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Empathy

By Sheila Paulson
Page 1 of 1

I told you so.

Ordinarily Kerr Avon would have taken great pleasure in flinging those words or a variation thereof at Roj Blake, pointing out with a wealth of detail how ludicrous Blake's whole plan had been in the first place, how Blake's fight against the Federation was destined to fail and how Avon had reached--not for the first time--the limits of his patience. He was cold and tired and sore and it was growing dark. Their teleport bracelets had ceased to function, and Avon's only real company at the moment in this rough shelter was Olag Gan, who was busy building a small fire. Gan was not exactly noted for his wit and sparkling conversation, and Avon did not relish the thought of spending time in his company. This was all Blake's fault, but for once, Avon could not tell him so.

Blake was probably dying.

Gan finished feeding the fire and turned to kneel beside Blake's inert form opposite Avon. "How is he?" he asked.

The look Avon shot at Gan should have melted a stone, but Gan didn't seem to notice. Naturally. Possessing all the intelligence of a fern, Gan would not notice Avon's annoyance unless Avon slapped him across the face. Gan would kneel there stolidly and ignore Avon's bad temper, perhaps not even realizing that Avon was bad-tempered, or so Avon managed to convince himself most of the time. But there were moments when this comforting belief was challenged; when something rather more intelligent would flash in a sudden smile that Gan threw at him, when he would share a mischievous look with Vila as if they knew something that none of the others had guessed, when he would flaunt his bullheaded integrity in Avon's face, a take-it-or-leave-it expression in his eyes.

But Avon wasn't really interested in learning more about Gan. He glanced down at Blake's shuttered face and mentally cursed the man for an even bigger fool than Gan was. The idealistic side of Blake's nature was bolstered by a hard-headed and stubborn determination that was more practical than Avon had expected, and while he could scorn Blake's cause, he couldn't quite ignore the man's strength of will. He was not a man to be defied, Blake. Just when Avon was convinced he was a pushover, he would stand his ground against all the verbal barrage Avon could mount. It was perplexing as well as irritating. Avon considered himself no man's inferior, unwilling to back down to anyone, certainly not to Blake, a cut-rate messiah for the common rabble. But when most people bored him, Blake could surprise him, and he tended to resent that.

Blake had surprised him again that very afternoon when he had jumped in front of a Federation para handgun to push Avon to safety, taking the shot himself. Heroic rescues should be reserved for those who were not too clumsy to jump to safety, thought Avon sourly. Now he was stranded on one of the most unprepossessing planets it had ever been his misfortune to visit, with a dying man and a halfwit for company. Avon was furious.

"How do you think he is?" He flung the words at Gan like plasma bolts, lifting his eyes to glare at him.

"Let me check the dressing," offered Gan mildly, his big hands surprisingly gentle as he uncovered the wound in Blake's thigh. It was messy, but it needn't be fatal; certainly it could have been treated successfully on Liberator. But when the shooting was over and the Federation troopers outdistanced in the forest, Avon had tried his bracelet and it failed to function. Gan, with Blake slung over his shoulder, had raised his own with equal results, and Blake's bracelet was useless too. Avon should not have been surprised. While working on the Federation's teleportation project, he had discovered that the substance aquatar failed to function properly when exposed to Green's radiation. If Servalan or Travis had managed to access the project's reports, there would be no better way to spring a trap on them. Green's radiation wasn't fatal except in massive doses, but the most minute amount would cause aquatar to break down.

The Federation security base on Lansin was reputed to devote their research sector to various suppressant drugs, and Blake's plan had been to break in and steal the formulae, to see if an antidote could be developed. But they had been expected, and once the troops started shooting, they had been unable to teleport. Believing the base shielded, Blake had led the way outside and the troops had pursued them through the trees. Then a trooper had got a clear shot at Avon, and Blake, always the hero, had jumped him to push him to safety. He had not managed to get clear himself.

Avon watched Gan clean out the wound. "I don't think there's any infection," he told Avon after a few moments. "But he's lost a lot blood and we can't do anything about it here. We need to keep him warm and get some hot food into him."

"Just where do you suggest we get it?"

"Zen told us there were farms not far from the base. I'll go along and see what I can find."

"You? You couldn't shoot if anyone saw you."

"No, but I think I could convince the farmers to spare a little food. Besides, Blake's been asking for you It would be better for him if you were here next time he came around." He finished his work and fastened a new bandage--torn from the lining of his vest--in place, once again settling Blake so that his legs were elevated, and tucking their jackets around him to try to keep him warm. Shock alone could kill, and blood loss didn't help. Avon had been surprised at Gan's competence.

"Very well, go," Avon instructed him. "What does your vast medical experience suggest I do for Blake in the meantime?" To his disgust, the sarcasm in his voice was barely detectable, and Gan would probably take the question seriously. No subtleties in Gan's nature.

