Slings and ErosBy Riley Cannon
Page 1 of 4
|Blake landed with a thud and a gasp of pain, and stayed crumpled on the cold stone floor of the cell. All that he was really aware of was that he hurt, a lot, and when a hand touched his shoulder he couldn't help flinching away in anticipation of another blow. But it was Avon's voice that came to him, and the touch was gentle.
Turning over, very carefully, he looked up at Avon, saying, "Sorry. Travis was a trifle enthusiastic."
"Did you expect tender mercies?"
Blake wanted to smile, but his face didn't. "Give me a hand?" he said, holding out his own.
Obliging, Avon helped him up and over to the single bunk, easing him down on the hard mattress and pulling the blanket up to cover him. Avon wasn't making a fuss, Avon never did, but by now Blake could tell when the other man was concerned; there was that curiously wounded look in Avon's eyes now, as he frowned over Blake's bruised and bloodied face, trying to assess the extent of the injuries that weren't clearly visible.
"Is there anything I can do?"
Shaking his head, Blake tried to get comfortable--biting off a groan as even that slight movement jarred pain through his body. "I'll be all right," he said, and saw how much Avon believed him.
Avon went over to the wash basin and came back with a damp cloth, cold, but Blake didn't complain, appreciating the effort and trying not to wince too much as Avon bathed his battered face. It still hurt to smile, but he tried, touching Avon's hand and letting the smile linger in his eyes at least, until he couldn't fight off exhaustion any longer.
It was hard to tell how much time might have passed, the lighting was kept low at all times, but when Blake opened his eyes again he had a sense that he had been out for more than a few minutes. Shifting around and trying to sit up proved he'd been asleep long enough for everything to stiffen up, every muscle protesting as he moved around. Achieving an upright position at last, Blake rested against the wall, eyes closed, waiting for the aches to ease away.
A little surprised that Avon hadn't offered any help, Blake opened his eyes to confirm that he was alone in the cell. There was no point in worrying, wondering when Avon had been taken away and what Travis might be doing to him. No point, but Blake did it anyway, trying to convince himself that Avon could withstand a little roughing up, that Travis wouldn't get especially creative with Avon. After all, he was the one Travis hated, the real venom and brutality would be held in reserve for his sessions. But Avon might provoke Travis, not realizing how near the edge Travis was--how little it could take to trigger a killing rage in the man.
Anxious for Avon, concerned about what might have happened to the others, frustrated at being unable to do anything about it, Blake got off the bunk, needing to move, do something. Though painful at first, slowly pacing the cell began to loosen up his muscles, and he was feeling a little better by the time the sound of booted footsteps echoed down the hall.
Facing the barred door, Blake watched Travis come up, accompanied by a pair of mutoids who were supporting Avon between them. At least the tech was on his feet, and he didn't look too bad, Blake thought, moving well back from the door as it was opened and the mutoids shoved Avon through. Blake caught him as he stumbled, holding him as Travis stood there looking unwholesomely pleased with himself.
"Think about it, Avon," Travis said. "It will be the easiest thing you'll ever do."
"What are you talking about?" said Blake.
"Don't pay any attention to him, Blake," said Avon.
"Very good." There was an approving note in Travis' voice. "You may be even better at this than I thought." Disinclined for further gloating, Travis turned abruptly and left.
"Are you going to tell me what that was all about?" Blake said, guiding Avon over to the bunk and settling him down there. Gently cupping Avon's chin, he tilted his face a little more into the light. A few bruises, some swelling at the corner of his mouth where he'd been hit and bitten his lip; scratches along one cheek-- one of Travis' thugs was fond of wearing a pair of gauntlets decorated with sharp metal studs, all the better to beat the hell out of someone.
"Well?" he prompted, knowing Avon was conscious even though his eyes were closed.
"He wants the Liberator and thinks I'll give it to him," Avon finally said, flinching a little at the touch of the cold, damp cloth Blake had retrieved.
Obviously Travis had no idea who he was trying to deal with then, Blake thought as he washed Avon's face. "That has to mean Liberator is safe then."
