RencontreBy Jean Graham
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|(An epilogue to Keeper of the Trust.}
Blake paused outside Liberator's primary computer center, and a frown darkened his features as he regarded the door's access panel. Locked. But then, it would be. How one man could so assiduously avoid another, even on a ship the size of this one, was difficult to fathom, yet Avon had managed it for two weeks running, ever since his return from Lystra. And Blake had had enough. "Orac..." He spoke to the wall com unit, waiting with ill-concealed impatience while Zen routed his message to Ensor's brainchild. The voice that eventually answered him was itself anything but patient.
*What is it now?* it demanded. The com's distortion somehow added still more petulance to Orac's irascible tones.
Blake smiled at it in spite of himself. "I want you to open the door to the primary computer control center. Override the locking system, wait fifteen seconds, then institute the program we discussed earlier."
Silence answered him. Blake released a frustrated breath. "Have you got that, Orac?"
*I am working,* the wall com snapped. *Kindly wait!*
With that, the lock buzzed softly and signaled that it was in fact open. Blake grasped the wheel and pulled, half expecting to be met on the other side by one irate computer tech, possibly armed and certifiably dangerous -- but there was nothing, no one visible. Only the half-glow of dimmed overheads, rainbow patterns of lightplay on the consoles, silence broken by nothing but Liberator's power hum and the soft whir of operating computer banks.
Blake stepped inside and the door closed behind him with a resonating snick.
Loud enough, he mused. Avon would know he had company. Well, there was no use prolonging the confrontation any longer, then, was there?
"Avon," he said aloud, and let the word hang, expectant.
No one answered.
All right, Avon. First tactical advantage to your side. I'll come to you. But this time -- this time, Avon, you are going to talk to me, like it or not.
One at a time, Blake pushed back the oversized sleeves of his tunic, a gesture in subconscious imitation of warriors who had once bared their arms to prove that they concealed no weapons. He strode confidently past the first obscuring bank of computers, and finding no one, moved on to the next. Past the final row of consoles, in the farthest corner of the room, his quarry sat cross-legged on the deck, back turned to the aisle, studiously applying a gleaming laser probe to the entrails of an open circuitry housing.
Blake's approach was resolutely ignored. But then, he'd expected that. It wasn't going to work any more. Avon's habit of stalking out on him in high dudgeon wasn't going to work this time, either.
"I want to talk to you," he said, and when that, predictably, elicited no response, he added, "about Lystra, and the Pirathon Centre." The laser probe hesitated ever-so-slightly before moving on to the next linkage connector. It was, coming from Avon, a readable reaction, and it meant that the words had struck home.
Blake folded his arms and addressed the man's back, assured now that what he had to say would at least be heard. "I meant what I said about needing you with us, Avon. I still do."
Deft fingers manipulated a control on the probe's handle. The knuckles had whitened, the fist closing almost imperceptibly tighter around the instrument. Negligent signs to most, perhaps; to Blake, they spoke volumes.
"I also have concerns for the others aboard this ship," he went on, "and anything or anyone that might threaten their safety."
It felt uncomfortably close to a lie. It had been, after all, his life Avon's mental state had imperilled, at least in Orac's revered estimation, and that, more than any altruistic concern for Liberator's crew, had prompted the encounter with Sais Javan's Pirathon hospital. He would, however, let the story stand for now.
"Orac's analysis indicated that you might be a threat to that safety, if something wasn't done. That was why I contacted Javan, and the reason I misled you about Pirathon."
The fiery blue shaft of the laser probe vanished abruptly as Avon rose and wordlessly closed the panel, fussing for prolonged moments with the catches.
"The detector shield is functioning and back on line," Avon said at length, still without looking at him. "If you can manage not to overload its laser linkage with any more pitched battle bombardments, it just may keep us off the Federation's sensor screens indefinitely."
He snapped the last catch home with a decisive push of both thumbs, turned, and favored Blake with a desultory glare before heading for the main aisle and the door. Blake let him go, following only after he was certain Avon had reached the hatch -- and found it secured.
He rounded the final barricade of the computer housings to come within sight of both the door and a decidedly nettled Avon. "It won't open, I'm afraid."
The other man's gaze said more clearly than words that they would just see about that. He tripped the com unit control beside the door and uttered a succinct word. "Zen..." When no reply came, a formidable scowl turned itself on Blake. "What the hell are you playing at?"
"I've done with playing. Why don't you grant me the same concession?"
"Open the door."
"After we've talked."
Threat infused each concise word that followed. "You will open it now."
Blake was undaunted. "Not just yet. I want to know what happened down there."
Avon's look might have fused neutronium. It had no visible effect on Blake, who leaned against the bulkhead, one foot tipped casually against it and his arms still folded in front of him. He drew a patient breath and forged on.
"All right. Conjecture then. Something happened on Lystra, other than the treatment session. Something for which you apparently blame me. I've already said I accept responsibility for taking you there, but I can hardly make amends for a mysterious something else unless you tell me what it is, now can I?"
