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Divide and Conquer or Plan 9 from Andromeda

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(If you are reading this on any PAY site this is a STOLEN WORK, the author has NOT Given Permission for it to be here. If you're paying to read it, you're being cheated too because you can read it on Archiveofourown for FREE.)

Avon woke, briefly. His head, shoulders and the back of his neck ached. He ignored the pain while blinking in an attempt to clear his fogged vision. The last he recalled they were evacuating Liberator, now he was surrounded by curving metal walls and being jostled unmercifully.

He'd never ridden in an emergency life-pod before, and if this smashing about was usual, he'd make damn sure not to do it again. Provided he survived this time. He reached for the controls, limited though they were, but his limbs responded poorly, falling far short of the simplified panel.

His head rocked to another swinging, wild movement that brought nausea closer to the surface, and unconsciousness even nearer. One last effort. He had noted Orac crammed in beside him, rather like an Egyptian pharaoh's funerary offering.

"Orac," he said, feeling his eyelids flicker shut, "get us down. Get me down," he added with all the fierceness he could muster before going completely limp.

"Down?" asked the computer. "Down where? You must be precise in your instructions." Getting no reply, the computer said to itself, "Illogical. There is no down in space."

***

Blake looked out the tiny viewport of his escape pod at the expanding gas cloud that had been the planet housing the Federation's central computer control. It seemed a small and unimportant thing in the vast cosmos, but millions- quite possibly billions- of human beings would die because of that dully sparkling display. The Federation was the enemy of all humanity, one to be defeated at any cost for the benefit of the survivors. But the cost was too high. Hating Blake, Travis had betrayed them all to an enemy that had no reason to leave any survivors. Ultimately, it was Blake's fault. He could have killed Travis several times over, but no, he wanted to prove he was better than his enemies. He had discounted Travis's insane hatred, and his strength of purpose, while driven in much the same manner himself.

Blake said bitterly, "I had to be right, and the hell with everyone else." It was mere chance that he had not been the one to destroy the Federation's mine-field, allowing the aliens through. He could not conceive the resources necessary to build, transport and control the millions of mines that had kept humanity safe while he complacently strutted his moral purity before his crew. Faced with the threat of total species extermination, what would he have done? Asked people to contribute to the fund? Or taken, and ordered, as harshly as he felt necessary?

Avon knew. Those cynical brown eyes had often told him what a hypocrite he was, even when Avon's sharp tongue was mercifully silent. Blake would have done what needed to be done, no matter who it hurt. As the Federation did. If they had not possessed flotillas of killer ships to throw against the Andromedan armada, the aliens would simply have strolled right in and wiped out everyone. What did freedom matter to the dead?

The battle was virtually over when Avon and Jenna came to hustle him into a life-pod. From the medical unit he had listened to the carnage, felt the Liberator take blow after blow. Jenna said they'd won, that the few remaining aliens were fleeing, but he wondered. There had been so many of them.

His 'ship' lurched, throwing him against the bulkhead with bruising force. Startled, he checked the instruments. Normal across the board, no planet nearby, no collision with debris. The life-pod jerked again, then settled down to a jittering crabwise course, nearly at right angles to the propulsion units. He was being dragged by some sort of traction device. He braced himself against the battering and prayed it was the Federation.

He kept looking out. His heart sank as he studied the stars. He was being pulled away from Federation space, towards the retreating remnant of the Andromedan fleet.

After an interminable, bruising journey, all movement stopped, so suddenly that he was flung into the instrument panel. Dazed, he groped after the weapon Avon had tucked in beside him before sealing him in the pod. The pod door opened automatically and he looked out.

It was obviously a ship's airlock, but like none he'd ever seen before. Everything was all slick, shining, iridescent curves, seamlessly fitting together. It didn't look like metal, or plastic, or any substance he'd ever seen. The air was breathable, but odd, with an ozone reek, like an artificially produced atmosphere.

The hair was standing stiffly up on the back of his neck when he stepped out into the empty corridor. A door, for want of a better word, irised open a few metres to his right. It reminded him of a carnivorous plant. A clunk behind him was the hatch of his life-pod shutting. "Who are you? What do you want?" Blake demanded, slowly turning, hand on weapon hilt.

A soft, sucking noise drew his attention. Part of the exterior bulkhead moved, bulging outward, thinning in the centre to reveal a transparent ovoid giving a view of space. And of four Liberator life-pods motionless just beyond. "Go. Leave ship opening," a barely understandable, sourceless voice said. As emphasis, the door irised partly shut, then opened again. When fully open, Blake could see another door leading to another featureless compartment.

"No," Blake said.

"Small ships. Life-gas limited," the voice said.

Blake frowned. He had a choice, allow his crew to be captured by aliens, or allow them to suffocate. He gave one last glance at the four pods, then turned toward the door. "What do you want from us?" Blake asked as he obeyed the voice's instructions, going into the second compartment and watching the door seal shut behind him. There was no answer.

In a few minutes, Jenna came through the opening, gun held at readiness."Blake?" she asked, lowering the weapon, but not yet holstering it. "Are you all right?"

He made a noncommittal sound. His shoulder wound was annoying more than anything else. "For the moment. Haven't seen our hosts yet."

Jenna shuddered. "Avon told me what to expect. I'm just as pleased not to see them. What will they do to us?" she asked, moving closer to Blake.

"No idea. Nothing pleasant, I would assume." He ran his hand over the area of 'wall' where Jenna's door had been. It was exactly the same as the rest of the wall, and responded to no stimuli he could produce. He wasn't even sure it had opened in the same place as before.

Another opening a metre away confirmed his suspicion. Vila came in, trembling and pale, hugging one arm to his chest. "I told you I wasn't a hero." He winced. "And I've got the broken arm to prove it." He cringed as the door shut, sealing him in with the others.

Jenna slipped off Vila's tunic and examined his arm as best she could with him whimpering and pulling back at every touch. "Yes, it's broken, all right."

"We need medical attention," Blake said, out loud. "Vila and I are injured." No response. "Unless you picked us up only to kill us, you have to do something." This time he received an answer.

"Cellular damage minimal. Discontinuity of calcium structure in Vila-specimen. Carbonization of tissue of Blake-specimen small percentage of mass. Permission to heal damage," returned the voice. "Live specimens desirable."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that," Blake said, "but we can't just heal on command." The Andromedan infiltrators on Star One were fluent in Federation Standard, and seemed to know everything they needed about human beings. Were there factions among the aliens? He had gathered that their ships were highly individualistic, with no two alike, from his crew's comments during the battle. Shouts of 'blast that teapot', 'duck the helmet', 'look out for that saucer' and other descriptions invented on the spot when there was no time for coordinates had told him as much. The rubble his life-pod passed through confirmed that impression. They were individuals, perhaps even more so than humans. If this bunch was ignorant and wanted to learn about humans, their immediate chances for survival were not as remote as he feared. Unless the Andromedans' ignorance itself killed them.

"What is needed for repair?"

"Drugs. Antibiotics. Antiseptics. Bandages and a cast, to start with."

The voice replied, "Have not. If self-repair not possible, specimens' use limited."

"Limited to what?" Vila asked, practically squeaking.

"Study of physical organism after life-end. Fluids. Tissues. Organs. Other structures."

Vila sank to the deck in a half-faint. "No, no, no. Not me, Blake, you can't let them cut me up to see what makes me tick."

"You created the air- the 'life-gas'," Blake said, guessing. "Can't you make the other things we need?"

"Life-gas simple combination of elements. What is 'drug'?"

That stumped Blake.

"Jenna-specimen undamaged?"

"Yes, I'm fine," Jenna said, not liking the idea of dissection any more than Vila did.

"Jenna- specimen will return to ship opening." The iris appeared again.

"Why?" Jenna asked, at the same time Blake said, "No!"

"Move damaged specimen," the voice replied.

"I'll go. It might be Cally," Jenna said. "And I wouldn't leave anyone to die alone here, not even Avon." She patted Blake's good shoulder. "It'll be all right." She drew her weapon.

The voice said, "No," as the iris disappeared again. "Remove. Put in opening." A small hole appeared in the floor, just large enough to accept a Liberator hand-gun.

"Remove what?" Jenna said, pretending not to understand.

"Kill-thing. All, remove. Put in opening."

Blake said, "And what if we don't?"

"Life-gas will be stopped."

Jenna looked at Blake. Vila looked at Blake, then at the hole. Blake sighed. "All right. Do it."

All three guns fed into the hole, it sealed itself, and the 'door' opened. "Be careful, Jenna," Blake said.

"Always," Jenna replied, looking back long enough to give Blake a cheerful grin, which vanished the instant the opening vanished. She turned, squared her shoulders and strode toward the airlock.

It wasn't the pristine, featureless corridor it had been. Avon was there, bloody and unconscious, lying slumped over Orac, which was twinkling madly. Several metres away a large pool of bluish-green glop spread, contrasting with the scarlet smears Avon was adding to the decor. The deck humped up under the pool, forming a funnel shape leading to the bulkhead. There was a transparent place on the bulkhead, and as Jenna watched in fascination, the thin jelly-like substance oozed through and into space,where it dispersed into a trail of globules.

The voice came again, "Remove kill-thing. Put in opening."

Reluctantly, Jenna pried Avon's fingers from his gun, and deposited it in the hole that magically appeared. "Remove other thing. Put in opening." An Orac-sized hole appeared.

Apparently, Avon had made the aliens suspicious of human technology. She stared at the computer. That contrary box was their only hope. She couldn't just dump it down the alien equivalent of an incinerator chute. "Orac," she muttered as she bent over the computer, "you've got to do something. Save us." She shoved the computer into the life-pod.

"Remove other thing. Put in opening," the expressionless voice repeated.

"I can't," Jenna said, kneeling beside Avon. "Its power source is unstable. It's already been bounced around too much. It could explode, destroying this whole ship, and everything on it. The life-pod has no power left; just set it adrift before it blows up."

There was a noticeable pause, then the opening in the alien ship leading to the life-pod's interior sealed. There was a sense of motion, confirmed by the view through the transparent area of bulkhead. "I guess that means you agree." She knelt to examine Avon. There was blood all over his face and upper body but she thought it was mainly from a superficial scalp wound. He also had a lump on the back of his head the size of a quok-hen's egg. All of his limbs bent in the right places, he was breathing a little faster than normal, she thought, and he appeared a bit gray. She hadn't the faintest idea what to do for him, or even if she should do anything.

The clank of a life-pod's hatch opening was a welcome distraction from the problem. As was the disheveled figure who stumbled out of the pod. "Jenna?"

"Cally, thank the gods." Jenna got to her feet, and steadied the other woman for a moment before Cally pulled away.

"What happened?" Cally asked, glancing around, taking in Avon but making no move toward him. "This is an alien vessel, is it not?" Her hand snaked down to her gun.

"Remove kill-thing. Put in opening," came the order Jenna expected.

"You might as well," Jenna said. "Our hosts make the air. I gather they don't need it themselves."

"Is there anyone else here?" Cally asked, turning to survey the empty corridor.

"All of us," Jenna said gloomily. "A clean sweep. So far they haven't tried to hurt us, even after Avon blasted one of them to jelly."
"Do you think we might negotiate our freedom, then?"

Jenna said,"Or Ac- cept captivity, Zen wait for a chance."

"Yes, I see."

"Remove kill-thing. Put in opening."

Cally dropped her weapon into the opening, her face grim. "I hope this is not a mistake, Jenna."

"So do I." Jenna gave one last, longing look at the freedom of space before turning to help Cally carry Avon back to the others.

Blake was pacing when they returned. He whirled, relief turning instantly to concern. "Avon?" Awkwardly, because of the arm immobilized against his chest, he helped the women lower Avon to the deck. He knelt and felt for a pulse, getting his fingers bloody in the process.

Vila looked ill. "He's dead, isn't he?"

"No, he is not," Cally snapped, short-tempered because of her own aching head and the desperate situation. "But he needs medical attention."

Vila shrugged, then winced and clutched his wounded arm tighter. "There isn't any. They expect us to mend ourselves." His voice rose. "My arm's broken and they call it a calcium disconnection. I don't think they even have bones. They ..."

The alien voice said, "Avon specimen life-end?"

Blake pulled Avon up against himself, protectively. "No! We'll take care of him."

Cally nodded. "Surely you can at least provide food, water and bandages." Jenna had already given her the gist of their previous conversations, so she hadn't very high expectations.

"Water is known. Food, also. What is bandage?"

"Would it help if we provided a sample?" Blake asked, fingering the light-weight healing pad that covered his shoulder wound.

"No, Blake!" Jenna said quickly, "You can't. You'll open it up again."

Unperturbed, the alien answered Blake, "Study bandage, make bandage."

"Help me, Cally," Blake said.

"Don't be stupid, Blake," Jenna said, harshly. "Avon won't thank you if you kill yourself for him."

"We're not leaving any time soon. Even if our friends let us go, we haven't got a ship at the moment," Blake gave Jenna a significant stare. Liberator needed time to repair itself; they needed time to heal and to figure out how to contact the ship, preferably before they escaped. Somehow. "No sense in antagonizing our hosts. And I don't feel like simply sitting here and watching Avon die. Do you?" He tugged one-handed at the edge of the pad until Cally stopped him and began peeling it off herself, rolling it neatly as it came loose. Liberator's advanced medical unit had begun the healing, but he needed at least another day under treatment. The new skin covering the injury was barely set, baby-soft and even more delicate.

"How about me?" Vila asked. "I'm no use with a broken arm, am I?"

"You weren't any use before," Jenna said, then walked to the other side of the small chamber, as far as she could get from all of them.

"It is a simple fracture," Cally said to the room at large, as Blake had addressed the unseen aliens, "We could splint it. I need three or four thin, flat, rigid pieces of material to bind around the arm to keep the bone straight while it heals."

Their captor did not reply, but when they fed the bandage into the inevitable hole that appeared- this time in a vertical surface, the voice said, "Put Vila -specimen undamaged arm in opening. Study. Make splint."

"NO!" Vila yelled, and curled up into a ball. "You'll chop it off! Or burn it up. Or eat it."

Blake and Cally tried to get him to do it, but their persuasion was half-hearted. Neither of them were absolutely sure he wasn't right. Jenna didn't even try.

Some time passed in silence. The voice made no remarks, and they didn't feel up to conversation among themselves. What was there to say? Avon remained unconscious and the rest of them tried to find the least uncomfortable position to sit on the hard, cold deck.

Their teleport bracelets chimed; loud. "Information. Liberator has been boarded."

"Zen!" Blake shouted, "Locate our signals, follow us..."

"Blake!" Vila interrupted, scrambling to his feet.This opening was large, door-size and growing. It stopped just short of three metres in height. A tentacle appeared, followed swiftly by a 'body' that filled the doorway. A glittering translucent blue-green color flowed in patches over its clear 'skin', with blobs of orange and purple dimly visible floating inside. Tentacles, pseudopods, and bulges appeared seemingly at random in the jelly-like mass. It slopped toward them with remarkable speed for such an ungainly object, reaching Blake first, and removing his bracelet roughly. Tentacles spread out, snatching Avon's bracelet, and reaching for the others.

"Zen!" Jenna yelled into her bracelet, just before it was taken. "We're prisoners. Teleport us once you're in range."

Zen informed her calmly, "Teleport operation is not a function of this unit."

"Help, Zen!" Vila screamed, as his attempt to hide behind Blake failed and his bracelet was ripped off- fortunately from his unimpaired arm.

Cally dodged for a few seconds longer, but had no chance to talk to Zen before her bracelet was lost to the alien.

It deposited the bracelets into a disposal aperture, and then it stopped moving. They stared at it, wondering what was next. Part of the alien's 'skin' vibrated, producing sound: producing speech,"Specimens needed. Not talk to others. Not leave." A particularly large bulge formed, turning white. The bulge separated from the alien and fell to the deck. "Bandages," it said. It moved to one side, leaving the white mass behind.

"Yech," Vila said. "It just belched them up." His knees were shaking and he was turning a bit green, himself. He could still feel the cool, slippery tentacle that had grabbed him. He swallowed, trying not to be sick, trying not to think about it.
"Check it, Cally," Blake said, while continuing to try to make eye contact with a creature that had no head, or any features of any sort. He couldn't even tell if it had a front and back.

"It seems all right, Blake," Cally replied. "Not exactly like our healing pads, but it should be adequate." She returned with the white stuff, which turned out to be a pile of separate pieces of different dimensions. Even though hostilities seemed to have ended, she made no move to tend either Blake or Avon. She couldn't sense anything from the alien, not even the background 'noise' she picked up from most animal life.

"Do you make the air the same way?" Jenna asked. It felt strange to carry on a casual conversation with something that looked like engine dredgings, but it seemed to be waiting for something. Better talk than action, in this case.

"Buds make."

"Buds? What are buds?" Blake asked. He was slowly maneuvering close to the thing, trying to decide if it had a vulnerable spot, and if it did, what good the knowledge would do him.

"Ones who do not divide. Ones who stay one."

Cally figured it out first. "Sterile members of your race? They can not reproduce?"

"Yes. Buds work. Buds not work, Buds life-end. Avon- specimen kill Bud. Avon-specimen kill Divider, Avon-specimen life-end."

Blake's head went up, as he understood the threat. Apparently, Avon had killed the equivalent of a slave, some member of their society that had little value. Otherwise, he would be dead now.

"Are you a bud?" Vila asked.

The entire creature lost its color, even the bits deep inside paled to gray. "Self not Bud. Self divide many times. Self not Bud."

The repetition and the color-change gave an impression of emphasis. Blake thought it would have been shouting if it were human. "Sorry," Vila said. "I can see you're a very important thing. I didn't mean to insult you."

The color slowly returned to normal. "Buds make water, food." A pseudopod appeared and pointed off to one side. The floor rose in an open-ended cylindrical shape the size of a five-gallon bucket that filled with water as they watched. Cally sniffed, tasted, nodded in approval and dipped a bandage into it, then began cleaning the blood off Avon, to better examine his injuries.

A similar shape rose beside the water container, filled with a brownish lumpy semi-liquid substance dotted with small bits of harder looking stuff in bright colors.

"That's food?" Vila asked. "It looks like something someone forgot to throw away, a long time ago. At least, they should have thrown it away."

The creature did not respond to Vila's muttered complaint. "Place to put waste," it said, indicating another risen hollow lump which looked not impossible, if not very comfortable, either.

"We can't!" Jenna exclaimed. "Not like that!"

"Why?"

"We need privacy. We keep our waste areas in separate rooms from our eating and sleeping areas."

"Yes." The waste receptacle merged back into the floor. A 'door' opened at the far side of the compartment. Just visible inside was the edge of another waste receptacle.

"Well, I suppose that will do." Jenna didn't like to think that they'd be there long enough for it to get used to it, but Blake was right. The more time their injured members had to heal before they attempted an escape, the better. She was sure Blake wouldn't leave Avon, and they couldn't very well drag him along.

"What about sleeping?" Cally asked, looking up from Avon. The compartment had no set-aside rest areas. Maybe Andromedans didn't sleep, either. It was hard on her knees, and couldn't be good for Avon. Even at the best of times, his back gave him trouble. She concentrated on that, not on the fact that he had been unconscious far too long, and even now did not react to the cold water she was wiping over his face.

"We all sleep together," Blake said loudly. "We can't live apart," he said, warning the others with a glare.

"I can't sleep on the floor," Vila wailed, "Even if I didn't have a broken arm."

"What is sleep?"

"Periodically, we go into a state of rest to aid cellular repair. We lie down, shut our eyes, and sleep." Cally said. "It is damaging for our bodies to do so on such a hard surface."

"Sleep place," the alien said, after a moment. Vila fell backwards as the floor turned soft under his feet. He landed on the broken arm, let out a strangled yell and collapsed.

"Vila-specimen life-end?"

"He's just passed out. Gone to sleep," Cally said, after she checked his pulse. "It would be best to set his arm now, before he regains consciousness." Cally directed Blake and Jenna to hold Vila down while she manipulated the broken bones back in place. Even in his faint, Vila jerked at the pain. "It is straight now, but it will need to be splinted."

The Andromedan moved forward. "Make splint," it said and poured itself over Vila's outstretched arm while the other three scrambled to get out of the way. Luckily Vila remained unconscious. After a few moments, the alien retreated, leaving Vila's arm enclosed in a white, ribbed substance from elbow to wrist. "Splint. Bone not move. Time heal?"

"Perhaps two months, maybe a little longer," Cally replied, as she examined the hard covering.

"Can you do anything for Avon?" Blake asked.

The Andromedan approached Cally and Avon. Without touching him, it appeared to carry out an examination. "Calcium disconnection in non-moving part. Splint after straight." It aimed a pseudopod at Avon's skull. "Calcium into head-organ. Pressure. Damage. Move calcium out."

"I can't do brain surgery," Cally said, horrified. "Particularly with neither instruments nor a properly equipped medical unit."

"How bad is it?" Blake asked. Jenna came close and held Blake's good arm for moral support.

"Damage." The alien added, "Avon-specimen Bud?"

"No!" Blake shouted. "None of us are Buds. We are all Dividers." Let the alien consider them valuable. "We need Avon."

"Avon-specimen heal during journey?"

"How long will it be?" Jenna asked, trying mentally to navigate from the last position she'd had, and making a wild guess as to the alien's speed.

"In your terms-," the Andromedan paused, as though doing a mental conversion, "One thousand, four hundred eighty-five years."

Jenna's jaw dropped. "I don't guess we'll live to see your home planet. Pity, I was looking forward to it."

"No kill."

"You won't have to. Humans don't live much more than a hundred years, even under the best conditions."

The alien's skin rippled, colors brightening to flashes of scarlet and green. "Need specimens. Von-tag Buddlings gain..." here it made a spluttering sound which it apparently had no translation for. "lead all home-world, all colony-world, all to fight. Lose. Lose ..." came a splutter again, which might have been the same. "Need specimens. Gor-tag Buddlings gain ..." the same sound, " lead all."

"Back to attack humanity again?" Blake said, eyes narrowed.

"Not. Fight error. Study specimens, prove specimens not threat. Not strong. Not live on home-world. Not kill people."

"Your people?" Jenna said, surprised, "We never even met your people until you attacked us."

"Your ships come edge our space. One, two. Some. Not many. Von-tag Buddlings space patrol. Get your ships. Tell all human threat. Show. Show people die. Many, many people die."

"That's impossible," Blake said. "What did the Von-tag Buddlings show you?"

Skin ripple again. "Show this." The wall rippled, as the alien had, and then cleared to show an elementary vid on sanitation with a man talking about the need for disinfection before cutting to a demonstration of the effectiveness of various solutions on germ cultures. The swirling translucent blue-green organisms did resemble the Andromedan, until a colored drop spread through the colony, leaving lifeless, dulling blobs. The man's voice went on to describe the billions that could be killed with a single drop. The vid ended.

"But that's not your people," Blake protested, "those were germs, not intelligent beings. They are microscopic disease-causing agents that just happen to resemble you. The whole vid must have shown that clearly."

Skin ripple. "Gor-tag Buddlings not see all. See this. All Buddlings see this.Von-tag Buddlings want... do all for .... Need study specimen. Need stop Von-tag Buddlings do again after go home-planet."

"In another two thousand years?" Jenna asked, as she could see Blake was moved by the threat. "I'm sorry, but we won't be around to tell them the truth."

Pause. Then the alien said, "Divide, new ones divide until reach home-planet. Blake-specimen largest of Buddling. Ready to divide."

"What?" Jenna asked, startled. She hoped she'd misunderstood. "Are you asking Blake to breed? Not with me," she said, before Blake wrapped a large hand around her mouth. She almost bit him, but then realized her danger. If non-breeders of their own were worthless, how quickly would alien non-breeders be slated for dissection?

