The Once and Future LiberatorBy Jackie Speel
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'Wake up!' Avon was being shaken, and finally decided to stir. For once he felt a brief sympathy for Vila. 'Wake up!' The speaker sounded familiar, but he not immediately place it. One moment he had been standing over Blake, encircled by Federation troops, smiling at the thought of returning to the London, and the next he was "elsewhere." A spaceship by the familiar vibrations and the Med Unit from the scent of antiseptic and the brilliant whiteness when he opened his eye s fractionally. Part of his mind was conscious of cramps. He should not have fallen asleep in a chair. He felt suddenly disorientated - where was he, how and why?
And now somebody familiar-unfamiliar wanted him awake. The voice had not been unfriendly - and thus not Federation. A memory - from where? - said the ship was going to Earth.
'No coffee thank you,' Avon muttered, borrowing one of Vila's "do not disturb" excuses. It did not work for him either.
'Avon! Just wake up!' He would have to open his eyes now.
Standing over him, whole and apparently unharmed save for a superficial scratch across his face, was Blake as Avon remembered him from the days before Star One. Avon felt whatever panic had just assailed him return.
'Blake?!' Avon managed after a few moments. Was this another of Servalan's tricks? Had he finally gone mad?
'What happened? All I did was wake you and you look as if you've seen a ghost.'
Avon looked around the Med Unit, forcing himself to relax. Orac sat on a table nearby glowing with activity, next to it a book whose lurid cover Avon recognised after a few moments. He had glanced at it while Blake had been checked over a fter being rescued from Epheron. What he had experienced was a mostly unpleasantly realistic fantasy. Who *had* he seen in the doorway of the tracking gallery?
'Just a dream,' Avon managed, using all his control to seem outwardly calm.
'Unusual for you,' Blake replied, indicating the drinks dispenser. Avon nodded, grateful for the few moments to collect his thoughts and ease his cramps.
'Why did you wake me? What crisis have you got us into now?' he asked sharply after taking a few mouthfuls of water. He recognised that Blake was hiding something. Again. Which he would need help in resolving. Again.
'No crisis - at the moment,' Blake replied, recognising Avon's mocking tone. He continued. 'Who was betraying you?'
One of Vila's more enjoyably colourful swearwords came to mind. Avon realised he would have to give Blake some explanation. He decided he would not fall asleep within Blake's earshot again if he could possibly avoid it. 'Just a dream Bla ke. No doubt set off by that dreadful juvenile adventure story you foisted on me.' He picked it up long enough to read the ending. Everything resolved as usual and the next adventure about to begin.
'The Plaxton stories are enjoyable.'
'Most fourteen year olds think so.'
'Yes, I was that age once, hard as it is to imagine.' This banter was what he enjoyed most about being on the Liberator. That and the possibility of exploring the galaxy and beyond. 'I read several of them if I recall.' More than he woul d admit to Blake. A sudden thought - had he discovered Blake's real motivation? To be the universe-saving hero of juvenile fiction? The style of the books would definitely go with his "warts and all" biography of Blake - and Blake would l ove it.
'Who betrayed you?' Why did Blake have to go back to that?
'What else did I say?' One of Vila's more useful tips, more plausible than most - always get your alibis consistent. Apparently Vila had ended up on the London because he had not - but he had been juggling fifteen alibis at the time. Even Avon would have found that difficult.
'Instead of looking for obscure computer parts - as I would expect - you were still looking for me.'
'Perhaps I was turning your adventures into a computer game. Just read the book,' Avon waved at it, 'or ask Vila to recount his.'
'I want to hear about yours for a change.' Avon saw him glance slyly at Orac and the comms unit, had a flashback to the dream.
'You've got something planned haven't you?' Another of Vila's ploys - divert attention from one topic by asking a question about something else, until the original subject is forgotten.
'I was setting something up. I was waiting for you to wake.' Avon felt a sudden panic which he could barely disguise.
'With who? What have you done?' This was not a dream.
'I was in contact with the Federation Orac was helping me.'
'What?! You You!' Avon rose, letting his sudden fury show, cramp forgotten. He had never admitted to anyone, even himself, that he believed in Blake's cause, whatever the personal advantages of removing the Federation were, but if Blake h ad abandoned his cause, what was there for Avon to put his trust in? The now empty plastic cup collapsed in his hand and fluttered to the floor. Blake, alarmed and puzzled, made calming gestures and spoke softly.