"Just keep him warm," Gan urged. "There's nothing else to do without the proper equipment."

Avon glared. "We can't risk a bigger fire," he reminded the other man. "And we seem to be poorly equipped with blankets." He looked around the tiny shack. "There's nothing suitable here. Do you suggest I pluck it out of thin air?"

"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something," Gan replied easily as he headed for the door. "You're far cleverer than I am." He grinned and let himself out, closing the door tightly behind him.

Avon frowned after him. That had sounded like Gan's own brand of sarcasm, something the larger man rarely employed. He was usually annoyingly straightforward, unlikely to obscure his meanings, especially while Blake's life was at stake. Mentally Avon cursed Gan, Blake, and the entire Federation. How had he let himself become involved with Roj Blake? He knew the alternative, Cygnus Alpha, hadn't borne thinking about, but he'd had chances to go his own way since then, and he hadn't. He was beginning to think about the Liberator, developing a possessiveness toward the alien ship, knowing that with it, he could be safe and wealthy and could run far enough and fast enough to escape the Federation entirely. Yes, that was it, he'd stayed for the Liberator, and now he was stranded here with Servalan and Travis looking for him. He was sure the Green's radiation had been her plan, and he didn't expect rescue, for the others would surely come down in a foolhardy rescue attempt, rendering their own bracelets useless. They may already have done so. Avon cursed again, out loud this time.

"Avon..."

He turned to see Blake shifting restlessly. His eyes were shut, but he might be awake, so Avon knelt beside him. "I would not suggest moving, Blake. You have lost a lot blood."

Blake's eyes remained closed, but he quieted at the sound of Avon's voice, asking again faintly, "Avon? 're you here?"

"Where would you expect me to be, Blake? Our bracelets are inoperative. Gan has gone for help. He always was an optimist."

For once Avon's usual defenses against Blake went right past the rebel leader, who said weakly, "I'm glad...you're here."

Oh now, that wasn't fair. Avon could deal with Blake in most of his attitudes, but Blake didn't usually attempt an emotional appeal He knew better than to expect Avon to react to one, unless he was too weak and spent to find the strength for deceptions, unless this was what Blake was actually feeling and he was unable to hide it, or unless he knew Avon would reason that way and was daring such an appeal because he thought he could get away with it. But there was no strength in the feebly grasping hand that Blake stretched in the direction of his voice, and Avon looked at it sourly before capturing it in his own. Perhaps Blake was delirious. Gan hadn't really expected him to regain consciousness-or had he?

"Be still, Blake." Avon instructed him.

"Where..."

Well, that was a normal question. "We took shelter in an abandoned shed or cabin, Blake," Avon replied levelly. "It's enclosed, so we have risked a small fire. It may be foolish if they use heat-seeking devices to locate us; however such devices would detect our body heat, so it seems fruitless to do without a small fire."

"I could do with...big fire," Blake mumbled. "Cold. Avon, 'm cold."

"Gan shall bring blankets when he returns."

"Cold," Blake repeated, a certain element of persistence threading through his voice. Just what did he expect Avon to do about it, set him on fire? Avon felt the hand in his tremble a little, saw his body quiver. The fire wasn't enough, and Gan would probably be gone for hours, if he returned at all.

Avon looked around the cabin again, knowing there was nothing in the place to use. Their jackets were already wrapped around Blake, and it was clear that they weren't enough. Avon was cold himself; a lingering damp filled the tiny room and the night was just beginning. It they had to stay here all night, Blake would probably be dead before morning.

Avon couldn't prevent it. He was no medic, and even if he had possessed medical skills, he had no equipment. He had nothing but one small fire. It would probably go out before morning anyway. It was useless and futile to believe Blake could be saved; it was pointless to care. Avon grimaced. "What do you expect of me, Blake?" he demanded, and his voice sounded angry.

Blake's eyes fluttered open, but they were blurred and feverish. It was doubtful that he could see Avon clearly, but his voice held an element of his old determination. "You might try...keeping me alive."

"Damn you, Blake." Avon looked around the room again in case he had missed something, then he lay down beside Blake and pulled his body close, knowing that there was no other way to keep him warm. Blake moaned faintly as Avon's cautious movement jarred his wound, then he made a faint sound of contentment as warmth began to penetrate his chilled body. "'s better ," he mumbled, turning trustingly into Avon's shoulder and nestling as close as he could.

"Marvelous," Avon muttered. If a Federation trooper were to appear at the door right now, he couldn't even got at his gun. He raised his voice. "Just a moment, Blake," and shifted away long enough to work his gun free, placing it within easy reach of his hand before resuming his place. When Blake made a questioning sound, Avon explained shortly, "Just preparing for trouble--something none of the rest of you know how to do properly ."

