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Hecate Waits

By Jean Graham
Page 1 of 1

Jenna waited nervously by the door, her gun trained on the corridor beyond. All she could see of Avon from this angle was the fur-lined rim of his parka's hood above the edge of the computer housing.

"How much longer?" The question came out sounding rather more harsh than she'd intended. But they had already been here twenty minutes longer than Blake's schedule had allowed, and patience had never been one of Jenna's virtues. How long did it take to sabotage one decidedly backward Federation launch-control system? And Avon was supposed to be the genius with computers...

"That's got it," his muffled voice came from behind the equipment. The balance of the white parka emerged, and Avon moved toward her, the transparent tubing of a Liberator weapon protruding from his sleeve. "Let's get out of here."

Jenna pulled her own white hood over wind-blown hair and nodded. "Not before time," she complained lightly, and stepped into the corridor ahead of him, wary of any unwanted company. None appeared, and they moved together, booted feet scuffing softly over tiled floor, toward the exit. Once out the door and a few hundred snow-drifted paces through a small stand of trees, they would be out from under the shielding umbrella that covered the complex. Nothing remained now but to reach that perimeter, call Blake, and teleport back to Liberator to await Orac's report on the results of their tampering. With luck, the Federation would not be able to use this base for some time to come, and the 800 pursuit ships housed here would be grounded.

Jenna shivered a little as Avon's deft manipulations with one of Vila's probes re-opened the door, and they slipped out into the frigid night air. She harbored little fondness for ground-missions in the first place; still less for Avon, but her knowledge of flight systems had been essential here, as Avon's ability with computer circuitry had been. She hoped, all the same, that it would be the last time she had to spend two hours at close quarters with the computer tech. A cargo of ore-freight would make far better company, and didn't snap as often.

The soft scrunch of ice beneath her feet was twinned by Avon's footsteps two paces behind. The outer compound sported neither lights nor fences; apparently the Federation had relied on a remote location and the questionable efficiency of its patrols, neither of which would have taken teleport capacity into account. Surprisingly few Federation facilities were aware of Liberator's capabilities, particularly the teleport. Servalan, it seemed, was not anxious to publicize the rebels' possession of the coveted device.

White on white under a pale wash of crescent moons, they forged on toward the trees. Jenna's breath clouded in front of her; the air smelled faintly of ozone and new snow. Somewhere behind them in the dark, shadowed by intervening tower structures and hangar facilities, stretched an armada of now-useless ships. All that mattered to Jenna at the moment, however, was getting back 'home' to her own.

She heard Avon's sharp movement behind her before the other sound -- a paragun's report -- had registered. He had dropped flat on the snow-covered tarmack to return fire, and Jenna, following suit, saw a black-uniformed figure, stark against the white surroundings, fall beside the building. Someone shouted, and floodlights began flaring to life all over the complex. With a rustle of movement, Avon's sharp command prodded her back to her feet.

"Run!"

Needing no encouragement, Jenna scrambled for the trees and the ultimate safety of the unshielded perimeter. More shouting echoed behind her; energy bolts sizzled into the snow to either side of their deliberately-weaving path. She collided with the first of the brittle, outlying shrubbery and plunged on, heedless of the scratches it had left, fighting past still more entangling branches that reached out to claw and snatch and bar her route. She felt and heard rather than saw Avon following; there was no time to look back. Another shot slammed into the tree she had been about to dodge left of, vaporizing ice and changing her direction. But the righthand path proved root-bound -- she tripped and tumbled headlong into the snow, crying out when something razor-sharp sliced through the quilting of her parka to her forearm. She had a fleeting glimpse of several bamboo-like shoots, protruding from the snow like some bizarre pipe organ, before Avon's hands seized and lifted her, shoving her savagely onward with the breathless admonition to move.

She managed only a few stumbling steps before she tripped once more, and the triple echo of pararifle fire came crackling through the trees, the cries of a troop squadron close behind it. Fighting panic, Jenna struggled to her feet again, prepared to bolt, surprised that Avon's customary push hadn't come to urge her on.

