A Coin For Charon's HandBy Jean Graham
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That's what Cally had called Sultus V. On closer inspection, Avon found himself concurring. The abandoned space station's computers offered little -- correction, nothing -- worthy of salvage.
"A complete waste of time," was his professional assessment after three hours spent prowling the stripped computer labs.
Cally agreed. "The communications array has been gutted as well," she reported. "And the power cells. It may be many days before the others get back from Kinneva. I don't suppose the Federation left any vistapes behind?"
Avon half-smiled at the question. "They appear to have left nothing at all -- nothing of value to us, anyway."
She nodded. "What puzzles me is that the life support system is still functioning. If, as Zen says, the station was abandoned two months ago, would the automatics not have shut the system down by now?"
Avon continued rummaging through drawers beneath what had once been the primary ops computer console. "Not necessarily. It is capable of sustaining an atmosphere without maintenance for a year, if nothing else fails. Wasteful, perhaps, but then the Federation, like any bureaucracy, has never been noted for efficiency." He opened and closed a drawer that he had already searched three times. "There's nothing here," he repeated.
Cally frowned. "I had noticed. It seems this entire venture will have been a waste of time."
Avon's saturnine look said far more than his words. "Next time, we'll be sure to choose a fully stocked abandoned station, shall we?"
Though her eyes reproached him, Cally said nothing. She sighed and wandered off to forage in another set of cabinets. Already bored, Avon settled into the console chair and leaned back, folding his arms. He wished the teleport bracelets had enough range to reach Liberator. This promised to be a long and very dull wait.
* * *
Vila knew without asking that things were not going well. It was the third time Blake and Jenna had returned from the meetings on Kinneva wearing beleaguered expressions of defeat. This time, in fact, they looked downright grumpy. The thief kept his own counsel while they removed and replaced their bracelets. No one said anything at all until much later on the flight deck, when Jenna approached the brooding Blake and sat beside him on the flight couch.
"You can't expect miracles, you know," she told him.
Blake straightened; his clenched fingers unwove themselves and spread outward, a gesture of what, Vila wondered? Futility? "I thought they were ready, Jenna. Dressel's group is so close."
"You can't blame a man for being cautious," Gan said from his station. "Overthrowing the administration's no walk in the park, even on a backwater planet like Kinneva."
"There's no room for squeamishness here," Blake grumbled. "If Dressel can't handle the job, maybe another leader is in order."
Oh, so you 're overthrowing the overthrowers now, are you? Vila thought, feeling like an eavesdropper for all that he was, as usual, left out of the conversation. What would Avon have to say about that? Nothing positive, he'd wager.
"Well, we can't win all the battles," Jenna said. "There are going to be failures now and then. That's inevitable."
"Yes, well I'm not ready to write Kinneva off as a failure just yet. I want one more chance -- one more session -- to try and convince them."
"But Dressel said--"
"I'll talk to Kella, then," he snapped. "Maybe she has what it takes to lead the others."
Tiredly, Jenna got back to her feet. "All right," she conceded. "One more day. Then we go. Federation patrols will come around eventually, even out here."
"Won't Zen take care of that?" Gan asked.
Jenna shook her head. "Better we have a full crew aboard if any patrols show. Zen might do a fair job on his own, but he'd need all the help we could give him if the ship is surrounded."
"Don't I get a vote?" Vila piped up at last. He didn't, of course. Revolution or no, Alphas never bothered to acknowledge a lowly Delta's opinion.
"Would it matter?" Jenna queried flippantly on the way to her flight station. "You've just been out-voted, in case you missed it."
"Might be nice to be asked, just the same," he complained. "Just once. Just ever!"
But Jenna, checking controls, ignored him, and Blake wasn't hearing him at all. The rebel leader sat, eyes glazed, chewing on his lower lip while he contemplated how best to foment Kinneva's rebellion against the Federation.
Vila sighed. So much for democracy. He muttered to the weapons console in front of him that all this equality Blake preached about certainly had little influence 'at home.'
Only the console heard him, and it didn't respond either.
