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Enigma Variations

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Aquitar was a mirror, a molecular mirror, or perhaps a mould. That was a better analogy. It facilitated the transfer of matter, by replicating molecules, in the way that messenger RNA functioned in biological systems. Ironically it was biological systems that represented the problem. Strictly speaking matter transmission was a misnomer. It was a breakdown and replication process. This naturally required a terminal at both ends of the journey, and thus restricted the potential application somewhat, but it was the inability of the process to transmit live creatures that caused the greatest concern. Creatures were transmitted, but were consistently dead on arrival, perfectly formed, but dead. The precision needed in replicating the precise state of each cell, in terms of the cell cycle, charges across cell membranes, subsequently nerve impulses, and hence memory, as well as the very necessary impulses to the heart muscles, seemed, and ultimately was, unattainable.

Avon had worked on the matter transmission project for five years, wasted years in his opinion. It was obvious to him from the start that the project Director had taken the wrong approach. The discovery of Aquitar had held such promise that he had continued to pursue it to the end of the blind alley it had opened up, and even then was reluctant to let it go. As a scientist Avon could understand this. It was so close to being the answer, perhaps a little tweak,  another angle, would make it the complete solution. Avon the analyst, however, could see that it had been exhausted as a possibility, and it was time to move on. He had said so repeatedly. It was, after all his job.

Now, with the teleport bracelet in pieces on the small desk in his cabin, he was looking at the solution without understanding it.  He had been sitting barefoot, in his shirtsleeves, staring at the components for some time, trying to make sense of them. Some were obvious, the audio receive and transmit, another receiver and small processor that must receive the teleport signal and process the coordinates. The rest he could not recognise. He was working on a hypothesis that would allow him to make some tests, but it was only partially formed.

He sighed, straightened and stood up, wincing as his lumbar muscles complained. Glancing at his chronometer he was surprised to find that two hours had elapsed since he had first sat down. He had been unable to sleep, and his thoughts had turned to aquitar and dwelled on it until it was obvious that he would not sleep. He had got up and dressed, and begun disassembling the teleport bracelet.  He stretched and rubbed his eyes. It would be his watch in thirty minutes, so sleep would have to wait. He sat down again at the desk and began to move the components around, as though a new juxtaposition might inspire him.

The bleeping of his chronometer startled him. He supposed he must have been dozing. The alarm was to warn him that he was due on the flight deck in ten minutes. He went into the hygiene unit and scrubbed his face with cold water, feeling, just at the moment when he needed to be alert, full of sleep, miserably tired. Facing Blake in this state was an unattractive notion, and so he went to a drawer, removed two capsules from a container, and swallowed them with a mouthful of water from the glass at his bedside. He had learned how to use stimulants fairly early in his youth, to enable him to continue studying in the face of chronic insomnia. He knew he would suffer later, but his mental risk benefit analysis came out in favour of the drugs on this occasion. Blake was known to hang around the flight deck at the end of his watch, and obvious vulnerability in front of him was simply not possible. Experience told him that, by the time he reached the flight deck the effects would begin to make themselves felt.

 

Blake was angry. He had been outlining a perfectly reasonable plan, in the light of information received, and had banked on Jenna’s support. Somehow he had failed to convey the good sense and reason of the mission. Either that or her usually keen intelligence had failed her, as all she could see was the possibility of a trap. A trap was, of course, always a possibility, but here the risk was worth it. The rebel group on Meleas had contacted him via Avalon. The mines in the polar region were exhausted, and the federation had quit their base in such a hurry that all the equipment had been left in tact. It was not a high security operation, and had been manned by low grade operatives, who probably had little thought or concern for security, only a need to get off an inhospitable planet as rapidly as possible. The rebels had investigated the computer systems, but lacked the expertise to get past anything other than the most elementary security. Avon, he had no doubt, would have no problem finding any useful information that they may have left behind. It would be simple. They would rendezvous with the rebels who would take them to the base, Avon would spend whatever time was necessary and they would leave. The base was unlikely to be shielded, so they could leave at the first sign of danger.

“Blake it simply isn’t worth the risk. The chances are they’ve wiped the computer, and even if they haven’t, that could only be because there’s nothing worth stealing. In any case, surely Orac could harvest anything that’s worth having…”

“We’ve been over this..the system has been de-activated. ORAC can’t read an inactive system.”

“But Blake, they’d have us like rats in a trap..” She looked at him imploringly.

“Not with the teleport..”

Jenna’s eyes slid away from him for a moment. “Let’s see what Avon thinks. For once he and I may agree.”

Blake turned to see Avon lounging in the entrance, immaculate, but with an uncharacteristic flush to his cheeks. He strolled over to stand beside Jenna, then turned to face her, uncomfortably close. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but on this occasion I agree with Blake. It is an opportunity we shouldn’t miss.”

He threw a brief smile in Blake’s direction and went to his station.

“You were listening ?” Blake looked at him curiously.

“Not exactly, but I could hardly help hearing. Only Vila, whose snoring no doubt drowns out all other sound, could fail to hear, I imagine.”

