“You heard him. Blake wants everybody off the flight deck unless you’re one of the original seven,” Vila told the room, settling back showily into the nest of cushions he’d made for himself on the floor. “Don’t worry, Zen. No need for us to get up.”
Avon gave Vila a disdainful look, then blanked his expression. He would resist the urge to engage in any verbal or physical gloating himself. Not that he considered himself entirely above such behavior, but Vila had done it crassly enough to make anything of the kind from him seem childish.
So there was no jibe as Gambril and Bellfriar noted down the position of their Bo pieces and swept them back into the box.
No eyebrow raised as Renor stood and offered an arm and a grin to one of Kasabi’s soldiers. A dark haired woman, very pretty. The man certainly didn’t waste time. Kasabi’s contingent had scarcely been aboard three hours.
No smirk as Kasabi’s young daughter killed the visual she’d been projecting on the main screen, which seemed to be of some First Calendar political rally.
No barb as two soldiers, whose names he’d not yet had the displeasure of learning, picked their jacks game off the floor and departed with military efficiency.
“It’s like old times,” Jenna said, surveying the flight deck.
Avon could hardly blame her for the thought, sentimental though it was. All manner of soldiers, doctors, and general nuisances had come aboard the Liberator these past months, and they didn’t look like they’d be leaving any time soon. Their diversion to XK72 to get medical help for Gan had been the start of it all. Renor, assistant to the great Dr. Kayn, had taken Blake aside and asked to stay. And not just to stay. He’d asked Blake to help him build a rebel aligned medical research station.
Oh, Avon didn’t fault Renor for his choices, though he didn’t much like him. Avon understood how vexing it could be to force one’s self to work with someone whose principles one found unpalatable, no matter the benefits. A home aboard the fastest ship in the galaxy and a treasure room filled with wealth had kept him with Blake despite Blake’s revolutionary zeal. Similarly, a chance to study under a brilliant man and access to a top-of-the-line medical research facility had kept Renor with Kayn despite Kayn’s vehement belief in the Federation’s goodness.
Like Avon’s own equation, Renor’s had been delicately balanced. Kayn’s behavior aboard the Liberator, his callousness, arrogance and obvious hatred for the rebel cause, coupled with the alluring sight of the Liberator’s medical facilities, had been too much for Renor.
Avon’s own breaking point had also already come, though he hadn’t actually managed to leave. He’d thought to leave the Liberator for good when they arrived on XK72, but had felt obliged to warn Blake and the others that they were in trouble when he’d heard of Kayn’s betrayal. It had been impossible for him to return to XK72, which considering it had blown up a moment later had perhaps been fortunate.
Avon knew he really ought to have found another suitable refuge and departed for it, but the Liberator was difficult to give up on. It offered wealth, safety, and a variety of technological marvels—or could in the proper hands.
He would never have control of the Liberator, since it had become home to hundreds of people all with ideas of their own about what the ship ought to be used for.
Blake had liked Renor’s idea and agreed to help, which wasn’t really very surprising, though it was irritating. The Liberator was meant to be a temporary base for the various rebel doctors and researchers Renor had recruited, but Avon strongly suspected that Bellfriar, Renor, and now what looked to be hundreds of Kasabi’s soldiers, would be here to stay unless he did something about it. Each day they failed to find a suitably defensible location for a research station, everybody but Avon (and, he added fairly, very probably Jenna, who also disliked Renor) got a little more comfortable with things as they were.
Although Blake wasn’t looking all that comfortable now. He seemed to be delaying speaking, chewing on a knuckle pensively.
Finally, Blake spoke.
“When I invited Kasabi and her soldiers to stay with us, I wasn’t aware her troops numbered so many. Even if they all share quarters, I’m afraid at least two of us will have to share our quarters as well.”
So that was Blake’s game. The apparent preferential treatment for the original crew—singling them out, calling a private council, was supposed to soften them all up—soften the annoyance of being booted out of one’s own room. Well, it would probably work, knowing Blake, on everyone but Avon.
“Cally and I will share, won’t we Cally?” Vila said.
Cally smiled and shook her head.
“There’s no reason we have to share with each other,” Jenna pointed out.
“That’s true, Jenna,” Gan agreed.
“Not that I would be thrilled to share with a stranger, but it’s something we ought to consider. I’m not sleeping with Renor,” she continued.
“I don’t mind sharing with anybody, but I do shout in my sleep,” Gan said.
“But those soldiers are lousy with plague! They’re here to get cured of whatever they picked up living outside the Domes,” Vila cried.
“They have radiation sickness, which is not infectious,” Cally said, looking amused.
