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Art of Persuasion

By Jean Graham
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Vila wavered into being behind Liberator's teleport console. To Blake, he was little more than a pain-washed blur: the strain of having been half-carried out from under Star One's shielding umbrella had taken its toll and his wound was bleeding freely again, staining his clothes as well as Avon's beside him. Vila ran forward, sputtering questions no one answered. Instead, Blake heard Cally, under his right arm, say, "Help us get him to the medical section, Vila. Quickly!"

Avon's stern voice halted the thief's move to assist them. "We can manage," he said. "Go and tell Jenna to take us out of here, standard by ten."

"No!" Blake found his voice and, from somewhere, the strength to push upward on his rapidly weakening legs. "We can't leave. We can't--"

"You are hardly in a position to argue," Avon cut him off, and began pulling him toward the corridor. Blake stubbornly resisted, dragging them to a stop. With an effort, he brought his gaze up to meet Vila's.

"Keep us here, Vila. Wait. Please."

Doubt, fear and indecision all conflicted in the thief's eyes. He cast a nervous glance at Avon before he nodded and made a hasty retreat toward the flight deck.

Blake allowed himself to be carried then, giving in for a moment to the weakness that had threatened to engulf him ever since Travis' shot had found its mark on Star One. He heard the swish of the med-unit door, felt the faint pressure of the bed beneath him and then the gentle, humming vibration of the sonic cutter as Cally's deft fingers worked to draw his tunic away from the wound.

"Avon." Blake, fighting to remain conscious, willed his eyes to open and focus on the impassive figure that stood opposite Cally. "Avon, listen to me."

Cally shushed him, working now to clean the injured shoulder. "Not now," she admonished. "Don't try to talk."

"It has to be now." Blake argued, appalled to hear his own voice break and become a hoarse parody of itself. "...have to talk, Avon. Now."

The voice that responded was cold, dispassionate. "You have a penchant for self-destructive behaviour which I, for one, do not share. Keeping us here is suicidal, Blake. We cannot possibly repel that invasion force alone."

Blake's answer was bitten back under Cally's application of the tissue regenerator. He shut his eyes against the pain and mentally demanded that his senses remain with him. Through the haze, he could sense Avon's anxiety. It was as tangible as Blake's own, but was laced with both impatience and vexation.

The confrontation between them a foregone conclusion, they had only to wait now for Cally to complete her ministrations. When she had, a broad, white bandage wrapped neatly across his chest, immobilizing his left arm.

Cally cleared the medical instruments away without comment, washed, and turned to leave the room. She paused in the doorway only to insert one brief warning into the expectant silence between the two men.

"Go easy with him, Avon."

The words ostensibly ignored, she quietly took her leave.

Blake opened his eyes again, appraising the immobile figure standing over him. Avon's face, as always, was scornful, the eyes foreboding. Blood still stained his hands and clothing: he did not appear to notice. Patient as a stalking leopard, he waited for Blake to unleash the first words.

"We can't run."

Avon pounced on the phrase. "Why not?"

"We can't, Avon. If that fleet comes through the barrier-"

"Then your goal will have been achieved at last. The Andromedans will destroy the Federation.

"And the rest of humankind with it. Hardly what I'd intended. No. We can't allow them to come through."

"We cannot stop them either. Not alone."

"The Federation will be here."

"Not for several hours. We cannot begin to hold them off that long."

"We can try."

Avon's dark eyes flashed. "You're insane, Blake. I have no desire to put all our lives at risk to protect the Federation. More to the point, I've no desire to put my life at risk."

Blake changed tactics, unhappily aware that appealing to Avon's noble side would get him nowhere. "You've nowhere to run," he said. "The Federation are behind you, the Andromedans in front."

Avon's head tilted, derision oozing through his tone. "Don't play me for a simple-minded fool. There are still innumerable directions in which this ship can fly. If we go now."

Incredulous, Blake said, "You'd really do that? Turn your back on all of humanity, simply stand by and leave them to be slaughtered?"

Again, the glacial indifference. "I've no particular affection for what you call humanity. Whether they live or die is of no consequence to me."

"You can't mean that, Avon."

"Oh, but I do."

"Then you're no better than Travis!" Blake regretted the words the moment he unleashed them, but he saw them strike home, watched stinging resentment mingle with Avon's rising anger. Neither, however, gave any sign of surrendering to resignation. The outburst had amounted to a cruel trick, a naked emotional barb, and Avon knew it.