* * *
Avon prowled the control room, opening every empty cupboard anew and finding nothing, just as he had each time before. It was merely something to do. He'd decided to try a change of location -- any other room would do, so long as there were new cupboards to find nothing in -- and had started for the main door when something stopped him. A sound; muffled, indistinct, from behind the right side exit door. Cally had heard it too: she turned, exchanged wary glances with Avon. It might have been rats, but Zen had said there were no life signs at all aboard the station. Unless... Avon swore silently, cursing himself for a fool. Unless part of the station were shielded...
Twin explosions burst both side doors open at once, spilling a total of four black-uniformed figures into the room. Avon's hand froze just above the butt of his weapon.
"Hands up! Over there! Move!'
A rifle jabbed Avon in the back, and pushed him to the rear wall, where he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Cally as they were deftly searched and relieved of guns, belt packs and teleport bracelets. Gloved hands then spun them to face their captors, and the barrels of three more standard-issue rifles. The fourth figure stood apart -- a major, by her insignia. She looked young, but the hard edge of Federation training had left no trace of naivety behind.
"I'm Space Major Rhys," she announced; short, matter-of-fact, all business. "Who are you and how did you get here? Where's your ship?"
"Where's yours?" Avon's growled response earned him a glare -- and a prod in the ribs from one of the rifles.
Rhys laughed, apparently amused at his defiance. "Our transport crashed during an emergency landing attempt on this station two weeks ago. It's so much space junk by now. Your turn." She waved a hand at one of the troopers. "Pursell, check the sensors for ships in the area again."
The man she'd addressed nodded sharply, and slinging his rifle over one shoulder, moved to the main control console. He inserted a keycard, and the room hummed suddenly to electronic life. Avon scowled. So that's how they'd done it. And somehow they'd also shielded their presence from Zen's probes.
"Nothing," Pursell reported, disappointment plain in his voice.
Rhys looked perplexed at that. "Well now, scavengers don't often do business without a ship to carry away the spoils. So I'll ask again. Where's your ship?"
"We lost it," Cally volunteered.
The major's stony expression didn't flicker. "Try again."
"It's true," Avon said with a side-glare at the Auron. "We were hijacked by rim pirates. They took our ship and our belongings and marooned us here."
Pursell snorted. "With guns and beltpacks?"
"They tossed them into the airlock after us."
Cally did not lie well, and Rhys was clearly unconvinced.
"Generous of them, when you'd have brought a half-decent price on the outer worlds slave markets." She addressed Pursell again. "Check the logs. Any ships pass close by in the last twelve hours?"
He consulted the screen for a moment, frowning. "There is a trace. Something very large, by the look of it. Didn't dock, though."
Rhys flashed her prisoners a grimacing smile. "Did your pirates provide a shuttle as well? Or maybe you lost that too? Nikols, lock them up. Pursell, work on the transmitter, but keep an eye out for that ship."
The troops chorused a "Yes, Major," and Cally and Avon were promptly herded from the room and down the corridor. Trooper Nikols locked them in a tiny, bare storage room, featureless but for the rivetted plex porthole in the steel door. Avon set to examining the lock immediately, but its controls were on the other side. The lockpick hidden in his boot would be of no help.
"That was careless of us." Cally sank to the floor and rested her head against the wall. "How did they fool Zen?"
"Electronic sensor screen," Avon mumbled, still running his hand around the door's impregnable seal. "Though it couldn't have been deliberate, at least not with regard to us. They didn't know we were coming."
"They're hiding from someone else, perhaps?"
Avon's only comment was a contemplative "Hm."
"Well there's one bit of luck at least--their transmitter is not working."
"A temporary reprieve, at best." He gave up his examination of the door, turned to visually peruse the walls instead. When they proved even less promising, he sat down as well and resigned himself to waiting.
As it happened, they didn't have to wait long.
Trooper Nikols strong-armed the door open, then stood guard while Rhys marched through the opening She carried an odd-looking weapon, a white, long barreled gun with red markings which she held at ease, barrel up. The expression on her face, however, reflected anything but ease.
"The bracelets you were wearing appear to contain transmitters. Presumably, those can be used to contact your ship. Presumably again, you have a specific frequency and recognition signal. I want them both."
The prisoners, who had both risen at her entrance, declined to answer.