The answering tone was searing. "No one has asked you to amend for anything."
"Haven't they? And what do you call hiding behind locked doors for two weeks?"
Avon's eyes simmered, but he forbore a reply, choosing instead to snap open the lock plate and apply the laser probe to the wiring inside. It was an escape maneuver Blake hadn't counted on, though he'd known Avon to open locks before. No recourse now but to keep talking and hope that Orac's intervention would make this particular lock impossible -- or at least more difficult.
Neither wish prevailed. With the hiss and spark of a severed connection, Avon's probe defeated the circuitry in a matter of minutes, and the door swung inward, the final efforts of the locking mechanism surrendering with a conquered sigh. Blake sympathized.
"Sooner or later," he said, "you're going to have to face it, Avon. And me."
The words had a greater effect than he'd anticipated: Avon turned on him so sharply that Blake had to repress an urge to recoil.
"Don't presume to judge me, Blake."
"Is that what I was doing?"
That earned him another smoldering glare, rejoined with what he hoped was temperance. An ion-charged silence lengthened between them, the open door now ostensibly forgotten.
Blake tried to diffuse the tension with a tight smile, and tilted his head in what he considered a paternal gesture, though he didn't doubt that Avon, being Avon, would be more inclined to look on it as patronizing.
Drawing a breath, Blake adopted his most conciliatory tone. "Perhaps it would help if you were to tell me why you don't want to tell me."
As always, with Avon, his attempt at humor ran up against the solidity of a block wall. But it was, he knew, a wall with chinks, and subtle though the indications were, he was certain he'd at last begun to breach it. Avon's hands had clenched, the inactive probe trapped in the right fist. His voice when he spoke was a soft tenor, the words precise and measured.
"You thrive on taking risks, don't you?"
Now what did that mean? Orac's programming defeated, the hatch stood open before them, yet Avon remained. And Blake had no way to know if the question had been a rhetorical reference to Lystra, or a more immediate threat to his person for the transgression of engineering this confrontation. He decided it was probably the latter.
"You're still free to leave, any time," he said, more forcefully than he'd intended.
Avon cast the ruined lock an ironic look before he said, "Your friends on Lystra nearly managed that ambition for you, on a rather more permanent basis."
The phrase itself was an attack, delivered with such intensity that Blake was momentarily at a loss. What he'd hoped to accomplish on Lystra had not included placing Avon in danger, and he'd taken what precautions he thought were necessary...
"I know Sais Javan," he objected, coming upright from the wall. "He would never--"
"His associates were decidedly less conscientious."
Blake unfolded his arms, eyes narrowing with the effort to recall the woman who had administered Avon's 'treatment' on Lystra. "Syene..."
"Perhaps it has recently escaped your notice," Avon grated, "that there are circulating wanted-holos with spurious but tempting promises of vast rewards for delivering us into Federation hands -- breathing or not. My name, thanks to you, is not far below yours on that list."
"I never intended..."
"What you intended is irrelevant! Your 'intentions' nearly cost me--"
"All right," Blake interrupted. "I admit I may have been careless..."
"That is putting it charitably."
Blake ignored the barb. "Obviously you dealt with the problem."
Something hard and cold shone in Avon's eyes. "Obviously."
"Will not be collecting the reward she anticipated. Or any other."
The cold something behind those eyes riveted Blake to the bulkhead, daring him to condemn, to moralize, to do any of those things he so often felt his cause gave him rationale to do -- but none of the approbations he might have voiced seemed apt just now, save one.
"It doesn't bother you at all does it? They say killing can become second nature, a conditioned reflex. So routine you don't even feel it, because you can't feel anything at all any more. Is that what it's like, Avon?"
The question evoked a scoffing sneer. "I see psychoanalysis has recently been added to the revolutionary leader's handbook."
"No. But the Federation prison records of my crew have been." Blake paused, drawing in another cautious breath. "They were... very detailed."
The color drained from Avon's face, as though Blake's words had been water dashed over the fire.
"Remind me some time to deprogram your electronic psychostrategist. Perhaps scrambled circuits will dissuade it from doing any more unwelcome prying in future."
Blake shook his head. "Orac simply does what he's asked, however much he might complain about it. And he was only asked because Cally's medicals turned up certain... anomalies. Then there was the incident on Vaarn. Javan's Pirathon Centre was the only place I knew where we might get both help and protection. If I was wrong on both counts, then you have my apology."
It was, at best, an anemic peace offering, and it garnered the predictable non-response. Avon stood beside the door, his hand still resting on the locking wheel, but he made no move to walk away, which to Blake seemed all the more puzzling.
Lull seconds ticked past, while Liberator's engines pulsed beneath their feet.
Avon's question came without warning, directed sullenly at the unresponsive edge of the metal door.
"What do you want, Blake?"
A pertinent question. It had so many answers.
