Frozen In HellBy Julia Stamford
Avon looked back at him, face blandly innocent save for the trace of malice in his eyes. "Say what? Cally is the mind-reader, not me."
"No, you're just our resident Cassandra. So go on, say 'I told you so', or I'll start wondering if you're sickening for something."
Another remote colony begging for help: a small mining colony on an uninhabitable planet, its life support dependent on the technology that its products bought. Only the Federation hadn't wanted to pay the agreed price and resorted to force.
Liberator had picked up the distress call, but by the time they'd arrived, there'd been no signal for some hours and yet another furious row on the flight deck. Blake had eventually bullied his electronics genius into accompanying him to the underground colony, on the grounds that the silence probably only meant that the communications systems were damaged and would benefit from Avon's skilful attention.
An underground colony, because using the original mine workings for dwelling space was cheaper and safer than using domes. Far enough underground that Blake and a grumbling Avon had been able to teleport into the top level, but then had to make their way on foot to the lower living quarters. Which was where they'd been when Vila's frantic voice had informed them that three pursuit ships had just appeared.
The malice in Avon's eyes grew more noticeable. "All right, I told you so. I told you it was a trap, I told you only an idiot would go so deep that the rock would prevent us from teleporting out. Only that makes me an even bigger idiot for letting you persuade me. Now can we get on with the business of trying to survive until Liberator can return for us? If it returns."
"What do you mean, if it returns? Do you really think that they wouldn't come back for us?"
Now the acid had reached Avon's voice. "Oh, I'm sure that they will come back for you, their revered leader. If they can." He elaborated, "With two of the crew missing, how effective will Liberator be in a fight?"
Blake noted what Avon had not quite said. "Do you really think they'd abandon you? After all this time together?"
"Perhaps not. Although Jenna sometimes thinks we've spent too much time together already." A dry chuckle, and then, "I remind her too much of the things she doesn't like in herself." The harsh amusement in his expression strongly suggested that Avon meant it quite literally. His face returned to its normal mask as he continued, "Let us hope that it is just a random patrol, and not Travis. Travis is too persistent to abandon the chase. It could be a long and very cold wait if they have to shake him off."
Blake nodded in agreement, then returned to inspecting the control systems. The emergency lighting was dim but serviceable, allowing him to read the life support readouts. "At least there's plenty of air. That won't be a problem."
"With just the two of us, the loss of power to the circulation system won't matter." Avon walked over to join him at the console, scanned it briefly, then pointed at a temperature gauge. "That is our real problem."
"Almost down to freezing. I knew it felt cold, but I wouldn't have expected to be that bad already." Blake shivered again. Knowing that it was partly his mind telling him that he should feel cold at that temperature didn't make him feel any better.
Avon shrugged. "This is an ice world. It isn't habitable without full life support."
"And the power's been off long enough for the base to lose heat. I suppose that with full backup systems they thought they only needed enough insulation to give them a few hours leeway." Blake sighed.
"No, they wouldn't have expected to lose both backups as well. Not that it matters for them any more." Avon's soft voice was expressionless, but still somehow managed to convey disgust. He paused, then went on in a more normal tone, "A pity we didn't wear the thermal suits. I doubt the batteries would have lasted until Liberator's likely return time, but at least we would have been more comfortable while they did."
"All right, you don't have to keep saying 'I told you so'. Once is enough," Blake grumbled. "I didn't expect to find all three power systems smashed beyond our ability to repair them."
"Neither did I, or I might have insisted on going back to the ship immediately."
"Well, you didn't, so we'd better set about making ourselves as comfortable as possible while we wait," Blake said briskly. "Suggestions?"
"We make ourselves comfortable in the upper levels, so that we can be teleported immediately." Avon paused, obviously considering further. "I have not yet seen any portable heaters. We should collect thermal clothing or blankets, and as much flammable material as possible. It could be a long wait, if Liberator opts to run and come back for us when they've shaken the pursuit ships."
Blake mused, "Food and water as well." He asked again, "No chance of rigging something from whatever's powering the lighting?"