"We need two parents for 'dividing'," Blake said, "The process takes a long time." He wasn't sure just how much information the alien had on humans, and didn't want to contradict anything it might know. So far it appeared to take all statements at face value, that might be important later.

"Time?"

"At least nine months, and then the result requires at least fifteen years before it is mature."

"Time not long."

Blake should have known. A creature that could undertake a two thousand year round-trip jaunt would consider sixteen years an eye-blink. That is, if they had eyes. "Jenna and Cally are essential to our functioning as a group, but they are not yet ready to divide," he said carefully.

"Vila - specimen and Avon- specimen larger. Ready to divide. Blake divide with them."

Blake blinked in startlement, then quickly said, "They are both injured. I am not entirely fit myself. It's not possible for us to divide." The last thing he wanted the alien to learn was that with three males, two were surplus to requirements.

"Group not Buddling?"

Visions of scalpel-bearing tentacles filled his mind. "Yes, we are a Buddling," he said firmly. "But you have to give us time."

"Two months. Divide. Or study fluids. Organs. Tissues." The alien exited without turning, which answered one question. It didn't have a front or back. So much for sneaking up on one.

"That was a threat," Cally said as she re-bandaged Blake then went to attend to Avon.

"Obviously," Jenna replied. She looked back at Vila. "You can wake up now, hero."

Vila groaned, and sat up, clutching his arm to his stomach. He stared down at the cast, and gingerly touched it. "Do I want to know how this got on my arm?"

"No," Jenna said.

"I didn't think so." Vila got to his feet. His voice hardened. "When the blue thing said dividing, it wasn't talking maths, was it? I've done a lot of things for you, Blake, but don't even think what you're thinking. Jenna..."

Blake's glare halted that train of thought.

"Well, maybe not," Vila said, as Jenna followed Blake's glare with one of her own.

"We have two months. A lot can happen in two months," Blake said, attempting to soothe. He'd never seen Vila quite so upset.
" It's all right for you, Alphas do it all the time." Vila sounded positively fierce.

"Vila," Cally said sternly, as Blake was taken aback by his vehemence, "Be quiet."

"Yes. Tell him. To shut up," the harsh, rasping voice was familiar despite its weakness.

"Avon!" Blake was across the intervening space and on his knees beside Cally and Avon so quickly he had no memory of moving. "How are you?" He put his hands on Avon's shoulders, and helped him to sit.

Avon didn't resist, fumbling his hands clumsily out to steady himself against Blake. "I have a splitting headache if you must know. And Vila's whining isn't helping." He put a hand up, encountering a bandage, then winced as he came across a painful lump.

"I don't whine," Vila said, coming closer, with a petulant look on his face.

Blake was relieved. "If you feel well enough to snap, I suppose you're well enough to help us escape."

"What? Again?" Avon said, sighing. "What trap have you led us into now?"

"That's hardly fair, Avon," Jenna said. "How could Blake have avoided the Andromedans?"

"Easily. If we weren't at Star One in the first place..."

"Then the aliens would have attacked humanity without warning," Cally said. "And you would probably have been killed in your palace surrounded by all your computers and luxuries."
"True. But at least I would have enjoyed myself first." Avon gave her a crooked grin, which was slightly spoiled by the fact that he didn't meet her eyes. "Is this some sort of sensory deprivation chamber?" he asked, turning his head from side to side.

"What?" Blake asked, then a horrible thought struck him. "Avon, are you having difficulty seeing?"

"Difficulty? I..." Avon stopped all movement, even his breathing for a moment. "I can see nothing." He took several deep breaths, face flushing as his eyes widened, and then narrowed in anger. He pushed Blake aside, and scrambled to his feet. "I'm blind, aren't I?" His fist lashed out, missing Blake by a foot and overbalancing himself. Blake grabbed his arm, preventing him from falling.

"Don't, Avon. You'll only hurt yourself," Blake said, trying to remain calm. Jenna and Cally were shocked, and Vila looked positively ill. Hesitantly, Vila came forward, and put a hand on Avon's other arm.

"Let me go!" Avon shouted, "Let me..." He swung on Blake again, this time connecting with Vila's face in a glancing blow.

Vila yelped and backed up, holding his hand over his right eye. "Hey, don't take it out on me," he cried, "what did I do?"

"You're here, and you can see!" Avon spat, swinging out wildly again. Suddenly he went weak in the knees and clutched at Blake to keep from falling.

Cally came close as Blake helped Avon to sit down on the soft 'bed' section of the deck. "Avon," Cally said in a carefully neutral voice, "it may be only temporary. You were able to see when you arrived on this ship, were you not?"

"Yes," Avon replied, "but only dimly. It was like looking through a blood-red mist."

Cally put her hands gently on the sides of Avon's face. He jerked, then allowed her to tilt his head for her examination. "Perhaps there is some swelling of the optic nerve. With rest, it may improve." She was looking at Blake as she spoke, and shook her head in a definite "no".

"Or it may not," Avon said, forced calm in his tone.

"It may not," Cally admitted. "But it certainly will not hurt. Under the circumstances, rest is the only treatment I can prescribe." She tried to push him back. "There is food and water, but with a strong possibility of concussion, it would be wise to wait. Do you feel nauseated?"

"Yes. And it's not because of the crack on my skull. I am sickened by my own stupidity, for staying with you fools and Blake's imbecilic cause." He snapped in Blake's general direction, "Well, have you nothing to say, Blake?"

Blake shook his head, then realized the futility of that, and answered, "No. Get some rest, Avon." He put a gentle hand on the man's shoulder.

"And everything will look better in the morning?" Avon said, viciously. "For you, possibly. You're improving, Blake. You only managed to half blind Travis. Does that mean you hate me twice as much?"

Blake stiffened. "I have never hated you, Avon. I have tried to be your friend and you have rebuffed me at every opportunity. You are the one who always hated me."

Avon's head went up, blind eyes seeking Blake. "I didn't. Not then." He winced and put his hand up to his head. "I think I will lie down, Cally," he said in a weak voice, then fainted into Blake's arms. Blake lowered him to the deck.

"Well? What do we do now?" Vila said, his voice accusing Blake as much as Avon's words had.

"Sleep," Blake replied, stiffly. He went over to the water and drank from his cupped hand. "Sorry it's not Soma and Adrenaline." He returned to Avon, and stared down at the unconscious man. Avon was shivering. Blake lay down beside Avon, awkward not only because of his injury, but because of the emotions clawing at his stomach, and the thoughts racing through his mind.

"It's not your fault, Blake," Jenna said, crouching beside him to whisper. "Avon has to blame someone, and you're handy."

"And I'm responsible. No matter how you look at it." Blake gazed bleakly at Jenna. "I did want to be his friend, Jenna. And I've destroyed him." He shut his eyes.

Jenna was annoyed. Blake's capacity for guilt was limitless. But her patience wasn't. So Avon was blind. They were all prisoners being carried helplessly into the intergalactic gulf in the bowels of a ship that appeared to have been grown out of an alien's body. Who was Blake kidding with his talk of escape, and his maneuvering? They were stuck, and stuck good. Avon would have plenty of time to learn where all the amenities were in their little specimen cage. Up until the aliens got tired of waiting for little Blakes to pop up and started carving on them. With luck they would be dead at the time. She shivered, but not from cold, and lay down on Blake's other side, wrapping her arms around his waist. He had never shared a bed with her before, but he could scarcely deny her the comfort he offered Avon.

Especially as he knew she would not be asking for intimacy beyond his self-imposed limits.She had never felt less like having sex. Not if it meant sentencing a child to a life-sentence here.

Cally ate and drank, then lay down on Avon's other side.

Vila stared at the silent group for a minute. "What about me?"

"Come here, Vila," Cally said, patting the floor beside her.

"I dunno if I can control myself," he muttered as he obeyed, curling up behind her.

Cally rolled over and smiled at him. "Yes, you can. Or I can."

Vila thought about it. "Oh, all right." He liked closeness, even if it wasn't going to be anything more than that. Especially when they were all they had. Resolutely, he stopped thinking about their terrible situation, the awful monsters that had them, the threat of death if they didn't have babies, and Blake's threat to have him just to make sure they didn't have babies... on second thought, not thinking about it wasn't working too well. And it wouldn't be a good idea to indulge his favorite fantasies to soothe himself as he usually did. Not with Cally wedged up all warm and close and... no, not a good idea to think about that. He couldn't even get drunk. This was going to be a long night. And a very bright one, unless someone did something.

"Hey," he yelled, "turn off the lights!"

The alien must have been observing its specimens, for the lights dimmed to black almost immediately.
Someone hit Vila in the ribs with a very sharp elbow.

"What was that for?" he complained.

"Shouting in my ear."

"I couldn't sleep with the lights on, could you?"

"We can't sleep with you talking," Blake growled. "Shut up, Vila."

"That's right, pick on me," Vila muttered, but obscurely comforted, he did shut up and eventually sleep.

***

"Come on, Avon, try this." Vila held out his offering in a bowl made of the same opalescent material as everything else. Everything was glaringly white, except for them and their clothes, which were becoming increasingly rank despite the bathing pool he'd talked their hosts into providing the first week. Vila had much better success in getting his requests filled than the others. It might have been his ingratiating manner. It might also have been due to the fact that he asked for comforts, while Jenna wanted to see the flight deck, and both Cally and Blake had argued for more freedom of movement. The aliens may have been ignorant, that didn't make them stupid. Avon asked for nothing and seldom spoke except to harass Blake.

"What is it?" Avon said, suspiciously. He did suspicious even better than ever, now that his hair was growing out of its neat technician's cut, and his beard beginning to thicken. Vila's beard was wispy still, and Blake's was curled and dense. Not even Vila could convince the aliens they needed sharply edged metal tools. Just as well. He wasn't sure whose throat Avon would cut first. Avon varied between homicidal, suicidal and merely sullen on an unpredictable schedule. At the moment, he was in a good mood or he would have thrown the bowl back in Vila's face. Avon wasn't eating even as well as the rest of them and they had all lost weight.

"It's pink," Vila said, helpfully.

"So are earthworms." Avon groped for the spoon, and stirred the stuff around. "It has lumps in it," he noted, " Are they moving?"

"Was that a joke?" Vila moved closer to peer into Avon's face. "Nah. Can't be. Your face hasn't cracked."

Avon sighed and put a spoonful of the substance into his mouth, carefully. He hated it when he missed. No one dared to say anything, or offered to help, but he was ashamed every time it happened. He stopped, spoon halfway in, a look of surprise spreading across his face.

"Avon?" Vila asked.

Avon swallowed. "That actually was edible. Congratulations, Vila. After all the Federation's attempts to find your true calling, you have discovered it on your own."

"Eh?"

"Culinary advisor to aliens who possess neither taste buds nor stomachs." Avon finished the bowl, which pleased Vila. Across the room, Blake was watching, silently, as always. He worried about Avon, and since Avon couldn't see him, he allowed the expression to show.

"Tell Blake to stop that," Avon snapped, the faintly amused smile he wore disappearing.

"Stop what?" Vila asked. "He isn't doing anything. And even if he was, you couldn't... er, that is..."

"I don't have to see him to know he is staring at me, and feeling sorry for me. I won't have it. Let him find another hobby. Jenna would like that," he added spitefully.

"Avon," Blake said tiredly, running his hands through his hair as he did. "Don't. Leave Jenna out of it." He rubbed his shoulder. The wound had healed, but still ached on occasion. Generally when Avon was attacking him.

"I would love to. I would love to leave all of us out of this. But I can't." Avon stood, turning to face Blake's voice, his blind eyes fixed straight ahead. It disconcerted Blake when Avon stared him down, and Avon pounced on every opportunity to make Blake's life even more miserable than it was. "It's been weeks. You have explored all the possibilities of escape, down to the most ludicrous attempts to flush yourself down the lav. It has all been as futile as a lab rat gnawing at the bars of its cage.Liberator isn't coming. Not even our enemies will look for us here. Face facts, Blake. I have. I am blind. I am going to remain blind. I am an experimental animal, penned with you and your fanatical crew for the rest of my life. If you do not provide the Andromedans with the next generation of guinea pigs, then they will undoubtedly cut their losses. Literally. Starting with the least useful. That would have been Vila, but now it will fall to me. I wonder, Blake, will they do it here, with you watching? Or will they take me away so that the noise will not upset the rest of the specimens?"

"Stop it, Avon!" Blake strode forward, grabbing Avon's shoulders in both hands and shaking him hard. "Just stop it! Our chance will come. We must remain calm, and prepared for it." His voice shook with emotion, barely keeping himself from really hurting Avon.

Avon snarled, his face contorted, "There will be no chance and you know it. You simply have to be 'fearless leader' right up to the end! You lying, manipulative, self-righteous..." He twisted his head, and attempted to bite. Blake slapped him, knocking him down, and followed him to the deck, lying heavily on the slighter man who was still fighting, kicking and cursing in frustration as his blows mostly struck air.

"Blake!" Cally ran over, and tugged at him. "You can't. He's blind."

"Don't let that stop you," Avon said, writhing under Blake's weight. He showed his teeth, and made a rude grab at Blake's groin. "You're enjoying it, aren't you? Is that why you turned Jenna down? Not your type?"

"Avon, you're a pig," Jenna said, calmly walking over the two men on her way to the bathing pool. She stripped off her clothes and settled into the cool water, gritting her teeth against the sting. "Blake is merely being sensible. Blake is always sensible," she said, as she calmly began rubbing herself, while Vila goggled. Up to now, they had bathed discreetly, with the others averting their eyes.

"Jenna," Cally began, then halted. Jenna was also frustrated, angry, and frightened,and wasn't behaving any better than Avon. She tried again. "My people have a saying..."

"No!" Vila screamed and ran at the three of them, dumping Cally on top of Blake and Avon. "Not another damn saying!" He started punching nearly as randomly as Avon. Cally abandoned her serene poise and began whacking back. Avon looked bewildered. He was at the bottom of a free-for-all, but no one was paying attention to him. Except Blake, who was trying to drag Avon to safety when the tidal wave hit.

Spluttering and gasping, the four combatants separated. Jenna leaned over the side of the 'bath', casually dangling the largest of their watering bowls from one hand. "Sorry. I just couldn't resist." She looked at Blake, who was glowering with his curls draggling and dripping. Avon sneezed. Jenna startled giggling, then fell backwards in the water, laughing.

After a long moment, Vila and Cally joined her. Blake stared, chuckled, then gave vent to his own full-fledged roar of laughter. In the camaraderie of the moment, he hugged Avon to him, and, for an instant, he felt Avon relax into his hold. Avon didn't laugh, but he did smile.

***

Avon's Blake-baiting eased after that nearly to the level of teasing that he had often indulged in with Vila. Blake didn't quite understand why, and one 'day' when Vila had inveigled Jenna and Cally into a game of Pyramids (it had taken five explanations for the aliens to produce the equipment), he offered to help Avon wash his hair, hoping to have a quiet chat while the others were occupied. After Jenna had 'broken the ice', nudity became unremarkable. It was necessary to rinse out your only clothes at fairly frequent intervals, and pointless to put them back on while wet. After the initial embarrassment died down, they became accustomed to it and it no longer seemed provocative. Even bathing together had lost its sexual overtones. Of course, with Avon there were always other considerations.

Avon hesitated, eyes gone as distant as they always did when he was concentrating. "Do you think I need your help?" he asked finally in a neutral tone.

Blake gently touched the back of Avon's head, and was gratified when he didn't flinch. "Yes, unless you like sleeping on a rat's nest."

Avon's lips twitched. Blake couldn't decide whether it was a repressed grin, or the beginnings of a scowl. "We are a rat's nest," he pointed out. "But it is foolish to suffer unnecessarily. Very well, you may indulge your charitable impulses."

"Thank you," Blake said gravely, extending an arm for Avon's guidance. Since Jenna's 'shower' Avon had been less reluctant to accept aid, but this was extraordinary.

"Think nothing of it," Avon said airily, stripping before cautiously stepping into the bath. Blake followed, and poured a bowlful of water over Avon's head, then began patiently teasing the knotted strands apart. Difficult without shampoo, but the Andromedan's best try had reeked of something like rotted lilacs.

Avon's expression was dreamy, encouraging Blake.

"Avon?"

"Yes?"

"Would you mind answering a question?"

"Possibly. But I won't know until you ask it." Blake's hands stopped moving. Avon twisted around to face Blake. "Either ask or get back to work." Avon was smiling.

Blake sighed. "It's been almost... well, almost pleasant between us lately. I don't want to spoil it."

"It won't. Go ahead." Avon leaned back against Blake, a picture of total contentment.

"How can you promise that when you don't know what I'm going to ask."

"Because, no matter what you say, it will not change anything. I'll help you out, shall I?" Avon didn't wait for Blake's agreement. "You are disconcerted because I have not been behaving as you expect. Even though we are on easier terms, you are uneasy, because you suspect a trap. There is no trap."

"What then?"

"It is extremely simple. When Jenna nearly drowned us, and you all laughed, something happened. For a moment, I was actually enjoying myself, enjoying the fellowship of my...friends. I had been angry because I felt helpless. I had no control over even the simplest aspect of my life. Logically, we are all doomed."

"No. I haven't given up yet, Avon. There are still a few options left." Blake didn't even believe it, how could Avon?

"Only one that would grant us more time. One which is unacceptable to both of us. I have committed illegal and immoral acts in my life, but I have never sold a child into slavery. I would prefer to die. And that is what will happen to all of us. But, I can choose how I live my last few days. I can be bitter, and spiteful, or I can enjoy whatever there is left for me to enjoy. Even blind and a prisoner, there are pleasures to be had. Cally's scent after she has just bathed, Vila's hands as he massages my back, the brush of Jenna's hair over my arm, the sound of your laughter, " Avon's voice faded, wistful and soft.

"You like the sound of my laughter?" Blake asked, astounded.

"Why not? You have a good voice." Avon's grin was wicked. "I am about to make a dreadful confession, Blake." Avon felt up Blake's arm, located his shoulder, then neck, then tugged him forward and whispered in his ear, "Unlike Vila, I do not feel the need to limit my pleasures to half of the human race. What about you?"

Blake blushed furiously, glad that Avon couldn't see him, then felt terribly guilty. The guilt impelled him to his own confession, one he had not intended ever to make."Actually, I do limit myself to half the human race."

"Pity," Avon said, sighing and starting to pull away.

Blake held him and whispered back, "Your half."

"Ah. Then the only question is, your place or mine?" Avon pressed himself close to Blake, then pulled back abruptly, feeling Blake tense against him. "I see. You were only saying that to be kind." The bitterness was back in his voice, and his dark eyes were bleak.

"No! Avon, be reasonable. It wouldn't be fair. There's no privacy. Think of the others."

Avon tugged once more on Blake's hair, then released him and turned around again. "The others. Yes, it would be awkward, probably more trouble than it's worth. Even for a last request."

Blake glanced around. Vila was crowing, having made a move he thought exceptionally clever and both the women were staring at the game-board. He pressed a kiss to the side of Avon's neck. "I just don't want to hurt anyone."

"Your punctilious code will be the death of me." Avon softened his words with a smile.

They were having a good-natured argument over whose turn it was in the latest marathon round of Pyramids when a wall dissolved. They had nearly forgotten about their captors.

"What is it?" Avon asked. He had been sitting next to Blake, leaning against the other man and nearly fell over when Blake abruptly moved.

"Our host."

Avon stiffened, and put out his hand, mutely asking Blake to help him rise. He would not meekly sit for his death. Blake yanked him up, then released him after a quick pat on the shoulder.

"Two months." The alien extended a pseudopod in Vila's direction. "Calcium continuity restored."

Vila's cast dissolved into bluish blobs. Yelling, he waved his arm, and the blobs flew. As they landed on decks or walls, they began crawling toward the Andromedan, merging with it when they arrived.

"Vila-specimen repaired. Divide with Vila-specimen."

"Wait a minute," Blake said, striding forward. "You can't just..." A pseudopod struck him in the chest, and slammed him against the deck.

"Study tissues. Fluids. Organs."

"No!" Jenna leaped forward, along with Cally. Vila hesitated an instant, then joined them. Other pseudopods snatched them and casually pinned them like butterflies against a wall, pressing so hard they could barely breathe.

"What's happening?" Avon shouted, stumbling forward, hands outstretched.

"Blake-specimen will not Divide."

"Yes, he will!" Avon shouted. "With me!" Forget codes and morals. Be embarrassed and live a little longer.

"No, Avon!" Blake choked out.

"Shut up, Blake."

"Avon-specimen damaged," the Andromedan formed metallic-looking edges on a pseudopod. The thing hovered over Blake, as if deciding where to start.

"Only my eyes. Don't you know anything about how my kind breed?" Avon said, desperately. He edged forward, then pitched over a lump and landed atop Blake.

"Yes. Von-tag Buddlings show Earth-beings Divide."

Avon clutched at Blake desperately. If they knew the difference between male and female, then why hadn't they insisted on Jenna and Cally being impregnated as soon as Blake was healed? They were after Blake to Divide with Vila. Obviously, they didn't know as much as they thought they did, if they could mistake either of them for a woman.

"Von-tag Buddlings show this to Gor-tag Buddlings." Avon felt Blake shift under him, and the slither of a pseudopod moving away. Blake shuddered against him, gasping for breath.

There were thuds as the other three were released. The far wall rippled, and the alien equivalent of a vid-projector began. It was even grainier and more blurred than the disinfection vid. It was from the historical archive; Blake had seen something similar years ago, when the rebels were trying to interest people in life outside the Domes. There were grass and bushes, and two grayish brown animals with long ears and short tails. One approached the other, prodded at it with a foreleg, then mounted it and energetically mated. The scene was replaced by one in which either the first animal or a very similar one gave birth to more than half a dozen squirming, helpless looking offspring.

"Rabbits," Blake said aloud. He held the hysteria back by main force. "Avon, they've seen rabbits mate." He did not know why the other alien faction had given this as an example of human reproduction, unless it was intended to make humans look so prolific that they would be eager to expand into Andromedan space.

"Rabbits?" Avon questioned. From the sound of Blake's voice this was good news, but he had no idea why. He had no interest in natural history, or ancient wildlife cinematography.

"Lower form, but similar. This is how you Divide," The Andromedan stated.

"Oh, yeah," Vila said, before Blake could deny it. "That's it." He was relieved that Avon had volunteered. "You just startled Blake. Yeah, him and Avon will be happy to divide for you."

"Vila!" Jenna snapped, her face burning with embarrassment and anger. She had noticed that, far from making an attempt to push Avon off, Blake was running his hands soothingly down Avon's shuddering back. It was obvious that Blake was far from repulsed by the contact.

"Well, it can't be you or Cally," Vila said, seriously. "And if it comes down to being chopped up or helping raise Blake's and Avon's kids, I know which I vote for. Prolly be cute little things," he added, grinning.

Avon made a strangled noise and buried his face in Blake's chest to smother the rest of it. Vila could make him laugh at the least appropriate times, and he really didn't want to die laughing.

Cally blinked and said nothing, only looking to Blake for his decision.

"If Avon and I... agree to divide, you realize it will take time. And this is unnatural for us..." Blake addressed the alien.
"You're telling me," Jenna muttered.

Blake glared. "We don't usually breed in captivity. Avon and I might not be able to..."

"Begin. Divide." A sharp-looking tentacle-shaped pseudopod waved. "Or study." The blue blob left as abruptly as it had entered.

"Avon..." Jenna began, fire in her eyes, when Cally intervened physically.

"Jenna," she pleaded, "Blake is right. It is the only thing to do. It will at least gain us time."

"Time! That's not why, is it, Blake," Jenna did not say it as a question.

Blake got up, and helped Avon to his feet. Together, they faced her, Blake's arm under Avon's hand for guidance. "No, it's not," Blake answered.

"Why didn't you tell me before?"

"Because," Blake said with great dignity, "It wasn't your business."

"And because I might have left?" Jenna's eyes hardened.

