Avon emptied the bag onto the black-topped table and the diamonds spilled out, covering the surface like stars in the sky.
“Do you know how much is in there?” he asked Jenna, though she knew. She’d seen the room first, and practically dared him to go inside. “Millions. Millions. And this is just a sample. There must be almost as much wealth in that single room as there is in the entire Federation banking system. Look at it.”
He had always liked diamonds, and always owned far too few of them. They were hard and cold, rare, perfect and able to cut through anything. Avon identified with them, as one diamond in the rough amongst others, and he suspected Jenna felt similarly. She was as hard and bright as he was.
“You could buy a lot of freedom with this,” Jenna said.
“You could buy anything with this,” Avon said. “Anything at all. Think of it Jenna, there isn't anything you couldn't have.”
“But what about Blake?”
This was the question, then. She’d wanted Avon to bring the jewels and the implied offer to her, so that she could ask this question and receive a convincing answer. He didn’t need to tempt her; he just had to justify her own idea.
The problem was that Blake was indeed the biggest obstacle to the two of them seeing how much freedom they could buy. Blake would think in the same terms, but with completely different results. For Blake “buying freedom” would involve putting the money to use buying weapons for the resistance or bribing a governor to vote against the Administration, or something else equally dreary. For Avon and, he suspected, Jenna too – buying freedom meant buying the right not to have to think about guns or governor summit-meetings. It could also mean more, much more besides that.
Yes, Blake was a problem. That was a shame, in a way, because Blake wasn't entirely dreadful. He wasn’t the worst person Avon had ever met, or even (there had been so awful ones recently) in the top ten. He even had good points, though … not many. He was, certainly, compelling, but that wasn’t one of the good points. Avon liked to think for himself. However - if Blake could have been persuaded that their best chance lay in buying a mansion in the middle of nowhere, with a lot of expensive, automated weaponry systems in case anyone came looking, Avon thought he might have thought as Jenna did. He might have needed persuading. As it was – Blake was a liability.
“What about him?” he said to Jenna.
“No,” Jenna said, as though she hadn’t been thinking exactly the same thing as Avon had. She wouldn’t have said ‘no’ if the same thoughts about abandoning Blake hadn’t occurred to her as well; she wouldn’t have known what she was denying. But they were both thinking the same thing. Avon knew she found Blake compelling too, and surely found that just as frightening.
Just convince me, Jenna was saying. Tell me it’s logical to abandon Blake. Convince me it’s reasonable to be rich and happy.
“We could own our own planet,” Avon tried.
“We're not leaving him there.”
“We have to. He's a crusader. He'll look upon all this as just one more weapon to use against the Federation. And he can't win. You know he can't win. What do you want to be rich or dead? We might never have this opportunity again.”
“An hour,” Jenna said. “We'll wait an hour. If he's not back by then we'll leave.”
“Why? Why wait?” Avon asked. The delay was dangerous. Not only might Blake radio up during that time and do some persuading of his own, but a delay would give Jena time for remorse. “If you’re worried about Blake—”
“I don’t like to betray people who save my life,” she said coldly.
“We won’t have to,” Avon said, choosing the plural pronoun to link the two of them in this endeavour; to make it clear that he had the same reservations about leaving Blake, rather than, as she was implying, no reservations at all about anything. He had, though, (he was telling her) overcome them, because those reservations were unreasonable. “I can prove it to you.”
He walked out of the teleport room without checking to see whether she was coming with him. If she wasn’t, then it was already too late, but she was and he knew it.
This next part was a gamble, but then wasn’t everything? He had gambled and lost on the fraud that had sent him to Cygnus Alpha, but his luck was changing. Wasn’t their presence here, above rather than on Cygnus Alpha, proof of that?
“Zen,” he said as he and Jenna arrived back on the flight deck, “describe and define the hazards that would prevent Roj Blake living a healthy life on the planet Cygnus Alpha.”
They had only been on the Liberator a short time, and the computer was, frustratingly, the most incomprehensible part of the incomprehensible ship. This should work, but Avon mentally crossed his fingers.
“Cygnus Alpha has supported colonist life for more than two-hundred years,” Zen intoned. “The planet is not naturally hostile to human life, with few predators and tolerable weather conditions. Further, the colonists have established basic conveniences, including shelters and food technologies.”