"Yes. If we can find the battery system, and if you want to risk losing the lighting as well. As you should know. You're the engineer."
"Then we forget the lighting system," Blake sighed. "Come on, let's get on with it."
They started searching for the things they would need. It meant going into private quarters, and some of the things they saw would remain in his memory for a long time. This little colony had obviously been used as an object lesson, but there had been no need for the degree of brutality they found.
Then there was the physical damage. It could only be classed as vandalism for the sake of it, it went far beyond what was necessary to cripple the colony. That was only too clear when they surveyed the remains of the life support suits.
"Why do so much damage?" Blake wondered aloud.
"They wanted to make quite certain that no one would survive, even if somebody had evaded them while they were here." Avon's voice was cold and hard, and Blake speculated that the man had been more affected by what they'd seen than he was willing to let on. He'd noticed that Avon's bloody-minded attitude to the world at large did not extend to those Avon classed as innocents. The sight of a child's battered corpse tossed aside in the corridor outside hadn't done much for Blake's peace of mind either.
"And you still think I'm a fool to fight the Federation, after seeing this?"
"Yes. The people who did this weren't inhuman monsters, Blake, they were recruited from the very rabble you are so determined to free."
"Well, I'm not going to argue with you about it. I still believe in humanity, even if you don't."
"Oh, but you will argue about it, until the day one of your rabble kills you."
"Morbid little soul, aren't you?"
"No. Realistic." With that, Avon turned and left the room.
Blake followed him out. There was no point in lingering. He tried hard not to look at the bodies lying in the corridor, and was grateful for the dimness of the lighting. It meant he couldn't see the marks of torture.
" I think we've checked everywhere likely to be useful. They seem to have smashed most of the equipment." And the people, he thought, heartsick.
"I imagine they only left the emergency lighting because it was useful to them and too much trouble to destroy as they left." Avon's face stiffened as he glanced at the dead child. "There seems little point in continuing. Shall we return to the top level?"
They returned to the office they'd selected in the colony's reception area. Their cache included mattresses for insulation from a cold floor, a collection of blankets, even a few self-heating packs of food - but very little in the way of fuel for a fire. Things that would burn, but not produce poisonous smoke, were few and far between. Avon laid a fire with what little they'd found, but when Blake drew his gun to light it, said, "No. We could have much greater need of it later. For now the blankets will do. I would suggest exercise to keep warm, but we are likely to be here for at least the night, maybe longer. It would be difficult to keep it up that long."
Blake grinned to himself, then inquired politely, "And what about sharing body heat?"
Avon ignored the provocation, just clucked disapprovingly at him. "You'd either get cramps or the fidgets. You wouldn't enjoy the former, I wouldn't enjoy the latter."
Fine, he didn't give a damn one way or the other. Well, if he was honest, he did. He'd rather avoid temptation. He grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around himself, then sat down on one of the mattresses. Avon followed suit, and they opened one of the food packs each.
"If you're that serious about making money, you should invent a way of making these taste like something other than warm cardboard," Blake declared after the first couple of mouthfuls. He speared another chunk of the offending foodstuff and examined it mournfully.
"I think the idea is that you need to be hungry enough to want to eat them. That way you can make them last." Avon pulled a face as he took another bite. " At least, I can't believe they could be this tasteless by accident."
"Well, you're the one who appreciates fine food. Is that why you tried to steal five million, so that you could afford the best?"
It was clear from Avon's tone that he had no intention of expanding on that. Blake was tempted to push for more details, but decided that this wasn't the time to provoke one of Avon's sulking fits. He already knew why the five million - Avon's idea of freedom.
"Never mind, we'll have something decent to eat when we get back to the Liberator."
"Ah yes, home sweet home, with its attendant collection of heroic freedom fighters. Who shall we succour next, I wonder?"
The bitterness was more than Avon's usual cynicism. Blake ignored it, and they fell silent as they finished their meal. By then, it was clear that Liberator had either fought and lost, or was running far. Avon said as much, adding, "We are unlikely to be picked up for several hours at least. We will need to sleep, but in shifts. It's dangerous to sleep in this cold. You might not wake up again."
