The executions had ended an hour ago. Servalan studied the crisp type on the report, handed to her moments before by a wan young lieutenant who had then made all haste to depart the makeshift office. He had carefully avoided her gaze. Commissioner Sleer in this particular frame of mind was above all not to be trifled with.
The names on the page meant nothing. They were ciphers; men who had disobeyed her standing orders and suffered the consequences. Had she walked into that room mere seconds later, the bloodbath might have been complete...
A signal chimed on her commandeered desk. Cluttered paper and tape discs nearly obscured the intercom. Blake's people had not been very neat.
"What is it?" Formality she had long ago sacrificed to the seething anger that made her painted nails trace jagged scars across the one-page report.
"Captain Marn to see you Commission--"
The voice trailed abruptly off as the door was thrust open, and Marn's bulky form stalked into the room, the bearded face twisted into an enraged snarl.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
She met the fiery eyes with arctic calm. "My job, Captain. I suggest you go about yours."
"Job? Killing nineteen loyal men is your bloody job?"
"They disobeyed my order that Scorpio's crew was to be taken alive. Had I not arrived at the moment I did--"
"He had a gun on them, damn it. You saw. He killed two before they took him, before you ordered them to take him."
"Yes he did, didn't he." Her unsheathed smile, an admission of open admiration, unnerved Marn still further. His fury began giving way to uncertainty and -- she could see it behind the questioning look he wore -- a growing fear. Still smiling, the commissioner used one elegant hand to sweep an untidy pile of papers from atop the desk's monitor, then keyed in a brief command. The small screen gave forth a minute video sputter before it lit with the overhead image of a holding cell, and its single occupant.
He hadn't moved, she noted grimly. Not since her troops had left him there eight hours before. He still sat huddled in one featureless corner of the cell, his hands locked around drawn-up knees, and his eyes, tormented and yet empty, fixed upon nothing at all. Surely the aftereffects of stun charge would have worn off well before now. And the paragun wound -- that had been superficial, promptly treated, and had caused no permanent damage, or so her ship's physician had assured her. Why then...?
She looked up sharply, realizing she had forgotten Marn's presence altogether and displeased that the man remained.
"Are you still here?" Her tone was ice-brittle, brusque and dismissive.
The captain had been about to venture some comment when the door came open once again, admitting three black-uniformed troopers who promptly levelled their rifles...at the commissioner.
Her infuriated demand for an explanation was cut short when a fourth figure entered -- Commander Arno, if she was not mistaken. Attached to the fifth galactic fleet, possessed of a thoroughly pristine service record, unswervingly loyal to the Federation, no indication of rebellion contacts or sympathies.
He, too, held a gun.
"Stand up, please, Commissioner."
It was Marn who finally voiced the question. "What is this? What's going on here?"
Arno's gaze never fell on Marn at all as he replied, "Nothing to do with you, Captain. With all due respect, sir, don't interfere."
"I trust you have a good explanation for this outrage." Servalan spoke calmly and without rising, feigning disinterest in the trained rifles. "A very good explanation."
"I have, Commissioner." Arno's voice was deceptively soft. His eyes studied her intently as he added, "Or should I say, Madame President?"
She favored him with a frostbitten smile. "Oh you will, Commander, one day. Believe me, you will."
Marn, refusing to be ignored, spoke up again. "Will someone please explain what the hell this is--?"
"She's ex-president Servalan," Arno said from behind his gun, and the name had become a sneer on his lips. "Something called Orac has been broadcasting voice print verification of it over every major Federation frequency for the past half hour. We can't find it, but it told us where to find her."
Servalan's gaze shot to the monitor and its image of the unmoving figure in the holding cell. So very like you, Avon. One last failsafe. Orac's coup de grace. Of course, you probably expected that when it finally came, you would be dead...
"Get up." Arno's demand, no longer polite, was accompanied by a savage gesture with the gun barrel.
She took her time. Slender fingers spread in casual resignation, she pushed away from the desk. One hand slipped unnoticed beneath the chair cushion while the other, her left, unfolded like a flower toward Arno, beseeching. The small hand weapon slipped comfortably into her grasp. One shot...that was all... if she could get off one shot and then use the desk for cover before the troopers or that idiot Marn could react...
She snatched the tiny weapon from its hiding place, depressing the trigger even as she brought it to bear -- but Arno had seen it coming. She realized with a mounting horror that his paragun had discharged, and then, belatedly, felt the molten fire of its impact to her shoulder. She stumbled backward with a small, startled gasp, and fell awkwardly into the chair once again. The handgun tumbled from numb fingers, bouncing off the chair's base to skid away beneath the desk.
The last thing she saw was the satisfied grin on Arno's face as he lowered his rifle.
* * *
Captain Marn drummed his fingers impatiently on the desk. Barely half an hour had passed since Arno had had Sleer--Servalan, he corrected with a mental grimace--carried from the office. All of this was happening far too fast; the political ramifications were downright frightening. Marn didn't like politics.
Arno's return, minus the troop support, brought the captain upright.
"Well?" he demanded.
