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Next on My List

By Jean Graham
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If looks were lethal, Jenna decided, she might have been spaced twice today. Avon's smoldering might have done it earlier this morning. Just now, Blake's more temperamental pique posed the threat anew.

He'd had to wait until they'd cleared Cygnus Alpha's system. But with Cygnus' dust still powdering his boots and shredded tunic, Blake had stalked across the flight deck to her piloting station and planted broad hands on either side of the console.

"Now," he breathed. "Maybe you'd better explain it again."

Jenna demurred for the moment, letting him steam while she watched the only beneficiaries of his rescue effort explore Liberator's flight deck. Gan and Vila's timid delight at the alien ship's wonders reminded her of her own first day aboard. No one had commented on Avon's conspicuous absence. Just as well.

"I need an answer, Jenna." Measured calm in Blake's voice now, but he still seethed beneath it.

Finally matching his glare, Jenna fired her own return salvo. Naked truth, in her experience, was often an effective weapon. "He tried to kill you," she said.

"Did he?" No belief whatsoever in the question; merely a skeptic's distrust of her motives. Did the fool think she'd have run out on him?

"Yes, he did!" she answered his query vehemently. Damn you for the fool Avon says you are! Why can't you see? "He was going to steal the ship and leave you down there."

"And you stopped him."

"Would you rather I hadn't?" she flared. "I've no particular objection to being rich, you know -- only to the idea of killing someone in order to get it. Avon isn't so discriminating."

She noted the relief in his eyes at her use of the present tense. So, he'd also assumed her capable of killing an adversary hand-to-hand, had he? A suspicious sort, this Blake, for all that he was also blatantly naive. Jenna glanced at Gan and Vila, who stood on the sidelines near the hexagonal gangway and murmured to each other in low tones.

"All right, Jenna." That was Blake's 'patient' voice; Blake the diplomat, Blake the mediator. "Where is he?"

The pilot rebuffed him with her eyes. At the same time, she coaxed the palm-sized gun from its hiding place beneath her belt -- the gun she'd found in ship's stores the day after they'd boarded Liberator. She proffered it end first to a startled Blake and said, "Here. You'll need that, if you intend cutting him loose."

Awe crept into Blake's expression. Vila nudged Gan and grinned cheekily.

"He really meant to do it?" Blake marveled, accepting the gun with undisguised loathing. "He would have left us down there?"

"You haven't wanted to hear me, have you?" Had the man been this naive before the Federation had rearranged his memory? "In case it's escaped your notice in the past few months, Avon isn't playing your game. Trusting him is like putting your hand in a serpent's den -- you may survive the first few times, but it'll get you killed eventually. You can't--"

Blake raised a hand, quelling her outburst. "Where?" he repeated, a single, deadly-calm syllable. Jenna wanted to scream at him, to unleash every smuggler's curse she'd ever learned and invent a few besides. But she curbed the impulse, never allowing it to show on her face, and squared her shoulders to confront him as an undisputed equal. And I am, Blake. Don't ever forget it.

She waited several strategic moments before answering his demand. "Hold seven," she said. He turned at once to go, and exasperated, she called him back. "Blake!"

He spun, already on the entry steps, but Jenna's resolve wilted under the continuing heat of his glare. "Nothing," she said dismally. "Just be careful."

He went on his way without responding. After a long moment spent listening to the soft vibration of Liberator's flight systems, Jenna grew aware of eyes watching her, and looked up to see Gan and Vila silently regarding her from the secondary entryway. Both started at her look of scorn and feigned instant disinterest, returning to their explorations of the flight deck.

Jenna dismissed them: her mind was on Blake and what he was likely to find in hold seven.

Avon hadn't been seriously hurt, she was certain of that. But she was equally convinced that he posed a serious danger to Blake - - and to everyone else aboard. He had proven that to her himself, in the teleport room an hour ago, when he'd stopped her from reaching for the controls.

"We lose it all," he'd grated, forcefully restraining her arm. "Jewels, currency -- all of it. What do you want to be, rich or dead?" The urgency of the demand shocked Jenna no less than the pain he inflicted on her wrist; both infuriated her.