"You...could be right."

He didn't speak again after that, and Avon lay there feeling warmth soak into himself as well. Occasionally Blake moved slightly, getting comfortable rather than tossing and turning, and Avon wondered that he would be so willing to trust him when he had made it plain from the beginning that he was having none of it. Blake's cause was for fools like Blake, and Blake's obsession with it made him doubly dangerous. Anyone of them was expendable, sacrificed up to Blake's Utopian dream of freedom, and Avon knew it. If the others felt themselves valuable, let them. Avon knew his own value was based on his computer skills and his ruthless desire to protect himself. That it was possible Blake actually liked him couldn't be allowed to matter, but he suspected Blake would abandon him without a qualm if it suited his precious cause. Until then, Avon would be as safe as any fugitive terrorist against the Federation, and he could take comfort in the fact that Blake would value him and protect him--for the time being. One day, Blake's cause might call upon him to sacrifice Avon's life, and that would be the end of it. Avon didn't plan to wait that long.

But this time, Blake had saved his life. Had the circumstances been reversed, Avon was quite certain he would have done nothing of the sort for Blake, ruthlessly stamping down the memory of several instances where he had done just that.

Determinedly he closed his mind to the times he'd let himself be swept along by Blake's dreams, though he didn't share them, while Blake blundered through the galaxy espousing the cause of the weak and the helpless. Take the Decimas for instance. Avon had been all for saving themselves and letting the Decimas go to blazes, feeling no concern for them. But Blake had demanded, and Avon had yielded. Well now, one day he would stop yielding, and when that happened, Blake had better watch out.

"Avon?" said the faint voice against his shoulder.

"You would be better served by lying still and trying to sleep, Blake," Avon suggested impatiently. "You have lost a lot of blood, and there are no guarantees that we will get out of here alive."

"Then why are you still here, Avon?" Blake sounded more alert; maybe the warmth of their shared body heat was doing some good after all. Blake also sounded determined to push it. There were times when he didn't know how close he came to pushing Avon past his limits.

"There is simply no place else to go," Avon returned. "Gan has gone for food and supplies. In the morning, we will make plans." He added, "Contrary to popular opinion, I have no plans to abandon you like this. If I leave, Blake, I will give you fair warning."

"Thank you." He sounded sincere, and Avon grimaced. The man was good at upsetting his balance. Even now, after months on the London and still more on the Liberator, Avon didn't really understand Blake's motivations. The man was a contradiction, and Avon, who wanted the freedom to go his own way, unhindered by any ties, resented it all the more. "I would do the same for anyone who was injured and helpless, Blake," he explained. "I am not totally without feelings. But I warn you, I will not risk my life to save yours."

"No, of course not, Avon."

"You don't believe me?"

"Does it matter what I believe?"

"Not in the slightest," Avon returned." As everything else you do, it is no doubt to your own advantage, and that of your cause."

"I did save your life, Avon," Blake returned sharply.

"Perhaps that is why I am still here. I do pay my debts." If nothing else, he prided himself on that, that and keeping his word. If it was possible, he would see Blake through this, but after that, he would rethink his position. The trouble with Blake was that one must continually reassess where one stood with him. Not even for Blake would Avon throw his life away needlessly.

Not even for Blake?

"I know you do, Avon." Blake sounded infinitely weary, and the aching note of pain in his voice made Avon wince. He took no pleasure in seeing anyone suffer, though he would not care if it were someone like Travis or the bastard who had killed Anna. But in spite of everything, Blake could actually be likeable.

Of course that made him all the more dangerous. A leader with charisma could charm his followers into any kind of folly. Damn the man, he even had Avon supporting him some of the time, though it occasionally felt satisfying to do some damage to the Federation. The Federation had caused him enough misery and he enjoyed hurting them, but he saw no point in making a career of it. He would stay with Blake a little longer, then, and when Blake finally pushed them all too hard, the others would realize they could no longer follow him, and they would be willing to turn to Avon instead.

That was even more ludicrous. He didn't want to be encumbered by Blake's band any more than he wanted to follow Blake himself. They did have a few useful gifts, but those gifts were outweighed by the liability of dealing with their flaws. Gan for instance. Gan was useless, and Vila was little better, though at least Vila's rapier tongue could provide an element of humor in the grimmest situations. Vila was a fool and annoying in the bargain, but Avon enjoyed fencing with him, though he preferred not to admit it.

