What MattersBy Emma Peel
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She had kissed then condemned him. Avon had watched and assessed as she did both.
Kissed him to welcome him home; or more accurately, been kissed. Her master, her employer. Always under his control. Condemned him.. not immediately after the confrontation in the basement, no. After she had come out of hiding and decided to be their friend. Vila's friend, in particular, although it looked as if that balance was changing.
Dorian. His appeal was obvious. Not physically unattractive, certainly compared with Vila or Blake he was a fine specimen. Avon chose not to extend the comparison any farther.
A sophisticated man, too. A benefactor, in his own twisted way - provider of the means of survival to an entire civilisation, and the Seska had been grateful enough for his services. And intelligent, with a cultured range of tastes reflected in his library, his larder, his wine cellar and, yes, his bedroom.
Obvious, too, why she condemned him. Avon had never listed 'attempted homicide' as a desirable characteristic on the curriculum vita of his partners. Well, not when the attempted victim was himself. Where others were concerned, there was always the possibility of an exception.
What did not make sense was the period in hiding. She must have known they were her best, only hope of survival. Working together, with her local knowledge, half of the risks could have been assessed and eliminated. Why chance them all dying? It wasn't logical. She must have known her value to them.
It was, of course, entirely possible that she had been incapable of productive assistance. In mourning. Waiting until she was able to emerge with her 'hard woman' facade intact.
Possible. But out of character, over-emotional, and therefore unlikely.
Soolin's personal qualities were not displeasing. Physically she was more than acceptable. Her instincts for survival were proving to be excellent, she was possessed of a ruthless streak which Avon found himself drawn to. Dominant women. He would fall for them every time. He stopped mentally kicking himself and moved on.
He thought he could predict her behaviour. In many ways, they were similar. Predict, yes. But trust?
Conversation with a tactician was unlikely to yield the answers he needed. Stealth and observation, then.
Signs of a fight, a struggle, at the entrance to the base. Threads of a course blue fabric clung to a thorny bush. Drying blood on the ground. And Soolin nowhere to be found.
Not her blood, of course.
Then whose? And why?
Tarrant was stir crazy The base restricted him. Motion, activity, kept him focused, kept him sane. So he was almost eager to lead the stores mission.
Salvaging supplies from the hydroponic dome would give them all fresh food, badly needed for nutrition as well as morale. But more than that it would set him free, give him a chance to work off excess nervous energy.
Vila was considerably more reluctant. Would have been even more so if he had known about the cloth and the blood. Avon and Tarrant both agreed it was best not to tell him.
They had all been careful to play down the extent of the Hommiks' aggression. No point in keeping him from sleeping at night, and what he didn't know about the outside wouldn't hurt him. And, of course, there were no Seska any more.
But fear and suspicion were Vila's default mode. Entirely understandable, given his life to date, although at odds with his child like optimism and faith in human nature.
It had taken Tarrant only one mistake to learn that there were more effective ways of gaining his co-operation than force. He had suggested that Avon could break his way into the dome just as quickly as Vila could, if he really didn't want to come along. Perhaps quicker, if it were an encoded lock. After all, hadn't Vila failed to get them access to Scorpio? They would have been lost then, if it wasn't for Avon.
Vila knew it was a set up, but let himself be played like an old fiddle. Professional pride overcame his reluctance. He packed up what tools he could salvage, and he and Tarrant set off.
Which left three back at base. Or possibly two, and one.
It took seconds to short the friendly winking LED on the security camera in the rec room. Now, he could observe - 'spy' was such a vulgar word - without alerting either Soolin or Dayna to his presence. No point, yet. He wasn't even sure anything was going on.
The grainy picture - he made a mental note to get ORAC to eliminate electrical interference - told more of a story than the mindless small talk going on. Soolin was giving nothing away, and Dayna wasn't ready to talk about anything other than vengeance. Avon wondered if she ever would be.
Soolin's body told the tale her prattling conversation concealed. She appeared open to friendship, leaning forward, arms open, nodding in agreement. She mirrored, drinking when Dayna drank, crossing and uncrossing her legs when Dayna did. But every now and again, Soolin would seem to step back from herself, stop, think. If you were watching for it, you could see her forcing herself to shift style. Too conscious.
It was as if...