“And whatever else they might have picked up. You lot don’t know diseases like I do, being aliens and alphas. Which is nearly the same thing anyway.”
“Well?” Blake asked, sounding impatient.
“I volunteer,” Avon said, enjoying the shocked glances he received. “Blake, I assume you have no objection to sharing your quarters with me.”
“None at all, Avon. Be my guest,” Blake said, his tone difficult for Avon to read.
Avon smiled. Whatever Blake thought of it, whether he saw it for what it was or not, it was a simple and elegant plan: punish Blake with his proximity until Blake made clearing the ship a priority. Avon doubted he’d even have to do anything in particular to annoy Blake, other than be himself.
Blake strode down the Liberator’s central corridor, arms stacked high with light-weight, silvery blankets. The walk was long, taken at a normal pace (it seemed they were often running the distance), and for the first time since their afternoon parlay, he had a moment to think about Avon’s offer to share his quarters.
Blake hadn’t even considered refusing. It simply wasn’t the kind of man he was. But he wasn’t pleased about it. Blake was prone to fatigue. He constantly felt a deep weariness pulling at him, dragging at him. He never feared he’d stop—he didn’t have it in him to surrender, but he appreciated anything that kept him fighting. He was glad to have his own inner fire, which seldom let him rest even when it was dark and quiet on the Liberator, even when there was nothing more to be said or done or planned for the night, even when he was bone tired. He was also glad to have Avon, who fired him up beautifully, fighting with him and alongside him. But he liked peace and quiet at night and wanted a room to himself.
As he got closer to the galley, he heard the sound of a conversation between Cally and Bellfriar that was filtering out from the galley. The Liberator’s layout and acoustics made it very easy to overhear conversations. Blake himself was careful not to say anything he didn’t mind being overheard.
“Oh, I thought I’d just put them all on a standard course of anti-radiation drugs,” Bellfriar was saying.
“I’d like to question them about their symptoms before you prescribe anything.”
“The drugs are perfectly safe, I assure you,” Bellfriar said soothingly.
Blake was pleased they’d been able to recruit Bellfriar and his assistant, difficult as it had been to effect. Avon had remembered an old friend of his who worked for a research station and had sent him a coded transmission inquiring if he would be interested in their endeavor. The man—Tynus---had appeared to view the idea favorably, even recruiting others to join as well, only to try to use himself, Bellfriar and Gambrill to bait a Federation trap. The Liberator crew had managed to escape with Bellfriar and Gambrill by the skin of their teeth. Blake wasn’t sure Avon would agree, but personally he thought it had all been worthwhile. Bellfriar was his favorite of their guests.
Still, the man’s confidence could border on carelessness at times. Cally was right, as she usually was. Even if they weren’t going to make things worse by prescribing the wrong drug, it would be a waste of ‘perfectly safe’ drugs if those drugs weren’t needed.
Blake turned and made for the galley. Bellfriar beamed as he entered.
“Blake! Join me. Shall I mix you one?” He gestured to the tall glass of adrenaline and soma that sat in front of him.
“No time. I’m surprised you aren’t busier than I am, with so many patients to diagnose,” Blake said. Cally smiled at him.
You are very subtle in your persuasion, Blake, she said into his mind. He will not refuse the work, now that you have led him by your example.
“I’ll have Gambril take down names. When that’s done I’ll see to them myself,” Bellfriar said, good naturedly enough.
“Thank you,” Cally said, and Blake left to distribute the blankets.
The rest of his day passed quickly, and busily. It was 03:45 AM before Blake at last made his way to his own room.
03:45 AM found Avon at Blake’s small desk, working his way through a pile of circuit diagrams.
Avon didn’t consider himself fussy, but living like this was a great deal to ask. Not that anyone had asked, he reminded himself. This had been his plan. He’d volunteered.
The state of Blake’s quarters wouldn’t stop him. He could be as determined as Blake, when he’d been put into the right sort of corner. But oh, what a corner it was.
Blake’s room, which he could see all too well in the undimmed light, was a carnival of horrors. Clothing on the floor, and stack upon stack of printouts everywhere he turned. Avon had noticed, as he walked to the wardrobe to put away his clothes, that the carpet felt somehow…different beneath his boots. When he’d looked down, he realized he was leaving the sort of prints one left in carpet when it was slightly damp. Why should the carpet be damp? What had Blake been doing? It was true that the Liberator’s auto-decontamination systems would keep mold or anything truly unsavory from forming in the damp fibers, but that was no reason to be disgusting.
Although science said it was impossible, it seemed to him the air smelled musty.