“Adequate reassurance?” Avon asked Jenna, but unfortunately the computer was still speaking.
“Roj Blake is in particular danger from the religious group currently in command of the planet. Records show that this group participates in torture and human sacrifice as a means to keep the population under control.”
Jenna turned to Avon, one eyebrow raised. “Do you think Blake will toe the line?” she asked sarcastically.
She made to leave, clearly unwilling to leave Blake to an undoubtedly brief life shouting insults at priests, but Avon caught hold of her arm.
“Wait,” he said. It wasn’t over yet, but he had to think quickly. “Zen, this group – they wouldn’t be concentrated around the prisoner holding bay used by the London, by any chance?”
“Confirmed,” Zen said. “Religious group is only active within a five-mile radius.”
“Then,” Avon said, “can you fire a low-intensity beam from the main weaponry so that it stuns anyone within a radius of, say,” he grinned at Jenna, “five miles?” She was about to object that it wouldn’t do Blake any good to be stunned, but Avon continued – this part was even more of a gamble, but if what he’d seen of the Liberator’s capabilities was true it should be more than possible. “Can you further locate Blake’s isomorphic strain and ensure that he, alone, is shielded from the beam?”
Zen considered this. Jenna waited – she wasn’t objecting. She could see what this would do for Blake; the opportunity it would give him, to be the only man awake on the entire planet. He could arrange matters however he wanted before everyone else woke up. It was more than fair – if it worked.
“Confirmed,” Zen said at last, ponderously slowly.
“Planet on the main screen,” Avon snapped, and he and Jenna watched as a beam of light shot from the Liberator towards Cygnus Alpha.
Avon turned towards her. “He wanted a crew, and now he’s got one. He also has a base. He has one year to organise everyone else down there before the next Federation colony ship arrives – once that happens, he will have a crew, a base, a ship. Do you still think we’re betraying Blake if we leave now - really?”
Like Zen, Jenna seemed to be considering the request. Then she grinned.
“All right. Which planet would you like?” she asked.
Ten months later…
Avon looked up at the stars twinkling above Cygnus Alpha, and drew his jacket more closely around him in a futile attempt to protect himself from the cold.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t have both of you killed immediately,” Blake said.
He looked older, though relatively little time had passed. More than that, he looked tougher. Blake had spent the last year working with his hands, whereas Avon knew that he looked older, and harder, the diamond sharpened to an even keener end, but not necessarily tougher. Avon was a man who killed with distance weapons, whereas Blake could kill with his own hands. Oddly, Avon still found him compelling, even a year later, and clothed in something that had clearly once been the long, handwoven robe of a priest. Clearly - he was just as dangerous.
“We came back for you,” Jenna pointed out.
“That wouldn’t have been necessary if you hadn’t betrayed me and left me to die,” Blake roared.
Avon turned to Jenna, a questioning look on his face. “Did we do that?”
“You know you did,” Blake snarled.
They had teleported directly inside his base: a large, stone, gothic-looking building that Avon was sure must leak during bad weather and perhaps crumble down on you while you slept. They were in a sort of large throne-room, with arched windows through which Avon could see the diamond-studded sky. They were also alone, Blake having sent all the other gapers away once Avon and Jenna had appeared. If he murdered them both now, Avon thought, there would be nobody to see it, or care. But perhaps that was inevitable.
“Strange,” Avon said, brushing off Blake’s earlier statement as though it confused him. “I thought we left you with a base, the beginnings of an army, and a guaranteed way off this planet once you were ready.”
“Yes. That’s what I thought,” Jenna said. “And this time we even brought you a series of presents, didn’t we, Avon?”
“A telepathic guerrilla fighter, and the most-advanced computer in the galaxy,” Avon said. “Not to mention, the fastest, most powerful ship in the galaxy, the only one with teleport capability in existence.”
The Liberator was currently in orbit above the planet: a returning star in Cygnus Alpha’s heavens. Avon had brought several extra bracelets with him, unsure how many of their former London colleagues would wish to teleport up with Blake. Cally would bring them all up, though, when the time was right, and then Blake could take over the ship again.