Rhys made no pretense of patience. "Last chance," she said, and deliberately clicked off the weapon's safety catch. She pointed it at Cally, flexed her index finger, started to close it over the trigger...
Avon hadn't had any particular intentions of playing the noble rescuer. He'd meant to divert Rhys with words somehow; to challenge her to deal with him and not with Cally. But he got one word out, his feet carrying him forward by some involuntary instinct, and the gun snapped instantly toward him.
He heard a muffled kachuff, felt a sudden stinging cold in his chest, and could not convince his feet to move any further. He dropped to his knees, aware of Cally's long fingers grasping his arm, of something else protruding from the front of his tunic, something thin and red. Cally yanked it out, grabbed him by the shoulders.
Rhys' gun clattered as she clipped it to her belt. "One way or the other," she said, "one of you will tell me what I need to know within the next twelve hours. The drug doesn't grant an easy death -- it's designed not to. But I wouldn't be too terribly brave if I were you. Wait too long, and even the anti-toxin won't do you any good." She jerked a thumb at Nikols, who opened the door for her to exit and then stalked out himself, securing the lock behind him.
Avon scarcely noticed. A numbing cold had begun to spread outward from his chest, curling icy fingers round every nerve and fiber. He felt Cally's arms again, tugging, pulling him back against the wall.
<Avon!> She projected the name again, an anguished mental shout. <Can you hear me?>
"Half the galaxy could hear you," he muttered.
"I'm sorry." She used words that time. In her hand, he could see the small red object that had struck him. "I cannot tell what drug they have used. The dart has a distinctive odor, but it is unfamiliar to me."
He pulled the offending missile from her hand, turned it over in stiffening fingers. But it revealed nothing. The lingering chemical odor was nothing he could identify. "An interrogator's drug," he guessed. "Probably designed to induce hallucinations, a loosened tongue and as much misery as possible -- before it kills." With a grimace, he clenched his fist over the dart. Cally looked on helplessly; he could feel her empathy, but he did not welcome it. He didn't know how, and there was, literally, nothing she could do. He let his head fall back against the unyielding wall while the cold crept further into hands and legs and feet...
He closed his eyes, shutting out the room, its walls, its floor, and its other occupant. There was nothing to do now but wait.
* * *
If Blake had been touchy before, Vila thought, he was in an utterly foul temper now. He paced the deck in front of the communications station, where Gan sat frowning at the controls.
"Try again," Blake snapped. "We have to be in range by now."
"We are," Gan confirmed. "At the extreme edge of it anyway. They're just not responding."
"Zen..." Blake wheeled on the computer. "Our ETA to Sultus V?"
+ Twelve hours forty-eight minutes at present speed. +
Blake scowled. "Take us to standard by seven, Jenna."
She made the adjustment, then leaned back in her flight chair, one hand propped casually on her hip. "There could be several reasons for a communications blackout, you know."
"Yeah," Vila put in. "But I don't like any of them much. We could be flying straight into a trap."
"Or a betrayal," Jenna added, and Blake's head came up instantly.
"Meaning what, exactly?" he said, obviously rankled.
Vila supposed it had been that Kella person turning down his meeting -- that and Kinneva's failure to join the Cause overall -- that had set Blake off. He'd been snarling like a Delta sector guard dog ever since he'd come back aboard.
Jenna hadn't seemed to notice, though. "I told you he wasn't to be trusted. Could be I was right."
'"Who?" Vila wondered aloud, and then realized who she must mean. "Avon?"
"You think Avon would set a trap for its?" Gan marveled. "Why?"
"Because he'd sell his own mother if it saved his skin, that's why. I know his type."
"A callousness matched, perhaps," Blake rumbled, "only by your own."
"Cally would never let him do it," Gan opined softly.
Jenna laughed. "I wouldn't bet on that. Avon can be very persuasive. Avon with a gun even more so."
"But they'd never--" Gan started to say.
"That's enough," Blake interrupted. "Idle speculation is useless. We'll find out what's wrong when we get there. Just keep trying to raise them." He stalked off the flight deck, leaving a smoldering blonde silence in his wake.
Vila braved Jenna's wrath. "So what would you have done, then?"
