BLake crouched in the bushes, listening intently. Someone was approaching. He prepared to attack. If it was Travis...
"Avon!" Blake gasped in surprise, shocked at the choice of the Guardian. Sinofar had said that they must experience the death of a friend. But why choose Avon unless...you know more than I do. Blake, unconsciously pleased by this external evidence of Avon's fealty, smiled at the tech.
On hearing his name called from such close quarters, Avon had spun round, ready to fight. But it was only Blake. He straightened up, frowning at the slight smile curving the rebel's lips, guessing the reason behind it. Sinofar had chosen him to demonstrate the death of a friend, implying that Avon was the rebel's friend.
"How did you get here?"
Avon's eyes widened slightly at the question.
"How might you imagine, Blake. I presume your lady friend is responsible for my departure from Liberator." The tech's gaze was surly and challenging. He was more than a little angered by the position he was in. That Sinofar had picked him was ridiculous. He followed Blake because he had no choice. Where else could he go and have some degree of safety? He certainly did not remain with him out of some misguided loyalty or affection.
"You know about Sinofar?"
"Yes, her words were beamed through the main viewscreen. All other controls are frozen."
Blake stared for a moment. No wonder you're angry. You so hate being manipulated, not to mention having your sentiments exposed. Tearing his gaze away, Blake looked around. "Any sign of Travis?"
"No. I am sure one of his mutoids will be with him. They are his only crew."
Blake's laugh was harsh, unlike his usual good-natured chuckle. "What a problem. How do you demonstrate the death of a friend to a man who hasn't got any?"
Avon looked up sharply.
"Sorry." Blake was apologetic, placing a companionable hand on the tech's shoulder. But Avon jerked away.
"Listen to me, Blake. Sinofar is wrong. I am not your friend and I am not going to stand by and be an object lesson for you. I have been dragged down here for a purpose that I can not possibly fulfill, my own life at risk. So you will excuse me if I have no time for your concern. I suggest that we attack first and kill them. Perhaps then, we can return to Liberator and your Cause. The sooner you achieve you ends, the sooner I will be free."
The words were sharp and cutting, intended to wound, and Blake flinched from the anger in them. Good intentions had cost him friends before at Travis' hands and no matter what the tech claimed, Blake believed that he was a friend, albeit a reluctant one. Visions of the massacre flashed through his brain, as always causing a headache to throb behind his eyes. He closed them a moment, calming himself to deal with the vitriolic comp tech. Opening them suddenly, he thought he saw a hint of concern on Avon's face but it was gone in a second.
He sighed. Deny it all you want, Avon. I simply refuse to believe it. "Come on, then. We better make some weapons."
"These are hardly sufficient weapons with which to face two highly efficient killing machines." The tech hefted the wooden spear that Blake had fashioned from a young sapling, testing its weight. Blake looked up with no small degree of irritation.
"Unless you have a better idea?"
Avon smiled. "At the moment, no, I do not. However, as soon as I do, you will be the first to know."
Blake returned to his work, putting the finishing touches on his own spear. Satisfied with the results, he replaced his knife and rose, spear in hand. Avon was about fifty feet away, atop a slight rise and Blake paused in his approach. If what Sinofar had said was true, Avon would die here. He shivered at the thought. He would be responsible for Avon's death, one more friend lost. But this time there would not even be the consolation that his friend had died for a Cause he believed in. He didn't believe in the Cause anyway but if Avon died here, it would be for nothing.
He would die because he was Blake's friend, whether he admitted it or not. Sinofar knew what even Blake sometimes doubted. Avon cared. But to be the cause of his death...I am so sorry, Avon.
Avon turned, expecting Blake's approach. "It will be dark soon. We should take shelter, unless you prefer that we serve as some predator's dinner instead of as Travis' amusement."
"I'm sorry, Avon."
Guilt filled the rebel's expression and Avon felt his anger bubble once more to the surface. Blake's guilt over Avon's supposed friendship made him so furious that he had to strike out, even though he recognized that it would hurt the rebel deeply. He recognized it and hated himself for it but it was the way he was.
