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Adventures in Babysitting

By Sheila Paulson
Page 1 of 5

The blood that dripped annoyingly into Avon's eyes finally woke him and he put up a shaky hand to investigate the wound. It proved a jagged cut, shallow but messy, that ran just below the hairline. That explained his raging headache; the skin was puffy around the edges of the wound and the light pressure of his exploring fingers made him wince. Still a little dazed from the flyer crash, he couldn't concentrate on more than one thing at a time, and he fumbled about for something to use as a bandage, his mind not working clearly.

Something firm yet yielding met his exploring hand. Warm and alive. An arm. Startled, Avon wiped blood from his eyes and stared at Roj Blake, who lay beside him in the co-pilot's seat, eyes closed, body lax. Their hasty escape from Donnat's false rebels had not been completely successful. When Liberator hadn't responded to their urgent request for teleport, there had been little choice but to steal the flyer and run for it, but the so-called rebels had artillery and the little vessel was hit. Avon had coaxed and cajoled it into running far longer than he'd believed possible--Jenna would have been impressed--but eventually they'd lost power and Blake, already slightly wounded in the skirmish that had followed the discovery of their betrayal, had been unable to help Avon bring the ship down. Naturally, they had crashed. The ground had rushed up at them, a thickly forested terrain that offered no promising landing areas. Struggling with near-useless controls, Avon fought the ship with all his strength, finally spotting a tiny clearing. Hitting that would be like programming a computer blindfolded with a meter stick, but Avon had come close. Trees tore at the flyer as it skimmed drunkenly over their tops, aiming for the clearing and their one chance of survival. "Hang on, Blake," he called over his shoulder as they dove at the ground. Then the crash and Avon was flung forward against the controls and knew nothing more.

Pain stabbed through Avon's skull now as he reached for Blake, to feel for a pulse. The rebel leader was still alive, but Avon didn't like the pallor of his skin or its clamminess, and the pulse beneath his fingers was too light and too fast. He might be going into shock. Warmth and treatment were needed immediately, but they were the last things Blake was likely to get. Unable to set a reasonable course with the damaged controls, they had headed deeper and deeper into the wilderness, and they had gone down into the deep forest that covered a third of the planet. It might make them harder to find. From the sight of trees outside the shattered front visor, Avon suspected he had missed the clearing entirely.

Tearing a strip of cloth from his undertunic, Avon bound it around his head, realizing it would require a more effective treatment later. A sketchy bandage already covered Blake's injured shoulder but it had been torn free in the crash, and there was a swelling lump on the rebel's forehead that did not bode well. For now, Blake's survival might depend upon his actions, and that annoyed him. He hadn't wanted to come on this mission in the first place, and he was not particularly surprised to find it gone wrong. Liberator had gone off station or--more likely since this had been a trap from the beginning--had been destroyed and, in either case, rescue would be far from immediate, if at all. He might be a thousand kilometers from another human being.

"Is he dead?"

The voice was young, too young. Avon jerked around in startled reaction, going for his gun, only to pull his shot just in time when he realized his audience consisted of three children. The oldest might have been around fourteen; he was fair haired and small for his age, and he wore a heavy metal brace on one leg. Perhaps because of the handicap, his eyes were older than his years, and it was he who had posed the question. Beside him was a girl of nine, equally fair, with a heart shaped face and surprisingly dark eyes. She was staring at Blake with a look of horror that seemed out of proportion for the possible death of a stranger. The third was another boy, several years younger than the girl. He should have been too young to understand very much, but he, too, held frightened awareness in his expression.

"Not yet," Avon replied flatly, returning his attention to Blake's wounded shoulder. "Damn him," he muttered under his breath.

"Grandfather says it's easier to hate the dead," the older boy volunteered in a voice possessed of considerable cynicism.

Avon understood that all too well. It was easier to deal with the death of an enemy than a friend. That philosophy had stood him in good stead, but it was one which offered nothing in its place. While protecting the sensibilities of children was not something he had ever considered before, he wondered fleetingly at the grandfather that would offer such a suggestion to these three.

"Do you hate Grandfather?" the girl cried passionately, turning furious eyes upon her older brother.

He tightened his lips and avoided her look, turning back to Avon. "What can we do to help?" he asked practically.

A medical supply kit might help," Avon replied. "I'd also like to take him out of here. Do you have shelter nearby."

