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Before and After

By Nova
Page 1 of 3

For Belatrix

Love is itself unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement.

Timeless, and undesiring

Except in the aspect of time

Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being ...

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after.

T.S. Eliot, 'Burnt Norton'.

1.

Poetry's a funny business. It's got a way of sticking to your brain, long after all kinds of useful facts have gone in one ear and out the other. I know that, because my auntie who brought me up was big on poetry and stories and sayings. Well, I call her my aunt, at any rate, even though I don't think we were actually related. I mean, she couldn't really have been auntie to all twenty of us kids. But she looked after us like an aunt would, teaching us lots of stuff that came in handy later on, when she sold us to the thieves' guild or the brothels. (That mightn't be your idea of a nice, kind auntie but it's different in the Delta Domes. Trust me, having a trade puts you well ahead of the national average.)

Anyhow, the point is, that's where I learnt the poem that kept running through my head after the stuff-up on Gauda Prime. It went like this.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.

For want of a horse, the rider was lost.

For want of a rider, the message was lost.

For want of the message, the battle was lost.

For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost -

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

I'm not sure what horses are or why their shoes have to be nailed on but the general picture seems pretty clear. Small things can have big consequences. Who would've thought Tarrant'd be the one to blow Blake and Avon away? Not me, I can tell you. Everything seemed like business as usual, right up to the last minute.

There we were on Xenon Base, running round and planting Dayna's latest crop of explosives, high on the excitement of burning our bridges. It was almost like a party. Tarrant was clowning about, Dayna was giggling madly and even Soolin cracked the occasional smile. As we ran for the Scorpio, Dayna bumped me with her hip and sent me cannoning into Tarrant.

'Hands off, Vila,' he said with a grin, shunting me back at her. 'I'm not that kind of boy.'

'Oh, really?' I camped. 'I heard you got ahead at the Space Academy by giving head to the officers.'

Then we bundled into the ship, still laughing at each other. Seconds later Scorpio was blasting out of the planet's orbit, while the base exploded behind us and Avon dropped his next bombshell - finding a figurehead to unify the Rebel Alliance, same as his last plan ... only this time the figurehead was Blake. I was just starting to get keen on the idea of seeing Blake again, when Orac told us he was working as a bounty hunter. And after that, things went downhill fast.

For starters, we ran into a Federation blockade, which meant that me and the girls had to pay a rather sudden visit to Gauda Prime. I was on guard duty in the middle of a miserable tree sanctuary when, wouldn't you know, a pair of bounty hunters dropped in and hit me over the head. Luckily, Avon turned up just in time to shoot them, although I wasn't as pleased as I might've been, because he wouldn't explain where Tarrant had got to, so I couldn't help wondering whether he'd pushed Tarrant out of an airlock. Still, we'd inherited the bounty hunters' flyer, which was a bonus. We hopped into it, followed this other flyer that went meandering past and wound up in an underground silo, fitted out as some kind of base. Personally, I would've liked to wait around and collect a bit more data, before we went charging in. But I didn't waste time saying so. When did anyone ever bother to listen to me?

Anyway, first Avon found the galaxy's biggest gun in an open locker and then we found Tarrant in the base's tracking gallery. A siren started to make a dismal 'wah-wah' sound, so I suppose we must've triggered it somehow. Avon had just shot this woman who was trying to alert the security personnel when Blake walked in, with a skinny little girl beside him. (Well, I say 'Blake', as if I recognised him straight off, but actually it took me a couple of seconds, on account of him being heavier and grimmer than before, not to mention the two days' stubble masking his face and a long scar twitching at his eye.) He stopped and stared at Avon. Avon stared back, with the gun tracking his sightline. Tarrant asked me if Blake was Blake and I said he was.

Then Tarrant said, 'He sold us, Avon. All of us. Even you.'

He put a slightly vengeful spin on the last part, which seemed fair enough, under the circumstances. But Avon didn't fly into one of his rages, the way I would've expected. Instead, he swallowed hard, tilted his head to one side and lowered the gun, then sort of stumbled towards Blake with his arms curving open.

'Is it true?' he asked in a voice I'd never heard before. Avon always sounds clipped and in control, even when he isn't, but this voice was all slurred and helpless.