"No. You wouldn't have left. You'd have been angry, and embarrassed, but you wouldn't have left. You loved Liberator as much as I love Avon."

Avon drew a deep breath, and turned in Blake's general direction in surprise. "That's the first I've heard of it. Why didn't you tell me? Or wasn't it any of my business?"

"Dammit, Avon." Blake ran his hands through his tousled hair, then gnawed on a knuckle before replying. "You are a contrary bastard. I assumed you'd kill me if I'd said a word. You certainly weren't sending me any bouquets of roses."

"Neither were you. I remember that remark about not trusting me at your back near a cliff," Avon actually sounded hurt.

Blake grinned. Avon couldn't see it, but he could hear it in Blake's voice when he said, "But you don't know what I imagined you were doing at my back."

Avon tilted his head, considering. "Oh, well, in that case, I forgive you. Shall we get on with it?"

"How romantic," Blake said, teasing, as he moved closer to Avon. He concentrated on Avon's face, which was slightly flushed, nostrils beginning to flare as they both began breathing heavier. He wasn't used to an audience and he worried for an instant that he would be unable to perform. Then their bodies touched, and all doubt was washed away in a surge of pure lust. Blake lowered his mouth to Avon's, immediately deepening the kiss to a tongue-locked wrestling match, beards mingling and tickling. Avon's hands were clutching Blake to him as if he would never let go.

Vila cleared his throat, and Blake broke the kiss, looking around. "What?" he muttered, annoyed by the interruption.

"Um. Well... here." Blushing beet red, Vila shoved something small into Blake's hand and then retreated to the far side of the chamber, dragging Cally and Jenna along with him.

Blake looked down. Vila had given him a pot of Andromedan-style massage cream. Blake's teeth showed white against his beard as he grinned. "Come on," he said, arm wrapped around Avon's waist.

"Where?" Avon said, "And why?" He moved willingly. From his expression you would never have guessed how his stomach knotted at the thought of making love while others watched. Especially when he would not be able to see what they were doing. And even more when he considered Jenna's possible reaction to his 'theft' of the man she'd wanted from the first instant she'd seen him in the lock-up on Earth.

He hadn't noticed Blake then. - Liar. - Well, he hadn't much noticed Blake. - Liar.- Oh, all right, he had seen Blake, assessed the animal magnetism of the man, and then dismissed it in favor of survival. There were also other considerations, but it would not be wise to dwell on them now.

"Bed," Blake said, succinctly. "And if you can't figure out why, I am very disappointed in you."

"I'm disappointed in both of you," Jenna said bitterly.

Avon had been stretching his hand out to Blake. He snatched it back, his expression turned savage. "You, on the other hand, fulfill my expectations admirably. Take me to her," he snapped at Blake. "I have to talk to her."

"Avon..."

"Now! This must be settled, one way or the other."

Avon was determined. Jenna was furious. Blake was so hard it hurt, and even Jenna's dagger gaze did nothing to quiet his hunger. Avon was probably right, but couldn't it wait?

"Now, Blake!" Avon's head was up, anger giving him back the arrogance his blindness had taken. In that mood, he was irresistible to Blake.

"All right, all right." Blake took Avon's hand, and was surprised to feel the fingers tremble in his own. "It will be all right," he added, in an entirely different tone. He was rewarded by Avon's head-tilt and flash of grin, which was nice, but not what he really needed. He guided Avon to the others, who were sitting in an area they called the lounge, because it had large, soft hummocks scattered around.

"Are they all here?" Avon asked as Blake led him to a 'seat'.

"Where else would we be?" Jenna asked. "You don't think I'd stay to watch if I had any choice?"

"You might," Avon said. He waited, tense, but Jenna wasn't quite angry enough to claw out a blind man's eyes. He wished he could see her, to judge her reactions. He wished he could see any of them. He would have given every credit of the five hundred million he had once embezzled to see Blake's face, just once more.

"Avon," Cally began, hesitantly, "it is not easy for Jenna."

"And is it easy for me and Blake?"

"Yes," Jenna replied, firmly. "Blake is practically drooling. It's disgusting."

"No, it isn't," Vila said. When everyone who could, was staring at him, he said, "Not if they both want to, it isn't. Not to say I fancy either of you," Vila added, nervously as Jenna pulled away from him. "I only like women."

"Don't worry," Avon said easily, "you have never held any appeal for me, either."

"Why do you want Blake?" Jenna asked.

Avon threw his head back and laughed. "Answer it yourself. Why do you want Blake?"

Jenna replied, "Because he's brave, a true leader of men, kind, gentle, loyal and honest."

Avon snickered. "The last is more than I can say for you. Come now, isn't there a slight element of the physical in your desires?"

"I like curly hair."

"Oh, undoubtedly." Avon smiled. "Reason enough to risk your life piloting the most-wanted ship in the Federation." He reached out, and idly stroked along Blake's side, 'accidentally' running his fingers the length of Blake's cock.

Blake moaned helplessly and thrust into Avon's hand, before getting himself under control. "Please, Avon," he begged in a whisper.

The sight of Avon controlling Blake cut out all Jenna's censors. She snapped, "he has wonderful eyes, great lips, and he's hung like a horse."

"Ah." Avon nodded. "There we agree. You were looking in the London's showers, weren't you?"

"While you were trying to stab him in the back, I was always at his side, looking out for him," she blurted, "It isn't fair."

"Now we arrive at the heart of the matter. You feel that you have earned Blake and I have not. You resent me taking your 'possession', even though he could never be what you wanted."

"No! It's not that. I could have given him up to another woman."

"Yes. I recall how friendly you were with Avalon, and Tyce, and Blake's cousin, Inga. His 'kissing cousin'."

Jenna blushed. "I love him," she said, finally.

"I love you, too, Jenna," Blake said. He had continued to hold Avon's hand, and now he raised the fingers to his lips for a kiss, while he kept his eyes locked on Jenna's. "But I love Avon."

"Oh, that's cleared everything up," Avon said, eyes rolling in exasperation. "See here, Jenna. I have tried to be kind and gentle with you. It isn't me and it isn't working. I'll be blunt instead. You are being selfish, and sadistic. Blake is suffering, because of you."

This time, Jenna did lunge forward to claw. Blake dove in between, accepting the slice across his chest with no more than a grunt as he landed awkwardly, knocking the wind out of himself.

"Blake?" Avon's voice went high with concern.His hand went out, and came back wet. He sniffed the moisture. "Blake?" he said, sounding lost.

"It's all right, Avon. Only a scratch," Blake choked out. He gathered Avon to his chest. "It's all right, love," he murmured, rocking Avon, feeling shudders rack the slender body. Avon gasped, gasped again, and began crying. "Shh. It's all right," Blake repeated, pulling Avon onto his lap. Avon's distress had succeeded in cooling his ardor, and he was able to comfort without demanding. Avon's arms went around Blake's neck, and he hung on desperately.

"I thought- I thought you were dead," Avon mumbled indistinctly, shaking his head. He knuckled at his eyes, then pressed himself closer. "I can't stop." He gulped for air. "Sorry. It's just..."

"It's everything," Blake said.

 

Avon nodded.

"Let it out." Blake continued to stroke the back of Avon's neck, letting his fingers run through the coarse silk of Avon's hair. He bent his head, and let his own tears fall. Avon started in surprise as the drops fell, warm as summer rain, on his shoulder.

"You don't," - gulp- "have to keep me company," Avon got out through the sniffles, which were beginning to abate.

"I want to. I want to share everything with you." Blake tilted Avon's head back, and kissed away the other man's tears.

Jenna sat up from where Blake's shove had sent her and stared. "I'm sorry," she whispered at last, when Avon had cried himself out, and edged away from Blake, embarrassed by his emotional outburst. "I didn't understand, Avon. I thought you were just using Blake."

"I am," Avon stated, as firmly as he could, through a throat hoarse from weeping. "To put off dying a little longer. Vila obviously could not overcome his inhibitions, therefore, it was only logical for me..."

"Bull," Vila interrupted. "Look, Blake, why don't you take him to bed before he talks himself out of it." He picked up the massage cream and put it in Avon's hand. "Here, a wedding present."

Avon glared, which might have been impressive if not for the tear-tracks running down his cheeks.

Blake smiled at Vila and said, "Are you asking to kiss the bride?" He made a lip-smacking sound, and leaned forward.

Vila sputtered, "No, no. Not me." He backed up to the wall.

Avon pulled Blake back. "Don't give our hosts the wrong idea," he said sharply.

"Right, Avon," Blake said cheerfully. He'd heard jealousy in Avon's voice before, but this was the first time he'd heard it with himself as the object. "Good night," Blake said to Cally, Jenna and Vila, as he swooped on Avon, picking him up bodily, and began walking.

"Blake, what are you doing?" Avon yelled. He yelled, but he didn't fight.

"It's traditional. Carrying you over the threshold."

"I thought you were supposed to be the bride?"

"Picky, picky," Blake said, in a good-natured fashion as he deposited Avon on a pile of soft pillow-forms. Vila's luxuries were going to come in handy. Blake settled on top of Avon and began kissing him into submission, while his fingers fumbled with fastenings. He should have tried this long ago, he thought, as Avon's eager cooperation inflamed his senses. He heard a noise, and looked up to see that the rest of his crew had settled onto another 'bed' and were shucking their clothes.

He frowned. "Vila," he warned.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Vila said. "If you can't be good, be careful."

"You wouldn't know the meaning of the word 'good'," Jenna said. She felt a bit hesitant, but after all, she knew Vila better than some of the one-night stands she'd had as a free-trader. That sort of life made for fast romances and easy partings. She might regret this, but then again she really didn't want to be a wall-flower. Vila and Cally had stripped down to the buff while she was dithering. Cally was kissing Vila, while Vila's fingers were caressing her intimately.

He was an expert, judging by Cally's response. Oh, to hell with it. Jenna shucked her clothes and joined them. Vila was very clean, and smelled good enough to eat. So she did.

Blake was distracted. Avon noticed and dug his nails into Blake's backside. Blake yelped, and complained, "If I wasn't still dressed, that would have really hurt, Avon."

"If you weren't still dressed, I wouldn't have done it," Avon replied, as his hands soothed over the area in question. "I demand your undivided attention."

"Don't you always?"

"Of course. I'm not hard to please. I only want the best." Avon succeeded in opening Blake's trousers. He reached in, and explored his find by feel. "Hmmm."

"Well, what do you think?"

"Adequate," Avon said, a judicious expression on his face.

"Adequate! Why, I'll show you," Blake mock-growled, and proceeded to remove the rest of his clothing and then Avon's in record time.

"You had better." Avon stretched out, arching his back to rub himself against Blake. His cock bumped Blake's. He shut his eyes and groaned. With his eyes shut, he could pretend that he and Blake were back on the Liberator, that the last two months was only a nightmare.

Blake gasped, and helplessly thrust against Avon. He had hardly been touched, and he was already at the edge. "No, not yet. Not like this," he managed to say. He shook his head, and pulled back. "Wait, just wait." He fended off Avon's groping hands, and found the cream jar.

Avon heard it open and cocked his head to one side, considering. "Vila's gift?"

"We'll need it." Blake rubbed the cream between his hands, warming it. "We're rabbits, remember?" There was an edge to his voice. He began stroking it on Avon, hoping that Avon would misinterpret his hands trembling.

He might have gotten away with the hands, but not the evidence of his voice. Avon opened his eyes and sat up, bracing himself on one elbow. "What's that supposed to mean?" He firmly pushed Blake's hands away from his erection.

"Anal sex," Blake said shortly, letting his hands drop to his sides. He hadn't thought this would be so difficult, but now that they were down to it, he didn't think he could go through with it. Avon wouldn't mean to hurt him, he was sure of that. But it would hurt. And he would resent Avon for it. In time, he might come to hate Avon. Unless he spoke up now.

"So?" Avon was puzzled.

"Avon, I've never..." Blake trailed off, and looked away. That wasn't a very bright idea, as Vila and 'the girls' were getting on famously and the sight made his aching cock throb fiercely.

"What never? At your age?" Avon teased. When Blake did not reply, he asked, "Are you a virgin?"

"No. I've tried both sexes, including most of the standard variants."

"Then what's the problem?" Avon was getting shrill. If Blake didn't do something very soon, he was going to burst from sheer frustration.

"It's... well, I don't like it on the bottom." The 'don't like' came out a whisper.

"Astonishing. I would never have guessed." Avon swung his arm, intercepted Blake's still cream-laden hand and pulled it down, between his legs. "I've gotten used to serving under you. For once, I expect to enjoy it." He made a soft, pleased sound as Blake's fingers probed. "More," he demanded, and Blake was happy to oblige.

Blake kissed Avon again. The soft lips yielding under his were an astonishment to him every time. He had kissed men who made it a power-struggle, and others who wanted to be dominated, and rarely, those who played the game on a equal basis. No one had ever made him feel this way. He wanted to protect Avon, to fight the universe for him, and at the same time, he wanted Avon to hold him, and shield him from all evil. It was impossible, how could one man be both his protector and his dependent? He kissed along Avon's neck, then down to suck on the lovely pink nipple buds that sprang up through Avon's thicket of chest hair.

Avon kept his eyes shut. Suddenly, that bothered Blake. "Avon, look at me."

"I would if I could," Avon said. He shook his head. "Don't ask that, Blake. Anything else."

"Avon, I ..."

"No more talk." Avon grabbed a handful of hair, and pulled Blake down to his crotch.

Blake obeyed. He was tired of thinking, tired of worrying, tired of guilt and despair. Close to tired of living, until now. He sucked Avon's penis carefully, all too aware how close to flashpoint they both were. A hard object dug into his side as he shifted. He almost threw it away in irritation, but the contours were familiar. He took another handful of cream.

Avon slid his legs apart, inviting. He groaned as one finger was followed by another and then a third. He responded to Blake's urging, rolling over to hands and knees. He rocked back and forth, faster and harder as his arse muscles loosened. It had been a very long time, years before An... no, he would not spoil the moment. Guilt was Blake's forte. "Is this ...Ah!... how the rabbits do it?"

"Almost," Blake said, gnawing on his lower lip to maintain his concentration.

"Get on with it!" Fingers were nice, but Avon wanted a more formidable chunk of Blake. And he wanted it now.

"Are you sure you're ready?" They'd spent more time talking than in foreplay, and Avon was still tight. Deliciously, wantonly snug around Blake's fingers.

"I don't care!" Avon shoved his arse up in the air. "Now or never."

Blake pulled out his fingers, and hastily greased himself. Avon froze in anticipation, legs spread as wide as possible, back arched to allow the deepest penetration. He was obviously no virgin, Blake told himself, as he lined up and thrust, hard. He hadn't meant to, but the first wet kiss of his cocktip against the smooth silk of inner Avon was just irresistible.

"Ahh!" Avon yelped, and lurched forward, then shook his head and leaned back into the continuing thrusts. He had worked hard to get Blake to this state. He wasn't going to spend another minute fighting Blake's ridiculous sainthood complex. Not when he wanted the devil that lurked beneath the angel's robes. The devil had a lovely thick pitchfork, hot and slippery as sin. He took several deep breaths, then deliberately fell to his elbows, making the angle of attack even more acute and the friction and pressure that much greater.

"Avon!" Blake's big hands fastened around his lover's waist, holding him immobile. The volcanic heat around his trapped cock was incredible. Avon's arse muscles clenched, and he shoved harder, forcing himself in up to his balls, rubbing them against satin-soft skin. It was agony, and it was wonderful. Faster, harder, deeper. He levered Avon's arse even higher, wrapping his arms around Avon's slender waist. The neck was a temptation, just before his mouth as he crouched closer, trying to merge totally with Avon. The fleeting thought struck him that the aliens expected that merging. Then he bit, pinching hard but not quite breaking the skin. There would be a bruise though, a mark of Blake's ownership. The thought thrilled him. Avon was his. His to fuck. His to protect. His to love.

Underneath Blake, Avon was enjoying his own fantasy. He had gotten the thick, stubborn bastard right where he wanted him, and it was unbelievably satisfying. The huge bulge that forced its way up his backside sent him into convulsions of pure ecstasy and it wasn't just the pressure against his prostate, or the friction between his cheeks. The weight on top of him belonged to the idealistic, moralistic saviour of the masses, who drove him mad with his earthy sensuality combined with the most infuriating naivete. If he'd known Blake could hump like this, he would have seduced him on the London. He cried out, and tried frantically to reach his own swollen organ, but it was impossible in this position. Blake controlled him. He could do nothing the other man did not permit. That very constraint was exciting. He moved as Blake commanded, thrilling to the broken sounds of pleasure that came from the broad chest above him.

Dimly, despite the shivering lightning strokes traveling from his cock and balls, Blake sensed something of Avon's struggle. One clenched hand loosened from a taut-muscled, trembling thigh, reaching around to the straining genitals beneath. Avon's balls were hairier than his,he noted, and the cock more slender. He touched the shaft, wrapped his hand around the head and squeezed once, testing the response. It was all he could have asked, as Avon made a high-pitched noise and fought to lift his shoulders, to free his hands.

"No," Blake growled. "You're mine." He put both hands to work on the slippery shaft, pumping hard. Avon squealed and bucked. Blake set one hand to rolling the tender balls within their sac, then yanked down firmly.

That was it for Avon. He let loose a wail like a lost soul, and spasmed, every limb jerking as he convulsed in orgasm. His cock leapt like a trapped animal in Blake's hand, spurting fluid in gouts through Blake's fingers. His arse contracted at the same instant.

Blake screamed, pulled Avon back onto his cock and let go. Filling Avon with his seed, he thrust and came, thrust and came, and came until he was drained dry. He lay panting atop his lover, exhausted in mind and body for what seemed like hours. He wanted to stay like that forever, linked to Avon beyond separation by any force. But his penis shriveled and slipped out as Avon lay gasping underneath him. He rolled to his side, pulling Avon with him, then lifted a trembling hand to pet Avon's face.

The dark eyes opened. Avon was covered with sweat, and he'd bitten his lips somewhere along the way. He said nothing, but snuggled close to Blake.

"Are you all right?" It had been wild. He'd paid no attention to Avon's needs or desires. And Avon was not the man he'd been, the one who could work on computers for days on end and still have the stamina to fight all comers. This Avon was fragile, delicate in mind and body. Vulnerable. "Are you all right?" he asked again, becoming worried. Had he made Avon's brain injury worse, was he going into a coma or becoming catatonic?

Avon yawned, loudly, with jaw-cracking noises. He lifted a hand, ran it through his hair, then reached out to pat Blake's beard and catch his fingers in the tangles. He tugged, gently. "Don't be tiresome."

"Avon?" Blake persisted. Even this new Avon might prefer to suffer in silence.

"Oh, all right. My arse is sore, and I'm bruised all over." He yawned again. "You were right."

"I was?"

"We could have used more foreplay." Avon wriggled even closer, and gave Blake's chest a few licks, then deposited a kiss right over Blake's heart. "Next time," he said, before shutting his eyes once more.

"We don't have to do it again, you know. Once was enough to satisfy the Andromedans."

" It's not enough to satisfy me. Besides, you need practice." Avon turned on his side, and began snoring.

"Faker," Blake muttered into Avon's ear. Avon's lips curled the least bit, but he did not move. Blake pulled Avon back snug against his body, heaved a vast sigh of contentment, and followed Avon into sleep.

***

"Now, look, I've done what I could," Del Tarrant said, exasperated. "It's impossible. Let me just take Liberator and I'll put you off anywhere you like."

"That is not acceptable," returned the dry, superior voice that Tarrant was beginning to hear in his sleep. Whenever it let him sleep, which wasn't very often. "I have my orders."

"Which you've complained about often enough. 'Do something. Save us'. Do what, save them how ? You refuse to even answer me if I leave out a comma, but you're willing to drag this ship into another galaxy for that?"

"There are also the instructions given to Zen to follow their teleport signals, and teleport them once within range."

Tarrant ran a hand through his hair in frustration. Arguing with this machine was driving him mad. "The teleport locator signals stopped two months ago. You have us chasing nothing, into nothing, for nothing."

"Negative. Extrapolation is not nothing."

"I call it guessing."

"I do not guess. If you have nothing better to do than insult me, you are not working hard enough."

Tarrant threw down the laser probe he'd been using, under Orac's guidance. "I quit."

"You do not," Orac said, firmly.

Behind him, Tarrant felt the swirl of energy as Liberator's internal defense system began powering up. "Go ahead, kill me! Better that than dying of old age in this insane hunt of yours." Despite his proud words, he felt the blood rush from his head, vividly remembering the twisted corpses of the elite killer squad who had fallen prey to the defense system. That had been his first little chore for Orac; venting the bodies into space. If he hadn't knifed one himself, he would have joined them. But Orac needed hands and Del Tarrant, former mercenary, former Federation pilot, former free agent, had become a slave to a sneering, sniping box of lights. He'd have gladly smashed it with a spanner, but it demonstrated its personal electric field the first time he approached it.

"The defense system can be modified," Orac said, in a particularly nasty tone. "Certain areas of the brain may be targeted. The effect would be similar to an old-fashioned prefrontal lobotomy. There would be some concomitant loss of dexterity and intelligence, however the gain in obedience might be enough to offset those losses. The equation is a complex one. Shall I continue?"

Tarrant's mouth went dry. The little monster would do it, too. "No," he whispered.

"Return to work, then."

Defeated, Tarrant picked up the laser probe. "I bet you'd didn't treat your precious Kerr Avon like this," he muttered as he began picking at the fused circuits of 'Avon's Anti-Detector Shield'- he could almost hear the capital letters when Orac said it. Since it wasn't an original part of the ship, the self-repair system couldn't fix it; didn't even acknowledge its existence. He knew how it felt. Nothing around here acknowledged Tarrant's existence, except Orac, and that only in the form of orders, and complaints, and occasional helpful remarks about how much better and faster Avon would have done the work.

He was beginning to hate Kerr Avon for that alone. Roj Blake and Jenna Stannis came back to haunt him from time to time, in their roles as leader and pilot, but Orac didn't harp on their wonderfulness the way it did Avon. "Man must be a stuck-up snob," he said to himself as he worked. "Bet he and Orac make a pair." He resented having to use Avon's tools to fix Avon's invention under the command of Avon's pet. If he ever laid his hands on Avon himself, there'd be a reckoning.

Of course, his own greed was to blame for part of the mess. When Liberator responded to a distress call, he thought it was one of the crew returning. Since he needed one of them to transfer voice command to him, he let the life-pod dock. Even when Klegg's men brought the little computer to the flight deck, he hadn't suspected anything. It looked like a valuable item, and it seemed more cooperative than Zen, which pretended they weren't even there.

How was he to guess it had an agenda of its own?

He fitted another arcane bit into the spot where Orac thought it might go. Maybe. It seems Avon hadn't consulted Orac when he designed his marvel, and Orac hadn't been interested at the time. So he kept sticking bits in, turning the thing on, and watching the sparks fly. Then he had the inexpressible joy of locating new parts to start over again. It had been a long two months. There, that was the last of the current bunch. He checked the parts tray to be certain. Yes, nothing left over. "Here goes nothing," he said, and flipped the switch with a burn-callused hand, leaping back the instant it made contact.

"Congratulations, Tarrant."

Tarrant blinked. No smoke, no sparks. "Is it working?"

"Nominally. Of course, the efficiency of the unit is not as great as Avon..."

"Yes, I know. He walks on water."

"That statement is not accurate. Kerr Avon is a bipedal humanoid, not suited for an aquatic existence."

"Could have fooled me. What next, Orac?"

"You may eat and rest now. I will call you when you are required."

Tarrant turned aside, then paused. "Required for what? Orac?"

"Rescuing the crew of the Liberator. You will teleport aboard the Andromedan vessel with a supply of teleport bracelets for them. "

"By myself?" His voice rose. He took a deep breath and got himself under control. "Look, I know you want them back, but has it occurred to you that they would rather die than chance givingLiberator to the Andromedans?"