"Not a great deal, actually." That too was a lie, but made no more difference than the other. "From you, nothing more or less than I want from any of the others aboard this ship. Call it presumptuous if you like. But a modicum of trust would be nice."
There. He'd said it. Let Avon make of it what he would, if anything at all. For a protracted moment, he thought it would indeed be nothing -- until Avon stiffened and looked back at him with cool, undisguised contempt.
"Trying to imprison one of your own crew aboard 'your' ship implies a peculiar definition of trust, don't you think?"
"You gave me very little choice. And it's hardly as though I -- all of us -- haven't earned your trust. And you ours."
"That is a fool's manipulation I might expect to work on Gan or Vila. But I am not a member of your fawning masses, nor do I intend to be. I trust no one."
"Least of all me?"
"You did little to alter that fact with the fiasco on Lystra."
"Yet you came back."
The slightest of hesitations. Then, "My opportunities for safer conduct are somewhat limited."
"Ah yes." Blake kept his tone deliberately light. "That wanted list again, is it? And your defacto claim on Liberator?"
"Something like that."
The opening had widened now, enough for Blake to drive in the wedge.
"You've had any number of opportunities to leave Liberator, and as many to take her. You've never availed yourself of either."
"I told you..."
Blake didn't let him finish. "You're a gifted liar, Avon. But a transparent one. I don't think you want to leave. I don't think you really want Liberator either."
Avon's mouth twisted into the humorless parody of a smile. "Well now, perhaps you'll reprise Vaarn's sterling performance and bumble in front of my gun some time again soon. Then we shall see..."
"Will we?" Blake called the bluff with inveterate skill. "You've had that opportunity more than once as well. And despite Orac's warnings to the contrary, you've never carried it out either. Not that I'm ungrateful, mind you."
"Don't push me, Blake. You may yet have reason to be... ungrateful."
"I'll bear that in mind."
Blake felt suddenly awkward under the scrutiny of those eyes. "I have one last question," he said.
Avon's look defied him to ask it. He asked anyway.
"Why did you come back?"
The dark eyes, affecting boredom, turned away again, the laser probe rotating small, tight circles in Avon's right hand as he pretended to study the fused wiring of the ruined lock. Blake indulged a clandestine smile, certain that the action was as much answer as non-answer. What Avon could not admit, to others or to himself, he turned his back upon, as though the very act of avoidance might persuade the unwelcome emotion to pack itself away. It was a peculiarly childlike response; one that lent an air of naivete to the otherwise stolid persona. The realization turned Blake's smile inward. What is it you don't have words to say, Avon? Perhaps that somewhere, under all the indifference and opposition and posturing... you care?"
It was not a question he could ask aloud. Neither his nor Avon's pride would have weathered the familiarity it imposed. He might perhaps have brought himself to broach the topic with Gan or with Vila. Sometimes, he thought dismally, there was something to be said after all for the easy congeniality wrought of a Delta upbringing. But he hoped, without fully knowing why, that his assumption was a correct one. He had probably phrased it as honestly as he ever would on Lystra.
"I want you with me, Avon," he had said. "With us."
The probe having vanished into a pocket, Avon pulled the door further open, and moved around it.
"Avon..." Blake waited until the computer tech was through the door, then walked forward, not certain even then that the other man would deign to respond. But Avon paused in the corridor, rounding slowly at the mention of his name to fix Blake with yet another scathing glare. They faced one another across the oval division of the door frame. "What I did on Lystra was never intended to betray you, to the Federation or anyone else. Whatever the outcome, however faulty my reasoning -- or Orac's -- may have been, we only meant to help, not harm. You have to believe that."
Avon's voice was an ominous near-whisper. "I'll tell you what I believe. That I will not be manipulated like one of your common rabble. Nor will I be 'led.' My decisions are my own. My life is my own. And I will allow neither to be trifled with, by anyone or anything, however 'well-meaning' they may be. So hear this -- if ever you engineer so much as the semblance of betraying me again, I will have no compunctions whatever about killing you."
Well that had been plain enough.
Blake had no immediate reply to the echo of Orac's long-ago warning. Authority, manipulation, betrayal -- or anything Avon might interpret as betrayal -- these were keys to the danger. He'd been about to formulate a reassurance when Avon, eyes shuttered once again, pivoted and walked deliberately away from him. Blake followed only as far as the outer doorway, where he watched the tech disappear around a juncture without looking back. The door to the computer room clicked shut behind Blake, humming as Orac obediently utilized auto-repair to reinstate the lock.
Blake tripped the com control. "Orac," he said, "you can forget the override, thank you."
He cut the circuit on the computer's protest that it was incapable of 'forgetting' anything. Then he turned toward the flight deck, silently hoping as he walked that this brief but informative contest of wills had indeed accomplished something. It had certainly served to make Avon's position clear.
In that regard, at least, Blake planned to emulate Orac.
He didn't intend to forget.
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