The door hissed open, and Blake strolled in. He smiled at Avon, and his gaze was steady, but not glassy or fixed, as Avon knew his own gaze became when he was upset. If Avon read Blake right, Blake was probably suffering less than he was. Well, that wouldn’t last, if he could help it.
“You can take the bed,” Blake said. “I always sleep in this chair, anyway. When I can sleep at all, I can sleep anywhere.”
Typical of Blake, to sleep entirely on his own terms, unmoved by light or darkness, comfort or discomfort.
“You’re an insomniac,” Avon said. “Charming.”
How strange it would be to live with Blake. Funny, that it hadn’t struck him before. In some ways, he really knew very little of the man. There were a thousand new things he would learn, and learn to find intolerable.
“Intermittently. I had the impression you didn’t sleep well yourself.”
“I’ll be shocked if I sleep at all during our cohabitation,” Avon said, and immediately wished he’d thought of something better. It felt like another point awarded in Blake’s favor, an admission of weakness. Like a self-inflicted insult added to a self-inflicted injury.
Blake sprawled himself across his chair and closed his eyes.
The lights were at 85%, which was ideal for Avon’s work, but probably not for Blake, who was obviously struggling desperately to get to sleep, tonight apparently being one of those nights.
Avon considered what Blake had said. It occurred to him that just because Blake could sleep anywhere when he was able to sleep, the corollary was not necessarily true. It was perfectly likely that when he couldn’t sleep, he disliked disturbances. That sort of lie by omission was perhaps more Avon’s style than Blake’s, but perhaps…
Every time Blake shifted restlessly, which happened approximately on the quarter hour, a small smile tugged at Avon’s his lips. If Blake wanted the lights lower, he would have to ask.
Each of the Liberator’s cabins contained a hemispherical chamber, white as the wall into which it had been set. After one had stepped inside, the press of a button sealed the chamber and activated a sonic shower, which functioned precisely as any citizen of the Earth domes would expect it to. Jets released the finest of mists, and then ultrasonic waves efficiently cleansed everywhere the condensate had dampened. Or at least, that was the theory.
Avon let out a yell. Instead of the light dusting of moisture to which he was accustomed, water hurled itself against what seemed to be every inch of his body, including his hastily shut eyes. He coughed as some the water went down his windpipe. Damn. Even the inside of his body was getting wet.
He barked his left knee hard into the wall of the chamber in the process, but finally, somehow, he managed to remember to smack his hand against the de-activator.
He put on the soaking wet robe he’d hung up inside the chamber and stumbled out to lean against the wall.
“What the hell just happened?” he snarled. He looked over at Blake, who had his face buried in his hands. His shoulders were shaking with laughter.
Blake looked up. “Sorry I didn’t think to warn you. Certain sonic frequencies upset me, Couldn’t shower without a headache, so I re-engineered the jets and shut down the acoustic generators.”
“I must say, I’m surprised.”
“You did seem to be.”
“I knew you were insane. I just didn’t realize you had enough ability to do anything along those lines about it.”
“Thank you, but the idea isn’t original to me. Water used to be a common enough method of bathing, in the pre-atomic era.”
“How fascinating,” Avon said acidly. “Apparently the past is not to be romanticized.”
Blake chewed a knuckle. “That I’ll concede. But when you’re used to the water, it’s a luxury.” He rummaged around on the floor and tossed Avon a large, billowing shirt. “You can use it to dry off,” he said.
Avon dropped the shirt back onto the floor, his mouth twisted with distaste. “You can’t be serious. I’d need another shower instantly.”
Presumably, given that Blake was not stupid, Blake didn’t always dry himself with his dirty shirts, and so, presumably, he was being deliberately unhelpful.
“Perhaps you could do with the practice. It does take getting used to,” Blake said, his voice unsteady with suppressed laughter.
Damn Blake to hell.
In any case, now he knew why the floor had been damp.
Two days had passed at the same speed as those first hours Kasabi had been aboard the Liberator. It was 20:00, and Blake was looking forward to a long shower to relax. He didn’t stop to talk to anybody on his way to his room.
Avon sat on Blake’s bed with his back braced against the wall and his legs drawn up in front of him. He was holding a bookreader, and toggling the pages at a speed that suggested he was merely skimming over them. Blake wondered what sort of thing Avon liked to read. He didn’t ask.
Over the past two days he’d tried to behave as normally as possible, using the room as he normally would if he’d had it to himself. Avon, too, had been fairly un-obtrusive, which surprised him.
Blake took his shirt off and dropped it on the floor, then picked the depilatory-cream bottle from where it lay. All of that was precisely what he would normally do.
