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PRIVILEGED TO SHARE HIS NIGHTMARE TRIP WITH HIMBlake's voice had broken two sessions previously, affecting mostly its middle notes. Now he seemed to be whispering at the bass end of his range and screaming in falsetto simultaneously. But very, very quietly, only just audible over Jenna's near-silent weeping, a continuous screaming whisper of guilty, guilty.
Orac was in charge. Cally was monitoring Blake's and Jenna's condition, standing ready with sedatives. Vila was brewing tea. Zen was flying the ship. Avon was watching. Gan was dead.
"That's enough," said Cally softly. She handed Avon a tranquillizer pad and looked away, helping Jenna to sit up. Avon put his arms hard around Blake, smoothed curls off his wet forehead, and stroked the pad into place. Blake's hand, which was locked and twisted urgently in the fabric at Avon's shoulderblade, relaxed, opened, and fell. Avon lowered him gently to the couch. Blake's voice tangled in names that Avon didn't recognize and fell below hearing.
Avon sat with his hand on Blake's hair and watched him sleep.
"Tea?" said Vila's voice by his ear. He nodded and took the mug.
"I need to get out of this room," said Jenna, and Cally steered her out of the door.
"You look terrible, Avon," said Vila. "Get some rest."
"I am resting here."
Vila perched on Jenna's couch, facing Avon. "I thought it wasn't necessary to act like a fuckwit to prove that you care?"
Avon gave him a filthy look. "I'm not proving anything."
"That's the spirit," said Vila comfortably. "Blake knows you - "
"Nor, in fact - " Avon raised his voice - "have I become irrational. I am merely being practical. Since Orac has decided that Jenna should be Blake's partner in this, I am staying here to give Cally what help I can."
Cally, who had come back in, raised her eyebrow eloquently at Vila behind Avon's back. Vila gave her a what-can-you-do shrug, then turned back to Avon.
"You're not going to be any - " he began, but Avon interrupted him, turning towards the computer.
"Progress is unreasonably slow. I suspect the operation of some further factor which was not taken into account in my initial diagnosis. Suggest that Cally replace Jenna Stannis for the next treatment period."
Avon's face tightened. "You have previously stated that replacing Jenna once treatment has started would be an unacceptable risk. Clarify your reasoning."
"It is very simple. The eradication therapy is not having the anticipated effect. Therefore, a fuller diagnosis must be made of the factors affecting and reactivating Blake's conditioning. Cally's intervention at this point would seem to be the most likely method of arriving at such a diagnosis."
"Because of her telepathic abilities."
"Yes. As I have previously explained, neither you nor Vila Restal is suitable for dual therapy, Vila because of his natural resistance to indoctrination, and you because of your... paranormal affinities."
"As you have previously explained. All right, Orac."
PROTOCOL FOR YOUR PUPPET
Almost exactly the same thing had happened again.
What Blake remembered was being ambushed for the second time by the mindwipe. Last time, on Earth, he had relived it in a mirrored, echoing cell, surrounded by floating fragments of his own body and voice. This time all the breaking had been inside; what he remembered this time was the Federation exploding inside his head while Avon's arms like restraints around his body held him together from the outside, like scaffolding.
So he was outwardly whole: as for the inside, even Orac had given up ('for the moment', everyone kept reminding him), saying there was no point continuing the eradication therapy until more information was available.
There was nothing left to renounce, and it - whatever 'it' was - was still there, waiting to overtake him again. Like the Federation propaganda about him, which was turning out to be less deadly than the Resistance propaganda about him (Messiah, whispered Governor leGrand). Like the mark of Servalan's weapon on him.
So all he could do was try to outrun it.
IT IS TO BLAKE YOU SHOULD LOOK FOR THE NEW"I tell you, there's nothing there!"
"Just do the scan, Vila."
Vila sighed, pressed buttons noisily, said: "All clear. I told you," and scuttled out of his seat onto the couch.
"I'm bored," he said.
Cally and Jenna ignored him.
"I can't remember the last time I was bored," he went on. "You'd think I'd be enjoying it. No Federation pursuit ships, no aliens trying to kill us, no Blake asking me to break into the President's money-belt, no Avon telling me I'm an idiot for doing as Blake says and then telling me I'm an idiot for not doing it faster..."
"Are we holding orbit, Cally?"
"...no conversation," Vila concluded gloomily. "I'm going to go and check up on them."
"Don't be an idiot, Vila," said Jenna.
"Why shouldn't I?"
Jenna and Cally looked at each other in a particularly female way. Vila rolled his eyes.
"I'll listen at the door first," he said. "I might even knock."