"Spare me your guilty conscience, Blake. Sinofar is wrong in her belief that I am your friend. I am not and if you think that I will risk my life for you, you are a greater fool than Vila. My safety comes first with me. So you need not fear for my life. I can take care of myself."
Blake frowned at the tech's words. "But Avon, I do care about you."
"It is not mutual, Blake. And if you could see past your own self-delusions you would understand that you do not care for me either. I have value to you only in that I am the best at what I do. You need my computer skills for your Cause and that is all. You do not need me for any other reason."
"I'm your friend!"
Avon's laugh was harsh with no trace of humour. "My friend? You don't even understand the meaning of the word. We are all just tools to you, instruments in your war against the Federation. You try to manipulate us with your pretty words about freedom and caring but that is all they are. Just words, Blake, that is what you are good at. That and getting your so-called friends killed." Avon paused, evaluating the effect of his words on the rebel.
Blake's face was pale with shock. He could not have been that wrong. That Avon believed that of him, that he was using them to fight his battles. "You don't believe that, Avon." But his voice was unsure, his eyes confused.
"You're an Alpha, figure it out." He shook his head. "You're pathetic, Blake. At least Travis is honest about his motives. You make me sick."
Blake's eyes went cold at the mention of Travis. If Avon really believed what he said..."You bastard." Blake snarled his anger and hurt while Avon simply smiled. Bastard, I cared about you! But if you want my hatred, fine. I don't care what happens to you anymore.
"If you have finished, Avon, I intend to cover a little more ground. When darkness falls, the trees will provide relative safety."
Without a glance at his companion, the rebel stalked off, blending into the forest. And, after a moment's hesitation, Avon joined him.
Safely ensconced in a large tree, the rebel and the computer expert sat quietly. The eerie night silence was broken only by the occasional roar of a night hunter and the rustling of the wind through the branches. It was almost peaceful, except for the strained tension still taut between the two men. It was not in Avon's nature to apologize, particularly when he was still furious with the rebel, not to mention Sinofar and himself, for getting them into this situation. And while Blake could forgive many things, Avon had hurt him deeply with his angry words and he could not forget. Images imagined and past haunted him: Avon dying for Travis' pleasure, to teach Blake about death. Hadn't he seen enough? All his friends murdered around him, his memories ripped from his mind. He shivered slightly, shifting uncomfortably against the study tree. His remembered pain fuelled his anger. What did Avon know about loss or caring? You wanted my enmity, Avon? Well, you've got it. I care as little for you as you do for me.
And Avon watched him, as well as remaining alert to their surroundings. He should be satisfied. Blake's sulky anger meant that he had finally convinced him, forced him to accept that Avon was not his friend. Even Blake's disappointed anger was better than his guilty depression. At least now, he would focus on Travis. Stick to action, Blake. It's what you're good at, unlike me... His thoughts trailed off, drawn to his own past. Oh Anna, what I would have given to save you. You were the only one to ever care for me...until Blake. He startled himself with that thought. He had loved Anna and she him, and it had been beautiful in its simplicity. But Blake, their relationship was fraught with complexity, contradictory actions and words. That Blake cared, had cared, was unavoidable. The fact that Avon felt compelled to remain with him was inexcusable and he hated himself for what he saw as weakness.
Avon gathered his thoughts and spoke calmly into the silence.
"Yes, Avon." The voice was cold but attentive.
"Have you done with your sulking? It is about time we settled on a plan for dealing with our opponents, unless, of course, you are planning to throw nuts at each other?"
The sharp jibe worked, Blake's eyes flashing his anger.
"Have you never cared for anyone, Avon, other than yourself?"
The comment surprised him but he answered candidly, sure Blake would be too angry to recognize the meaning behind his words but needing to say them.
"I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational to prove that you care. Or indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all."
