It had been the set–up for a joke, but actually Vila hadn’t been far wrong when he’d called Avon the number two man in all the Federated worlds when it came to computers. He’d probably only been one man off from the actual position.
Avon acknowledged that Ensor had probably been better than he was – but then Ensor was now dead. Although to some extent Ensor’s personality lived on in the unnecessarily irritating computer he’d invented, Ensor wasn’t likely to be winning any prizes, or any grants, or topping anyone’s lists of most valuable or most influential technicians, because he was dead. Orac was a computer – it wasn’t a technician, and although it could control other computers it didn’t think creatively. It couldn’t invent – it, too, wasn’t a real rival.
Vila’s punchline, the guy who’d caught Avon, hadn’t really been a guy at all – unless, that is, you counted Avon himself. He’d been careless, he’d let something slip, he’d been brought in, and then had confessed under the threat of torture. It hadn’t been another genius, detecting his programme and bringing him to the attention of the authorities; it had merely been his own incompetence.
There were a few other people whose skill Avon respected – Newman Ol, Jun of Philmon, Cal Deva, Egorian, Yannasa, Eli of Vandor, and whoever it was who had built Zen – but Avon wasn’t convinced any of them were actually better than he was. Eli and Newman Ol certainly weren’t – that was on record.
Avon didn’t like to think of himself as a vain man. He also didn’t think he was, particularly, but he liked facts to be acknowledged. In his field he was, fairly, exceptional. But no one on the Liberator seemed to appreciate this. Or – no, perhaps that was unfair. The others might well have some idea what he was capable of (Vila had made that joke, after all), but in all honesty it didn’t really matter whether they did or not. The problem, as always, was Blake.
Avon didn’t want to care what Blake thought of him, but he did. That was probably putting it mildly, too. By now a considerable amount of Avon’s self–esteem was tied up in Blake’s opinion of him. Ridiculous, but there it was – a top–of–the–line Alpha technician, able to understand and upgrade the technology of a highly advanced alien race, and control Ensor’s temperamental machine, and he was obsessed with the opinion of a non–specialist: a middle–aged engineer–turned–revolutionary, who solved most of his problems either with explosives or by getting someone else to fix them for him. Despite this, Avon felt that Blake had more than enough genius of his own to truly understand what he was dealing with. Avon respected Blake’s gift for strategy; it wasn’t fair that Blake didn’t respect him in return. Of course the universe wasn’t fair, and Avon didn’t think it was, but Blake thought it should be. That he didn’t abide by his own principles was as infuriating as the way he thought he owned Avon, and the way he put Avon’s life and his own constantly in danger, and a hundred other things that he did regularly, because Blake was as infuriating as he was attractive. Very, in other words.
Avon didn’t like to think he was obsessed with Blake, but he knew he was – and that was still putting it mildly.
It wasn’t even as though Blake ignored Avon’s speciality. Blake seemed to treat Avon’s skill as no more extraordinary than the talents possessed by the rest of the crew, all of whom could be put to use in various different ways. Avon was willing to concede that Jenna was a good pilot, and that Vila was very good at depriving other people of their possessions, and that Gan was considerably stronger than any of the others, but they weren’t the best. Blake utilised Avon when he couldn’t get a document to print from his datapad and when he needed someone to re–programme an android prototype in three hours, and seemed to think there wasn’t much difference between the two. Avon was his designated computer technician, and therefore fixed or broke the computers, as was needed. It didn’t seem to occur to him that one task was something that anyone could do – and the other was something almost no one else could do. He was about as grateful for Avon doing one as he was for the other (in fact, he’d been very distracted by the real Avalon’s arrival, so had hardly thanked Avon at all for his work on the android). Certainly Blake appreciated having a capable technician for occasions when he needed something to print or when he needed to break into a communications base, but he seemed equally happy to have Gan around for the occasions when he had something heavy he needed someone to carry.
This time Blake wanted to be able to teleport onto a small, fast–moving target (time–distort eight seemed likely) from the edge of sensor range. The Altas had achieved something similar, but only from aquitar–teleport–bay to aquitar–teleport–bay. Avon thought he could have managed that one almost immediately, if there had been any other DSVs around, but that wasn’t what Blake wanted. Blake wanted to teleport somewhere they weren’t able to lock onto.
They’d managed it for the sub–light cryogenic pod, Blake had pointed out, long before they’d had Orac or been that familiar with the teleport. If anything this should be easier. Avon had pointed out the sub–light pod had barely been moving at all; Blake had remained unimpressed. That had been an hour ago.
“This is a highly specialist, highly difficult job,” Avon reminded Blake now as the other man loomed over him as he tried to re–configure the teleport for what was probably the twelfth time. Avon particularly disliked it when Blake combined his lack of appreciation with this particular stance against the teleport desk. It meant Blake’s crotch was basically at eye–level, and Avon had to struggle to keep scowling at Blake’s face. He knew he’d slipped on a few occasions, but Blake seemed not to have noticed. At any rate, he hadn’t stopped looming.
“The convoy is two hours away,” Blake said, without even responding to Avon’s point. “If you can’t do it by then, we might as well not bother.”
He strode off, and Avon considered throwing something at his head. There was no sign the people who had built the Liberator had ever managed this feat, and Blake wanted it from him in two hours.
One hour and fifty–five minutes later, he’d worked out how to use Orac’s predictive capabilities to accurately map a probable flight path, backed up by Orac’s connection to the onboard pursuit–ship computers (if the moving object had been an unoccupied asteroid they really would have been in trouble). The pursuit ships had a fairly standard design, and from the location of the computer it was possible to extrapolate the rest of the ship’s layout and therefore the room Blake wanted to teleport into.
“Ready?” Blake said, returning to the teleport bay with Jenna and Gan in tow. All of them were dressed as Federation troopers.
The colour black, Avon thought, didn’t really suit Blake. That made him feel slightly better. He also knew Blake hated to wear the uniform of the regime that had butchered his family and friends – that made Avon feel better too briefly, and then it made him feel worse, so he tried to stop thinking about Blake and his wardrobe (difficult – ridiculously) and concentrate on the task at hand.
“I think so,” he said, making final adjustments as the three of them selected bracelets from the rack. “You’ll appear in the rear of the flight deck, right behind the commander’s chair.”
“Good,” Blake said. “Gan, take Orac, will you?”
“Right,” Gan said, hefting the heavy computer off the teleport desk with ease. (Invaluable, Avon thought, watching him do it through narrowed eyes.)
“Just how sure are you that this is going to work, Avon?” Jenna said as she checked the Federation blaster. Her tone said she had serious doubts that Avon had managed it.
“Sure enough,” Avon said.
“To risk our lives, anyway,” Jenna said wryly.
Avon pretended to consider this. “Eighty per cent,” he said, though Orac had actually given him odds much closer to a hundred, or he wouldn’t have allowed his colleagues anywhere near the teleport bay – even if Blake hadn’t been with them. “Seventy–five… eighty per cent … or there abouts.”
Blake made a face. “Teleport now, please, Avon” he said firmly. He wasn’t sympathetic to other people joking around when he wanted to be serious. Either that or he didn’t find the possibility of his own death that amusing, which Avon supposed he could understand, even if it was Blake’s fault he was risking his own life.
He pushed the teleport levers, and Blake, Jenna and Gan disappeared. Avon counted until one hundred and thirty one in his head, waiting for Blake to call back in and confirm their safety. He wasn’t worried, but—
“Convoy leader secured,” Blake’s voice said through the speaker–grill on the wall, and Avon let out the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. “Jenna’s setting a new course now. Cally – take Liberator out as planned. We’ll rendezvous on Malthas.”
The need for a fast pick–up gone, Avon stood and began walking back to the flight deck. The plan now was relatively simple, though still fraught with risk. Orac would issue false orders to the other two pursuit ships in the convoy, directing them towards Avalon’s base on Malthas under the guise of picking up supplies from a drop several miles away from the actual location. They would follow the lead ship, piloted by Jenna – land, and then the plan was that Avalon’s people would board, pretending to be delivering supplies, and take over the two remaining ships. Avon was rather looking forward to a week without Blake – assuming Blake didn’t get himself killed during the next seven days, anyway. That would take all the fun out of it, but assuming he was able to keep himself alive – it would be nice to have a break from the constant awareness of his presence and awareness of his lack of appreciation. A short holiday from being … obsessed with Blake, which was about as exhausting as anything Blake ever asked him to do.
“Understood,” Cally’s voice said.
“Blake,” Vila said, also on the flight deck, his voice like all the others echoing around the corridor Avon was down, “we’ve picked up a message from Avalon.”
“She’s either impatient or she doesn’t trust me,” Blake said. He sounded almost amused – how could anyone distrust him? “Tell her we’ll be there in a week.”
“The channel’s encrypted to your voice,” Vila said as Avon reached the flight deck. “We only know it’s from Avalon because Zen recognised the code.”
“Useful for us, but something of an oversight for the revolution,” Avon commented. He returned to his position, and brought up the radar screen that showed the pursuit ships that contained Blake, Jenna and Gan blinking away from them.
“We can bounce it through to Orac,” Vila suggested.
“I’d prefer not to listen to an unknown secret message in the middle of a Federation flight–deck, if it’s all the same to you,” Blake said. “We’ve only taken out the bridge crew. Avon, can you bring me back across?”
“Ask Orac to do it,” Avon said.
“No,” Avon said.
“Orac is,” Blake said as though that settled it. Avon thought about arguing, but his resistance had already been worn down by the teleport–adjustment dispute, so instead he just pushed himself away from his seat, and walked back out of the flight deck.
Possibly the greatest computer technician of his age, and he was reduced to pushing levers because the greatest computer of the age was busy and Blake didn’t trust the soundproofing on Federation ships.
Call this job satisfaction? he thought irritably as he retraced his steps.
He reached the teleport bay, and pushed the relevant lever. Blake’s image shuddered back into view.
“She couldn’t have contacted us an hour earlier?” Blake grumbled as the two of them retraced Avon’s steps back to the flight deck.
“I find revolutionary leaders tend to keep to their own schedules, don’t you?” Avon said. “Without much thought about what the rest of us might be doing.”
Blake shot him an irritated look, but otherwise didn’t react. Avon felt relatively pleased with this response, however, and so didn’t needle Blake any further. The two of them arrived back on the flight deck together.
“Zen – play Avalon’s message,” Blake said, stopping in front of the computer’s visual reference point as Avon returned to his own position. He pointedly did not look up at the screen, although he assumed Avalon’s face faded into view. It seemed unlikely she had called simply to wish them luck. That meant whatever she was going to tell them would complicate the current mission in some way, possibly fatally, and very probably in some way Avon didn’t agree with. Avalon was perhaps going to tell them she’d discovered her brother was on one of the pursuit ships, meaning they couldn’t indiscriminately kill the troopers on board. Avon thought it best to look death in the face, but sometimes the only thing that made his situation bearable was pretending disinterest.
“Blake,” Avalon’s voice said, “I’m sending this via an encrypted channel because there’s a leak in my organisation.”
“What?” Blake demanded, even though it was a recorded message.
Perfect, Avon thought bitterly. Avalon’s people were even more incompetent than Vila, who on cue, chimed in to ask,
“How leaky of a leak?” in a worried voice.
“Your immediate concern will doubtless be for your people on the convoy,” Avalon said, which Avon thought was possibly overstating it. “They should be safe. Unfortunately the rest of us aren’t so lucky. The mole is a man called Lizba Noon. Interestingly he doesn’t seem to be actively working for the Federation. He’s in it for the money.”
“A man after my own heart,” Vila said morosely, “literally in this case, on a skewer.”
“Noon has escaped with our central datacore,” Avalon said. “I don’t need to tell you what it contains.”
She didn’t. Names, locations, plans, contacts – all held in a secure, encrypted, multilayered database (tarriel cells in the outer layer, firewalled off from a non–tarriel area). It would take the Federation’s best technicians a few hours or so, days at the most, to break through the protections around the core. From a data integrity point of view, it was as though Avalon had just called up to say she’d lost Orac.
“There goes your revolution, Blake,” Avon sneered.
Blake’s shoulders had slumped in, and he was squeezing the bridge of his nose as though to stop a headache – presumably he agreed with this analysis of the situation.
“Those poor people,” Cally said quietly.
“Stupid people,” Avon corrected. He felt particularly unwilling to sympathise with those who had essentially made everything he’d done over the past few months worthless. “Irresponsible, careless, idiotic––”
“That’s enough,” Blake snarled as he swung around to glare at Avon.
“We need to assume the data will fall into Federation hands,” Avalon continued on the screen. “The convoy ships you’re bringing will be used in the evacuation of this base, rather than an immediate attack on Federation HQ as planned.”
They would all have to evacuate. Not just Avalon’s people, but any rebel base that had been established, and had ever communicated with Avalon, would now be worthless. Any spies living undercover inFederation territory would have to leave now, if they could. Plans would have to be abandoned. Months of reconnaissance work would be made worthless, because the Federation would move or change anything they knew the rebels knew about.
“We have only one chance to recover the data. Our information is that Noon didn’t sell directly to the Federation; he sold to the Magnakai.”
Avon stiffened in his seat. He hadn’t expected it, but of course. That made sense. Selling to Servalan personally was a one–way ticket to a short life expectancy, but the Magnakai was in the interest of attracting repeat business. They’d pay, perhaps not as much, but they would pay.
“Magnakai,” Vila said thoughtfully. “Magnakai … I’ve heard of them, haven’t I? And they want to kill us too? Wonderful,” he finished gloomily.
“I haven’t heard of them,” Cally said. Well, she wouldn’t have. Her planet had been in complete isolation for hundreds of years. Vila probably knew about any organisation of people who dispensed large sums of cash – he’d just forgotten.
“They meet in a week’s time on Ullo Beta,” Avalon said on the screen. “If I don’t hear from you on this frequency, confirming your success within nine days, I will know what actions to take. Transmission end.”
The recording flickered off. Blake twisted his head to look back at Avon.
“Can you do it?”
Naturally, Avon thought, Blake would know. It wasn’t his field, and he wasn’t interested in the money, but of course he knew. And he’d never said. Surely if he knew about the Magnakai, then he knew… And it hadn’t made any difference. He still wasn’t impressed. Really, that was Blake all over.
“I have no idea who else will be there,” Avon demurred. “Or what other obstacles there might be––”
“Understood and accepted,” Blake said impatiently, “but broadly, given that we know nothing about it, other than the finale––”
“Yes,” Avon said, and saw Blake relax slightly and then flood with energy again as though the crisis was already over. No wonder he couldn’t stop watching Blake.
“Right,” Blake said, rattling out commands as though they were under attack, “Zen, set a course for Ullo Beta. Cally––”
“I will go to Jenna,” Cally said, decided.
“Right, and you’d better take Vila with you,” Blake said.
“Eh?” Vila said, aghast. Only a few hours ago he’d been loudly rejoicing in his own failure to be useful to the pursuit ship gambit – regrettably having to stay behind on the well–defended Liberator, rather than teleporting right into the middle of Federation troops.
“Tell Jenna what’s happened,” Blake continued. “And then you’ll have to stay with her to make sure the operation is a success. Avalon needs those pursuit ships. Oh, and we’ll need Orac so you’d better send him back.”
“All right, but what has happened?” Cally asked. “What is the Magnakai?”
“Zen,” Avon said, rather than answer and before Blake could, “define the Magnakai. Include any information pertinent to the crew of this vessel.”
It wasn’t in good taste, but he could feel himself grinning as Cally drew closer, and Zen’s voice intoned:
“The Magnakai is an annual tournament, organised by the businesswoman and media tycoon Arkay of Vandor, in which computer specialists across the galaxy compete for a grand prize of one million credits.”