It was the difference between, 'I want you to trust me.'
And, 'I need you to trust me.'
Dayna had least influence over the four survivors of Liberator. She was youngest. She had the lowest price on her head. She had no skills Soolin could not match.
Why did she matter?
The cameras on the corridors and basement stairwell did not register. Disconnected by Dorian, Avon surmised. Or hoped. So initial surveillance was carried out the old fashioned way.
He watched from his hiding place behind one of the grey metal roof supports. Thankfully broad enough to conceal his body, but the air was chill, and his breath crytallised into clouds of mist.
He knocked out the light nearest to him.
Every step, every movement echoed in the hollow structures below ground. He breathed shallowly, quietly.
Although Soolin had removed her boots and walked in her bare feet, her movements were still relatively easy to follow. She was approaching.
Avon would betray himself if he made a single motion. He was fairly certain, however, that he knew where she was going. He only needed confirmation.
Immediately afterwards, she went to her rooms. Odd, that she remained in the same quarters, surrounded by Dorian's possessions, even after his death. Maybe he wasn't the reason she stayed. Maybe he never really mattered to her.
She was still arrogant enough to believe they did not suspect. Fortune favours the bold. So it was natural for her to drink the water.
She did not wake up when Avon entered the room some time later.
She was pale, deathly pale, every vein visible through her now translucent skin, through the thin skin around the eyes, even beneath the thicker skin on her cheeks.
No evidence in the room. No mystic symbols, no dead bodies in the wardrobe, no unusual books or papers.
He had only a few more minutes during which he could be certain she would not stir. He needed to check her body.
He held his hand motionless above her. This was not how he had wanted to touch her. He had no real evidence, merely suspicion. A fair man, a good man, would ask the questions before he drugged and invaded.
Blake would have.
But then, he was not Blake.
And therefore, or perhaps despite not being Blake, he was still alive.
The tension of morality he hadn't know he possessed created a tension he had to force his hand through.
Her face and neck showed no signs, except those of fatigue. Her sleeves were the most innocuous area of clothing to begin with. Thankfully, he did not need to look any further, although what he discovered repellled him.
A needle. No... not a needle. A valve. Like a mutoid, but in reverse. She did not feed on others, but...
She was nurturing it with her blood.
So now he knew.
If he killed it... if he could kill it, he thought he had before, he had seen it die before. Unless there was more than one of them.
Only one way to find out. One of them had to go down there. To make the descent into hell.
It knew them all. Had contemplated the death, or the absorption, of each of them. It knew them all. Had been willing to take them all. Except, perhaps..
Perhaps Vila. It had sensed his presence only briefly. Of them all, he had the best chance.
Which might very well be the same as their only chance.
Soolin went missing for two days.
Hommiks trying to break into the base. Dayna dealt with them. Two dead to bury.
'I'm not doing it.'
'Oh, but you are.'
'Oh, but I'm not. Anyway, you've no proof there's anything down there at all.'
'Indeed. So there is very probably nothing for you to be afraid of.' But it was going to take more than rhetoric to convince Vila this time; and more than bribery or blackmail.
'Avon, you must think there's something, or you wouldn't bother. What have you found? You might as well tell me, I'm not going until you do.' Then realisation. 'That's why you sent me and Tarrant off by foot, wasn't it. I didn't beleive any of that stuff about teleport malfunction you know. Does Tarrant know? Did he know before you sent me out into the battlezone?'
Avon gave an innocent smile which could have meant either 'Of course' or 'of course not,' and be lying in either case. 'It was a simple and fruitful mission was it not, Vila?'
'It would have been a damn sight simpler if we'd teleported.' There had been a few minor tussles on the way, one of which had resulted in Vila's jacket being damaged by the business end of an arrow.
'Oh come now. You know you get bored just sitting about.'
No, thought Vila. I can live with boredom quite easily. And it wasn't even proper stealing, not now the Seska are all... gone. The dome doesn't belong to anyone. Damn, and I'm letting him sidetrack me, before I'll know it I'll have a set of wirecutters in my hand, be knee deep in slime, and be wondering how I got there.
'I'm not doing it.' And here comes the hard sell.
'May I remind you that it was you who wanted her to join us, Vila. Were quite persistent, as I recall.'