Cally he wasn't so sure about. Though he did not dislike the Auron, he distrusted her telepathy, all the more so because he did rather like her. It made it difficult to trust her, for she had already proven it made her vulnerable to outside influences, and the Liberator crew had enough liabilities already. But Cally was a seasoned fighter who had her uses. She was rather too perceptive to be an entirely comfortable companion, but he didn't resent her presence the way he did Jenna's. The pilot was too much like Avon for him to feel at ease with her, but at least he knew where he stood with her. They regarded each other with cordial dislike, able to respect each other's abilities and work together, but they could never be friends. Jenna resented him, though Avon thought she was wrong to do so. If Blake was the bone of contention between them, Avon should tell her not to worry; he was not here to stay. But he never said so, and sometimes Jenna watched him with a dark resentment that Avon found mildly amusing.

And that left Blake. With a band such as this, Blake was prepared to take on the whole galaxy, and that made him one of the biggest fools of all time, yet Avon was still here. What did that say about him? There was an old adage, something about the fool and the fool who followed him. He pushed it out of his mind. He might have chosen to follow Blake, but he could easily choose to leave. Comforted by that thought, he looked at Blake again and saw that he had fallen asleep. Good. He needed it, and it would prevent him from continuing this difficult conversation.

Blake was still sleeping when Gan returned, laden with parcels. He halted just within the doorway. "Easy, it's only me," he announced reassuringly when Avon made an automatic grab for his gun.

"I see you eluded capture," Avon returned, surprised that Gan had been successful on his mission, though Gan's supplies would be useful. "What did you get?"

"Two heaters," Gan replied, taking the portable units out of one of the sacks and setting them up beside Blake. Avon eased away from him and went to help, daring Gan to comment on the way he had found them, but Gan only said, "You kept him warm, that's good," as he assembled the units. Placing them as close to Blake as was safe, they turned them on. Blake didn't awaken, but as the warmth penetrated, he made a faint sound of contentment and seemed to relax.

"What else?" Avon asked.

"Food and blankets. I didn't want to risk bringing a communications set up here because I thought they might track us with it, but I contacted the ship."

"And?"

"I told them about Green's radiation. Cally said it would take some hours to shield four teleport bracelets. Once they have them shielded, she will come down for us."

"And how do you propose she locate us?" Avon asked sourly.

"They know the general location. Zen will do the rest. Cally will bring the bracelets down." He began to take medical supplies from another sack. "We can clean the wound more thoroughly now. The blood loss worried me most, so I got something to speed blood replacement."

Avon looked at the injector that Gan produced. It contained hemeostin, a wise choice because not only did it urge the body to replace the blood lost, it didn't put too much of a strain on the other organs the way some blood replacement medication did. It didn't work as fast either, but it was probably the best selection, and it was what Avon would have chosen himself. He was astonished that Gan had thought of it. He had expected Gan to do no more than find food, blankets and some elementary first aid supplies. Watching the big man take back the injector and press it to Blake's shoulder, he shook his head slightly. At least Gan was shaping well in this crisis. It was about time something happened in their favor.

The two of them dressed Blake's wound again and dusted it with an anti-infection powder before covering it with clean, sterile dressings. Synth-flesh would have worked better, but farmers weren't likely to have any. Once completed, Gan spread a blanket over Blake then set out food for them. For Blake he had brought hot broth in a thermos, and the two of them spent a frustrating half hour trying to make him swallow it. Blake came partly back to consciousness and muttered fretfully, turning his head away.

"Easy now, Blake," Gan soothed. "Drink your broth. You need it to get your strength back. We can't have you dying on us. Think how happy that would make the supreme commander."

"Or Travis," Avon put in. "Besides, you surely do not wish to leave your cause in my hands any longer than you must."

Blake's eyes opened at that and he stared at Avon muzzily, clearly unable to focus properly. "Avon..." he managed. "'s all right. I...trust you."

"I never asked that of you, Blake." Avon returned sharply.

Gan caught his eye and shook his head. "Don't fight him, Avon," he breathed in an undertone. "He's not up to it right now."

"On the contrary. It's exactly what he needs. Blake isn't one for pampering."

"Even you would want pampering if you felt the way he must be feeling," Gan contradicted him.

"I very much doubt it."

Gan let it go, raising the thermos to Blake's mouth again. "Come on, Blake, take a drink. All you have to do is swallow. We'll do the rest."

"...don't want it..." But Blake managed to drink some of the broth and afterwards, the waxy, corpselike look left his face and he settled back into his blankets. Gan tucked him in, prepared to let the food and medicine do their work. When Blake had fallen asleep again, he produced food and coffee for himself and Avon. Sitting beside the heater, munching the leg of some local fowl, he looked well satisfied with himself, and Avon was forced to admit he had cause. Gan had managed far better than he had expected him to, and for the first time, he was curious about the big man. Though he had always held him in some slight contempt, he had never perceived Gan as a threat, but rather had found him boring. Gan had his uses and that was that. There was always some need for brute strength and presumably Blake was glad of someone who would follow him with blind devotion. But in this crisis, Gan had risen to the occasion, had in fact done more than Avon had, and Avon wondered why he had sent Gan for supplies instead of going himself. The fact that Blake had been calling to him in his delirium could hardly have been reason to stay.

