Of Renegades and KingsBy Jean Graham
Page 1 of 4
|"A true idealist demands the impractical.
A true realist demands the impossible."
-- Marilyn Vos Savant
"Setonus Prime, I think." Twisting an errant lock of hair, Blake leaned over the star chart stretched over Liberator's flight deck table. "It's a major Federation supply depot. An eminently suitable target."
"Agreed." The affirmation came from Morgen Tolen, a pipe-thin, sallow man of perhaps 40 who lounged beside Blake on the flight couch. He had reportedly led some dozen successful revolutions against the Federation on the outer worlds. To Kerr Avon, neither he nor his hawkish bondmate, perched at Blake's other shoulder, looked the part. Stern-faced and intractable, Seann Tolen might be mistaken for a judiciary, a banker, a Beta class instructor -- but never a revolutionary.
The others surrounding the couch were a motley collection indeed: Morgen's three 'lieutenants' -- Sol, Belus and Rica -- flanked in turn by Jenna, Cally and Vila.
Only Avon stood apart, eschewing Blake's summit meeting with the same calculated disinterest he'd practiced since Morgen and company had docked their battered freighter aboard and 'invaded' Liberator, at Blake's behest, four days ago. One would think that Gan's death -- not yet a week gone -- might dampen Blake's enthusiasm for bloodshed just a bit. But no. After that sickeningly maudlin display of false remorse and the brief (also staged) desertion of his crew for the company of a philosophizing parasite, Roj Blake was back at it. In spades.
He realized that Blake had spoken his name in an annoyed tone, as though not for the first time. Avon turned from Zen's analysis dome, where he'd been running a check on three new medicinal substances discovered in Liberator's medical lab, and faced the crowd gathered round the flight couch.
"Will it work?"
"Will what work?"
Exasperated, Blake clapped his hands together, rubbing the palms against each other. "It might help matters tremendously if you were to pay attention to the council's decisions, Avon."
Oh, so they were a council now, were they? How magnanimously democratic of them. Then again, he didn't recall ever having been offered a vote.
"Will what work?" he repeated, pointedly ignoring their illustrious leader's fit of temper.
"The detector shield. That is what you've been cobbling together for the past several weeks, or so you said."
Avon refused to be baited by the undisguised condescension. He schooled his voice to a chill, clipped monotone and said simply, "Yes."
A perplexed Vila cocked his head to one side. "Er, does that mean yes, it's what you said, exactly, or yes, the gadget will work, exactly?"
Avon addressed his comment to Blake and Morgen. "It should keep us off all but their extreme close-range detectors."
"That should be enough." Blake's hand made rapid movements across the tabletop. "We can meet Avalon's forces at Nantha, knock out the communications stations at Litanac, Bedra and Juffere, and end the run with a strike here." He tapped a satellite icon on the map. "On Servalan's doorstep."
Vila paled. "Strike Space Command Headquarters? You're kidding, aren't you? Please tell me you're kidding."
"In each attack," Blake said, ignoring the thief, "Liberator can go in first, using the shield, and knock out the detectors so that Avalon's ships can come in behind us."
Vila sent a pleading look in Avon's direction, plainly imploring the insertion of some common sense into this growing fiasco. It might well be too late for that. Avon's coldly personal preference had been to airlock Blake a year ago, just after Jenna's adamant refusal to abandon the man on Cygnus Alpha. Now it was too late for that as well. Blake had too many followers who would avenge him, and collected more by the hour. Liberator positively swarmed with them. When they rendezvoused with Avalon, there would be still more. Avon detested crowds even more than he loathed Blake's futile rebellion and the Federation it sought to overthrow.
"You'll need backups there," Morgen was opining over some tactical point or other on Blake's map. "And after the initial strikes, I suggest joining forces with the insurgents on Grettar. Then a bombing raid on the Federation outpost at Laches. It's a weak fortification, it won't take much to eliminate it and see the native population liberated."
"Whether they wish to be or not?"
Avon's question raised heads all around. Seann Tolen uttered a stifled oath and shot him a murderous look, but it was to Blake she spoke. "We could ask for more inspiring testimonials from your crew, Blake."
"You could," Avon replied, his smile holding no humor whatsoever. "You would not get them from me."
Blake's restraining hand prevented Seann's rise from the couch. He rose to approach Avon himself, arms folded in his 'I'm going to be very patient' stance. "If you have something to say, Avon..."
"I have a great deal to say. The problem, as always, is that you have not been listening. Apparently getting one of your crew killed was insufficient discouragement to deter you and your foolhardy crusade. I, for one, have no particular desire to be next on the death list."
Blake's 'patient' arms unfolded themselves and dropped to his sides, both hands clenched into fists. The Tolens materialized to flank him, each wearing an indignant glare.
"If you oppose the revolution," Morgen bristled, "what are you doing here, with Blake?"
"That wasn't Avon's fault," Vila chimed in from the couch. "He chose the wrong cellmate, was all."
Avon heard Cally quietly shush the thief; Blake seemed not to hear him at all. His eyes remained riveted on Avon, angry, affronted and suspiciously assessing. "I take it," he said with a deliberate pause to breathe, "that you have objections to the overthrow as planned?"
"And what would that be?"
"It is a war you cannot win."
With raised hands, Blake quelled outbursts from both his fellow rebel leaders. He stepped forward, squaring off chest-to-chest within inches of Avon. "You have a better plan? If so, we'd all like to hear it."
Avon deliberately snubbed the challenge by turning away, pacing toward Zen's fascia, pivoting back to face them. "Perhaps I have."
Seann Tolen angrily muttered another curse. "Blake, why do you listen to this prating egomaniac? We have work to do."