"There's our house," the girl offered, but a shudder passed through her slender frame as she said it, and the little boy clutched compulsively at her hand, tears starting in his eyes.

It would have taken a far less perceptive person than Avon to tell that something was wrong with them, but he didn't have time to explore it, and he certainly lacked the inclination.

"Also," he continued, ignoring the distress of the younger two, "Something with which to transport him."

"There's the supply sled," the older boy asked. "Desta, will you and Ree get it?"

"No," said Ree defiantly. "I'm not going back there now."

Avon had managed to repair the dressing on Blake's shoulder as they talked, and had gone on to checking his shipmate for other injuries. Aside from the lump on his head and a number of bruises, he could find nothing obvious, but Blake could have spinal damage or internal injuries, and he was loath to move him. Yet the damaged flyer had an ominous smell of leaking coolant mixture and it was entirely possible the stuff was toxic if not explosive. Better to get Blake away from here. Once the Liberator was back on station, it should be possible to treat his injuries properly, or at least to contain them whilst they sought out a surgeon as they had done for Gan recently. Avon grimaced. That incident had not gone well. Perhaps he should suggest to Blake that they recruit a surgeon to join the crew.

That thought pulled him up short. He did not entirely consider himself a member of the crew, and though he had chosen to return to Liberator and reject a potential bolthole on Space Station XK-72, it didn't mean he meant to stay permanently. Well, a surgeon would make his remaining time easier if such could be located.

Blake shifted uneasily and moaned but when Avon spoke his name, he didn't rouse, though he leaned toward the sound of Avon's voice. It made Avon wonder about the severity of his head injury.

The sound of the younger two children scrambling from the wreckage made him raise his head to see the older boy watching him. "They won't be long," he offered.

"You have shelter for us?" Avon asked.

The boy's face darkened. "Yes," he said flatly. "Though there is a task I might ask of you in return for the use of it."

Everything had a price, though he seemed young to have learned that lesson. "And what is that?" Avon returned cynically.

The boy dropped his eyes. "Bury our grandfather," he mumbled.

"What?" Avon was startled. He'd realized, of course, that their grandfather was dead, but not that it had just happened. The younger two were too young to manage and this boy probably lacked the strength.

"I'd do it myself, and I would have done," he confessed. "But I'm not good at athletic things like digging." Bitterness ran through his voice.

"The medics could do nothing for you?" Avon asked.

"Medics?" he asked scornfully. "What makes you think ordinary people on Donnat rate medics?"

Avon hadn't considered it. On Earth, treatment for birth defects and injuries sustained in childhood was provided automatically. But for the first time, he wondered if that were true in the Delta domes. Obviously those out of favor were considered expendable and though Avon's family had not always been treated well, Alphas though they were, no one had ever withheld needed treatment. To his surprise, he was a little shocked. Perhaps it was a good thing Blake was unconscious. Avon could sense the new ardor he would bring to his cause if he knew about this.

"I see," he replied. "When did your grandfather die?"

The boy looked grateful for the matter of fact question. "Last night. I've tried to keep Desta and Ree busy today, but I couldn't keep it from them. Tomorrow the patrol comes round and they would have buried him if I'd asked, but I hate to owe them anything."

"The patrol?" Avon asked sharply. "Federation?"

"Local militia. But they're Federation supervised. Why? Are you on the run? Criminals?"

"Of a sort," Avon replied. "This flyer will be all too obvious. What sort of ground transportation do you have?" If Liberator was intact, they might be found before then, but if not, he preferred to be ready for trouble ahead of time.

"Only the supply sled," the boy replied. He grimaced. "It's big enough to take two without losing speed, but it isn't a lot faster than a running man. It isn't built for that."

Naturally not. This would be difficult. That also left the question of three children without an adult, three children who might be blamed if he and Blake took the supply sled and hid in the forest. While Avon preferred to look to his own risks and ignore other people's, he was not prepared to abandon the children as easily as he might an adult. Blake, of course, would never permit it. Blake's nobility of spirit was annoying at best, but his genuine shock at the thought of the crime the Federation had accused him of told Avon that he would never leave the three to their fate. Muttering a curse, Avon began to shift Blake to move him out of the wreckage.