“Why?” Blake said quietly, the word rippling with menace. He'd stepped forward to crowd into Avon’s space. He smelled un-fresh, as one might expect from a man living on a farming world without sonic showers, and he was still several inches taller than Avon and somehow more imposing even than that warranted.
“Perhaps more valuable even than that, though,” Avon continued, as though Blake weren’t looming over him, “is the formidable reputation we have built for you over the past ten months. The Federation trembles before your name, Blake. We did that, for you.”
“Why?” Blake repeated.
The truth was, of course, that it hadn’t worked.
Avon and Jenna had been high on success for the first few days, while they were still on route to a new world. Avon had explored the ship, discovered most (some?) of the rooms and marvels beyond even the miraculous teleport, and Jenna had worked out how to fly her. They’d toasted their sure-to-be-wonderful lives with strange alien wines. After this, Avon had suggested the two of them might like to celebrate success in a more … physical manner. Jenna had rebuffed this suggestion, but relatively kindly, considering.
The trouble had come when Avon had first tried to teleport down. He’d been in the bay, teleport bracelet actually on his wrist, when the thought had struck him.
If Jenna had left Blake, whom she had actually rather liked, what would stop her from leaving Avon, whom she had little but contempt for? Although Avon could take as much wealth as he could carry on his person with him, and (unlike Blake) choose his destination, he was coming to the conclusion that Liberator herself was more valuable than the gems she carried. The technology alone, if he was allowed to patent it, would be worth millions of millions. He could not allow Jenna to fly away with the ship.
“Actually Jenna, why don’t you go down first?” he’d said, as mildly as he possibly could, walking out of the bay so she couldn't teleport him without his permission. Be gentlemanlike, be considerate. “You must want to stretch your legs.”
“It’s a large ship,” Jenna had said. “I wouldn’t want to deprive you.”
They'd stared at each other across the teleport desk like two gunfighters or rival barristers.
“On second thoughts, I’m not interested in going down today at all,” Avon had said. He’d removed the bracelet. The two of them had returned to their quarters.
Jenna herself had never made the same mistake. She'd never reached the same point in the teleport bay – clearly she didn’t want to give Liberator up without a fight, either.
Between the two of them, they had the best ship in the galaxy, and more wealth than any other living being in the Federation – and it was impossible to enjoy either.
They’d picked Cally up on the planet Saurian Major. Jenna had been forced to land Liberator on the planet’s surface so both she and Avon could disembark at the same time. Zen had chosen this particular planet (neither of them could be trusted to choose themselves) to locate a neutral ally: someone who wasn’t affiliated with either Jenna or Avon, who could operate the teleport for them, so they could each enjoy their wealth but know they had the ship to come back to.
When the Federation troops protecting the planet’s base had understandably tried to capture the Liberator, Jenna had obliterated the base with Liberator’s blasters. This had endeared the two of them to Cally, who they had discovered waiting at the periphery of the base. They welcomed her aboard as their neutral arbiter.
Unfortunately, Avon was never able to trust that Jenna hadn’t got to Cally and persuaded her that selling Avon out would be to her advantage. Jenna, clearly, felt the same. Neither of them allowed Cally to send only one of them down to any location. It was always both or neither, unless there was some particular emergency.
Orac, for example, they’d picked up, on Aristo, having intercepted the dying son of a dying scientist. On this one occasion Jenna had trusted Avon to stay on the ship while she and Cally retrieved the computer, since he was suffering from radiation poisoning (sustained from an unshielded mainframe), and needed the drugs they could bring back.
These actions, and others like them, had convinced the Federation that the Liberator was hostile to the Federation’s interests. Meanwhile, a report by Command Leyland of the London had informed the Federation that the Liberator was led by Roj Blake, who had managed to escape along with fellow prisoners Stannis and Avon. The Federation had therefore made the obvious, if incorrect, conclusion that the famous rebel leader, rather than the failed embezzler or the smuggler, was calling the shots. Blake, they had concluded, must be on board, and in command.
They'd sent Blake’s former nemesis after the ship; after him.
“Blake isn’t here,” Avon had told Travis patiently on a number of occasions, “you lunatic,” he’d added when he’d been feeling less patient. But it was pointless to argue with a fanatic. That was why they had left Blake in the first place.
