Avon leaned impassively against the wall, arms folded across his chest, as Vila rummaged through chests and drawers.
"What are we going to do with it all?" Vila asked hopelessly.
"Junk it," Avon replied succinctly. "Even Blake isn't large enough to fit into Gan's clothes."
"I can't do that!" Vila protested automatically. "It's.. it's..." He fumbled, lost for the words he wanted.
Avon shifted his position, not totally immune to Vila's distress. "Whatever you do, it won't bring Gan back," he pointed out logically. "Do you want me to do the job?"
Vila looked up in surprise at the offer, then declined. "No," he said. "Gan was my friend, not yours. You never gave a damn about him anyway." He started taking items down from a set of shelves: a holocube of a group of mountains that developed a snowstorm when you shook it; a pile of booktapes; a couple of fir cones. Fir cones? Where on Earth, or any other world for that matter, had Gan picked those up? Vila shook his head. It was amazing what could be collected in a couple of years bumming about the galaxy. He moved onto the next shelf, gathering up a clock, and a bottle of some patent remedy guaranteed to cure all forms of depression of the spirit. Had Gan really believed in that stuff? Maybe he'd been desperate enough to try anything when his limiter was playing up. Further along there was a small cuddly toy - hard to say what sort of animal it was meant to represent - a bear possibly. Vila rather liked the look of it in spite of its garish colour. He decided to keep it as a memento. Next was a mass of modelling clay - some amateur work of art, and obviously unfinished. Vila lifted it down for a better look. A woman's head, but no one he recognised. She wasn't terribly pretty. Wanting to remember Gan by his achievements and not by his failures, Vila took aim in the general direction of the waste disposal chute to see if he could hit it first try.
Vila turned around at the command. "Are you trying to tell me," he demanded in outright disbelief, "that you want this piece of junk?"
Avon held out a hand. "Give it to me."
Vila was tempted to hold back, just to annoy him, but there was something in Avon's expression that brooked no denial. He handed the sculpture over, settling for verbal insults instead. "You, the alpha connoisseur? You're lowering your standards a bit aren't you?"
Avon stared Vila hard in the eye, then gave his full attention to the sculpture, turning it round and round in his hands - remembering.
The ground underfoot was slippery and uneven, the light from the torches they held, totally inadequate. Avon cursed as he scrambled over a broken rock, his boot landing in a pool of water. At this point the roof of the cave was too low to allow him to stand up fully, and he was developing an ache in his neck.
"I thought Blake's informant said these caves were passable," he snarled.
"Jorgens was a caving enthusiast," Gan replied. "He went all through this cavern system years before the base was built."
"Are you telling me," Avon said in stark disbelief, "that he went through here for fun?"
Gan shone his torch over a veil of translucent rock that flowed down the far wall of the cave. "It is beautiful," he said.
Avon didn't bother to answer that. Beauty was fine when you were above ground and in a comfortable position to appreciate it. Several hundred metres underground in a series of limestone caves with water running through them, was not his idea of the perfect place to be. He shone his torch along the line of the stream, seeking the entrance to the next cave. "Charming," he muttered under his breath. The water entered the current cavern through a narrow crevice. They were going to have to wade through knee-deep water - it was bound to get inside their boots. That was in addition to the delights of trying to squeeze between two irregular walls that refused to do anything so sensible as maintaining a straight vertical.
His bracelet chimed. Avon snarled mentally and pressed the button.
<Are you managing all right?> Blake asked.
"Yes," Avon said shortly, "and we'll manage even better without interruptions."
<You're sure you know what has to be done?>
He didn't even give that one the dignity of a reply. They'd be under the base's shield soon, and the prospect of a communication's blackout was beginning to look increasingly attractive.
He flashed his torch at the crevice ahead. It didn't seem any more inviting than it had before. Avon sighed inwardly and moved forward, placing his feet carefully on the rocks made slippery by the stream.
"How much further?" Gan asked. He didn't seem at all tired. Boring though his company was, Avon had to admit that Gan had been a good choice for this expedition. He made light work of climbs that had given Avon real problems. Much though he hated to admit it, Avon wasn't sure that he'd have made it this far without Gan's help. That thought was irritating in itself - dependency irked Avon.