"I'm Tirn Waven," the boy introduced himself. "The militia might not know about you." He caught Avon's eye and shook his head. "No, they probably will, won't they? When they see the wreckage, they'll know it came down here. Then they'll find out about Grandfather and they'll take us in and put us in a creche in the city and that'll be the end of that." He chewed his bottom lip. "I'm not much good for anything, of course, but Ree's healthy and Desta is too pretty. They won't have much of a life. I don't suppose you'd take us with you."

"Hiding in the forest seems counterproductive," Avon returned. "The search for us will be thorough. You might have a better chance with the Federation."

"Why, what have you done?"

"I followed...him," Avon replied, gesturing at Blake. "It seems I am still capable of acting the fool." He began to ease Blake through the doorway with Tirn's marginal help. Blake cried out suddenly, and Avon froze, his hands going still on Blake's arms. Damn.

Tirn studied him intently. "I don't think you can move him without hurting him," he said, his eyes big and frightened. For the first time, Avon could see the child in him. "Let me help."

"What can you do?" Avon snapped, regretting it when the boy flinched as if he'd been struck and pulled back, his head drooping.

"Oh, very well," conceded Avon. "Take his feet, if you can."

"You needn't be so bloody condescending," Tirn retorted hotly.

"I am hardly that. I am injured myself and this space is difficult to maneuver in. If you take every remark I make as a reminder of your leg, we shall not get on well. I tend to be sarcastic, and that is when my head does not ache." It was as near an apology as he was likely to offer.

Tirn grimaced. "And you're worried about your friend," he discovered. "All right. Pull him forward a little and I'll help. When we get him out of the ship, you'll have to carry him, though. I'm pretty fast on my feet, but not when I'm trying to carry something." He actually smiled, though concealed a wealth of bitterness.

Between them they eased Blake from the wreckage as carefully as possible, pausing when the pain roused him. He didn't fully regain consciousness, but he came close a couple of times, only relapsing into sleep when Avon spoke quietly. "It's all right, Blake."

Tirn's eyes narrowed at the name, but he said nothing. Well, there were bound to be many people called Blake. The boy would think nothing of it, surely.

He realized his hand was still resting comfortingly on Blake's shoulder and he pulled away as if stung. Tirn nodded knowingly--irritating brat--then took up Blake's feet again.

Between them they maneuvered Blake free of the wrecked flyer. Before they had finished Avon could hear the dull thudding beat of the sled's engine as it made its way toward them. Obviously simple enough for a child to operate, it should be suitable to move Blake away from here if the Liberator didn't return in time.

The sled proved to be a flat platform that ran on fat rubber treads at what must be a maximum speed of five or six kilometers an hour. If he took Blake and left immediately, he might be out of the general vicinity by the time the militia troop arrived.

Desta and Ree came forward to help lift Blake and place him on the sled. Though their help was next to useless, Avon refrained from comment when Tirn shot him a knowing look as if he expected Avon to criticize them. He resented the boy's attitude, but he could not quite bring himself to find fault with the younger two when they were attempting to help.

Blake woke on the way to the children's home, his eyelids fluttering up. "Avon?" he asked, squinting up in some confusion. "...blurry...can't see you properly."

"You managed to hit your head," Avon told him in a sardonic manner. "You might try lying still and--for once--taking my advice."

Blake's mouth curled into a smile. "You'd enjoy that, wouldn't you?" he asked. "Where...are we, Avon?"

"Somewhere in the deep, dark woods." He allowed himself to return Blake's smile. "We have been rescued, for the moment, by these three." His look drew the children forward, and they stared at Blake in some fascination, though the girl, Desta, hid a dark worry in the back depths of her eyes.

"Avon?" Blake's hand shot out and captured Avon's wrist. "I won't... endanger them."

"That was not my plan, Blake. Now lie still and rest. You've lost too much blood for my liking."

"I must have done, else you'd have said, 'I told you so,' five or six times already."

Involuntarily, Avon laughed. "You're hardly dying, Blake, just proving a general nuisance and, as it happens, I am used to that already."

That made Desta giggle, and Tirn smiled rather too knowingly to suit Avon before turning his attention back to steering the sled. Ree edged closer to Blake and fixed great staring eyes upon him. "Are you really Blake?" he asked.

Avon cursed himself for mentioning Blake's name, but the rebel smiled at the little boy and stretched out his good hand to touch his hair. "That's my name," he agreed.