"No." The computer stopped replying to him then, carrying on one of its inaudible conversations with Zen. The ship changed course, and accelerated. With gravity compensators and inertial dampers, you weren't supposed to be able to tell, but any pilot could feel it in the gut.

"I'll make a bargain with you, Orac."

"No bargain. You will do as you are told."

"And when you get your crew back, what happens to me? If I'm going to risk my neck for them, I want some assurances that I won't be tossed out in space without a suit."

"That is most unlikely. It would be entirely against Blake's character."

"And what if he's dead and someone else is in charge? Would your precious Avon think kindly of an ex-Federation officer? Would Jenna Stannis say, 'sure, you can pilot my ship'?"

Orac was silent for several seconds. Then it replied, "Very well. I will inform them that their rescue would have been impossible without your assistance."

"That should be obvious, but gratitude isn't enough, Orac."

Orac made a grumbling noise. "What guarantee of your safety do you require?"

"I want one of those guns." Tarrant pointed at the half-full rack of Liberator hand-guns.They were off-limits, too hot to touch, no doubt part of the Liberator security system.

"That is out of the question."

"I might need it to defend them from the aliens, did you consider that? What if they're separated, and I have to run around dodging creatures looking for them?"

"Agreed."

That was too easy,Tarrant thought, wondering if he had been manipulated. Still, if he had a gun, they would at least have to listen to his side of the story. Provided, of course, that this rescue came off. He left the flight deck, still wondering. At least the end was in sight. At this point any sort of action was appealing.Even a suicide run against alien beings in order to rescue a group of rebels who would probably kill him. Hmm. Well, maybe appealing was the wrong word. He sighed and headed for what might be his last meal.

"Are you certain we aren't registering on their detectors?" Tarrant swallowed nervously. A clean space-battle was one thing, but this had him on edge. They were pacing an alien craft, which Orac swore was the right one. The computer also said it had reason to believe human beings were within one particular compartment and promised it could teleport him directly into that compartment. He wasn't so sure. Orac didn't exactly lie, but it only told what it felt was important.

"For the fifth time. 'Yes, I am certain the Liberator is not registering on the Andromedan craft's detectors'."

"They could be lying doggo to give us a false sense of security. After all, Avon's device was intended to work against Federation ships. Who knows what sort of detectors they have?"

"It is immaterial. The Anti-Detector does not act on other vessels. It masks the Liberator's emissions in all frequency ranges, by sending out canceling emissions of exactly opposite composition. No one can detect us."

Reluctantly, Tarrant rose, and strapped on a Liberator hand-gun. He toyed with the idea of blasting Orac into slag, but that wouldn't give him control over Zen. Besides, he didn't like the idea of leaving any humans captive by aliens. Even Kerr Avon. Gingerly, he picked up Orac and went to the teleport chamber, depositing it on the console as it directed.

He snapped a teleport bracelet on his wrist, and stowed another half dozen away in a carry-bag tied to his belt. He drew the gun. Then he drew a deep breath. "All right, Orac. I'm ready. Teleport, now!"

It was a strange sensation, tingling all over his body, vaguely reminiscent of a mild electrical shock. But not exactly. His heart racing, he whirled around, surveying the area, as soon as his body obeyed him. "Well, I'll be damned," he said, pleasantly surprised. "The plastic bastard was right." He opened the bag of teleport bracelets and headed for the nearest prone body, shaking a shoulder roughly. "Wake up!"

"Wha?" Vila looked up and screeched. He was naked, helpless and a tall, curly-haired apparition in Federation black was bending over him, grinning. It was one of his oldest nightmares, brought to life.

"Shut up!" Tarrant tried frantically to silence Vila with a hand over the mouth and found himself disarmed and tumbled to the soft deck, ending up with a pair of naked Amazons standing over him, glaring, one blonde, one dark and curly. He would have appreciated the sight under other circumstances. "Wait! I'm here to rescue you! Orac sent me." He waved his teleport-braceleted arm for emphasis.

The women caught on faster than Vila. Jenna snatched the bag of bracelets, snapping one on, then tossed one to Cally. Vila blinked and grabbed as one sailed his way. "Blake!" Jenna yelled, seeing an opening beginning to form in the far wall. There was no time for finesse. She tossed the bag to a still groggy Blake.

Groggy or not, Blake had his priorities right. Without sparing a glance at the stranger, he clipped a bracelet on Avon's wrist, then the last one on his own. "Teleport! Teleport, dammit!" he shouted, as an Andromedan poured through the half-size opening, forming slicing tentacles as it came.

Cally had gotten the gun, but hadn't time to fire before the familiar feeling of an emergency teleport recall swept through her. She blinked, and found herself back on the Liberator, surrounded by the others, who appeared just as dazed as she was.

Avon in particular was bewildered. He had been sleeping, then there was shouting. He could have sworn one of the voices belonged to a man, but not Blake or Vila. That was impossible, unless....one of his nightmares was going insane. Stress, an untreated brain injury- oh, he had reason to doubt his reason. Not least of all, the emotional display he had put on last night. "Blake?" Avon said, hesitantly. His hand went out, to find Blake's.

Blake pulled Avon to his feet. "It's all right. We're back. We're on Liberator!"

Avon's lips moved silently, his eyes wide and confused. "No," he whispered.

"Yes!" Blake grabbed Avon by the shoulders, kissed him swiftly, danced him around in a half circle, and then deposited him on the teleport console couch.

"We haven't time for this," Tarrant spoke up. He wasn't quite successful at suppressing the disgust in his voice. While he'd been slaving to rescue them, the rebels had been having themselves an orgy. Not a stitch on any of them, and it was quite apparent what Blake and Avon had been up to. So much for the higher morality of the 'cause'.

Blake stepped forward, head up and fists raised. "And who are you?" he asked, with the obvious implication that Tarrant had no right to open his mouth on Blake's ship.

"I'm Del Tarrant, former Federation officer; the man who's just saved your sorry arses. But if we don't get to the flight deck, there won't be anybody left to write our obituaries."

"He's right, Blake." Jenna took off like a guided missile, with Cally only a step behind.

"Vila!" Cally shouted as she ran. Vila shook himself, gave up on thinking, and followed the women.

Blake stood for an instant longer, then nodded. "Go on. Avon and I will follow."

 

Tarrant left, tossing over his shoulder, "Hurry!"

"Go!" Avon said, pushing at Blake, refusing to accept his guidance. He knew how long it took to reach the flight deck at a dead run. Dragging blind baggage along, Blake would arrive too late to do anything.

"I can't leave you here alone."

Avon's face was grim. "I see sex rots your brain. I don't need you now and I don't want you. Go!" Avon pushed hard. "Don't you see? I let you fuck me because it was that or vivisection. I'll do anything to survive, even degrade myself with you."

Blake was stunned. This was the old Avon at his worst. Had Blake been wrong about him? "All right, I'll go. But you stay put, it could get rough."

"Go!" Avon shouted, fists clenched. Would they die because he had forgotten the rules of survival? Trust is weakness, love is deadly, combining the two is suicide. He listened as Blake's footsteps left, hesitantly for the first two strides, then the rhythm he knew so well. Finally. Blake would save them. Somehow. Despite his better judgment, Avon did trust Blake. He felt along the top of the console, grunting in satisfaction as his fingers came across a familiar cool, hard, sharp-cornered shape.

"Orac, is it you?" Lacking one sense, he required confirmation. He hated himself for asking for it, though.

"Yes, of course it is me. Really, Avon, that is the sort of comment I had expected from Vila."

"I apologize. Perhaps the brain damage is more severe than I had thought."

"Brain damage?"

Avon could have sworn the machine sounded upset. Anthropomorphosizing a computer. How juvenile. As juvenile as falling in love with a large-hearted rebel with no common sense? "I am blind, Orac. Do you understand the word?" He said savagely, "It means: deprived of the sense of sight, useless, helpless. A burden to others and myself." He pounded a fist into the console beside the computer.

"That definition is not correct."

"Oh? Tell me, Orac, what use is a blind man in Blake's rebellion?"

The computer hummed, and buzzed, but did not reply. Avon folded his arms on top of the computer and rested his head on them. "I thought so," he muttered.

Blake arrived on the flight deck seconds after Tarrant. He noted in passing that the young man had the sense to move to one side, out of the way. Since Zen would not respond to him, he could do nothing. Jenna had already called up the view of the Andromedan ship. It was small, seen from the Liberator, and should pose no real threat once they were in position to fight. He looked at the alien. It would be so easy to destroy them, to wipe out the shame of being treated like experimental animals, to ease the pain Avon's rejection had caused him.

"Information," boomed Zen. "Liberator is under attack."

The alien fired its weapons, but in the wrong direction. Apparently, the anti-detector shield was holding up. But they would be bound to strike eventually. The ship fired again, at right angles to the previous shot. Another miss, but closer.

"Blake?" Vila asked, hand hovering above the Neutron Blaster firing mechanism.

"Not just yet." Blake shook his head, gnawing on his thumb while he thought.

"We can't let them go," Jenna said, guessing that Blake was having an attack of mercy. "They could call for reinforcements. We're a lot closer to their space than we are to our own."

"I know. It just seems wrong, somehow. The whole war was based on greed and misunderstanding. They were only defending themselves from a perceived threat."

"Are you going to sit there and feel sorry for them?" Tarrant asked, astonished. "They wiped out three-quarters of the Federation fleet; they would have exterminated the human race; they killed my crew!"

"And this one ship, out of all of them, suspects the truth, and could prevent another war, if they had proof."

"Another war in two thousand years!" Jenna protested. Blake's eyes had that martyr gleam again. "Who cares what happens then?"

Cally said, "People do not change. In two thousand years, another Jenna might watch another Blake die in that war." Another shot; another miss. It was wearing on the nerves, watching the bolts appear and explode in space.

"Maybe your great-great-great-great-grand-daughter," Vila said. "Or is that enough greats?"

"Too many," Jenna muttered. She'd seen Blake's performance with Avon and written him off. Lust she could compete with, but it couldn't have been more apparent that Blake loved Avon if he'd had it tattooed on his forehead in scarlet letters an inch high. She gave Tarrant a sideways glance. Too thin, too young, but maybe- in time.

"Orac," Blake said, suddenly. He hit the communicator button that connected with the teleport chamber. "Orac?"

"Yes, what is it?" The computer hadn't learned any manners while they were gone.

"You have access to the complete Federation vid-library, haven't you?" Blake demanded. Without waiting for Orac's sulky agreement, he said, "I want you to locate one particular vid- an old health-care demonstration. The kind they show at creche-schools. It's narrated by a man wearing a white lab coat, and it demonstrates disinfection by using a chemical on microscope slides of blue-green microbes."

"There are some five thousand such vids. Do you wish me to download all of them?" Liberator shook as one lucky shot came close enough for the shock waves to affect her.

"Can we narrow it down? Vila and Avon were unconscious, but you and Cally saw it too," Blake said, appealing to Jenna.

She shook her head, "I don't remember much. Just that the man was pedantic, had blue eyes, gray hair, and a little mole on the left side of his chin."

"That reduces the number to two hundred," Orac informed them.

Vila said, "Billions. That's what he said, 'Billions, billions of the invisible enemy, killed with but a single drop'."

They all stared at Vila. "You were unconscious," Cally said.

"Then maybe I dreamed it. Gave me a nightmare, thinking about billions of invisible enemies. Got enough trouble with the enemies I can see."

"I think he's right," Jenna said.

"Orac, did you get that?" Blake asked.

"Yes, yes. I have located a vid answering that description. What shall I do with it?"

Tarrant was tempted to answer, but Orac hadn't any orifices, or sense of humor.

"Transmit it to the alien ship, the entire vid. Put it in as many different formats as possible. I want them to be able to translate it," Blake said, clinging to a console as the closest miss of all nearly shaved off a nacelle.

There was another shot. The alien ship was getting closer all the time. Blake said, "Zen, drop the Neutron Flare Shield, and clear the blasters for firing." He pointed at Vila, and said, "wait for the order."

The alien ship turned and resumed its original course, rapidly dwindling to a bright speck.

"I guess they got the message," Vila said. He gave Cally a weak grin. "They could have said 'thank you'."

"Why should they?" Jenna replied, "People don't. We're going home now, right, Blake?"

"Absolutely. We still have a revolution to run and lots of lost time to catch up on."

Jenna turned Liberator toward human space. "Zen, standard by seven," she ordered. She closed her eyes for a second in relief, then opened them, wide. "Er, Blake? Can I put it on automatics and go to my cabin?"

"Why? I thought you'd be glad to be piloting Liberator again."

"Oh, I am," she answered fervently. "But I'm getting a bit chilly."

Blake laughed. They had gotten a little too used to nudity, if they could carry on a space battle without noticing. "I could use a change, myself." He looked doubtful. "I don't think they'll come back, but there might be other stragglers."

Tarrant stepped forward eagerly. He said, "I can handle her. I've been studying the systems. Orac would allow that much."

"So you're a pilot. How good?" Jenna asked, changing her mind about the young man's potential. Two pilots in bed was always a disaster; never can decide who's in charge.

"Very good. Graduated third in my class at the FSA."

"Big deal," Vila grumbled. Tarrant smiled too much, and was too tall, and too likely to impress the women. Just when Vila was finally getting somewhere. That was life for you.

"I can't see you doing any harm," Blake said. "We're a long way out." He glanced at Cally and Jenna, got no dissent, and said, "Tarrant, say hello to Zen."

Tarrant gave Blake a blinding grin. "You won't regret it, Blake. Hello, Zen, this is Del Tarrant. You remember me, I'm the fellow you've been ignoring for months."

"Zen, you will obey Tarrant's orders with these restrictions- he is not to make major course changes without consent from another crew member, and he is not to communicate outside the ship."

"Confirmed," Zen said. "Welcome, Del Tarrant."

"Better late than never," Del said. He stepped forward, politely moving aside to allow Jenna to slide past as he took over the controls. He gave her an appreciative glance, but his grin widened as he locked his hands onto the controls. He gave a small sigh of pleasure, and stroked the console lightly with his fingertips.

Jenna smiled. "He's a pilot, all right," she said, heading for the exit. "Just remember, FSA boy, Liberator is my ship. Treat her right."
"Welcome aboard Liberator, Tarrant," Cally said, politely. "I hope we will become friends."

"So do I," Tarrant replied, blushing as he saw how she might have misinterpreted his remark. She shook her head, smiled, and left.
"Well, I don't think I care much for you," Vila said, coming close to give Tarrant a dirty look. "Or your clothes."

Tarrant replied, "You'll have to talk to Orac about that. It wouldn't give me access to anything else."

"Bless your little Tarriel Cells," Vila muttered, remembering that the 'treasure room' was right down the corridor from the 'wardrobe'.

"Orac? Avon! Gods, I've forgotten all about him!" Blake took off down the corridor at a run.

Tarrant looked at Vila. Vila looked at Tarrant and said,"Don't ask. Either they hate each other, or they love each other. The only sure thing is that they'll kill anyone who gets between them."

"Won't be me," Tarrant said. "Not with those two women on board."

Vila made a rude noise. "I think I'll just go see if Cally needs help."

"Sure," Tarrant said, to Vila's retreating back. "Tell her to meet me when I get off watch."

Vila didn't bother to answer that. He felt scruffy and Delta enough under normal circumstances, what with Avon around, now he had another flashy Alpha to compete with. Speaking of Avon, he had better go see if Blake needed help. Cally could handle herself. He sighed. She could also handle him, anytime. But later would be better, when he'd had a chance to clean up, and eat some real human food, and put on some nice, bright, cheerful clothes to make him forget the blue-eyed wonder glittering all over the flight deck. He even looked good in Federation black, the lousy sod.

Vila passed his room on the way to the teleport chamber, wrestled with his conscience and won. To his regret. There was a nice, hot shower in there, not to mention clean clothes and several bottles of liquid comfort. He did step in just long enough to snatch a couple of robes , tugging one on as he headed for the teleport chamber.

Avon wasn't there, but Blake was. He was shouting at Orac, which was protesting that Avon was not his responsibility. "No!" Vila yelled, grabbing Blake's arm when it looked like he was going to practice the caber toss with the computer. "Avon won't thank you for breaking his toy," he said, holding out one of the robes as a peace offering.

Blake dropped Orac onto the teleport console, accepting the robe absently. He didn't seem to notice how tight it was, or Vila helpfully tying the sash about his middle. "He won't thank me for anything. Vila, he was... he was upset when I left him. I'm worried."

"Worried about Avon? What could..." Vila grimaced. "Sorry." It was hard to think of Avon as helpless, here on Liberator. Everything was as if they had never left, and he found himself thinking of the last two months as a dream. But Avon was really blind, and really wandering around the Liberator on his own. There were short flights of stairs scattered around in all sorts of unexpected places, radiation areas, moving machinery, even disposal shafts vented into space. A blind man could really get hurt, maybe even killed.

"Blake?" Cally's voice over the intra-ship announcer.

"Yes?" Blake beat Vila to the announcer button by five strides, although he was further away. "Have you found Avon? Is he all right?"

"Yes, he's here, with me in the med-unit. I found him in the corridor outside the living quarters, by himself," she said, scolding. "I think you ought to come and talk to him."

In the background, they could hear Avon saying, "I don't want to talk to him."

"I'll be right there," Blake said, grimly. "Don't let him leave."

"Bring Orac," Cally said.

"Right."

Vila had to trot to keep up with Blake, even though Blake was carrying Orac. "What's the matter? Why's Avon running away from you? You two are..." Blake looked at Vila. Vila faltered and then forged on, "well, anyway, I don't see when you had time to have a fight with him. We just got here."

Blake strode faster. Vila gave up on speech, not having breath enough for that and running, too.

"Avon!" Blake did a good impression of bursting through the med-unit door, which slid open for him as usual. "What are you playing at? Do you have any idea how worried I was?"

Wrapped in a thin, disposable robe, Avon was sitting calmly on a medical couch. His face hardened as Blake spoke. "Your bleeding-heart stupidity is not my concern. Just give Orac to Cally and get out."

"No." Blake set the computer down with a thump beside Avon. "If you hate me, that's your business, but I am still the leader here, and you are a valuable crewmember. I'm staying until I hear Orac's report on your physical condition."

Avon's mouth twisted at the word 'valuable'. If Blake hadn't been so angry, he might have made a connection between that and Avon's behavior.

"I brought you a robe," Vila said, hoping to appease. Avon took it, but refused Vila's aid. He fumbled for a moment, before identifying the arm-holes and getting it on over the disposable robe. It wound up inside out. Vila saw Avon realize it, become angry, and then set his jaw to ignore it. Vila looked at Blake and shrugged. "No thanks necessary." Avon ignored that too.

Cally came up behind Avon, holding a med-scanner. She was also wearing one of the disposable robes. On her, it was almost enough coverage. "Lie down, Avon. I want Orac to run a complete scan on you."

Avon showed his teeth. "Not with Blake here."

"I may need his help," Cally said, mildly.

"What can he do? Hold my hand?"

"Why not?" Blake said, "Even you could use a bit of human contact."

"I already have had my fill of that," Avon snapped. He started to slide off the medical table. "Perhaps I will come back later, when the spectators leave."

"Then I'll damn well hold you down. Avon," Blake's voice rose, "please."

Avon stopped as if he'd hit a wall. His head came up. "Well, now, I didn't know that word was in your 'fearless leader' vocabulary."

"It's not. But it's in my 'friend' vocabulary. Will you allow me that much?"

Avon tilted his head to one side, for a long moment. Then he sighed, and lay down on the couch. "Just get it over with." His hands clenched into fists at his sides. He had hoped to do this without Blake present. Whatever the prognosis, their relationship was over, but he had wanted time to himself to assimilate that fact. If he was to remain blind, he would have Orac provide a new identity and he would begin a new life, on some planet as far removed from Blake's rebellion as possible. If he was to regain his sight, he still could not continue as Blake's lover. It would be too dangerous for both of them. Particularly for Blake. That had been driven home by Blake's first actions on returning to Liberator. Once the ship would have been his first consideration, and any of the crew expendable, if necessary. While Avon refused to consider himself in that category, he understood quite clearly that Blake must. He had allowed himself to let down his guard because he thought they were all going to die at any moment, and this was the result. Of course, if he hadn't then the Andromedans would have killed them all. He sighed again, and waited for Orac's prognosis.

"There is some minor bruising on the torso, particularly in the lower regions and..."

"I know about that," Avon grated. "Concentrate on the head injury, Orac, and omit the 'minor' matters."

Vila cleared his throat. It was either that or laugh, and he didn't think Avon would appreciate him laughing.

Blake said, "Haven't you something to do, Vila? Elsewhere?"

Vila shook his head, and added, out loud, for Avon's benefit, "No."

"By all means, let him stay. Perhaps you ought to sell tickets."

"Avon." Blake was totally exasperated.

Orac was too. "May I continue? Unlike Vila, I do have other things to do with my time."

"Continue, Orac," Cally said.

"There is evidence of a partially healed skull fracture. Minute fragments of bone have intruded into the Occipital Lobe, causing disruption in the function controlled by that area of the brain. An operation to remove the foreign matter may restore full function."

"You mean, he could see again?" Vila blurted out, while the others were digesting Orac's statement.

"It is possible."

"How possible?" Avon asked. "I would like the odds."

"I cannot provide them. It would depend on too many variables subject to human frailty; the skill of the surgeon, your own recuperative and regenerative abilities, and idiosyncratic response to required medication are the main factors which cannot be assessed ahead of time. There is also a small, but very real, chance of physician error worsening the patient's condition."

"How much worse can it get? I'm blind, Orac," Avon said harshly.

"The damaged area borders on the Cerebellum, which controls balance and coordination. It is possible that motor functions could be severely impaired."

Avon had a mental image of himself, blind and lurching crab-wise as street urchins flung muck and epithets at the pitiful cripple. He shuddered. A large, warm hand clasped his shoulder and squeezed once in reassurance, before releasing him.

Blake said, "We'll get the finest neurosurgeon."

"Like we did for Gan?" Avon sat up. "We all almost died that time."

"I learn from my mistakes, Avon," Blake replied.

"I haven't seen any signs of that." Avon got off the table, holding one hand on the edge to steady himself. "At any rate, there isn't a neurosurgeon in the room, so unless Vila would care to try his skilled hands at another line of work..."

"Not funny, Avon," Vila protested.

"There's nothing funny about any of this," Avon replied. "I believe I will go to my cabin, now, unless there is some urgent chore I could do for you, Blake? Reprogram Zen, perhaps?"

Cally said, "Wait a moment.Orac, is there anything we can do to improve Avon's chances before his operation? Any therapy or treatment? Is there any physical activity he should avoid?"

Avon glared in Cally's general direction.

"He is slightly under-nourished, but a normally balanced diet is all that is indicated. He should avoid any activity likely to result in pressure to the skull."

"Headstands are out, then," Vila said. "And football."

Ignoring Vila, Orac continued, "It might be wise also to avoid the activity which resulted in the previously noted bruising to the torso, on the assumption that cranial involvement may occur."

"Cranial involvement has already occurred," Avon said, "Which is why that activity is not on my calendar."

"Not until after you're healed, anyway," Blake added, trying to joke.

Avon turned slowly to face Blake's voice. "Perhaps I am not speaking clearly. In words of one syllable, then; I do not want to have sex with you. Unless, of course, that is your price for locating and persuading the physician to operate."

Blake looked grim. "You're not a whore, Avon. But you are a liar." He turned to Vila. "Take Avon to his room. I'll be in my cabin if anyone needs me." He left, abruptly.

"That was unkind," Cally noted. "Blake loves you."