He glanced at the display on his datapad. "If Jorgens' information was correct, then the water intake should be somewhere in his cavern."
"The well you mean?"
"More or less. The water intake for the base is supposed to run down an old well shaft." Avon sounded sceptical.
"If we go round the walls in opposite directions, we'll find it faster."
Avon didn't bother to answer that. He set off to the right, looking for signs of an opening in the roof. Any shaft here would presumably end with the ceiling - there would have been no need to build a solid wall down to the level of the water.
The torchlight reflected off metal. There was the pipe. It terminated in a deep pool which was constantly refilled as the stream flowed into it. Looking up, Avon could see the climb before them. The shaft went beyond the range of his torch. The sides were rough and uneven. There were handholds here and there, but for much of the climb, they were going to be dependent on bracing themselves between the rock and the metal of the pipe. For the first time, Avon had serious doubts as to whether they would be able to enter the base at all. It was one thing for a caving enthusiast to claim that the shaft was easy to climb - quite another thing for two rebels, with minimal equipment beyond pitons and rope, to attempt.
Avon turned the clay around in his hands. The woman wasn't a classic beauty; it was easy to see why Vila hadn't been interested in her. Still, there was an indefinable quality to the face. Gan had obviously taken great pains with his work. Gan had always taken care in everything he did.
Coming back down the shaft had been no easier than going up it. Every muscle in Avon's back screamed complaint. The sound of the distant explosions, magnified by the echo from below, gave him a small degree of satisfaction: at least they had achieved what they had come here to do. He wedged himself tightly against the wall, checked the rope holding him to Gan, and brought his wrist up to his mouth. "Liberator, this is Avon."
Damn. He tried again. Still no response. Either the Liberator was off station, or else the explosions that had destroyed the research base had failed to take out the shield generator.
He looked up at Gan waiting patiently above him.
"I can't contact Liberator. We'll have to get out of range of the shield before we know if they're still there or not."
"All right. Can you manage?"
"Yes." He had to manage, there was no other option.
Three quarters of the way down, Avon put too much weight on a badly driven piton and slipped. He fell several metres in blind fear before the rope caught him and held. He spun in the blackness, the torch dangling from his belt shining into the depths below him. For a moment there was nothing below him but emptiness, and nothing above him but the dazzling light of Gan's torch shining in his eyes. Then Avon regained control; he reached out and hooked his fingers around the cold, unyielding stone and felt the comfort of its security. Gradually, he shifted his weight to where he could feel himself supported by solid, unmoving rock.
"Thanks," he said quietly.
Gan let out some slack in the rope to allow Avon freedom of movement. "The piton caught you."
Avon said nothing. The rope had been clipped onto a piton, but he'd felt the jerk of it pulling out as he fell. Without Gan he'd have been dead.
They moved on downwards without any further exchange of words.
The final scramble down into the cavern was a relief. Avon worked his way down the wall and collapsed at the bottom, abused muscles screaming out for relief. Gan sat beside him for a minute or so, the silence around them absolute. In the quiet, Avon was conscious of the sound of his on breathing, and the almost imperceptible sound of the water flowing in its course.
"Water?" Gan asked.
Avon nodded and got to his feet. He could use a drink. Squatting down by the water's edge, toes almost in the water, he scooped up a handful of water. It was cold, but the flavour was clear and refreshing.
Gan drank beside him. "It's flowing faster than before."
Was it? The stream did seem a little wider than he recalled. Avon came abruptly to his feet. "We'd better get moving. If there's been heavy rain, these caverns could flood."
The thought was not a pleasant one. It hadn't rained recently near the base, but the stream's catchment area and the nature of the local geology was largely unknown. Rain seeping through the rocks from weeks ago, or falling on a distant tributary, might cause the stream to suddenly become a river. Flowing underground, its width constrained by the caves, it would get deeper. How deep, Avon didn't like to guess. He started walking without waiting to see if Gan was following him. Usually in a dangerous situation, there was something he could do about it - fight, argue, attempt to repair what was broken. Here, there was just the implacable force of nature, and all he could do was flee and hope that that would be enough.