"No, I mean are you the Blake? The rebel! Grandfather was always talking about you, but we're not supposed to." He put his hands over his mouth as he realized he'd broken the rule, then his eyes twinkled. "But we can talk to you. We're not telling the militia."

"Ree," Tirn said dampeningly. "Blake is a common name."

"You needn't fear we'll talk to the militia," Blake comforted the child. "My name is Roj Blake. I think we are all on the same side."

"Then he's Kerr Avon," Desta said, pointing at Avon in an annoying manner, something like hero worship lighting her eyes. "You're the one that knows all about computers." From her tone, it was clear she considered computers the most important thing in the universe. "I want to work with computers one day."

"Indeed," Avon said repressively.

She didn't take that as a criticism. "Yes," she replied. Then the light went out of her face. "Here's the cabin," she said in a sad little voice.

Blake caught Avon's eye and asked a silent question. He shook his head abruptly and Blake didn't push it.

"You'll want the medical kit," Tirn said abruptly. "Desta, you and Ree take the sled around the back and recharge it."

Avon helped Blake off the sled, but he couldn't stand without support, so Avon was forced to drape the injured man's good arm around his shoulders and guide him forward. Tirn limped forward rapidly and flung open the door then came back and helped Avon to steer Blake inside. They put him down on a spare bed, but not before Avon and Blake had seen the shrouded form in the corner. Blake cast a questioning eye at Avon, who said in an undertone, "It's the children's grandfather, Blake. Say nothing for now."

"Avon's going to bury him for us," Tirn volunteered as they helped Blake to lie down.

"Avon is?" Blake shot Avon a startled look, then fatigue caught up with him and he lay there shaking with it, his face white.

"And you are going to do nothing but what I tell you," Avon informed the injured man. "Is that quite clear, Blake?"

"You needn't enjoy it so much," Blake mumbled wearily.

"What makes you think I enjoy it?" Avon turned to the boy. "I assume you have some medical supplies in the absence of medics," he stated flatly.

"Yes, Avon. Here." He fetched a supply kit and helped Avon deftly as he removed the makeshift patch and cleaned Blake's wound, sterilizing it carefully. There was a little muscle damage, but nothing beyond the Liberator's capabilities. Blake went even whiter than before under this process and it wasn't long before his eyes slid shut. Avon's hands went still and he studied Blake in some alarm which he promptly banished. It was better for all concerned that Blake remain unconscious for now. Awake, he might hinder the treatment and he would certainly express his opinions to anyone who asked--and even those who didn't.

"We've a synthetic spray," Tirn volunteered. "Do you want to use it?"

"It might be best, though we'll treat him again when we return to our ship."

"The Liberator." A trace of boyish awe crept into Tirn's voice, erasing that cynicism that went so ill with his age. Avon knew it would stand him in good stead in years to come, but the slip back into boyhood seemed natural. "I wish I could go on board," Tirn breathed. Then, looking at Avon, he sighed. "I know that's not possible. Here." He passed Avon the spray.

"I am not entirely certain Blake and I will return," Avon replied. He cast a quick glance at his teleport bracelet which seemed intact. The crash might have damaged it or Blake's but they seemed in one piece, even if his hasty attempt to contact the ship had not met with failure. He tried it again now. "Avon to Liberator . Come in, damn you."

"Do you think they had to run from the Federation?" Tirn asked. "There's a big base here. They run this whole planet. Why do you think we live way out here? Grandfather's on the run."

Wonderful. They had managed to crash on the property of a known resistor. No wonder the militia made periodic runs out here in the wilderness. They were likely keeping an eye on 'Grandfather' to make certain he wasn't engaged in clandestine rebel activities.

"Obviously the Federation knows that," Avon returned. "I should imagine this is one of the first places they will check when they search for us." He finished with the spray and passed the cannister back to Tirn, then fastened a new bandage in place, binding Blake's arm to his side to keep him from moving and inadvertently breaking the wound open. "And now," he said, "I shall bury your grandfather. After that, Blake and I will be on our way."

Tirn's face fell, but he said nothing. Instead he rose with curious dignity and limped across the room to draw back the blanket that covered his grandfather.