"Does he? Or does he simply have a romantic fixation on the helpless? He wouldn't spare two minutes considering my feelings when I could look him in the eyes." Avon jerked his head, sideways. "No. I will not discuss my feelings with any of you. Even if I had any to discuss, which I do not. I admit that under stress I may have behaved less than sensibly, but that is no excuse for Blake to imagine an emotional commitment on my part. Vila!" He held out his hand, imperiously.

"Oh, all right," Vila said, extending his arm and placing Avon's hand on it for guidance. "I still think you're being too hard on Blake."

"Even a blind man has the right to choose his sex-partners."

"But..." Vila gave up. He could argue till he was blue in the face, and not change Avon's mind. Blake loved Avon and last night Vila would have bet everything he owned that Avon loved Blake. He still thought so, but when Avon was being pig-headed, there was no getting around it. "Let's go to your cabin, shall we?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Avon said, lasciviously.

"Oh, turn it off," Vila replied. "I'm too tired to fight Blake for you." He led Avon to his room, watched long enough to make sure the blind man could find his way to the facilities without tripping over anything, then left. "Didn't we have enough trouble?" he said, looking up to beseech an uncaring universe. "I suppose not." He grimaced, thinking of the long weeks to be spent with a blind and irritable Avon, a love-sick and irritable Blake, and a woman-stealing and irritating Tarrant. It was enough to drive a man to drink.

***

"Avon, you are a right bastard," Blake grumbled to himself, his thoughts spoiling the luxury of a shave, and a real shower, with hot water, soap and shampoo. They could have been enjoying it together, if Avon wasn't so contrary. Why should Avon accept him so eagerly one moment, then try to rip out his throat the next? The instant he realized they were on Liberator, everything changed. Blake paused, water running down his matted curls, shampoo bubbles running into his eyes. Everything changed back to the way it was. Avon expected Blake to push him aside, forget their love in order to pursue the rebellion. But being Avon, he preferred to push first.

It needn't be that way. They could fight the Federation and still be lovers, couldn't they? He grimaced as he recalled Jenna saying much the same thing and him putting her off, without directly refusing her, with a speech about involvement causing dangerous stress among the crew. He should have just come out and told her he had absolutely no sexual interest in women. But he had been afraid; the old prejudices against 'his kind' remained, even among otherwise cultured and civilized people. Would Jenna follow him if she knew? Would Vila? And he'd been sick at the thought that she might tell Avon. What that wicked tongue could do with such ammunition didn't bear thinking about. Then a blind and vulnerable Avon smiled at him, and he completely lost his mind, and told him the secret he'd kept from Federation interrogators, from his fellow freedom-fighters, even from his family. He was now well and truly out of the closet, and all for the sake of a one-night stand.

"And you'd do it again, wouldn't you?" Blake said ruefully. He clamped down firmly on his imagination, with the skill of two and a half years of practice (ever since meeting the bastard in question aboard the London ) and continued bathing. "I'll get you yet, Avon, even if I have to seduce you with flowers and chocolates." He grinned suddenly. "Why not?"

In his own quarters, Avon enjoyed his own ablutions even less than Blake did his. He tried to shave, and that was a disaster, then he managed to get halfway through washing his hair before the scent of mint told him he'd been using dentifrice. He stubbed his toe both getting in and getting out of the slightly raised stall and for one panic-stricken moment he had been sure he would fall, crack his skull against the tiles and drown in two inches of water. Bad enough to kill himself in such a ridiculous fashion, but to think that it might be Blake who would eventually discover his bloated corpse was totally unacceptable. He finished, navigated out of the stall, dried himself, and went into the other room for clothes. He 'd always been meticulous about storing his possessions in their proper places, and was able to clothe himself in a fairly short time. Now all he had to do was get something to eat. He thought about the difficulties involved in that, and decided he wasn't all that hungry. He sat at his desk, drumming his fingers on the surface. Boredom loomed large on the horizon. Normally, when he was fighting with Blake and avoiding the others, he could keep busy on any number of projects. About all he was fit for now was consulting Orac - and he'd left it in the med-unit. Damn. He put his head down on his folded arms and sighed. He was so caught up in gloom that when his door announcer buzzed, he simply assumed it was Cally coming to check on him. "Come," he said. He hadn't locked the door. He wasn't sure why. Perhaps he was hoping for company. It got lonely in the dark.

A familiar tread sounded, followed by a familiar scent subdued by soap. His head came up. "Blake?"

"I came, I saw, and I was conquered," Blake replied, practically purring.

Avon got to his feet, scowling. "What are you doing here? Didn't I make it clear..."

"You made it clear that you weren't happy. " Blake looked Avon up and down, and grinned. Avon was fully dressed, but what a sight! His pants were skin-tight, lobster-red, leather, and his tunic a loose-fitting, dull green, one boot was brown, the other black. He'd tried to comb his hair, apparently, but without total success, and his face was blotched with bits of red-dotted, sticking plaster. "You need me, Avon." He chuckled, unable to hold it in. "You also need a fashion consultant." He opened the present he'd brought, and waited.

Avon's fist rose, but paused. "I do not need you." His nostrils twitched, as a new and savory aroma filled the room. "What are you doing?"

"Seducing you," Blake said, mildly. He put the uncovered tray of food on the desk, and pushed down gently on Avon's shoulders. "Or you could say that I am being charitable to a poor, pitiful blind man. Whichever you prefer."

Rather than fall at Blake's feet, Avon sat. His lips pressed together. "I don't accept charity."

"I hoped you'd say that." Blake ran his hand over Avon's hair, static making the individual strands cling to his fingers, like a cat demanding petting. "Now, do you want to eat, or tell me why?"

Avon groped for a fork, and stabbed something on the plate he'd found with his other hand. Blake winced at the savagery implied, but merely said, "All right." He touched Avon's hair again, lightly, then went to the bed and sat.

Avon heard the footsteps end at the bed, and the slight creak of the mattress. "Especially, I do not need you to watch while I eat. You've delivered the food. Your mission of mercy is complete."

"No, it's not." Blake took a deep breath. "I really came to apologize."

"For what? For getting me blinded? For raping me?"

"Avon! That wasn't rape, and I've witnesses to prove it!" Blake stopped, as Avon winced. Naturally, the last thing Avon wanted to remember was that the others had seen it all. In a lower tone he said, "I meant after we got back. I shouldn't have left you alone so long."

"Why did you?" Avon asked, mildly curious.

"There was a crisis. I had to think of the aliens, the others, the ship. I... forgot you. It won't happen again."

"Of course it will," Avon replied, but without heat. He continued eating, and his expression relaxed. If true, that was a good sign. A man who could forget his blind lover the day after they made their alliance wasn't too far removed from the Blake he knew. He chewed slowly, thinking it over. They were in intergalactic space, beyond the reach of the Federation, and would be for some time. He had no way of comparing the speed of the Andromedan vessel with the Liberator, so he couldn't tell exactly how long. Did he really want to waste that time when he had Blake offering a very enjoyable way to avoid boredom? If he remained blind, surely Blake's rebel practicality would once more take over from his romantic side, and allow Avon a dignified retirement. If he regained his sight, Blake's lover would have much better leverage to pry secret plans out of that woolly head. He smiled, thinking of amusing uses of levers and fulcrums, without considering what Blake would make of the expression.

"Avon?" Blake had seen the smile. Avon had all sorts, from teeth-baring threats to superior smirks. This one was almost tender. It was very encouraging.

On the other hand, it wouldn't do to seem too easy. Avon scowled. "I accept your apology. You can leave now." He paused, then added, "Thank you."

"For what?" Blake asked, "The food, the apology, the fashion tips?"

Avon tugged at his tunic. "What's wrong with my clothes?" He sounded petulant, and his lower lip pouted.

Before he knew what he was doing, Blake was kissing that pout. Avon made a token resistance, then pressed against Blake, his tongue wriggling in to explore the warm, brandy-tasting mouth against his. Apparently, Blake had needed a bit of courage to confront the Avon in his den. Better and better. And the kiss was much better without beards.

Blake pulled away after several minutes to say, "You need someone to dress you. You're wrapped up like a Christmas present."

"A what?" Avon asked, confused.

"Christmas. An old-time holiday we rebels used to celebrate because we weren't supposed to. For some reason, the traditional colors were red and green."

"I'm not." Avon shuddered.

"You are."

" I must look like Vila." Avon tugged at the tunic hem. "Get it off me!" He sounded like a man discovering a multi-legged creature crawling on his shoulder.

"I don't know. Does undressing you constitute charity or seduction?" Blake chewed on a knuckle as he considered.

"I've already told you I don't take charity."

"Oh, well, in that case, shouldn't I get my clothes off, too?"

"If you must." Avon tried very hard to sound put-upon.

Blake chuckled, and complied, stripping himself in a few seconds by yanking off whatever didn't absolutely have to be undone first and tearing at what did. He took his time with Avon, though, unsnapping every fastener on the green tunic with slow, loving care, pushing up the grey polo shirt beneath,his mouth tasting and testing the responses of each newly exposed bit. By the time Avon's torso was bare, both of them were sweating and trembling with desire. Kneeling to peel Avon out of the leather trousers while Avon balanced himself against Blake's shoulders, a thought occurred to him. "You know, Avon, you weren't very difficult to seduce. I'm almost disappointed."

"Do you want to go away and try again later?"

"Um. No, on second thought, I might as well continue." Avon hadn't bothered with underpants, and the part of him that protruded from the open fly was begging for attention. It pouted as prettily as Avon's lips, and Blake hadn't the heart to let the poor beast suffer. He shoved the pants down far enough to get a good grip on the smooth arse, and leaned forward to breathe on Avon's penis. "My mother told me 'Always finish what you start'." He licked, and Avon jumped.

"Far be it from me to interfere with a son's filial duty," Avon gasped as Blake engulfed him. He clamped onto the sturdy shoulders as his hips rocked him in and out of that generous mouth. Oh, to see it, to see the great and noble Blake on his knees to pleasure him, selfish, unsentimental, snide Kerr Avon. But he couldn't see it. He closed his eyes against the warning burn of incipient tears. It wasn't fair. If his damn eyes wouldn't see, they shouldn't be able to cry, either. He couldn't stop, now it was becoming sobs. Damn, damn, damn. He shifted, taking one hand from Blake to wipe at his face.

Blake felt the warm drops hit his back, but thought it was sweat. Then Avon moved, and his breath changed, catching in an entirely different rhythm than passion. He released Avon's cock, and slid his hands further up Avon's back to better support the other, who was now shaking all over. "Avon?"

Avon shook his head and turned aside. "Let me be."

Blake stood up, and grabbed Avon by the shoulders. "No. I won't let you turn your back on me."

"I don't like this," Avon said softly. His fists clenched, and he pounded, not entirely gently, on Blake's shoulders. "I thought I could handle it, knowing there was a good chance... but, this just happens, without any warning. Being blind is bad enough, but crying about it like a child is ridiculous. And at the most inconvenient times, too."

Blake kissed Avon's closed eyes, licking at the tears sensuously. "You can be human, without being weak. You can be loved, without being used. You can be a bastard, without driving me away."

"Really?" Avon said, interested. "How much of a bastard?"

"I'm not going to tell you. You take enough advantage of me already." Blake put his arms around Avon, and simply held on.

"Are you going to let me go?"

"No."

"Even if I want to go?"

Blake pulled back to look into Avon's face. His eyes were still shut, but the tears had stopped. "You aren't talking about right now, are you?"

"No. I want to know..." Avon turned his face aside, lips tightly compressed, then back again to face Blake. "I need to know that you will let me go if my incapacity is permanent."

"It won't be."

"But if it is? A blind rebel is an enormous liability to your cause. A blind rebel you have sex with on a regular basis is worse, fatal in the not-so-long run. Even if you can forget me in the heat of battle, my- - handicap - would affect all your strategic planning."

"That's the first time I've ever heard you call yourself a rebel."

Avon waved that off. "A circumlocution. It seems a bit long-winded to say 'an individual who has been dragged willy-nilly into rebellion' ."

"That's a mouthful, all right." Blake gazed down at the other mouthful he had been enjoying, up until Avon decided to philosophize. "If I give you an honest answer, can we go to bed?"

"I don't think you're taking this very seriously."

"On the contrary." Blake took a deep breath. "I could not let you go if you remain blind." He held up a hand, pressing it gently over Avon's lips to prevent the protest he saw coming. "Not because I love you. Not because of pity for a blind man. No, I am thinking as a rebel leader. Blind, you are far too vulnerable to capture. You know too many things that would advance the Federation's technology." He rested his head on Avon's shoulder. "I could not let you go," he repeated, but this time he was speaking from his heart.

"So I am to remain as your helpless love-slave?" Blake's logic wasn't unassailable, but it was attractive.

"Sounds good to me." Blake's hands went down to Avon's cheeks, rubbing along the crack, until Avon was standing on his toes, breathing heavily.

"Ah. Ah, well. Maybe I can think about it later." Avon surrendered, and let Blake finish stripping him. The boots were a nuisance. Maybe that was why Vila usually wore plimsolls, Avon thought as Blake led him to the bed and pushed him flat on his back to remove the offending footwear, socks and all. He'd better count toes later. Blake did get violent when he'd been frustrated too long; just ask the Federation.

Blake climbed on top of Avon, and settled himself so they were pressing together along their entire lengths. He rose up on his elbows and began an immediate thrusting back and forth, cock against cock.

"Ah!" Avon arched up, instinctively matching the motion. He reached up, and grabbed, finding an area on either of Blake's sides that was conveniently soft enough for him to dig his fingers in. He laughed. "Love-handles?"

"Get you for that," Blake promised, dipping his head to nip at the tip of Avon's nose. "Look at me?" he asked.

Avon's face shuttered. He shook his head, eyes remaining stubbornly shut.

"Sorry."

"Not. Your fault," Avon managed, squeezing the love-handles for emphasis.

Blake said, out loud, "Lights off!" and the voice-activated controls obeyed, putting the room into pitch-blackness. It made things more awkward, and increased the chance of them falling off the narrow bed, but it was only fair.

"Yes," Avon breathed. He opened his eyes. "I am ...looking at you."

"What do... you see?" Blake asked, panting. The friction and the lovely pain of Avon's death-grip on his sides had him rock-solid, about to burst from sheer ecstasy.

"You." Avon thrust up, harder, as Blake's huge cock plowed up his middle, catching on his body hair, hot and wet against him. It was nearly as good this way as before. Nearly. He struggled to spread his legs and lift his knees, wanting it, wanting Blake, in him again. "Wait. Do it right," he gasped.

"Can't," Blake moaned, thrust even harder, and stiffened, shooting hot sperm over Avon's cock and belly, then giving a few last hip thrusts as he finished. He lay heavily on top of the other man, regaining his breath. "Sorry." He reached down to take Avon's cock in his hands.

"No."Avon rolled on his side, facing away from Blake.

"Shall I suck you, then?"

"No." Avon's body cried out for completion, any way at all, but he needed more, needed to be linked, beyond the expediency of frottage, the selfishness of fellatio. He needed Blake to be joined with him.

"You are a greedy, spoilt brat," Blake said, cheerfully. He was no randy teenager, but the prospect of taking Avon again was working wonders on an old rebel's libido.

"Yes."

"I'll need the lights."

"Yes." Anything longer than single syllables was beyond Avon. Blake scrambled over him, incidentally proving that he was already rising to the challenge, and reached the deck.

"Lights on!"

Avon lay curled on his side, keeping his hands away from his erection with great difficulty, listening. Blake was padding barefoot away. He was going through their clothes. He was uncapping something with a 'snap'. He was padding back. He was...oh, yes, he was holding a tube of something fragrant under Avon's nose. Avon's nose twitched as he tried to place the scent. His eyebrows rose when he did. "Choc...late?"

Blake chuckled. "I wanted to seduce you with flowers and chocolate. But I couldn't find a single posy on board." His hand traced greasily over Avon's waist, to his back, and between, ending with a circling motion directly around Avon's anus. "Except for this little rose-bud."

"Don't... get... cute," Avon gasped. He grabbed Blake's hand, ordered, "Do it!" then said, "Ahhh," as several creme-laden fingers worked their way in, slowly. "Faster!"

"I'm not ready, yet. Neither are you."

"Yes, I am!" Avon got out, before collapsing into a whining, begging heap. Blake's fingers were doing the minute waltz inside him, rapidly loosening his anal muscles and his small remaining grasp on his sanity. He clutched at the bed-covers, quivering all over, then cried out again as the traitorous fingers retreated.

"Steady, Avon, steady." Blake eased Avon over onto his back, and helped him raise his knees. He put his shoulders between and pressed forward, slowly bending Avon's legs back. "Is it all right?" he asked, anxiously. Avon had shut his eyes again, and the look on his face was unreadable.

"Yesss," Avon hissed, wriggling his arse.

Blake pushed in. This time Avon wasn't quite so tight, but even so, halfway in, muscles clenched around him in pained reaction to the invasion. He couldn't bear to stop, but he did slow down. "Shh, Avon," he choked out. "Relax."

Relaxing was out of the question. Every nerve ending in Avon's entire body was jangling. He arched his back, and shoved backward, forcing himself entirely onto Blake's throbbing erection. "Ahhh!" His own cock leapt at the stimulation. He grabbed himself, and began pumping. It was too soon, but he couldn't hold out much longer.

Having come once, Blake had more self-control. He braced his hands to either side of Avon's tossing head, dug his toes into the bed, and pulled nearly all the way out. He looked down at himself, at his large, reddened cock entering Avon, at Avon's fist clenching and sliding, at the rose-red tip of Avon's penis emerging, then hiding shyly in its foreskin, then emerging again. A few seconds, then he thrust back in, back rounding, hips gliding- oh, smooth, smooth as fine wine, hot and sweet like life itself. His head went back and his eyes closed, in the joy of covering Avon with his love, savoring the tang of Avon's sweat in his nostrils, the low moans of pleasure his cock, his body called from Kerr Avon.

He grunted, and thrust, faster and faster, snorting and dragging air into his heaving lungs. Avon continued to writhe beneath him, wailing continuously now. His hands slipped beneath the small of Avon's back lifting him, making him even more accessible. He thrust even deeper, slamming himself against Avon with bruising force. Avon growled and fought back, clawing at Blake, biting at him, all the while his hips kept up a steady rhythm of their own.

Avon threw his head back, and for an instant Blake saw his eyes open, himself reflected in the deep, dark surfaces. Himself, captured inside Avon, tiny and perfect as a single gem. Inside a blind man's eyes, Blake saw himself, transfigured by love, grander and more wonderful than any heroic statue. Then Avon came, and Avon was more beautiful than his dreams of freedom, wilder than any fantasy he'd ever had. Head back, throat exposed, entirely vulnerable, and yet, so strong, so very strong, his contractions like a giant's hand around Blake, his clawing fingers digging into Blake's arm with bone-bruising force. All for him. For him, Avon had shed his civilized veneer and let the wilderness out. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given him. And the most fragile.

He meant to pull out after Avon's orgasm, knowing how sore the other must be, but Avon's legs locked around his shoulders and Avon's hands grabbed at his buttocks, demanding, needing. So he let himself ride the tide, let Avon guide him, let Avon rule his heart. When he climaxed, the universe turned inside out, and he found himself on the other side of eternity.

"Actually," a dry, nasal voice said into his ear, "you're on the other side of me."

Blake blushed, wondering just how much romantic nonsense he'd been spewing. "I would move," Blake said, realizing that he had squashed Avon up against the wall, "except I seem to have forgotten how."

"You weren't doing too badly a short time ago," Avon said wickedly. His eyes were open, and Blake would almost have sworn they were focused on him.

"I'm glad you think so. I should hate to have disappointed you."

"I try to keep my expectations reasonable."

Blake gave Avon a suspicious look. That sounded as if it was meant to be a sarcastic remark, but with that angelic smile, how could it be? "That's good," he said finally. "What are your expectations?"

"Oh, a liaison similar to this one, four or five times a day."

Blake spluttered.

"Unless, of course, I have better things to do." He wriggled himself free, and settled beside Blake, scrunching backward until Blake was spooned around him.

"What better things?"

"I'll have to think of some." Avon yawned, and pulled Blake's arm over him. "Later."

"Where's Blake?" Vila asked Jenna. She was doing some of Cally's calisthenics, wearing a skimpy bodysuit and a couple of filmy scarves. That had nothing to do with him coming into the Rest Room, of course. "Cally wants to know if we should show Tarrant everything, and she sent me to ask Blake, and I can't find him. He's not here, and he's not on the flight deck, and he's not in engineering and he's not in his own quarters," Vila wailed, as Jenna stayed silent.

She bent down to touch her toes again, then stretched upward before pouring herself a cool, frothy, pink drink from a pitcher, and sitting on one of the lounges. "If you found him, you would have seen everything."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Haven't you any imagination, Vila?" Jenna poured Vila a drink.

Surprised, but not surprised enough to turn down a friendly gesture from the 'ice queen', Vila took it. He tried a sip, and his eyes widened. He coughed. "I thought that was a ladies' drink," he gasped.

Jenna's eyes narrowed. "And I'm not a lady?"

Jenna was a mean drunk, Vila recalled from a few earlier episodes, when frustration with Blake had gotten to her. "Yes, of course you are, and a very beautiful one, at that," Vila replied quickly.

"Blake doesn't care." Abruptly she hiccuped, and looked startled. "Too many pink ladies," she muttered, staring suspiciously into her glass.
"To many pink ladies," Vila seconded the toast, raising his glass. "Also to brown, black, and golden ladies."

"You're sweet. " Jenna leaned toward Vila. She grabbed him, pulled him close, and kissed him hard, then released him- all in the space of two seconds. She didn't notice his confusion, as she shoved him back in his own seat, and she said, "So's Blake." She sighed. "But he isn't sweet on me."

"Oh." Vila thought he had the picture now. "He's with Avon? They made up?"

"My cabin's next to Avon's. The sound-proofing's not that good." Jenna frowned.

"Oh," Vila said again, thinking hard. "My cabin's on the other side of the ship."

"I know. Far from the flight deck." Jenna almost smiled.

"It's very quiet there."

Jenna looked up. "Are you offering?"

"Anything you want, Jenna," Vila said, gallantry oozing from every pore.

Jenna stood up, perfectly straight, and gazed at Vila out of clear, sober eyes. "Thank you, Vila. I appreciate it. I could use the sleep. When you come off watch, you'd better buzz before you enter." She held up a small hand-gun. "Free-trader's reflexes, you know. I'd hate to shoot off anything important."

Vila sat, mouth agape, as Jenna sauntered out of the room, practically swaggering. "I take it back," he shouted, "you're no lady!" He grinned. "A girl after me own heart. If only she was." Then he groaned. Now what was he supposed to tell Cally? The truth? Bad habit for a thief to get into. On the other hand, maybe if she was sure Avon was spoken for... well, worth a try.

"That's right. Avon and Blake are together, in Avon's quarters, and they don't want to be disturbed," Vila repeated. Maybe he shouldn't have said it on the flight deck, in front of Tarrant, but he wanted to be the one to break the bad news to Cally. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, but he was prepared to offer a sympathic shoulder. He wasn't prepared for Cally's response.

She laughed out loud, then gave Vila a friendly, comradely, hug. "That's wonderful, Vila."

"It is?" Vila was dismayed.

"No, it's not." Tarrant had been keeping quiet, trying to stay unobtrusive, but this was too much.

Cally turned on Tarrant, smile gone. "Why? Don't you think they deserve a little happiness?"

Tarrant shook his head. "It destroys the chain of command when the captain and his or her second are sleeping together." He grimaced. "I was on a ship that nearly mutinied because of it."

"This isn't a Federation ship," Cally pointed out.

"It's a vessel at war with the entire Federation. If we..."

"So it's 'we' now is it?" Vila stuck in. "You just hop on, and figure you're one of us?"