“Oh, those guys,” Vila said. His eyes moved to Avon as he pieced the information together, “Oh, right. Those guys.”
“In the past, the tournament has attracted significant, unwanted Federation attention,” Zen continued, “as the final task traditionally involves the remaining two specialists attempting to extract real data from a complex, secure server. Typically Federation in origin, this data is then broadcast by Arkay’s publications unless the champion forgoes the prize money, something that has only occurred three times in the competition’s twenty–one year history. This year––”
“And this year, the data comes from Avalon,” Blake finished impatiently, “yes, thank you, Zen. The tournament is also held in neutral space, Cally, so all observers and contestants are protected from the Federation by Arkay’s men. We should be quite safe to remain in orbit.”
“One final thing,” Avon said before Blake could dismiss everyone. “Zen, who holds the record for most victories at the Magnakai? Which individual?”
“Kerr Avon has completed the tournament in first place on three separate occasions, more than any other champion.”
“Well done, Avon,” Cally said, and Avon tried and failed not to look pleased.
“How come you’re not a millionaire then?” Vila asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? He worked for the Federation,” Blake said before Avon could answer. “Suppressing the information that could have brought about galactic unreset and political resistance, on three separate occasions, but who’s counting?”
Avon felt his smile drop. Trust Blake too always interpret everything in the worst possible light. “I liked not being arrested,” he said sourly.
“That worked out well for you,” Vila said.
“You’re right,” Avon said sarcastically. “I should have released the data and absconded with the million credits. But at least I get the chance to set that right this year. That is the plan, isn’t it, Blake?”
“I pay as well as the Federation,” Blake said, “which is to say, in freedom.”
“Which is to say, not at all,” Avon said.
“I don’t know. If you win I’ll at least buy you dinner,” Blake said lightly, and Avon felt thrown for the second time in the conversation. Was Blake flirting with him? Sometimes he thought perhaps Blake was, and sometimes he thought that was just how Blake was and it didn’t and couldn’t mean anything because he did it to everyone, but most of the time he assumed he had just imagined it and Blake wasn’t even thinking of these strange offers and quirks of his eyebrows or lips as anything at all. He hadn’t even really paused this time. “Vila, Cally, get kitted up and we’ll put you across.”
“Generous,” Avon said, “considering Arkay’s famously good hospitality. By the time the tournament is over, I doubt I’ll be able to look at caviar or champagne for a long time.”
“Contestants are treated well, then, are they?” Vila said as Cally began steering him out of the room.
Avon smiled sharply. “The entourages too, if they have them.”
“You know I’ve always been handy with a computer myself,” Vila said. “I could come along. Help. Give you some guidance. Moral support. Mop your brow?”
He was still protesting as he took his place next to Cally in the teleport bay, dressed in the black trooper’s uniform that Blake had been wearing, which hung around him baggily.
“But you said there’s absolutely no danger on Ullo Beta!”
“Yes, and that’s why we’re not going,” Cally said as Avon took his seat behind the teleport desk. She pushed the visor of her helmet down, looking decidedly more convincing in her uniform than Vila did. “Jenna and Gan need us; Avon does not.”
“So why is Blake staying?” Vila said forlornly. “He laughs in the face of danger. The best I can manage is a nervous chuckle.”
They all knew Blake, though, so it wasn’t more than a rhetorical question. Vila liked to put up a fight before he agreed to anything he didn’t want to do, even if it was only a rhetorical fight. Though Blake’s skills might be better utilised on the pursuit–ship gambit, than minding the ship while Avon fought the Magnakai, Blake had to be where the action was. He’d only ever allowed someone else to lead a mission on a few previous occasions, with (Avon expected, despite Blake’s pretence at calm) extreme reluctance and a very high level of anxiety. Avon had never volunteered again after Blake had shouted at him for losing Jenna on Cephlon, though he had genuinely thought and still thought that he was more than capable of locating escape pods without Blake’s guidance, and doubted Blake would have done it better. Blake wasn’t yet capable of letting people get on with things. Avon had vaguely had the idea of impressing him, and proving to him that he was wrong back on Cephlon – even Avon had been surprised how completely that idea had failed.
Technically there would be action, much more action, involved in taking the convoy, but the stakes – well, the stakes made all the difference. Jenna’s team would provide vital transport for dozens of revolutionaries; Avon had to save the entire revolution. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, even Vila’s, which group Blake would be going with.
As if on cue, Blake entered through the hexagonal doorway, dressed again in his civilian clothes. Green, Avon thought bitterly, suited him very well.
“Ready?” Blake asked.
“Yes,” Cally said.
“No,” Vila said miserably.
“Good luck,” Avon said and activated the teleport.
The images of his crewmates shivered, warped, and disappeared, leaving the bay empty. Avon stood and turned to leave, realising as he did so that he would have to squeeze past Blake to get out unless Blake moved out the way, which he didn’t seem to be. That would be a lot of body–to–body contact. That would be … not exactly a bad thing, but still awkward. He and Blake were the only two people aboard the ship and Blake had to stand there, did he?
The only two people aboard the ship, Avon’s brain repeated for him, to make sure he’d caught that. This had never happened before. Jenna had always been there as well, or Cally, or one of the two of them had led the away mission.
Blake seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “Alone at last,” he said, smiling slightly.
Was it just amusement at Vila’s pantomime, or did he think he was flirting? Avon considered throwing caution to the wind – Let’s have sex, now, on the floor. Now, Blake. At worst he could pass it off as a joke, and at best…
Blake still hadn’t moved. What the hell did that mean?
Before he made a fool of himself, the teleport activated and a large plastic box reappeared in the teleport bay.
“You were saying?” Avon remarked dryly.
“Avon,” Orac said in Ensor’s most superior voice, “I have just been informed you are to compete in the Magnakai. If you do, you would be well advised to seek my help, both now and during the competition. Although Ensor was already in seclusion at the time the Magnakai was founded, I feel sure––”
Avon removed the key from its slot with an exaggerated flourish, having retreated around the other open side of the teleport desk, the one Blake wasn’t blocking, once the computer had begun speaking.
“You should probably do as he says,” Blake said, through a chuckle.
“I was going to,” Avon said sourly. He hefted the computer into his arms, and tried not to grimace at its weight (how did Gan do this so easily?) as Blake leant against the comm button on the wall.
“Zen, take us out,” Blake told the wall. “Ullo Beta – Standard by Six. I’ll be on the flight deck if you need me,” he told Avon.
That probably wasn’t a double–entendre, and anyway – even if it was, Avon felt ill–disposed towards Blake at the moment given that he’d sided with Orac. So he ignored it and took Orac back to his room, something that was currently infinitely preferable than taking Blake.
He spent most of the week–long journey in that same room, working with Orac. To Orac’s disgust, and Avon’s secret relief, it wasn’t possible to actually cheat at the Magnakai. Arkay was well aware Avon was in possession of Orac, and she was also well aware of Orac’s capabilities. All the information about this year’s tasks seemed, therefore, to be hidden inside non–tarriel systems. Avalon’s datacore was similarly protected, so Avon would be on his own, there, too. Nor had the manufacturers been stupid enough to leave detailed plans for their security systems lying about anywhere Orac could access.
It was however possible to extrapolate from previous competitions what the tasks were likely to be. For example, there was always an easy warm–up round to weed out the true amateurs – this usually involved restoring some sort of complex broken device. Avon was confident enough in his abilities that he rarely bothered practicing for this round, but Blake thoughtfully broke the food–machine anyway (on purpose, apparently) just before Avon emerged from his room for his only planned meal of the day.
Ten minutes into the job, Blake wandered through, supposedly with the intention of looking for Orac.
“It’s not here,” Avon pointed out, arms deep in wiring and unwilling to look at him.
“I’ll check your room,” Blake said. “The record for fixing a standard food machine is twenty minutes, eleven,” he added as though this were incidental, rather than the point of his visit.
“Mine,” Avon said.
“Mm,” Blake said. “I look forward to a cup of tea in ten minutes.”
Once he’d gone, Avon noticed there was a still–steaming mug of coffee on the workstation, two apples, and a bag of crispy snacks. This meant two things – one, that Blake probably had broken the food machine on purpose, and two, that he’d felt guilty about it. Either that or this was the promised dinner, in which case Avon thought he’d rather oversold it. The job took thirty eight minutes, fifty five seconds, in total – reasonable, Avon thought, given the Alta’s machine was very far from standard.
The initial sift round would be timed, and the eight top–performing competitors would go through to the tournament proper. Two further rounds would each weed out half the competitors, leaving two champions remaining to face off against the final task – which would be Avalon’s datacore.
The two unknown rounds would almost certainly be a combination of coding, new product creation, encryption or decryption, bionics, AI, or architecture. Of this, product creation was by far the most likely, as Arkay automatically owned the patents to anything the contestants made, and these provided an additional revenue stream for her.
It was possible to prepare well (to cheat, without cheating) for this round too. The badly prepared would attempt to think up something new on the spot; Avon had always brought an idea with him. The components you could use in this particular challenge, and the tools available, would be unknown to you until you arrived, but a good technician would be able to improvise and make replacement components for anything he didn’t find pre–made. For a while Avon wondered about his detector shield – it was a good product (essentially shielding any ship from all but short–range detectors), and would be extremely useful to a wide variety of people, but there were two problems with this as a strategy.
The first was that he hadn’t quite finished it, and hadn’t tested it at all. He’d hoped for longer than a week for both tasks, given how thoroughly one would have to rely on it. The other problem was perhaps more problematic still. Avon had intended to give the detector shield to Blake. It was to be a sort of gift: one that was designed to show off his own talents and which would make it significantly less likely that either of them would die. If he gave the device instead to Arkay, other clever people would be able to buy their own copies from the patent, and they’d be able to work out how to get around it – not immediately, but eventually. That would make it useless.
No, on balance Avon preferred to keep the detector shield to himself, but that meant he needed to invent something else. He spent a few hours profitlessly staring into space, trying to become inspired. Orac was no use for this task – the very limitations on the device meant that it wasn’t creative. Eventually, after almost an entire afternoon had been wasted, Avon realised he had another resource he could exploit that he hadn’t touched yet.
Blake was on the flight deck. He had been for almost the entire journey to Ullo, baring a few short periods where he’d gone to shower or break things Avon needed. Right now he was sprawled in the sofa seats, “resting his eyes”. Avon had intended to ask his question from the doorway, to get an answer and then go, but as usual he found himself drawn into Blake’s orbit without the other man exerting any conscious pull. He found himself leaning over the back of the sofa, as he often did, looking down at Blake and breathing him in.
“Imagine,” Avon said, close to Blake’s ear, “that you are a power–hungry meglomaniac––”
Blake did not jump. He did tilt his head back and open one baleful eye as though to say, Is that the best you’ve got?
Avon grinned – for some reason he loved Blake’s refusal to get angry, almost as much as he loved his fire.
“—if you can,” Avon said, driving the thing home. “You own the biggest interplanetary news network in the galaxy. What is the one electronic device you want but do not already own?”
Blake closed his eye again to consider this. Unobserved, Avon licked his lips, and then hastily drew back to a more decorous distance.
Eyes still closed, Blake said, “Orac,” his lips curved in a smile of possession. The word hung in the air for a moment, and then Avon said,
“No good. Even if I had the time to reconstruct the most intricate and powerful computer of the age from scrap, Orac’s value is based on the fact that it is unique.”
“You have the time to replicate some of his functionality,” Blake said.
“I could construct a plastic box in an hour,” Avon said sarcastically. “That doesn’t mean—No, wait a moment.” He’d realised what Blake had seen – a few seconds slower (how irritating), but he’d seen it. “I could replicate some of its functionality. The wireless network functionality is unique, but is most useful to us because Orac can read tarriel cells. We don’t want to share that functionality, but … There could be a way…”
“You’re welcome,” Blake said, amused, as Avon was already most of the way out of the room – implying, of course, that he should be thanked, and that Avon hadn’t thanked him.
“I’ll give you a share of the winnings,” Avon shot back, and heard Blake chuckle in response.
With Orac’s help, Avon built a set of simple integration cells. These could be snapped into place within the workings of any tarriel–based computer. You would initially have to have physical contact (Avon hadn’t yet cracked the subspace access to the tarriel cells, and wouldn’t have shared the solution even if he had), but once the cell was in place, you could call on it from wherever you were in the galaxy. It would suck whatever information you needed from the computer it was connected to into a central processing unit that Avon had also built. Then you could do whatever you wanted with that data. Crude – particularly in comparison to Orac – but it would work; Avon could almost certainly construct it out of whatever was left for him in the tournament; and nobody else had anything like it. Except Blake, of course.
Rather pleased, Avon presented the initial prototype to Blake, back on the flight deck. “Your own spy network.”
“Thank you,” Blake said, accepting the processor and turning it over in his hands. He was in Vila’s position, and so when he put the device down it was on top of the console, framing it in radar blips representing neutral ships. “If I were a power–hungry meglomaniac, I’d certainly be impressed.”
Was that a compliment? If Blake acknowledged that he was power–hungry, as Avon had jokingly implied he was, then he could be talking about himself. It probably was a compliment, although given that Avon had invented something new and incredibly useful (not useful to Blake, directly, perhaps, but Blake did want him to win the Magnakai) generic approval was probably the least Blake could give.
Avon shrugged, as though it had been nothing; to imply he could have been far more brilliant given more time, which he probably could have been. He took a seat on the sofa. “It’s enough, anyway.”
“One day left. What’re you working on?” Blake asked casually. There were, in fact, about 27 hours until they reached Ullo Beta, but Avon assumed Blake thought he might sleep at some point, which wasn’t an entirely unreasonable expectation.
“Well, unless I get a better offer, I expect I’ll practice decryption,” Avon said.
A risky strategy – flirting back, particularly when he wasn’t even sure Blake was flirting, but it had occurred to Avon that the remaining 27 hours were critical. When they reached Ullo Beta, he would teleport down, and Blake wouldn’t. He would sleep the two nights of the tournament in the plush quarters provided for competitors who made it past the first task (pretending he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, would just look suspicious to both Arkay and Blake), whereas Blake would stay on the ship. Then Avon would either lose the tournament – in which case Blake was highly unlikely to want to sleep with him, even if he was generally interested – or Avon would win … and who knew what would happen after that? The Federation would probably attack as soon as they were outside Arkay’s defences, and Blake would probably forget him, and what he’d done, to focus on their next attack with Avalon.
These final 27 hours, then, were perhaps the only hours he had left. Avon was willing, therefore, to be less cautious than usual. Slightly less cautious. He still had plausible deniability – a trick learned from Blake himself, so Blake should appreciate it.
Blake ignored it.
“Orac thinks that coding is by far the most likely third task.”
Out of Blake’s line of sight Avon made a face. Coding wasn’t real work. He could do it, of course, but all the important tasks involved in building and maintaining any serious computer were manual. He had re–programmed the Avalon android by re–wiring its circuits, and inserting joins between different neural blocks in its synaptic core. He’d re–programmed Zen, the complex alien computer, hundreds of times, using (in most cases) nothing more than a good set of laser probes. The very first task he’d ever done for Blake, opening the doors of the London, had been effected with those same probes. He supposed he could have grafted a tablet into the London’s mainframe, and written something that would have done the same job – if he’d had a tablet (not as easy to hide in your shoe as a probe), and if Blake had wanted the job done in an hour, rather than five minutes.