When he had finished rubbing depilatory cream onto his skin, Blake began to pace his room, letting his mind wander.
The challenges to finding a base for Renor and his rebel doctors were many. The impartiality of a neutral base (such as XK72) would be respected, but a rebel base would be an open target. It would need to be either entirely hidden or entirely defensible. The first option seemed more likely, but how to manage it?
Blake had spoken with Avon about the possibility of a detector shield for the Liberator some time ago. Could such a shield hide a research station? Perhaps, but where would they build it? Colonizing a barren asteroid was beyond their capabilities, and the Federation kept tabs on all the known habitable planets. One couldn’t simply make a planet disappear and expect people not to notice. Besides, Avon had said nothing about any progress on such a device, and he wasn’t one to be silent about his achievements.
Blake checked his watch. Still seven minutes before he could wash the cream away.
“Ah, Blake. I think I’ll have a shower,” Avon said, startling Blake. He hadn’t forgotten that Avon was there—how could he?—but he hadn’t been expecting the interruption to his thoughts.
“All right. Make it quick.”
Avon hadn’t had a shower since that first morning, which, knowing Avon’s obsessive neatness, meant he’d probably now skipped three or four showers. He’d also seemed more irritable and peevish than usual, snapping at everyone who crossed his path. Adding those two things together led Blake to suspect that Avon was hydrophobic.
Dome life certainly didn’t provide much positive exposure to water, which made it as reasonable as a phobia could be. Still, Blake wasn’t surprised that Avon was reluctant to make it known to the others and hadn’t found another shower to use.
The minutes ticked by. Avon wasn’t making it quick, not at all. If Avon took a long shower to punish Blake, it would likely be as much a punishment for himself. Still, it was quite possible that wouldn’t stop him.
Blake ran out of patience. He rapped on the shower wall, but got no answer.
Fifteen minutes later, Avon left the shower. Blake’s skin burned and smarted underneath the cream. For his part, Avon looked tense and miserable, his hair plastered to his head, his face rosy from the heat, but drawn and rigid.
“I don’t imagine you enjoyed that,” Blake told Avon.
“How considerate you are of my well being,” Avon replied.
“Oh, I just thought you should know how it looks.”
“Like idiocy,” Blake said, and slammed his way into the shower.
Avon was only half listening to Vila, who was reclining on one of the rest room’s loungers. Avon himself sat a few paces away at the table, rewriting the notes he’d made on the workings of the Liberator’s med scanner. Unfortunately, any idiot needed to be able to work the device, and it was far from intuitive. He supposed it would have been too much to hope that trading a technical career for a terrorist one would have at least spared him this particular tedium. It seemed a shame that the only thing he’d managed to find to keep himself busy was altogether too unpleasant to provide the necessary distraction from his bad mood.
His time under Blake’s shower and its aftermath had left him feeling, if anything, edgier and more foolish than before. When Blake had ordered everyone off the flight deck, he’d taken care not to engage in any gloating that would make him appear silly. Yet somehow he’d allowed himself to lapse into worse silliness with Blake, in front of whom he most hated to appear foolish. He’d since stopped tormenting Blake in any way that would compromise his own dignity, limiting himself to snide remarks and late- night work with the lights at full brightness, but that didn’t seem to be enough to restore his equanimity. For one, he wasn’t sure any of that bothered Blake much. He also wasn’t entirely convinced Blake perceived any difference in his behavior, which was galling.
“Not listening, are you?” Vila said. “Is something on your mind? Anything you want to talk about?
Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask.” Vila added, in response to Avon’s glare.
“It might,” Avon said.
“Yes. I’m surprised you’d risk finding out.”
“Hey! I was only offering a sympathetic ear. Maybe I could help.”
Avon set the datapad aside and looked up as Vila’s words sunk in and twisted. There was an idea…
“Yes,” Avon said, “you could. ”
“I could? Now, I didn’t agree to anything yet…”
“Tell me, Vila, if you wanted to annoy Blake, how would you do it?”
“How should I know? I’m perfectly agreeable!”
“So consider it an intellectual challenge. How would someone who lacked your evident charm annoy Blake?”
“You don’t mean to say you think you’re less charming than me.”
“Well now, you aren’t making particularly compelling case for yourself at the moment.”
Vila smiled. “Oh, all right. Who am I to deny a friend in need? And anyway, Blake should learn not to invite a bunch of invalids in here. The way to really annoy anybody is to figure out what they don’t want to think about and make sure they do think about it. With Blake, I’d start with the mess he’s made of his room. Move everything around, just a little, so he can’t remember where to find it. If you clean anything, Blake can convince himself you’ve done him a favor. As it is, he won’t have a chance.”