"Did you see any patrols?" Avon asked, getting down to practicalities. It was better than speculating on his own motivation, and it was necessary.

"No, nothing," Gan replied. "I had a quick look around, but I didn't want to take too much time. Blake couldn't wait. Want me to go out and look now?"

"No. You might be seen or lead someone here and that's the last thing we need."

"We'll have to keep watch though."

"Oh, very clever. I should never have thought of that."

Gan grimaced. "Do you never state the obvious, Avon?"

"Only when it is clear that no one else is going to do so. And that happens far more frequently on Liberator than any sane man has a right to expect."

"If we annoy you so much, why do you stay?"

"Perhaps for much the same reason the rest of you do. We are safer on Liberator than we would be elsewhere."

"I certainly am. I can't protect myself if it comes to life and death. But it's different with you. You don't seem committed to Blake's cause."

"And you are? Self preservation hardly seems conclusive proof of devotion."

"Don't you think I might have my own reasons to hate the Federation?" Gan touched his head and the limiter he would always wear. "Yes, I'll fight the Federation with Blake, and not only for this."

Avon remembered that Gan had lost the woman he loved and suddenly felt some unexpected empathy. It was still painful to remember Anna Grant, tortured to death because she would not betray him. But unlike Gan, Avon knew that Blake couldn't hope to win, and he had never been one to persist uselessly in the face of overwhelming odds. "I wish you luck," he said. "But I see no reason to risk our lives repeatedly for nothing, simply because Blake is so driven. He will throw your life away in an instant if he feels it necessary ."

"Yet you're still here. And remember, Avon, Blake doesn't hold a gun to our heads. We choose to follow him."

"You hold the gun to your own head then."

"Why are you so bitter? I've seen you risk your life for him more than once."

"Perhaps that is why I am bitter. Blake uses all of us. He manipulates us. I prefer to decide for myself which risks to take."

"Blake saved your life tonight," Gan reminded him.

Avon made a face. "Thank you for reminding me."

"I'm not trying to be difficult, Avon. I'd just like to understand. I know you think me too stupid, but I'm not. Why do you have to keep everything bottled up so?"

"Perhaps because it is less risk."

If Gan realized that was the most superficial honest answer Avon could give him, he didn't show it. Why Avon wanted to reply honestly wasn't clear except that he couldn't accuse Gan of trying to manipulate him; if Gan asked something like that, it was because he genuinely wanted to know, not because he hoped to use it against Avon someday. Gan was the most straightforward person on Liberator, perhaps the only straightforward person. Most of the time, Avon found him annoying but there were moments when it was almost comforting to know he need wear no more than the simplest mask in front of Gan.

"But everyone faces betrayal or pain, Avon," Gan said after due thought.

"And each of us deal with it in his own way. I prefer to avoid it in future. Is that easy enough for you to understand?"

"It's almost too easy, Avon."

"Forgive me. I shall try to be more complex next time."

That won a grin from Gan. He held out the basket of fowl and Avon took another piece and began to peel strips from it and eat them. He had never liked picnics but he was too hungry to object now.

They ate in silence after that, sitting close to the heaters, watching Blake for signs of distress. Periodically Gan would feel Blake's forehead or check his pulse, always reporting to Avon that Blake was holding his own. The sooner they could get him up to Liberator and treat him properly the better, but barring complications, he should make it through the night.

Avon should have known that it was far too easy.

Gan suggested he sleep first, and Avon was willing to do so, pulling one of the blankets around him and lying next to Blake. He heard Gan moving around the room to peer out into the night or to check the fire or to examine Blake again. Avon dozed for awhile, half rousing when Gan bent over him some time later. "Avon, I'm going to make a quick round outside," he said. "I didn't want you to wake and find me gone. I'll be back in five minutes."

Avon propped himself up in a sitting position, checking Blake automatically and reached for his gun. Gan was true to his word, back again soon. "Nothing out there," he assured Avon.

"Shall I take watch now?"

"It's early yet, and I'm wide awake. Go back to sleep."

His next awakening was not so pleasant. He had finally fallen into a deep sleep, reassured by the warmth of the heater and the almost comforting presence of Gan puttering about in the background, but a part of him never completely relaxed, and his gun was ready to hand, so that when the door came crashing open, Avon was halfway to his feet, his gun drawn before he even knew what was happening.

By then it was already too late. A mutoid disarmed him, and another made to restrain Gan, who fought her off until a burst of fire sent him staggering back clutching his arm. Seething under the mutoid's gun, Avon saw what he should have expected from the beginning. "Travis," he said.