Avon...

Clinging to the nearest thin tree for support, she levered around to look back -- and saw him face down near the place where she had first fallen. For two full heartbeats she warred with agonizing indecision: to go on to safety or risk both of their lives. She knew damned well what he would have done...

"Avon!" There was more anger than concern in her cry as she made her way back to him and hastily tugged at the sleeve of his jacket. No response. She saw a burn mark, muddy brown against the white of the parka's shoulder... but it appeared to travel over the top of the fabric, a graze at best, certainly no more than that.

"Avon, get up!" Frantic at the sound of approaching footsteps, Jenna clutched his arm and pulled, meeting an odd resistance as she strained to turn him over. A moment later, she knew the reason why, and was very nearly ill at the color of the spike that had lain beneath him, one of the same group that had scratched her arm, except that Avon had fallen full onto it.

"Dolan! Over here!"

She ought to run, get up, get out of here, make her way back to the perimeter and Blake and Liberator, only her arm had begun throbbing along with her head and it seemed impossible to move.

Drugged. The spikes must have been drugged, placed there deliberately...

"Avon..." Stupidly, she shook him, hoping against reason that he would wake up and with his usual display of brilliance, suggest some miraculous way out of this. The nearby crash of trampled underbrush seemed far away now, the danger no longer real.

Avon's head moved; the dark eyes slitted open minutely to regard her in pained confusion.

"Get up," she repeated doggedly, aware that the demand was pointless. The left side of his jacket above the utility belt was shredded, the exposed padding already absorbing an ugly, spreading stain.

"Get out."

It took her a moment to realize he had spoken. His voice was small, almost inaudible, not Avon's voice at all.

"Get out. Leave me. Go on!"

Any effort she might have made to obey was shortly rendered useless. A ring of black figures materialized from the surrounding trees, guns succinctly levelled at the two of them. Jenna's head was pounding, a drumbeat assaulting her ears from within.

"Up!" One of the helmetted figures motioned with its rifle, the voice muffled but still command succinct, addressing her. "Come on, I said. Up. Move away from him."

Jenna looked down, surprised to find Avon still regarding her, though the gaze held reproval.

Rough hands grabbed and hauled her upwards, dragged her away to pinion her against an icy tree and strip off the belt, weapon, power pack and teleport bracelet. The damaged forearm protested as her hands were pulled behind and manacled, but she bit her lip against crying out, loathe to allow these cretins any knowledge that they might have hurt her, were capable of hurting her.

They spun her back to face them then, their own humanity safely shielded behind the identical nondescript helmets, and she glared at them with as defiant a gaze as the drugged state would permit. Somehow she doubted it would be very effective.

Not far away, beyond the three who had subdued her, she saw four of the troopers standing over Avon, who had remained stubbornly conscious and continued to stare, rather listlessly, up at them. One of the four noisily worked the re-energizing slide on his pararifle, shouldered the weapon's stock, and took deliberate aim...

"No!"

Jenna's cry came simultaneously with the rifle shot. A gloved hand struck her, knocked her hard against the tree, and she slid into the mound of snow at its foot with a barely-suppressed sob. Now that had been stupid. As stupid as going back for Avon in the first place, and not running for it when she'd had the chance. He'd even told her to go, to leave him there, and why hadn't she done it? Stupid, all around, and for what? She couldn't help him, couldn't do anything at all, and since when had she cared any more than he pretended to?

"Don't be any more an imbecile than you have to!" a voice beyond her snarled, and Jenna opened her eyes to stare fuzzily at the cluster of black uniforms gathered around Avon. The man with the rifle had been shoved aside by another, bulkier trooper, the one who had spoken. "Kill him now and we may never know what they did in there! Now pick him up and let's get out of here! Parks, Norrison, give him a hand."

Yanked unceremoniously to her feet and herded forward through the trees, Jenna had no further opportunity to see what transpired behind her, whether the shot had indeed been turned aside or whether they were carrying, for whatever purpose, a corpse back to the base with them...