The old man had died in pain; probably a coronary. His face had twisted with it and still held it now, but beneath that, it displayed the same strength and dignity that Tirn was capable of showing. There was no family resemblance, for the dead man had a harsh hawk face with a great beak of a nose, close set eyes and thin lips with none of the children's unconscious beauty. What little hair the old man had left was grey, but Avon doubted if he'd been as fair as the three youngsters. Yet even in death, the old man retained an image of the vitality that must have been an integral part of his nature.

"He said it was easier to hate the dead," Tirn repeated. "But I can't quite hate him. A part of me wants to, for leaving us like this. I want hit him and shout at him and tell him he's no right to be dead like this." He raised eyes that were suddenly too bright to Avon's impassive face. "And you don't give a damn, do you. This is just a nuisance, payment before you can take our sled and run for it. I hate you!" He flung himself upon Avon, beating at him with clenched fists.

Startled at the outburst, Avon caught his wrists and held the struggling boy while he fought to break free. Then all at once, he collapsed against Avon's chest and burst into tears. "Damn him," he muttered. "What will we do now? There's nothing left, nothing."

Stunned to find his arms full of crying boy, Avon was too surprised to push him away. Blake would have handled this better, but Blake was unconscious and unlikely to come to his aid, so Avon gritted his teeth and twisted his lips into a grimace that Tirn couldn't see before he put an arm around the boy's shoulders. Offering comfort never came easily to him, perhaps because he had so rarely received it, but it had never been his way to harm the helpless, so he stood with some awkwardness, holding Tirn against his chest. He was relieved when the sound of running footsteps outside recalled Tirn to his duty as man of the house. The crippled boy pulled himself together, ran a hasty hand across his face to eradicate the tears, then leaped to cover the old man's face before the children entered.

At the last moment, they came in slowly, casting unhappy glances at the shrouded form in the corner, then crept in, Ree choosing a seat at Blake's feet, curling up there as if he thought the rebel could protect him even in sleep. Desta looked at Tirn rather maternally and then announced, "I'll fix some food."

Ree made retching noises. "You can't cook."

"I can do better than you can, you little horror." She turned to Avon and favored him with a conspiratorial smile. "Besides, I can run the processor better than anyone."

"It does require some degree of computer skill to manage it properly," Avon heard himself saying.

"You see," she returned. "I'll do that now."

"Then I'll take Avon outside," Tirn announced. Ree promptly shifted closer to Blake but didn't budge, and Avon followed the older boy from the cabin wondering how those who believed the Federation propaganda about Blake would have reacted if they had seen Ree's unconscious trust in him.

He spent the better part of an hour digging a grave for the old man, helped by Tirn, who insisted on aiding with the digging. As he did the heavy work, Avon's head throbbed, but he concealed it from the boy. He had told him he'd dig the grave and he kept his word, but the delay irritated him and he was not talkative. Tirn was not inclined to comment on the work either. Perhaps he was regretting his earlier breakdown. He might have guessed by now that Avon was unlikely to mention it to him.

When the task was finished, Avon brought the body out, still wrapped in its blanket, and lowered it into the grave. He would have begun filling it in immediately, but Tirn stopped him. "Wait. There must be a service. Will you do it, Avon?" He fixed trusting eyes on Avon and waited.

Wonderful. Avon stilled a grimace before it could cover his face. "It might come better from you," he suggested. "You knew him and could give a better eulogy."

Evidently it was the right thing to say. Tirn brightened fractionally, then he raised his voice and bellowed for the other two to join them. They came hesitantly, their steps lagging, until they stood beside their brother. Tirn put his arms around Ree's shoulders, but Desta edged slightly closer to Avon, who regarded this evidence of trust with some perplexity. He had done nothing to win the girl's respect.

"We're here to bury Grandfather," Tirn announced in a formal voice. He still had a high pitched, childish voice most of the time, but occasionally it slid into a deeper tone, presaging the adult he would become. "Sabel Waven was a great man. He could have done anything, gone anywhere, but he chose to fight in the name of freedom. He would have still been doing it but he had to take care of us. He said we were his legacy, and he meant it. He tried to help us get ready for this moment, but I wonder if he did it right. It isn't easier to hate the dead. It's better to remember them the way they were and to love them." His voice faltered for a moment, and he glanced over at Avon, then steadied himself. "That's what I say, and you two remember it. We'll miss him. We'll miss him a lot. But we'll remember him. And we'll never hate him. Isn't that right, Avon?"