Avon toggled off the datapad and rose from the table.
“Don’t tell him it was my idea! I don’t want him coming after me.”
It was working.
Blake had been rummaging around the room for a quarter of an hour in increasing frustration, making a worse and worse mess of things. Avon watched with amusement as Blake picked up his best tunic—the green one with the black ribbing—and tossed it aside. That made his third time searching beneath that particular article.
“Avon, did you--?”
“Did I what, Blake?” Avon said with faux innocence.
He watched Blake struggle for a moment.
“Have you seen a printout with—?”
“No,” Avon said, before Blake could find the words to describe a rather undistinguished piece of paper, virtually identical to a dozen others that littered the room. Blake heaved a frustrated sigh.
Amazing, what simply moving a few items around could do to Blake’s mood. Not that Avon would ever tell Vila, but Vila had put his finger on something.
What else? Avon typically didn’t try to probe for sore spots, just spoke the very worst of whatever he happened to be thinking, which sometimes worked and sometimes glanced off Blake without having any effect. It occurred to Avon that he might profit from reviewing everything he’d previously said to Blake that Blake had made an effort not to care about.
One thought came immediately to mind: his recent talk of leaving the Liberator for XK72. Blake had claimed not to care one way or the other, but he’d been more irritable than usual, barely staying in the same room as Avon for more than a few minutes.
Had he imagined it, Avon wondered, or was he more useful to Blake than Blake liked to admit? In the weeks that had followed, he’d felt strangely reluctant to mention it again, perhaps reluctant to face up to his own failure to leave, but now he found himself too curious to resist.
“You know, Blake, I was thinking that perhaps when this rebel research station is finished, I will be finished as well—with you. It would be as good a place as any for me to retire.”
“Thank you. I don’t need another reason to hurry our search along,” Blake said coldly. “I’m working as fast I can already.”
Avon stood stock-still, stunned.
He hadn’t considered that his departure might actually be something Blake was looking forward to. He disliked considering the idea now. He’d thought Blake might think his recent behavior foolish, but to realize that Blake could consider him totally useless was a definite blow to his pride.
Unfreezing himself, Avon stalked out of the room.
The surface of the planet Cephlon, where the escape pods had landed, was barren and dusted with frost, scarcely habitable as a result of nuclear fallout. And Avon, Blake knew, did not favor discomfort, unless it gave Blake a rash.
So his question—Why not send me?—had surprised Blake. Avon’s voice had been flat enough that the question would have sounded ironic to someone who knew him less well, but Blake thought he was probably at least partially sincere.
What was more difficult for him to understand was Avon’s motivation. In general, Avon had been behaving oddly these past few days, his demeanor shiftless and rather subdued. They hadn’t spoken much, and when they had, it hadn’t been friendly.
“You aren’t already on a course of anti-radiation drugs,” Blake pointed out. “Kasabi is.”
“Thank you for your concern.”
Actually, Blake was concerned, and not just about radiation poisoning. Avon’s obvious unhappiness was making him worry. Though that was the last thing he’d say.
“And perhaps I don’t think you’d do as well,” Blake added. “Kasabi, what do you say? Will you go down?”
She walked briskly to the room’s comm and hit the button that would broadcast throughout the ship. “Arle, Berg, Yartels, Parnall, Lorraine, Vetros, Gubar, Klis, Jeck, Furlis, Hine and Manar to the teleport chamber.”
“Thank you,” Blake told her, and met Avon’s glare with a neutral expression that came with the ease of long practice.
After flipping the necessary switches on the teleport, Avon stared at the space where they’d been. The devil only knew what he was thinking.
After a time, two soldiers re-materialized, supporting a groaning man—obviously the worse for his crash.
“Good. Take him to the medical unit,” Blake told Kasabi’s men. “Blake to Kasabi. Why haven’t you come up?”
“Blake,” came Kasabi’s voice through the communicator, “I’d like to do some reconnaissance on this planet, since I’m here.”
“All right,” Blake said. “Call in when you want to teleport. Avon, wait for her call.”
Blake strode out of the room, toward the medical unit.
“Kasabi, are you ready to come up now?” Blake asked the comm.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve found something. Is there a hurry?”
“As a matter of fact, there is,” Blake said, irked at the delay. “The man you’ve already rescued needs treatment for his father. He also claims to be willing to sell us a remarkable computer.”
“Does he really?” Avon asked, obviously intrigued.
