Before and AfterBy Nova
Page 2 of 3
Whenever the going got rough, my aunt used to tell us that worse things happened at sea. I'd never actually seen the sea, growing up in the Domes and all, but auntie said it was like a giant bath and I knew about baths, because she made sure we had at least one a month. I was usually the last in line, so I got the best and worst of it. Half an hour sloshing round peacefully in the lukewarm water, with nobody banging on the door, followed by the gut-wrenching moment when I had to pull the plug and listen to the snarling, gasping, tearing sound of water going down the plug hole.
So, every time auntie said, 'Worse things happen at sea', it made me think of a giant hand pulling the plug and letting the whole world drain away. I heard that sound as I passed out in the tracking gallery. When I came to, I was scrunched into the corner of a holding cell - not the maximum security type, more the type where you stash soldiers who need to sleep off a binge. I could've tripped the locks in two seconds flat, if I'd had the energy, but as it was, I concentrated on lifting my head off my knees and looking around. Soolin and Tarrant were piled on a narrow bench, like corpses, only breathing. I couldn't see Dayna anywhere, which probably meant she was dead. And Avon was lounging in the shadows by the far wall, fiddling with a medallion on a chain round his neck.
Funny, I thought. Never noticed that before. I was opening my mouth to ask him about it, when I remembered there were more important things I needed to know.
'What happened?' I said - well, croaked, really.
Avon turned his profile towards me, shadowy in the shadows. 'Well now, how much of this fiasco were you conscious for?' he mused. 'I shot Blake. A Federation officer shot Dayna and one of Blake's henchmen. Ah, that's right - you knocked the officer out and a Federation trooper shot you. Soolin shot a trooper. Another trooper shot her. Tarrant went through the same routine. A ring of troopers shot at me. Blake's rabble rallied and shot them. Then the rabble tossed us into this cell, presumably while they decide how to dispose of us. That was twenty four hours ago, so I suspect opinion is divided.'
His voice sounded as level and composed as it had ever been. When he shifted slightly, a bar of light from the grille in the door laid a stripe across his face, like a pale half-mask. I could see that beautiful mouth of his, compressed into a narrow line. He wasn't laughing crazily, the way he'd done when Servalan tricked us over the black gold, or falling apart, the way he'd done just before he asked Blake, 'Have you betrayed me?'
That should've been a relief but it wasn't.
Avon shifted again, staring off at some invisible horizon. 'Yes,' he said, as though we'd come to the end of a long discussion. 'Yes, I think that ought to do it.'
'You've thought of a way out?' I asked, not very hopefully.
'Only for myself,' Avon said, which didn't come as much of a surprise. 'You will have to make your own arrangements, Vila.'
I decided all over again that I didn't like Avon, something I'd been deciding at regular intervals, ever since he'd tried to push me out of an airlock two months before. My head felt muddled and heavy. I let it drop back onto my knees and started brooding about Avon's nice neat summary of events. Blake dead. Dayna dead. Soolin and Tarrant undecided. (Sometimes you recover from a major stun, sometimes you don't.) A fine mess the homicidal maniac in the opposite corner had got us into. He should've been - hold on a minute, if that bunch of Feds had shot him, why wasn't he dead?
But I didn't get time to ask him that, because next minute the door swung open. I was scuttling sideways like a crab, to make sure it didn't hit me. Avon was clutching his medallion and backing away, to leave room for the people crowding into the cell. Two guards and the worried little man that Arlen had shot, so I could cross him off the body count, at any rate. He seemed to be in charge, because the guards stood back and let him look Avon up and down for a bit.
'I'm Deva, Blake's computer technician,' he said finally. 'Kerr Avon, I've come to tell you that the revolutionary tribunal has sentenced you to death by firing squad for the murder of Roj Blake.'
I got the shakes then, not so much from what he'd said as from the way he said it. You could tell Deva had really liked Blake and yet he didn't sound angry, more sad than anything else. It was scary to think of someone being that understanding, even if they'd had twenty four hours to mull it over - although I found out later that Deva can't help trying to make sense of things.
I didn't want to look at Avon but I felt as if I had to ... and when I did, he was smiling. Not one of his crazy smiles, one of the nice ones, which made me shake even harder.
'Unfortunately for you, I am currently protected by a personal force shield,' he said. 'Of course, you can always leave me here until I starve to death but I suspect your rebels would find that symbolically unsatisfactory. Therefore, I propose a bargain. If you will permit me to see Blake, I will permit you to execute me.'
Well, that explains why Avon's still alive, I thought, ignoring the rest of it. Nice of him to share the force shield idea with me and the others.
The guards weren't too pleased with him, either. 'Don't let that murdering bastard anywhere near Blake,' the bigger one growled and the woman snapped, 'He's in no position to try cutting deals.'
Deva didn't take any notice of them, though. He just nodded at Avon and said, 'A sensible solution.' Then he turned to me and added, 'Why don't you come along too, Restal?'
That startled me, because I hadn't realised he'd even seen me there. As he bent down to haul me to my feet, he tucked an arm round my shoulders and leaned in close.
'You know Avon better than anyone, now,' he murmured. 'I'd like to call on your expert opinion, if it becomes necessary.'
As a computer technician, this Deva was a good psychologist. I couldn't remember the last time anyone had paid me a compliment like that - or called me 'Restal', instead of 'Vila' or 'hey, you', come to think of it. So, even though I was quite clear that I didn't want to see Blake being dead, I fell into line and followed Deva out of the holding cell.