The feeble attempt to assert his rank had no visible effect on Arno, who merely strode to the desk and wordlessly reactivated the monitor. Marn's eyes widened at the picture it showed him.
"Was that necessary?" he asked gruffly.
A crooked smile curled Arno's lip. "Supreme Commander Kalz is coming to collect her -- personally. Until then, that's the best place for her."
Marn started to object, but stifled the impulse. What did it matter? When Kalz arrived, she would likely be executed anyhow. If she was still alive by then...
* * *
A sound woke her. Something soft and rhythmic, barely audible...
Servalan opened her eyes, saw a grey rectangle of ceiling and two inset light panels, a sealed door, a surveillance camera...
Searing pain just below her left collarbone confirmed Arno's marksmanship, and the fact that the wound had not been treated. The surface on which she lay was hard and uncushioned; the sleep shelf of a holding cell, no doubt. And the sound was still there.
She tried to turn her head, and winced when the action pulled muscles in the injured shoulder. She would see that Arno died for this. If it was the last thing she ever...
A hand came from somewhere above and behind her, from out of her field of vision, and began softly, incongruously, to stroke her forehead with a furtive, trembling touch. She quelled the impulse to jump at the unexpected contact -- it hurt too much. This had been the source of the sound, she realized. She'd heard the steady, even drone of someone breathing nearby...
"I was afraid they'd killed you."
The voice was hollow, as fragile and cracked as shattered glass. She would not have known it at all if its owner had not moved into visual range just then, kneeling on the floor beside the sleep shelf, his torn black clothing still stained with Blake's blood.
The hand shot out to place two gentle fingers on her lips.
"You mustn't speak," he said urgently. "It will be better soon. They..."
He seemed to lose the train of thought, and blinked twice, his mouth working without forming words. His eyes were still distant, unfocused, as though he were not really seeing her at all.
"Avon..." she tried again, and again, the light touch stilled her lips. She grasped his hand, pulled it away, and promptly found it imprisoned in a near-painful grip. Yet he continued to stare at the wall beyond her. At nothing.
"Shh." His unencumbered hand began once more to stroke her temple. "Rest now. We will be going soon."
Going? Where did he think they could possibly go? And why this oddly... caring... tone of voice? Avon had never spoken to her that way before, had never spoken to her at all without the so-familiar contempt and the arrogance so typical of him.
This was clearly, disconcertingly, not the Avon she remembered.
"Please..." She lowered her voice to a whisper, mindful of the security camera, certain Arno would be watching this charade and enjoying himself immensely. She hoped he revelled in it while he could. "Avon, listen to me. We can help one another, I know we can. But we must find a way out of here."
The fingers tracing recurring patterns across her left temple abruptly broke away, and he released her hand at the same time, twisting to gaze pointedly up at the inset lens above the door.
"Yes." The word was a sibilant hiss, low and menacing. He pulled himself to his feet, rising awkwardly and without any of the characteristic grace she had come to identify with him. "Yes..."
When he had paced away toward the door, she clenched her teeth against the pain and forced herself to rise, to obtain at least the semblance of a sitting position. She was damned if she would let Arno believe she would take this -- literally -- lying down. The paragun's charge inflicted self-cauterizing wounds, and the commander's aim had been quite deliberate. He'd intended to disable her and to cause her some intense discomfort, to be sure, but not to kill her. Not yet. That would come later, after he'd played out whatever little game he had in mind. Assuming he survived to play it out.
Servalan had other plans.
* * *
The first explosion knocked Captain Marn's chair out from under him and sent him scrambling for the cover of the large desk. Arno, who had been standing nearby watching the security screen, had fallen across the desktop, and was now slapping frantically at intercom switches.
"Argyl! Temmes! What the hell is going on out there?!"
No one answered his demand, but as Marn emerged from under the desk, four of Arno's fifth fleet troopers appeared at the run from the outer corridor, paraguns and helmets in place. A second concussion, further away, shook the walls before the lead man could report.
"There's a rebel assault force attempting to retake the base, sir." He was addressing Arno, who had moved to retrieve his own weapon from the corner. Marn had no time to be affronted by the breach of military etiquette; he was at the door as well, heading for temporary weapons stores and a rendezvous with his own men.
Explosions and the sound of erupting gunfire accompanied him all the way.
* * *
Had she ever been inclined to believe in miracles, Servalan would have thanked whatever-deities-they-may-be for this one. When the first assault had rocked the cell, power surges had burst the zorite tubing in the overhead light panels, plunging the cell into darkness. But the same surge had affected the door's lock circuitry: it had spluttered a dying electronic whine and then slid partially open. Most likely a built-in escape mechanism in the event of an attack. Blake would have insisted on a thing like that.
The door had no sooner come open than Avon had moved back to her side in the darkness, a silhouette against the dim emergency lighting from the outside hall. She was startled when his hands slid beneath her arms and gently lifted her from her sitting position on the shelf. The injured shoulder evoked a gasp at the movement, but she bit it back, refused to give in to the pain, and determined that she would stand, no matter what.