Coding was for people who had a lot of time, and didn’t like to get their hands dirty. Avon supposed he could see the appeal for someone like Arkay, who employed a lot of people almost exclusively so she wouldn’t have to get her hands dirty, but she was also greedy. Coding was an optional extra, rather than something that was going to make Arkay richer.
“Orac is wrong.”
He doubted it as soon as he said it – Orac had always been right so far, but it was also a machine, only able to extract conclusions from known variables. Well, Avon was able to do that too. Coding didn’t fit. In the last ten years, it had only been used once as a task at the Magnakai, and only then as the initial sift. That alone might make it more likely to be selected, perhaps; an unexpected challenge that might throw the contestants off their game, but that could mean better candidates would be weeded out earlier, which was not a sound strategy.
“There’s no money in coding,” Avon said now, reassuring himself as well as Blake by speaking his logic out loud, “therefore it will not be chosen. Arkay also wants the best contestants to get to the final round, to give them the best chance of opening Avalon’s datacore. A skilled coder has no advantage against that datacore, whereas a skilled code breaker––”
He left that one hanging, but it would be obvious: that skill would be vital.
“How good are you at decryption?” Blake said, very close suddenly to Avon’s ear.
He must have walked down the flight deck to stand behind the sofa, and lean over it, as Avon had done a few days ago. Smirking slightly, Avon turned his head to meet Blake’s eyes. So close, intoxicatingly so. They both knew how good he was. Blake might not appreciate it, but he did know, now. He’d relied on that skill enough.
And indeed, Blake inclined his head, acknowledging it. “So why not look at coding?” he said, holding Avon’s gaze throughout the question. “If you’re that good.”
Back on the London, Avon had been asked a similar question, which Blake had excused with a faux–casual, Just wondering how good you really are. Avon had retorted, Don’t try and manipulate me, Blake. He’d come to think of that as a waste of breath. Blake did it so effectively, and he did it here with flattery, and it was embarrassing particularly because Avon knew Blake was right, just as Orac was probably right. Avon didn’t need to practice decryption – he’d been willing to forgo that practice for 27 hours of passion with Blake, who was surely flirting now, but if so definitely on purpose and probably only to get Avon to do what Blake wanted him to do. Infuriating, clever bastard.
What would happen, I wonder, Avon thought, if instead of acquiescing, I leant forward and bit him? On the pale, plump bulge of Blake’s lower lip. Or lower still, perhaps…
It would be unexpected, if nothing else. Blake might not even push him away, if he was surprised enough, for long enough that Avon could get his teeth in …
But if he did pull away—And what if Orac was right?
Gracefully, Avon rose to his feet, with another final sour look at Blake. Let Blake perhaps think that was for being so tedious and foolish, rather than the only weapon left in his arsenal. Blake’s eyes followed him upwards, though Blake stayed kneeling by the sofa, arms spread across it in the space where they had previously framed Avon’s back.
On his way out the back exit of the flight deck, Avon swept Orac into his arms, fought the pain (How did Gan do this so easily?) and maintained a neutral expression, and left via the stairs. Let Blake think perhaps that he’d gone to spend time with a more interesting companion; or that he’d left to rehearse decryption techniques.
Frustratingly he knew Blake would think none of these things were likely.
He dumped Orac onto his desk, and inserted the key. “Why coding, Orac?”
“Fascinating,” Orac said snidely. “With each day your questions become less precise and more incomphrensible.”
“Fascinating,” Avon echoed, irritated. “A computer that predicts the future but can’t extrapolate context from a recent conversation. Why coding in the Magnakai?”
“Insolence is uncalled for,” Orac retorted.
“Take your own advice for a change,” Avon snarled. “Why, Orac?”
Orac sniffed, or made a sound like a sniff that the greatest computer–technician of his age had seen fit to hardwire into the machine’s mainframe alongside the rest of its awful personality.
This sort of thing, Avon thought sourly, dwelling on Blake’s manoeuvring and the million credits they wouldn’t be winning and his inability to even get information out of Orac, would never happen to Ensor.
“If you had been keeping up with developments in your profession it would not be necessary for me to enlighten you,” Orac said, as though it (like Avon) were growing steadily more irritated as the conversation progressed. “However, as you have failed to do this, you have missed a highly relevant series of events. A string of thefts on neutral planets, including Vandor and Ullo Beta––”
Without thinking about it, Avon sat slowly on the bed.
Neutral planets. That would be why he hadn’t heard of this, then. The weapons of the Federation were almost certainly what was going to kill them, so that was where Avon had focused any attention he’d been able to give to things that weren’t Zen, or Orac (possibly the two most complex computers in the galaxy), or the systems Blake wanted him to collapse, or Blake. He had checked in on what his peers were doing, through Orac, but clearly (and the machine knew this and had never offered the information) hadn’t asked exactly the right question to elicit this answer – until now.
Now, at the final hour, when the information was almost entirely unless to him, Orac was discoursing at length on the thefts, all of which seemed to involve tarriel systems that had been accessed remotely using a coding string that had pushed credits from the systems involved into a set of unnamed accounts, leaving behind only a set of childish insults about the former owner. One of those who had been worst hit by these thefts was Arkay of Vandor, who had accounts on several neutral worlds, all of which had been attacked.
It was therefore very likely, Orac explained, though Avon had worked it out for himself by now, that coding would feature in the Magnakai – not only because it had been proved extremely useful, but also because it would presumably be possible to identify the thief if he were in attendance.
And he will be, Avon realised. It’s a stupid move, he’ll know it’s a trap, but he won’t be able to resist proving he’s the best.
That meant there would be someone at the Magnakai who was better than Avon, even if it was only in this one aspect. If they were paired together in coding (and it was likely this would be the penultimate task, so that product creation could be tackled by a larger number, and thus reap potentially greater benefits, meaning there was a good chance this would happen), then Avon would lose. He wouldn’t even make it to the final round and Avalon’s datacore.
“And you’ve told Blake this?” he asked Orac, feeling almost numb with the shock of it. Pointless question. Obviously Orac had told Blake – Blake had told Avon that Orac had – but the answer was actually worse than the simple confirmation Avon had expected.
“Blake asked me to confirm his suspicions – a trivial waste of my abilities since the conclusion was obvious to anyone with the required information.”
Avon thought about asking, How long has Blake known? But decided it wouldn’t make him feel better. A week? A month? What did it matter? Blake had thought to ask the right question where Avon hadn’t, and now Blake not only knew that Avon was vulnerable; he also knew Avon hadn’t even had the wit to know he was. Blake had been kind when he’d attributed his own deduction to Orac. Or perhaps he simply hadn’t wanted Avon to know how many steps ahead he was. Yes, that was more like Blake. Blake wasn’t kind to idiots; he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
Feeling was starting to creep back in around the edges of Avon’s numbness – a mixture of shame, fear, anxiety, anger, and depression. At least he’d locked the door on arrival. Nobody would walk in and find him like this. Blake wouldn’t.
“Can I assume you have finished with my services?” Orac asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Avon snapped, reaching for anger as the best of the available emotions.
Due to his own negligence, he had 27 hours – 26 and a half, now, presumably – to become better than a specialist at something that was only tangentially related to his own specialism. Blake knocked on the door on several occasions (how many was unclear – Avon lost count during the night), but consistently went away again if ignored for more than ten minutes. Eventually Blake’s voice echoed through the speaker grill next to Avon’s bed:
“Avon, we’re in orbit around Ullo Beta. Ready for teleport in twenty minutes.”
“All right,” Avon said, hearing his voice rasp with disuse.
“You’ve … looked better,” Blake said delicately, when Avon arrived in the teleport bay twenty minutes later.
“It’s too late for compliments now,” Avon said. He was pleased that this, at least, sounded almost normal. He’d drunk one of the mugs of coffee Blake had left to get cold outside his door during the night, and that had helped.
His teleport bracelet locked around his wrist, Avon looked up, and saw that Blake, too, had looked better. He hadn’t shaved this morning, or washed presumably, and there were dark bags under his eyes. Naturally Avon still found him deeply attractive, but a normal person probably wouldn’t.
“You didn’t sleep either,” Avon observed as he stepped backwards into the bay.
“No,” Blake said briefly. “Ready?”
“Worried about the result, presumably,” Avon said
“No,” Blake said, making final adjustments to the teleport. “I trust you.” He looked up, his expression unchanged, as though he hadn’t just made a sweeping, important statement that was very probably false. “Ready?”
Rather than reply, Avon nodded. Was it true? Unlikely, given the events of the previous day. That meant it was a lie, but Blake wanted him to feel better. Consideration, Avon supposed. That was something.
The air in front of him shimmered as Blake put him down on the planet, just outside the main landing area in Ullo’s capital dome. Avon blinked in the brighter lights of his destination as he materialised.
It was warm – slightly too warm in fact, as Arkay was apparently susceptible to cold, and she was paying the heating bill. Avon had remembered this, but had decided he would feel even less confident if he’d had to turn up in someone else’s clothes. He’d chosen the silver–leather tunic and long boots for the first task and the banquet that would follow for the chosen champions. If the temperature got too unbearable, he could always remove the tunic, but it would make for a good entrance.
“Down and safe,” he told his bracelet, removing it from his wrist.
The other benefit of the silver tunic was that he could easily conceal his teleport bracelet down the front of it – what he would do if he ended up in just the undershirt and skin–tight trousers, he wasn’t sure.
“Try and stay that way,” Blake’s voice said from the speaker.
“Should be possible,” Avon said. “I’ll call in after the sift. Don’t try and contact me before then.”
“Understood,” Blake said. “Liberator out.”
Foolishly Avon felt a pang of loss and loneliness as he tucked the bracelet away. He was in familiar surroundings, even if the planet itself wasn’t one he’d ever been to. This was his twelfth Magnakai – he knew what would happen, and what was expected. Actually, in a way, it would have felt strange to have brought Blake – the greatest symbol of his current life – to this, the stage of his former glories. A bit like taking Blake home to meet his parents, perhaps. Something that would, thank god, never happen.
He reached the entrance hall, smile firmly fixed in place to greet the herald. It was, he realised as he got closer, exactly the same man from two years ago: smooth, handsome, almost certainly reported whatever you said directly back Arkay. It really was like going back in time, pre-Blake. Avon could barely remember what it had felt like to exist, pre-Blake; how he would have felt, greeting a man like this, in this location, before he’d met Blake. Right now he felt little more than distaste, and apprehension.
“Kerr Avon!” the herald exclaimed as Avon approached, sounding as overjoyed as if they had been close friends. “Well, well, I heard you were coming this year.”
“And here I am,” Avon said.
“Didn’t see your ship on the manifest, though,” the herald said. Fishing, Avon guessed, but he might as well take the bait. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know, or couldn’t check the security footage.
“I came by teleport.”
It was as though credit signs had appeared in the herald’s eyes. “So it’s true? Your own invention?”
“Sadly not,” Avon said, “but when you’re the only man who knows how it works, does it matter?”
The herald laughed, echoing Avon’s grin back at him. “You know, I’d love to see it in operation..”
I bet you would, Avon thought, allowing his smile to grow wider. He gestured towards the door rather than answer. “Can I go in?”
“Naturally,” the herald said smoothly and toothily, as though Avon hadn’t just brushed him off. “Naturally. I’ll just announce you, and–– Oh, who’s sponsoring you? Not the Federation any more, I understand.”
“No, I’m an independent candidate,” Avon said, and received effuse congratulations for having managed this. Sincere, he thought. Possibly, anyway, given Vandor’s pride in its own continued neutrality. “Do you who know they brought instead?”
“I understand it’s Newman Ol.”
Avon suppressed a small smirk. “All right.”
He liked Ol, who had been in his graduating class. They’d even worked together briefly, on the Aquatar project, but Ol was like Orac – no imagination. That they’d brought him along suggested that, as Avon had expected, the Federation didn’t really care about the outcome of this tournament. And why should they? While they wanted Avalon’s data it would be public property if anyone except Avon won. They thought someone else’s victory was probable enough that they hadn’t gone to the bother of tracking down anyone exceptional for themselves. That was a mistake. Just hearing the name of a man he could beat, and easily, made Avon feel better.
The herald announced his name and his credentials as Avon entered the Dome lobby. Heads turned towards him as he passed; more, he thought, because he was there at all, rather than lying low, than because of his practically flawless record, but still – it was rather nice to be the centre of attention.
Declining a glass of champagne (the sift would take place in an hour – only idiots chose to dampen their reactions before competing), Avon made his way through the crowd towards what were clearly two Federation mutoids. As expected, he found Ol standing between them, talking to one of Arkay’s reporters – a young woman, taking notes in an augmented datapad.
Ol had grown a beard since the last time Avon had seen him, and a presumably increased salary had enabled him to grow slightly wider too, but the smile as he saw Avon was the same.
“Didn’t think you’d really turn up.”
“I had nothing better to do,” Avon said. “No one better to talk to.” He smiled disarmingly at the nearest mutoid, which looked back at him impassively – clearly programmed not to attack him on neutral ground. “Or something like that anyway. How’s Aquitar?” he asked Ol.
“Same old, same old,” Ol said. “A waste of government funding. It’s never going to work. I don’t think we’re any better off that when you were with us.”
“Oh dear, that is a shame,” Avon said insincerely.
“A little look at the Liberator’s facility would probably help, though. And since you’re here, and we’re here–”
Avon pretended to consider this. “Yes, I must try and arrange that for you. Perhaps after you win the contest, Newman?”
“Uncalled for, Avon,” Ol shouted after him as Avon moved back into the crowd.
The reporter who had been talking to Ol followed him, close at his elbow. “While you’re here, Avon, I wonder if we could talk about your time aboard the Liberator, thus far. No trade secrets, of course,” she said, when Avon shot her an amused look. “Your side of the story. The truth behind the Federation propaganda. Your reasons for rebelling against the Federation. What Blake is really like.”
Avon slowed, considering it.
A difficult proposition, though she probably hadn’t realised it. What was Blake really like? An interview would be unlikely to capture this, particularly an interview with him. After watching the other man obsessively for over a year, Avon felt he had a better idea what Blake was like than most people, but even he had only grazed the surface. Blake was subtle and private, even as he was an icon. Avon was also aware that if asked to describe Blake out loud, he would say things that were only mostly true; probably only the worst parts of Blake. Self-protection. Blake would understand; Blake did understand. Or did he? Perhaps Blake really thought Avon disliked him – Avon was so far away from being an authority on Blake that he didn’t even know that. He didn’t even know whether Blake would want him to talk about the Liberator. Good publicity for the cause of rebellion, or an embarrassing stunt? Perhaps he’d give too much away.
“We’ll pay for your time, of course,” the reporter said coaxingly.
Avon twisted his head towards her, eyes narrowed. “How much?”
The rest of the reception passed in similar fashion. Avon renewed acquaintances with technicians from across the galaxy (some previous colleagues; all now rivals; no serious threats) and spoke to a few new ones who were trying their luck after minor successes somewhere. He met journalists, producers, and with the "usual crowd" who attended these contests – “independent business men”, generally, and gamblers, although there were also a very few amateur enthusiasts as well – rich but not very bright. He even saw Arkay herself across the other side of the room – a thin, pale woman, shielded by large dark glasses that obscured most of her face, and of course by a group of large, armed guards. Diamonds sparkled round her neck and wrists, making Avon think ruefully of the Liberator treasure room stock Blake had now mostly sold off. Avon inclined his head towards her and thought perhaps she smiled, but it was difficult to say behind the glasses. Then he was swept away into another conversation about the teleport.