The route seemed even longer and more tortuous than it had when they came in. Crawls through narrow abandoned watercourses, climbs up slippery rock faces, and the relentlessly increasing depth of the water when they were forced to wade through it. There was no doubt now that the water level was rising. Places where the water had barely come over his boot tops, now soaked Avon well up his legs.
He tried his bracelet again, more from discipline than optimism. The lack of any response came as no surprise. If Liberator had been able to make contact, they would have been trying to call him by now. He half turned as he heard Gan behind him trying his own bracelet. A pointless exercise really, but there was always the chance that Avon's own bracelet was faulty. Gan shook his head. No luck there either.
Avon turned back again, and slipped. A wet stone skidded from under his foot in the dim light, and he fell awkwardly. Pain shot through his leg as a rock caught him under the shin. His torch smashed onto the ground and promptly went out.
"Avon! Are you all right?"
He tried to sit up, and his leg screamed agony. He felt slightly sick, his original sharp retort dying unspoken.
"I think I've broken my leg."
"Let me look at it." Gan ran his hands carefully along the offending limb, pausing at Avon's sudden sharp intake of breath.
"Since when did you become a medical expert?"
There was reproach on Gan's face. "I've been trying to study. I can't kill, I have have to find some way to be of use."
Another convert to Blake's cause.
"And just how far have your studies taken you?" Avon asked suspiciously.
"Not very far yet, but," he added, sounding surprisingly firm, "I do know a broken bone, and I do know what to do about it."
"And if there's nothing to use as a splint, what does your medical genius say then?" Avon answered caustically. He almost regretted saying that. Gan was trying to help him after all.
"We wait," Gan said as though it was totally obvious.
Wait. Something inside Avon panicked at the thought. He was sitting in a shallow pool of water now. If the water rose any further, they would be completely trapped. "We can't wait," he insisted. "It's too dangerous."
"We don't have any choice. I could carry you through the larger caverns, but you'd never make it through the crawlways. Some of the lower sections will be totally underwater by now. Don't worry, Blake will come for us."
Blake will come for us, Avon though sourly. That was terrific. Always assuming that Liberator was still in one piece, always assuming that Blake could make it through the caves, always assuming that they didn't drown first. But Gan had faith in Blake, and Gan would do exactly what Blake would have have done in similar circumstances: stay in spite of the risk to himself. Avon found that attitude irritating - he disliked being obliged to anyone.
Gan fumbled through voluminous pockets, before finally coming up with one of the Liberator's healing pads. "Here, let me try this. It won't fix the bone, but it should take some of the pain away."
Avon refrained from protest as Gan ripped the leg of his trousers and rocked the pad over the injury. At least the break was above the top of his boot. The idea of having to remove the boot without anything to cut the leather was not one he liked to contemplate. As the pad took effect, the pain subsided to a dull ache. Water swirled blackly around him, odd bits of debris floating on the surface. Small whorls and eddies formed around his feet and where he sat. The cold and wet seeped into his clothing. Avon shivered.
Gan was immediately concerned. "You can't afford to get too wet - you'll lose body heat, and that's dangerous."
"I can't stand," Avon said through gritted teeth.
"I'll hold you. Just lean on me and keep your weight on your good leg."
Without waiting for a reply, Gan leaned down and lifted Avon up as though he were nothing more than a small child.
Reluctantly, Avon draped one arm around Gan's neck and allowed the giant to support him around the waist. Gan was warm, and that, surprisingly was a comfort in itself. Maybe it was the pain from his leg, or perhaps it was a side effect of the drug in the pad, whatever it was, Avon felt oddly light headed. His mind was drifting to other times and other arms around him. Warm, gentle, loving.
He really ought to get up and go to work, but she was there beside him, holding him close, the look on her face one of teasing affection. She traced a finger gently down the line of his cheek bone and smiled.
"Anna." He wasn't even aware that he had spoken her name out loud.