"Avon. And Blake." Travis advanced into the room and strode over to look down at Blake. "So he's still alive. I'm glad of that. I wanted to be the one to kill him."

"I don't imagine the Supreme Commander wishes him dead before she sees him, Travis, so restrain your bloodlust for the moment."

"You don't tell me what to do, Avon." He made a curt gesture for the mutoid to guard Avon then turned back to Blake. "Now it's my turn." He prodded Blake with his toe, and when Blake didn't awaken, only moaning and shifting position, Travis kicked him. It wasn't a hard blow, but it drew a choked cry from Blake, and he opened his eyes.

"Avon?" he faltered, startled and disoriented.

Gan was on his feet, pulled up at the sound of Blake's pain. He sought out Avon's eyes across the room and shot a questioning look at him. Avon shook his head. The time was wrong. He didn't know how long it had been since Cally had promised to come down with the doctored bracelets, but she could arrive any minute. She would not walk into a trap. Cally had learned to avoid that kind of threat on Saurian Major and the Liberator . But right now, the odds were still in Travis' favor, and Avon didn't want to risk their lives when they could not hope to get away.

"Avon?" Blake asked again, giving no evidence of seeing Travis.

The Space Commander wore a disgruntled expression and he prodded Blake again with his toe. "Don't you know me, Blake?"

"Travis? You're a...bit late, aren't you? I...should have expected you before now."

"Perhaps I was preparing your prison." He shook his head. "I expected better from you than this, Blake. An obvious trap. You were so much better in the old days."

"I'll...try to do better next time." Blake looked more alert, but he was obviously weak, and Avon knew they couldn't count on him for anything beyond a little verbal sparring with Travis. In their present situation, that was not likely to be much help.

Avon bided his time. He had no desire to meet his end in some stupid attempt to get free of Travis. If he waited and played his cards right, a better opportunity might come along. Gan didn't look badly hurt, a slight wound across his forearm that wouldn't stop him helping when the time came. It was hardly bleeding.

The big man returned his look, and for a moment they held each other's eyes. It was interesting how well they suddenly understood each other. Perhaps Avon had always underestimated Gan. He only hoped he was not overestimating him now. No optimist, Avon suddenly had the unexplainable feeling that when the time came, Gan would follow his lead without prompting and they would triumph over Travis. Foolish hope had never been one of Avon's weaknesses, but he didn't think he was being foolish. They looked away at the same moment as if they had choreographed it, and Avon turned back to Blake.

The blood replacement drug had done its work while Avon slept, and now that Blake was properly awake, he looked much better, though nowhere near well. Without advanced medical care, he would have to suffer a lengthy and tedious recovery period, and he must be as weak as Cally's Auron herb tea. But his mind was clear; Avon could see it in the lucid gleam in Blake's eyes. Shifting position slightly to bring himself into Blake's line of vision, Avon stared at him meaningfully and knew Blake was in rapport with him too. Though Blake was not strong enough to help physically, he would do what he could, and do it well, and he would time it to their best advantage.

"I'm surprised the Supreme Commander isn't with you," Blake remarked to Travis, his voice gaining strength as if bolstered by the crisis. Blake always responded to a challenge, a fact which Avon did not regard as one of his more comfortable characteristics. But this time they would need to be careful if they were to survive, and the more Blake could rise to the situation the better.

"I will bring you to her ," Travis pointed out

"Oh, come, Blake," Avon cut in smoothly. "Surely you don't expect Supreme Commander Servalan to come slinking through the woods in four inch heels and a long gown. She leaves such tedious work to her inferiors."

Travis stiffened, and Avon knew that if Blake had said it he would have won a second kick in the ribs, but Avon was another story. If Avon had been within range, Travis might have struck him, but right now he was so caught up in the fact that Blake was finally his prisoner that Avon was no more than a minor annoyance. That was why Avon had said it, to test his reaction. Travis' obsession with Blake was the dominant motivation in his life, and Avon could use that now.

"You'll be meeting her soon enough," Travis responded ominously then turned back to Blake. "Enjoy what time is left to you, Blake," he said. "You should have known you couldn't escape me forever. I stopped you once before, and I've stopped you this time, and Avon, too, which should please Servalan. She feels he is the only one of your crew who might unite the others once you are dead. With both of you captives--or dead- -they are no further threat to us."

"Perhaps they're more of a threat than you think," Blake responded with a note of confidence in his voice that was deliberately geared to annoy Travis. "You have only one thing on your mind, Travis. Defeating me. That makes you short sighted. You couldn't see what's right in front of your nose. Removing me won't put an end to my cause. The Federation tried that already and it didn't work in the long run. The resistance grows every day, and the more you pursue me and the other rebels, the more you glorify our cause." He chuckled. "You know a little about all of us. How likely do you find it that someone like Avon should choose to follow me? Yet here he is."