Blake quirked an eyebrow at him. "Time to share the body heat?" This time he was quite serious. It no longer seemed a joke, with the temperature plummeting.
Avon murmured an agreement, and started shuffling the mattresses around. "Help me with this. We need it propped up against the wall."
Going to help him, Blake asked why.
"Because one of us at least will have to stay sitting up to avoid falling asleep, and it will be more comfortable leaning against the wall. The mattress will be more effective insulation than a blanket." It didn't have Avon's usual biting sarcasm, a worrying sign.
"What's wrong?" Blake asked.
"The temperature's dropping faster than I expected. We will have to be very careful about conserving heat. Or we will freeze to death."
Avon's grimness finally made Blake realise that they could be facing serious danger, not just a period of severe discomfort. He hastened to help Avon in creating a shelter from the cold. In the end, they settled on propping mattresses against both walls of a corner and a mattress on the floor, and draping a couple of blankets over to form a makeshift tent. Crude, but at least it would help provide a small pocket of relatively warm air to breathe. Then they settled themselves into a pile of the remaining blankets.
"So who takes first watch? I don't mind either way," Blake asked.
"I will." No surprise there, Avon tended to insomnia anyway.
Blake curled up on the floor, glad of the thick mattress beneath him and a warm leg against his back. Avon leaned over him to tuck a blanket securely around his head, saying "Keep your head covered, or you'll lose a lot of heat."
Blake fell asleep surprisingly quickly, and resented being shaken awake some time later. It made him realise what Avon had meant about sleeping being dangerous. It was colder, even within the stuffy tent. He sat up, mumbling, "My watch?", and was startled when Avon grabbed his hand and pinched the skin on the back, then let go.
"What was that about?" he demanded.
"Checking to see if you have hypothermia," Avon replied, attention still focused on the patch of abused skin. "You appear to be all right. For now, at least. If you do that, and the colour doesn't come back immediately, you have problems."
He continued, "Unfortunately, I am not all right. I am smaller than you, so I am losing heat faster. I need you to keep me warm."
Shorter, slighter build, and no tendency to fat. Avon would indeed lose heat faster. Trying to lighten the tone a little, fighting off fear, Blake said, "I don't see the problem in that. I get to cuddle you."
Avon grinned slightly. "You are about to find out just how uncomfortable it can be to share body heat. I intend to have as much surface area in contact with you as possible." And before a startled Blake could form a reply, Avon slid on to his lap and leaned back against his chest.
Avon was lightly built, but not that light, and Blake hastily rearranged himself so that Avon was sitting on the mattress rather than on his legs. Then he lightly grasped Avon's shoulders to ease him into a more comfortable position. As he did so, he brushed against the hand Avon was using to tuck a blanket more securely. It was ice-cold.
"Avon, you should have done this sooner. You're frozen. Why didn't you wake me?"
"Because I think that you may need all the strength you have, and I didn't want to disturb your rest before it was necessary." His voice was matter-of-fact, but Avon was clearly very worried.
Blake wondered what their chances were.
"You really think we could die, don't you? How can you face it so calmly? I know we've faced risks before, but just sitting waiting for death isn't the same thing."
There was a harsh chuckle that vibrated against his chest, then the reply, "It isn't the first time I've had to sit waiting. At least this time I'm not waiting in eager anticipation."
He noticed that Avon was making some sort of odd motion under the enveloping blankets, and briefly wondered was he was doing, before abruptly realising. He'd seen Avon massaging one hand with the other often enough, it had simply never occurred to him why Avon might do it.
"You were physically tortured under interrogation, weren't you?"
"Isn't everyone?" came the half-mocking reply.
"Not to the extent of breaking your hands. That isn't standard procedure." Blake couldn't remember much about his own interrogation, but he did remember that much.
He couldn't see Avon's face clearly, but the soft voice in reply suggested that Avon was lost in memory. "Ah, well, if you have a prisoner who's resistant to the standard techniques, and who insists his motives weren't political when they couldn't have been anything else..."