Avon awake from his reverie with a start. The water had risen several centimetres without him even noticing.
"No one, just someone I knew a long time ago."
Blake would have pointed out the inconsistency of that statement, but Gan seemed to accept it. "I knew someone once," he offered. "She was a little bit like you in some ways."
Really? Didn't Gan realise that comparing Avon to his ex-girlfriend wasn't exactly the most generous of comparisons.
"I'm flattered," he said insincerely, and wondered if Gan would notice the irony.
"Marie was a beta, far brighter than me."
"That's not difficult."
Gan was silent. Avon sighed inwardly. He'd done it again. Blake or Vila would have bounced right back with an insult in response, but Gan tended to soak it all up without retaliating. Actually, thinking about it, Gan did manage a suitable riposte on occasion - it was just that the occasions tended to be few and far between. Well, if he tried to be sympathetic for once, nobody was going to know except for himself and Gan.
"What was she like?"
He could hear the enthusiasm in Gan's voice as he answered.
"She was bright, enthusiastic, loved talking and playing games. I never knew what she saw in me."
So what had she seen in slow, methodical, plodding Gan? Gan who was still supporting him without complaint, in spite of the burden that Avon's weight must have become. Avon surprised himself by replying, "Kindness. Understanding. Loyalty?"
The water wasn't quite up to the top of his boots, but they had water inside them already, so that was almost academic. His feet were cold and almost numb. "What was that?" Gan had said something, but he'd missed it.
"Anna? What kind of a woman was she?"
So, if they were going to drown here underground they were going to do it while swooping details of their lost loves. Why not?
"Witty, good with people, clever with computers. Anna was special."
"Were you married?"
Avon ignored the question and tried to move his foot, to see if he still had any sensation in his toes. Pain lanced up his leg and he gasped in pain.
Gan's arm tightened around him. "What happened?"
"I tried to move my foot."
"That was stupid."
All right, so it had been stupid, but he was increasingly cold, and the pain in his leg wasn't helping him to think straight.
"Do you want me to use the pad again?"
"Yes." It would probably make him even more woozy, but the pain was doing that anyway. There seemed little point in martyrdom. Avon balanced as well as he could on one leg, steadying himself with a hand against Gan, while Gan bent down to apply the pad once more. The water was too deep now for either of them to sit down. A soothing calmness spread out from the pad and Avon relaxed a little.
"I won't be able to use it again," Gan said.
"That's the maximum dose for someone of your body weight. Besides, the water will be over the break, soon."
They stood in silence for several minutes, Gan supporting most of Avon's weight once more. Avon wasn't sure if it was his imagination or not, but the water seemed to be rising faster than before.
"So, did you marry her?" Gan asked.
"No," Avon said shortly. What right did Gan have to pry into his private life anyway?
"Marie and I were married. We had some good times to start with."
"So what went wrong?" It wasn't that he was curious, Avon told himself. It was just that anything was better than concentrating on the rising water level.
Gan looked at the power indicator on his torch, instead of answering. "I'm going to turn it out for a while. It's got several hours charge left, but we don't know how long it will be before the water level drops."
The light vanished and Avon felt a moment of real fear. The dome dweller's nightmare. No light meant power failure, and power failure meant loss of life support. He felt Gan shudder slightly. "Have you ever lived through a power failure?" Avon asked.
"Yes," Gan replied in the darkness. "Back during the food riots of '46." Avon felt him swallow convulsively. "A whole sector went out. They say several people died before the air circulation was restored."
"I thought they got things under control pretty rapidly."
Gan sounded angry. "Control! They used suppressent drugs. They killed my Marie."
"I'm sorry." Avon hesitated a moment. "I thought..."
"You thought the Federation killed her? They did. Twice. First with their drugs and then with a gun. Do you want to know why you reminded me of her?"
"All right." Avon had a certain mild curiosity.
"She never accepted anything at face value. She didn't believe anything just because she was told that it was so. Until the drugs. After then she believed everything. She stopped questioning. She died"'
A living death, and the full horror was that she would never have known it was happening to her. Would he have preferred that death for Anna? The invisible death of the lower grades, drowned in drugs and oblivion. Would she have preferred that to dying in agony at the hands of the torturers? Which death would he choose for himself if he had the choice? Anything surely rather than this meaningless death underground.