"Evidently, and apparently Jenna's taken her out of orbit. I overheard Travis telling Servalan that he expects me to contact Jenna and order her to return."
"Is Servalan here?"
"No, at Space Command Headquarters."
Well, that was something--and knowing that Jenna and the others were safe and was even better news. "Did you overhear where Travis thinks the Liberator is?"
Avon shook his head. "I don't think Travis has a clue, only that the ship has moved off from Jacarnda."
Jenna probably wouldn't go too far though; Liberator was sure to be waiting somewhere in this system--all he and Avon had to do was get back their bracelets and contact the ship. Just at that moment, however, that was a somewhat daunting prospect. An opportunity would present itself, though; it had to.
"Get some rest," he urged Avon, drawing the blanket up and tucking him in.
Gazing at him through a veil of lashes, Avon said, "How can you be so sure I won't take Travis up on his offer?"
"I just am."
"What if you're wrong?"
"I won't be."
Avon shook his head, eyes falling completely shut as he dozed off.
Blake sat down on the floor, listening to the reassuring sound of Avon's steady breathing, trying not to think too much about what might happen next. Unfortunately there was a dearth of more cheerful topics to dwell on just now. Obviously this had all been a set-up, yet more proof that if something looked too good to be true, it probably was.
Jacarnda probably had harbored anti-Federation factions, once; it would've needed some such provocation to have wrought the destruction he and Avon had seen. The town square they had been instructed to teleport down to had been a muddy crater, and for miles around there was nothing but shattered, burnt-out ruins; scorched, blasted earth, pockmarked with more craters. A leaden sky stretched overhead, drizzling cold rain. Nothing moved; there hadn't even been the faintest buzz of an insect. Blake couldn't recall ever having seen a world that was more thoroughly dead. Even Sinofar's world had not been quite so desolate.
That alone should have been proof enough that the message from Avalon had been a ruse, that it came courtesy of the Federation. But Blake had ignored Avon's insistence that they get the hell out of there; he'd insisted on looking around, to make sure. Sure of what? he asked himself now. That Avalon wasn't hiding in some shambles of a building, waiting to jump out and shout surprise?
Infallible hindsight struck him as a particularly useless ability. So did kicking himself for not being possessed of precognition...for making a dumb mistake. No one was perfect, he told himself, and wondered if that would provide much consolation when he and Avon were executed.
Sighing, his breath misting in the cold, Blake got up, stretching carefully to avoid cramp, pacing around the cell once more. He and Avon had already been over every square inch, searching for surveillance devices (there hadn't been any), or for something in the way of an escape route. There wasn't anything like that, either. The floor, walls, and ceiling were solid; the only window was beyond reach, and too narrow anyway, even if there had been a way to remove the bars. The door was just as secure, iron bars with a hi-tech locking mechanism that Vila probably could have bypassed easily enough...but Vila wasn't here, and neither of them had his talents. For a while Avon had been going around with a lockpick concealed in a shoe heel, but apparently he had gotten into the habit of taking it for granted that Vila would be handy to take care of all that.
Which was a minor misstep, Blake reflected, compared to the way he'd messed up. Even after wasting time bumbling around in the rubble, there had still been a margin for error, precious time when he should have had the sense to order Cally to bring them up. A chance, there and gone in a little more than an instant, before Travis and his mutoids came around the corner of a mostly-demolished building, so quickly Avon never had a chance. And Blake had had no choice at all.
The mostly-demolished building turned out to be fairly intact on the lower level, providing this cell and Travis' interrogation room at least. If there was more to it, Blake hadn't seen it yet. Somehow he doubted Travis would be inclined to conduct much of a guided tour.
Blinking, he looked over at the bunk. "How long have you been awake?"
"Long enough. Anticipating the worst isn't going to help, you know."
"But you're going to do it anyway," Avon said, sitting up gingerly.
Blake shrugged. "At least that's something I'm good at," he said, coming over to sit beside him.
"Orac didn't have any current, authentic data on Jacarnda," Avon's tone was sharp, reprimanding, "but you're supposed to have been omniscient?"
Giving him a considering look, a rueful smile gracing his eyes and mouth, Blake said, "You're supposed to say I-told-you-so, and inform me I'm an idiot."