By the time they had removed the restraints and locked her in the holding cell, the effect of the drug, if that's what it had been, appeared to have worn off a bit. Jenna collapsed on the single shelf-bunk and pushed the sleeve of her parka back to examine the cut -- little more than a scratch, really, and already closing of its own accord. Her chrono, either left her by oversight or unconcern, told her that it was now 40 minutes past Blake's deadline for check-in. How long would he wait before coming after them? He would come, of that much she was certain. Avon might be... might have been, she corrected grimly... cold enough to abandon captured crewmates, as she knew he had nearly done twice before, over Cygnus Alpha and Horizon. But Blake...

Her worried ruminations were set aside with the entrance of an armed trooper who stood outside the cell door and mutely held his rifle on her. A further disturbance, unseen down the corridor, shortly resolved itself into part of the patrol from the copse, dragging Avon between them. Jenna came to her feet as they unlocked the door, incurred the immediate warning movement of the first trooper's gun, and sat down again, uncomfortably staying put until they had hauled Avon into the cell, dropped him uncaringly on the floor and departed again. The one with the gun lingered for a moment, as though daring Jenna to move, but then he too disappeared down the corridor, footsteps echoing away in rhythmic, ever-precise strides.

For a moment, Jenna still did not move. Avon's eyes were closed, his face nearly as pale as the jacket, and the stain had crept farther afield of the area where his belt had been. If he was dead, then there was nothing she could do, was there? And if he wasn't, there was still nothing.

Feeling less than useless, she knelt on the floor beside him and began to unfasten the metal clasps on the parka, interrupting the operation to lift his left wrist and search for a pulse. Was that...? No, it wasn't. Perhaps there... No. Oh hell, she told herself bitterly, she didn't even know how to take a healthy man's pulse, and her experience with corpses had been even more limited, smuggler's career notwithstanding. Didn't they say it was easier to detect in the neck area? Cally had told her that once...

Something made her hesitate halfway to reaching inside the furred collar, as though even unconscious, Avon might object to the familiarity. But she thrust her hand inside the loosened jacket and held two fingers firmly under the ear, moving downward until something pulsed weakly under her touch.

Alive, then. For all the good it did him.

She frowned, wishing futilely that Cally were here. Cally who was combat and field-medic trained and would know what to do. How long did it take to bleed to death? Hours? Minutes? And if the drug treating those shoots was lethal, what would it matter anyway? But it couldn't be, could it -- her own cut was healing and she felt fine now, as clear-headed as she had before, at any rate, and poison would have affected her, surely, even with a scratch...

Pushing the tangle of unproductive reasoning aside, she finished unfastening the parka, certain that somewhere, she had read that applying pressure to a wound could slow blood loss. But before she could pull the interefering material away, noises outside the cell drew her gaze back to the corridor, where a gaunt, stone-faced woman in medic's blues stood flanked by two orderlies and the trooper with the rifle, who was again unlocking the door.

The woman marched into the cell as though Jenna and Avon hadn't been there at all, deposited a flat tray of equipment on the bunk and began rummaging boredly through the instruments there.

"Get her out of the way," she said tonelessly, and when the orderlies moved at once to comply, Jenna slapped their hands away and stood on her own, moving with surly indignance to a corner, where she folded her arms and glowered at the trooper re-applying the magno-circuit key to the lock. He moved to take up an indifferent pose against the wall, leaving Jenna to turn her glare on Stone-Face and the blue-frocked entourage, who were squatting now beside Avon, primly cutting the red-stained jacket away with surgical scissors. Their faces were pictures of clinical disinterest, as though what lay beneath the snicking blades was nothing more than inanimate, a garment to be repaired or discarded as the need arose.

Well, Jenna considered with brutal honesty, there had been times when Avon had seemed little more than that. Most of the time, in fact...

"Set third level and close," she heard the woman order, and looked up to see one of the assistants about to apply a regenerator to Avon's exposed wound.

"Is that all you're going to do?!" Jenna's infuriated protest echoed in the cell. She wasn't surprised to find it ignored. "No antiseptic, no sedative, nothing else at all?"