“I didn’t realise we were shouting.”

Avon went on looking at his monitor. “It hardly matters”

Jenna looked from one to the other . “Since neither of you can see reason I don’t see any point in talking to you.”
For a moment she hesitated as if waiting for a response. When neither man spoke, she left the flight deck.

Blake sighed and sat down on the couch. After a moment Avon joined him, not so much out of companionship, but because the drug was making his head spin. It was a phase he knew would pass, but for the moment sitting was safer. “A woman scorned” he said after a moment. Blake turned to him, suddenly, and, in Avon’s opinion, unreasonably angry.

“Alright, whats the game Avon, why this sudden display of solidarity ?”

Avon shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You mean you really agree with me ? That’ll be a first. I’ll call Vila and we’ll have party to celebrate”

“Oh Blake, cut the sarcasm it is not your strong suite.”

“No, but it is yours, so you’ll forgive my cynicism. Surely you’re not trying to tell me I’ve actually come up with a good strategy.”

“Well your friends have, at least.”

Blake allowed himself to relax a little. Perhaps, he thought, he should play Avon’s game a little longer and see where it lead. “So you think we should go along with them.”

“For the most part. But Jenna is right in one respect. We should be more cautious than your plan allows.”

“You have a suggestion ?” Blake was interested. When Avon was on his side his strategic advice was invaluable, but there was something else. He looked hard at his companion. His face had resumed it’s usual pallor, but there was something about his eyes. They seemed unnaturally bright, almost feverish. 

“I would suggest that we use the information, but use it in our own way. If this is a trap, either your friends are party to it, or they may be victims of it. Either way it would be wiser not to involve them.”

“What did you have in mind ?...No wait, I think I need something to drink, how about you?”

Avon considered. Adding caffeine to the stimulant he had already taken would be unwise, but on the other hand this was turning into an interesting encounter, He had calculated on maintaining his hyper-alert state until long enough for Blake to take his leave. Soon he would crash, and caffeine might just stave this off long enough to outline his plan and send Blake to bed happy, or at least remove his reason for staying.

“Please” he said after a moment.

When later he reflected on the discussion, Blake had an odd feeling of satisfaction, as if something in the dynamic of his relationship with Avon had shifted, had become more positive, if only because the level of understanding between them had changed. At least Blake’s understanding of Avon had changed. When they were on the same track they complemented each other, however different their motivation, and their combined strengths and skills would truly give the federation something to worry about. Avon’s approach to strategy was like a chess grand master, technically brilliant, but generally ignoring human factors, and this was where Blake felt his own talents lay. He was good with people, good relating to them - except where Avon was concerned, although that, he felt, might change. Not because of any change in Avon, but because he felt he had had a revelation about the man’s behaviour. It had always seemed to Blake that Avon went out of his way to be infuriating, to provoke him, but the simple fact was that Avon provoked him by disagreeing with him, and Avon disagreed with him, not in order to provoke, but because he thought that Blake was wrong, and had no inhibitions when it came to voicing his opinion. Although such occasions were rare, he was equally vocal when in agreement. In other words, he was simply honest about his views.  Of course, in the process of expressing those views he could be dismissive, aggressive, scornful, sarcastic, or just downright rude, but it was not malice or perversity that drove him to it. Simply, his interests and Blake’s tended to diverge. This gave Avon, in Blake’s eyes, an odd sort of integrity. He could be relied on to be honest, as, unlike some others in the crew, he never acted out of a desire to please, and yet his lack of vindictiveness had been born out on numerous occasions when he had shown concern, even protective instincts towards other crew members and even, or perhaps particularly, Blake himself. It made Avon interesting. It also made him impossible to manipulate, unless one mislead, misinformed, or simple lied to him. But it would make him easier to trust. Blake  had the feeling that if Avon gave his word, he would keep it, and that might be at least as valuable as blind obedience, under the right circumstances.

Avon had talked in an uncharacteristically animated fashion, almost enthusiastically, about his alternative plan for Meleas. Enthusiasm was not a state that Blake associated with Avon. He might be fascinated by a problem, even absorbed, but that only made him more withdrawn. Perhaps the fact that they were in agreement had caused Avon to let his guard down a little. There had definitely been something different about him, but it was hard to define precisely what, apart from the impression of feverishness about his eyes. Perhaps he was dosing himself with something. His tendency to insomnia was common knowledge, alongside his reliability when it came to standing his watches, or carrying out other routine tasks. Blake supposed that maintaining his reputation for punctuality in the face of a lack of sleep might occasionally require some artificial aid, although he doubted Avon would ever admit it. He almost embraced Vila’s view that he was more machine than human, so such an admission of vulnerability would be out of the question. This idea of Avon struggling with his own human frailty made Blake smile. Stretching out on his bunk, he had a sense of optimism about the upcoming operation. Avon’s plan minimised the risk of a trap, without compromising any possible gain. In fact, with Avon on side, the chances were that they really would come out winners this time.