The pilot looked vaguely annoyed. "What?"
"About Avon, I mean. What would you have done, if you were in charge?"
"Sold him to the first Federation intermediary I could find. A million credits could buy a lot of guns to help convince weak-willed planets like Kinneva that they can fight."
Vila eyed her cagily. "Got no use for anyone but yourself, have you?"
"Neither does Avon," was the terse reply.
Well, that was true enough. Vila made a mental note never to turn his back on either one of them.
"You're a comfort, Jenna," he muttered. "A real comfort. With friends like you..."
* * *
Nikols' stubbled face had appeared twice in the plex porthole. Twice that Avon had noticed. The pounding in his head was beginning to make focusing on the door -- or anything else -- difficult. Cally's empathetic mind-touch had tried -- once -- to offer him comfort. He'd forced it angrily away. He wanted neither her soothing nor the liability of her concern. Never the less, through the increasing haze of pain, he sensed both her mental and physical presence, undaunted, by his side. He also felt her fear. The door had scraped open to admit Rhys and Nikols once more.
<Avon...> The soft, cautionary warning slipped easily past the shield of his resentment. No need for her to tell him: he could still see, still hear. He tried to stand, but Nikols aborted the effort by grasping his collar and hauling him upright like so much loose ballast. A moment later, the familiar shape of a teleport bracelet was thrust in his face. From it, Gan's anxious voice pleaded, "Sultus V, do you read? Come in, please."
Well, at least the fool hadn't announced their names or identified the ship, Avon thought. Then Nikols banged his head painfully against the wall and Rhys' voice said, "You're going to answer that message." Someone snatched up Avon's left hand and shoved the bracelet into it. "Tell them to dock and pick you up. Do it, and I'll administer the anti-toxin. You have my word."
He opened his eyes, struggled to focus on her. "Go to hell," he snarled, and hurled the bracelet at her. It struck her on the forehead with a satisfying crack before bouncing to the floor and rolling noisily away. His action earned him the vengeance of Nikol's fists -- the force of every blow magnified tenfold by the drug. Something intervened briefly, coming between them, shoving Nikols away. Cally, he realized hazily. He heard her cry out, a short, curtailed sob. Then Nikols was back, pounding him into the wall. Everything else vanished: there was only the black, faceless helmet shielding Nikols' features, the gloved fists, and the pain.
He didn't remember losing consciousness, had no idea how long he'd been out, but when he woke, every fiber of his being screamed agony. Hard floor under him, a wall juncture pressed to his shoulder. He tried to move, couldn't. He tried to speak and wasn't certain he'd succeeded.
He forced his eyes open, struggled to bring Cally into focus. Her face was odd somehow, darkened and swollen on one side. He tried to remember why.
<Avon, we must find a way out of here and locate the anti-toxin. Liberator may be hours away, and that may be too late. Avon, do you understand?>
Anti-toxin. Yes, he had to have the anti-toxin. Had to get up, remove the probe from his shoe, try again to open the door.
"Shoe," was all he managed amidst a futile effort to sit up. Cally understood, pulled the hidden pick from his boot heel and examined it ruefully.
<I will try,> she said. <But if I cannot open the door, the probe may have to serve another purpose.> And she began to sharpen the little tool on the rough concrete floor.
Avon drifted. He heard the door open, and thought perhaps Cally had succeeded in picking the lock somehow.
But it was Trooper Nikols again. Hands grabbed and pulled him up off the floor. A gruff voice demanded something that he failed to comprehend. Then the hands dropped him, and with a disgusted grunt, the trooper moved to Cally, thrust the teleport bracelet at her and barked another command. Propped upright now against the wall, Avon watched her reach out, touch the bracelet, then grasp the gloved hand that held it. Her lips were moving, whispering something. Nikols laughed, started to pull away, then hesitated when one of Cally's hands boldly stroked the crotch of his trousers. The other slithered to the back of his neck, explored beneath the helmet... The man jerked suddenly, gasped and made a useless effort to swat at the back of his head before collapsing in convulsions to the floor. Cally wiped the probe clean on the dead man's uniform, then rapidly stripped the corpse of weapons, keys and the teleport bracelet. The latter she immediately activated, though before she could speak, Blake's anxious voice boomed out of the tiny speaker.