Tarrant barely glanced at Vila. Vila was a Delta, a thief and a coward. He didn't care about Vila's opinion. "If we don't maintain proper decorum, there'll be constant disruption, arguments, factions joining one side or other." Vila and Cally nodded at each remark. "The leader will be undermined, the second will start thinking he's equal, disputing orders, sulking and pouting when he doesn't get his way ... Why are you nodding?"

"Because that's how it was before they started having sex together," Vila said. "This way, maybe some of the fights won't be on the flight deck."

Cally added, "And they will work together much better now that the personal tension between them has been resolved." She turned serious. "That is, if Avon recovers."

"Recovers?" Tarrant asked. "What's wrong with him?" He had been looking forward to finding some excuse for a fight with Kerr Avon, some excuse that wouldn't get him kicked off the ship. If Avon was ill he couldn't lay a hand on him. "He looked all right when you came aboard." But he had wondered why the man never showed up on the flight deck, and the way Blake tore after him in a panic... it seemed a bit excessive even for one's lover.

"Didn't anyone tell you? Avon is blind," Cally said.

"No. No. No one told me anything." Tarrant was shaken. "How... you said, if he recovers. You mean, if he doesn't, Blake will have to put him off the ship." It was the only possible course of action.

"No." Cally looked thoughtful. "Blake would never abandon Avon. He would have let him go once, but not now."

"We can't have a blind man on this ship."

"There are aids, devices, methods of compensating."

"Yes, but Cally, not on this ship," Tarrant was horrified. "I've heard rumours about how badly the higher-ups want it. They'll stop at nothing. Don't think they won't find out about him and use it against you."

"Everybody has weaknesses," Cally replied.

"Blindness isn't a weakness. Avon's a useless cripple!"

Tarrant saw Cally and Vila tense, their eyes looking behind him, to the flight deck entrance. He straightened his spine and turning, looked directly at Blake. Avon was standing beside the bigger man, his hand resting lightly on Blake's arm. Avon lifted his hand and tried to turn aside, but Blake stopped him.

"Avon is Avon. Blind, deaf, and dumb, he would still be dangerous to the Federation. He would still be a tremendous asset to the rebellion. He stays." Blake gazed at Tarrant. "I haven't decided yet whether you are an asset."

"I'm an FSA trained pilot," Tarrant protested. "You'll need my skills. Jenna may be good, but she hasn't the training, the military experience you need."

"She hasn't a big mouth, either," Avon said quietly. "You may discover that while looking down your nose at criminals and rebels is very good for the ego, it increases the probability of finding a knife in your back."

"Maybe, but you won't be the one to put it there," Tarrant blurted. He was immediately ashamed of himself for attacking a blind man, even if only verbally.

Blake stiffened, but Avon relaxed. "At least he has one redeeming feature," Avon said to Blake, but clearly enough for all to hear. "He won't be coddling me. Keep him for a while. On a trial basis."

"Avon," Blake growled. He didn't like the way Avon was behaving. As if to make up for his compliance in the bedroom, he was being doubly arrogant in public. "This is still my ship."

"It wouldn't be much use to me now," Avon admitted. "As long as I am on it, I will continue to give you advice to the best of my ability. You will undoubtedly continue to ignore it."

"To the best of my ability," Blake said. Avon was going out of his way to show the others that he hadn't changed. It was annoying. That hadn't changed, either. His eyes relaxed, crinkling at the corners. He threw an arm over Avon's shoulders, and squeezed the hand he held in his. And Avon allowed it.

"Now, show us some of this FSA training," Blake said, leading Avon down to the flight deck lounge. "I assume there were classes in tactics?"

"Certainly."

"And I assume you were as brilliant at them as in everything else," Avon said as he settled beside Blake, calmly staring into space.
Something about Avon's voice set Tarrant's teeth on edge. He was sure the others could hear his teeth grind as he politely replied, "I never had to re-sit any of my exams."

Blake sighed. Already, he could see the future. Avon was enjoying this too much to stop, and Tarrant hadn't the faintest idea how to let the insults slide off his back. The young man would learn soon enough, but in the meantime, he was rather glad he wasn't to be the target. Avon was quite capable of kissing out of one side of his mouth and ripping your throat out with the other.

Vila slithered onto the seat on Avon's other side. "That's right. Tell him, Avon."

Avon turned to Vila in disapproval. "Isn't this your watch, Vila?"

"So?"

"Isn't that your station?" He waved toward the consoles behind them. The consoles without true seats, only a sort of lounging rest at the back.

"I can watch from here," Vila protested.

"Not your monitors, you can't," Avon said, smoothly.

"Vila." Blake grinned, and pointed a thumb at the consoles. "To your post, man."

"Oh, all right." Grumbling, Vila headed for his place, with all the cheeriness of a man heading for the rack. "You don't fool me, Avon. You just want the couch for yourself."

"What a good idea." Avon promptly stretched his legs out and lay an arm over the back of the couch. He shut his eyes, and to all appearances fell asleep.

Blake began talking to Tarrant, and discovered that he rather liked the young man. He was a bit brash, but then he hadn't exactly been welcomed with open arms and nervous uncertainty would account for that. It would be very useful to have another pilot, and another fighter. Those long, lean arms seemed to have sufficient muscle, although he was a trifle gawky. Maybe Cally's calisthenic classes would help there. Avon 'woke' up enough to put a few questions to Tarrant that were less spiteful, and more to the point, so he'd arrived at the same conclusion. That was a relief. While he loved Avon, he wasn't about to forget his responsibility to the rebellion, even if it did anger his lover.

Vila reached his quarters and went in without bothering to call up the lights. Blake had run him through simulation after simulation on the weaponry system until he was seeing little enemy spaceships on the inside of his eyelids. He just wanted to get to sleep before someone thought of something else he ought to be doing. It was only after he'd shucked his shoes, peeled off his clothes and flopped on the bed that he remembered he had a guest. Actually, he didn't remember. He was reminded by the high-pitched scream of rage that sounded in his ear.

"Vila!"

He yelped, and leaped out of bed. "Oh, no. Jenna, I didn't mean anything. I was just tired and I forgot." He reached out an arm to gather his clothes, holding them in front of himself as he scrabbled backwards on his knees, away from the angry woman who was sitting up in his bed, glaring at him. He didn't see a gun, but two pert pink nipples were aiming right at him. He gulped. "I'll just go. Somewhere." He was reluctant to stand up, much as he wanted to escape.

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Jenna said. Vila was no rapist. He had a lot of good points, now that Jenna thought about it. Still, did she really want to get involved with him on a regular basis? He was neither suave, nor heroic, nor rich and famous- none of the things she'd once set her adolescent heart on. He was just Vila. "I'll go now, and you can have your bed back." She got up and pulled a robe on carelessly.

"That would probably be breast- oh, god, I mean best!" Vila was mortified. He felt a rush of blood going down his face to his collarbones, and lower- much lower. He clutched the clothes tighter against himself.

Jenna stared at Vila, expressionless. It reminded him of the way Avon sometimes looked. She wouldn't really shoot me for saying something stupid, would she? he wondered. After all, it's not as if it's the first time.

Jenna blinked, and then she laughed, too hard for the minor silliness. More to do with the release of stress than humor. She couldn't count the number of times Vila had said just the right thing to ease a tense situation. "You're priceless, Vila!" she got out as the chuckles eased.

"I am? Yes, of course I am." Vila eyed the door, wondering if he ought to leave while Jenna got dressed. But then he'd have to get dressed in the hall. And Tarrant was coming off watch now too, and he'd probably be coming up the corridor in time to make nasty remarks about Deltas not having sense enough to get dressed in their own rooms. Or worse, he might see Jenna coming out of Vila's room and say something smart to her.

"Will you stop trembling, Vila? I'm not going to bite you."

"Wish you were," Vila muttered, then dropped the clothes in shock. Two stupid remarks in less than a minute. A new record, even for him. He closed his eyes, waiting for Jenna to kill him, or at least slap his face before she walked out.

"You do, don't you?"

Vila opened his eyes, cautiously. Jenna had dropped her robe and was standing a few feet away, gazing down at Vila's midsection. His cock responded with a happy little wriggle, like a puppy craving attention. "Um. Yes?" he said, hoping it was the right thing to say.

Jenna came even closer. She touched Vila's face, lightly. "I don't want to mislead you, Vila. I don't love you. I just want you to know where I stand before we do anything."

"Right." Vila's penis was very firm and standing quite nicely, rubbing against Jenna's soft belly. "I don't love you, either," he said, his hands easing around her waist to gently urge her closer.

"In fact," she said, in between tentative kisses, "sometimes you really annoy me."

Vila nodded, before nipping his way down to one ample breast. He suckled on the nipple, enjoying the flavor and the way it firmed as he licked. "That's because we're so different," he said, as he released the nipple, and picked Jenna up. He headed for the bed, carrying her.
"You mean, because I'm an Alpha, and you're a Delta?" Jenna asked, breathlessly, as Vila laid her on her back, and began fondling between her thighs. She opened further to allow his talented tongue access.

Vila stopped, and looked up at her seriously. "Oh, no. Because you're a woman and I'm a man."

"You are that," Jenna admitted, looking down the length of her body to the length of Vila's erection. She'd enjoyed sucking it while they were prisoners, but felt a bit cheated that she hadn't been able to ride that beast. "Every inch a man," she murmured, licking her lips.

"So, you see, we could never be really close," Vila said as he climbed on top of her. He lined his cock up with its target, and paused again. It wasn't easy, but he was determined to impress Jenna with his self-restraint.

"Oh, absolutely," Jenna moaned. She wrapped her legs around his waist, and scratched her long fingernails along his back and buttocks. "Never close enough." She threw her head back as he entered, filling her in one, long, slow, movement. She gave a happy little squeal, and tightened internally, strong muscles squeezing hard.

About that point, Vila gave up on impressing Jenna and started thrusting like mad. The night before with Jenna and Cally had been an appetizer. Enough to get his juices flowing. He arched and came, his juices flowing into Jenna. "Warm up," he said, still hard and throbbing. "Wanna go for the Delta hat trick?"

"That's three, isn't it? Yes. If you can last longer than that."

"Stamina is my middle name." Vila's hips began a slow beat against Jenna, sliding easily in her slick passage.

"Oh, yes," Jenna moaned. Vila was very good. Mentally, she consigned all her fantasies of Blake to the dustbin of adolescent dreams. Heroes were nice, but a lusty thief fit better into a smuggler's niche. Fit perfectly. "Oh, Vila." She clawed down his back, melding them together. It wasn't love, but it certainly made life better.

On the whole, Tarrant thought his life was better since he had rescued the Liberator's crew. Zen listened to him now, and Orac wasn't making him jump through hoops. He'd had time to settle in, as at the highest speed Liberator could maintain without draining her systems they were three weeks away from the outskirts of human space. The few alien stragglers that showed up on their detectors showed no fight; most were limping home with visible battle damage, but even the ones that appeared intact made no hostile move. That pleased Blake, who said that the aliens who'd held them prisoner had probably convinced the others the war had been a mistake. Avon had shot back that the aliens obviously preferred to fight en masse, and were too timid to take on Liberator alone. For once, he had agreed with Avon. He couldn't quite invest green jellybags with humanitarian motives.

He couldn't invest Avon with humanitarian motives, either. Which explained why he was quietly seething on the flight deck. Vila was a lazy, whining, drunken coward. As co-pilot, Tarrant felt he had the right - more than a right, a duty - to point this out. Instead of agreeing with him, as a fellow Alpha, or even just keeping his mouth shut, Avon had waited until Vila skulked off, then defended Vila! More than that, he went so far as to say that the Delta sneak thief was more valuable than he was- after all, they had another pilot.

And Cally had stood by and watched the whole thing, then quietly warned him not to cross Avon and walked off the flight deck arm in arm with Avon. It was humiliating. He clenched his fists and kept his temper, but it was close.

"Tarrant? Are you going to beat up the console?"

He turned, startled. "Jenna? Is it your watch already?"

"Technically, yes, but if you're eager to stand here and look at the stars for a few more hours, be my guest." Jenna sounded amused.
"Vila told me what happened. And what Avon said."

"Did he? So he's an eavesdropper and a blabbermouth as well. Add that to his other talents and I can see why Avon prefers him to me," Tarrant said bitterly. It was all over the whole ship by now, and they were all laughing at him.

"Vila does have his uses," Jenna remarked. She grinned. "In the off-watch, particularly." Her grin widened.

"How nice for you both," Tarrant bit out. Now Vila was sending his paramour to rub Tarrant's nose in it. Cally and Jenna had each turned him down, politely, but firmly. Cally was alien, so maybe she didn't appreciate class, but Jenna was an Earth-Alpha. Why she should prefer a pudgy, balding, alcoholic Delta was a mystery.

"Now, don't get me wrong. I know how annoying he can be, but it doesn't do any good to give Vila orders. He just sort of slides away from them. And threatening him ..."

"Avon does it. All the time." It sounded childish, but he resented the fact that he didn't even have authority over Vila.

"Avon does a lot of things no one else can get away with. Hadn't you noticed?"

Tarrant had. And that was another thing he resented. "So you're saying Vila is Avon's private property. He's greedy isn't he, first Blake and now Vila?"

"I hope you don't mean that the way it sounded. It would be a shame if I had to call you out." Jenna wasn't joking. "I know it isn't easy being the new man, but you aren't going to change us. We work well together. It may not be obvious now, when there isn't an outside enemy, but we are a team. All of us, including Vila. If you'd stop expecting a spit-and-polish, clear line of command, Federation pursuit ship mentality, you'd see that."

"I suppose Vila could come in handy in your line of work- provided he's as good as he says he is." Jenna nodded, and Tarrant continued, "But Avon's the big problem. I don't mean his blindness. Cally talked to me, and she says there's a good chance he can be cured. I'd be very happy if he was, you know."

"I know. He's hard on you, and you can't fight back because he's blind. Avon always was a dirty fighter. Probably because no one ever taught him the civilized way to fight. Believe me, Tarrant, the next-to-last person on the ship you want angry with you is Avon."

"And you're the last?" Tarrant grinned back.

"You'd better believe it. Avon is deliberately rattling your chain, to test you."

"And am I passing the test?"

"So far. Blake is impressed with you. Your day will come."

"So you're saying I should just hang in there and wait until Avon can see, and I can black both his eyes for him."

Jenna laughed. "You can try. But, remember, he doesn't fight fair. Now, go on, and let me fly my ship." She nudged at Tarrant.

He yielded, feeling much better than he had in a week. Jenna was Liberator . If she accepted him, he was in. Provided he didn't lose his temper and space a certain sharp-tongued blind man of their mutual acquaintance.

Cally finished Avon's weekly check-up, reading the last of the collected data as Avon waited impatiently for the verdict.

"Well?"

Cally touched Avon lightly on the shoulder. She always tried to give him a reference point when she spoke with him. "Your weight is almost back to normal, and your vital signs are very good. You should be well able to withstand the physical stress of the operation."

"Good. Orac has already located several surgeons that may be suitable."

"Skilled, and accessible?"

"Skilled, yes. Semi-accessible, for the most part. In this quadrant, medical training of that caliber is given only to Federation citizens with a high loyalty rating. They may require- persuading."

"Then they will be persuaded. I am very good at persuading, and so is Blake."

"Yes." Avon slid off the examination couch, his expression pensive. "That's what I'm afraid of."

"What?"

"I'm afraid that you and Blake are capable of persuading me against my best judgment." He reached for the electronic cane that Blake had made for him. It gave audible warning of hazards in his path, but was entirely ineffective against hazards in his personal life.

"I said we were good at it, not that we were miracle-workers. You will do what you decide is best."

"For whom?" Avon said, head cocked to one side. "Myself,or Blake?"

"That too, you will have to decide." Cally watched Avon maneuver around the examination tables. "You are becoming quite good with that device," she commented.

Avon paused. "Never that good," he said before continuing on into the corridor, where he nearly ran into Blake. "What?" Avon cried, as he bumped into Blake, was caught and steadied.

"Sorry, Avon, I should watch where I'm going."

"If you were curious about the results of my medical, you ought to have simply said so, rather than ambushing me in the corridor."
"The last time I asked how you felt, you said, 'with my hands'. I'd like a second opinion."

"Fine. Ask Cally." Avon raised his voice. "How do I feel, Cally?"

"With your hands," she replied, unable to resist. "His medical was quite favorable. There is no reason he could not have the operation today."
"Today is out of the question," Avon corrected. "I have a previous - appointment."

Blake walked toward his quarters (which he had begun to think of as 'our quarters' ) with Avon at his side. When they were well out of earshot, he complained, "I would rather you had said a 'commitment'. 'Appointment' doesn't have quite the same ring."

"Great minds work alike." Avon waited until he was sure Blake was smiling, to add, "I was thinking I ought to be committed. This relationship is not only foredoomed, it is also liable to cause both of us considerable embarrassment."

Blake was hurt, and let it show in his voice. "I'm not ashamed of us." But in the back of his mind, the ugly fear of being found out was jeering at him for being not only a liar, but also a coward. What would it do to the rebellion when it came out? There were few enough places where a rebel terrorist was welcome, but a rebel terrorist who was head over heels in love with another man was even less popular.

"If my old colleagues at Belhangria University ever find out that I've joined forces with an engineer, of all creatures, they will take my name off the reunion reminder list. Which is one point in our favor."

"Because I'm an engineer?" Blake's voice rose. "You're ashamed of me because I'm an engineer?"

"Don't shout. I didn't say I was ashamed, exactly. But you must admit, you are hardly my social equal."

"Why, you big-headed, pompous, snide, arrogant..." With a quick glance to one side, Blake verified that they were at the door to Avon's quarters. Closer than his, and quite convenient, really, considering the number of times Avon had 'accidentally' bumped against his crotch. He took Avon by the shoulders and pushed him back through the door, which opened as it sensed their presence.

"I am not pompous," Avon denied, even as he yielded, stepping back in the direction of the bed. "As for big-headed, well, let's compare and see how I stand up to the competition." His hand went to his pants.

"You stand up very well," Blake said, licking his lips as Avon's zipper went down to reveal smooth, silken skin covering a cock already flushing a deep red. "But there's nothing like a taste test." He crashed to his knees, grabbing Avon's hips to hold himself steady. He looked up. Avon's face grew more beautiful to him every time, but still Avon refused to keep his eyes open unless they were in the dark. Blake had been tempted to cross-wire his room so that the lights would be on when he ordered them off, but that would be a betrayal of Avon's fragile trust. He consoled himself with dreams of the two of them, after Avon recovered, making love open-eyed and in the full light of day on a white-sand beach somewhere on some paradise planet. But for now... he opened his mouth and took Avon in, enjoying the helpless surging thrusts Avon made into his throat, the whimpering sounds that sounded suspiciously like endearments, the hands that tugged at his ...

"Ow, Avon, not so hard!" Blake had been forced to let go of Avon, in order to prevent his hair from being yanked out by handfuls. He rubbed at his scalp. "What was that for?"

"Get out of the doorway, idiot," Avon said, backing toward the bed, with his goodies still dangling damp and tempting before Blake's hungry mouth. "I'd prefer not to shock the Delta anymore than necessary."

"A little shock-treatment wouldn't hurt him," Blake replied, as he moved closer. The door quietly slid shut behind him.

"It might hurt me. Jenna has taken him under her 'wing', so to speak."

"I noticed. I'm glad for them both."

"You mean you're relieved that Jenna has found a suitable consolation for her loss." Avon lay back on his bed, making no attempt to get undressed, idly massaging his erection.

"I meant what I said. I wish everyone could be as happy as I am right now." He gave Avon a lick or two, then drew back, and said in a conversational tone, "Pity that Cally and Tarrant don't seem to be hitting it off."

"No, it's not," Avon gasped, pulling Blake's head back into position. "Someone has to 'mind the store'. Or do you want us all to be caught with our pants down?"

"Not all of us." Blake growled, fighting Avon's trousers. He yanked, but the leather was tight, and damp. It was also glossy, smooth, and smelling wonderfully of warm Avon. It reminded him of licorice. Blake always had a sweet tooth. He gave up trying to peel Avon and began gnawing on him right through the leather, chewing on inner thigh, nipping at knees, and sucking wetly over the mounds that resided below the stiffly standing cock. "Licorice Balls," he said, chuckling before moving back to what he hoped would be an all-day sucker.

"Ah!" Avon snapped his head back, lifted his hips from the bed, and came without warning. He lay gasping, while Blake idly petted him, and tried to figure out the closures on his tunic.

"Some of these studs ought to snap," Blake complained, when Avon began shifting as awareness returned. He ran his fingers lightly over Avon's lips, contour-chasing, round and round. He never grew tired of the simplest intimacy. After so long without so much as a hand-clasp, it was an unexpected delight to find that Avon enjoyed tender caresses, and not just during the sex act.

"This one does," Avon warned, before closing his teeth, gently on Blake's roving hand.

"Enough, Avon!" Blake rolled on top of the slighter man. "If you really want to get rough..."

"No, no!" Avon yelled as Blake blew in his ear and began tickling under his armpits. "Stop!"

"Why should I?"

"Because - " Avon reached down to fondle Blake's cock, through the tautly-stretched coarse fabric covering it. Blake hadn't had a chance to undo anything and the zip was under severe strain. "I know how to remove my trousers."

"You've convinced me." Blake pulled himself up, and began getting his own clothes off, any which way.

"If I'd known it was that easy, I needn't have gone on all those suicidal missions," Avon commented as he raised his hips, tightened his buttocks and rolled the trousers off. The tunic was quicker, as every other stud was a snap. You just had to know where to start. 'Snick, snick, snick,' went the studs. Blake ran his hand over Avon's arse. 'Snicksnicksnickety-snicksnick,' went the rest of the studs and if a few were no longer attached to Avon's favorite butter-soft, leather tunic, he really didn't care. The tunic wound up on the deck along with Avon's second-favorite polo-neck and an undistinguished under-shirt.

"If you had tried this method of persuasion, I might not have gone on any missions myself." Ahh, skin to skin. Lovely. Blake put his hands to either side of Avon, and lowered himself for another delectable kiss. His hips began thrusting, rubbing against Avon's softened penis.

Avon yelped. They were out of sync. "Wait a second," he demanded. He was overly sensitive, and the pressure on his groin was extremely unpleasant. He was still in the mood mentally, and emotionally, but his body wasn't.

"Sorry," Blake gasped, locking his elbows and hips. His arms trembled with the strain. "Don't be all day about it, will you?" The time for joking had passed. Later, in the aftermath, he would regret not having held off longer. If he didn't die of frustration first.

"All right." Avon parted his legs, wrapping them around Blake's waist. "Let's try this."

There was an instant in which Blake thought seriously of leaving the bed, going into the adjoining lavatory and fetching an appropriate lubricant. The problem was, by the time he'd finished thinking it, he was already halfway sheathed. He breathed a sigh of relief. Avon was slippery inside, slippery enough that his haste could have done no real harm. He thrust, groaned as Avon's muscles tightened, then pulled back for another, deeper thrust.

Avon twitched his arse, and settled himself in place with a sigh of satisfaction. He liked this best, although it wouldn't do to tell Blake. When he was reaching for orgasm himself, he was unable to concentrate on his partner. He wanted to memorize everything there was about Blake. Just in case. In case he found himself blind and alone somewhere. Or even, not blind, but still alone. He was uncomfortably aware that if some godlike being offered him a choice between his vision and remaining Blake's lover, he would not have a ready answer. That was terrifying; that anyone could be so important to him.

He relaxed into the pounding, full of Blake, and quite pleased with himself. The jolts to his prostate sent fire up his spine. Without the urgency of an erection, he could enjoy his control over Blake, the power to stoke those rebel fires and ultimately exhaust them. Plus, it felt damn nice in itself, now that he was back in training and could easily accommodate even such a generous endowment as Blake had. It was a pity he'd never seen it like it was now, engorged and pulsing, full-blooded and pumping vigorously. He had seen Blake in the shower, on the London , back when they were both playing uninterested. He'd thought Blake took ice-cold showers as a way of demonstrating his toughness, and sympathy with the common man. His own frigid dunkings Blake had probably presumed to be a refusal to pamper himself, once he was away from the Alpha luxuries he'd accepted as his due. Amazing how stupid two otherwise intelligent men could be.