Remembering what Vila had said to him when they'd first met, Blake wondered how many of his crew had made it to Liberator because they were resistant to brain-washing techniques. It could be useful. He commented, "So you're naturally resistant to the interrogation machines?" And was shaken by the answer.
"Oh, not naturally. It took a great deal of training."
The implications were astounding.
"And who trained you?"
But Avon had evidently decided he'd revealed enough. "Eventually they decided I was telling the truth. They were kind enough to provide me with medical treatment before depositing me in a holding cell. Presumably to ensure I was in a fit state to continue if there was any reason to drag me back in before I was deported. Fortunately there wasn't."
Blake considered what he'd heard, then put his arms around Avon and hugged him. "Fortunately for me, and the rest of Liberator's crew. I don't think we'd have done it without you."
Then he took one of Avon's hands in his, saying, "Don't do that. You'll only damage the tissues if you warm them too quickly," and held it until some of the chill had receded. When it had warmed a little and could be flexed without risk, he started to massage it gently. There was a sharp intake of breath as Avon stiffened, and Blake hastily stopped and asked, "Am I hurting you?"
"It's just the feeling returning. It will pass."
Reassured, he continued massaging Avon's hand between his. As warmth crept into the icy skin, he realised what a sensual pleasure he was taking in the process, and was embarrassed by his inappropriate response. He continued anyway. It would be foolish to deprive Avon of needed comfort simply because he couldn't keep his libido under control. Eventually he succeeded in bringing Avon's hand back to something near a reasonable temperature. He asked, "Does that help?"
"Yes. Thank you." The thanks weren't fervent, but sounded sincere none the less.
Having dealt with one hand, Blake continued his work with the other. He took gentle enjoyment from the physical contact, the cold being quite enough to discourage thoughts of taking it any further. As he worked, he realised that Avon had fallen asleep, obviously soothed by the warmth of Blake's body and the relief from the pain in his hands. That display of trust, from someone who claimed to trust nobody, did strange things to his emotions. Finishing with the second hand, he reached to take hold of the first again, and clasped both in his as he hugged Avon to him.
He sat like that for a long time, quietly enjoying the feel of Avon lying in his arms. He'd been vaguely aware since as far back as the London that the man was attractive, more than attractive, but had done nothing about it. Now he wondered why.
Oh, if he was honest with himself, he knew why. He'd thought it better to avoid entanglements with the crew. Jenna had made her interest clear, and he'd politely ignored it. He had more important things to use his energy on, and it wouldn't do to risk the friction that a sexual relationship might cause within a small crew. He was captain, in fact if not in name, and that made a difference even in the free-wheeling anarchy Liberator so often descended into.
He'd sometimes thought Avon might also be attracted, but if so, Avon had clearly decided that discretion was the better part of valour. He'd been grateful for that, aware that having the two of them snapping at each other over him could have made life very uncomfortable.
If Avon had made a pass at him, he could have handled it readily enough. This trust, reliance, Avon was placing in him was another matter. It had roused feelings that he quite frankly didn't know how to deal with. He was uncomfortably aware that once they had returned to the ship, he was likely to break the rules he had set for himself.
Blake sat musing to himself for some time. Eventually he started to feel cramped, and understood what Avon had meant. At first he wriggled slightly, trying to ease himself without disturbing Avon. Then he gave in, and stretched himself fully before settling back against the mattress-covered wall.
There was a murmured protest from Avon, who had roused enough to change position himself. He shifted round, drawing his legs up and lying with his side against Blake's chest and his head pillowed on a shoulder. He moved a hand to rest on Blake's other shoulder, then lay still again.
A thrill ran through Blake at that innocent gesture of intimacy, and he knew himself lost. He wanted this man so much, and hadn't known it until now. Cradling Avon to him with one arm, he used the other to pull the disturbed blankets securely over them again. As he did so, the movement shifted Avon slightly, and Blake saw his face clearly. Looking down at him, Blake thought that although not classically handsome, Avon was still the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
He reached out and traced a finger lightly over those delicate, perfect lips. And froze as Avon opened his eyes and looked straight at him.