"Sultus V, respond please. Are you all ritht?"
"One of us is," Cally replied breathlessly. "We need medical attention urgently, but we still have two problems to clear up here. They may be listening. How long before you reach us?"
After a moment, Blake's concerned baritone said, "We're still an hour out. How bad is it?"
"There is an antidote. I am going for it now. Sultus out."
Her use of the singular pronoun rallied Avon, who had absolutely no intention of remaining here. He commanded his legs to move, to stand, and from somewhere, though they needed the wall for support, they found the strength to comply.
Cally was beside him in an instant, the teleport bracelet now clamped around her upper arm. "I will deal with them better alone. You are in no condition to--"
"No," he said firmly, and when no other words would form, he repeated that one.
"All right then." Cally did not sound pleased. "You will need this -- if you can stay on your feet." She pressed the smaller of Nikols' two weapons into his hands, then holding the dead trooper's rifle in her own, she went out the door.
Clutching the gun for resolve, he pushed himself away from the wall and followed.
The control center's door was less than one hundred meters away: to Avon, it felt more like a thousand. Cally motioned for him to wait, flattened herself against the wall and peered through the door's tiny window. He saw her stealthily test the door's handle -- unlocked -- and ease it open just a fraction. The Auron then became a blur: she kicked the door in, dropped, fired. Someone shouted, and he heard the unmistakable sound of one body hitting the floor, then another. He allowed the wall to hold him up, guided himself to the doorway. He saw Cally on her knees with the rifle trained on a startled Rhys. Trooper Pursell lay dead, his gun in hand, between them. Another trooper sprawled, dead, over one of the consoles.
"I will ask you only once," Cally told the woman over the rifle's barrel. "If you do not answer, I will kill you. Where is the anti-toxin?"
Rhys' smile was cold. "There isn't one," she said.
Leaning heavily on the door frame, Avon made a deliberate show of snapping the safety off of Nikols' pistol, and forced words to form around his swollen tongue. "I don't much like that answer," he snarled.
Rhys was unmoved. "That's a pity. Because it happens to be true."
Avon made his way unsteadily closer, passing Cally as she got to her feet. "Tell me another story, Major."
"The only antidote was aboard my ship," Rhys sneered. "It won't do you much good now."
Avon's world tilted violently askew; he kept his feet -- if not quite his balance -- by sheer force of will. "The drug, then. I want the name of the drug, the chemical composition."
Rhys' gaze darted from Avon to Cally and back again. "It's called litrem-B. I don't know the formula. Chemistry was never my strong suit."
The world went spinning. Avon did not know that he had moved until the dizziness passed and he found himself standing between Cally and the Federation major. But in that moment, Rhys had seen his weakness and the opportunity it offered. In the moment that he blocked Cally's line of fire, the space major's hand darted toward her sidearm.
Avon shot her without reservation.
Rhys' gun arced into the air, then crashed noisily to the floor at her feet. She grabbed hold of the console beside her with white, spasming knuckles, and with a glare of pure venom, demanded, "Who are you?"
A rage more puissant than the pain coursed through Avon. With one hand, he took her by the throat, nearly lifting her off the floor. Rhys gave a choking gasp and tried to writhe away from him.
"Avon," he said through his teeth, and his hand clamped her throat still tighter. "My name is Avon!"
He shook the limp thing in his fist until he felt Cally's soft touch at his shoulder. "Let go, Avon. She is dead. Let her go."
His fist opened; the offending thing fell away, but he fell as well. Cally caught him, lowered him gently to the floor, tried to position him in some semblance of comfort. "Wait here," she said, as though he had any choice in the matter. "I will search the bodies and the medical section for anything that could be an anti-toxin. She might have been lying."
Avon doubted that, but had no strength left to argue. Above him, the teleport bracelet chirped when Cally pressed the call stud.
"Blake, do you read?"
"Here, Sultus. What's your status?"
"We have secured the base." Her voice moved away as she searched the nearby corpses. "Avon has been injected with a lethal dose of something called litrem-B. The Federation claimed there was an antidote, then later denied it. I am searching for possibilities, but as I do not know what I'm looking for..."