"Anna died trying to protect me." The words were little more than a whisper. He'd never been able to talk about it to anyone before now. Gan hadn't been able to save his woman either. Somehow, that made it possible to say it to him.
"She must have loved you very much."
"I like to think so."
The memories came crowding back. The pain of when he'd been shot; the helplessness he'd felt. It seemed hideously close to his present situation.
"We were on the run. I'd just pulled a major bank fraud. I'd gone to buy some exit visas; Anna was waiting for me to get back. I was stupid enough to get shot."
Avon waited a moment to see if Gan was going to say any more, then he carried on. "It was two days before I was able to look for her. But they'd already caught her. There was a place where we'd arranged to meet up if anything went wrong. She wasn't there, but neither was anyone else - she never told them. They tortured her to death, but she never told them where to find me."
Cold and blackness. The water numbed all sensation. It would be so easy to let go of Gan, slip into the waist-high water and forget everything. Except that Gan would only pull him out again. Besides, that would be a surrender, and he owed it to Anna to keep fighting against those who had killed her.
Gan's voice sounded deeper then usual, as though he was trying not to betray his emotion. "Marie betrayed me. I caught her in bed with another man."
"You should have killed her."
"No." He could feel the movement as Gan shook his head. "You don't understand - it wasn't her fault, it was the drugs. He told her to do it - and she did. She didn't really want to hurt me."
How was it, Avon wondered, that a man of Gan's size and bulk had the ability to convey a feeling of utter helplessness?
"But she did hurt you."
Gan sighed. "He knew it too. He knew I'd never let it rest. He shot me; then he shot Marie. Even the drugs wouldn't have kept her quiet after my death." He was silent a moment. "And then I killed him. I broke his neck while he looked at her dead body."
Avon could feel the strength of that silent passion. The struggle of a wounded man to survive, to gain revenge. Someday, somehow, he would too have revenge for Anna. At this moment though, he didn't feel strong enough to think straight, let alone tackle the man who had killed her.
Something about Gan's story was bothering him. If he could only concentrate for a moment, He'd be able to work it out. If only his head didn't feel so fuzzy, and his body so cold. The water lapped gently around his fingers, leeching the heat from his body and sapping his will. Avon clenched his fists tightly in an effort to regain control, the nails digging into the palms of his hands. The control drugs had never been a problem for a man in his profession, anyone working in a job that required original thinking was bound to have access to undrugged food and water.
That was what was bothering him. Gan had been sentenced to Cygnus Alpha for murder.
"So how come you were able to kill him? Weren't you drugged too?"
"I thought you knew: I'm immune to the drugs. That's why they fitted the limiter."
No, he hadn't known - he'd never been interested enough to ask. Gan was simply Gan, a gamma ignorant, and a convenient source of heavy muscle. Gan who had had to watch an intelligent woman fade away into nothing as a result of Federation policies, as helpless as Avon had been to help Anna in the Federation prison.
He squeezed Gan's shoulder for a moment. "It wasn't your fault."
"It wasn't yours either."
Maybe neither of them could really accept absolution, they'd both loved too deeply, and lost too much, but it helped a little. The darkness was beckoning again, and this time Avon allowed it to flow over him. Gan would protect him. And believing that, he could allow himself to fade into unconsciousness.
The clay was warm in his hands where he'd been holding it.
It had only been a couple of weeks since Blake had brought them out of the caves. Avon hadn't fully regained consciousness until they were back on Liberator. He had fuzzy memories of stretchers and ropes, but that was all. He'd forgotten most of the rest until now.
Gan obviously hadn't forgotten though - he must have had assistance from Orac to get the features correct. But no photograph from the computer files had ever had that tender, loving smile. No DNA profile could ever have predicted the laughter around the eyes. Avon looked at the crude carving that had somehow captured Anna's essence so perfectly, and knew it for what it was: the last gift of a friend he'd never known he had.