"Just leave them to it, Vila," said Jenna. "I doubt they'll welcome anyone's interference right now. Or thank anyone for their help," she added a shade pointedly. Cally patted her arm.
Vila sighed again, settled back down on the couch, and started shuffling a pack of cards. "Pick a card?" he asked hopefully. "Jenna? Cally?"
"I'm not falling for that one again," said Jenna. "Not since the time you found the card in my bra."
"I'll be good! I swear! Go on, Jenna..."
"Jenna," said Blake, who was suddenly on the flight deck, and - Vila, watching him, absent-mindedly put the cards back in his pocket - at his brusquest. "Set a course for Freedom City."
The women exchanged glances. Blake set his shoulders. Vila's eyes became perfectly round as he breathed: "Freedom City..."
"What's wrong with Del-10?" asked Jenna.
"Nothing," said Vila, "but it's hardly Freedom City, is it? If Blake thinks we should... Oh. I see."
Blake's face didn't change. "All right," he said. "If you can't trust me, will you trust Orac?"
"You do understand, don't you Blake?" asked Cally.
"Of course," he said, and hit the communicator button. "Avon."
"Bring Orac to the flight deck."
"I suppose there is no point in telling you that I am busy."
"None at all."
"Orac," said Blake. "Where is Docholli?"
"To whom do you refer?"
"To the Federation cybersurgeon of that name," said Blake dangerously. "The one you have been tracking for the past two days."
"I have already informed you," said Orac. "He is on Freedom City. Now, is there anything..."
Avon pulled the key out.
"Thank you," said Blake. "Jenna, set a course. Speed standard by ten."
"It will be a drain on the power banks," said Avon neutrally.
"I'm aware of that," Blake snapped. "We can't afford to hang about. Docholli's managed to stay one step ahead of the Federation, so far, but his time is running out. And that means so is ours. Standard by ten, Jenna."
Jenna lifted her eyebrows, held Blake's eyes for a moment, and turned her head so that she could look away from Blake to Zen without dropping her eyes. "Standard by ten," she said to Zen.
Avon took two paces at an oblique angle to Blake, turning slowly, so that his body became a partition wall sheltering Blake from the rest of the crew. They stood opposite each other, poised and braced against each other, balancing/mirroring each other, the distance between them constant.
"Have you lost your mind?"
"Twice," said Blake, his voice simultaneously intimate and carrying.
Avon smiled. "Exactly," he said. "And until we can all be sure that it is not going to happen a third time, you are a liability, Blake."
Blake paused, then said: "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
Avon didn't say anything.
"Oh, I don't blame you. Being proved right must be very satisfying."
"Less and less so, every time it happens," murmured Avon, then: "It is nothing short of insanity to go after Docholli before Orac has come up with the correct diagnosis and treatment for what remains of your conditioning."
"Well, then, it had better work fast, hadn't it?"
HEARTLESS CALCULATORAvon let himself in to Blake's cabin. The lights were low apart from a rectangle of brightness on the desk, where Blake was sitting, looking at printouts.
Avon sat on the bed and looked at Blake for a moment or two (Blake ignored him, whether studiedly or through genuine weariness Avon couldn't tell), then remarked: "You are rushing this."
"True," said Blake heavily. "If we don't find Star One quickly, we will not find it at all. Is that all you wanted?"
"None of us is safe until you are correctly treated," Avon added neutrally.
Blake turned round in his chair to face Avon. "None of us is safe anyway! Or had you forgotten? If we can destroy Star One, it won't matter what condition my mind is in, because there won't be a Federation left to take advantage of it."
"Ah," said Avon almost-silently, and twisted his mouth into a smile. "I see. This is another of your schemes to mortify yourself. Well, this time, Blake, I at least will not be available to rescue you when it goes wrong."
"I don't expect you to rescue me," said Blake shortly.
Avon looked at the floor for a second, then back up at Blake, with the concomitant eyelash effects.
"What do you expect of me?"
A short, hollow laugh from Blake. "I expect you to undermine everything I believe in."
"Don't be coy, Avon. It doesn't suit you."
"Yes it does," said Avon, and leaned in to kiss Blake's mouth.
In a long, slow, ripple, Blake relaxed into the kiss and then tensed away from it; pull-push.
Avon felt the very beginning of a mingling, a large warmth surrounding him, smoothing his edges, pulling him into a place he wanted to be. Then he felt himself pushed back into his skin, its intractable boundedness.
Blake felt himself tilting, being pulled out of shape, his balance shifting from his head to his cock, dizzying him. He felt a blind demand from somewhere - his body? Avon's body? - and refused it, gathering himself back into his head, pulling away.
"Well," said Avon quietly. He sat back on the bed and thought for a moment. But he seemed to have no more resources left, so he left.
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