Blake's arms came down tightly around Avon's shoulders. "Oh, Avon," he groaned, thrusting faster, protesting each time his strokes pulled him out, moaning louder with each hot, chest-heaving, pump. His balls tightened, more. His arms tightened, more. His whole body vibrated like an elastic band just before the 'snap'. Avon reached up and kissed Blake. Sucking on Avon's lips, pumping into Avon's arse, Blake felt the tidal wave coming, and gladly drowned in it.

"Blake?" Avon asked after several minutes had passed with his lover lying draped over him, boneless, panting, heavy and very hot. "Blake?" He tapped on one broad, sweaty shoulder. "Blake?" He kicked what he could reach, pretzeled as he was around the other man.

"Eh?" Two or three stunned neurons staggered to relay the message. Blake unclenched, withdrew and shifted his balance, letting gravity pull him to one side. He simply breathed and existed for several more minutes. For a wonder, Avon was peacefully silent, too. "I didn't know you'd been a Boy Scout," was Blake's first multi-syllabic remark.

"I wasn't. What ever put that into your head?"

"Their Motto: Always Be Prepared." That slickness he'd encountered was evidence of a sly, cunning mind. He was grateful Avon was on his side. Any way you wanted to take the meaning.

"Somehow, I doubt that was what they meant." A thought struck him. "Blake, you weren't, by any chance, one yourself?"

"One what?"

"A Boy Scout," Avon said, patiently. Blake was sometimes a bit slow to return to the real world afterward. Flattering, actually.

Blake chuckled. "I made it to Eagle."

"You would." Avon huffed. "What use is such an anachronistic organization to a modern child? There aren't any eagles and everyone lives in Domes on Earth."

"I learned wilderness survival techniques that I've since found quite useful."

"Name one."

"Well, I can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together."

"Don't demonstrate now. I'm too tired."

"I meant two sticks of wood, Avon. You have a dirty mind, you know that?"

"I have been told." Avon would have liked to continue this bandanage, but he thought they ought to show up on the flight deck once in a while to keep Tarrant from feeling too proprietary. He nudged Blake. "Don't fall asleep."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm going to the flight deck and if Tarrant laughs at my clothes, you'll be back to only one pilot. Jenna is beginning to mellow. I'd hate to have to tell her it's your fault she'll have less free time."

Blake groaned. "You're a slave-driver."

"That I hadn't been told." Avon got up, carefully. Some of the more athletic positions they indulged in were not entirely suitable for a man of his years. He whistled, and his cane beeped, guiding him to it. On the way, he moved very slowly, pushing his feet across the deck instead of lifting them. There was quite a lot of clothing jumbled together somewhere around the place. He found the cane, and turned back, moving more confidently with it in hand. "I'm going for a shower," he told Blake, who was sure to be still lying in bed, watching him. "And you are not invited. Not this time."

"Pity. Not even just to scrub your back?"

Avon smiled. "No, I want to get on the flight deck before Tarrant's watch is over. That only leaves two hours."

Blake nodded. "You're right. That would be pushing it." He got up and stretched, arms over his head, and then sighed. "I'll just tidy up and lay out fresh clothes, then."

"Yes, you do that - slave." Avon granted Blake a lovely example of his most Alpha superior smile, and headed for the lavatory, thereby granting him a lovely view of his Alpha arse.

"But Blake, see here, this is too dangerous." Tarrant was trying to be calm and reasonable, but Blake's ideas were outrageous, and no one else seemed to see it.

"The risk is high, but not unacceptable," Avon put in.

That was annoying too, the way Avon would attack him even when he knew the other man secretly agreed with him. "Yesterday, you didn't think so," he reminded.

"Yesterday, Blake was planning to announce our survival by attacking the primary mutoid-making factory and blasting it to rubble."

"He still plans to do it."

"Yes, but now it's only a diversion. Orac has found that a highly-skilled neurosurgeon has just been assigned there."

"And you want us to kidnap him for your operation?" Tarrant's voice rose. He gazed at Blake in appeal. Blake had sat there, idly chewing on a finger, while Tarrant and Avon argued. You'd think the man hadn't a care in the world. "Are you entirely mad? What makes you think he won't just kill you on the table for revenge?"

Finally Blake spoke up. "He was assigned as punishment, for protesting the expansion of the mutoid program. He should be glad to help us. Once the factory is destroyed, he'll be presumed dead, and there won't be any pressure on him to hurry the operation."

Avon smiled. "Perhaps you do learn."

Tarrant frowned. Another inside reference to something that happened before he joined them.

"Still," Avon said, "there is a certain risk factor."

"It's within acceptable limits," Blake replied. "We are rebels, Tarrant. Blowing things up is what we do."

Vila spoke up at that. He'd been quietly enjoying the sight of three Alphas arguing without a Delta to blame for any of it, but he couldn't resist that opening. "We do it altogether too often," he remarked. "Can't we ever raid a recreation centre? You know, rescue some of those -" his hands made wide curving gestures, "poor girls who are forced to be hostesses?"

"Those women are among the most highly paid workers in the Federation, as you well know. You damn near bankrupted us on Space City." Avon grinned, recalling Vila's state when he returned. He'd certainly gotten his money's worth.

"Still, they might appreciate a nice, all-expenses-paid starcruise."

"You never give up, do you?" Blake asked, half exasperated, half amused.

"If I ever won, maybe I would. Why don't you try me and see?" But Vila's grumbling was only half-hearted. He still couldn't believe his luck had turned, but Jenna really seemed to like him. So she was a bit demanding in bed, that was all right, he could always sleep on the flight deck. His hormone levels were much steadier since she'd given up on Blake, and noticed a previously underutilized resource, namely his own handsome and charming self.

"Next time we need to recruit a recreation hostess, you'll be in charge," Avon promised.

Vila brightened. "I'll hold you to it. You heard him, Tarrant, Blake, you're my witnesses."

"Why do you need witnesses?"

Vila turned and gulped. Jenna and Cally were coming down the flight deck stairs together, and if the gleam in Jenna's eye was any clue, she'd heard enough to be suspicious. Jenna was lovely, and wonderful to make love to, but she was still an Alpha and occasionally had funny ideas. Like monogamy. Monogamy to a Delta meant one partner in a bed at a time.

"Well, Vila?" Jenna pressed. She glanced around to gauge the emotional atmosphere. Tarrant was annoyed, Avon was amused, and Blake wasn't giving anything away. "Are you about to commit a crime we ought to know about?"

"Only thinking about the one I'd like to commit on you. Assault with a friendly weapon?" He leered in a harmless Delta idiot fashion.
"That's not what I heard. Getting a roving eye already?"

Ouch. Vila blustered, but was saved as Jenna turned her annoyance on Blake. "And when were you 'boys' going to get around to telling me and Cally what you had planned?"

She didn't say how she'd found out. Avon suspected hidden audio-pickups on the flight deck, Auron telepathy being more two-way than he'd been led to believe, or possibly collusion with Zen. Or maybe Jenna just had the sharpest ears on the ship.

"Nothing has been decided yet," Blake said.

"We'd like to be in on the planning, not just hear about it when all the details are set and you've fallen in love with your scheme." The way Jenna said it, like wasn't the word.

Blake sighed and ran his hands through his hair. He looked from one stern female face to the other. Cally had said nothing, but he could almost feel her vehement agreement. "I am trying to find a surgeon for Avon. There is a man who has recently been sent to the mutoid conversion facility on Mentor Prime. I believe we can get him and destroy the facility at the same time."

"It won't stop them from making mutoids," Jenna said, but she was sympathetic. Mutoid conversion started with a mind-wipe, then added surgical alterations to brain and body. Blake had been given the first treatment at least once. If he hadn't been a prominent figure whose conversion would cause widespread unrest, they could easily have gone the whole route and made him into an obedient, emotionless machine. Every time he saw one of them, it must tear through him all over again.

"No, but it will slow them down. And that's only a side-benefit. It's Avon's best chance. This surgeon is highly qualified. He's done hundreds of similar trauma operations, with a remarkable success rate. He's almost made to order."

Cally's head went up. She'd been listening, and thinking, unwilling to interrupt until she could add something useful. She remembered what happened the last time they relied on a Federation trained surgeon. "What if he is? Made to order, I mean."

Avon stiffened. "A trap?"

"No, how could it be?" Blake replied. "No one but us knows you've been injured. How could they know to bait the trap with a neurosurgeon?"

All heads turned in Tarrant's direction. He flushed, angry, embarrassed and more than a little frightened. "Now, look, if anyone is innocent, it's me. Zen won't let me communicate outside the ship, remember?"

"That's true. You never did rescind that order," Jenna said to Blake, who nodded.

Tarrant relaxed a little. Lynching seemed less likely.

Vila's head turned toward Orac. The computer sat on the flight deck, twinkling busily, most of the time. Anyone could use it. "But you didn't tell Orac not to send any messages from Tarrant," Vila said. "I never did trust him."

"Why, you... I ought to wring your scrawny neck." Tarrant left the controls and headed for Vila.

Vila yelped and hid behind Avon. Whether he had fallen into old habits, or whether he figured no one would knock a blind man aside just to get at him, is anyone's guess. He wasn't sure why, himself.

Tarrant swerved to go around Avon, accelerating. Avon's cane beeped, and Avon lifted his hand, getting the cane between Tarrant's legs. Tarrant went down with a thud and some loud curses.

Avon cocked his head. "Anything broken?"

"I haven't checked, yet," Tarrant wheezed. His stomach had hit something hard on the way down and he could barely breathe.

"I was referring to my cane."

From the deck, Tarrant gave Avon a dirty look. He couldn't very well get up and smash Vila now, not with the momentum gone. Besides, Blake was there, looking thunderous. Not to mention Cally and Jenna, who were quite capable of murder to protect their Delta pet.

"Excuse me." Avon stepped over Tarrant who flinched, not sure the cane's object sensors were quite refined enough to notice all the bits of him within stepping-on range. Once it was safe, Tarrant got up and brushed himself down. Avon reached Orac, and shoved the activator key in place. "Orac, I have a question for you."

"Yes, what is it? I am very busy. All my circuits are fully occupied, and have been so for the last eighteen days. Stellar phenomenon in this region have never been properly studied. It is an omission I intend to rectify."

"How can all your circuits have been engaged in that research? What about the search for a qualified neurosurgeon?" Avon asked, his eyebrows raising.

"You told me you had found..." Blake came closer.

Avon held up a hand. "Wait. Orac, tell me. Where did the list of qualified surgeons originate?"

"It was a facile task. Far below my capabilities. I assigned it to the nearest suitable computer system with linkages to the database likely to contain the information."

Avon shut his eyes, and clenched his fists. "That wouldn't happen to be a Federation computer?"

"The Federation possesses the nearest such system, yes."

"Orac, you total imbecile." Avon picked up the computer, and held it high above his head.

"Avon!" Blake shouted, "Don't!"

Avon stopped, hands trembling, then deposited the machine back on the counter with a thump. "You're right. It probably wouldn't be enough. I'll go get a laser probe."

"Avon?" Orac seldom spoke without being asked a question, and even less seldom expressed any emotion other than superior irritation. This time, it sounded unsure. Even frightened. "You cannot use a laser probe properly in your condition. Severe damage is likely to occur."

"That's right, Orac. I intend to take you into so many pieces no one will ever be able to put you back together again."

"And I'll help," Vila offered.

"That is an unconscionable waste. I am the most valuable computing device in existence!" Orac was definitely frightened.

"I don't know," Tarrant said. "So far, you've not been any use to me."

"I never liked you," Jenna added.

Cally made no protest. It had never seemed terribly useful to her, either.

"I saved you all from the Andromedans!" Orac shrilled.

There was a long pause as everyone considered that.

"True," Blake replied. "And now you've endangered all of us, and made it much harder to get Avon cured." He refused to believe it was impossible. "We can't trust you, but since you saved us, we owe you your existence. I'm not up to Avon's standards, but I can cut out all your sensory devices and external connections to the universe. You can sit happily in your little plastic cage for eternity, telling yourself you are too good to work for us. It'll provide interesting data for you on your last project- can an artificial mind go insane from sensory deprivation?"

Orac made a strangled noise. "You cannot. The discoveries I can make, the insights I could have, they will all be lost. You will be doing humanity a great disservice, Roj Blake."

"Maybe. If you were a good computer, I might not do it."

"Circuits are all cleared, and ready," Orac said.

"Too little, too late," Avon growled. "Vila, my laser probe." Vila shrugged and produced one, placing it in Avon's right hand. It was actually one of his lock-picking probes, but it would work just as well to demolish Orac.

"Wait! Perhaps a surgeon of slightly less skill would be acceptable. I have located several among the allied non-human races..."

"No." Avon shook his head. "I won't have an alien intern poking around in my medulla."

"The injury is in the Occipital Lobe."

"Precisely."

"Doctor Amil Sandersen was the best candidate. You have robbed me of my best chance." Avon's fingers closed tighter on the probe. "Being blind is one long night. Say goodnight, Orac."

"No, Avon!" Tarrant shouted, even as he wondered why. Orac was only a machine, and one with a rotten personality at that. Maybe that was it. Rotten or not, it had a personality. It was more than a pile of diodes and chips.

Avon turned toward him, glaring, almost meeting his eyes. "I should think you would be the last to defend this machine."

"It might be useful. I think we can still get Sandersen." The probe lowered into the clear plastic box, hovering above the components. Tarrant raised his voice. "With Orac's help!"

Avon pulled the probe back out and tapped it lightly against his other hand. "And what is your plan?"

"The Federation expects us, so they'll be prepared for the Liberator. They'll be prepared for any of you. They won't be prepared for me."

Blake looked at Tarrant, hard. "And what could you do on your own?"
"Provided we let you try," Avon added.

"I've done nothing to make you all so suspicious of me." Tarrant tried to stay calm. He was so tired of never fitting in, never belonging.
"You didn't have to," Vila replied. "You showed up in a Federation uniform... What?" Nearly everyone had turned toward Vila.

"A Federation uniform," said Blake. "You were a Federation officer."

"Exactly. I can waltz in, convince Sandersen I've been sent to take him somewhere, and bring him to you. Then it's up to you to get out the old thumbscrews, and convince him not to slip while he's working on Avon."

"But is Tarrant on the wanted list?" Jenna asked, being practical. "Won't they recognize him, too?"

Tarrant sighed. "I'm not in your league." He gave a brilliant grin. "Yet. I took a ship. I deserted. That doesn't make me unique or particularly noticeable, these days. A lot of the more honorable members of the military didn't like recent changes any better than I did. You'd be surprised by the number of contraband smugglers who graduated from the FSA."

Blake considered it. "It could work. There's still that Federation ship in our hold."

"Klegg's ship." Tarrant had thought it would come in handy. Which is why he argued Orac into letting him put it in a storage hold. It hadn't been easy, either. Orac wouldn't let him leave Liberator, so he'd had to guide the bigger ship around the smaller one instead of simply flying it in, Zen's fine control still damaged from the battle. "It's in good condition, and I doubt it's been reported missing. What with the war, they can't have begun to confirm all the ships that won't ever make it back."

"Orac could check," Cally said. She came up to Avon, and gently took the probe from his hand. "We need Orac."

"I suppose." Avon shook his head. "Just remember, Orac, no matter how we plan this mission, I'll be staying right with you. Whatever happens, I'll have time to do something drastic, and permanent, to you."

"Orac is being incredibly co-operative," Blake told Avon over a quiet meal shared in Avon's quarters. "It's researched Dr. Sandersen's entire life, and pulled so much data on Mentor Prime I can't absorb it all."

"Once Orac is sufficiently motivated, it is an excellent research tool." Avon stabbed at his plate, impaling a hapless hunk of cheese-flavored protein substitute. "I don't doubt the data is accurate."

"But?" Blake heard concern in Avon's voice.

"But we are forced to rely upon Tarrant."

"Orac researched him, too. He deserted after some disciplinary incidents which fit in well with his story of growing disillusioned with the military. Orac and Zen both observed him kill one of the Federation's elite death squad. It seems a bit far-fetched to imagine the Federation sent him out in the middle of a war with a false background and a crew of sacrificial offerings on the off chance he could infiltrate Liberator. On the whole, I'm inclined to trust him."

Avon shook his head. "I'm not." He raised his hand to still Blake's protest. "Oh, I believe he is what he says, and his motivation is exactly as he explains. That's what I don't trust. He left the Federation military because it offended his morality. That does not necessarily make him loyal to the rebel cause. If you will note, he did not join any rebel organization, but went into business for himself as a smuggler. Only Del Tarrant knows where his loyalties, if any, lie."

"He wouldn't betray us."

"Are you willing to bet your life on that?"

"It won't come to that."

"Perhaps." Avon looked pensive. "Perhaps it would be better to shelve this plan, for the time being."

Blake took Avon's hand in his. "No. You need Sandersen, and I need you. I would like you to look at me when we make love. I would like you to see me across a room full of people, and know I love you, just by the way I smile. I would like you to look up, when you feel my eyes on you, and glare at me to mind my own business. I want you back, the way you were, free to tell me to go to hell if I annoyed you, without having to consider how much you need my help."

"I have always felt free to tell you to go to hell," Avon commented. "As for the rest of it, you are being mawkishly sentimental. Our relationship is based on physical attraction, and, I admit, mutual advantage."

"Only in part, Avon. Only in part."

Avon didn't reply. He preferred not to lie directly, and he had a strong suspicion that Blake would see through him if he tried.
"Tarrant goes ahead with the mission," Blake said firmly. "It will be all right, Avon."

Avon sighed. "It is very difficult living with an eternal optimist."

"You should try it from my side. Pessimism gets just as annoying, you know."

"Pessimists live longer."

"Do they?" Blake grinned. "Or does it just seem longer?"

 

Tarrant pulled down the hem of his uniform tunic and straightened the collar, snapping it all the way shut, despite the discomfort. He hadn't gone as far as a regulation haircut, figuring most of the officers this far out on the fringe were less fanatical about regs, but he didn't want to look scruffy, either. Appearance affected the way others responded to you. It had worked fairly well with the commander of the double squadron of Federation pursuit ships lurking all around this planetary system. They let him pass, but he got the distinct impression that they were bored, and hungry for the kill. Compared to Liberator, his measly little ship would hardly constitute a mouthful, but they weren't choosy.

He turned on the ship's communicator. "Mentor Base, this is Space Major Tarrant on a priority mission. Request permission to land."

The prissy-looking individual who stared back at him from his ship's tiny monitor didn't appear favorably impressed. Maybe he should have gotten a haircut. "Space Major, this is Mentor Base. What is the nature of your mission?"

That wasn't the proper rule-book response, which cheered him up slightly. "It is priority, coded on a need-to-know basis. I regret I cannot give you any further information."

"We're on a red-alert here, I can't let just anyone land."

Better and better. "Mentor Base," Tarrant assumed his sternest, most commanding tones. "The alert status of your base is not casual information to be given out on an unsecured channel. It is apparent you do not understand your duty. I will advise Space Command of the necessity for immediate re-training."

"I understand my duty, all right. Provide the proper security code, or I'll have you blasted out of our sky."

And you'd enjoy it, wouldn't you? Tarrant thought to himself as he fed a data cube into his ship's computer for it to transmit to the base. If that plastic pain, Orac, hadn't done its job, he was about to be spattered all over the quadrant.

Prissy-face looked down at his read-out. He said, with ill grace, "Your clearances are in order, Space Major. You may land."

And have a nice day to you, too, Tarrant thought. Out loud he said, "Thank you, Mentor Base. Is your main landing pad clear for my use?"
"It is, Space Major." Without another word, the connection was cut.

Tarrant shook his head. "Whatever happened to good manners?" He decided that if Blake wanted to blow up this base, he'd happily point out the communications centre.

The base was indeed on red-alert. Guards were everywhere, and most of them were mutoids; cold, unemotional, unlikely to be affected by a pleasant smile and a friendly word. However they did obey orders beautifully, and the documents Vila and Orac had mocked up between the two of them were impeccable. He accepted salutes, and directions, and strode on his way, looking as important and not-to-be-interfered-with as possible.

It worked. The mutoids had no curiosity and the full humans didn't want to get themselves in trouble. No one raised a fuss as he worked his way into the conversion centre, past the military presence to the medical ambiance. Here the mutoids were dressed as orderlies, and the humans were more at ease in their midst. Why not? They were responsible for making these vampires. Tarrant's skin crawled every time he had to touch one's hand in order to pass his documents to them. This was one of the reasons he'd deserted. More and more of these soulless monsters were showing them up on ships of the line. He was told they were hardened criminals, and that this was more merciful than execution, but it didn't feel that way to him. Too many of them were young and attractive. There was a stench about it of corruption, of selecting innocents to abuse. He couldn't prove anything, but he couldn't stomach serving with them, either.

"Doctor Sandersen?" Tarrant had arrived at a door with that name on it. The individual sitting behind the computer console making notes looked comfortable, as if at his own place. He was fairly sure he'd gotten it right.

"Yes?" The man who looked up didn't fit Tarrant's image of a highly-respected surgeon, or even the dedicated Federation citizen who would risk himself in order to capture enemies of the state. He was a chubby, balding man who had probably once been quite handsome, and hadn't yet realized that the bloom had gone off the rose. He was wearing surgical scrubs, along with a heavy gold necklace and a bit too much expensive cologne.

"I am Space-Major Tarrant, with the Intelligence Division. I've been sent to take you to another location." Tarrant showed all his 'official' identifications, clearances, and 'secret' orders.

Sanderson read the documents, frowned, rubbed his eyes, and glanced back down at his computer. "Is it necessary? I just got here two days ago. I haven't even finished unpacking." He didn't appear suspicious, just reluctant.

"I am afraid it is, Doctor," Tarrant said with just the right blend of sympathy and determination. "Somehow, the information provided to the rebels listed your posting as at Gamma Prime, not Mentor Prime. They have been reported in that quadrant, so they did take the bait, but if you're not there, they may run before we're ready for them."

"I was scheduled to go to Gamma Prime for a seminar on Alpha-wave neuro-induction." The doctor sighed. "They pulled me out of that to come to this place." He looked bewildered. "All I want is to do my work and be left in peace."

"I understand, Doctor. Unfortunately, we can't change the information again, not without alerting them to the trap."

"I suppose not." Sandersen rose to his feet. "Should I take everything with me? I had understood it might be necessary for me to operate on one of the rebels."

"Yes. That part of the plan hasn't changed. I have a Mark Three pursuit ship. It should have sufficient space for whatever you will need. We want the rebels alive, and able to stand trial if at all possible so it would be best if you did actually perform the operation."

"Very well." Sandersen looked around his office. "I can't say as I really mind leaving. This isn't the most congenial posting I've ever had." He took a tunic off a rack, and slipped it on over the surgical scrubs. "Should I inform the base commander?"

"No, I've taken care of everything. Just make sure you've got what you need for the operation."

The doctor said, "I haven't been assigned any duties yet, so I've got all my specialized equipment in my quarters, still in the packing cases. Anything else I need should already be on hand in any well-equipped surgical unit."

"That's all right, then." Tarrant wasn't an expert, but Cally had assured him that Liberator's facilities were the equal of anything in the Federation.

The doctor ordered a trio of mutoids to accompany them in order to carry his personal effects and equipment. Tarrant would have preferred an auto-loader, but the base had a surplus of mutoid labor, so it was natural to use it.

The last crate loaded and secured and mutoids departed, Tarrant turned to Sandersen, who was sitting in the navigator's position looking uncertain once more.