"So one would assume," Avon replied. He rather suspected he might prefer the old man's philosophy, though he doubted he would have understood it at Ree's age. By the time he was Tirn's age, he had an all too clear grasp of it, and that without the necessity of burying his only adult relation.

"Anyway," Tirn continued, "Grandfather wouldn't have wanted us to stand around and cry, and I think he was right about that. We've got a big job to do now. We've got to help Avon and Blake hide from the Federation. We know the woods better than anyone, so we're going to take them away from here until their ship gets back. Grandfather would have approved of that."

"We're going to be rebels," Ree piped up. "We're going to fight the Federation. Can we take Grandfather's guns, Tirn?"

"Every one of them."

Desta shifted still closer to Avon and startled him by sliding her hand into his. He let her clasp it a moment, then he eased free and picked up the shovel. "Perhaps you would finish the dinner," he told her. "We must eat before we leave here."

She cast one final look into the grave, then she grabbed Ree's arm. "Come on," she said in her most motherly tone. "Help me with dinner." She led him away so he wouldn't have to watch the filling in of the grave.

When they finished, Avon started for the house, and the boy fell into step with him, trying to match his uneven pace with Avon's stride. Avon didn't slow his pace, and Tirn kept up, though with some effort.

Blake was awake and propped up with pillows when they entered, Desta perched beside him spooning soup into his mouth. Some color had returned to his face; doubtless the treatment and hot food had helped. Desta favored Avon with a glowing smile. "I thought I'd give him some soup," she explained. "Gr-grandfather always gave us soup when we were sick. He looks better, doesn't he?"

Demonstrably," Avon returned. "Well, Blake, you seem to have a noticeable effect upon the female population."

"Hardly, Avon. I'm a distant second where Desta is concerned." Amusement shone in his eyes. "But then I'm only a rebel. I don't know nearly enough about computers to suit her."

"You hardly seem to suffer from the lack."

Ree was working his way through a plate of stew, drinking something that looked like milk from a tin cup. It had left a whitish mustache across his upper lip. "Desta's not as bad a cook as I thought," he announced around a chunk of meat. Avon shuddered at the sight and turned away.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," chorused Desta and Tirn automatically, then Desta waved the spoon at the table. "I've got yours ready," she said. "Eat a hearty meal. We'll be camping afterwards."

"We're taking them with us, Avon," Blake explained. "If the local militia finds our flyer they'll know we were here and they might take it out on the children."

"They should be more likely to do so if they find the children with us," Avon pointed out.

"Perhaps, but we'll be some distance away by tomorrow and Desta says there are caves where we can wait for the Liberator."

"Assuming it returns," Avon said flatly.

"Most likely they've gone off station and will come back as soon as it's safe."

"Hardly a realistic assumption, Blake. How long do you think we can survive in a remote cave with limited supplies and three children to mind?"

Blake faced him with a show of defiance. "As long as it takes, Avon."

"Ah well, if you say so." Avon strode over to the table and seated himself. His head ached too much to press the argument and, like Blake, he had lost some blood and needed to eat. Aware of the others' eyes upon him, he ate in silence.

Tirn joined him and made quick work of his food. Presently Avon became aware of Desta standing beside him, holding Blake's empty soup bowl in her hands. "Is--is it good?" she asked in expectantly.

"I have no complaints." Her eyes waited and he found himself adding, "It's quite good." Desta's face glowed with pleasure and she went away with her head held high.

But there was no time for lingering. Tirn and his sister packed food supplies in a box to take with them and Ree dragged out extra blankets. When they were ready, Blake was helped out to the sled once more, this time wrapped in blankets with a pillow for his head. Avon gestured for Tirn to take the controls, saw a moment of resentment in the boy's eyes at the suggestion he could not keep up.

"I should prefer someone to handle the sled who knows what he is doing," Avon replied. "Ree, you will stay with Blake and watch him, and let us know if he feels badly. Do you think you can do that?"

"Course I can. I'm not little any more. Grandfather--grandfather said I was grown up."

"So you are," Blake consoled him. "Stay and talk to me. I've nothing to do and I'll be quite bored otherwise."

Ree's face brightened and he curled up beside Blake, leaning against his good shoulder.

"What about me?" Desta asked Avon.

"You and I must keep watch. Are you any good with a gun?"