With each person he spoke to, Avon felt more and more assured. What had he been worried about? He was the best; he’d wiped the floor with everyone here on three separate occasions; and all of them wanted the teleport and Orac and none of them had so much of a glimpse. This would be easy. He was going to win, he was going to save Avalon’s data, and Blake would be grateful. At last. And impressed. Oh yes. Yes, he would be so grateful, and so impressed, that–
Blinking, Avon focused again. It was one of the newbies, or a journalist; probably too young (twenty, perhaps; twenty-five at most) to be a producer or a businessman, but then his clothes were expensive. Family money, presumably, that he was gambling away in some way or another. Everyone’s name and job title had been announced, but Avon had only been listening with half an ear, even assuming this one hadn’t arrived before him. It probably didn’t matter. He’d find out sooner or later if it was important. The boy had a sharp face, accentuated by a small pointed beard that didn’t match his bright blond hair. His eyes were dancing.
“It is you. Wow. OK, I’m surprised Blake let you out,” the newbie said, “or – no, of course, you’re here on his business, aren’t you? The final task is rebellion data, isn’t it? Duh. OK. So you switched sides, but you’re still here to ruin Arkay’s fun.” He laughed, startlingly. “Classic Avon.”
“Do I know you?” Avon said, as coldly as he could. He removed his hand from the newbie’s grasp. As a rule, he didn’t like children – Vila was bad enough. He didn’t even like children who seemed to like him, as this one did, though a little too enthusiastically for Avon’s taste. Someone in more control of what they were saying would have noticed that there were a few insulting moments laced through that speech. Accidents presumably, the speaker tripping over himself to please and only sticking his foot deeper into his mouth, but it grated.
“Apparently not, but I know you. You’re a legend round here – three–time Kai winner, Kerr Avon. You and Blake have been running rings around the Federation for months now. You broke their cypher machine, reprogrammed that android in a few hours, and Zen – Oh, man. What I wouldn’t give to see that ship, and Orac – and you actually work on them.”
Despite his previous prejudice, Avon felt himself softening. That was how he’d feel if anyone else here owned Orac and Zen. It wasn’t really fair he had both, even one would have been a miracle. He would have been jealous, extremely, and not just at the financial opportunity being denied to him.
Then the boy ruined it again by saying, “I even heard you tried to steal five million credits last year.”
That failed theft was the element of Avon’s career he was least proud of. Not only because it had failed, but because it had lost him Anna and landed him on the London. His plan should have worked, and perhaps in the abstract that was impressive, as was the fact that he had escaped the Federation afterwards, but Avon had only ever cared about outcomes. So he’d tried to steal five million credits – he’d lost everything with it.
“Yes, that’s right,” he said shortly, hoping to wrap this conversation up now, and move on to talk to someone else who wasn’t a conversational minefield. “Who are you again?”
“I actually did.”
The boy gave him a bright, hard smile, and disappeared off into the fray, leaving Avon’s old, tired brain to make sense of that. He had – what? Stolen five million credits last year. That meant he must be…
Avon ignored the man who’d tried to take over the conversation with him in the boy’s absence, and tried to locate the bright blond hair in the crowd. It wasn’t difficult, actually, and when he’d found the boy, talking to Ol across the room, he saw him turn to give another grin.
That meant the insults that Avon had attributed to clumsiness had been there on purpose. The boy was laughing at him, and had been from the beginning. He felt secure enough in his own excellence that he could sneer at Avon’s achievements as unexceptional, and he was here – at this tournament. He was here at the tournament Avon most needed to win.
The gong rang to indicate the sift was about to start. People began to drift into the main arena, or the viewing stalls around it. There were two subsidiary rings, but these wouldn’t be used until later rounds. In five minutes’ time the sift would begin. Avon’s body took him on autopilot, as his mind continued to turn over the meeting that had just happened. The boy had waited until the final minutes of the reception to approach him. He’d must have wanted Avon to be rattled, to make a mistake, to damage his changes.
Well now, Avon thought, he would have to disappoint the arrogant little shit.
It should be easy. Avon was better, now, than he’d been when the Federation had arrested him. No one here had any idea what he could do.
He’d been placed in front of a faulty life-support machine. A LED screen hanging over his head read: ‘Kerr Avon, 25:04’ – his name, and an estimate for a fast fix, agreed in advance by a group of Arkay’s own specialists. The sift task was repair and restoration, then. Predictable.
At this stage there were more than thirty technicians crowded into the arena, most of whom were chattering to each other. This task would whittle them down to eight. The broken devices all had roughly similar fix-times, but scores were calculated based on a percentage of the average. If you had a simpler device, you could finish first in time, but be bumped back a few paces in the overall ranking. Scores weren’t carried over from task to task, though, so there was no difference between first and eighth; it was ninth you really had to avoid.
A lot of the people at this stage were amateurs, or just incompetents, or just not truly gifted. For that reason, Avon had never really tried before in this round – he’d always thought there was no sense wasting mental energy on something he would definitely pass. He typically finished fourth or fifth. In previous years he’d actually thought it was rather gauche to try in the sift.
It was things like that that sometimes made Avon think back on his previous self with loathing.
This year would be different. For one thing, the rebellion couldn’t afford to lose through his carelessness or posturing. For another – a win here (an impressive win) would be a psychological weapon he could use against his fellow competitors. Half of them almost certainly felt like giving up already just because three-time Kai winner Kerr Avon had chosen to compete; he could take out the other half too, including…
Avon scanned the arena for the blond head, and found it beneath a sign reading ‘Dom Ralmori, 24: 52’. That might be a fake name, but probably wasn’t. Nothing the boy had done spoke of self-preservation. Avon made a mental note – Dom Ralmori. With any luck Arkay had already found some way to orchestrate the brat’s death or incarceration, but if she didn’t, then Orac would be able to track him from this planet. That could be useful.
He looked away before Ralmori could catch him glaring for the second time this evening. The task was what was important now. The average time for fixing this sort of machine, in this sort of condition, was around 25 minutes. Well, Avon could do it in 23.
As the thought crossed his mind, he could almost feel Blake glowering at him over the top of the machine.
“I know,” Avon murmured, smiling, “do it in twenty.”
In the end, he was done in a little more than nineteen minutes. It was easy, really. He’d been doing harder tasks in less time almost every day since the London.
No one else finished much before their time limit. And they did look scared – as though Avon were more than just a good technician now, as though he were a step beyond them all.
“Congratulations,” Blake’s voice said through Avon’s teleport bracelet later that night.
The first day’s organised events were over. Avon was in his assigned room, which was at least as big as the Liberator’s flight deck and had several other rooms branching off it. Even though he’d just come from the champions’ banquet, there were exotic fruits and chocolates arranged on one of the bedroom tables, and a bottle of champagne chilling in a large silver holder. As usual, Arkay had spared no expense. Somewhere out near Malthas, Vila must be kicking himself.
“Orac says you excelled today,” Blake continued, sounding for once as though he were genuinely pleased, as though he intended that to be a compliment.
Avon tried to appreciate the praise, and the sound of Blake’s voice, but he still felt on edge. While some of the other chosen champions, Ol included, had been appropriately impressed, Ralmori (fifth of eight) had just laughed. “Desperate,” he’d murmured as he’d passed Avon into the banquet hall. And it had been.
“That sounds unlikely,” Avon said, pulling himself back to the conversation with difficulty.
Blake laughed. “Orac’s interpretation was different, I’ll grant you, but he reported that the odds on you winning are have shortened to four to one on. The shortest odds in the history of the Magnakai.”
Again – the sound of what might also be pride curling around Blake’s warm tones. And once again Avon wished he could enjoy it, but four to one still meant that someone out there thought there was a twenty per cent chance he would lose. Personally he thought it could be higher.
“Can you send Orac down?” he asked Blake.
The two of them had agreed that Orac should remain on the ship because, neutral planet or not, protected by Arkay’s guards or not, Orac was still too much of a temptation for too many people on Ullo Beta. But now Avon was having second thoughts. His possessions would, after all, already have been searched and the supercomputer had not been among them. Everybody knew that he had a teleport, but they probably wouldn’t expect him to bring Orac down, because it was a stupid move. Avon knew it was a stupid move, but the second and third tasks were due to take place the following day. One of those tasks – the third probably – would be coding, and he might very well not win. Meeting Ralmori had only intensified Avon’s need to be well prepared. He needed Orac to tell him whether his efforts were best focused around object-orientated programming, or event-driven architecture, or something else entirely.
“Get some sleep,” Blake said.
The expected answer, and only what Blake should say, but Avon could feel panic rising in him.
“Blake, if you want me to win this tournament, then I need Orac now.”
“Why?” Blake said.
Avon made a face. It was clear from his behaviour this morning that Blake already knew about Avon’s insecurities. Thus this question, which forced him to say aloud something he was ashamed of, was cruel and unnecessary.
“There’s something I need – on a very high shelf,” Avon deadpanned.
“We need to win,” Blake said (he hadn’t laughed. That meant he’d rolled his eyes and Avon just hadn’t seen it). “And we will, I have complete faith, but to do that, Avon, you need to sleep, far more than you need Orac. Rest. Please. You know I’m counting on you.”
Avon considered arguing, but he knew Blake in this mood. Intractable. Blake had decided what was best for him, and Blake always knew what was right. It would have to be the truth, then. Only the truth, the awfulness of the truth, stood a chance of changing his mind.
“He’s here,” Avon said, glad he didn’t have to see Blake as he said it. Two words, but it was essentially an admonition of fear, of weakness, and of potential failure moments after Blake had said, We need to win.
A pause and then Blake said, “Do we have a name?”
“Dom Ralmori,” Avon said, glad Blake had understood so he didn’t have to explain it, and hating that Blake had understood. “Young, Earth accent, rude.”
“Right. I’ll get Orac to run a search on him,” Blake said. “I’ll call in tomorrow morning.”
The line disconnected – a token gesture, in a way, because Avon could always call back in to the Liberator, but there was little point if Blake considered the conversation closed. As usual, Blake was also right. Avon hadn’t slept at all the previous night. His limbs ached. His head ached. But Blake needed him to win, and Blake had complete faith that he would do so. Avon knew he could force himself to sit down at the computer terminal provided in the room, and use what he knew to practice without Orac. That might be worth it, but then again it might be a waste of his energy. Without Orac, Blake’s suggestion – rest, please – was tempting.
The next morning he triumphed against Newman Ol in Product Creation.
“Your own personal spy network,” he told Arkay, smiling more at the memory of play-acting this scene with Blake a few days before, than his own current victory, as he placed the tarriel–cell reader into Arkay’s gloved hand. She raised an eyebrow over the edge of her glasses at the insinuation, and Avon demurred,
“A curiosity. Naturally you’d never use it, and nor would I.”
“The galaxy is fortunate it has two such law-abiding citizens in it,” Arkay said, with what Avon thought might be a flicker of amusement.
She’d never liked him – people didn’t generally, and Avon had (as Ralmori had put it) “ruined her fun” at three previous tournaments. But she’d also made money from the devices he’d presented her with in previous years. Enough money, Avon thought, that she tolerated without liking him.
Along with almost everyone else, Avon wandered over to the other arena to watch the next contest to finish. The four bouts of the second task had staggered start times, thirty minutes apart. That meant it was possible for observers to walk from arena to arena to catch the all-important moment of victory and loss for each competing pair. As Avon arrived Ralmori was just finishing off what Avon deduced was probably a weapons detector.
Pedestrian, Avon thought as he watched. He pressed his hands together to stop them twitching.
Perhaps the boy wouldn’t even get through this round. True, Ralmori did have a console plugged into the device, which he was presumably feeding code into, and thus the device could be more complicated than it looked, but if it was it would be difficult to maintain. Sometimes they did take that into account.
Twenty minutes later the round finished. Ralmori’s opponent had built half of a personal hovercraft, before running out of time. A nice idea – Avon could see how it would work – but not right for the competition. Too complex.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” Ralmori said with a smirk. (Whatever he’d done, he at least thought it was likely to be impressive). He entered a command line into in the console, and the air around him shook. The guns held by Arkay’s guards sparked, and a few people in the stands shouted in alarm as weapons concealed inside their clothing sparked as well. The range seemed to be about five metres in diameter.
Probably a simple electromagnetic charge, Avon mused, hooked into a basic detector. It was unlikely to be much more powerful than the one Arkay had used on the gate, that wasn’t the point of it. The people who had weapons on them had almost certainly been granted permission by Arkay, rather than sneaked them past her. That meant they were quite important people, and that the clothes that had been ruined by the sparking weapons were probably quite expensive clothes. Ralmori’s invention, therefore, had not been designed to appeal to Arkay and her immediate circle – in fact, it had been designed to antagonise them.
“Neat, isn’t it?” Ralmori said, still smirking.
Avon thought it was, actually. An inventive combination of two old technologies – simple enough to do in the time allowed, and impressive as a display. Ralmori must know Arkay was out for his blood, and clearly saw no point in appeasing her. The invention, unlike Avon’s, was next to useless to her – but it wouldn’t be useless, Avon thought, to Blake. The way it was designed meant it was quite easy to block if you knew the frequency – the Federation would probably work this out relatively quickly, but until they did that there would probably be a few easier missions to communications bases and high-security prisons.
Once back on the Liberator, Avon could easily ask Orac to steal the design. He could then present the weapons detector to Blake as an additional gift, one that complemented the gift of Avalon’s datacore – assuming he won, of course.
Perhaps that was more likely now, though. Ralmori might just have scuppered his own chances with such a blatantly provocative invention. Avon noted that Arkay did not even take the prototype, but left Ralmori to pocket it. If the hovercraft had worked, he would probably have lost, but as it hadn’t––
“Dom Ralmori advances to the Third Task,” the herald proclaimed. Not much of a surprise, there, Avon supposed. Whatever nastiness Arkay had planned for him probably depended on his getting through, whatever he did. But it had been nice to think he might not, if only for a while.
The Third Task was announced two hours later, following the final contest in Product Creation (Yannasa versus Voil Wegnar – both exceptionally strong contestants, who regularly reached the final stages of the Magnakai. The round had been tense, but Yannasa emerged victorious).
“The Third Task,” read the herald, in his most portentous voice, “will be,” a pause, and then the word Avon had expected and dreaded, “Coding.”
The crowd began to murmur. Coding? How could it be coding?
Nobody else, Avon realised, had made the same connection Orac had. Around him, he could hear people hissing that Arkay had finally lost it, that coding was for babies who hadn’t crept out of their crèches yet, and even (from at least one voice) that perhaps this altered the odds on a clean victory for Kerr Avon, since coding had never been his speciality.
Avon tried to look cool, calm, nonchalant as the herald continued. Next the man would read the names of the contestants who would face each other in the Task. He and Ralmori had won respectively the first and second bouts in Product Creation, therefore they should be paired together, that was how the Magnakai typically worked. But this wasn’t a typical year. He knew Arkay and her people were attempting to manipulate the result. What he didn’t know was how this might affect her choices for this round. Too late, he realised he could have asked Orac, but then – it wouldn’t have made much of a different if he had known. He could not have walked away.
A years’ worth of practice under fire and Blake’s eye probably served him well in the seconds before the names were read aloud. He felt close to throwing up, particularly with the gamblers hissing at each other behind him. He didn’t.
The herald read: “Kerr Avon will face,” and Avon held his breath, “Yannasa in the first arena.”
People cheered as they always did. Instinctively Avon moved forward towards the front of the crowd as the herald announced that Dom Ralmori would face Jol of Evvry in the second arena. The relief had yet to hit Avon. He knew he’d been given a reprieve but he couldn’t feel it yet. The adrenaline hadn’t left him yet, but it would – probably, knowing his luck, just when he needed it during the Third Task.