"We'll get Zen on it. We're at top speed and still forty minutes away." Blake paused. "Tell him to hold on, Cally."
"I have found the gun used to administer the drug." She must have taken that from Rhys' body. "There are two darts left, so we will have a sample for Zen to analyze." The Auron's voice began to fade; he could hear her footsteps receding into the corridor. "We may have very little time, Blake."
The bracelet's response was inaudible. Avon concentrated instead on finding some way to keep the pain at bay. He began reviewing the circuit diagrams for his sensor shield, piece by tediously detailed piece, disciplining his mind to dwell on absolutely nothing else.
It helped. A little.
A short eternity later, Cally's touch startled him from his circuit diagram reverie. He felt the brief sting of a needle in his left arm. "It is only a pain killer," she informed him soothingly. "But it should be of help, for a while."
Avon had the inane urge to swat her away, to rail at her for taking the pain -- the last vestige of his life -- away from him. But then the drug began to ease the knots that had been clenching his muscles into agonized spasms, and he forgot to be angry with her. He heard her say, "Please hurry, Blake." The teleport bracelet whispered something unintelligible in reply. He tried, for a time, to make sense of it, then decided that it no longer mattered. He would concentrate on the shielding device instead. If only he could remember that first diagram...
* * *
Blake paced the teleport bay, wearing imaginary circles in the deck plating. "Zen, how long to teleport range for Sultus V?"
+One minute, fifty-four seconds,+ the wall speaker behind him responded.
"Any progress on the antidote formulation?"
After the slightest of pauses, the computer said, +Analysis of the toxin will be necessary before accurate formulation can be imple- +
"Yes, yes, all right," Blake cut it off, pacing again.
Jenna regarded him coolly from behind the console. "What are you planning to do when you get there? Hold his hand?"
Blake stopped long enough to look disgusted. "I'm sure Avon would be touched by your compassion."
"No less than he'd care about yours," she said, unmoved. "You bleed too much, Blake. If you think for a moment that Avon grants you the same affection, you're mistaken. He doesn't."
"You've little use for Avon, have you?"
"Not much," was the honest reply. "If I were you, I wouldn't turn my back on him."
"Oh, I don't intend to," he said, and meant it in a sense that Jenna had not. He'd no more turn away from Avon than from any of them. They were his crew, and contentious or not -- unwilling or not -- Avon was part of them.
Jenna's look spoke volumes, but she said nothing more, for which Blake was grateful. He pulled back one sleeve to check his chrono, the other to reassure himself that both teleport bracelets were still secured there. Finally Zen's booming voice announced, + Sultus V is now in teleport range. +
"Put me across, Jenna."
Before he'd completed the sentence, the teleport effect had engulfed him. When the blinding light faded, Cally's anxious face was in front of him. Avon lay on the floor just behind her, a field jacket rolled up beneath his head for a pillow.
"His life signs are very faint," she said as Blake hurried past her and knelt down, only to confirm the statement. Avon's pulse was dangerously weak, his breathing ragged and shallow.
"He won't survive the teleport stress in this condition," Blake decided, hoping he was wrong but unwilling to risk Avon's life on it. "Take the drug sample across to Zen, Cally. He's got to find that antidote, quickly."
With a nod, Cally pressed the call button on her bracelet. In a moment, she was gone. Blake spared only a brief glance at the other still figures on the floor of the control room. Then he settled on the floor himself, pressed two fingers to the artery beneath Avon's left ear, and silently willed the thready pulse there to grow stronger.
"Hurry, Cally," he murmured. "Please hurry."
* * *
Avon was waiting. The scene had played itself out in his mind, with few variations, hundreds of times over the years. His revenge. His justice, personally administered, for the man who had murdered Anna. When the time was right, when he could find a way to return to Earth -- with or without Blake's co-operation -- he would lay his trap with calculated deliberation. The plan required Liberator, the teleport, his sensor screen, and most importantly, an accomplice. He hadn't yet decided who that would be, but in the fantasy scenario, it was nearly always Vila. The plan also required the eradication of his ID records at Central Security's computer systems. The same source would render the name of Anna's killer. That much he could accomplish on his own, given access to a terminal and the time to commit the necessary electronic burglary.