They didn't answer her. Stone-Face rose, wiped her hands disdainfully on a linen from the kit and then tossed the wadded cloth on the floor. The orderly with the regenerator was applying a primitive gauze-and-tape bandage to the repaired wound. He flipped the remnants of the blood-stained parka back over the result, getting up to join his compatriots at the door. In another moment, they were gone, though not before Jenna had sent one last barb ringing down the corridor after them.

"Thank you," she shouted to the guard's retreating back, knowing the outburst would gain her nothing but far too angry to contain it. "Your concern was touching!"

Well what the hell had she expected, anyway? Not even that much, in point of fact. But then, they'd said they wanted Avon alive, at least until they knew the extent of the tampering on the computer system. So they'd seen to keeping him that way, if only for the time being. Repair the damage and have done with it; no use wasting proper medical treatment on prisoners, was there? Anything more, she supposed, would be considered coddling.

Jenna walked uneasily back to the bunk and sat down, feeling all the more inadequate for still not knowing whether there might be anything more she could do, or whether Avon, for that matter, would have appreciated the effort anyway. More likely not.

Damn you, Avon. Even unconscious, you're a bastard, did you know that?

She huddled into the corner and resigned herself to waiting, for Avon and the Federation and Blake, whichever might choose to do something decisive first.

She only hoped it would be Blake.

Avon was running. Breathless, frantic, a mad tilt of Gamma-sector buildings looming at him out of the dark, the tramp of patrols resounding close behind. Half a striated world away, across the city, Anna waited, and he had to reach her, had to warn her that it had gone wrong. He didn't have the money, wouldn't have it, but it didn't matter. The visas were safe in his pocket; they would still be free, if not quite wealthy.

He had to reach her, but the pain and warm dampness in his side threatened to defy that goal, beckoned him instead to lie down and give in to its cold, unfeeling embrace. He would not. Could not.

Stupid. Stupid to have dropped his guard, to let the dealer fire first. When had he grown so careless?

Lightless windows, bolted doors, the hazy shadows of refuse-heaped alleys came and left him in the passing dark. Somewhere in that same night, a whimsical dark goddess of Fate must stand, as ever, laughing at him, titan fist outstretched to crush whatever plan he had devised. But if it was his life she waited for this time, it was she who would be disappointed. For above all else, he did not intend to die.

Something in the shadows tripped him, threw him against the oily brick and pipe facade of a factory, wrenching both a cry and a muffled curse. Above him, in the expanse of black between the rooftops and the dome, he heard the chatter of a pursuit flyer, circling, searching... for him. And he couldn't let them find him. Not here. Not yet.

"Anna..."

He forced his feet to move, to ignore the light-headedness threatening to overtake him. It couldn't be far now. Not terribly far. He was nearly to the Beta section, wasn't he?

Piercing light stabbed downward into the alley in front of him, the roar of the flyer's engines suddenly, deafeningly, overhead. He wheeled and careened in another direction, down a side street, past the fleeting, squalid shapes of more storefronts, factories, Gamma dwellings, stumbling into yet another alley with still more undefined
 
 

shadows and the puissant stench of refuse.

He ran. Beta sector couldn't possibly be far now. And then Alpha...

Something was wrong.

Something had tripped him again and his feet weren't moving. Voices... there were voices... figures, ill-formed in the murk, reaching out to him, speaking words, but he didn't understand.

"No... No!... I have to tell Anna. Please, not yet... Tell Anna..."

His protests went unheeded. Hands grasped, lifted, carried him out of the dark and cold and into someplace that he didn't know and didn't care to know, because all that mattered was to find and warn Anna, and he couldn't, and if Anna came looking for him...

Something wet and pungently anaesthetic forced its way past his lips to burn an alcoholic path down his throat, and again he tried to protest, to no avail. The cold gave way to an unwelcome warmth that moved inexorably forward to engulf him.

Somewhere in the dark, he could hear the goddess laughing.