“Yes. Don’t worry, you can have the first look. Perhaps that’ll cheer you up,” Blake said lightly. Perhaps too lightly. It occurred to him that it might look like he was sending Avon up, so he dropped a hand onto Avon’s shoulder to make it clear he wasn’t.
“How long will the trip take?” Kasabi asked.
“About three hours.”
“Why don’t you leave us here and return when you’ve finished?”
“Right. We’ll see you soon.”
Blake closed the connection.
“Why the peace offering? I thought you wanted me gone,” Avon said accusingly.
“I wanted you gone?” Blake echoed, incredulous.
Avon’s brows arched up and his mouth opened slightly in surprise. “Ah,” he said. “You did say as much.”
“Of course not! I thought you couldn’t wait to leave.”
Avon shrugged. “Yes, well – somebody has to stay to find out how remarkable this computer really is.”
“If you teleport down with me, you could find out faster,” Blake suggested.
Avon grinned, a wonderful smile that touched his eyes. “No thank you, Blake. I don’t think I will.”
Now that was vexing, but he reasoned that if this sort of elaborately perverse behavior was Avon’s way of expressing his renewed high spirits, he could get used to it. And would have to, since Avon seemed to want to stay for good.
“Kasabi, you dog!” Renor said good-naturedly, clapping her on the back. “You could teach me a few things about women.” His eyes shifted to Jenna and he gave her a smile, which was more rueful than lecherous, but made her roll her eyes.
Apparently, Kasabi had insisted on investigating a door set into the hillside and found an adoring young woman, who’d taken Kasabi to be the stuff of prophecy and worshipped the ground she walked on.
Blake, however, was more interested in a different part of the story: Kasabi and her soldiers had efficiently slaughtered the people down there. They might have been brutal and violent, but surely killing all of them hadn’t been necessary.
Kasabi kept her troops well trained—perhaps, Blake thought, too well trained. She had a way of attracting military dissidents, and those who joined her from outside the military quickly learned her ways. Though they were all companionable enough with each other, or seemed to be, but he noticed that they all had their roles and duties, and only soldiers of equal status formed deeper friendships. Their ranks and duties were the most important thing in everyone’s mind.
Now it seemed that Kasabi and her soldiers could equal the Federation in brutality as well as discipline.
The thought angered Blake, but he kept silent. He was too tired for a fight with Kasabi. Eventful as Kasabi’s time on Cephlon had been, it had also been more than a day’s work for him, unleavened by any adoring worship. Not that he would have enjoyed that, of course. He disliked being treated like a hero. Fortunately, no one with a permanent place aboard the Liberator mistook him for one.
Flying at top speed always drained him just as dry as the Liberator’s energy banks. Although the piloting work was Jenna’s, Blake always found himself tensed, willing them forward. Then, of course, when they’d arrived at their destination he’d had to struggle through a series of underground tunnels to help an old mad genius with a bad heart lug the supercomputer Orac up to the Liberator. He really hoped the thing would be useful – it was certainly heavy enough. If Ensor had collapsed (as had seemed very likely at one point) and Blake had had to carry Orac himself, he probably would have left it behind. Fortunately Ensor was now in sick bay, his heart repaired, and Orac was safely aboard without the Federation getting so much as a finger on it.
Jenna reeled Blake in by the shoulder as he was heading off the flight deck. “Renor is getting on my last nerve.”
Without meaning to, Blake sucked his breath in through his teeth.
“Sorry Blake,” Jenna said. “I didn’t mean that to hurt.” She smiled wryly. “Did you pull something down on the planet?”
“It’s fine. I just need some rest.”
He looked up to see Avon watching him and heaved a sigh. What now?
Blake made his way blindly to his room, where he dropped heavily into his chair and closed his eyes. It would certainly be nice to have a moment to himself. Kasabi, Renor, Avon, Jenna—the lot of it was getting to be rather tiresome. He would sleep tonight. Whatever Avon had to say about it, or did. Any petty revenge, any…
He flinched as Avon’s hands came down on his shoulders.
“Did I startle you?” Avon asked, a laugh in his voice, sliding his hands up to rest threateningly at Blake’s throat. Then he dropped them again, and began massaging Blake’s tense shoulders.
“Avon?” Blake asked, but before Avon could answer his elliptical question, he’d surrendered to sleep.
Avon had to admit, he was curious about their most recent guest. Ensor had only half recovered from his surgery, but he had asked them to bring Orac to his bedside for a demonstration.
“Give him air,” Renor demanded. “Don’t crowd so close.”
“Never mind. I’m perfectly all right. Orac will find a suitable home for you all,” Ensor assured them. “It’s a simple matter of finding the right questions to ask.”