He would need a bit of surgical help as well, possibly from Gan or Cally, for the transmitter implant. After that, it would be a simple matter of getting caught...
He waited in an alley, formed appropriately enough by two bank towers in the Alpha sector. Nightscape salted the dome overhead with artificial stars. A siren wailed. He knew they'd seen him run from the Administration building side door; knew they'd find the magnolock he'd so clumsily tampered with. It wouldn't take them long to find him. He could hear the drone of a hovercraft engine -- a security rover -- coming nearer.
Deliberately, Avon moved to the alley's center, and staring straight up the glassine canyon walls, waited. The rover broke into view, multiple search beams sweeping in every direction at once. When one of them struck him, he darted out of its light pool, hesitated, then broke into a run down the concrete gorge created by the towers.
Beams coalescing into one, the rover descended the chasm and with engines throbbing, gave chase. "You will halt immediately or risk injury," it bellowed in a flat, disembodied voice. But he couldn't -- not yet. it was essential that his charade be convincing. So he ran on in the blinding light, ignoring the shouted commands, the downdraft whipping his hair and the warning shot that burned a firepath across the pavement in front of him. He ignored them all until more shouts and the pounding of booted feet sounded on all sides and abruptly, there was nowhere left to run. Gloved hands grabbed and spun him, shoved him roughly to the wall and searched him. They would find a set of amateurish lockpicks, nothing more. Then they would take him, handcuffed and at gunpoint, to Central Security. There, the real wait would begin.
He had endured CS interrogation once before. He'd know what to expect this time. And this time, he'd have the strength of his revenge to sustain him.
He would tell them nothing. Not until he was face to face with Anna's killer, anyway. That was when the tables would turn, the captive becoming the captor, his chance to administer justice come at last.
Justice. It seemed an anemic word to apply to Anna's murderer. The individual remained faceless, sexless, nameless. But in the rest of his fantasy, the last interrogator to enter his cell wore the face of a man named Klaus -- a monster who'd taken particular delight in brutalizing prisoners when Avon had last been a 'guest' at Central Security. The pain Klaus had inflicted provided ample fuel for the hatred he must kindle, and for the fire that had burned in him now for more than a year.
The cell door would open and Klaus -- Anna's killer with Klaus' borrowed face -- would enter to interrogate him. "I knew that if I held out long enough," he would say when the man had identified himself, "you'd come." Then he need only deactivate the implant, and Vila would appear -- perhaps with Gan in tow -- with the bracelets.
The pain should have ended there, but somehow it went on, carrying into the retributive phase of his fantasy. Vila would have set up the cavern to his specifications; all would be in readiness for him to teleport there with the man who'd murdered Anna. This is when he would deliver his coup de tat, where he would explain to the condemned why he'd been tried, convicted -- and sentenced to death. The man would beg, cry, plead with him for mercy. And Avon would be utterly, implacably unmoved.
This was the part of his scenario that Avon reviewed most often, not because it brought him any pleasure, but because in the end of it, he could at last lay Anna's ghost to rest. The cavern would have no exit -- but he would leave the man with Klaus' face a way out. A choice. Die slowly of asphyxiation, or use the loaded gun that would be left behind. Either way, his blood would not stain Avon's hands. And Anna would be avenged.
This time, though, his scene had somehow become skewed. The pain of the interrogation had not vanished as it should have done when he returned to Liberator. And where Cally should have awaited them at the teleport console, Blake sat instead, wearing a look that was concern and stern disapproval both at once.
"Avon," he said, an anxious edge to his voice.
"No." The response came automatically. Whatever reprimand Blake intended to deliver, he would not hear it. Their erstwhile leader didn't belong in this private fantasy; had never been a part of it before and was not welcome now. How typical of Blake to intrude where he wasn't wanted. "No," Avon snarled again, and turned back to the teleport alcove, intending to reclaim his hard-fought prize, to put the scene back on its proper track and continue his revenge as he had so carefully scripted it.
But the man with Klaus' face wasn't there. Gan and Vila had gone as well. In their place stood a lone, dark figure, nearly lost in shadow. Its face obscured by a black hood, the thing raised one arm toward him and beckoned.