"Avon? I don't imagine he believes in your 'cause' for one minute. You may be fool enough to trust him, or any of the other thugs in your cutthroat band, but I know very well that without you, not one of them would lift a finger to aid any rebel cause. Maybe he wants your ship, maybe he's using you for some other purpose. If you trust him or any of the others, you're a fool, Blake. How do you think we caught you" You were betrayed."

"Unlikely," Avon replied. "The only one of us with the wit to manage it is myself, and if I had planned something like this, I should hardly have allowed myself to be caught in Blake's trap."

" A nice try, Travis," Blake returned, his voice full of amusement. He looked up at Avon and flung him a triumphant look of shared confidence and trust. That it was part of his game with Travis made it all the more disconcerting, for Avon was not proof against it. The look he returned as part of their scenario caused a momentary flicker of wistful startlement in Blake's eyes that he masked before Travis could see it, and Avon was shocked to realize he was wishing their brief exchange was reality. But Avon had long since left behind such blatant trust and caring, and he knew full well how Blake used people for his cause. It was just a game. It had to be.

"Even I know better than that, Travis," Gan interjected scornfully. " As soon turn off the Earth's gravity as come between these two--or any of us." He gave a disdainful laugh. "We might be prisoners now, but you can't turn us against each other, and you can't hold us either."

"So it can talk," Travis returned, looking down his nose at Gan with all the superiority he could muster, but Avon felt their ranks close against him. They didn't have much going for them, but they were manipulating Travis with the ease of a team of puppeteers, and he knew it. That Avon and Gan should demonstrate such loyalty toward a man Travis loathed and pursued with such bitter determination had to throw him off his stride, but it would not be enough to make him lower his guard.

"I'd trust him with my life, as opposed to something like you," Blake told him coolly. His voice had gained strength throughout the conversation, and now he propped himself up on his elbows. Avon suspected he alone could sense the effort it cost Blake to do so. The man was a fool to spend his strength so wantonly, but then he had always been a fool. That he could sometimes be a glorious fool irked Avon as much as it did Travis, but this time, it was right. Everything they had done had been right, and any minute now they were going to find a way out of this mess. Avon wasn't psychic--he'd leave such flights of fancy to Cally--but this time he was certain. It wouldn't often be like this, but there were times when it could be.

Travis kicked Blake again, a little harder this time, but not hard enough to do any real damage. Somehow Blake rode out the blow, biting back a cry of pain, and Avon and Gan saw each other check their impulsive rushes at Travis, knowing their moment had not yet come. Behind them waited Travis' mutoids, guns in their backs. They couldn't help Blake if they were dead.

Then it happened, the miracle Avon had been expecting, the perfect bit of timing that he had let himself hope for this time. He caught Gan's eyes and nodded fractionally, saw the same awareness in Gan's eyes.

*Avon.* It was Cally. *I am outside and I am armed. When I send you the signal, you and Gan must disable the mutoids. Gan you do that?*

Of course we can, Cally. Somehow, tonight, she would hear him. He managed another fractional nod, under cover of Blake's blazing scorn as he denounced Travis for his primitive tactics. The mutoid stood like a block at Avon's back, unconcerned with Travis' potential humiliation, unaware of the currents that surged through the room.

"You are hardly in a position to criticize me, Blake," snarled Travis.

"Aren't 1? When you so clearly deserve it? What kind of victory do you have if I don't yield to you? I don't even have to defy you, Travis. I can lie here and refuse to give you that satisfaction. I don't fear you, and I won't beg for mercy. You see, I know I am the better man, and that knowledge is enough to carry me through whatever happens next."

"What happens next is your death, Blake." Travis raised his artificial arm and made a show of priming the weapon implanted there.

*Now, Avon!* Cally's command sliced through to him clearly and he and Gan struck at the same moment; he drove his elbow back into the mutoid's stomach and stamped his foot down on her instep, causing her to gasp and stagger, doubling over. With one hand, Avon swept her weapon away and with the other, he gave a chop to the back of her neck. The mutoid dropped heavily. As Avon took back his own gun, he saw Gan throw his mutoid against the wall. She hit it hard and staggered, and Gan pulled her gun free and tossed it across the room.

At the sudden attack, Travis jerked up, alert and ready, looking far more confident than he should. "Leave it right now or I'll kill Blake," he bellowed, expecting the threat to cow them as they had led him to believe it would.

"I shouldn't, Travis." Cally stepped into the room, her gun leveled at him. "I warn you, I have little reason to remember you kindly. It would take a very small mistake on your part for me to kill you."

Travis froze. He must have believed Cally, or perhaps he remembered how he had treated her when she was his prisoner. Avon had not known Cally very well then, but he had learned since then how stoically she could endure pain, and he knew that Travis must have hurt her very much to bring this vengeful note to her voice. His desire to kill Travis suddenly intensified, and he urged, "Go ahead, Cally. Kill him. It will mean one less threat for us."