In Jenna's admittedly limited experience, sleeping men tended to acquire an air of innocence altogether apart from the waking world. Avon, neither sleeping nor innocent, defied the expectation; he looked and sounded angry -- furious, in fact, at whatever dream-state entity had taken this Anna away from him. He'd been murmuring that name, and several less-comprehensible phrases, for the better part of an hour, and he was showing signs of high fever. All dividends from the drugged spikes, probably.

There was still nothing she could do.

Why the hell didn't Blake hurry?

On the floor, Avon moved restlessly, muttering something about Federation patrols and once again, the name Anna. Anna looking for him. Anna coming across the city and the patrols were out and looking for them both, and they would find her...

Embarrassed, Jenna pressed herself into the juncture of shelf and cell wall and sat watching him, her own teeth gritted in frustration. Whoever Anna may have been, it was apparent that Avon had cared for her a great deal, and that in itself Jenna found a little startling.

She'd wondered more than once whether Avon could feel anything akin to emotion at all.

She couldn't be dead.

He rejected the report with a vehement denial; they had to be wrong, that was all. He'd go back and find her, break into Central Security itself if he had to, but he would not accept the stark hard copy read-out that proclaimed her 'expiration under interrogation.' A lie. It had to be a lie. Why kill her, when it was he and not Anna they were really after? There was nothing she could tell them, nothing important, not even his whereabouts, and even what she had known of the embezzlement she'd refused to tell them.

Anna, please Anna, you can't be dead. I will not allow you to be dead!

So much that was alive in Anna had kept him alive as well; how odd he'd never noticed just how much a part of him she had become, how vastly she had changed the man he'd been before, and how deeply he'd found that he could care. More than care. Love.

It was not a word he'd ever found occasion to need before. Even the recognition had not given it access to his lips, though Anna never seemed to mind his evasion of its use.

"I could never say it," he'd once told her with a hint of chagrin, but Anna had only smiled and toasted him with the wine glass before coaxing him to join her in the bed and prove that there were, after all, myriad other ways to express the word he couldn't utter.

Every time with Anna had been as remarkable as the first, though the first had nearly failed to happen.

He'd decided Anna Grant would be unreachable, decided that he wouldn't ask the impossible thing that had recently presented itself, a temptation in the midst of his solitary plans for quick wealth and safety. He'd never dealt well with personal relationships; the mythical goddess had operated even then to turn whatever he might touch to dust, and he had long ago vowed to deny those baser instincts, to fill the void with intellect, to rise above such nebulous concepts as care or need or love.

And then Anna...

For three weeks they had worked together, amidst the vast anthill of Federation Banking's computer accounting division, sharing little more than glances. Until the night she had arrived, unannounced, on his doorstep, to deliver a delinquent account file he would ostensibly need before morning. She'd accepted the drink he offered, sparked conversation bright and smiling as only Anna could make it, and then displayed the requisite look of mock astonishment when she made to leave, and he politely interposed himself between her and the door.

"You needn't go just yet, surely."

Her eyes inquired, not without amusement, if that was so, and he answered with a newly-filled glass of wine slipped casually into her hand, fingers lingering over hers scant moments longer than was necessary to transfer the stem to her grasp.

"I... thought perhaps you might stay, for a while."

That maddening smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She tipped the glass to his lips before she drank from it herself, placed it aside, then pressed two slender fingers to his mouth, making him flinch slightly at the unexpected, if not unwelcome, contact.

"You're a difficult enticement to resist, love, but..." The fingers trailed slowly down his chin to linger at the hollow of his throat, where he seized them, and her, ignoring the last half-hearted word of her sentence.

"Don't, then."

Her free hand was exploring the path of his belt to the back, her lips the tip of his ear. "I should... perhaps... consider my husband..."

He pulled back far enough to look at her again without breaking the embrace, searching for a sign of anything akin to guilt in her eyes and finding none.

"Do you care for him? Your husband?"

She answered with a prim toss of her head and another smile. "No."

"Ah."

With that single syllable of acceptance, he drew her to him and kissed her with a force of passion that surprised them both. He found, even more pleasurably, that she returned the ardor twofold.