“Surely the right question is - where is the best place to build a rebel-aligned research laboratory?” Avon said.
“Oh, no. Orac needs to be entertained.”
“You mean, we’ve got to tell him jokes first?” Vila asked.
“Don’t be an idiot, Vila.”
“What a fascinating idea,” Ensor mused. “What sort of jokes did you have in mind?”
“Please, waste your own time,” Avon snapped, cutting Vila off.
Ensor smiled. “Patience, patience. Very well, that will keep. I shall look forward to it. That will be nice, looking forward. An old man like me has so little to look forward to. Orac, I’d like you to identify a planet-like object within Federation territory, but unknown to the Federation. Something only you can find. Exclude Sixty-One Cygnii—That, my friends, is what the mystical-minded call--”
“The Darkling Zone,” Jenna put in. “Yes, I know. It’s supposedly uncharted, yet it’s closer to earth than the Gamma sector. I suppose there’s a reason no one goes there.”
Meanwhile, Orac whirred and clicked.
“I suggest the object code named ‘Terminal,’” it said, after only a few moments. “It is an artificial planetoid in the region of Delta Seven Four, constructed by a consortium of United Planets scientists four hundred and eleven years ago. The location of the planet was falsified upon its completion. All readily accessible files place the planet in a solar orbit in close proximity to Mars. Yet that is not its true location. It could only be discovered by chance, or by the most highly advanced artificial intelligence in the Federation.”
“He means himself, doesn’t he?” Vila said. “Arrogant little box.”
“And will it be discovered by chance?” Ensor asked. “You see, Orac can be tricky, but you can count on him to know these things. Later, we can ask him to show us a picture of the future—then it’s just a matter of figuring out what it is we’re actually seeing!”
“It will not,” Orac responded.
“How can you be certain?” Ensor prodded.
“The detector shield invented by Kerr Avon will prevent such an occurrence.”
Blake looked at Avon, as if to say, why didn’t you tell me?
“The design is nearly finished, but not entirely,” Avon said, carefully unapologetic.
Avon sat at Blake’s desk once again, circuit diagrams spread out in front of him.
“Incidentally,” he said, “now that you know what it is that has kept me working late into the night, I can only assume you won’t mind the disturbance.”
“It doesn’t disturb me,” Blake said wearily. “Goodnight, Avon.”
He closed his eyes and apparently fell straight to sleep.
Blake’s insomnia seemed to have stopped troubling him, Avon noted. At least these last few days. Interestingly, there was something about watching Blake lying, slumped in his chair, his limbs relaxed, his mouth open, his eyelids flickering with dreams, which soothed Avon towards sleep as well.
It was becoming a sort of ritual. After Blake dropped off to sleep, Avon would study Blake for a while, wonder what he dreamed of. Defeating the Federation, perhaps, or something equally tedious and predictable. Though Blake wasn’t predictable in most of the rest of his life.
Perhaps, Avon thought, he himself was only able to relax because he could see Blake and knew he wasn’t designing new and unexpected ways for them all to kill themselves. The thought should have annoyed him, but it didn’t. He found himself yawning.
He should probably be burning the midnight oil to finish the detector shield as soon as he possibly could, but he wasn’t. He was sleeping a full six hours, with Blake waking before him each morning.
Typically, he’d wake to the sounds of Blake shifting around and then heating tea on a burner he’d salvaged somewhere. He never offered Avon any tea, and Avon wouldn’t have drunk it if he had. Still, despite not enjoying the chemical benefits of Blake’s tea preparations, the process returned Avon to consciousness without undue shocks or starts, and he appreciated it for that.
He wasn’t delaying finishing the shield, Avon thought as he eased himself into bed and shut his eyes. Just enjoying the unusual respite from his insomnia. Life was too short. Why not indulge--in a little sleep--while he could?
When Kasabi told Blake she didn’t plan to stay on, he wasn’t sorry. The two of them had focused their efforts on collecting equipment and personnel for the research station, but that wouldn’t last forever. He found it impossible to imagine coordinating a successful strike with Kasabi. She was both far more thorough than he was and far more ruthless. Blake also thought her tactics were likely to be more predictable to the Federation than his own, because her tactics were fundamentally the same as the Federation’s. In fact she’d trained many of the Federation’s best and brightest, the Supreme Commander included.
“With Kasabi’s people gone, you’ll be free to move to a vacant cabin,” Blake told Avon.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it,” Avon said, with a nasty smile that told Blake he wouldn’t move out until the Liberator held only its original crew.
Blake laughed, unaccountably pleased to hear it.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were working on the detector shield?” Blake asked one night.