'Yes. And whatever is down there, is killing her. I suspect she is feeding it her blood. Now, I know she hasn't seemed that interested in you so far.
'I see I have offended your masculine sensitibilities. On the contrary, Vila, you should be grateful. Whatever it is, knows what it wants.'
'And what makes you think it doesn't want me?'
'Firstly, it hardly knows you. Secondly, it seems to want Dayna.'
Dayna? Dayna was a friend. That changed everything. Vila sighed. 'Tell me what I have to do, Avon.'
A cloud of fog rose from the entry hatch, clammy and damp. Predicating terrors to come?
Vila descended the staircase, camera and wiring safe among thew tools on his kit. He waited for the fear to really set in. His sixth sense was infallible.
Anxiety, in the pit of his stomach. His heart beating a little faster. Any minute now it would come, the dread.
He took out the fixing pad and found a spot on the basement wall that would give a good panoramic view. Working quickly, he...
He noticed that his hands weren't shaking. He felt not safe, not completely. But not in grave peril, either. Whatever was here meant him no harm. Was... even warm towards him.
Warm? When not so long ago he had provided the weapon which had..
Had what? He thought Avon had killed it. Killed its partner?
That made him nervous.
He checked the connections. He checked the lens. He checked the mike.
He sprinted upstairs as fast as his shaking legs would carry him.
Tarrant, in the meantime, was going through the datacards. Originally he had been looking for information on Scorpio - engine functions, navigation software, Slave's additional routines. But there seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to the filing system, so he had fetched himself a bottle of wine and a glass, and settled in to create some kind of index.
An hour, and most of the bottle, later, his mind was beginning to make some unusual links. For example, Slave's latest personality change co-incided with Soolin's arrival; before that, it had been female.
Which co-incided with the sharpest decline in the Seska population as far back as the records went.
Which was also around the time that Dorian's flights became far more frequent.
Avon had concerns about Soolin. And Vila had gone down to the basement. And Soolin was spending all her time with Dayna.
He should talk to Avon. But then, once he knew, would Avon think it mattered?
'Mere coincidence, Tarrant,' lied Avon calmly.
'You seem very certain. What do you know that we don't? You're usually the first to voice your suspicions.'
Avon shrugged. 'She seems like a nice girl?'
'You don't want to tell me.'
And for a moment there was something in Avon's eyes, something Tarrant hadn't seen before. Something darkly attractive.
But only for a moment.
'Sit down, Soolin.'
'I'm busy, can it wait?'
'No.' A firm push on her shoulder forced her down onto the chair. 'Now, do you want to tell me what this is about?'
'What what's about?'
Dead, flat, factual. Broking no arguement. 'I've watched you feed it. Kill yourself, if you wish. But you will not sacrifice Dayna.'
Guilt flashed over her features. She didn't deny it. She couldn't.
'How old are you, Soolin?'
'It's absorbed two years. That's as long as I've been here.'
'And can you give it up? What happens if you stop?'
'I... I don't know. It won't tell me.' She met his stare. 'Dorian died.'
'Dorian was a long way away from his thirties. You need to decide, Soolin. The Hommiks do not surrender their women easily. You...' he searched for a diplomatic verb and failed. 'There are no Seska any more. There is you, and there is Dayna.'
'And you, and Vila, and Tarrant. It may call on you next, if it doesn't get what it wants.'
'But it won't. Will it.'
A shake of the head.
'How often do you need to... does it require sustinance? And how much?'
'Not much. Maybe a cupful. But every day.'
'Would it settle for anything else? A substitute?'
'It has to be human. Female.'
'I see. Then we, by which I mean you, must kill it, Soolin. I am not prepared to sacrifice Dayna. As for yourself... '
He was waiting for her reaction. She knew there was no decision to be made. 'Me, then.'
'Can you manage, do you think?'
She tried. She returned. Avon watched, then went down to remove the camera.
There was nothing in the basement except water, grime, and a few dead rats.
There should have been something more.
She would never be one of them now. But she did need them. She needed their help to feed.
While Dayna was alive, he would help her. He would see that she had opportunity to feast on the female of the species. She had a body, now, to carry her into the new world. She was grateful to him. She was dependant on him.
She was no danger to him.
And that, after all, was what mattered.
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