"So every inch the Alpha," she breathed, and her fingers traced his lips once more. "You always take what you want."

"Don't you?"

"Yes."

"Well then..." His own hands had begun to examine new vistas. "That would seem to indicate... a certain parity... don't you think?"

Laughing, she had broken free to retrieve the glass of wine, and headed without demure for the bedroom. Indulging his own smile, Avon followed without comment, and took the wine bottle along.

Alive. Very much alive, was Anna, then and now; he wouldn't have it any other way. Yet when he tried to remember the touch, the taste, the softness of her, some other thing intruded, something discordant and not soft at all. A voice had spoken his name, and it was not Anna's voice, but he couldn't put a proper name to it, and why was it so hot, so damp and cloying and warm and something hard beneath him and his left side burned with a fire all its own, there were bright lights from somewhere, hurt his eyes to try and look at them, and someone called his name again.

The goddess, perhaps, come to gloat over her conquest.

Except that the face above him, backlit and framed in disarrayed gold, was familiar.

Not a vengeful goddess.

And not Anna.

Jenna...

He hadn't begun to sort out the where or why of it, the light was still too harsh, the heat too stifling, and there was another sound, abrupt and painfully loud, other voices, stern and unremitting, the hum of a lock opening, boots scraping a hard floor, Jenna going stiff beside him, and three dark pillars moving to loom over them both.

Avon closed his eyes and willed them all away, into the void, into the goddess' lair, anywhere but so tightly, suffocatingly close to him.

They didn't go.

"I said move -- over there."

Jenna obeyed the security captain's demand with deliberate reluctance, coming to lean against the cell wall with a casual air she didn't feel, particularly not with the trooper's paragun levelled at her a few feet away. This one had removed his helmet, revealing close-cut hair and a hard, too-young face. Their third 'visitor' was the ice-queen of the medical world, come back, Jenna supposed, to determine whether the prisoners were fit for interrogation. She had knelt beside Avon to make a cursory examination, and rose again to deliver a curt report.

"He's conscious," she said.

The captain did not look at her. He nodded once, cold eyes fixed on Jenna for a prolonged moment before he turned them downward. Without warning, his right foot lashed out to strike Avon in the ribs.

Jenna's instinctive move forward was checked by the paragun. On the floor, Avon made a stifled choking sound, blinking in the glare of the cell's overheads.

The captain's voice, butter and silk, belied the starch of his uniform as well as the age lines encroaching on a once-handsome face. "Which of you reprogrammed the launch computer?" The question might have been asked at a dinner party, but for the unspoken malice that lay just beneath its surface.

Jenna propped an arm against her hip, adopted her most confident tone, and lied. "I did."

The officer's eyes travelled back to her, disbelief already apparent in their unfeeling depths. "I want the override code," he said tonelessly. "Now."

Jenna tipped her head, the merest intimation of a shrug. "Sorry."

The green eyes assessed, analyzed and dismissed her all in one glance, and he made a sharp gesture toward the doctor and the cell bunk. Stone-face nodded sharply, a facial salute. One on either side, they lifted and dragged Avon onto the shelf and propped him upright. The woman forced his head back with a less-than-gentle hand to the throat.

"You reprogrammed the system with a security-coded override," she hissed. "Give us the code, now, or neither one of you is going to live to face trial. I'll see to that. Personally."

Oh, and she'd enjoy it, too. Jenna cast a furtive look at the guard, relieved to note that while the gun was still aimed at her, his eyes had strayed to the promise of more violent action across the cell. She edged minutely toward him, trying hard to ignore the scene riveting his attention. Avon's gasp of pain was nearly her undoing -- and was the guard's. Jenna aimed her kick well and gave it all the vicious force she could muster. It connected just east of center, but got her the desired results: he doubled over, and his grip loosened enough to allow her to wrench the weapon free. She dropped with it, narrowly ducking a plasma bolt from the captain's gun and fighting to right the guard's weapon and get a grip on the trigger. She saw the next shot coming, tried desperately to fire and roll out of the way at the same time. Agony seared through the calf of her right leg. Jenna bit back a scream and pulled the trigger again. She saw the captain tumble backward, and then something was blocking her vision, coming at her...