Blake's wrathful gaze remained locked on his adversary's. "All right, Avon. I'm listening. Just how would you go about overthrowing the Federation, then?"
The earnest tone was strictly for show; Avon doubted the man had any genuine interest in his recommendations. With all eyes upon him, he answered the question anyway. "You do not overthrow it..." He ignored Morgen's snort of contempt and finished, "...you undermine it."
"With the computers?" Cally conjectured. "A so-called bloodless revolution?"
Avon nodded. "From the inside out."
Predictably, Blake would have none of it. He folded the arms once again, and with lethal calm, said, "You tried that once before, as I recall. It didn't work then, either."
Avon stiffened, the only outward sign of umbrage at the reference to his failed embezzlement attempt. He'd been about to say I didn't have Orac, then, but Seann's outraged ranting precluded him.
"There are no bloodless revolutions! The only way to defeat the Federation is to turn its own ruthlessness against it!"
"You've all been prisoners of the Federation," Morgen put in. "You've less reason to doubt this than any of us."
Avon frosted him with a look. "Spoken like a true fanatic," he said with no inflection whatsoever.
All three aides leapt to the Tolens' defense this time, and suddenly everyone on the flight deck was talking at once. Blake, failing to quiet the melee, opted to disregard it instead. He again approached Avon, and over the babble of arguing passengers and crew, said, "I'm going to need the support of all my crew, Avon. Which means, I'm afraid, that I shall have to ask you for a commitment. You're the best in the known worlds with computers, or so you and Vila tell me often enough. The rebellion would benefit greatly from your help." With a dramatic pause (during which relative calm had returned to the room), Blake concluded with, "Well, Avon? Are you with us?"
Avon glanced up to find eight eager faces beyond Blake's all awaiting his reply. Though the trap had been neatly sprung, he had no intention of allowing Blake to snare him so easily.
"I'll let you know," he replied, voice chill with rancor. Blake's objections died mid-word when Avon turned and summarily marched off the flight deck. His point had been made; he saw no use in further argument. There were systems checks to be completed in Zen's main computer housings below decks. It was company he vastly preferred to that of Blake and associates. Let them debate their futile war council without him. Avon wanted no part in such insanity. He never had.
Cally watched Avon's departure with growing dread. Unlike Blake, she had not been deaf to the computer expert's pain at Gan's death. Nor had she failed to note his increasing intolerance for Blake's methods, Blake's ideals, Blake's revolution as a whole. Why Avon stayed at all had mystified Cally from the beginning. Blake was fire; Avon ice. In her experience, the two elements seldom failed to destroy one another.
"Is it wise, do you think," she asked Blake, "to push him so far?'
"One way or another," the rebel leader rumbled, "I'll have an answer.'
Morgen was livid. "Why do you tolerate this... this blatant disloyalty?"
Blake's response was a near-whisper. "Some would call what we seek to do disloyal. Don't let Avon's facade mislead you. His help could be invaluable to the rebellion."
"Surely his is the sort of help we don't need." That opinion issued from Belus, one of the aides. He met immediate agreement from his two companions as well as the Tolens. Seann gave Blake a particularly hard look.
"His kind will hinder, obstruct, even betray us, Blake. We can't afford to risk keeping him here."
Iron would easily have smelted in Blake's gaze. "I'll be the judge of that," he said.
Seann retreated, but Cally saw the hate-filled fear in her face, in Morgen's, in all of them.
"She could be right about Avon, just the same," Jenna said from the pilot's console. "He could be a danger to us."
"Or the other way round," Vila countered. "Give me a bloodless revolution any day. I'm no keener on bloodshed than Avon is -- especially not if it's mine."
Cally smiled tightly. "That is ironic, is it not?" she said to Jenna. "You consider Avon a threat to us; he considers us a threat to him."
"Either way," Jenna scoffed, "look out."
Morgen remained petulant, plainly dissatisfied with Blake's seeming inaction. "Well," he pushed, "what's it to be?"
Blake strode to his flight deck station, put one broad hand on the console and deliberately spoke without turning to look at them all. "For the last time," he grated, "I will handle Avon."
And that closed the matter.
None of them saw Avon for two full days. Cally tracked him down at last in a fifth level auxiliary computer station, immersed in a clutter of circuit modules and diagrams, the only things outside himself for which Avon ever displayed any measure of affection.
"Hiding down here is hardly likely to help the situation," she said candidly.
Avon's startled reaction revealed more than mere surprise at her unexpected appearance. Though he instantly shuttered the response, Cally had already seen the guilty look that confirmed her accusation.
"What do you want?" he snapped.
Never one for small talk, was Avon. All right then. She came straight to the point. "Do you really believe that successfully undermining the computer systems could topple the Federation?"
Avon lowered the piece of circuitry he'd been studying to look at her, suddenly ingenuous. "Yes," he said. No arrogance in the remark -- simply confidence, complete self-assurance.
"Without a war?"
"But surely wars would result once the computer systems failed? There would be anarchy throughout the known worlds."
He considered that as though the thought had not occurred to him. "Perhaps. That would be Blake's demesne, not mine."
"And how exactly would you undermine the systems?"
"Through the banking programs." A spark of avarice lit Avon's eyes.
"As you tried to do before?"
That grated. "1 did not have access to Orac then," he iced.
"But Orac, as you have often said, is only a computer."
"Precisely. A computer capable of reading -- and overriding -- other computers." Avon grinned, an expression utterly devoid of any warmth. "With one crack at the Federation banking system, Orac and I could bankrupt them beyond any hope of recovery. Cause and effect: empty the till, and the hierarchy collapses. You must understand, Cally, that the Federation is, above all, a government of the money, by the money, and for the money."
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