Avon was wearing a non-expression that Blake couldn't interpret. He'd never seen that particular version before. He removed the finger, and said, "I'm sorry, Avon. I know. Even if you'd wanted it, this is hardly the time and place."
Avon stared at him for an eternity of a second, before dropping his head to nestle against Blake, subtly shifting his position as he did so.
"You are quite correct. This is not the time or place."
Stunned, Blake processed that statement again to make certain Avon had said what he'd thought he'd said. Then put it together with the way Avon was now lying against him.
"Why did you never say anything?"
"You never asked."
Blake, dumbfounded by that piece of Avonesque logic, hadn't found a suitable reply before Avon went on, "And you've never had eyes for anything but that damned cause of yours." It was said a little bitterly.
Blake looked back in memory, and realised that it had been there to see, if he'd chosen to. Not blatant, that wasn't Avon's way, but the way he looked at Blake sometimes should have made it clear. At least, clear enough that Blake could have pursued it further if he'd chosen to. Now his behaviour had prompted Avon to be more forthcoming.
"When we get back to the Liberator," Blake said with determination, "We are going to have a hot bath and some hot food, and then I am going to take you to bed and fuck you through the mattress. That should thaw you out." It wasn't the most graceful proposition he'd ever made, but at least he'd made it.
The hand on his shoulder moved to his neck, a hesitant, disbelieving caress, as Avon laughed. "I'm sure the others will be suitably scandalised. Assuming we get back to Liberator."
"Of course we will. They'll be back for us as quickly as possible."
Avon's mood darkened again. "They had better be. In a few hours time, either we will be on board Liberator with you saying 'I told you so' - or in hell, with me saying 'I told you so'." Then he turned his attention to more mundane matters. "Now that we are both awake, I for one would like a piss before it gets cold enough for frostbite with even that limited degree of exposure." There was amusement in his voice as he continued, "That could delay your proposed celebration of our rescue somewhat."
Why did Avon have to mention that? Blake's bladder started an immediate protest. He looked at the slight gap in the blankets, and considered regretfully how cold it would be out there. It couldn't be helped - they would need to leave the tent briefly, however reluctantly, to deal with it. Sharing the confined space with a puddle of urine would bring its own problems.
"There's a toilet just down the corridor. Better that than in here."
Avon nodded assent. They left the relative warmth of the tent, and made a dash for it. The air outside their room felt incredibly cold, and Blake was unnerved to find that the water was frozen. The temperature must have dropped considerably for that to happen.
"Never mind frostbite, I think you'll have to break me free of the icicle!"
"What an interesting thought," purred Avon, making Blake laugh in spite of their predicament. A minute or two later, Avon remarked, "I see you have failed to provide me with an excuse to get my hands on you."
"You are welcome to do so, with or without an excuse."
Avon looked at him oddly, then said, "I think that I will wait until we are somewhere a little warmer."
"Well, somewhere quite a lot warmer. Are you finished?"
Blake considered whether the "finished" feeling was just due to the cold, then decided that he really was. "Yes."
"Then let us return to our humble abode. Where the temperature might possibly still be above freezing."
It would have been funny - if Avon hadn't been speaking the literal truth.
The cold had had its usual delaying effects on the process, and they were both badly chilled by the time they'd returned to the tent. They dived under the blankets, huddling together, Avon clinging to him for warmth. After a few minutes, Blake had recovered enough to remember the self-heating ration packs. There were still a few left.
"Hungry?" he asked, reaching for one.
"No, but we need them - for the warmth if nothing else." Avon, practical as always, accepted the food from him and started eating determinedly. They both sat with a hand wrapped round the warm packs, getting as much benefit as possible from the heat as they finished the food.
Even then, Avon was clearly having trouble. Blake no longer had any qualms about pulling the shivering man close to him.
"Sit against me again."
"Sensible to maximise contact," Avon commented as he slid over to lean back against Blake's chest.
"Not to mention the fact that holding you is all I can do at the moment to make up for lost time."
Avon twisted around to look at him. He didn't say anything to Blake before settling back again, but what Blake had seen in Avon's eyes warmed his heart. He wrapped his arms around Avon, holding him tightly until the shivering had stopped. Then he asked, "Shall we light the fire?"