"Let go of me." The warning held its own calm threat, but Avon chose to ignore that.

"Don't be a fool, Jenna. We can have--"

"Jenna!" Blake's winded plea came over the speaker. "Jenna! We need teleport!"

She fought Avon's grip in a fierce effort to reach the controls, but he wrenched her arm back and dragged her bodily away from the console, backing her to the wall. The move took her by surprise: she hadn't expected him to push it this far.

"He could be dying down there--" she began.

"The better for us up here." The cold words were hissed in her ear.

Over the open circuit, Blake's voice addressed someone on the surface. "Go on, out there, anywhere. Hide among the rocks. I'm going back in."

Jenna struggled harder to twist free of Avon's grip. "Let go of me!"

He blocked her attempted kick with his body. Then, maddeningly, he used the same agency to pin her still more firmly against the wall and hold her there. In a single move, his attack had gone from vengeful to seductive, though nothing but Jenna's temper flared. "Damn you..."

"We don't need Blake." He was close enough to breathe each word into her face. "We don't need anyone."

The kiss spoke more of brutality than passion, though Jenna was no stranger to either. Freetrading had taught her more about seduction -- and its potential use as a weapon -- than this dome- bred Alpha byte-embezzler would ever know.

Deliberately, she forced her muscles to relax, to respond to the pressure of his body against hers -- until the hands that pinioned her arms to the wall released them. That small freedom, fostered by his overconfident arrogance, was just enough to allow her to reach the gun...

Her angle was poor, but the charge grazed his lower ribs with enough force to throw him backward and away from her. With a startled cry, he struck the teleport housing and went down.

Wasting no more time, Jenna sprang at the console and threw the communications toggle.

"Blake! Are you still there? Come in, Blake!"

She cursed at the lifeless static that answered. She was too late -- that or perhaps Blake was running and couldn't respond. He'd said something about going back...

On the deck at her feet, Avon stirred, and Jenna struggled with a brief moral dilemma. Her former compatriots, without hesitation, would have airlocked Avon and had done with it. Her only other alternative: confine him until Blake was safely back aboard. She chose the latter purely out of practicality. The hold was closer than the airlock.

Rattling the useless comm switch several more times, she muttered a piratical oath impugning four generations of Avon's ancestry. Then, the gun clipped within easy reach on her belt, she bent to the task of dragging the semi-conscious man toward the cargo hold.

*      *      *

Blake spun the hatch wheel to open hold seven, feeling utterly foolish clutching Jenna's gun. Just the same, he kept a firm grip on it as the heavy door swung outward, allowing him to peer into the bay.

The sight of habitually proud and arrogant Avon shackled to a support strut took Blake by surprise. The dark head came up when he entered; glacial eyes regarded the gun with wary detachment.

The man's bitter comment disconcerted Blake still further. "Did you come to finish the job?"

Blake peered down at him with open dismay, finally tucking the weapon noncommitally into his wide belt. "Hardly," he said, and crossed his arms to take up an authoritative stance in the doorframe. "Is it true?" Neither of them saw need to identify the subject of his query.

A sardonic smile teased the corners of Avon's mouth. "Would you believe me if I were to deny it?"

Weighing that for a moment, Blake decided on candor. "No."

Incredibly, Avon climbed to his feet then, the 'bound' hands coming around to reveal an opened pair of wrist cuffs. "Then I won't," he said, and with a cavalier gesture, tossed the bonds to the deck near Blake's feet.

The overt defiance of the action nettled Blake, as it had no doubt been designed to do. "Why?" he demanded tersely.

Avon's teeth bared themselves in a half-grimace, and he leaned casually against the strut. "It seemed a good idea... at the time."

Blake did not miss the hand that strayed surreptitiously to Avon's rib cage. Perhaps, he mused, they would all think twice before underestimating Jenna again.

Footfalls sounded in the corridor. Blake stepped aside to admit the blonde pilot, who entered the hold closely followed by Gan and Vila. All wore sidearms from Liberator's flight deck.

"If I'd needed help," Blake complained, irritated, "I'd have called for it."