Blake said, 'Avon, it's me, Blake,' like that was the answer to everything. He took a step forward, totally focused on Avon, heading straight for the circle of Avon's arms. Meanwhile, Avon was focusing totally on Blake, as if they were the only two people in the gallery. No surprises there, for anyone who knew them as well as I did - and I wasn't exactly surprised when Avon had to test Blake one more time.

'Stand still!' he breathed and Blake did, although I could see he didn't like it. 'Have you betrayed us?' Avon asked in his lecturing voice, while his hand marked time on the air, clutching at some sort of logic. Then he lost it again and gasped, all jerky and reluctant, 'Have **you** betrayed **me**?'

That broke Blake's focus for a moment. 'Tarrant doesn't understand,' he complained.

'Neither do I, Blake,' Avon began but that fucking idiot went and cut across him, snarling, 'I set all this up.'

Well, I ask you, what was Avon supposed to think then? What were any of us supposed to think? We'd been set up often enough in the past four years, by Bershar, Lord Thaarn, Anna Grant, a passing alien, Dorian, Pella, Leitz, Piri, Belkov, Keiller, Egrorian, Zukan and Servalan to the power of ten. If Blake had decided to join the club, I was inclined to say, 'You'll need to queue.'

Avon believed it, anyway. He said, 'Yes!' with that little catch that you get when you're hearing exactly what you expected. Only he can't have expected Blake to betray him, not really, because next second his face changed. I thought I knew all Avon's expressions by heart but this was a new one on me. Shock/grief/disillusion/pain. A nasty mixture for anybody. Lethal, on Avon's face.

And Blake picked that moment to say, 'Avon, I was waiting for **you**' and come barging forward, with his hand stretched out.

So, when Avon swung the gun round and fired, it seemed like the only logical conclusion, even though at the same time it was the most shocking thing I'd ever seen. The bullet ripped Blake's shirt apart and doubled him over. He gasped, without making a sound. Avon groaned out loud and fired again. Blood spouted from the wounds, the way it does when you hit an artery. That would've grounded most people but Blake has ... Blake had more will power than most. He fixed his eyes on Avon and kept moving. And Avon shot him for the third time, more out of habit than anything else, because by then Blake was a dead man walking

Mind you, I'm not sure whether Avon realised that, judging from the way he shoved the gun into Blake's face and then narrowed his eyes, as if he was trying to focus on something a long way off. Blake brushed the gun aside like it was irrelevant - and after all the carry on, Avon let him do it. He pitched forward and the two of them clung together, Blake's hands locked onto Avon, Avon's arm making a shelf to hold him up. Then Blake's knees buckled and he gasped, 'Oh, **Avon**,' in this long shuddering sigh that must've summed up everything he wanted to say, because he was dead before he hit the floor.

The siren was still wailing, like a hired mourner at a fancy Alpha funeral. Avon flung his arms up as Blake fell, in one of those stagy gestures that were his way of saying he won't be held responsible. He couldn't turn away, though. He just stood there, staring at Blake, and we stood there, staring at him. There was a streak of blood across the epaulette on his jacket. I remember wondering how it'd splashed that far.

The whole business seemed to have lasted forever, although, according to the time-flash on the opposite wall, it was all over in less than a minute. After that, things started to speed up again. A worried little man with floppy ginger hair rushed in, did a double take and yelped, 'Arlen, what happened?' The skinny girl said, '**He** happened,' meaning Avon, who didn't take any notice, because he was busy staring at Blake's body. He went on staring while Arlen shot the worried little man, told us to drop our guns and announced that she was a Federation officer. I even had to dodge around him when I headed over to Arlen, babbling about being harmless and armless.

I'm not sure whether I was planning to surrender or do something useful but after Dayna went for her gun and Arlen shot her, I got annoyed and thumped Arlen. That gave me a unique five seconds of feeling like a hero, before someone shot me in the back. Stun guns knock you flat straight away but it can take a minute or two before you pass out. So I heard three more shots and Tarrant singing out, 'Avon!', which made me lever my eyes open, bit by bit.

I squinted along the floor, through a maze of Federation-issue boots, to where Blake was lying. There was another pair of boots beside him: Avon's boots, I would've recognised them anywhere. The right boot lifted and swung sideways, straddling Blake's body - protectively, you might say, except it was a bit late for that. I could tell I didn't want to watch the next part, so I let my eyelids slide shut.

But the echoes from the troopers' shots followed me down into the darkness, all the same.


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