He met Yannasa (a tall, striking woman with a shaven head) at the front of the gates, and the two of them walked towards the arena. Avon didn’t turn to see whether Ralmori was giving him another smug look – he could imagine it well enough himself without doing that.
“You don’t know the first thing about coding, Kerr,” Yannasa said, her musical voice low.
“Do you?” Avon replied.
He knew she didn’t. Yannasa was a top-of-the-line technician, one of the best, but like him she’d managed that by specialising. She hadn’t wasted her time honing a skill that wasn’t relevant or useful for her work. Why should she?
So in the end, he found the Third Task almost easy. Twenty-six and a half hours wasn’t enough to make him a coding expert, but it was enough to beat someone who hadn’t prepared at all through no fault of her own.
The two bouts in the Third Task ran simultaneously so Ralmori wasn’t even able to watch and jeer. If he had been there, he would have found considerable cause. Those watching from the stands were privileged to witness one of the strangest semi–finals in Magnakai history. Two of its greatest contestants, both former winners, pitted against each other in a specialism neither of them truly understood. One for the history books, one to tell your grandchildren about, but as an embarrassment more than anything.
Avon won – easily. Ten minutes from the end, he’d heard a great gasp from the second arena and that had nearly put him off, but he’d been too far ahead by that point. Ralmori couldn’t touch him now. His specialism had been wasted against poor Jol, and now Avon would meet him in the finale where, all things considered, Avon knew he could easily wipe the smirk off the little creep’s face. Database hacking was his speciality.
He didn’t stay to be congratulated about his amateur victory, or to find out why the crowd had gasped in the other arena. There was a party arranged for the evening, at which the two finalists would be guests of honour, but Avon had been to similar parties before. He was sick of generic, non-specific admiration, based on mediocracy rather than genius. He wanted to tell Blake he could stop worrying. Avalon’s data was not about to be broadcast across the galaxy. The rebellion would not be set back by months, perhaps years. What they did with their freedom was up to them – knowing Avalon and her people, they’d probably waste it, but they had a chance again. And Avon was about to give that to them. There was no doubt in his mind, now, that he would win. He was the greatest living computer technician in the galaxy, and nothing could stop him. He could give that certainty to Blake, to them all, but for Blake in particular.
At first the teleport bracelet didn’t connect at all. Alone in his room, Avon said Blake’s name with increasing degrees of urgency and increasingly loudly, his thumb jammed against the communication button of the bracelet. Then Orac’s prissy voice spoke where Blake’s should have done.
“It should be obvious, even to you, that Blake is not here. He has instructed me to operate the teleport for you, in the case of an emergency, but since you enquired about his interest in dining with you tonight, I can only assume this is not the case.”
“Where is he?” Avon asked.
“As it was not an emergency, I did not answer your first call,” Orac said, as though the question had never been asked. “I am, as you know, extremely––”
“Where is he, Orac?” Avon repeated, this time through gritted teeth. Greatest living technician, and he still hadn’t programmed obedience into Orac.
“I do not know,” Orac said huffily. “I have more important things to do than track Blake’s––”
“Where did you last see him?” Avon persisted. “Orac!” he prompted when the computer did not immediately answer. For some reason, Avon knew the answer would be important. He also knew what the answer would be (after all, where else could Blake go?) before Orac said,
“In the teleport bay, three hours earlier. He wished to visit the planet, and insisted I send him there, as though I did not––”
Avon disconnected the feed. Blake was on the planet. Where – and more importantly, why? Had something happened? Something that Blake felt unable to convey by teleport bracelet, something like Avalon’s initial message? Or was he coming here, to Avon’s room, to… congratulate him? Absurdly Avon found himself wondering if he should tidy up.
As though Blake would notice or care that things were disorganised. Idiotic.
He re-established the connection. “Orac, did Blake say why he wanted to visit the planet?”
“Since you will not listen to the answer, I feel no obligation to give it to you,” Orac said, clearly still irritated that Avon had cut its earlier rant short.
Avon sighed, but not audibly. “I’m sorry, Orac,” he said, trying to sound contrite. “I didn’t want to take up any more of your time than I had to. I know you have other, very important matters to contemplate.”
“I do,” Orac said with what sounded like a sniff. “Nobody understands that.”
“I understand,” Avon said soothingly, “and I promise I’ll leave you in peace if you just tell me why Blake teleported down.”
A pause, and then Orac said, as though mollified, “Before he teleported Blake asked several questions about Magnakai-finalist Dom Ralmori. Given that he teleported between the Second and Third tasks of that competition, I deem it likely he wished to observe a possible confrontation between yourself and Ralmori. Such a confrontation did not occur during the Third Task, but Blake did not return. Numerous reasons for this delay are possible, but the most likely is that Blake believed he could offer you some assistance against Ralmori, based on my research.”
“So he is coming here,” Avon said, mostly to himself. To offer his help on a mission for the revolution – where it wasn’t necessarily needed, but that was Blake all over.
He assumed Blake would perhaps look for him at the party, but would quickly realise Avon was absent and head for Avon’s room. Other people would be able to direct him. That Blake hadn’t answered earlier meant that he wasn’t wearing his teleport bracelet, and thus there was no way of communicating with him, but he would presumably work it out quickly, that was the sort of thing Blake was good at.
For something to do, Avon did tidy slightly, though there wasn’t much to put away and he knew it was pointless.
After half an hour or so, he called Orac. Blake still hadn’t turned up, but Orac could track his teleport bracelet, even if he couldn’t communicate with it directly.
“My researches are progressing exceptionally well, without interruption,” Orac said, completely ignoring Avon’s actual request this time. “Thank you for your understanding. It has been noted and acted upon.” The connection cut.
Avon considered calling back and forcing Orac to help him, but he would need Orac later to operate the teleport. It was worth not provoking the computer now, so that it wouldn’t refuse that command. It was also worth trying to reprogram it later. Avon made a note to do it as soon as Avalon’s data was safe.
He waited another half an hour, and then went to try and find Blake.
It wasn’t difficult. In the months since the London, Avon had noticed that, even in a crowded room, his eyes would generally locate and fix on Blake fairly quickly. It took concentration to control it and force his gaze elsewhere.
The champions’ party was taking place in three separate rooms: the lobby where the pre-sift mingling had taken place; the bar area, which was filled with booths where people could sit and drink, and chat, and tall stools stationed around tall tables; and a dance hall. Avon passed quickly through the lobby, into the bar – and there was Blake, sitting and drinking and chatting with Dom Ralmori in front of the brightly lit bar.
They were alone, and it didn’t look to Avon as though it were the sort of chat that was actually Blake threatening to break Ralmori’s fingers if he didn’t leave the competition. It looked – friendly.
Or more than that, Avon thought, eyes narrowing.
Blake was leaning towards him, his body propped against the bar, while his knees were almost touching Ralmori’s between the two high stools. Ralmori was laughing, his head tilted towards Blake’s, and his hands describing something or other and skirting close to Blake’s open shirt–front. There were two glasses of wine on the table positioned dangerously between Ralmori’s gesturing hands. One of Blake’s hands wasn’t on the table. That meant it could be anywhere.
Blake doesn’t even drink wine, Avon found himself thinking, stupidly, unnecessarily, as he crossed the bar room, avoiding or pulling free of the various people who tried to engage him. Blake drank beer, or at worst cider – if he drank at all, which he did rarely. It wasn’t that Blake disliked fun (something Vila had once said of Avon, who also drank rarely), but that he hated to lose control. Avon didn’t drink for much the same reason. He wasn’t drunk now, but he didn’t feel much like he was in control, either.
Was Ralmori old enough to drink? The legal age on Vandor was twenty – he did look older than that, but not by much.
Avon had never believed the charges against Blake. He didn’t now, but he did think – Ralmori is literally half my age. Ralmori had no lines around his eyes, he probably didn’t need to work out to stay slim. He was young, at the beginning of his career. He would only get better, more competent, more knowledgeable, whereas Avon was (though he would have denied it) distinctly middle–aged. Complacent, Ralmori would have said. On the decline. What if Blake did like younger men?
The world felt as if it were spinning, fast, and that the floor had been removed, and although people were talking around him, all Avon heard was white noise.
Could Blake honestly be interested in Ralmori? Was that what Orac had missed? The research and perhaps a photograph had inspired curiosity, and Blake had teleported down to see Avon’s opponent for himself. Not for the revolution for once. For himself. It seemed unlikely, but it explained what was happening.
Neither of them noticed as he approached, both wrapped up in other’s conversation presumably. Avon stopped about a foot away, and cleared his throat.
Blake twisted in his seat towards Avon, and the expression on his face (a rare smile of genuine pleasure) made Avon’s heart twist painfully. How cruel life was, he thought, to kick you even when you were already down. Ralmori didn’t even look irritated at being interrupted. He looked like he was winning: his smile sharp and his eyes glittering.
“Both finalists at my table,” Blake said with now a familiar grin that suggested he was laughing at his own joke. “What can I have done to deserve this?”
Avon rolled his eyes, but before he could respond verbally, Ralmori said, “I can think of a few things. Can I mention them in public?”
Blake laughed. Avon tried not to wince. “Blake, can I talk to you?”
“In a minute,” Blake said. “Draw up a stool, Avon. Dom and I were just talking about his weapons-disabler field. Seemingly a very useful device.”
Another gift rendered worthless, Avon thought bitterly, though he supposed Ralmori had a right to his own invention, if nothing else.
“It’s easily blocked,” he said nastily, without looking at Ralmori. “I wouldn’t rely on it for more than a week.”
“You can only block it if you know the signal,” Ralmori said, and Avon was pleased to hear his voice sounded less eager now. He’d landed a hit.
“You can find the signal frequency using a standard receiver,” Avon replied, without turning to him. “If they know we’re coming, they will operate it, at which point the device becomes worthless. The sort of thing only someone who hasn’t been in the field would invent.”
If Ralmori hadn’t tried to give the device to Blake, Avon would have said they could make it work with more thought, but here and now it was a threat. Forget the fact it might save his life at some point, Avon needed to crush it. Blake did not need two computer experts.
“At least it was an invention,” Ralmori said. “Not just a worse copy of someone else’s computer.”
This time Avon did turn to him. “At least I didn’t give away anything I also wanted to sell. By which I mean, at least I’m not an idiot.”
“Right. Just unimaginative,” Ralmori said.
It was same insult Avon had privately (and publicly) thought about Newman Ol and a host of other scientists.
Was that what they thought of him? If it was, it was a foolish assumption. Avon supposed his chief talent, the thing that set him apart, was understanding the systems of others, faster and better than anyone else, and being able to improve on those designs. But that did require significant leaps of imagination. He needed the courage and vision to take steps nobody else would have taken. Out of everyone he’d ever met or heard of, he knew he was the best placed to understand Zen and Orac – but it was true: he wasn’t a regular inventor, per say. The detector shield was brilliant – would be brilliant, if he finished it – but he’d been rather busy with understanding and operating technology far beyond anything these cretins had even imagined, let alone seen. So he hadn’t created anything from nothing recently. Was that what Blake needed? Was that where he was falling short? Was that where Ralmori could best him?
He stared coldly at Ralmori while his brain struggled to put together a retort. What if it was true?
“I think the weapons disabler was a gift, wasn’t it?” Blake put in mildly from behind Avon.
“Only slightly more deadly than a pair of socks,” Avon said, still glaring at Ralmori. “Blake, are you done here?
Blake sighed. Avon felt, as though through a fog, Blake’s hand on his arm, ready to steer him away as Blake stood. “I’d better see what he wants,” Blake said.
This wasn’t what Ralmori had hoped would happen, and through the fog, Avon felt triumphant at that at least. His own face wasn’t as expressive – there, too, he was winning. Ralmori looked furious, and he was barely able to school his expression back into acquiescence when Blake promised a return (“Dom, order another bottle, will you?”) and steered Avon away through the partying crowds.
They didn’t touch that much as a general rule – light pressure, hand to forearm, when Blake wanted to direct his attention, perhaps, and a few occasions when Avon had hurled Blake to the floor out of the way of some danger or other. He supposed he should perhaps be enjoying this – Blake’s hand wrapped firmly around his upper arm in sustained contact – but it was difficult to enjoy essentially being removed. Blake wanted to drink with someone else, someone better, and so he had to “see what Avon wanted” so he could get rid of him and get back to his other technician.
Avon realised, as Blake steered him behind the bar into what looked like a storage room, that he didn’t actually have anything to say to Blake. Don’t choose him over me was pathetic, and that was it. That was all that seemed necessary at the moment.
Blake released him to shut the door behind them, and Avon stared at the barrels and crates stacked around him, hoping for inspiration. He could tell Blake it was dangerous to let his guard down around someone outside the Liberator. Yes, that was probably a good start. Blake would be angry to be dictated to, and by Avon, but he might accept the logic of it.
Blake turned towards him. Rather than the face of thunder Avon had expected, he looked excited: his face alive with enthusiasm, as though Vila had just unlocked a door that would lead them to something Blake needed very badly.
“That was perfect,” Blake said. “Perfect, Avon. I had trouble not laughing when you said he hadn’t been out in the field. That’s it exactly.”
Avon raised an eyebrow – a cover for the fact that the conversation wasn’t going the way he’d expected. His brain whirred.
“Now, we just have to wait in here a few minutes,” Blake continued, “then I’ll pretend we had a fight––”
“We aren’t fighting, then?” Avon said, seeking clarification. He’d assumed they were.
“For once,” Blake said, with a slight grin. He turned back to the door and pulled it open a crack as he spoke, so he could continue to watch his prey. “But it’ll be easier if he thinks I need him, particularly if I need him because you walked out on me. So––”
“Why––?” Avon began, and then he thought better of it.
There was no way he could ask Blake why this was happening to him; what he’d done to deserve this; why Blake thought it was appropriate to ask Avon to participate in facilitating his own replacement. Perhaps Blake genuinely didn’t know what he was asking. Perhaps Blake assumed that Avon really did hate him, and wanted to leave as soon as possible. Perhaps Avon had been misreading the signals from the beginning – or rather, misreading some of them. Blake’s signals had always been mixed. Sometimes, Avon thought, Blake probably did hate him, but not overall. At least, he hadn’t thought so until now.
“Why me?” Avon asked instead. He kept his voice flat, disinterested.
Blake glanced back at him. “You haven’t noticed?”
No, obviously not. Avon raised an eyebrow again, and Blake rolled his eyes, though he also seemed to think whatever it was was amusing. The corner of his mouth twitched into another grin as he turned back to the crack between the door again.
“He’s obsessed with you. I don’t think I’m selling my charms too short when I say he’s chiefly interested in me because you already have me. So, right now, you and I need to convince him that he has a chance.” He pushed the door closed again. “Right, I think he’s getting bored. Do you want to go out first, or shall I?”
He turned, looking quizzically at Avon, but Avon was still frantically carding his way through emotions and responses and so didn’t reply.
There had been some good in that, he was sure. Blake had said something less mixed than everything he’d said before – a declaration of ownership and investment; something that would, at any other time, have surely made Avon happy or at least secure.
But then Blake had immediately implied that this relationship did not exist. He had remained fixed on Ralmori. Overall, the outlook was bad, and Avon was a fool if he didn’t see this, even if he still didn’t understand how Blake felt, and presumably never would.
“Avon?” Blake prompted, looking slightly worried. “Are you all right?”
Avon supposed he had been silent for too long, and not in a pointed, cutting way that implied Blake’s question had been too stupid to deserve a response. He was silent in a confused, cut–up way, that implied he didn’t know what was happening or how to stop it.
“I assume you plan to sleep with him?” he said, settling on a direct question in want on a reaction in and of itself. At the very least it would give him more information he could use to inform any future responses.