And he was right, Blake only heard what he believed he would: that Avon claimed the rebel was irrational, which increased his anger and frustration with the tech. But still, if Avon died here... Blake looked away for a moment and Avon reached over, gripping his forearm tightly, painfully.
"Know this, Blake. If I die, I will take them with me. I will have companions for my death."
A faint smile touched the rebel's lips at Cally's phrase as he carefully pulled his arm free.
"Bloodthirsty bastard. No, Travis is mine."
Avon relaxed back, eyes narrowed in consideration and approval. Blake would be ready, ready to kill.
Morning light found them on the move again. They continued to search the area, looking for any signs of Travis or his unknown companion. Frustrated, Blake stopped by a large tree.
"I'm going to climb up. Maybe I'll be able to see some sign from there."
Avon merely nodded, watching Blake scramble up the steeply sloped trunk with no small degree of amusement. But as Blake settled near the top, Avon decided on a little scouting of his own. Pausing momentarily to assure himself that Blake was firmly perched, he moved off to his right, skirting the edge of a small clearing. Strange, it is quieter here, almost as if... Sensing another presence, he spun round, ready to fight. A mutoid! He brought up his staff as he opened his mouth to shout a warning but the mutoid's hands closed tightly around his throat as the spear was yanked from his hands. Vision clouding, still he struggled, managing to twist round enough to see Travis standing behind him, spear in hand. The last thing he saw was Travis' knife, as the butt came down on his head.
Blake, meanwhile, descended from his lookout in a shower of bark and leaves. Picking himself up, he called for his companion. When no response was forthcoming, he began to look around, searching for some sign of the tech. Damn it, Avon. It would serve you right if I left you here. Near the edge of a clearing, he stopped. Avon's spear was lying there, broken in two. A cold chill tightened the rebel's chest.
"Blake! Blake, can you hear me?"
His head jerked up. Travis!
"I know you're there, Blake. I know you're close by."
The rebel listened closely, trying to pinpoint the direction of the voice.
"Hear me, Blake. I have your friend."
Ice washed through Blake's veins, Sinofar's words echoing in his ears, the death of a friend. Cautiously, he headed in the direction of the voice, spotting another small clearing.
"Your friend will die, Blake, unless you give yourself up."
Blake stopped at the edge of the clearing. Avon was there, bound and gagged to the base of a tree. And he was apparently alone. With a quick glance around, Blake rushed over, dropping to his knees, knife out, cutting Avon loose from the tree. But Avon was struggling to speak through the gag, gesturing for Blake to look up. Finally, Blake did.
"Now!" Travis' order was screamed with a kind of triumph as the mutoid released the spiked platform.
Desperately, Blake grabbed Avon and rolled, the spikes driving into the ground where they both had been seconds before. Breathing heavily, Blake rose, sheathing his knife and grabbing his spear.
"I am here, Travis. Let Avon go."
"Oh come now, Blake. You don't really expect me to do that. Besides my mutoid is getting a little hungry."
The sadistic smile on Travis' face sent a shiver down Blake's spine. He spared a quick glance towards the comp tech as the mutoid approached. In that instant, Travis attacked. the force of his charge sent the rebel leader sprawling on his back. With a snarl of animal passion, Travis leapt upon him, seizing his spear and forcing it down across the burly rebel's throat. Blake struggled against the pressure but in his position he could get no leverage. Travis' weight bore down on him and he began to feel light-headed, his vision cloudy. faintly, he heard a voice call his name.
Avon was getting desperate. While Travis and Blake had been struggling, the mutoid had attacked. But Avon was determined not to be defeated by what he considered a machine. He had faced it, kicking out with his bound legs when it tried to approach. It was weakened, by the falls or lack of serum, Avon wasn't sure, but it had him now. Coming at him from the side, it had rolled him over and was straddling him.