"I do not share your imaginary debt to mankind." The sentence was somehow threatening, a cold monotone.

"Fine." Blake tried and failed to keep desperation out of his voice. 'Do it for me, then."

Avon's derision melted into disbelief. "For you?"

"You owe me, Avon. For the London. For Cygnus Alpha."

A smile more akin to a sneer crept onto Avon's face. "From where I was standing," he said, "it was you who rather desperately required my services That hardly constitutes a debt on my part. If anything, it is the other way round."

Blake's head was pounding as fiercely as the ache in his shoulder. His voice had become a grating whisper. "You'd let them in, then? You'd let them annihilate humankind?"

"You're repeating yourself." Avon's smile was diamond hard, unyielding. "So now, having exhausted all the 'logical' arguments, you aim to appeal instead to my conscience." His laugh was brittle, even harder than the smile. "I should have thought it was obvious, Blake, even to one of your limited powers of observation, that I haven't got a conscience."

Blake drew in a tortured breath, searching furiously for some other avenue of debate. He seized on a thin hope. "Perhaps I can appeal to your monumental greed then? If not for me, then for the Liberator. You said you wanted her."

Avon regarded him cooly, plainly not baited. "If we remain here there will no longer be a Liberator. The longer we delay, the more real that threat becomes."

Despairing of the argument, Blake steeled himself, struggled to a sitting position and swung his legs off the bed. "Enough words," he rasped.

"What do you think you are doing?"

Fury punctuated Blake's reply. "Seeing to it personally."

"You'll kill yourself trying."

"Don't count on it."

"I mean it, Blake. Move and you could well bleed to death."

"I didn't know you cared."

Dizziness blurred Blake's vision, making the floor tilt sickeningly under the medical cot. Before he could get an experimental foot down, a firm hand grasped his uninjured shoulder, and with surprisingly little effort, forced him back onto the bed. He couldn't compete with Avon's strength, but neither was he willing to concede defeat as yet.

"Please, Avon. Stop them. Hold them."

Urgency edged the reply. "Leave it, Blake. We are going."

With newfound venom, Blake glared up at him, one hand to the wounded shoulder. "Not unless you plan to finish Travis' work for him, we're not. Because that is what you'll have to do, Avon. Kill me."

The chill of Avon's response surprised him. "What makes you think I wouldn't?"

Blake fired back, hurt and angry, calling the bluff. "Then you'd better do it now. Right now. It's the only way you re going to stop me."

He sat up again, but once more, the hand shot out to block him, gripping his good arm. This time it did not force him down, but it tightened on him vice-like, as though all the fury in those terrible eyes were somehow draining into the fingers that still carried telltale signs of blood. Blake forced back a feeling of omen; despite the threats they had just exchanged, he did not like to think of dying at Avon's hand. Surely he had not pushed that far. Avon's hatred for him couldn't truly run that deep...

They locked gazes, one stubborn and weary, the other angry and - Blake sighed in relief to see it - resigned. Yet the bitterness remained.

"All right, Blake."

Three words only. But they signified surrender; they meant that Blake had won the verbal battle. All that remained now was to seal the agreement.

"Your word, Avon. I want your word."

Unexpectedly, he heard a note of both dismay and hope in the rejoinder. "Does my word mean anything to you?"

Blake's reply came through clenched teeth. "Yes."

"Then you have it."

No remonstrations. No bitter resentment hurled back at the victor. Had it really been that easy?

Footsteps, sharp and hurried, retreated from the bed. The door whispered shut.

The skirmish ended, Blake sank back onto the pillow and winced at a new onslaught of agony from the aggravated wound. Long moments passed before he could open his eyes again. The long and costly struggle of Star One, he reflected, was not turning out at all as he'd expected. But Travis was dead, and, for the moment at least, the Liberator would see to it that millions of human victims of the man's treachery had at least one chance at survival.

Gazing into the soft glare of the overhead lights, Blake wondered how Avon would justify keeping Liberator here to the others, or if he would try to explain it at all. It was true that appealing to Avon's noble side was usually futile. But, Blake thought, a smile tugging at his mouth, that hardly meant he didn't have one, did it? One simply had to know how to reach it...

Relaxing, Blake willed his body to gather strength for the battle that still lay ahead. If his feet would hold him, he wanted to help. In the meantime though, he knew that Liberator would be in trustworthy hands.

He closed his eyes, and sent three whispered words towards the unresponsive ceiling.

"Thank you, Avon," he said.

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