"Of course." She picked up a small projectile rifle from the weapons supply that lay near Blake's feet. "This is mine. I've killed a raga with it." She checked it expertly to make certain it was loaded. Avon realized that their remote location had taught them more wilderness skills than he possessed. Picking up a second weapon, he examined it. Good quality, but he preferred his weapon from the Liberator .

It was midafternoon when they started into the forest. The temperature was pleasant, but Tirn said it became cold at night. They would go as far as possible before dark, maintaining a high speed until Desta tired, then she would take Ree's place on the sled and the boy would walk for awhile. After that, Avon would allow Tirn to walk as long as he could keep up. If he didn't get the chance, he would resent it, and while the sled could carry all three children and Blake and still maintain a stiff walking pace, Avon preferred to conserve power. Though the Liberator might return at any moment, it might be gone for days, and Avon prepared to be ready for the worst possible scenario. Eventually they would reach the township of Dain, a place free of the Federation.

At first Blake slept, still weak from the bloodloss, but he seemed to have suffered little damage from the bump on his head. He admitted to a headache, but his vision had cleared and he was alert. Avon's own headache had eased after he ate and Desta had, at Blake's insistence, rebandaged his head. An analgesic had completed the cure, and now as he only noticed the remnants of pain from time to time. He suspected it would return as he became tired or when the medication wore off, and he was not looking forward to it, but he had a tendency to headaches anyway, so it was not an unfamiliar condition.

Desta walked well for several hours, inflicting Avon with artless chatter that demanded little response, which was just as well. She confided all her hopes to him, her plans to go to Earth one day and study computers there. She talked about the greatest computer expert of the day, Ensor, and spoke with some knowledge of tarial cells. But it was when she confided to Avon that it was her duty to take care of Ree first now that her grandfather had died that he found it difficult to respond to her.

"Have you no other kin?" he asked.

"We have an aunt but she's on Raskin Major. That's why Grandfather took us when our parents died. He couldn't risk taking us across two systems. He was cautious even then. Ree was a baby and I was only three so I don't remember them, but Tirn does. It makes him sad sometimes." She glanced over her shoulder at her brother on the sled. "I wish I remembered them."

"Perhaps it is as well to have no such memories," Avon replied. "This way it cannot make you sad."

"I think I'd rather remember them, even if it did," she said stubbornly.

Behind them Blake's voice was suddenly lifted in song, and the two advance guards turned in surprise as Ree gave a crow of delighted laughter and joined in, followed by Tirn, who looked as if he were doing it to humor the others. Ree was too young to feel the full impact of his loss, but Tirn and Desta knew it well. She raised unhappy eyes to Avon and said, "Do you think we should sing?"

"If you like," he replied. "I, however, shall pass."

"Oh, join in, Avon," Blake broke off to admonish him. His eyes met Avon's and he shot a cautionary look. 'Help me manage the children,' it said all too clearly. Avon's return look said equally plainly, 'I shall get you for this one day, Blake.' It annoyed him to realize how clearly he and Blake could read each other's expressions, but there were times when it was useful.

"You'd subject them to my singing?" he asked, allowing a note of humor to creep into his question. Blake's voice was pleasant, if untrained, and he could break into a song easily enough. Sometimes, he urged the others to join in, and Vila always did. Gan's voice was nothing to write home about, but he was willing to pitch in, and Jenna did too. Cally's voice was sweet and tuneful, but the Auron songs she sometimes sang were too poignant for Avon. He himself chose to sing but rarely. Now, he did it under protest. Tirn realized that. He was altogether too perceptive for one so young. He flashed a sardonic grin in Avon's direction that was almost enough to make Avon fall silent, but Blake was watching him too, and Blake's eyes were alight with that special warmth that was so difficult to resist. Damn the man, he was a menace.

When Desta grew tired, Ree traded places with her, talking even more annoyingly to Avon than she had. He had a small gun of his own, and he claimed to be a great expert with it, which Avon was inclined to doubt. Yet he carried it well enough, and didn't act as if it were a toy. Once when a small animal not unlike a Terran rabbit ran across the path, Ree jerked up the gun and shot it without hesitation. "Dinner," he proclaimed gleefully. "Wait'll you taste it, Avon. They're good. I shot my first one when I was only little. Just turned five. Someday when I'm grown up, I'll be a famous hunter, won't I, Tirn?"