"No, leave it for now. But I think we will need it soon."
"And after that?"
"After that, we decide whether we lose heat faster staying still in here, or walking around out there. We could try again to find a portable heater. But that means the risk of going back to the lower levels, out of teleport range, and we have already searched fairly thoroughly."
In the end, it came to walking around out there, because neither of them was willing to simply sit and wait for death. Walking, and then staggering, trying to keep each other awake. Blake never could remember much of it, although he did remember telling Avon in exact and intimate detail what he intended to do once they'd been rescued and had recovered. He also remembered what Avon had said in reply.
He certainly didn't remember the last slide into unconsciousness. He was simply suddenly aware of being conscious, and warm. He opened his eyes, and looked up to see Vila hovering over him.
Liberator! I get to say 'I told you so', Avon.
"He's awake!" Vila announced.
"You took your time getting back for us," Blake complained, and then tried to sit up. He wouldn't have made it on his own, but Vila helped him. Then he continued, "Avon didn't think you'd make it in time."
There was utter silence. Then he heard Cally's voice. Very quiet, as if she didn't want to be heard. As if she didn't want to hear what she was saying.
Blake took a good, hard look at his surroundings. Vila on the point of crying, Cally looking as if she'd like to, Jenna stony-faced. And a still form lying on another bed. Too still.
Welcoming the numbness that enveloped him, knowing what waited for him when it wore off, he asked, "What happened?"
Vila was the one who told him, stumbling over the words in his effort to hold back the tears. "It took us hours to shake off the pursuit ships. You were both unconscious when we made it back here. Jenna said to bring you round first. We... we didn't realise how bad Avon was."
Blake seized on something Vila had said. "Jenna said..." He heard an echo. Jenna sometimes thinks we've spent too much time together already. It was a vile suspicion, but he couldn't stop himself voicing it.
"And why did you say it, Jenna?"
Jenna looked at him as if he were mad. Which he thought he might very well be, the way he felt.
"Because those pursuit ships could well come back here looking for us, and we needed you on the flight deck more than we needed Avon."
Blake's voice was low and dangerous as he said, "Even though it should be obvious that he'd be more affected by the cold than I would. Didn't you even bother to check? Or didn't you want to?"
Jenna obviously understood the implication, but she didn't spell it out. She forced him to. "And just what do you mean by that, Blake?"
"Avon didn't think you'd have come back if it was just him. He thought you wanted him off the ship. He said he reminded you too much of the things you don't like in yourself." By now Blake had made it off the bed and over to where Jenna was standing.
She looked up at him, face distorted with anger, and swung an open hand towards his face. Then, with a visible effort, she stopped and dropped her hand to her side again. A second or two later, she was able to speak calmly, although the anger still showed.
"I would never willingly abandon him, and he knew it. Don't push your own guilt on to me, Blake. You were the one who insisted on going down there, don't blame someone else for the result."
He knew in his heart that Jenna was right. That he was fighting with her rather than face what they were fighting about. But still, Avon had said it.
"So what did he mean?"
Jenna stared at him with mixed anger and surprise. "You really don't know, do you? I wanted you, and was obvious about it. He wanted you, and tried to hide it. We talked about it, sometimes, when we made do with each other. I didn't like seeing what it did to him, because it made me realise how easily I could fall into the same trap."
A day of revelations, indeed.
"You were lovers." A statement of fact, not a question. Blake wondered if his jealousy showed.
Evidently not. Jenna, bitterness and grief etching her voice, replied, "No, just shipmates offering each other a little comfort. Lover was the word he'd have used for you, if you'd ever deigned to take notice of how he felt. But you were never lovers, were you?"
She turned to the bed and laid her hand briefly, gently on Avon's cheek. Then she made for the door, her face a mask. Vila looked at her retreating back, then at Blake, then shrugged and scurried after Jenna, obviously about to lose what little control he had.
Leaving only Cally, understanding, forgiving Cally, to witness as Blake whispered wistfully, "No. We weren't," and bent to kiss Avon for the first and only time.
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