On the flight deck Cally relieved Avon, from his point of view not before time. He was exhausted, and the combined stimulants had left him shaky, visibly so, a fact that he had difficulty hiding from Cally, even though he had departed the flight deck immediately with no more than a cursory nod in her direction. She had called after him, and, against his better judgement he had stopped and turned back to her.

“Are you alright Avon ?” Before he could react she had taken his hand. “You are very cold and you’re shaking.”

“I’m tired that’s all” He turned and walked away from her as fast as his physical state would allow, all the time aware that she was watching him from the flight deck entrance, until he was out of view round a bend in the corridor.

It took thirty six hours to reach Meleas, long enough for Avon to get enough sleep to restore at least his physical equilibrium.

He had slept for seven hours after escaping Cally and her irritating concern, more continuous rest than he had managed for a while, and woke feeling better, if not refreshed. Sitting on the edge of his bunk, stretching to ease the stiffness of his neck and shoulders, he noticed the teleport bracelet in pieces on his desk. A puzzle. He let his mind wander over it as he showered and dressed. Perhaps a break from concentration on this particular enigma might have brought some fresh insight. But, sitting at the desk and turning the components over with his deft, blunt fingers, he found his thoughts drifting to another enigma.

The enigma that was Blake. Blake who was angry with him when he argued, and suspicious and angry when Avon agreed with him. Who, as demonstrated admirably by last night’s the encounter, would undergo mercurial changes of mood, from outrage to calm, even delight, for reasons that evaded Avon, and left him confused as to how to respond.  Blake, who championed the honest man, but was frequently dishonest in the process of doing so. Who believed in free will, but denied his own crew the right to exercise it by misleading and manipulating them.  Avon considered lying to people with whom you lived at such close quarters, and on whom you depended, a reckless and dangerous strategy. Blake was educated and intelligent, a typical alpha in so many ways. Ignoring his political ambitions and obsessions, he might have been the sort Avon would have chosen to have among his acquaintances, if he had ever been allowed such choices. As it was he was forced into opposition with Blake in an effort to prolong his own life while Blake seemed hell bent on shortening it. It so often isolated him from the rest of the crew who had apparently become converts to Blake’s idealism as soon as they stepped on the ship. Avon’s own need to combat the Federation extended only as far as defending himself, or of ensuring that he was sufficiently well informed to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Yet, he found that he was drawn into one perilous situation after another in the wake of a man whose purpose had nothing in common with his own, often in the role of protector or rescuer of that same man, against his instincts. In that regard it was easier to explain Blake’s actions than his own.

He focussed his attention on the teleport bracelet. Here was a solid, tangible problem, and thus a less disturbing one.

*

They were nine hours out from Meleas, and Avon was due to come off watch. Only Vila was absent from the flight deck where an increasingly savage argument raged about Blake’s choice of personnel to accompany himself and Avon, to whit, none. Only Avon himself was uninvolved. He concurred with Blake on this, but had no intention of wasting energy on it when he knew that Blake would have his way. Besides he was feeling intolerably weary, and was unwilling to risk another insomniac off shift, as a result of adrenalin wasted on a playground squabble. Jenna and Cally were convinced they needed to take a third person to watch their backs. Cally was volunteering, and Jenna had volunteered Gan, who seemed happily prepared to go, and agreed that they needed back up. Jenna had accused Blake of arrogance, and Cally had called him reckless.

“It’s a trap, you know it is, and even if your plan is as clever as you think, you don’t know what’s waiting for you, and you don’t know that the rebels are even involved. “

“Actually it’s Avon’s plan and….”

Blake turned to see Avon making his way off the flight deck. “Where the hell do you think you’re going ?”

Avon stared at him. “To get some sleep.”

“Don’t you have anything to say? It’s your plan after all.”

Avon sighed. “I think the two of us will be more than adequate to the task. I see no point in risking anyone else.”

“So you still think it’s a trap.”

“Of course. The point is to minimise the risk, since we can’t eliminate it. Besides, with the teleport we can get out at the first sign that all is not well.” He turned to leave again, when Jenna called after him. “If you’re so sure it’s a trap then why the hell are you going?”

“It’s a risk benefit balance. I think the potential benefits are worth the risk, in this case.” He was icily calm at least outwardly. Actually he was finding this intensely irritating.

“I don’t buy it. Blake doesn’t it seem odd to you that Avon’s so keen on this mission ? Have you considered the possibility that he know more than he’s saying ?”

Avon shook his head in exasperation and left. Jenna did not trust him, he was aware of that. Whether Blake trusted him remained an unanswered question although he clearly trusted Avon’s expertise and judgement up to a point. Avon was not sure that he cared much about that, but, working on something as risky as this without a degree of trust could make it even more dangerous. He did not think it had occurred to Blake that Avon was involved in some sort of conspiracy with someone on Meleas until Jenna had suggested it. He hoped that Blake had dismissed it as paranoia. 