This time the rebel reacted. It was Avon. I can't let Travis win. Not this time. Not Avon. His mind racing desperately, he decided. Relaxing partially, he let Travis cut off his oxygen completely. Ignoring Avon's anguished shout, he held his breath. Travis' legs shifted as he prepared to rise, sure of his final victory. Now! Blake seized Travis by the shoulders, ramming a knee up into his groin. Gasping in agony, Travis doubled up, crumpling to the ground, the spear long forgotten. But not by Blake. Shaking his head, he gained his feet, bringing the spear with him. With grim menace, he placed it against Travis' heart, ready to drive it home.
But he hesitated, unable to do it. And then his attention was captured by Avon's struggle, his name being called in desperation. Snapping his head round, he saw the mutoid kneeling astride the tech. Horrified, he watched the mutoid grip his helpless victim's face, exposing the jugular vein. And then Blake saw the needle. Avon gave a choked off scream as it entered, shocking Blake back to awareness.
With all his strength, Blake threw his spear. He spared no thought for Travis or for Sinofar's words. All he knew was that his friend was in danger and that he was his only hope. And he smiled as the spear hit its target, the mutoid falling away from the still bound tech. Blake breathed a sigh of relief. He would not have to experience the death of a friend; Avon's death. He stepped forward to where Avon lay, blood trickling slowly from the wound in his neck. But at Blake's approach, Avon looked up and yelled.
"Blake! Look out!"
In his relief over Avon's apparent safety, Blake had forgotten his enemy. But Travis had regained his feet and his knife. With sickening certainty, Blake knew the warning came too late. He started to turn when he felt the impact, Travis' knife stabbing deep into his back. He gasped as the shock and agony drove him to his knees. And, faintly, he saw the pain he felt reflected in Avon's dark eyes. Damn that was stupid. I should have known better than to turn my back on him. He could sense Travis' approach. Well, this is it then. Travis has finally won. Avon, I'm so sorry. I always knew you cared. I just wanted you to admit it to yourself. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he remained on his knees, to exhausted to rise. Unable to resist a final gloating confrontation, Travis stopped behind him.
"It's finally over, Blake. And I've won. But I have one more duty to perform first." He turned away from Blake towards the fallen comp tech, knowing this would be his real revenge. Avon's death would hurt Blake much more than anything else he could do. The ties Blake felt for the tech had been written plainly across his face while he watched the mutoid's attack. And Avon was still virtually helpless, bound as he was, unable to escape.
Blake gasped as Travis turned away.
Avon's eyes were wide but resigned. He knew he could not escape death this time. But at least he would not have to watch Blake die, knowing that he could do nothing to save him. He sought Blake's eyes once more. If this was to be the end...
"I'm sorry, Blake."
Travis paused in his approach but a second but the words cut through Blake like a knife. It had all been a lie! Avon never really believed what he had said and he had thought that Avon hated him. He couldn't let Travis kill him. Not now, not ever! Painfully, he drew his knife. One hand braced against his thigh, the other drew back and he threw it, unhesitatingly, with all his remaining strength. His aim was true and Travis fell forward, at Avon's feet, the knife embedded in the back of his neck. Blake sighed his relief, slowly sinking forward onto the ground.
Avon worked free of his bindings, rubbing them furiously against the rough bark of the tree, and stumbled over to the rebel's side. Blake was still breathing but he had collapsed on his stomach, the blood pulsing from his wound with every raspy breath.
Avon touched his neck. The pulse was weak but still... He had won. Sinofar had agreed to free the victor. He removed his jacket. He had to stop the bleeding or Blake would not make it back to the Liberator. He stared at the knife protruding from the rebel's back. It would have to be removed. He touched Blake's shoulder and the big man stirred, flinching at the light pressure.
"I am sorry, Blake, but I will not let you bleed to death. I am going to remove the knife."