Blake looked surprised to be asked this, then rapidly embarrassed, and then (as was usual with Blake) angry to have been embarrassed. “No,” he said. “I might go as far as to imply I would if he wins, but I don’t think any more is appropriate, do you?”
“Hardly,” Avon said. Then he said, “Wait a minute––” as it all fell into place. “This is about the competition, isn’t it?”
“What did you think it was about?” Blake said.
“You’re using him,” Avon realised.
“Of course I’m using him,” Blake said, sounding angry again.
Of course. And Blake was using him in exactly the same way, Avon realised, one deduction following hard upon the heels of the other. He felt it run through his system with the same sense of immediate calm that had traditionally flooded him on the hour as a result of London dome’s regular dose of suppressants. Yes. Of course. It was all right. This didn’t matter. In fact, none of it had mattered, since Blake was treating him the same way he treated a strange and impolite boy he’d picked up in a bar. He needed both of them, but only for their skills. He was kind to Gan because Gan could lift things that Blake needed to be carried from place to place, he kept Jenna sweet because she was a good pilot, and he didn’t dump Vila on the nearest habitable planet because Vila could open doors that nobody else could open. Avon had seen all of these things, had brooded on them even, but for some reason he’d still wanted Blake’s good opinion, when really it was impossible to procure. How foolish he had been.
He’d never felt his skills more appropriate, and more obviously exceptional than at this Magnakai. Last night Blake had urged him to rest rather than practice, as though he’d been so confident in Avon’s victory that there was no need for further study. The truth, though, was that Blake had been troubled by Avon’s admission of weakness, and had decided to seduce another champion, to protect himself in the possible outcome that his first failed him. Rather than being impressed last night by what Avon had done the day before, Blake had been alarmed.
Avon was now certain that Blake knew how Avon felt about him – better, perhaps, than Avon knew it himself. Blake had used that desire, and the linked, painful, pathetic desire to impress and be appreciated, to get what Blake needed. When it hadn’t been enough, he’d found someone else to use in the same way, without caring what it would look like to his other implement.
“I quit,” Avon said, out loud and very calmly. He felt nothing as he said it, beyond a deepening of the calm.
“I’m sorry?” Blake said.
“I’m finished,” Avon said. “With this competition, and with you. You may have your teleport bracelet back, you may keep the Liberator, you may keep Orac. I’m done.”
“I said I wasn’t going to sleep with him,” Blake said, his voice rising further into anger.
“Charming and informative,” Avon said flatly, “but ultimately irrelevant.”
“I apologise. I had an idea it was far from irrelevant,” Blake said, aggressively polite.
“You overestimate your charms,” Avon sneered. “And you underestimate me.”
Blake seemed to think this was absolutely ridiculous. “I had––”.
“I would have won,” Avon continued, overriding him.
He’d doubted it himself this morning, and last night, but Blake … Blake had said, had insisted, that he didn’t. That trust, and the events that had followed, had served to so far change Avon’s mind that he now felt that Blake expressing or entertaining anything other than perfect trust was more than unusually unfair. It was a betrayal. Blake was now doubting a certainty, as good as telling Avon off for being asleep at the teleport desk when he had clearly been awake all night, worrying for Blake. That he’d expressed his doubt in the most thoughtless and callous way possible was no more than the finishing touch – Avon’s faith had already been destroyed by Blake’s obvious lack of it in him.
He’d had never been more angry at Blake, and he knew that really this was because he’d never been more deeply hurt and his brain was protecting him with the other emotion.
“You already have,” Blake said, in frustration. Then he said, as though he was just stumbling over the knowledge, “Wait a minute– You said, this was about the competition?”
“You said you trusted me,” Avon said.
That was what he’d meant, and thus not what he’d wanted to say. It would have been possible, even after all of this, to get out of the argument with some dignity, but now it was over. Blake knew Avon was leaving for no other reason than that Blake had betrayed him, and he couldn’t live with it. What did it matter, though, if he really was leaving?
“I do trust you,” Blake snarled, angry again as though it should have been impossible to doubt it, rather than far, far too easy. “I am almost certain you are going to win, but while Orac has given good odds on your victory, even better than the bookie’s––”
“Ah. I thought it must be Orac’s fault,” Avon said, trying to get hold of the conversation again and eyeing the exit.
“––there is still a chance Ralmori will win,” Blake persisted, “and I cannot take that chance, if there is an alternative. The resistance cannot take that chance.” He took hold of Avon’s upper arms, and Avon reluctantly looked back at him, to see an imploring, desperate expression on Blake’s face.
“Avon,” Blake said, as though willing him to understand. And he was, Avon knew. Willing it. A new trick in Blake’s arsenal, this vulnerability, but ultimately no different from the others.
“That is why I’ve quit,” Avon said, retreating back into the hollow calm again. “I will resign publicly tomorrow in the arena.” Blake let go of him and paced away. “That will leave one contestant,” Avon continued, “who must therefore be crowned the victor if he completes the task, and he will complete the task, or he forfeits the Magnakai. Arkay will never give him the money, so I’m sure he will join you, even if you never sleep with him. Orac must have been sure too. The certainty you asked for, Blake. Vive la revolution.”
“Meanwhile you sell yourself back to the Federation?” Blake said coldly.
“Once I leave you, I will no longer find my life a burden,” Avon said. “So – not the Federation. But they aren’t the only ones who have offered me a job since I landed. This time next year the Magnakai prize will seem like pocket change to me.”
“It seems you’re right, then,” Blake said. “A split gives us both what we want.”
“Agreed,” Avon said
“You’ve even left me with a new technician,” Blake said. “Very generous, Avon. I doubt I’ll even notice the difference.”
He was just being provoking, obviously, but as usual Blake knew how to twist the knife. Avon knew he should just leave but he also wanted to tell Blake he was mistaken. For all the showy strings and functions of Ralmori’s programming, he was young and inexperienced – let him try to control Orac. Impossible.
Then again, Avon also wanted Blake to look away first for once, if this was to be the last time. But Blake just kept glaring at him, waiting for him to break.
“Roj?” said a voice from the door. “What is going on here?”
Ralmori – tired, as Blake had correctly observed, of waiting had come looking for him.
Without waiting to see how Blake took this, Avon turned on his heel and left without another look at either of them. He’d blinked first, again, but better that than to wait and watch Blake and Ralmori aggressively talk each other up in front of him.
He knew he could have tried to convince Ralmori he was wasting his time. A fitting revenge he could disguise as a kindness. He was certain Blake wasn’t interested, but if Avon’s case was anything to go by, Blake could spin a technician along with very little hope for a long time.
Why do you think I’m leaving? he could tell Ralmori, and I heard him say he was using you. It would be easy, but it would mean the Magnakai would be lost for the revolution. Avon wasn’t angry enough to doom all the rebels across the galaxy to discovery and elimination. Foolish they might be, to be swept along by people like Avalon and Blake, but they were doing what they thought was right. Avon didn’t want their lives on his conscience. No, let Blake keep his sub-standard replacement. Let him see how he got on.
It was late, presumably. Avon had little idea of just how late it was – but he didn’t turn back to his room. The quiet and solitude inside would give him time to think about what he’d done, and was still going to do. It would also give time for the anger to fade, leaving behind the other emotions it was currently suppressing.
He already knew which offer he would accept from amongst those that had been offered to him during the competition. A delegation from Ruul had offered him the chance to lead their interplanetary holographic communication project. Avon had barely worked with holograms, which made him think it might be a challenge. The interplanetary communications software available even within the Federation was poor at best. You could send a recorded message, as Avalon had, but it would take minutes, sometimes even hours, to transmit to the person you wanted to contact. Then they would have to receive it and return a message to you. Immediate communication was impossible, except between directly neighbouring planets or ships in orbit above one.
There had been some, perhaps, more technically interesting offers, but their applications had been directly military. That would bring him too close to working either for Blake again, or against him, and so Avon had ruled those offers out without even really thinking about why. Then there had also been two serious offers from different factions to re-build the Liberator’s teleport. These Avon had consciously and immediately rejected. He was not limited to merely re–building the work of others. He could do much more.
The hologram project was new, and although it wasn’t particularly exciting, it would pay.
He found the Ruul suite, and knocked. After talking his way inside (the Ruul contract master had been delighted that Avon had wanted the job, and very keen that Avon return the following morning to discuss it; Avon had been equally keen that the business be conducted immediately), Avon spent the hours before the Magnakai finale negotiating the finer points of his new employment. He signed, they signed, and he returned to the arena for the last time.
There had only been one other final-champion resignation in the history of the Magnakai. It had been almost ten years ago, and one of Avon’s first competitions.
He’d been knocked out in what he recalled to be the third round, but suspected had actually been the second. He had been watching from the stalls in the arena, excited presumably and resentful, though he could hardly remember now. Then Po Vilhesem, the Federation candidate, had announced he could no longer continue.
The stated reason that was published in the professional journals was that he’d damaged his hands beyond repair in a bar-fight the night before. What Avon had heard him say in the arena that morning was that he felt he could no longer continue to represent an institution that had done so much evil in the universe. He’d made several specific allegations against the Federation, and urged those watching to think about what they were participating in. Then he’d walked out.
It had seemed rather a futile gesture to Avon. The Federation’s data was released following Vilhesem’s opponent’s victory, but it had turned out to only be account details for lockers owned by the High Council. In other circumstances this might have been interesting information, but the Federation had been prepared. They’d known this loss was a possibility, they’d known Vilhesem might break, and had already emptied those lockers. That was the only reason they’d allowed the situation to progress as far as it had.
Meanwhile Vilhesem had never worked again. When Avon saw him again at the Magnakai, several years later, Vilhesem’s hands were certainly damaged beyond delicate work. By that point the man himself was willing to swear ruefully that he’d made up all his allegations, to escape the indignity of having to withdraw due to his own stupidity. He should never have got into that fight, technicians knew the value of their hands.
Someone else perhaps would have followed Vilhesem’s earlier advice and avoided getting involved with the Federation. Avon, however, had drawn a different (and, he thought) obvious conclusion. It was unwise to upset the Federation. It was also pointless. He hadn’t sought out a Federation commission, but when one was offered to him, he’d accepted it. It would have been foolish not to. He had never considered dropping out of the Magnakai as Vilhesem had done. He’d played it safe. He’d won, as asked. He’d been polite to Federation officials who didn’t know the first thing about programming, over and over again. Even the bank fraud that had seen him arrested and disgraced had been a safe bet – or at least it should have been. They should never have been able to find out. Blake clearly thought it was disgusting that Avon had fought for the Federation, but it had been the only sane thing to do.
Amusing, Avon thought as he walked towards the arena, how times change. He was about to withdraw publicly after all – three-time winner, and only the second contestant ever to withdraw. This time, too, it was just a gesture, and another pointless one. Like the Federation, Blake wouldn’t be truly damaged by it, but it would make him angry. That - was something.
With hindsight, Avon (who had judged Vilhesem so harshly) now thought it likely that Vilhesem had never truly thought he was hurting the Federation. He’d just wanted to do what he could to protest against something he felt strongly about. For Vilhesem that had been the Federation.
There was someone arguing with the herald in front of Avon’s designated entrance into the arena. It was Blake, of course.
Avon almost turned back – it was no longer his job to deal with Blake, if it ever had been, whereas the herald was unluckily still employed for the purpose of turning back people who weren’t supposed to be here. Blake had clearly seen Avon though, and shouted his name. Breaking away from the herald, he jogged a few steps down the corridor towards Avon. There was nothing to do but wait for him.
Unlike Avon, Blake was wearing different clothes to those he’d been wearing the night before. He looked clean, though tired, and Avon caught himself wondering whether Blake had teleported back up to the ship, or used Ralmori’s shower before coming here. Then he reminded himself that was none of his business and not something that was particularly interesting to him anyway. It was best not to speculate. The thwarted herald had already called for support from Arkay’s bodyguards.
“What are you doing here, Blake?” Avon asked coldly as Blake approached. He could hear the rumblings of the crowd from the arena through the door at the end of the corridor. It was almost time.
“I don’t want another computer expert,” Blake said, his expression serious, his attention fixed entirely on Avon. Behind him two large men in crisp jumpsuits advanced down the hallway. “I need the best,” Blake continued, almost angry. “I want you.”
“Wouldn’t you be happier watching the competition from the observation stands, sir?” one of the body guards asked Blake. The other one had a hand on Blake’s arm already, to convince him if Blake maintained he would be happier staying where he was.
Presumably it worked, because Blake turned to the guard who had spoken, eyes still flashing, and then checked himself. He held up his hands in affable surrender. “All right.” He allowed himself to be guided out of the corridor.
Avon watched him go. The crowd noise was louder now.
“I do apologise for that interruption,” the herald said. “It’s never happened before, as you know. It’s never happened. Never. Well, you’d know. Do excuse me. Are you ready to go out?”
He had been. Out of Blake’s orbit, or with him in the depths of an argument, it had been a simple decision. But what Blake had said here did mean something. It was what Avon had always wanted him to say, almost down to the word. Presumably he had fallen out with Ralmori. But – was that it? Avon had seen them together the night before, and Ralmori was safe with no one but Blake who could also offer him Orac, the teleport, and Zen. Surely Blake could have secured Ralmori’s compliance easily, all the easier because Ralmori had witnessed the two of them fighting.
It was possible Blake meant what he said. And if he did... Well.
“Ready?” the herald asked again, and Avon nodded vaguely. He heard the herald announce his name, the fact he’d won the Magnakai three times before, he’d graduated top of his class at the Academy and a string of other honours that presumably the crowds appreciated, because they were cheering.
Ralmori was already in the ring. He must have been announced while Avon had been talking to Blake. He would have been forced to listen to Avon’s achievements – that must have been galling when presumably he had no official ones to his name. Then again, he would be the favourite of the gamblers, with such spectacularly low odds, so there would have been cheering. And he had come to this tournament a complete unknown, and reached the final – something not even Avon had done. People loved an underdog – there would be plenty rooting for him against the famous former champion.
Yet Ralmori’s expression was darker than ever. Like Avon, he looked as though he’d heard none of the general applause. Though he might be aware of it, he was wrapped instead in fury – his attention focused entirely on Avon as Avon walked towards the centre to meet him. The datacore that had caused so much trouble marked the central point, shielded for now within a light barrier.
As tradition dictated, Avon held out a hand to his opponent over the datacore.
“You’re dead,” Ralmori said, without taking the offered hand.
Avon raised an eyebrow. He thought about pointing out that Ralmori was the one Arkay wanted to punish, the one who would almost certainly come out of this competition without his head. He thought about responding to the childish threat with childish sarcasm, but concluded it would be more irritating not to do that.
“I think you’ll find it’s good manners to shake hands before any match,” he said mildly.
“I wouldn’t want to contaminate myself with failure by touching you,” Ralmori sneered. He stalked off to his side of the ring, and Avon (trying not to laugh) turned to his own side.
His scanned the crowd, and as usual his gaze fixed and snagged on Blake. Blake had apparently fought his way through people who had arrived more promptly, and was now right at the front of the stalls, leaning on the rail that separated the raised stands from the arena floor, surrounded by others who’d probably paid for better positions. He would have seen the entire exchange.
Avon crossed over to him, casually as though he hadn’t seen Blake and just happened to be moving this way. As he did so, he pulled his probes from the pack on his belt – the expected behaviour of a man about to crack a datacore. He brought one up to eye-level and adjusted it slightly, and lowered it. Then he turned his head, as if he’d only just thought to check to see if Blake was there.
“You don’t really want to forfeit to him, do you?” Blake said with exaggerated scepticism.