"Don't give in to it," Blake's voice pleaded, and Avon, never one for macabre superstitions, wondered precisely what 'it' was supposed to be.
"As personifications of death go," he complained, "it might be rather less cliched."
The hooded thing nodded in tacit agreement. Its hand remained outstretched, waiting. For what?
"Fight it, Avon," he heard Blake urge from behind him. Then again, in a more urgent and drawn-out admonition, he repeated, "Fight it..."
Avon deemed it a fatuous request: he had no weapon, and presumably in such a contest, the deck would be stacked against him anyway. He took a step toward the figure in the alcove, straining to make out a face somewhere beneath that ludicrous cowl. Two pale yellow eyes glowed balefully out at him -- no other features were discernible.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
The caricature didn't answer, but another voice said, "It's Blake. We're here, Avon. Zen will have it sorted out any moment now. Just hold on." He went on talking, repeating that last demand again and again -- an incessant, buzzing litany. Avon relegated it to a background noise for the moment: there were more interesting things to investigate.
The Death figure merely stared. Its bony fingers clenched shut and re-opened, still waiting. For him?
Avon lifted his own hand, opened his fist and found that a shining gold coin lay across his palm. It glowed with the same cold light shining from Death's eyes. He moved closer, certain now of what it wanted.
Immediately, Blake's voice grew more strident. Strong hands gripped his shoulders and squeezed, shaking him.
"Stay with us, Avon. Stay with us."
The figment's eyes glimmered. Its bone digits flexed once, twice, anticipating payment of the fare. Avon's open hand touched the tip of Death's fingers, and the coin's heat seared fire into his palm.
Another voice -- Cally's -- quietly intervened behind Blake's shouting. "We cannot be sure of the dosage. It could kill him."
"He's dying anyway. Just do it, Cally, quickly."
Something pricked Avon's arm, a tiny pain amidst the greater agony. The shining orbs blazed at him in anger, then like a flame dashed with water, they guttered and died.
"No..." Even as he spoke the word aloud, he had no clear idea what -- or whom -- he was denying. Involuntarily, his fist closed over the glowing coin and drew back. Immediately, the hooded thing nodded and began to fade into the shadows.
"No," he repeated. The coin burned so hot in his fist that he thought his hand would burst into flame in a moment. "I won't," he said through clenched teeth, and still had no idea who the words were meant for. He could hear Blake, still talking, urging, pleading with him. The hands released their vicelike grip on his shoulders; the voice drew away for a moment and said something he could not make out.
"No, it is working," Cally's softer, clearer tones responded.
Avon opened his eyes.
Sultus V's control room consoles towered above him: it took a moment to make sense of the perspective, to realize that he lay on the floor with Cally's field jacket forming an ersatz pillow under his head.
Cally herself knelt just beyond Blake, who wore concern etched across his beard-stubbled features like a mask.
"Well, I'm glad you finally decided to stay with us," Blake's looming figure pronounced with a smile.
Avon mustered what he hoped was a suitable glower. "Are you?"
The smile widened. "Yes, I am. Believe it or not, I welcome your help, Avon. For whatever reason you may choose to give it."
Momentarily lost for a suitable rejoinder, Avon turned his attention to the hand he'd been holding clenched tightly to his side. When he lifted it and opened his fist, the coin's fiery glow stared back at him, and the illusion persisted despite his fervent efforts to blink it away.
Blake, meanwhile, with typical presumption, had completely misunderstood the gesture. He reached out and instantly enveloped Avon's hand in his own rock-firm grasp. For once, the bigger man said nothing, merely tightened the grip in affirmation and then, abruptly, released it.
When Blake's hand drew away from his, all traces of the spectral coin had vanished.
Avon felt the familiar cool metal of a teleport bracelet being fastened to his wrist, and then heard Blake's deep voice announce, "All right, Jenna. You can bring us across, now."
He tried to find some trace of the coin in Blake's hand as the teleport field went white around them, but there was nothing. If Avon had believed in portents, he might have decided that for now -- just for now -- Death's fare had been deferred.
For both of them.
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