                                                             *

Despite the arguments Cally had worked hard to calculate the teleport coordinates. Zen had confirmed the lack of shielding, and they were ready to go. The rendezvous at which Blake was expected was still forty eight hours away. Avon had reasoned that they would be relying on Blake’s reputation for integrity as an assurance that he would turn up as agreed. The likelihood was that any trap would be centred on this meeting, whether the rebels knew it or not. He had not discounted the possibility that the base was tricked out, but the rendezvous had been set for some distance from the base, and the rebels had been planning to get them in, which made this less likely. Nevertheless they would have to be very careful.

Blake had given Jenna strict instructions. “If we fail to make contact after an hour get out. If you try to contact us for any reason and don’t get a response, get out.”

“But supposing it’s a problem with signal strength, or a malfunction on the bracelets?”

“You dare not risk it. Just get the ship out of here. If something goes wrong and you feel like rescuing us, you’ll have a better chance with the Liberator intact, and so will we!!”

 

With Cally’s customary precision they materialised in the computer control room of the deserted base.

“No sign of life”. Blake returned his weapon to its holster, and relaxed. Avon did neither.

“What’s wrong?”

“The temperature, Blake. Your information was that this place has been deserted for two weeks at least. The heating must be running at full power.”

Blake smiled. “Relax. They left in a hurry. Why would they bother to turn off the heating? They wouldn’t  be wasting any Federation resources, after all. Next you’ll be worrying that they didn’t lock the front door. Let’s get on with it.”

Avon reluctantly holstered his gun, and took a data cube out of his pocket. “All right. I’ll see what we can download.”  He took a seat at the nearest console and set to work. “Oh Blake,” he said, after a moment.

“What?”

“Watch the door.”

On the Liberator the crew were on high alert for any sign of traffic approaching Meleas, or for any surface launches, with the exception of Vila, who considered it unnecessary to place himself on high alert when it was inevitable that someone would start shouting at him if something happened, anyway. Blake had called in half an hour ago to tell them that all was well, but Jenna was nervous, partly concerned with Blake’s naivety, and partly with her lack of trust in Avon, and his motives for going on this mission.

“You really think this is a trap, don’t you?” Cally asked, when Jenna briefly stopped pacing the flight deck.

“Don’t you?”

“Possibly. But whatever you think, Avon isn’t involved”

Jenna raised her eyebrows. “I thought you couldn’t read minds.”

“I can’t. But I am able to sense how people are feeling, to some degree, and I only sensed that Avon was concerned, and nervous about this mission, nothing else.”

“He could have been nervous because he was afraid of being found out.” Jenna resumed her pacing.

“I don’t think so. I think he was nervous because he thought a trap was likely and he was concerned for his safety and Blake’s.”

Jenna gave a snort of derision. “Now I know you can’t read minds. Avon will be concerned about Blake’s safety when hell freezes over.”

Cally bent her head to look at her monitor. “You’re wrong.” She said softly.

 

Blake, in turn was pacing the computer room. He was bored, and Avon was too engrossed in his task to engage in conversation, not that he was a great conversationalist at the best of times. For entertainment and idle gossip, Vila was always his best bet. He sat down and watched Avon for a moment. Focussed on some complex task he seemed a different man to the one that challenged and fought with Blake at every opportunity. Absorbed, some of the tension went out of the set of his shoulders, and he occasionally muttered to himself or to the machinery in an almost endearing way. Blake smiled to himself. The concept of Avon doing something endearing seemed incongruous. He went on watching as Avon sat back and massaged his neck.  “That’s it. It should take about five minutes to download the data. Let’s hope there’s something useful there. We can  scan it, and cross reference with existing information to see if there’s anything new. I’m not optimistic. The systems here are archaic, even by normal federation standards.” 

“I’ll let the ship know”. Blake thumbed the button on his bracelet. “Liberator, this is Blake. We’ll be ready for teleport in about five minutes.”

“We’ll be waiting. “Jenna’s voice came over loud and clear. “Is everything alright?”

“Fine.  Is Gan standing by at the teleport?”

“I’m here.”

“Good. I’ll let you know when we’re ready.”

On impulse Blake strolled across to the door and opened it. Peering up and down the corridor, he could hear nothing but the gentle hum of the power systems. As he turned back Avon swung round suddenly. “Blake what have you done?” there were notes of anger and anxiety in his tone.

“What, what’s wrong?”

“Look at this,” Avon pointed at the screen, to a tell tale flashing in the corner. ”You’ve triggered an alarm.”

“It must have been when I opened the door. Still there’s nobody here..”

“We can’t be sure of that. Besides, I can’t hear anything. Blake, we should get out”

“So they muted the alarms. I still say there’s nothing to worry about. How long now?”

“Two minutes”

“Then we wait.”

Avon got to his feet and faced Blake chest to chest. For a moment he held Blake’s gaze, breathing hard, his expression full of rage. Then he turned away. “Just watch the damn door” he said, through clenched teeth.

                                                           *

The base was large. They had expected the intruders to come in through the main entrance. It took a moment for them to track the origin of the alarm, before they began running towards the control room.