"Yes, well, that goes without saying."
Blake's smile expanded, and with it a good deal of the tension and anxiety ebbed away. There really wasn't a lot of sense in banging his head against this particular wall. "I'm the one Travis wants to kill; you might only be sent to another penal planet."
This time Blake laughed, not loudly or long, but it effectively chased the last of his worries away. "Thank you."
Avon gave him a look that clearly questioned his sanity, but he didn't move away as Blake scooted closer, their shoulders touching. Nor did he resist as Blake reached down to clasp his hand. Instead he turned to look at the rebel's battered face, reaching with his free hand to trace gentle fingers along the contours, dark eyes intent as though memorizing every feature.
Bothered by the melancholy in those eyes, Blake said, "Don't look like that--we're not dead yet."
"Ever the optimist."
"And look what it's got me," Blake whispered, leaning to kiss Avon's mouth, then drawing the tech into his arms.
Waking as the door rattled open, Blake looked sleepily over at the mutoids waiting there. Time for round two, it appeared, and he began to disentangle from Avon; but the other man was awake too, giving the mutoids a disdainful look then throwing a questioning one at Blake.
The mutoid controller didn't keep them in suspense. "Both of you," she ordered, "on your feet."
Well, this should prove interesting, Blake thought, helping Avon up, biting back a groan as his own body protested with a dozen little twinges and spasms. Hesitating, knowing he had no right to make such a demand, he still said, "Avon, whatever Travis does we can't let him win, we can't give him what he wants. Do you understand?"
Unfathomable dark eyes met his. "Of course."
"Are you sure? You know what that could mean?"
"I fully comprehend the situation," Avon said, and that didn't really qualify as an agreement, but Blake couldn't demand anything more.
"Move," the mutoid controller said, emphasizing the command with a jerk of her weapon.
Blake tried, but couldn't hold back a cry as the neurostik sent agony racing through every nerve in his body. Gasping as Travis ordered the mutoid to stop, he looked up at Travis, noting the look of almost bored indifference. Summoning some last bit of bravado, he said, "If you've some appointment to keep, Travis, don't let me detain you."
"Very good, Blake," Travis said, coming a little closer. "I'm glad you've still got your wits. Why don't you use them to spare yourself?"
"You're going to kill me, no matter what."
"Perhaps. But a summary execution would at least offer some dignity."
"Hardly, at the price you're asking." Blake turned his head, looking over to the corner where Avon had sat all this time, silent. "Nothing is worth that price," he added, more to Avon than to Travis. It was hard to ask Avon to give up his life for a cause he professed not to believe in, it wasn't fair, but there was no other way. One life...two lives...couldn't be used to hold the universe hostage.
"You do realize," said Travis, "that no one will ever know what a noble martyr you were?"
"I'll know," Blake replied, looking at him.
"You're a fool."
"So I've been told, frequently. What's the matter, Travis, have you lost your nerve?"
Something flickered in that single blue eye, anger or disgust, Blake couldn't be sure, but Travis stepped back and raised his left hand, triggering the lazeron blaster--pressing the hand to Blake's temple. "Very well, Blake--you first, then Avon...but we'll take our time with him. Are you listening, Avon?"
Travis didn't look back at Avon, but Blake could see him just past Travis' shoulder: composed, inscrutable, not even shifting position though he must be uncomfortable after being strapped to that chair all this time. Even if the rest of the crew really didn't mean anything to him, even if every jibe at the cause and its followers had been true, Avon would know he had nothing to gain in dealing with Travis; that the instant he was of no more use to Travis, he would be just as dead. Certain of that, Blake stared back at Travis, daring him to go ahead and do it.
Instead of feeling the blast of the lazeron though, it was a sick surprise that hit him as Avon found his voice at last:
"Very well, Travis, you've made your point; I'll tell you everything you want to know."
"Avon, no, don't--"
"Shut him up," Avon requested, not looking at him. "Better still, get him out of here."
"Avon!" Blake cried as the mutoids hauled him out. "Avon!" The door was slammed shut and the mutoids dragged him off.
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