"No, Avon, not in cold blood," Blake objected weakly from the floor. Now that rescue was in sight, his adrenaline rush was subsiding and he was beginning to look pale and fragile again. "That's what he: would do," Blake insisted. "How would we differ from him if we killed him?"

"You can't run a rebellion without hurting somebody, Blake," Avon reminded him coolly. Perhaps he had experienced an adrenaline high of his own because now that the crisis was past, his annoyance at Blake was creeping back. "But far be it for me to interfere. I suggest we leave this place without further delay. Cally, do you have the bracelets?"

"In my pouch, Avon. come and take them, but don't come between me and Travis."

"Oh, thank you. I am sure that without your advice I would have crossed into your line of fire." He circled Travis warily and removed three bracelets from the pouch, passing one to Gan, clipping one to his own wrist and bending to fasten the third around Blake's. The moment he was finished, he activated his own. "Liberator, bring us up."

******


"It was a trap, Blake," Avon informed the rebel leader the next day in the medical unit. Blake was recovering well, and would soon be released, but Cally who had the most experience in treating battle wounds and had as such taken over the medical unit, wanted to observe him a little longer to be sure he had his strength back. She was sitting across the room now, looking cool and composed.

"Are you sure of that, Avon?" Blake was himself again, ready to defend his actions, full of confidence and drive, and all traces of that deceptive vulnerability he had displayed on the planet had vanished. Avon told himself that he was wise not to have been deceived by it. Blake had not needed him. He had needed someone to help him while he was wounded, and that was all. Carefully, Avon hardened his heart against Blake.

"First of all, there was no evidence of research on suppressants in that complex, and secondly, Travis was obviously expecting us. As I had deduced, we were exposed to a slight dose of Green's radiation, which affected our bracelets. We were meant to come down and be stranded. Travis hoped to take us and use us to lure the others down. If Cally had not been able to shield our bracelets against the radiation, they would have captured us easily."

"I don't understand how she knew to do it," Blake returned. "How did you contact the ship if the bracelets weren't working?"

"That was Gan. If anyone managed well on this mission, it was Gan. Astonishing, is it not? He notified Cally through a farmer's communication system. While it is probably the way they eventually traced us, they did not come in time to get away with it. We knew to play for time, and it succeeded."

"Is that what you and Gan were doing, Avon? Playing for time?"

"What else?" And that should take care of any lingering doubts Blake might have had about what went on down there. Avon wished it would take care of his own.

Blake was silent a moment, but his look was as loud as a shout. I don't believe you, Avon.

Don't you, Blake?

Gan came into the medical unit then and threw Avon a meaningful look. Were they still in rapport then? That could be uncomfortable. Avon chose to be in tune with none of them, and he deliberately let his gaze slide through Gan as if he weren't there.

Gan smiled a little too knowingly before he turned to Blake. "Well, Blake. How are you feeling today?"

"Champing at the bit to get out of here," Blake returned. "I'm told I have you to thank for our rescue last night," he went on. "We were lucky you got a message to the ship."

"If Avon hadn't known what was wrong with our bracelets, it wouldn't have mattered. And the others shielded the bracelets. It was a group effort, Blake."

"Don't let him deceive you, Blake," Avon cut in. "He did far more than we might expect. Perhaps Green's radiation affects the intellect--or lack thereof."

Gan smiled, unoffended. Maybe he had heard the compliment and chosen to disregard the insult. He had a broad back; he could take it. Avon felt the compliment deserved this time, but he could only offer it cloaked in his usual sarcasm. It seemed that Gan could accept that.

He headed for the door. He had wasted far too much time here already.

"What does Green's radiation affect, Cally?" Gan asked. Avon could feel his eyes upon him all the way across the room, and he resented it, though something made him wait for Cally's answer. He didn't want to hear it; he knew that Green's radiation wasn't fatal, and that was all that mattered.

"Don't you know?" Cally returned with a trace of a laugh in her voice. "It's harmless, so there's not much publicity. It would require a massive dose to do anyone injury. ln smaller doses, it has a mild effect on certain portions of the brain, and without continued exposure it soon wears off. I remember reading Federation reports on it. We were very interested on Auron. It seems that large doses of Green's radiation can bring about temporary telepathy in non-telepathic humans."

"But none of us became telepathic down there, Cally," Gan objected.

"You were not exposed to a large dose," Cally reminded him. "Just enough to render your bracelets useless. A minor dose does something else.

Avon turned in the doorway. "We are all ears," he announced sardonically. "Just exactly what will a small dose cause?"

She smiled at him across the room. "Empathy," she said.

 


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Sheila Paulson

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