Jenna fired again. The blue of the medic's smock erupted into hideous black; a handgun spiraled from convulsing fingers. The body pitched away like a toy in the force of the point blank explosion, and Jenna lost sight of where it fell in a blur of tears and a shuddering that she couldn't control.

Something made a loud clicking sound.

Jenna opened her eyes, saw the paragun limp in her own hands...and lifted her head to find its twin pointed at her from across the cell, beneath the pragmatic gaze of the security captain. So she hadn't damaged him after all...not seriously enough, anyhow. He'd worked the charge slide on the gun, an unneccessary action in this case, designed purely to intimidate, and there was a smirk on his face as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Wrong way for a spacer to die, she thought bitterly. Not here. Not on the ground...

Stubbornly, she stared him down and waited for an end to it, but the shot, when it came, sounded wrong too, high pitched and whining, and the captain was dropping his gun, falling... There was an alarm screaming from somewhere.

"Jenna!"

Blake's voice. He stood outside the cell, Liberator handgun still gripped in his fist, and Cally was beside him. The guard Jenna had kicked was curled into a corner, watching them with wary eyes but offering no threat, and Avon... Avon lay prone on the cell shelf, and wasn't moving. She heard the whine of Blake's gun again, burning through the lock, and then an impatient grunt as he'd lost patience and finally torn the door free.

Cally knelt beside her, hands grasping her shoulders with a reassuring squeeze before clamping a teleport bracelet to her wrist.

"Shielded..." she objected weakly. "We can't teleport..."

Cally had been looking over her shoulder at Blake, who was installing Avon's bracelet. "Never mind about that," Cally's voice answered her. "Orac took care of it. He found a way round it, now the base computer's down."

Beyond her, Blake lifted his own bracelet and said urgently, "All right, Vila, bring us up, now."

As the white field of the teleport beam engulfed her, Jenna decided that things must be well in hand here after all, she was suddenly exceedingly tired, and Cally's arms were quite a comfortable place in which to rest...

The light had changed.

So had the sound, the taste, the scent of the air around him. The pain in his side had become a dulled ache, and the suffocating heat was gone; the familiar throb of something not-quite-audible vibrated around him. Liberator's engines.

Avon struggled to focus on the blurring overhead and finally identified first the medical unit and then the somewhat fractious noises of someone operating, if it could be called that, the nearby diagnostic equipment.

Avon watched and waited until he was sure he could impart just the right tone of sarcasm to the name.

"Vila."

The thief started, dropping something onto the instrument table with a loud clatter. He recovered whatever it was with an agile spin of the wrist, turned, and pretended he hadn't been startled at all.

"Oh, so you're awake, are you? About time, too. Y'know someone ought to tell you that it's damned inconsiderate of you, trying to die on us like that. Someone telling you might just as well be me, do you know I've been stuck in here nursemaiding you three hours a day for a fortnight?"

"Vila..."

"Not to mention extra watch duty on the flight deck. Makes more work for all of us when you shirk off you know. Blake's already run into at least eight or ten different computer malfunctions and if you think--"

"Vila..."

"Well a fat lot of good he's done trying to deal with them, I can tell you. Some Alpha engineer he must've been -- he's got neutronium for brains when it comes to computers. I dunno why we--"

"Vila!"

"Yes?"

"Shut up."

Avon's head throbbed in tandem with the far-away engines. Vila went on without missing a beat. "Right. Well you shouldn't be talking so much anyway. Rest, that's all you need. Cally'll be here in a minute, and after that Blake, just keeping an eye on you, you know..."

Someone had been left out of that list, but Avon's mind refused to focus on it. He found himself drifting off to the continuing drone of Vila's nattering. There had been something... important... he'd wanted to ask about. But just now, he couldn't remember what it was.

Several days had wandered by, most of them escaping his notice, before he did remember.