It could've been a nasty business, walking through Blake's base with Blake's killer, except that Deva sent the guards on ahead to clear everyone out of the way. The big guard tried to thump Avon as he pushed past but his hand bounced off the air a few centimetres away from Avon's back, which proved the force shield was working. Then the three of us strolled down the corridor, chatting like civilised men. Well, Deva and Avon chatted, anyhow. I just bobbed along in their wake, pinching myself every now and then to see if I was real, wondering whether I'd feel any better if I stopped and threw up.
At one point Deva said, 'I see you adapted Blake's Freedom Party medallion as the control panel for your force shield.'
'So you recognise it?' Avon said, not particularly surprised or interested. 'Yes, I found it on Terminal, when I searched the underground rooms after the explosion that killed Cally. A significant turning point, as it happens. It proved Servalan's claim that Blake was an illusion to be one of her habitual triple bluffs - although I should have known that already, since no computer program could have come up with some of Blake's more telling gibes. Once I had the medallion, it was only a matter of establishing whether he had been killed in the explosion. Since I saw no other bodies, I concluded that Blake and the medical team must have been transferred to a second Federation cruiser, before Servalan confronted me.'
'That's right,' Deva agreed, following the whole thing better than I could. 'When Servalan didn't return, Roj talked most of us into deserting and joining the rebel cause. We ditched the rest of the crew at Freedom City and went on to establish the Gauda Prime base. Roj always hoped you'd turn up again but he couldn't bring himself to contact you directly ... more's the pity.'
'Oh, I wouldn't waste time on pity,' Avon told him. 'A singularly unproductive emotion, or so I have always found.'
After that we walked on in silence till Deva stopped outside another door, where the guards were waiting. My stomach lurched, worse than in freefall, and for a moment there I thought I really would be sick. But somehow I got up the nerve to stumble through that door. I grabbed hold of a handy medical trolley, wiped my eyes a few times and finally managed to focus on Blake. He was lying on a table covered with a white sheet. Eyes closed. Big hands crossed on his chest. Face very calm and young and peaceful and beautiful, in spite of the scar.
Totally and irretrievably dead.
While I clung to the trolley and stared, Avon walked straight over to the table. He let go of his medallion and lifted one of Blake's hands, cradling it between both his own hands.
'Look, Deva!' the smaller guard said urgently. 'He's dropped the force shield. We can take him.'
Deva turned on her. 'Leave him alone,' he said in a fierce whisper. 'That man loved Blake. We're giving him what he wants, now and later.'
Looking back on it, I have a feeling Avon must've heard him. At any rate, he leaned forward, touched the dead hand to his heart and kissed Blake on the mouth, as if he was still alive.
'Goodbye, Blake,' he said, terse and expressionless as always. Then he swung round and said to Deva, 'I am ready now.'
He didn't wait for the guards to march him out. He just strode right past them - and past me too, like he didn't even recognise me. It was a relief at the time, although it's been torture ever since. I shuffled my feet, wondering whether this was my chance to make a break for it. But Deva seemed to think I ought to be there at the execution and somehow that unassuming little bloke had a way of getting what he wanted. So I found myself trailing along behind the rest of them, desperate for a pee, desperate for a drink.
Oh, hell. Just plain desperate.
When we got outside, every-bloody-body on the base was waiting for us. They made a hungry sort of noise as they caught sight of Avon and then, two seconds later, they shut up. I'm not sure why. Avon wasn't looking noble or tragic or anything like that. As a matter of fact, he made the whole business seem kind of ordinary, asking where he ought to stand, unbuttoning his jacket so his white shirt would be a better target. Somehow, that finally convinced me that he'd been planning this all along. I mean, he could've used the force shield to escape, couldn't he? But instead he must've switched it off after the Feds shot at him and let the rebels shunt him into the cell, so he could bargain for a last look at Blake. I can't say it struck me as something worth dying for but - oh well, each to his own taste.
Half a dozen guards lined up in a row, fumbling nervously with their blasters. Someone went to tie Avon's hands behind his back and for the first time since I'd laid eyes on him in the holding cell, his calm cracked. He flinched away, eyes showing too much white, hands flinging up the way they'd done when Blake collapsed. If I could've run then, I would've, only my feet refused to move.
Then Deva stepped in, saying, 'There's no need to bind him', and Avon calmed down again. He accepted a blindfold, tied the knot himself and stood there with his hands clasped in front of him. I'd seen him stand like that so many times on Liberator - teasing Blake, provoking Blake, challenging Blake, testing Blake, demanding Blake's attention and getting it ... up to a point.
I think my heart must've broken then but I didn't notice at the time, because I was waiting for Blake to come out and tell us it was all a joke - or for the rebels to say, 'All right, we scared you good and proper, now let's go and have dinner' - or for Avon to produce some brilliant apology that'd win everyone over.
None of that happened, of course. Instead, Avon lifted his chin slightly. Deva said in a strange, strained voice, 'Shoot to kill. Aim for the heart.' Half a dozen loud bangs made me jump. A red rose sprouted on the white shirt and Avon jerked sharply, then toppled backwards. I could tell straight away that he was dead, because I'd never seen him look that relaxed before, not even when he was asleep.
After that I thought I could go and find a drink at last but wouldn't you know, next minute Deva was grabbing my arm and steering me over to Avon's body. His face didn't look peaceful, not like Blake's face. It just looked empty. There'd been this complicated, irritating, dangerous, bloody magnificent collection of things, called Kerr Avon, and now all of that was gone. **Bang.** Over.
I said, 'Give me a fucking drink, you bastards' and passed out.
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