fun," Jenna growled, slapping at a control with unnecessary force.
"Aren't you ready yet, Vila?" Blake snapped into the intra-ship communicator, then looked up, inviting Avon to share an irritated glance but the computer tech met Blake's frown with indifference.
Vila's reply came, "I'm not taking any chances this time. I've frozen my assets before, you know." He had apparently decided to prepare for the worst and was taking his time assembling his gear.
Avon was no more eager to leave Liberator than Vila was. Blake might have done better to borrow a couple of thick-necked Neanderthals from Avalon to play Avon's and Vila's roles. In a primitive society Avon doubted thievery or computer expertise were very useful talents. Of course, Blake thought 'his' crew could do anything. Flattering, but unrealistic. Nevertheless, Avon leaned forward to add his own message. "Vila, the sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can be back on course to Del 10."
"A' right, a' right," Vila appeared at the corridor opening onto the teleport area. He was struggling to get the hood of his thermal suit up one-handed, while lugging an apparently full bright red chest with his other hand.
"What have you got there, Vila?" Blake asked, amused. He took the chest and nearly dropped it with a grunt. "Did you by any chance fill this with lead?"
"Just a few necessities," the thief protested.
Curious, Avon looked inside. "Your necessities appear mostly liquid. Did you think we were going to a desert planet?"
Vila snatched back his chest. "Look, I have to go, but I don't have to go without, do I, Blake?" he appealed to his leader.
Jenna's voice came over the intercom. "Blake, they've just given the rendezvous coordinates. You can go down anytime, they say."
"Right, Jenna. We're going now." Blake handed Vila a gun. "So long as you can stand upright, I don't care what you bring along. Just don't get drunk during the negotiations."
Blake frowned and tried once more to surreptiously stretch his legs. While the provided seats were well-padded and covered with beautifully tanned leather, they were too short and he'd been sitting in the Leader's home for a very long time. It was not going well. The Lupan people were not hostile, but very difficult to understand. They were all of a type, short and stocky with silver-white hair and arresting amber-gold eyes. If they were human, they'd been isolated long enough for genetic drift and cultural isolation to make them seem alien.
"You have no mate, Blake?" The Lupan leader sounded politely puzzled. "And you are leader? Who then fathers the new hunters for your tribe- do you give your right to one of your followers?" He indicated Vila and Avon.
Vila nearly choked. The very idea of Blake giving him Jenna! Actually, it wasn't so improbable. He certainly wouldn't mind, if only Jenna would cooperate.
Avon saw that Blake was floundering for words and stepped in before the big rebel could make matters even worse. "We are not a tribe, Sire Gerrat. When needed, we ask others to join us. As Blake is asking on Avalon's behalf."
This did not seem to help. Gerrat looked from one man to the other, looking for something he apparently did not find. "I do not think I can give permission for our seekers to accompany you, Blake." He shook his head. "I would like to, as it is difficult finding enough challenges to satisfy the honor-hunger among the young men and women. Only two in each village may become Sire and Sire's mate. At season's end many are disappointed. They would be happy to hunt among the stars and fight this great evil you speak of, but it cannot be." He sighed.
"Why, Gerrat? Surely, if they would wish to go..."
Gerrat held up his hand to halt Blake. "I, and others, are the Elders of my people. Among the stars, we will not be able to advise them. You speak for Avalon /female Leader, yet you are neither Sire, nor even a proved Leader. I cannot send them out to the stars on your word."
"Proved Leader?" Blake asked.
"One who has led a successful hunting party."
"And if I led such a party?" Blake ignored Avon's scowl and Vila's panicked appeal.
Gerrat smiled, showing a great many teeth. "Then I should be pleased to advise the Council to permit the restless ones to star-hunt for you and your female Leader, Avalon."
"I don't like this, Blake," Avon said quietly.
"I trust Gerrat. You can see that he wants to help us."
"But what of the other Council members?" Avon glanced back at a pair of sullen men who had argued with Gerrat and been overruled by others who agreed with him.
"They will abide by the decision of the majority. All we have to do is go out, hunt down one of the prey species they described and bring back its pelt and horns. As they've allowed us to keep our guns, that shouldn't be such a problem. All we have to do is find a deer, shoot it, skin it, and come back."
"If it's that simple, Blake, why don't you leave me behind?" Vila broke into the conversation. "You know how I feel about blood and killing poor little harmless animals."
"Sorry, Vila. Gerrat insists a Leader must have at least two followers."
"How about Cally? She'd love this stuff."
"No. They were quite specific. A female can be a hunter, but they won't accept one as part of a Leadership trial."
"Ah," Avon said. "Perhaps they are thinking a woman's loyalty might be affected by other factors than leadership ability."
"Such as?" Vila asked, curious.
"Oh, curly hair, a nice smile, a smooth line in insurrectionist patter- the usual thing," was the reply.
Ignoring the by-play, Blake pressed the communicator button on his teleport bracelet. "Cally, we'll be going now. Sire Gerrat will keep in contact with you. You should hear from us in a few days."
"Very well." Cally didn't sound too pleased, but made no argument. If Gerrat's people were half the fighters Avalon thought they were, it was worth the effort to win his approval. After all, Blake was only hunting an animal. It couldn't be as dangerous as fighting Federation troopers.
Blake unsnapped his teleport bracelet and held out his hand for Avon and Vila to give up theirs. Reluctantly, they obeyed. Blake turned the bracelets over to Gerrat who displayed the devices to the other Councillors.
"Blake and his people will not flee to the sky when the path becomes hard. You will see. Blake will Lead his men to the kill and back again. Pay homage to the hunters." Gerrat tilted his head back and gave an eerie ululating wail which all the villagers took up from the smallest babe in arms to the eldest toothless citizen.
Vila shivered, while Avon attempted to look nonchalant, although the hair had risen at the back of his neck. These people were not merely primitive, they were positively feral.
Blake held up his hand. Abruptly, the wailing stopped. Into the silence, Blake said, "I will return to you a Leader. Will you then follow me?"
The younger Lupans stamped their feet and shouted. Avon noted several silent hunters who did not applaud Blake's speech. He resolved to keep an eye out for trouble, as Blake would not have the sense to do.
It was a fair send-off, Vila had to admit. Women ran up to Blake and threw wild-flower garlands about his neck. Children ran after them, jumping and cheering the hunters. Even a small flock of fluffy white birds circled them.
Once the villagers had stopped and waved farewell, Vila tried to take consolation in the birds' company. Until Avon pointed out their powerful beaks and expressed an opinion that they were either predators or carrion eaters.
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