'You misunderstand Avon.' Avon allowed himself to relax slightly, sat down again. Unlike the dream there might be a sensible explanation. They were briefly silent, and then Blake registered sudden understanding. 'You half-heard me in your dream, is that it? You thought I was betraying you?' Avon was, for once, unable to respond. He looked at the cup moving in a slight draught on the floor. 'What happened in your dream? Apart from your adventures?' Blake was no longer teas ing. Avon decided to open up fractionally for once.
'The Federation was restored. We ended up in a rebel base which you were running. There was confusion, a trap, Federation guards everywhere. Everybody was shot Blake - even you. I was the last man standing - for a few moments at least. An d then you woke me' That was all he would ever tell anyone. The dream had been more disturbing than he cared to admit. He added, with unexpected bitterness, 'Satisfied now? And can you tell me what did happen?'
Blake looked away momentarily. His expression on looking at Avon again was contrite, almost guilty, and he had an embarrassed smile. 'I'm sorry Avon - friend.' Avon understood what was being offered, was more pleased than he would have ex pected. 'We got our wires crossed again, didn't we?' Avon nodded. He had regained a measure of control. 'There are those in the Federation High Council and elsewhere who are willing to negotiate a transition. For their own ends, of course , but it is a starting point.' Blake sighed. 'I am going to have to do a lot of explaining.'
'Starting with me - you have not been a model of clarity.'
'And you are?' Avon flashed his most innocent smile in reply. Then he was suddenly weary of all the confusion and double cross that they had been involved in. 'Blake - just stop being stupid. In the dream you caused the destruction of eve rything you were trying to do, everything we you believed in, because you refused to explain, played silly games.' Avon saw that he had hit home, but that the slip of the tongue had been noticed. Blake put his hand on Avon's arm again, ac cepting the rebuke. Avon did not shy away from the contact as he sometimes did, accepting what was being offered. He had not misjudged Blake.
'Avon - I have always trusted you, even when we've been most opposed. And I will try not to betray my cause, or you, or give you the impression that I have. Satisfied now?' Not a promise, as if to do so would be to invite what it was wish ed to avert. Avon relaxed, suddenly happy. Something he had wanted for a long time had been freely and knowingly given.
'Yes for now. Just tell me what you intend doing, how far you have got in rearranging the Federation.' Blake, Avon knew, was easily diverted to discussing his own plans.
Blake nodded. 'Orac - give an update on Federation affairs.' Distinctly fragile the last time Avon had checked. There was very limited recognition of Servalan's bid for the presidency.
'It is difficult to determine whether the Federation continues as an administrative entity or just as a convenient geographical description of part of the galaxy. I have verified that the persons you were speaking to Blake are who they cl aim to be, and that they have the authority to designate the holder of the Presidency in an emergency or a disputed succession. They prefer, among other things, not to have the highest levels of civil and military authority concentrated i n one person or group. Considering the numerous examples to be found in history as to what happens when this does occur, and Servalan's previous behaviour, they are fully justified.'
'They prefer you to Servalan,' Avon commented dryly, 'on the grounds that you are less likely to stab anybody in the back. Literally or figuratively.'
'Which two methods you and Servalan share between you.' Blake said with a smile that disarmed the remark of any malice.
'You are going to accept the offer?'
'What else could I do, having come this far? How else could I justify what I have done? Or do you want the office?' Avon reflected for a moment. First Servalan, now Blake.
'May I be the first to congratulate you President Blake. You've finally done it. I never thought you'd do it, most of the time.' Avon was genuinely pleased for Blake, and not just for his own reasons. How often did one achieve a lifetime' s ambition while still able to enjoy it? He went to the dispenser, got two drinks and gave one to Blake. With a slightly mocking smile he raised his to Blake, who touched cups.
'To tell you the truth, some of the time neither did I.' Blake gave Avon a near salute. 'Thank you for all that you have done for me. I think I forgot to say that at times.'
'A slight understatement.'
`'And I suppose I had better thank Orac.' For once Avon did not protest that Orac was only a machine.