"Most likely," his brother replied. "Or else you'll be a famous boaster. You'll clean it tonight."

Ree made a face at him, but he took a piece of string from his pocket and tied the animal's hind legs together and secured it to his belt.

The undergrowth was light but enough to tangle around Avon's feet. He could feel his headache coming back, but he ignored it. Blake had drifted off to sleep after Desta had taken Ree's place on the sled, and by then the party was too tired to continue singing. Ree flagged quickly and was replaced by Tirn, while Desta took the sled's controls, steering it expertly. Blake didn't awaken at the changeover, which concerned Avon, but there was nothing that could be done about it, so he put it from his thoughts.

At first Tirn did fairly well. He didn't bother Avon with inane chatter. His face was somewhat sour and his concentration was focused on the undergrowth, for he found it easier to lose his footing than the other two. In spite of the brace he moved fairly well though his balance was sometimes questionable. After a kilometer or so, Avon looked around and found a stout stick for him to use as a staff.

"I don't want that," Tirn insisted, trying to wave it away impatiently.

"Perhaps not, but I see no need to endanger Blake or your brother and sister because you are too proud to take it," Avon returned pointedly.

For a few moments, Tirn glared at him, then his face relaxed and he took it, though with bad grace. "I don't know how Blake puts up with you," he muttered under his breath.

Avon hid a smile. "With a great deal of effort," he replied.

"You enjoy it, don't you?"

"Sometimes." Startled, Avon realized it was true. It wasn't just that he found some satisfaction in being difficult, cutting Blake down to size. It was that he actually enjoyed the challenge of Blake. The others as well. Vila had unexpected wit and spirit and sparring with him was pleasant, though Avon would never have admitted it. Vila played the game the same way, refusing to admit it either, and they made a good team. But it was Blake who presented the greatest challenge. Avon cast a glance back at the sleeping rebel and frowned with annoyance. The last thing he wanted was to like Blake. Involvement with other people was a fool's game that led to nothing but trouble and suffering.

"But you don't want to enjoy it," Tirn added with surprising perception. "You believe what Grandfather said, don't you? About it being easier to hate the dead. You don't want to get involved. You must just hate it when you find you've slipped up."

"I have hardly 'slipped up,'" Avon informed him coolly. "In any case, you're not far different yourself."

"At least I know it's all right to miss Grandfather."

"Which will hardly bring him back."

"Maybe not, but pretending I hate him won't bring him back either and it'll only make it worse. I've got the other two to take care of, and I can't do it if I get bitter." He caught his toe in a snarl of weeds and almost fell, stabbing the staff into the ground for balance, cursing when Avon reached for him involuntarily to help him stay on his feet.

"Leave me alone!" he snapped.

The impulse dying, Avon jerked back. Glancing over his shoulder at the sled, he saw Desta watching him with big, surprised eyes, then turning back to the steering controls as if he'd disappointed her. Irritated, he strode out ahead of Tirn on a pretense of scouting the land. He was not here to live up to the children's expectations--or Blake's.

When Tirn finally returned to the sled, Avon waved Desta away as she would have joined him. It was twilight, and the caves where Tirn had suggested they hide were not far away. The sled could bear four of them for the rest of the journey.

Avon was glad of the dimming light, for his headache had returned with a vengeance, so that even the fading light of the sun had stabbed at him like knives. His balance was not as good as before and had been tempted to borrow Tirn's staff for the rest of the journey, but pride held him back. He was not badly hurt, he insisted to himself. But the trees waved back and forth like dancing girls before his eyes and he felt cold and dizzy. Each step required fierce concentration.

"Avon? Avon!"

He staggered to a stop and turned, putting out a hand to balance himself against a small treetrunk, only to nearly fall when it proved further away than he had expected. Vertigo pounced upon him and he grabbed at the slender trunk while the clearing revolved around him in a slow and stately manner. His stomach churned with sudden nausea and he leaned his forehead against the treetrunk, ignoring the urgent voice that called his name.

Then a hand caught his arm and he raised startled eyes to see Blake staring at him in concern. "Avon? You need to rest. Come and lie down."

Before he could protest Blake being up, his control faded entirely and he slid down the treetrunk to lie in a heap at Blake's feet.


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Sheila Paulson

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