Avon snapped off the hand-held mediscanner, tossed it on the desk and mentally paced his cabin for the nth time that hour. He wasn't up to pacing it physically just yet; eleven days recovery time and Liberator's diagnostic computers still insisted it would be ten to twenty more before he could 'return to duty.' He'd go mad long before then, sitting here. Let him mend enough to walk more than a few feet and he'd find an off-line computer somewhere aboard that he could disassemble and rebuild from the base components up, just for the practice. Maybe he'd even hunt down those malfunctions Vila had mentioned, just to see how bad a muddle Blake's tampering had made of things.

Avon's fingers drummed a pattern on the desktop.

Jenna wasn't going to come.

It was possible, if unlikely, that she had misinterpreted the message, which he had sent privately via Zen to her cabin. Disgusted, he dismissed that thought as ludicrous; an advance of that nature was the last thing Jenna would ever expect -- or receive -- from him. But... why avoid him then? She was the only member of Liberator's crew who had not stopped by first medical and now his cabin to 'see how he was doing.' And there had been no chance to talk with her in the medical lab itself -- she'd been treated and released a full day before he'd regained consciousness, and had long since returned to piloting Liberator.

But he needed to talk to her. He needed to know how much of his delirium he'd inadvertently shared, and what Jenna would want in exchange for keeping that information to herself... if she hadn't discussed it with the others already. That last thought set his fingers drumming in a new and more erratic pattern, so loudly that he almost missed the subdued tone of the door chime.

Avon tripped the remote without waiting to identify the caller. The door slid open to reveal an orchid-clad Jenna, her arms crossed casually in front of her. "Zen said you wanted to see me," she said matter-of-factly.

Surprised at his own nervousness, Avon said, "Yes, I did. Come in... just for a moment."

She made no move to proceed through the door, but the defensive arms unfolded, dropping to her sides. "I'm due on the flight deck two minutes ago. Was it something important, or could it wait?"

Avon got to his feet with only minor difficulty and closed the space between them with a few measured steps, coming to face her squarely across the psychological barrier of the doorframe.

"They... tell me I have you to thank... for getting us out of there," he said haltingly, and felt all the more foolish for the fact that this wasn't what he'd intended to say at all.

Jenna glanced uneasily down the corridor. "Not really. That was mostly Blake's doing. Daring last minute rescue, and all that." She took a breath that became something of a shrug, shoulders stretching back, head up. "Was that all?"

"Just about." He'd said it too fast, too eagerly, and he knew it, but in a moment she would shut him out entirely and walk away down that corridor, and he had to know...

"Well what then?" She was looking at him, waiting, no clue in her eyes to forewarn him of the answers to his questions.

He developed a sudden interest in the lockplate beside the door, and said rapidly, "When I was unconscious, there's a possibility that I said things... probably nonsense for the most part..." He looked at her again and gestured faintly with one hand. "Out of my head."

He'd expected to see the familiar, cagey expression of the seasoned smuggler, the pirate ready to do a deal to her own best advantage, but the look on Jenna's face was -- real or pretended-- total innocence instead .

"No." She shifted her weight to the left, favoring the injured leg, he noted, and her hands propped themselves cavalierly over her hips. "You didn't say anything," she told him simply, and shook her head twice to confirm the denial. "Nothing at all."

From the corridor, an intercom whispered her name with Vila's anxious inflection. Jenna half-turned. "Gotta go," she said, and headed off in the direction of the flight deck. The door slithered shut on Avon's confounded expression.

He had no idea whether or not to believe her. Yet in private, face to face, when she had every opportunity to blackmail him, why deny it? Unless she planned to hold her cards, to wait for another time... No, that wasn't it. Either he really had said nothing, or Jenna, perhaps as embarrassed as he at such displays, had chosen to pretend that he had not. Either way, he was pleased -- and surprised -- at his good fortune.

For the first time, after all his years spent losing battles to her whims of Fate, the goddess had shed some of her age-old malice; there was a radiant confidence in her smile.

Avon matched it with one of his own.
 


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Jean Graham

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