All the tension of their earlier encounter in the corridor had apparently bled out of Blake during his walk to the stands. Now they could have been standing on the Liberator’s kitchen, with Blake asking whether Avon really wanted to put salt into his coffee, or whether that was a mistake.
“You don’t seem to have handled him with your customary skill,” Avon said. Blake raised an eyebrow and tilted his head to the side, his version of a considering shrug.
“Champions – are you ready?” the herald intoned from Arkay’s box.
As the champions weren’t miced, the correct response to this was a gesture, rather than a statement. You raised your probe-bearing arm towards the box. Then and not before the herald signalled, the fight commenced. Blake had left this very late, but with Avon away from his room all night, perhaps he’d had no choice.
“What did you say to him?” Avon prompted.
If he didn’t respond to the official summons, they would not start the match. There was definite precedent. Several years before Avon had gone to his first Kai, one of the finalists, a woman called Li Rand, had fallen asleep between entering the ring and starting the match. Too much alcohol at the Champion’s Party. They’d had to wake her up before they could start. Amusingly enough, she’d won, which went to prove she’d been right and had had nothing to worry about.
Blake frowned. “I think I said roughly the same thing I said to you in the corridor just now.”
“Ah. That you want …?” Avon suggested, leaving it hanging in case Blake wanted to resolve the ambiguity.
“Mm,” Blake said. “He didn’t seem to like that very much.”
“Are you two going to stand around talking all day?” the man next to Blake asked pointedly.
“Do you have your money wagered on me or Ralmori?” Avon asked. The man made a face, which Avon took to be admittance that bet was in his favour. “Blake?” he prompted.
“Mine’s on you too,” Blake said amiably as his neighbour began muttering to the person behind.
“I know it is,” Avon said. “What did Ralmori say?”
Blake’s eyes tracked Avon’s opponent across the ring, where he was in conversation with the herald, who was gesturing back towards the two of them. “Well – strangely enough, he accused me of being in love with you and using him to make you jealous.”
Avon waited – the clear word And? hovering, unspoken, between them. Blake would have to provide his own prompt this time, if it really mattered to him. In the end Blake turned to him.
“I said I hadn’t realised you would be jealous.”
Avon considered this, ignoring the herald trying to get his attention again and the rising cries from the increasingly impatient crowd. Thank god Ralmori must be too embarrassed to come over in person and ruin this. He felt punch–drunk, a sensation he was unfortunately extremely familiar with.
“That was rather stupid of you,” he said eventually.
This hadn’t been the reply Blake had been expecting. He looked briefly ruffled, and then tried to pretend he hadn’t been. “Obviously. And I’m sorry, I am truly sorry – but I thought you knew how I felt, and we were just waiting until neither of us were furious with each other to do something about it. And I was sure you’d call Orac and he’d tell you––”
“I meant,” Avon interrupted, pleased to have unsettled Blake – a small joy, amongst the much larger one of the implied declaration, “that it was stupid of you to tell Ralmori what you did … when you need someone to win this tournament for you.”
“Get on with it!” someone shouted very audibly from the stands.
Blake’s eyebrows rose with realisation. “Unplanned, certainly, but it would only be stupid if I thought you wouldn’t agree to be my champion, if I needed you. And if I didn’t know that you would win, if you took part.”
“Really,” Avon said.
“You see, I do trust you, Avon,” Blake said. “I always have.”
He looked almost angry as he said it, as though Avon should have known it. Ridiculous under the circumstances, but Blake probably believed it.
At any rate, whatever he said, Blake had cast aside Ralmori. Whether he had done this because he knew he’d hurt Avon, or because he’d known doing so would force Avon’s hand if he didn’t want to see the rebellion suffer, was … well, not immaterial, but certainly less important than the fact that he had done it. Blake did not want Ralmori; Blake did not want any gifted technician. Blake needed the best. He wanted Avon.
“You know you’re a manipulative bastard,” Avon told him.
Blake wrinkled his nose. “Possibly,” he agreed. “Will you do it?”
“Kerr Avon,” the herald had come down from the box to harangue him in person. He sounded slightly out of breath, “do you wish to continue in this tournament?”
Avon turned to him, and then back to Blake. He thought about the hologram contract that he had signed already, and the life he could have working on that – safe, rich. Blake raised an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Avon said.
He saw Blake grin before he turned towards the box, raising his probe arm towards Arkay, who had grown bored with the delay before the match and was now talking angrily into a communicator. She waved for him to continue without putting the comm down.
“The champions are declared,” the herald announced as he walked back across the ring. “They will begin in three––”
“Avon,” Blake said, his voice loud enough to carry in the pause before the herald said,
Avon turned towards him to see Blake holding out a teleport bracelet.
“Wear this for me,” Blake said, “as a sign of my favour.”
He looked extremely amused at this remark, as he only ever did at his own jokes. The practice of favour-carrying was a ridiculous anachronism, but one that had been popular throughout the history of the Magnakai. Blake had indeed done his research, then.
If he had, he probably also knew that Avon had never indulged in this particular custom, which he was abusing anyway to pass Avon an escape route, rather than a good–luck charm.
“I’d hoped for something more personal,” Avon said wryly, but he reached up to take the bracelet anyway. Rather than immediately releasing it, Blake kept hold of his side of the bracelet and leaned down into the ring.
“One,” the herald announced as Blake pressed a kiss against the top of Avon’s cheekbone.
“Fight well,” he told Avon. His breath was warm against Avon’s ear.
“I always do,” Avon said, grinning too now, recklessly and broadly.
Without waiting to see Blake’s undoubted eyeroll, he returned to the centre of the arena. Ralmori would have had several seconds alone on the datacore, but Avon thought he could give him that.
As Avon had expected, Ralmori had a small datapad wired into the core already. You were allowed to bring your own equipment, and do whatever preparation you wanted before the Magnakai. Knowing what the right tools were was an important part of being the best. The judges would inspect anything you brought and wire it up to the projection devices around the auditorium. Convertors (that somebody or other had probably invented during a former Magnakai) translated what the champions’ probes were doing into a language the casual spectator could understand. Avon didn’t need to look up at the screen to know that Ralmori had presumably brought a suite of penetration programmes, and he was feeding these into the core now as he typed. Easy, effective. An obvious if dull choice.
Avon, who had assumed he was going to resign, had brought nothing beyond the things he’d been carrying the day before. He knew, though, that he was carrying two items that would help him.
The first level of the datacore was a row of tarriel cells that had to be breeched before you could reach whatever was underneath. Avon had given Arkay the new Orac-lite he’d built the day before, but he had the prototype he’d made on the Liberator still in his jacket. Cheating? Possibly, but Avon doubted anyone would stop him.
He pressed the spy cell against the datacore, locking it in place with a dataprobe. Then he pressed the probe through the cell, which now gave him access to the entire layer through all the linked cells. It cracked open, revealing the area beneath.
This was the first difficult layer. Avon worked mostly with tarriel cells, but he thought Ralmori probably did too. Non-tarriel was an old technology; coding a new one. It was difficult to make them work together. Avon’s research back on the Liberator had, in fact, suggested there were very few viable methods that could be used and all of them required the cells’ Vi-matrix to be switched to “on”.
The second useful item he had on him, then, was a laser probe he’d pre-set to blow a series of interconnected Vi’s. It had been in his jacket the day before, and while Avon might have removed it, or wiped it, if he’d gone back to his room the night before – he hadn’t done that. If Ralmori had foreseen the danger to his strategy he would have abandoned it and gone for a manual attack, even though that wasn’t his speciality. If he was already working manual, then the disruption of the Vi’s would make no difference to him, but you had to know something about coding to know how fragile it was here. Ralmori had no way of knowing how much Avon had prepared. He also had shown again and again that he thought no one here knew what they were doing when it came to digital programming.
So, this, Avon thought as he pushed the probe into a slot in the second layer, will probably work.
A few moments passed, and then:
“Bastard!” Ralmori howled as all of his carefully constructed strings were pushed back, unusable, into his console. The crowd, who could see what was happening from the probe-convertors, and projected from hovering cameras, gasped. Ralmori’s exclamation underlined how serious the move had been.
Avon had just disrupted several minutes’ worth of effort. Ralmori’s lead, gained whilst Avon had been talking to Blake, was gone.
Better, they were on Avon’s ground now. Ralmori would now have to get to the centre of the core using manual tech, which wasn’t his speciality. He was angry, and he would need to think of a new approach, and the one would make it more difficult for him to do the latter.
Whereas Avon could almost see the entire solution out before him now. The centre was still hidden, but there were only so many configurations of tech that could have been deployed like this. Ralmori had not only not been born while this sort of system had been de rigor, he wasn’t even old enough to have had to serve his time tediously dismantling and replacing system after system, something that everyone Avon’s age had done for at least some portion of their professional life. Interestingly, too, some of these systems had been brought out of retirement recently to combat the threat of Orac. That meant Avon had been forced to take them apart for Blake while Orac sat on the ship complaining about out-of-date technology. This level of the core was based on a Illium 3500. Ralmori wouldn’t know that, but Avon had broken one just the other day in a communications base on Kuraaz.
His mind skipped ahead as he let his hands walk through the familiar tasks, selecting a number of different probes to open the necessary ports that would give him access to the inner datastore. The 3500 was about as temperamental as Orac, and didn’t play nicely with many other types of systems. If Avalon wanted her data in a readable format, this final layer would have either a type-2 or type-3 Rool motherboard, which would probably be encrypted with an asymmetric key. If Avon had wanted to publish the information he would have to break this key, spending valuable time doing so, but he didn’t. Therefore all he needed to do was record the data, and cleanse the core. The solution wasn’t as thorough as it could have been, but it was faster and it would do the job. Speed was, as always, imperative.
As he waited for the data to download, Avon risked a glance up at the monitors around the ring. Ralmori was doing considerably better than expected. He must have thrown dignity to the wind, choosing presumably to ride on Avon’s coattails through the layers of the 3500. Clever, and unexpected – the strategic option, if not the most flattering one for him, but then Avon supposed he’d left Ralmori little choice. It was also true that to follow where Avon had led took a certain skill of its own. Not everyone would have been able to do it.
Ralmori was now attempting to crack the cipher protecting the data, pushing combinations through the processor in his pad. He was looking to publish, then. Blake must have been exceptionally rude or exceptionally thoughtless.
It would be a close race. The computer could work through the possible variations far more quickly than even Avon would have been able to, but the data download was almost complete. Ten seconds, nine seconds – another glance at Ralmori’s progress. He was too close.
Let’s hope Avalon is better at backing-up her data than she is at vetting her staff, Avon thought. Somehow he doubted it. She would complain, though he had most of the data, now. Blake would have. But Avon didn’t have to live with Avalon.
With another probe, Avon activated the disc erasure, flooding the cells with white noise. Ralmori or someone else from Arkay’s retinue might still be able to crack that, so Avon initiated another sweep with a second probe. White noise on top of white noise, layers and layers of it.
Ralmori sat back on his heels. He must have cracked the password at last, but too late. His face was blank, rather than suffused with rage as Avon had anticipated. Ralmori had truly not expected to lose.
Avon felt almost sorry for him. Ralmori deserved defeat – he was smug, arrogant, offensive, and only just at the start of his career, but Avon knew what all of that felt like. The complete shutdown was how he would have reacted too.
“It’s gone,” Ralmori said.
Avon held up the probe that contained the data (most of it anyway), and stood. “I claim the champion’s boon,” he said loudly, to the applause of the crowd. “This data belongs to me, and to me only.”
“You understand that in doing so you forfeit the prize money?” the herald asked, following the script, even when it was completely unnecessary.
Avon considered a sarcastic response, but Blake would kill him if Arkay chose to take him seriously and somehow managed to confisgate the data.
“Then you may claim your boon,” the herald replied, just as formally. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your champion – Kerr Avon!”
During the cheering that followed, Avon sought out a single face in the crowd. Blake wasn’t cheering, but his eyes were fixed on Avon. Avon looked back at him, and for a long moment it was as though there was no one else in the arena at all.
“Thus concludes the twenty second Magnakai,” the herald announced, bringing the competition suddenly to a close.
Confusion followed. The crowd had not been expecting the sudden close. They felt cheated. Where was the presentation? The gathering? The sense of denouement? People had paid good money for this.
Beneath the outraged muttering, Avon heard the rhythmic sound of marching feet. Blake seemed to have heard it too because he turned and pushed his way back through the crowds. The bracelet on Avon’s wrist chimed, and Blake’s voice said,
“Stand by for teleport.”
Servalan, Avon thought with a spike of alarm, but as he turned towards the ground-level entrances to the arena he realised the heavily armed guard marching into the centre weren’t wearing the black of the Federation. They were wearing the blue of Vandor. And they weren’t coming for him – they were coming for Ralmori.
Generally there was an official presentation, photographs, an opportunity to shake hands with Arkay herself, and come up with some memorable sound–bites for her reporters. This year, though, she needed it to be over quickly. It had only been safe for Avon (high up the Federation’s most wanted list) to perform in such a public venue because all competitors were protected by Arkay’s soldiers during the competition.
After the competition, they had to fend for themselves. That was why it had been so important to Arkay that Ralmori reach the finale. If he’d been knocked out earlier he might have run, but now with everyone watching there was nowhere for him to go. Glancing back to the box, Avon was fascinated to see that Arkay was actually descending into the ring herself. Champions always went to her. Ralmori must have stolen a lot of money.
“Out of interest,” Avon said, as he watched the guards approach, “how exactly did you think you were going to get out of this?”
“I thought I was going to go with Blake,” Ralmori said flatly.
Avon shut his eyes. How irritating. He wanted very much not to care. The end of the competition and the accompanying neutrality agreement meant that if the mutoids with Ol reacted quickly enough (unlikely, but possible), Avon too could be in serious danger. Ralmori had been nothing but a thorn in his side since the competition began, before it had even begun, even. If he’d won, he would have released Avalon’s data. However - if Blake was right and Ralmori had done everything because he was obsessed with Avon, then perhaps Avon did owe him something. It seemed indescribably unfair.
He pulled the teleport bracelet off his wrist and thrust it towards Ralmori. “Take this,” he said sourly. “Put it on, and shut up,” he said as Ralmori opened his mouth, presumably to tell Avon he didn’t need any second–hand reminders of Blake. “And you’d better take this, too. Tell him I haven’t resigned yet,” Avon said, passing him the data probe.
This second gift seemed to make sense of the first to Ralmori, whose eyes widened.
“This isn’t –? Is it?” he began, holding up the bracelet, but by this time the guards had arrived.
“Domync Ralmori,” the leader said, laying a heavy hand on Ralmori’s shoulder, “I’m arresting you for the theft of nearly ten million credits. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say may be used against you.”
“Good advice,” Avon said. “Try listening to it.”
“It was more like twenty, actually,” Ralmori said, mostly to Avon. “Just for the record.”
He grinned as a corona of white light surrounded him for a moment, and then he vanished.
The guard who’d been holding him looked understandably upset. “What the–?”
“He just vanished!” one of the other guards observed astutely.
“You are in a lot of trouble, champion,” Arkay said from very close at hand. She’d removed her sunglasses, and her heavily made-up eyes were as hard as the diamonds around her neck.
“I don’t understand. I’m as mystified as anyone,” Avon said in what he hoped was a convincing tone of confusion, but strongly suspected wasn’t. “Ralmori must have invented a teleport of his own.”
Arkay ignored this. “Arrest him, too, as an accessory. Unless you want to buy your way out, Avon, with a complete set of the rebellion’s documentation?”
Avon spread his hands, showing they were empty, and Arkay sighed.
“This is all extremely disappointing.”