'Your intention is understood, justified, and accepted.'
'No one can accuse you of false modesty Orac,' Blake said, laughing.
'What do I have to be modest about? Why should I lie about what I can do and have done?'
Blake turned back to Avon. 'You still want the Liberator?'
Avon felt a sudden anxiety. 'Why?'
'I agree with Servalan on one thing. It would make a good Presidential flagship.'
'First get your Presidency - or you will be lucky if you end up on the London again.'
'Well, it was a sturdy ship, even if it was a trifle slow.' Blake kept a straight face. 'Unless you want it?' Avon suddenly realised he was being teased, relaxed again. 'That was the bargain wasn't it? You help me back to Earth'
'Which will now involve making you President.' If that was what it took to ensure that Blake would stay off the Liberator, it would be worth it.
' and you have the Liberator and whoever you can persuade to join you.'
'Thank you.' There was nothing else to say.
Blake looked at him with a half-smile. 'You just told me to stop playing games.'
'In a different context.'
'But now I have to be serious, don't I?' He was being manipulated again.
'Yes - most of the time. But don't ask me for advice Blake. You wouldn't accept the most of it, even if I gave it. I don't know about the others, but I was never committed to your cause - though who could disagree with removing the more o ffensive aspects of the Federation towards its members?' The nearest he would come to admit the truth of the situation.
'Helping me served your own ends, and you can show traces of altruism occasionally. You are too curious about the universe and the information therein to make a good politician.'
'If you say so.' The relationship between them was changing now that they were no longer rebels, and Avon was not certain how to handle it yet. 'Yes I enjoy a challenge, and I do not care for negotiations that depend on hair splitting.'
'You will help me become President so you can have the ship?'
'If I want one it appears I must do the other.'
'I have two last requests before we proceed.' How often had Avon heard this from Blake?
'Condemned prisoners are usually only allowed one.' Avon was slightly mocking.
'Please? I will be President.'
'If Servalan allows it.'
'The Liberator will reach Earth before Servalan does. There is significant support for your taking office Roj Blake.' Orac interjected. It had taken offence with Servalan because of her treatment of it on Sarran, including being buried in the sand within the extent of extreme high tides.
'What do you want apart from being installed safely in the Presidential Palace on Earth?' Avon asked.
'Firstly ensure that the computers respond to me rather than my predecessors.'
'My pleasure.' Both knew that this was literally true, and that Blake would not inquire too deeply into what else Avon did. 'But I was caught out in the bank job.'
'I trust you and your skills. Orac - what is your opinion of the subject?'
'Kerr Avon and I are the most appropriate choices for the task you require Blake.' It was reserving opinion on the title till actually given. 'Other process than flaws in computer programming were responsible for the detection of Avon's activities, which showed a considerable amount of ingenuity. Those who undertook the prosecution failed to fully appreciate what had been done, or to investigate certain other irregularities that they came across.' Avon was gratified that his desired interpretation of events had been confirmed. He decided not to investigate what had happened to Anna, despite the dream. Some things were best not known. 'Much of what Avon has done is of merit'
'Enough flattery, Orac. I need Avon as modest as he currently is.'
'A statement of fact cannot be flattery. You asked for my opinion and I gave it.'
'Thank you Orac. I appreciate your assessment. What as your other request Blake?' As if Avon could not guess.
'That there will always be a place for me on the Liberator.' There was a wistful note in Blake's voice.
'Planning an escape route already?'
'Prudence. And I am following your advice.'
'I will accept your direction if I do return to the Liberator.'
'As I accepted yours?'
'I needed a sparring partner, to bring my castles in the air down to earth.' A role, Avon reflected, that he had accepted willingly.
Avon knew that he would probably regret his next remarks, which were said with less irony than intended. 'How can I refuse the President - and a friend?' Why was he admitting his ties with Blake so readily.
'Come on - we have to go to Earth. I have to decide what I intend - and so do you.' Would Blake yield up the Liberator that easily?
This is not a dream, Avon thought, no longer a game of "What if." He began to see just what Blake was likely to be facing. He wanted the freedom to explore, and now he would have to face what that entailed. I have achieved the dream I wan ted, as has Blake - and I would not exchange mine for his. Where in the universe would he explore?
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