Blake's eyes widened slightly at the determination and honest regret in his companion's voice. But it was just too difficult to answer. He nodded slightly, hands clenching in preparation. Avon leaned over, one hand against the rebel's back, the other gripped the knife. Slowly, so as not to do further damage, he pulled it out, tossing it to the side. Blake had been remarkably silent but his ragged breathing betrayed his struggle. Avon placed his wadded jacket against the wound, using light pressure to slow the bleeding. But even his delicate touch brought a moan from the injured man. Shifting his position, Avon rested Blake's head against his leg. Blake's eyes were open but unfocused. He tried to look up but Avon placed his hand against the too cool face.
"Rest, Blake. Conserve your strength."
A faint smile touched the rebel's lips.
"Too late, but thank you all the same. My friend."
Blake's eyes drifted shut.
Avon's heart seemed to stop. No! You can not die. The victor and his crew were to go free. He slid his hand down to the rebel's throat. No pulse. He took a deep breath and screamed out his anguish.
But in the midst of his despair, he felt a new presence. He looked up sharply. Sinofar!
"You let him die!" Avon snarled, rising to his feet in one fluid motion. "You could have transported him as you did me. He did not need to die."
"Avon. He is not dead."
He stared at her in disbelief. Not dead? But... He turned round, kneeling again at the rebel's side. Blake's chest was rising and falling in a regular rhythm.
"The knife wound?"
"Gone. Physically, he is as he was when he arrived."
Laying a hand on Blake's shoulder, the tech shook him gently.
The unconscious figure only shifted slightly at first but woke as the shaking became more vigorous. He opened his eyes to a smiling Avon and, beyond him, Sinofar. Blake frowned.
"How..." Then with dawning comprehension, "I died!"
"You won, Blake."
He turned to Avon then looked up to Sinofar.
"Yes, you defeated Travis. You are both free to go, as is your ship."
Avon stood, holding out his hand, and Blake gratefully accepted, offering a smile. It was not returned but neither did Avon push him away.
"You did not act as we expected." Blake looked at the woman in puzzlement. "You did not kill to save yourself. You killed to save your friend."
"Not so surprising. Blake always was a fool."
Blake looked at him sharply, seeing the discomfort behind the words.
"I could not let him die. I have lost too many good friends already."
"Your caring is a great weapon, Roj Blake. Perhaps you had nothing to learn."
"Perhaps," Blake said with a smile, "but I think I have learned a great deal."
"That which is known, can never be forgotten."
Blake glanced at Avon, then locked gazes with Sinofar.
"You are free to go."
Two days later, Blake finally cornered the computer expert. Avon was alone on watch when Blake entered the flight deck. Sitting down on the couch, Blake proceeded to chew on a finger. How to approach Avon? He glanced up. Avon was watching him with veiled amusement. He snatched the finger away, lacing his hands together in his lap.
The dark head tilted inquisitively, but a wary expression clouded his eyes. "For what?"
"For caring. You tried to save my life, warning me, removing the knife." He shivered in remembrance. "It meant a great deal to me."
And Avon felt himself falling into the trap Blake wove. The snare of caring and affection that he had tried so hard to avoid. Trust no one. Care for no one. But all his resolve dissolved under Blake's influence. He cared for Blake, trusted him, would give his life for him. It was a hard truth to accept. He looked down, meeting the rebel's gaze, the compassionate warmth he broadcast like an aura to all around him. And Blake knew how he felt, damn it. That was the worst. Blake recognized his feelings before he himself did. But strangely, he felt little animosity. You will not let me retreat, will you, Blake? And there was safety in that knowledge, along with the discomfort.
"That which is known, can never be forgotten," Avon murmured to himself.
"Know this, Avon. I trust you and I am your friend, whether you want me to be or not."
A sudden smile lightened the tech's grim expression.
He stepped down to Blake's side, placing a hand lightly on the broad shoulder, though only for a second. The lesson was for me, not for you, Blake. The death of a friend.
Blake tilted his head to return the smile, recognizing the thoughts behind it, behind the his own next words.
"You are welcome."
And though the smile on his lips faded, the smile in the dark eyes remained.
"One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other...
...Nine hundred and ninety-nine can't bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot-and after!"