“On the contrary,” Blake’s voice said from behind Avon, “I think it all turned out rather well. Don’t you, Avon?”
The guns of Vandor’s military turned towards him, as did Avon. They were all in time to see Blake activate a small hand-held device: the weapons disabler Ralmori had built the day before. The air rippled slightly, and the guns in the hands of the guards sparked. Several people dropped them completely. The Liberator gun in Blake’s other hand, meanwhile, seemed unaffected. It was pointing straight at Arkay.
“Handy little device, this,” Blake said amiably. “I’m sure you’ll get a lot of use out of it.”
The detector’s job done, he dropped it to the floor, regaining use of both his hands. With his now free hand, he stripped the second of his teleport bracelets from his gun-arm, and held it out with taking his eyes off Arkay. “Avon?”
“It seems unlikely,” Avon said. “The signal frequency is still a serious--”
Blake made a face. “Are you coming?”
“Well. As much as the thought of prison appeals…” Avon said.
He crossed to Blake, took the bracelet, and closed it around his own wrist. Blake raised his remaining bracelet towards his lips. “All right Orac, bring us up.”
“See you next year,” Avon said to Arkay, grinning as the teleport took them. Probably just a joke, unless Avalon was exceptionally careless with her data. Still – there was no harm in keeping the industry on its toes, was there?
The walls of the Liberator teleport bay materialised around them, and Avon felt the tension he hadn’t even known he felt drain from him. The Liberator. He was back, he was safe, the rebellion was safe. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about this place and how he would never see it again any time during the previous twelve hours, but he would have missed it. The grey crenelated walls, the rows of buttons still labelled with stickers he’d used in the first weeks, the racks of bracelets, the incredible power of the alien technology, Blake.
Orac was on top of the teleport desk, its lights blinking, and Dom Ralmori was sitting behind the desk already deep in conversation with the computer.
“–but if you can control it, that would mean that aliens chose to use tarriel cells to make this ship.”
“Naturally. It was the most efficient design.”
“But that’s crazy. The odds against them inventing the same thing at the same time are astronomical,” Ralmori said. “Unless one of them met the other, and copied the cell, I guess, but even that––”
Orac spluttered indignantly. “Ensor had no need to copy the work of other lesser scientists.”
“Perhaps. Though you weren’t there, were you, Orac?” Avon said, grinning as he stripped of his teleport bracelet and re-housed it alongside Blake’s.
Orac, he thought, deserved some of the same anxiety that he and Ralmori had endured over the last few days. It was, after all, Orac’s information that had sent Blake down to Ullo Beta. Orac’s predictions tended to be misleading at their best. It was entirely possible that the “small chance” Orac had foreseen of Avon’s not being victorious had been nothing other than a response to Blake’s attempt to cover all bases. A self-fulfilling prophesy. Orac liked those, and Blake (usually good at asking the right questions) was sometimes blind to causality related to his own actions. Avon found it strangely endearing, actually, even as it was exasperating. Though it had been ridiculous to think he wouldn’t be jealous.
Blake, clearly expecting further trouble, had already crossed to the wall-comm. “Zen – set a course for Malthas, speed Standard by Ten. Drop to Standard by Six in three-thousand spacials.”
“Ensor was a genius!” Orac was protesting now, though Avon’s attention had been tugged towards Blake and he only had half an ear on the argument. Blake had given the others a brief glance, and then headed for the corridor back to the flight deck.
“That’s not saying much,” Avon said, starting for the doorway himself. “Statistically speaking, so is everyone on this ship.”
“As I have certainly told you before, Avon, the System are scavengers,” Orac explained at last, peevishly. “Their records clearly state that they discovered a tarriel ship––”
Avon lost track of the computer’s voice as he walked further down the corridor. “Blake,” he called, and the other man stopped and turned back.
“Telling me what you were planning would have been appreciated,” Blake said as he approached. “I almost had a heart attack when Ralmori appeared instead of you in the teleport bay. I thought you might have changed your mind and left me after all.” He was close now, wearing the same intense expression Avon had seen him wearing across the ring of the Magnakai. “Had I been specific enough about how long I wanted you for? What I wanted you for? It wasn’t just the competition, you know.”
“You could always be more specific,” Avon told him.
“Mm,” Blake said, pretending to consider a long list as his fingers threaded through Avon’s hair, “fixing the computers, of course, and––”
Avon caught hold of Blake’s shirt and dragged him in, kissing him and cutting off whatever nonsense he’d been about to use his mouth for instead. The ambiguous flirting had been torturous before, but now it was intolerable. Blake seemed to have thought so too, because he kissed back with a pleasing desperation. His tongue pushed back against Avon’s, his lips soft and sliding, and he seemed to like it when Avon bit him, his hands tightening in Avon’s hair as Avon pulled him back against the corridor wall. Avon was tired, and he thought Blake probably hadn’t slept much either, but he was also worked up and he knew Blake wanted him, and he also knew Blake owed him, and––
“Whoa,” Ralmori said from somewhere behind Avon. “OK, so.”
Avon smiled thinly and attempted to make his hair look as though it hadn’t recently been mauled by Blake, who had sprung away from him instantly and was trying to look politely interested in the conversation.
“Obviously this is awkward for everyone,” Ralmori said, which Avon felt was understating it somewhat, “but – hm, how can I put this? Orac says to tell you the ship is under attack.”
“What?” Blake said, losing all pretence at calm. He turned and sprinted down the corridor, Avon and Ralmori following him. Something very bad must have happened. Standard by ten (a speed they could only achieve because the Liberator had been in stationary orbit for three days, and the powercells had recharged) was faster than the top speed of most pursuit ships. The Liberator should have easily out run anything that had been waiting to ambush them. Similarly, the battle computers could handle most standard attack patterns without human intervention – but that Orac had brought it to Ralmori’s attention suggested something more dangerous.
“Zen, what the hell is going on?” Blake thundered as he emerged onto the flight deck. Interestingly there were no alarms ringing, and the main visualiser showed empty space, rather than the moving spots of pursuit ships.
“Course is set for planet Malthas, as instructed,” Zen said serenely. “Estimated flight time is sixty four hours. All sensor readouts are normal.”
“We’re not under attack?” Blake said incredulously, half to himself and half to the others in the room.
“Apparently not,” Avon said. The two of them turned to look at Ralmori.
“There was no other way out of the teleport bay except past you two,” Ralmori said. “I didn’t know how to get to the flight deck, and I really wanted to meet Zen.” He gestured towards the visualiser. “This is it, is it?”
“Welcome Dom Ralmori,” Zen intoned.
“Cool,” Ralmori said sounding star–struck. Blake’s eyebrows had drawn very close together. “It knows my name,” Ralmori said enthusiastically to Blake, as though he hadn’t noticed the temperature dropping. “Is that because you’ve been investigating me, or because Orac told it about me wirelessly, or because of weird alien telepathy? Whatever it is, I am on board.”
Blake continued to stare at him for a moment, and then he glanced towards Avon, who was trying not to smile.
Ralmori was a pain, but they’d known that from the start. He was also clearly more in love with computers than he was with Blake. Whenever Blake had glared at Avon with that sort of intensity, Avon had had to pause while he gathered his thoughts, or he’d already been fuming at Blake and ready to lash back at him. He certainly hadn’t continued to enthuse about wireless computer communication – unfortunately. Even this casual glance in his direction was not completely un-distracting.
Absentmindedly Avon rubbed his lower lip, remembering how Blake had kissed him, and what it had felt like to be pressed between the corridor wall and Blake’s body. The gesture must have inspired Blake to some similar thoughts, because Blake’s glance became more intent for a moment, and then he grinned.
“Zen, this is Dom Ralmori.” Blake’s right hand landed very heavily on Ralmori’s right shoulder, bringing him into a half embrace as he introduced the boy and the computer. “Dom, Zen. Dom – We’ve been having some problems with the recycling system recently – perhaps you’d like to take a look at it?”
“No problem,” Ralmori said, little understanding how incredibly fiddly and annoying the recycling system was and how little he would enjoy working on it. Avon tried to remember this and not feel irritated that Blake hadn’t asked him to fix it instead.
“Thank you,” Blake said. “Zen – I don’t want you to let this young man do anything that will compromise the safety of any of the Liberator’s crew, or restrict our access to either you or Orac. Is that understood?”
“Good,” Blake said, releasing Ralmori. “Well, then, I think I owe Avon dinner.”
He gestured towards the main corridor exit with a sideways nod, eyebrows raised, behind Ralmori’s back. It was about midday – far too early for dinner. Blake’s furtive expression made the inference even more obvious, though Avon thought it was better to be safe than sorry. And to rub it in, rather than to be dignified, if possible.
“Just to be clear,” he told Ralmori, “dinner is a euphemism. We’ll be having sex. For some time, I imagine. So if you interrupt for any reason other than the ship actually being attacked, I’ll tell Zen to burn out all its Vi matrices. And probably throw you off the ship for good measure. Is that understood?”
Blake looked rather pained by this announcement, but Avon steered him out of the flight deck before he could say anything to negate it, and before either of them had to witness whatever rude gesture Ralmori had chosen to retort with. Things were finally looking up. After months of hard work and little, if any, appreciation, he was going to a locked room with a Blake who was demonstrably grateful, affectionate, and horny. Right now all Avon wanted to do was let Blake alternately lick him and tell him how brilliant he was – that was what he deserved – but once out in the corridor, he heard himself saying,
“It’s still dangerous leaving Ralmori alone. In a few hours he could do significant damage, even within the parameters you’ve set.”
“That had occurred to me,” Blake conceded.
“You’re not worried?” Avon asked, and Blake shook his head. “Because you got such an excellent read of his personality while he was trying to sleep with you?” Avon said, scathingly.
“Yes, that too,” Blake said patiently. “But mostly because if he does do anything, I know my computer expert will be able to set whatever it is right in half the time it took to break it.” He raised his eyebrows, and Avon tried not to look mollified. “Particularly,” Blake added, taking Avon’s arms and dropping his voice, “if I asked him,” he dropped a kiss to the crook of Avon’s neck, “very,” and another lower down, “very nicely.” He returned to kiss Avon’s mouth, and Avon clutched his fingers in Blake’s side.
“Well, I like your new management strategy,” he said when Blake released him, and Blake laughed and allowed himself to be pushed backwards into Avon’s bedroom.
Nothing seemed to be broken (not more broken than it had been, anyway) when Avon emerged several hours later feeling both happier and less exhausted than he could remember being for some time. Interestingly, the recycling unit also seemed to be working again. That was not an inconsiderable achievement.
During the two weeks it took for the Liberator to reach Avalon’s base on Malthas, he and Ralmori overhauled Zen’s mainframe. They replaced all the oldest components with newer models, and upgraded various features to make the ship run more smoothly. It was something Avon had been meaning to do for some time, but there had been too much work for one person to do if you also wanted to keep the Liberator running while you worked. On one occasion, Avon had asked Orac for help on, but the computer had claimed it needed more than 48 hours to clear its circuits for the programme, and by then they’d arrived at their destination and the task was forgotten. Conversely, Ralmori was hungry for new problems. His mind moved quickly – he understood explanations, and proposed solutions that were not always workable, but were at least sensible. Perhaps most importantly, when he worked, he also tended not to talk very much – that meant Avon didn’t have to strangle him before they finished.
“He is good,” Avon admitted to Blake as they lay together in the darkness of Blake’s bedroom late one night, one of Blake’s arms slung possessively over Avon’s torso. “He might … even be better than me one day.”
They were only a day or so away from Malthas. While not unhappy about seeing the others again, Avon was also already feeling wistful for the comparative peace of the almost empty ship. With no obvious mission on the horizon, there was nothing to do except eat, sleep, fix the ship and spend time with Blake. He could almost feel Blake’s mind beginning to whir, though, as they approached Avalon’s base. The pursuit ship gambit would still need to be carried out, and the evacuation reversed. Blake would behave differently, too, in front of the others, but since Avon had demanded Blake trust him, he thought it only fair that he try and trust Blake for a change, too.
“A serious concession,” Blake said against his ear.
“Mind, I said might. He isn’t yet.”
Blake’s tone turned considering. “You think we should ask him to stay?”
“Do it and I will abandon you on the next planet we come to – with him. That should be punishment enough. I mean it, Blake,” he added as Blake started to chuckle.
“You were the one who seemed to think it was a good idea.”
“If you’ve already asked him––”
“Relax,” Blake said, still laughing as Avon began to push him out of the bed, “I’ve already asked Avalon to take him on. She’s agreed, he’s agreed, and I’ve told him he can’t take Orac. It’s settled, I promise. I really was just interested.”
“Thank goodness,” Avon said, settling back down again and closing his eyes. “Now all we need to do is work out how to get her to keep Vila.”
It was with a genuine sense of pleasure, though, that Avon activated the lever that would bring the rest of the crew back up to the Liberator, and watched them shimmer into physicality in the teleport bay. Ralmori had already gone down and Jenna had his bracelet as well as her own around her wrist.
“How was living in luxury?” Vila said glumly.
“Frequently under–rated,” Avon said with a sharp smile.
“Funny. I’ve never found that,” Vila said.
Jenna held up the extra bracelet before slotting it away. “He did want to keep it,” she told Blake who was leaning back against the front of the teleport desk. While this position presented a similar eye-line problem to Blake’s traditional loom, Avon ultimately preferred it. Blake couldn’t see his eyes wandering, so it was less embarrassing all round. The others … probably wouldn’t notice, either.
“I thought he might,” Blake said. “Good to see you wrestled it away from him.”
“Actually,” Jenna said with a grin, “all I had to say was that you’d be very disappointed if he didn’t give it back, Blake.”
“I noticed that argument was strangely effective, too,” Cally said, equally amused. “I can’t imagine why.”
“Jenna – would you mind taking us out of orbit?” Blake said, as though he hadn’t heard either of them say anything. “Cally – would you mind helping her?” Avon suppressed a smirk behind his back.
“All right,” Jenna said, suppressed laughter bubbling through her voice. “Oh, and Avon – this is for you apparently.” It was a datapad, much like hundreds of others already on the Liberator. As Avon took it, eyebrow raised, the device lit up to show it was encrypted. “He said the password’s Old Dogs,” Jenna said, pausing in the doorway.
“Presumably as in, Can’t be taught new tricks,” Avon said, rolling of his eyes. “Charming, as always.”
The datapad screen changed to show lines of code, clearly that used for the weapons detection field. A particular area was highlighted with comments, showing a variation that now continually altered the transmission frequency. Ralmori had considered the problem, developed a simple solution, and had now presented it back to Avon, not to Blake. Perhaps, Avon conceded, there was something to Blake’s theory that Ralmori’s obsession was indeed with him. It probably didn’t matter, but it was interesting.
“This will actually work now,” he said, handing the datapad onto Blake.
Blake snorted as he read it. “I particularly like this part where the comment reads, Looking forward to using this all the time while helping Avalon liberate loads more planets than you.”
“His attitude, on the other hand, is not similarly improved,” Avon agreed.
“I’m sorry,” Gan said, “I must not have been paying attention when it was explained. But who exactly is this lad?”
Blake twisted to grin at Avon. “Probably the second greatest computer technician in the galaxy.”
“No need to ask who the first is,” Vila said dampeningly. “And you’re still hanging round here, are you?” he said to Avon.
“Well, Blake … pays better than anticipated,” Avon drawled. “And repeatedly.”
“Avon,” Blake protested, trying genuinely to shut him up but actually just lending the remark credence.
Gan and Vila both looked confused for a moment, and then Vila’s face brightened with realisation and with opportunity. He grinned at Blake. “That must mean you’re the guy who caught him."