    *

Blake stood, gun in hand, facing the door. He knew it was a reasonable precaution, but was not seriously concerned. He heard Avon exhale loudly and say “ Finished. Let’s go Blake. “

He turned towards Avon, raising his bracelet. “Gan…”

And then there was a sound in the corridor, and Avon was on his feet.

“Now Gan, now..” Blake yelled, as the door slid open and he found himself staring at a federation rifle. The man fell as Avon fired but behind him Blake saw a familiar figure, and the sight froze him.

As Travis fired something cannoned hard into Blake, knocking him off his feet, as he fell there were more shots, Avon’s gun, he was sure, and Travis’ blaster. Hitting the ground knocked the air from his lungs, and it took him a moment to  realise that he was lying in the teleport bay. A dead weight seemed to pin him to the ground.  Gan dropped to his haunches beside him, and gathered into his arms the dead weight that was Avon.  Blake struggled to sit up, still confused, and then understanding hit him and he flung himself at the console. “Jenna, get us out of here, fast as you can.” Jenna’s anxious voice came back. ”Blake, what happened? “

“Just do it, Jenna.”

He turned to Gan, who was rising to his feet with Avon in his arms. “He’s alive Blake, I don’t think it’s too bad, but I’d better get him to the Medical Unit.”

Blake followed him, the embers of slow burning rage beginning to ignite, rage at himself, rage at Travis, and an unjustifiable anger at Avon, for being right.  He imagined that Avon’s first words on regaining consciousness would be “I told you so”, and he did not want to be there to hear it.

At the entrance to the medical unit he paused, long enough to watch Gan deposit Avon on the diagnostic couch, saw Avon’s eyes flutter open, turned and walked as fast as he could without breaking into a run, towards the flight deck. “I don’t want to hear, I can’t bear to hear him say I told you so.” He told himself.

 

To not care whether you lived or died. That was the best defense against them. That left only pain as a weapon. To train oneself to deal with pain was harder. His greatest fear was not pain, but maiming, permanent damage, permanent disability. He supposed if you pared it down, in essence he was afraid of helplessness.

Sooner or later he would have to open his eyes, come back to full awareness, and deal with whatever, wherever and whoever awaited him, and the burning pain in his shoulder was forcing the pace. He had given some thought to his strategy in such circumstances. He could tell them everything he knew, such as it was, and hope for a quick death, quick enough to avoid having to live for long with the fate of his crew mates on his conscience, which, contrary to their belief, was alive and well, if deeply buried, quick enough to avoid having to live with yet another failure. They might subject him to a mindwipe instead, but it came to the same thing. On the other hand he could hold out, with the ensuing knowledge that, regardless of the final consequences, he had not willingly betrayed anyone. He was afraid of what they could do, what they would do to make him talk, but somehow he knew this was the only course, to hang on to dignity and integrity. No one would ever know, and doubtless he would betray them in the end. Pointless, destructive, painful and worthy of Blake, but he knew he would do it.

 

Someone was speaking, not the kind of voice or tone he had expected, not demanding but gentle, coaxing, saying his name, telling him he was going to be alright. The pain was increasing, filling up his consciousness.  He wanted to open his eyes, just for some distraction, when he felt the sting of a hypospray on the side of his neck, and that brought him rapidly to the surface, fighting to focus through the bright light, to resolve the features hovering over him into something recognisable. Gan. He was on the Liberator. Questions of how, and what had happened could wait. He had an urge to laugh, but not the necessary energy, and only managed a smile. Gan smiled back, and, practical and matter of fact, said “The painkiller should be working now. I’ve given you a sedative, and you’ll sleep for a while. It’s not too bad.  We’ll have you back on your feet in a few days.” It was true, the pain was diminishing, and a calm warmth crept though Avon’s limbs, curling in his stomach, easing the tension in his chest, wonderful relief. Then something, a nagging concern grew and slowly took shape in the front of his mind. His drooping eyelids flew open, his breathing quickened and he grabbed Gan by the arm as he moved to turn away. “Blake” he gasped, “Is he…”

Gan smiled that gentle smile at him again. “It’s alright, it’s alright, Blake’s fine, he’s on the flight deck.”

Avon relaxed. “Travis…” he started to say, but then sleeping seemed a much higher priority than talking, and he left it there, drifting away with the drug.

Cally came into the medical unit as Gan finished treating Avon’s shoulder and was tucking a thermal blanket around him, a measure against shock.

“How is he ?”

Gan glanced at the monitors. “He was lucky. Muscle damage mostly. His collar bone’s broken, but that was probably the way he fell. The shot missed the lung. He’ll be up and about in three or four days, and fighting fit in a week. We’ll have to keep that arm immobilised when he first gets up, but not for long if he’s sensible.”

“What do you think happened ?”

Gan looked puzzled. “Hasn’t Blake said anything?”