"That's it," Tarrant said, cheerily. "I've already cleared us with the base." He fired up the engines.

"Space-Major?"

"Yes?" Tarrant said, only part of his attention on the take-off.

"Where is the rest of your crew?"

"Right here." Tarrant's hand came up, holding a gun. He beamed at the other man. "My faithful, right-hand man."

Sandersen shrank back in his seat, his eyes like saucers. "You're a rebel."

"I suppose I am, now. Don't worry, Doctor Sandersen. If you do as you're told, we'll release you unharmed. Blake will probably even pay you for your services." He kept one eye on the doctor, the other on the controls. Neither looked to be trouble.

"With a gun?" Sandersen was trembling, now.

"Only if you hurt Avon. He's very important to Blake."

Tarrant rendezvoused with Liberator , which was waiting a safe distance beyond the system, neatly settled the pursuit ship into one of Liberator's capacious holds and then turned to Sandersen. "We're here. Stand up, slowly, and move toward the lock."

Sandersen obeyed, still wide-eyed and pale.

Tarrant activated the lock. "Here he is," he announced gaily as the door opened and the two he expected to see were there.

"Good job." That was Blake.

"And do you expect a medal?" That was Avon, of course.

"Not from you, Avon." Tarrant escorted Sandersen down the two steps to the deck of the hold, with his hand firmly on Sandersen's elbow. "The gentlemen in black and scowls is your patient, Kerr Avon. The gentleman in green and saintly halo is Roj Blake, rebel leader extraordinare."

Sandersen looked at Avon, in black leather and white cane, then at Blake, stern and imposing. He made a small noise, his eyes rolled up white, and he collapsed, dead weight pulling Tarrant down too.

"What?" Avon asked. It was frustrating, knowing something had happened, but having no idea what.

Pulling the doctor off Tarrant, Blake said, "The doctor fainted."

Tarrant asked, "Was it something I said?"

"More likely it was Blake's reputation preceding him," Avon answered. Tarrant had come through, and Avon felt much more kindly toward him than usual.

"Or yours," Blake said.

"Nonsense. Everyone knows you are the leader of this band of merry men. I am eclipsed in your shadow, an insignificant object compared to your brilliance."

Blake said, "I'll remind you of that, next time you argue about a mission."

"I said that was your reputation. Reality is something else again." Guided by his cane, Avon led the way out of the hold. "In future, it might be better to have Vila talk to the doctor. I don't expect he can do his best work when frightened mindless."

"Vila could sympathize with him," Tarrant said.

Avon showed his teeth. "Whatever it takes, Tarrant."

"Wake up, Sandersen."

The doctor groaned, and put his hands to his head. "Must I?"

"Actually, yes, you do have to." Blake smiled. Sandersen did remind him of Vila.

Sandersen lowered his hands, and looked at Blake. "You're Blake."

"I am."

"This is the Liberator ?"
"It is."

"And the Federation doesn't know I'm here?"

"They don't. Whether you get out of this alive depends entirely on you. My friend, Avon, was injured-"

"While blowing up Federation citizens, no doubt," Sandersen said, with his first show of spirit.

Blake raised his eyebrows. "No actually, he was wounded during the Intergalactic War, holding Liberator in the breech until the Federation could arrive." No sense in saying he was hurt after the battle. If he hadn't kept Liberator there and fought, he wouldn't have been hurt at all.

"And I'm to believe that?"

"It doesn't matter what you believe. Except for this. I will not hesitate to kill you if you refuse to operate on Avon, or if the operation fails. Do you believe that?" Blake's eyes burned into Sandersen's soul.

Sandersen shuddered. "Yes."

"Good, then we understand each other." Blake had been squatting beside Sandersen's bed. Now he pushed to his feet. "Liberator has a very advanced medical unit. We've put your equipment there, and you will be given time to familiarize yourself with everything, and discuss the operation with Cally, our medical officer. Anything you need will be provided. Once Avon is assured of a full recovery, we will put you down on some neutral world of your choice, along with these." Blake reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of gems and tossed them negligently on the bed. "To pay you for your work, and your inconvenience."

"And what if I must change my identity, and never practice my profession again?"

"Then consider that a down-payment. Half now, and half on Avon's recovery. With that much, you need never work again. You can carry out independent research, and still live a life of luxury." Orac had given a great deal of background on Doctor Sandersen. He liked expensive things, and couldn't afford as many as he wished. The Federation was his employer, but he was loyal to himself, first and foremost.

"I'll do it," Sandersen said. He touched the gems, hesitantly. "But maybe you'll kill me afterward. It would be cheaper."

"Liberator has a whole vault full of those," Blake said, honestly. "I'll show you later. They are meaningless to me, except for what they can buy. Right now, I want to buy your skills, and your best effort for my friend."

Sandersen's hand closed around the largest gem, a water-pure, blue-white diamond. "You've got yourself a deal."

"Well?"

Blake turned from locking Sandersen's cabin door. Avon was waiting in the hall, knuckles white with the pressure he exerted on his cane. "You could have talked to the doctor yourself."

"That's what I keep you around for. What's the point in having your very own demagogue, if he can't argue for you?"

"Oh, so that's why you let me associate with you?" Blake moved closer, so close his breath was warm on Avon's cheek.

"Why else?" Avon asked, all innocence. He put his hands out, and pulled Blake to him. Lips a bare inch away from Blake's he stopped and whispered, "Your verdict on the good doctor?"

"He bribes very well. For that amount of money he would operate on history's worst mass-murderer, let alone the current number two on the Most-Wanted list."

Avon frowned. "Number two?"

"Unless you want to upstage me, yes. Would you care to cut a swathe through Federation bases and rouse a few rabble in your own name?"

"I'd rather cut a swathe through the Federation banking system. And as for rebel- rousing..." Here Avon's hand dipped below Blake's belt-line. "I'll settle for rousing this one."

"Er, um. Hey, are you two going to snuggle in the corridors all day?" A voice cut in just as things were getting interesting.

"Vila, go away," Avon said, before lowering his mouth to Blake's.

"Cally wants to know should she set up the medical unit. Jenna wants to know if we should hang about here and wait for the pursuit ships to come looking for Sandersen, Tarrant wants to know if he can have his very own Liberator... Ah, I thought that would get your attention!" Vila chortled, as Blake and Avon broke the lip-lock, and turned on him, annoyed. "I mean, there's a time and a place for everything, and while generally speaking, any time and place is pretty good for what you two had in mind..."

"Vila!" Avon and Blake shouted near simultaneously.

Vila grinned. "So what do I tell everyone?"

Blake replied, "Tell Jenna we're heading for neutral territory. I don't want to hear a peep out of the Federation until we're back to full strength."

"Provided all goes well," Avon remarked.

"Have a little faith, Avon."

"I do. A very little faith." Avon shuddered. "If anything happens..."

"Nothing will," Blake said.

Avon grabbed Blake's shoulders and shook, as hard as he could. "I am serious. If something goes drastically wrong, and you are left with an aphasic vegetable on your hands, kill me. I could perhaps stand to live forever blind, maybe even deaf and dumb, as you suggested once to Tarrant, but I will not be paralyzed, totally helpless, and a burden on all of you."

"It won't come to that."

"If it does, I want your word."

"Avon," Blake groaned. "Don't make me promise that."

Avon paused, then turned his head to one side. "All right. If you do not care enough to respect my wishes, I will have to ask someone else. Perhaps Jenna. Or possibly Cally. Of us all, she has doubtless the strongest stomach."

"Then why didn't you ask her in the first place?" Blake asked, stung by Avon's harsh tone.

"Because I thought you had the right," Avon's voice was low and intense.

Blake hugged Avon. "All right. If there's no hope. But only then."

This time, Blake didn't wait until the last minute to make certain the doctor knew the advantages of success and the disadvantages of failure. He had Tarrant and Jenna accompany him as he took Sandersen to the 'treasure room' and invited him to fill a large pouch with as many gems as he liked, to be set aside for the second half of his payment. Then he stuck the muzzle of his gun under Sandersen's jaw, and said, "If Avon has an 'accident' on the operating table, I will blow your head off. If I believe it was an accident. You don't want to know what I'll do if I feel it was deliberate."

Sandersen dropped the pouch and swallowed. His eyes went to Jenna in appeal. "No surgeon can guarantee success in every case. No one's perfect."

Jenna said, "This time, you had better be perfect. Blake doesn't entirely trust you."

Tarrant grinned. "You see, we're on the run, so we can't sue you for malpractice like good, law-abiding citizens."

Jenna grinned back at him. "That's the nice part about being rebels. You don't have to hire a solicitor to handle your affairs. We take care of our own."

"It's much neater that way," Tarrant said. "And so much more satisfying."

Sandersen was beginning to go white, so Blake pulled the gun back, and smiled. "But we won't have to do anything to you, will we?

"No. No," Sandersen mumbled.

Jenna leaned down to pick up the pouch he'd dropped. She added a few large emeralds to the gems already inside, then pulled the drawstring tight, and tossed it to the doctor. He fumbled, but caught it. "I've had some experience valuing gemstones," she told him. "What you're holding in your hands is worth, by conservative estimate, half a million credits. Frankly, I don't think Avon's worth that much."

"You never did see his good side," Blake said, mildly.

Jenna tossed her hair. "He doesn't have one, but he's been less of a nuisance lately, and it's been getting on my nerves. I like Avon better if I can fight with him."

Tarrant agreed with her. "So would I."

Blake looked at Tarrant, his expression bland. He rubbed his chin. "I doubt it, Tarrant. But we'll see." He turned to Sandersen. "Cally has the medical unit set up as you instructed with all your equipment in place. Orac is there in case you need any information. Are you prepared to begin?"

"I could use a few more days to study ..." Sandersen looked at Blake's eyes, at the coldness lurking in the back. He gulped. "I'm ready, but, please, don't come into the operating theatre to threaten me. That would be the quickest way to kill my patient."

"All right. I'll stay out of your way. Cally will be there to assist you. Is there anything else you need?"

"I really ought to have another assistant."

"Not me," Jenna said, stepping back and shaking her head. "I'm no nurse."

"Vila wouldn't be much help," Tarrant said. "He'd faint at the first drop of blood."

"Very likely," Blake replied. "Thank you for volunteering, Tarrant."

"Now, wait a minute. I didn't volunteer for anything," Tarrant protested. "I've no medical training."

"Except for what Cally's picked up on her own, none of us have. The doctor won't have me," Blake said. "And even if he would, I don't think I could be emotionally objective enough to be much use. Vila is out of the question, you've agreed to that, and Jenna is more experienced at piloting Liberator than you are. You're it."

Tarrant thought it over for a few seconds. Blake was right. "You owe me, Blake."

Blake smiled.

***

Tarrant looked down at Kerr Avon, his nemesis, and sighed. It was hard to stay angry at an unconscious man lying on his stomach wearing a translucent operating smock that tended to fall open exposing pale, tender skin and a softly rounded arse. He reached out and tucked the offending bit of drapery back in place. Avon wasn't a friend, but he was a man and deserved a bit of dignity.

Cally smiled, and handed him the clipper. She turned Avon's head slightly, and marked off the area to be shaved. The marking covered nearly all the back of his head, and extended to the left side.

Tarrant wielded the shaver, slowly at first, then with increasing enthusiasm as he imagined Avon's reaction to waking up to a half-bald state. He finished with a flourish, and said, "He's not going to be happy about that."

"Why?" Cally asked, puzzled. "It is necessary. In order to reach the affected areas, an externally invasive procedure is required. Hair must be removed, so that the contours of the skull are more visible."

"Yes, but you know, Avon's vain. You've seen the way he dresses. The man's a peacock."

Cally considered. She recalled seeing Tarrant only the day before in a burgundy velvet tunic patterned with glittering gold star-studs. Diplomatically, she said, "Blake has been helping Avon dress lately. And what does vanity have to do with this?"

"Cally, he's bald!"

"Only temporarily. A tissue regenerator will accelerate the growth of follicles as well as other soft-body parts. He will awaken looking the same."

Tarrant sighed again. Cally swabbed the operation site with antiseptic, and turned on the sterilizing light to kill any airborne germs. She and Tarrant had already prepared themselves and the operating theatre. Everything was ready.

Sandersen entered, gowned and disinfected, calm and competent. He was in his own area of expertise. He observed the monitoring equipment, the neat array of instruments, and the patient. He nodded. "Shall we begin?"

***

Blake paced. Up and back, down and around. Vila was getting dizzy watching him. They didn't have a proper waiting room, so Blake was doing all this on the flight deck, during Vila's watch. He had suggested, once, that maybe Blake ought to get some rest, and the glare he got made him decide to mind his own business.

"It's been three hours!" Blake snapped.

"Tarrant says it's going well," Vila replied. He shivered, thinking how shaky Tarrant had sounded, and what he must have seen to affect him that way. But that was at least half an hour ago.

"It shouldn't take this long. Should it?" Blake turned and headed for the exit again. He'd done that at least every half hour. "No. Cally is there. She'll watch Sandersen."

"That's right. Cally will take care of things. You can trust Cally," Vila soothed. Blake had gone from nibbling knuckles to gnawing thumbs. It was time for emergency measures. Vila reached under the flight deck couch and pulled up the loose cushion. He prodded into the recess and came out with a dusty bottle and a real glass, not one of your plastic replicas. He blew the dust off, ran a finger over the label and heaved a great sigh. He was saving this for when the Federation fell, or when they made a really big score or maybe just a really blue Monday. But Blake needed it more than he did for once. He cracked the seal.

Blake stopped, and sniffed as the ambrosial scent reached his nostrils. "Vila," he growled, "you know better. No drinking on watch."

"You're not on watch." Vila poured, letting the liquid gold gurgle into the glass. "And I can't watch you any more. Here."

"It won't help Avon." Blake didn't accept the glass, but neither did he move away.

"It won't hurt him, either. And I bet he wouldn't like you worrying yourself into a tizzy."

"No, he wouldn't, would he." Blake smiled, slightly. "All right, but just one." He took the glass, examined it, admired the color and the scent, and rolled it between his hands until Vila was about ready to scream, then he tossed it back in one gulp, handed Vila the glass, and resumed pacing.

Vila sighed again, and mentally kissed the bottle goodbye. He poured another glass and shoved it into Blake's hand on the next circuit. This time there was less savoring, but the gulp was the same.

"Blake!" Cally came onto the flight deck slowly, sweaty, disheveled and exhausted.

"Shh," Vila said, finger to lips. "Don' distur' Blake. He's had a hard day." Vila beamed, and patted the flight deck couch beside him.

Cally came down, curious and peered over the edge of the couch. Blake was lying there, tear-streaks running down his face, while one thumb was stuck in the side of his mouth. "Vila!" Cally said, reproachfully, but quietly, looking at the empty bottle between the two men.

"He needed it."

"And what about you?" Cally took the empty bottle from Vila's lax grip.

"Couldn't let it 'vaporate. Once it's open, you know. He had most of it," Vila protested. "Only lef' me a few drops," he turned mournful.

"It must be very potent, then." Cally went to the storage locker and found a pair of blankets. She put one over Blake and the other over Vila. "Vila. This is important. Will you remember to tell Blake?"

"I can remember fine!" Vila said, indignantly. His eyes crossed, and he passed out. Cally shook her head, and went to the inter-ship communicator to summon Jenna. Someone had to watch the ship and she and Tarrant were too wrung out emotionally as well as physically.

She would have stayed and tried to talk to Blake, but she was nearly asleep on her feet. It would wait, she decided. Until morning.

***

It was dark. Pitch black. Not so much as a single shade of gray to lighten his gloom, let alone the dim yellow safety lights that remained on at all times in the corners and near the doors of the living quarters. He was in his own bed, not the medical unit's narrow, hard pallet, so they had done what they could, and this was the final result. He was still blind. Avon tried not to let his disappointment show, in case anyone was watching. He moved his hand, and ran the fingers over his other arm. His legs also worked properly, he decided, tentatively, not yet willing to try getting up. He could hear well enough. The rustle of bed-clothes, the sound of Blake's breathing. He'd know that sound anywhere. Blake was asleep, somewhere quite nearby, and sleeping quite heavily from the sound of it.

After hearing the bad news, Blake must have gotten drunk. He couldn't blame him. It must have come as quite a shock to such an optimist. At least the operation hadn't made matters worse. He was only blind.

Only that. Well, now, decision time. Blake had already said he wouldn't let Avon go, blind and vulnerable, no matter what the consequences. Avon had found a private moment with Orac to confirm his suspicions. His presence made disaster a virtual certainty. That was unacceptable.

So. Three choices. 1) Suicide. 2) Escape. 3) Change Blake's mind. In order, they were 1) Invidious, 2) Improbable, and 3) Impossible.

Well, perhaps he could convince Vila to help him escape.

Blake's breathing changed. He was waking. Avon braced himself for an emotional scene to end all scenes. It would be very unpleasant.

"Avon?"

"That was my name. The last I Iooked," the bitterness came through, despite his determination to the contrary. "When I could look."

"You mean the operation failed?" Blake's surprise sounded genuine.

So, Cally isn't as courageous as I had thought. She couldn't tell him. "I can see nothing."

"Oh, Avon." He heard Blake get up, doubtless to offer comfort. Avon cringed at the thought, then recoiled in earnest as a loud 'whump' was followed by some even louder curses.

"What happened?" Avon asked, annoyed all over again that he had to request a running commentary of the simplest things.

"I think I broke my toe," Blake replied. "Some idiot's turned off the safety lights, and I ran right into the desk. I think it's the desk."

"The lights are off?"

"Yes. The safety's been over-ridden." Blake spoke slower. "You mean, you don't know that you're blind. Wait. The control's near the desk, somewhere."

Even knowing it was ridiculous, Avon held his breath as Blake fumbled, knocked things over, and in general turned Avon's orderly desk into a swamp. "Get back," he finally said, "I can find it easier than you. I'm used to the dark." He was still a little fuzzy from sedation, but his fingers found the switch. He hesitated.

"Have you found it?" Blake asked.

"Yes." Avon hesitated another moment, then pressed the switch. He yelped, and pressed it again almost immediately, turning the lights back off.

"Avon?" Blake said. "I saw the lights. Only for a second. Why did you turn them off again?"

"Because it hurt, you great, gawking idiot."
"What hurt?"

"The light! I could see the light!" Avon laughed. "I'm not blind, I'm not." Abruptly, he was sobbing in relief, and his arms were full of weeping rebel. It was the emotional scene to end all emotional scenes and Avon was very glad that it was dark and there were no witnesses.

After some time he realized it was becoming uncomfortable. And he had to be sure. "Blake?"

"Avon?"

"Turn the lights on."

"Are you sure? Won't it hurt?"

"It won't do any real damage. Sandersen warned that I would be sensitive to light for a while. That was why the lights were off. I can't understand why I didn't remember that."

"Perhaps you had other things on your mind."

"I can't imagine what. Blake. Turn the lights on. Now." Of course, Avon could do it himself, but he wanted it to be Blake who brought light back into his world. Nauseatingly sentimental, yes, but still, it felt right.

"Quarter power," Blake said first, being cautious, and waited for the small click that indicated the proper relay had been set, then, "Lights On!"

Avon shut his eyes just before the order and instinctively his hands came up to cover his face. He had a feeling this was going to hurt like blazes, one way or the other.

"Avon?"

He felt hands on his, gently urging him to open up. "Just a minute," he said. "I'm trying to get up the nerve."

Blake chuckled.

That did it. He had to see Blake smiling, had to see those calm, impervious eyes crinkled at the edges and softened. Avon opened his eyes to pale golden light and shadowed corners. It did hurt, but he blinked and kept on looking. He felt his mouth stretch into an involuntary grin as he stared directly into Blake's eyes.

"You can see," Blake whispered.

"As you can see. I can see." Avon laughed, feeling absurdly young and wonderfully free from decorum. His grin widened to the point where that hurt, too. He couldn't stop. Blake wasn't smiling anymore, he was simply gazing at Avon, looking like a child who's been offered a gift too wonderful to believe in. "You are a mess, Blake. Literally, a sight for sore eyes." Blake was decidedly rumpled, even more than usual. His floppy-sleeved pirate shirt was buttoned awry, his curls were flattened on one side with a large red mark on the corresponding cheek, and he positively reeked of liquor.

Blake's grin returned. "Sorry about that. Blame Vila."

"Vila got you drunk? Oh, I am sorry I wasn't there."

"So am I. I don't recall the precise sequence of events, but I think somewhere along the line Vila proposed we set Jenna to wrestling Servalan bare-handed. In a vat of treacle."

"Naked?"

"Oh, that goes without saying."

Avon put his head to one side, thinking, but his eyes remained locked with Blake's. "Perhaps we ought to try it out first. Get the logistics right."

"Servalan isn't here. Nor Jenna, either."

"And there isn't any treacle," Avon added. "We'll just have to make do." He reached out, and encountered the first of Blake's mis-matched buttons. He made a 'tcha' sound with his tongue and shook his head as he undid all the buttons and pushed the shirt off. "You need someone to dress you."

"I need you," Blake said, quietly. "I need you so badly. I woke up on the flight deck, and you weren't there. I had to come, to be with you. But you were asleep and I couldn't wake you. I tried." He frowned. "And then I fell asleep."

"Come here."

Blake was exhausted. He came, and settled his head against Avon's chest. There was nothing sexual about it. Avon's hand began sifting through Blake's hair. "Sorry. I don't think I can. Too drunk." His heart was full to bursting with love, but nothing was happening downstairs.

"It doesn't matter. Come here." Avon patted the bed beside himself. He pulled Blake up and stretched him out on the bed, and tugged off his boots. Blake settled into the bed, heavy-lidded eyes drooping. Avon undid Blake's belt buckle, pulled the belt loose after a fight with Blake's increasingly limp weight, gave up on the trousers, and lay down beside Blake, one arm over the broad, smooth chest, other hand playing with Blake's hair. "Tomorrow."

Blake's eyes flickered. "Is that a promise?"

"Or a threat. You won't be able to push me around any more." Avon's grin took the sting out of that remark.

"Fine." Blake yawned. "I'll let Tarrant do it."

Avon frowned. "Would you, really?"

"As long as he only wants to beat you up." Blake's eyes sharpened. "He is tall, young, handsome, has curly hair, and the most marvelous blue eyes."

"Um." Avon's eyes half-closed. "Perhaps I was too harsh on him. Do you think I ought to be kinder to the lad?"

Blake growled and rolled, taking Avon in his arms. "No."

Avon grinned. "Somehow, I thought you'd say that."

"Avon." Blake lifted his head to stare into Avon's eyes. "Shut up. Kiss me, and go to sleep."

"Orders, orders," Avon grumbled. "Is that how ..." Blake's lips came down on his, effectively silencing him. After a while, they released each other and arranged themselves for comfort, side by side.

"We'll have to drop Doctor Sandersen off somewhere before we can get back to business," Blake said, sleepily. Now that Avon was fine, his mind was whirling with ideas. "I was thinking, we really ought to take care of the mutoid factory on Mentor Prime. We have all that information that Orac collected. It seems a pity not to use it."

Avon gave him a 'look'. "Not in bed. I find it difficult to argue properly under the circumstances."

"Hmm. Maybe we should have all our conferences here."

Avon elbowed Blake in the gut. Not too hard, but enough to get his attention. "Only if you also want us to have sex on the flight deck, in front of the crew."

"Maybe we'd better keep things separate."

"I thought you'd say that."

"But not too separate."

"Blake?"

"Yes, Avon?"

"Shut up. Kiss me, and go to sleep."

Avon's lips came down on Blake's for the briefest, softest moment. Then he whispered against Blake's ear. "Tomorrow. And that is a promise." He laid his head down against Blake's chest and listened to the steady heartbeat of the galaxy's most-wanted-man. And he's mine, was his last pleased, possessive thought before he fell asleep.

1998-STIFfie-Divide-Conquer