It was the first time in weeks Blake hadn’t fallen asleep quickly. The change had put Avon, who had dimmed the lights and moved to the bed, not even bothering to assume the posture of working through the night, off balance. That was the trouble, he thought, with relying on someone else’s routine to establish one’s own. He was all too susceptible to Blake’s whims.
“You didn’t ask,” Avon said.
“So if I ask you a question, you’ll answer it?”
“Well now, I didn’t say that.” He would be a fool to agree to that, but he was curious what Blake might want to ask him. For an intelligent man, Blake didn’t ask many questions.
“Do you have brothers or sisters?” Blake asked.
It occurred to Avon that perhaps Blake hadn’t had anything particular in mind that he’d wanted to know. The makeup of Avon’s family was the sort of information one could find out without asking, if one was curious. He was probably just testing Avon, seeing how far he could push. Or perhaps in Blake’s mind this just passed for chit-chat. A bit of light conversation with Blake—that would be novel. He supposed he wouldn’t know what Blake intended unless he answered.
“An older sister and a younger brother.”
“I had an older brother and a younger sister. They’re both dead now. What are yours like?” Blake asked, apparently untroubled by the difficulty of speaking of his dead relatives or of conversing with Avon.
Avon hesitated, but decided he didn’t want to put a stop to it all yet.
“My brother is charming, handsome, and a trouble maker. Nothing like me.” Everything seemed to come easily to Len. Love, money, his career in aeronautic engineering. Avon hadn’t seen fit to mention it, but Len had probably helped design the pursuit ships that the Federation used to hunt his brother. That was Kerr Avon’s sort of luck.
“Nothing?” Blake said. “Are any two brothers really nothing alike?”
“Yes. Don’t psychoanalyze me, Blake.”
“Perhaps I was trying to pay you a compliment.”
Well, that would be a first. “You don’t pay me compliments.”
“No. But then, in order to pay someone a compliment, you and he must consider the same qualities admirable. We don’t.”
Blake chuckled. “You don’t think I could pay you a compliment you’d find flattering?”
“You can try.” Avon grinned to himself. He knew he was terribly susceptible to flattery. Fortunately, he wasn’t the sort of man who people usually found it in themselves to flatter, so he didn’t usually have to worry about it. He couldn’t imagine what Blake would say.
“I think you’re one of the bravest people I know.”
So Blake thought he was brave. Well. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, really. But he’d enjoyed hearing that from Blake. There was no denying it. For a moment, Avon just listened to Blake’s breathing and the steady hum of the ship, looking for something to say to that.
“I don’t admire bravery.”
“Ah. Sorry,” Blake said, not sounding particularly sorry. “Then perhaps you’re right. I could try again?”
“Don’t embarrass yourself,” Avon said. “Goodnight, Blake.”
Blake took the hint, but the silence that fell between them wasn’t uncomfortable. Avon supposed the all the weeks they’d spent together were responsible for that.
Five days later, Avon finished the detector shield.
A scant week after that, Renor and his people were ready to make their new home on Terminal.
Farewells were made, with promises from Blake to return with additional equipment and recruits, though the doctors were already well supplied.
Avon moved his things back to his own cabin without a word to Blake.
He supposed it had all been rather pointless. If anything, sharing quarters with Blake had drawn out their guests’ stay on the Liberator. He could have finished the damned detector shield earlier if he wasn’t sleeping so cursedly well.
Back in his own quarters, Avon took a three-minute sonic shower and emerged feeling uneasy. It had been, he thought wryly, entirely too efficient.
He dimmed the lights on his meticulously re-organized room, loosened the fresh sheets he’d put on the bed until he could slip between them, and closed his eyes. He counted backwards from five hundred. No good.
He looked out at his room. His own chair was empty but for the next day’s clothes: a green tunic with a silver chevron pattern, and black slacks, neatly folded. His desk was empty of printouts. Nothing to occupy him, now he’d finished the detector shield. He’d have to find another project, and soon.
He turned onto his back and did his best to mentally reconstruct the most sophisticated, highest quality simulated sensory relaxation he’d ever purchased. It didn’t work.
With an irritated sigh, he got up, deciding he’d make for the flight deck.
The flight deck always seemed unnatural in the deep of the night, the deck of a ghost ship. The seats, so tall and alien when they were empty, faced down the blank expanse of space.
The lights were out. For a moment, Avon was a solitary shadow looking out from the doorway at another solitary shadow.
“Can’t you sleep either?” Avon asked Blake, who turned at the sound of his footfalls.
Blake just smiled as Avon sat down beside him.