“Blake is barely being civil. He’s bitten everyone’s head off, set a new course, and refuses to talk about it. Something must have gone to plan though – ORAC is reluctantly analysing the contents of a data cube. “

“Avon was awake briefly. He seemed worried about Blake, and just before he fell asleep he mentioned Travis.”

Cally sighed. “It obviously was a trap. Didn’t Blake say anything to you?”

“No.” Gan finished with Avon and gave her his full attention. “He was furious about something. From the way they arrived in the teleport, I’d say it was quite likely that Avon pushed Blake out of the line of fire..”

“And took the shot himself?”

“It looked that way.”

“Then why is Blake angry ?” Cally looked puzzled.

“Perhaps it’s just because the mission went wrong. Look Cally would you stay with him – I’d like to go and tell Blake how he is.”

“And try and find out what’s wrong ?”

Gan shrugged. “I might try..” He gave the screens a quick glance.

“He should sleep for a good few hours, but someone ought to watch the monitors at least for the next hour or so. Shock might still be a problem.”

“Alright.” Cally smiled. “Good luck”

Blake sat on the flight deck couch, chewing on a knuckle. He could tell them, of course. It was a trap, I was wrong. I set off the alarm, I insisted we stay, when Avon said we should leave, I put us in danger, I got Avon shot, I was wrong, wrong again. This was what he should do. Jenna might be sympathetic, even if she, herself, had warned him. Cally would say that Avon made his own choices, which was true, except for the fact that Avon always seemed to feel compelled to back him, against his better judgment, so Blake took advantage of him, as he did of all of them. In the end it was still his fault. They could both have been killed, and it had been Avon’s reflexes that had saved them. Worse still, Avon might have been killed saving Blake from himself. It was funny.

Cally had fled in the face of his rage, ostensibly to see if Gan needed help, and out of concern for Avon, no doubt, but she might not have left so rapidly if he had not been snapping at them all, shouting at Jenna for interrogating him, glowering at Vila, just because he was there. None of them realized that his anger was directed at himself, and they were just getting the overspill, the rage that he could not contain.

Gan, calm considered, loyal Gan, came onto the flight deck looked at Blake with an expression that combined concern and indulgence, and which made Blake feel uncomfortably like a naughty child. Vila came out from behind the console that had been shielding him from Blake’s wrath, and crossed to Gan, as if seeking protection. Gan took control. “Vila, why don’t you go and get us all something to drink?” As Vila scampered gratefully away, Gan glanced up at Jenna, and went to sit beside Blake.

Jenna took her cue. “My watch was over half an hour ago. Call me if you need me.” She said to no one in particular, and followed Vila off the flight deck.

“So Travis was there?” Gan probed, gently.

“Avon told you that ?”

“Well he said the name, but the sedative took effect before he could say any more”

“So that was all he said?”

“No.” Gan turned to face Blake who seemed unable to meet his eyes. “Before that he asked about you. He seemed very concerned.”

“I suppose he wanted confirmation that his heroics paid off” said Blake bitterly.

“Oh – what heroics?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Gan went on looking at him, and Blake wished he would just go away.

“If it doesn’t matter, why are you so angry ?”

“I’m not”

“Oh come on Blake. You don’t have to tell me or anyone what happened. Avon might tell us, after all. But is it fair to make everyone else so uncomfortable? None of us were there, but you’ve shouted at or bitten the head of all of us since you’ve been back.”

Blake chewed his knuckle. “I’m sorry” he said, after a moment, shifting uncomfortable in his seat. “I’m angry, but mostly with myself.” He turned to face Gan. “I can’t stand it. The first thing he’s going to say when he wakes up is I told you so. And I can’t bear to hear it, because he did tell me so.”

He got to his feet and began to pace the deck. “He even told me to watch the door and I couldn’t get that right.”

“But Avon seemed concerned about you, not angry.”

“You don’t understand. He could have called for teleport, I probably wouldn’t have stopped him, but he stayed. He warned me we were in trouble, told me we should get out, but he stayed. That’s what I do to people, Gan, I get them hurt or killed. I make them….even Avon.”

He sat down again and dropped his head into his hands. Gan put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“No – we all have a choice Blake, we all make choices. It’s just that sometimes Avon’s choices sometimes surprise us.”

“If it wasn’t for Avon I’d be dead. I wasn’t quick enough, and he pushed me out of the line of fire and….”

“Took the shot himself.”

 

“Yes”. Blake looked up as Vila returned, a little nervously and handed round the cups. “Why ?”

“It’s not the first time he’s come between you and death is it ? What about that cable…” Vila tentatively joined the conversation. “Anyway, he only does it so he can say “I told you so..”

Blake came to his feet in an instant, a look of pure rage back on his face, and walked from the flight deck without a word.

Gan sat back, sighed and folded his arms. “Thanks a lot Vila….”

 

Blake, with nowhere else to go, took a sedative and slept, a dreamless, thick sleep, from which he awoke groggy, and briefly confused. Then memory came sharply into focus again.

Ten minutes later he was in the medical unit. Vila sat dozing in a chair. Avon lay still, and pale, but his eyes were open. He spoke quietly, his voice weak but clear. “My nurse, as you see, is most attentive. But then Vila is undoubtedly at his best asleep.”