Vila, with Cygnus dust still smudging his cheeks, grinned at Blake and quipped, "Maybe you just didn't know you needed it." He patted the holstered gun with uncharacteristic bravado..

Jenna ignored the thief's boast, preferring to exchange heated glares with Avon. When she turned to Blake, the light in her eyes was decidedly predatory.

"I know someone on Tardek," she said, all-business. "You could call her a 'broker,' of sorts. She'd take this one off our hands, maybe even pay up to half the Federation's bounty -- if I do the bargaining."

Astonishment, quickly masked, betrayed itself in Avon's expression. Blake had to clamp his own dismayed response at the smuggler's callous proposal, however suitable to the crime it might be. "Honor among thieves?" he queried softly.

Jenna bristled. "Professional courtesy's more like it."

"I told you," Vila said with a nervous glance at Avon. "In the beginning, on the London. We should have killed him when we had the chance."

"You're brave as ever." Gan had finally found a voice, and used it to chide his friend. "When there are enough guns around to back you up, that is."

A persistent Jenna overrode the comment. "My friend won't ask any awkward questions. She owes me a rather large favor. And there's--"

Blake quelled her with a curt gesture. He had been watching Avon's face throughout the proceedings, certain that despite the detached mask, he had seen arrogance give way to uncertainty, and pride to something he could only have guessed might be fear.

Somehow it was reassuring to know that even Avon had his Achilles heel. He steeled himself to meet the computer tech's gaze head-on. "All right, Avon. Suppose you tell us what we're to do with you?"

The black eyes snapped at him, but for the first time in Blake's experience, Kerr Avon was without an answer. Blake wished the same could be said for the rest of his crew.

"We could maroon him," Vila suggested, "on a neutral planet somewhere. Saves us the risk of trusting a bounty hunter."

"Broker," Jenna corrected.

"Marooning's no good anyway," Gan put in, concern edging his soft voice. "He'd never survive an uncivilized planet, and on a populated one he'd be recognized."

Vila snorted. "There are neutral planets."

"The price on our heads is a million apiece, Vila," Blake reminded him acridly. "Nobody's that neutral."

Gan had apparently not finished rebuking the thief, either. "Anyway," he said, "it seems to me you're awfully anxious to condemn the man without a trial."

Vila's scowl spoke volumes. "Better than he wanted to give us," he grumbled. "This is all the trial he deserves."

At that, Avon's disdain reasserted itself at last. "Very impressive," he snarled at Blake. "Is this your idea of exemplary crew? Prison rabble's finest?"

Jenna glared at him. "I didn't hear you denying the charges. You'd do anything to take this ship -- anything at all."

Blake had the odd sensation that Avon's next words were a recitation; something, perhaps, that he had said to Jenna earlier?

"I have to get rid of Blake first," he sneered. "You're next on my list."

"Well, then again," Vila quipped acidly, "there's always the old reliable stroll out the airlock, eh?"

Gan didn't appreciate the morbid levity. "Shut up, Vila."

"Sounds like a workable solution to me," Jenna said. "Either way, he's off the ship."

Blake permitted the quibbling to go on, watching Avon all the while. Though the man had adopted his customary air of disdain, the fear and uncertainty lingered. Blake was sure he could still see it, behind the aloofness, under the facade. But then, he chided himself, he had also been sure from the beginning that Avon's loyalty lay with the rebellion. Perhaps he had been wrong -- both times.

"I won't be party to a murder," Gan objected, and Vila snapped back almost immediately.

"You don't have to look then, do you?"

"Rehback IV has a city large enough to lose him in," Jenna offered in a helpful monotone. "So does Vasartil, and Hydrenian."

Avon's own glacial pronouncement finally put paid to the argument. He turned his glare on Jenna and growled, "I don't intend to go anywhere."

She answered with one hand on the hilt of her gun. "Don't imagine we'll give you a choice."

"All right, that's enough." Blake's intervention came more from expedience than any need to defend Avon. He drew a long breath before proceeding. "I think we'd do far better agreeing to help each other. I need your help, Avon -- and like it or not, you need mine."

Though the angry eyes narrowed, Avon made no effort to contradict him.