Thank goodness, then, for Orac. The little computer claimed to be able to predict the future, but Jenna had more sensibly overridden Avon’s irritated request that it therefore do so with an alternate request.
“How can we end this stalemate, Orac?”
“You will have to be more specific,” Orac had said peevishly, though Avon was always thinking along the same lines as her, and he already knew what she was asking. As a question, it made sense. He should have thought of it himself.
“Avon and myself,” Jenna said. “We both want the Liberator, and we can’t trust each other not to take her. Aside from one of us killing the other,” Avon made a face – he hadn’t truly even considered that option. Clearly Jenna was yet more steps ahead, “what can we do to resolve the situation in the way that benefits everyone?”
“A very simple problem,” Orac had said. “Hardly worth my time.” At this point Avon had threatened to throw Orac out of an airlock, and see if it thought space worth its time. Orac had sniffed, and said, “It should be obvious that you have to locate Roj Blake, and restore him to the Liberator.”
The suggestion would have been outrageous from Jenna. Avon himself would never have considered thinking it, yet alone voicing it, but hearing it come from a logical, rational computer … the suggestion didn’t seem entirely far-fetched.
Blake was neutral – at least, as far as the Avon and Jenna were concerned. Both of them knew there was no way Blake would be persuaded to abandon one of them for riches or success; it would be difficult to persuade Blake to do anything at all. Yes, Blake would use the Liberator against the Federation, in dangerous and daring actions that would risk the lives of everyone aboard, but with Servalan and Travis chasing the ship anyway this seemed rather a moot point.
“Zen, set a course of Cygnus Alpha,” Avon had barked at the computer after seeing Jenna’s face, where his own contentment with the idea was clearly visible. “Standard by Nine.”
He refused to say any of this to Blake, though, who was still waiting for an answer: implacable, like the granite walls of his base. They had come to save Blake from this life (however wonderful Avon had tried to make it sound to Jenna ten months ago), rather than beg him for help. He would not admit to more.
Blake, sensing he was doing badly with Avon, turned to the woman next to him. “Jenna?”
“Sentiment,” Avon said before Jenna could answer – not his best evasion, but he was running out of ideas.
Blake turned slowly back to Avon. “You missed me?” he said incredulously.
“Yes,” Jenna said quietly, speaking for both of them probably. Interestingly, Blake’s expression softened. Strange, Avon thought, that the arch-revolutionary, who on the London had seemed only to care for the liberation of mankind, or (when least convenient) the lives of shipmates he hadn’t even spoken to, should be swayed by a simple statement of friendship, particularly from such a source.
Avon held out one of the teleport bracelets. Blake did not take it, simply looked at it.
“I don’t know that I can ever trust either of you again,” he said.
“Try,” Avon said. There was a note of desperation in his voice that he would have preferred hadn’t been there.
“It’s been difficult to do much without … trust, these past months,” Jenna said. She was better at controlling her voice, but Avon thought the gap had been intentional and that Blake was supposed to hear another word there.
"Nothing that we intended to do anyway," Avon said wryly.
Blake considered this another moment, considered the two of them standing there in the middle of his base, having gone away and come back, older and harder but not necessarily wiser. Then he pulled back the edge of one of his sleeves, and Avon saw that he was …
Interesting. He was already wearing a bracelet.
How could that be possible? Avon thought stupidly. Unless it was-- No, Blake hadn’t accepted the bracelet Avon had held out to him. He must, then, have been wearing it already. But Blake had been surprised (and angry) to see them. He hadn't had time to find it, following a report of the Liberator's arrival. He must have been wearing it today... because he wore it every day. And that meant that Blake … had always believed they would come back.
Avon looked quizzically up at Blake, who seemed (for a moment) to wink at him before looking down at his bracelet again.
“We’ll come back for the others – those who won’t be staying on the base,” Blake said briskly.
Avon risked a glance at Jenna - she met his gaze, and rolled her eyes at the way Blake had taken command again. Avon smiled. It had been a long time since he and Jenna had been able to exchange even this much comradely behaviour. Orac had been right. Things were improving already.
Blake raised his teleport bracelet, and activated the voice button. “Liberator,” he said, “three to teleport.”
And the stars were whisked away.