Blake smiled, in spite of himself, and his current mood. “How do you feel ?”

“Odd. Calgesics always give me a feeling of being disembodied.”

“Always? You make it sound as if you make a habit of taking them.”

“Of course not.” He shifted, and winced as the movement put pressure on this injured shoulder. “But I have had some previous experience…”

“You’re still in pain.”

“It’s wearing off a little I suppose.” Avon closed his eyes, momentarily. Blake moved towards the monitor and watched it for a moment. “Do you want a boost ?”

“No, it’s not bad if I don’t move. I’d prefer to find out just how bad I feel when the drug is out of my system. I can’t think clearly in this state.”

Blake shook Vila, who muttered, started, and looked briefly terrified. “I only dropped off for a moment, honestly. “

“Run along and sleep somewhere else”, said Blake, but he smiled, so that was alright, thought Vila as he left.

Blake took Vila’s chair. “Thank you.”

For a moment Avon was silent. Then he said softly “For what ?”

“You really want me to say it ?” Blake was angry again. Avon could not simply accept it. He wanted to milk the occasion, naturally.

Avon sighed. “As usual you misunderstand. Apart from being too stupid to leave when I knew I should have done, I did nothing that was the result of considered or conscious thought. We are both alive, an unlikely outcome, but, I presume, a happy one.” He paused a moment, and Blake, watching his face realised that he must be exhausted, that the pain, which he had chosen to accept, was increasing as the calgesic wore off, and that he must be concentrating hard on dealing with it.

“Blake, I’m relieved that you’re alright, be satisfied with that. If you insist on attributing some noble motive to my actions, that is up to you. I hardly have a clear memory of the events anyway. In any case, I’m very tired. If we must talk, I’d rather do it …. At a more comfortable time.”

He closed his eyes, and, after a moment the monitors showed that he was asleep.

They did not speak again about the incident over the next few days. Avon left the medical unit, his left arm strapped to keep it immobile while his shoulder and collar bone finished healing. He had instructions to rest in his cabin and Vila had been assigned to take him food, in order that he stay there. Vila found him variously sitting at his desk studying the teleport bracelet or lying on his bunk. Once he was refused entrance, and instructed, or rather ordered, to leave the tray outside. Finally there was no answer. Bypassing the lock with consummate skill – just in case Avon had been taken ill and couldn’t answer, Vila excused himself- he found the room empty. Making the most of the opportunity Vila took a good look around, searching for signs of anything, especially the personal, that might tell him something about his enigmatic shipmate. He been in Avon’s cabin  before, but he had never had a chance for a really good look around. There was nothing, just a few tools, clothes, basic hygiene supplies, some painkillers, and some stimulants, but nothing of any real interest. Becoming suddenly uncomfortable, or guilty by any other name, he left. Avon insulted him, bullied him, and occasionally just ignored him, but on the other hand, he did appreciate Vila’s skill, and Vila had the feeling that, whatever verbal wrangling went on, he was safe with Avon. Blake had once confided the same feeling. However much he might profess not to care, having Avon watch one’s back was deeply reassuring.

 

Vila returned to the flight deck. “Avon’s escaped.” He said cheerfully to Blake and Jenna, who were poring over a chart, their heads close together, his dark curls contrasting with her blond waves. Blake looked up. “What ?”

“He’s not in his cabin – he didn’t answer the door, and so I sort of…let myself in.”

“You mean you bypassed the lock ?” Jenna was amused, but Blake seemed to think it was far from funny. “You’re sure he wasn’t there ?”

“Look I’d be the last person to complain about the accommodation, but it’s not exactly generous – of course I’m sure.”

“Damn the man, can’t he ever follow orders, even when it’s for his own good? I need a fit crew. If he..”

 

“Blake” said Jenna gently.”He probably felt like a change of scene. Cally said he was doing very well. You shouldn’t let him annoy you like this, especially when he doesn’t mean to. It’s bad enough when he’s trying to wind you up.”

 

Blake sighed. “We’d better find him any way.”

“Why, Blake ? He’s an adult, he might not be fit, but he’s not incapable, and if he needs help he can call for it”

“I just need to know what he’s up to.”

 

It took Blake only minutes to find his itinerant crewman. Avon was in the teleport bay, sitting behind the console, with a mass of circuits and connectors spread in front of him. He was frowning in concentration, sweat beading on his forehead. In one hand he held a probe, and the other hand, restricted by the cast, held a circuit steady as he traced it with the tip of the probe.

It was hard to catch Avon unawares, but in his soft shoes Blake occasionally managed it, as he did now.

“Avon, what the hell are you doing?” Avon’s head went up, startled, he dropped the probe and jerked back, jarring his shoulder, and his face creased with pain.

“Damn you, Blake” he gasped.

“I’m sorry, but you appear to have dismantled and disabled an essential piece of equipment, one we might need at any time. Your own fabled sense of self preservation should have told you this was a bad idea. Besides, you’re supposed to be resting. If you’ve damaged your shoulder..”