Jenna's temper, however, snapped. "Don't be an ass, Blake. You can't trust him not to--"

He cut her off, though his words were directed at Avon. "Oh, but I can. Because Liberator offers the one thing he needs most just now. Safety. In fact, it's the only safe place he can hide."

"Trouble is," Vila interjected, "he can do that without any of us along."

"Yes," Blake agreed grimly. "Well, that effort's already failed once. So now, Avon, it's either work with us, or..." The implicit threat hit home -- the ice in Avon's eyes became a blizzard.

"Are you crazy?" Vila demanded. "How can you believe--"

"I'll settle for his word," Blake said.

Avon's smile was even colder than his eyes. "It could be," he said to Blake, "that you trust too much."

The rebel leader shrugged. "Perhaps."

"It will kill you one day."

The gauntlet thrown, Blake took an intimidating step forward.

"I'll still have your word," he said.

It was the final swordstroke, checkmate to the game. Blake silently congratulated himself for a trap well-drawn as he watched defeat overtake Avon's wrath. The dark head turned away for a moment, then Avon drew himself up and conceded with bad grace.

"All right," he rasped. "But don't imagine I will ever be one of your fawning 'faithful,' Blake."

"Good faith is as much as I'll ask," Blake retorted. "Our safety for yours. You'll find it a very... equitable... arrangement."

Apparently, Jenna saw no equity in the situation. She pushed past Blake and stalked out the door, closely followed by Gan and a smirking Vila. The thief turned back to deliver a grim parting shot. "Still think we'd do better to deep-six him," he said, and was gone.

Avon's shuttered expression seemed, ironically, to say that Vila was probably right.

*      *      *

Jenna found both comfort and strength in the soft throbbing of Liberator's flight instrumentation. For the past three hours of solitary night watch, she had allowed the gentle rhythms to assuage her anger and smooth her simmering temper. It had worked. Well, nearly.

When she heard someone approaching the flight deck, she mentally rehearsed the calmer, more rational arguments she would use to persuade Blake of his folly.

But the visitor was not Blake.

She knew without turning: the footsteps were far too soft and measured for Blake, too light to be Gan, and not stealthy enough for Vila. When they ceased at the entryway, as though awaiting an acknowledgment, she kept her back turned and said, "Come for the next one on your list, Avon?"

The feet sauntered down the short flight of steps then, and Avon strode past her, feigning no surprise whatever at her discernment. He went forward to Zen's sensor housing, picked up a tool and proceeded to tinker with something on the analyzer console.

"Ignoring me won't help you," she told him bluntly. "I don't intend going anywhere, either."

Even from this angle, she could see his lip curl. "We shall see about that," he said.

Bluff for bluff, Jenna thought. He's cool enough, for someone who damn near got himself spaced. Although cool, she reflected, was too weak an assessment. She'd seen warmer smiles on Arcan ice dactyls.

"Where's Blake?" Her query garnered an innocent look -- oddly incongruous on Avon's face.

"Orientating the rabble, I should imagine."

"Good. He won't need to hear what I have to say."

Avon's tool ceased its probing, waited.

"It's Blake's ship," she said, leaving no room for argument. "I won't let you take it."

Challenge glittered in the onyx eyes. "You can stop me, can you?"

"If I have to." He seemed suddenly to have forgotten that she already had stopped him, once. Well, if he needed reminding...

"Try it again," she warned, "and you'll have more than a few singed ribs. That's a promise, Avon."

For a prolonged moment, they faced off across the barrier of the piloting console. Then Avon's smile reasserted itself with a 'charm' that left Jenna utterly cold.

"Sooner or later," he said, and the humorless grin broadened, "I will have my chance."

Jenna's look said, I'll see you in hell first. But she let the boast pass, confident that her own point had been securely driven home. "You take the watch," she said abruptly. For emphasis, she adjusted a non-functional control as she rose. "I'm tired."

The look he aimed at her was both querulous and calculating. What was she up to?

Jenna let him wonder. She strolled with a deliberately casual air off the flight deck and down the hexagonal corridor toward her quarters.

There would be another time.

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