“Shut up Blake”

“What?” Blake felt the rage that had been quiescent since his conversation with Avon in the medical unit, boil to the surface again.

“I said shut up. I have something important to tell you, something of great significance. Besides, if you look closely you’ll see that nothing is disconnected. The teleport is still fully operational. But if you’re really determined to shout at me, at least wait until I’ve explained.” Avon sat back, wiped his hand across his forehead, and rubbed gently at his aching shoulder. 

“As you say the teleport is a vital piece of equipment. If it fails we are totally reliant on the auto repair system. Neither you or I fully understand how it works. Correct?”

“Well, yes but……”

Avon held up his hand. “It makes us vulnerable, does it not?”

Blake bit his lip and nodded.

“Not any more.”

“You’ve solved it?” Blake was incredulous.

“Yes – I’ve been working on the problem for some time, but it turns out that there is some benefit from being confined to quarters. I had nothing else to do but think. I suspect the painkillers may have helped, They have an odd effect on my mind, which seems to lift me a step away from reality, so that the mundane is less likely to intrude.”

He retrieved the probe and began to lecture, pointing to the various components, and his voice lost it’s caustic edge, his tone more modulated, as he lost himself in his subject. Blake found himself being drawn in, remembering his time with the Aquitar project, remembering his own ideas about possible mechanisms. As Avon reached the climax of his exposition, Blake felt a pang of admiration for the creative leap of intellect that had been necessary for this final understanding. As their heads bent close together over the circuits he felt something else. That he and Avon had reached another place in their relationship, that they had shared something significant, and things would be different from now on. He had forgotten his rage, forgotten his behaviour that would have seemed so unreasonable to Avon, until Avon sat up and looked hard at him.

“You can shout at me now if you like.”

Blake did the only thing left to him. He laughed.

Together they replaced the circuitry and reassembled the console, Blake acting as Avon’s left hand.

Avon felt exhausted now, and his injured shoulder ached. He suspected he may have set his recovery back a little, but he had proved his theory, and that was worth a little discomfort. He had to admit to himself that he had experienced some pleasure at Blake’s excitement and admiration. He had never done anything just to seek approval or to earn praise, but it felt good, nevertheless, although he excused such sentiment on the basis that the drugs he had been given were probably still having an effect.

He staggered slightly as he got to his feet and Blake steadied him, “Come on, let’s get you back to your cabin before Cally or Gan catch you.”

Then, outside Avon’s cabin Blake’s face clouded over. He turned to face Avon. “If they catch us, we might give them the secret, it makes us vulnerable, Avon. “

Avon grinned. “If either of us is interrogated they would ask about the teleport anyway. The Federation has no way of knowing the extent of our knowledge. It does, however, make us valuable, if we choose.”

Blake leaned in and gripped Avon’s arm. “After all this you wouldn’t..”

A look crossed Avon’s face that on anyone else Blake would have recognised as hurt, to be rapidly replaced with the familiar blank Avon non expression. “After all what? Don’t worry Blake, I’m not about to sell the teleport to the Federation. Why should they pay me when they can probably torture it out of me? Try and look at it positively. At least now, if anything happened to the Liberator we could build a teleport system, and we can repair our own without the auto repair.”

Blake stood back, and shook his head. “Just go to bed, Avon.” Blake had a feeling of loss. The closeness he and Avon had just experienced had been blown away by his own cynicism and suspicion, which Avon must have known he would provoke. Blake had the feeling he had just failed a test.

Avon turned into his cabin. Then, for a moment he leaned on the door frame, and his shoulders sagged wearily. He had made a phenomenal discovery, something that for a while Blake had seemed to appreciate, until his lack of trust in Avon surfaced again, and wiped everything else away. Admittedly he had teased Blake, and the response was one he should have expected, but not the one he had hoped for. A few days ago he had saved Blake’s life. It was true that it had not been a considered decision, but a matter of reflex, in so far as there was nothing else he could have done. He did not consider Blake to be in his debt, but to find he was still so distrusted was depressing.

Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Close to his ear he heard Blake’s voice say “I’m sorry, Avon, “ and from further away as Blake moved off, “Thank you…for everything.”

Avon let the door slide shut behind him. Sitting on his bunk, he went through the awkward manoeuvre of removing his boots with one hand. Then, too tired to undress he lay down, feeling the deep comforting vibration of the engines, and less comforting throb of his shoulder.  His endemic depression was surfacing again, the touch of warmth that Blake had tried to send out after his brief withdrawal of trust was not enough to prevent his natural cynicism pushing it to one side in favour of the simpler and safer view that Blake did not genuinely trust him and thus he could not trust Blake. Fatigue he knew, reduced the efficiency of his mental processes and heightened negative emotions. Sleep would help to address the imbalance, and he let his eyes close, consciously willing his muscles to relax.

He had solved the teleport enigma. The solution to the Blake enigma still lay beyond his grasp.