But something was preventing her from standing entirely on her own. Avon's arms were still wrapped protectively around her, a situation she might have found pleasing at almost any other time. But just now... He had shifted his own position and begun to slip one arm beneath her, to lift and carry her. The thought horrified her: she would not be dependent on him or any other, and the change in his demeanor was a mystery that frightened her more than a little as well.
"No, Avon. Let me walk."
He released her, seemingly a trifle bewildered at the commanding tone. "But you can't..."
"I can and I will." She had no time to fathom this uncharacteristic concern for her well-being. Whoever or whatever was attacking this base, she intended to use the resultant confusion to reach the safety of her ship -- or any other ship that would take her away from this place, to a new life and a new name and the chance to begin all over again. She moved out into the corridor, ignoring the giddiness that walking brought about, and Avon followed close behind. There was nothing for that, she supposed. She would have to decide what to do with him later. He might be useful in procuring the ship, after all, and in getting it offworld. Once she was safe, there would be time enough for choices...
The main junctions of Gauda Prime base were in chaos. They emerged into one smoke-filled nexus, and pulled back to hug the wall when a squadron of Federation troopers pounded from another corridor to race past them, paying them no heed at all. Futile alarms screamed from the walls, and more explosions shook the floor beneath them as they moved away. Avon had reclaimed her hand, and she permitted the gesture, for the moment. It was difficult to see through the haze, and she was having trouble enough simply remaining upright.
And which direction...? She realized with an all new revulsion that Avon was guiding her, where and to what she had no way to know, and in his current state she was not certain that he knew, either. That was not at all acceptable: she would be, must be, in control of this.
"Avon..." She balked at his leading, pulling him up short by the captured hand. Her shoulder protested the action with a new wave of aching dizziness. "Where are you taking me?"
He wasn't looking at her. With his back pressed to the wall, he was watching a skirmish between rebel and Federation forces raging in a junction ahead of them.
"Avon! Answer me, damn you!"
But he wouldn't. A sudden and eerie silence overcame the battleground, leaving the alarms and more distant gunfire the only sounds, and Avon strode cautiously forward, leaving her, seemingly forgotten, to go along or stay behind as she saw fit.
She saw fit to follow him toward the juncture.
Any survivors of the altercation had already retreated. All that remained were the dead and dying, both mute testimonies to the efficiency of Federation weapons: whether they were issued or stolen, she noted grimly, had no bearing on their ability to kill.
Avon walked through the carnage with no more visible effect than if he were taking an evening constitutional in a flower garden. He stopped once, to look back and see that she was there, and something in those distant eyes unnerved her when they met her own. Where before she had seen only tenderness, however misplaced that may be, she now saw a grain of uncertainty and distrust, a sign of the more familiar cynicism true to the Avon she had known. But whether it meant anything...
He had turned then, and headed off down another corridor.
Servalan stood amid the remnants of the battle and watched him, indecision worrying her lower lip with her teeth. Avon seemed to know where he was going, and knowing Avon, that meant a way to safe passage. She told herself that she had no reason to go with him other than that; it was, in fact, insane to go with him. He was the reason she'd been placed in this position to begin with, he and his smug assurance that Orac would expose her when Scorpio's crew were dead or taken. And Avon had every reason to kill her, had sworn to more than once. How could she be certain that his behavior in the cell was not a ruse, a means of luring her into a false security, and a position of vulnerable trust? No... She would have to make sure of him, one way or another.
Still and all, he knew the way out, and she needed a guide...
Stooping, she retrieved a hand weapon from the death grip of one of the corpses, checked that it still held a charge, and hurried to catch up with the figure swiftly vanishing down the corridor.
"That's far enough, I think."
She heard the voice before she reached Avon, and fell back as Arno stepped into view to halt the computer tech. A prodigious doorway shielded her from the commander's view, and carefully, deliberately, Servalan rechecked the charge in her gun.
"Going off without your girlfriend?" Arno's nasal voice inquired sarcastically.
There was no response from Avon.
"Not very accommodating of you," the commander went on. Then in far more serious tones, "Where is she?"
"Over here, Commander."
Before he'd had time to react to the sweetly-venomous voice from the doorway, Servalan depressed the trigger, pleased at the startled cry Arno uttered as he fell. Avon had made no move at all, but as she came out of hiding she was shocked to see him kneel beside Arno's body and begin to systematically search the man's pockets.
"Never mind that now!" she ordered. "Take his gun and let's get out of here!"
"He must have them," she heard Avon mutter nonsensically. "Somewhere, he must..."
"Avon!" Whatever he thought Arno may have, there was no time for this. More gunfire heralded the approach of yet another assault force, and she could not afford to dawdle. Both sides of this war were her enemies now. "Avon, come on!"
He ignored her, intent on the dead man's pockets as though life itself depended on this single, frenzied search.
Servalan moved around to face him and abruptly thrust the gun into his line of vision. "Get up. You're going to take me out of here, and you're going to do it now."
The reaction was not what she expected. Avon's eyes clouded, hurt and betrayal and rage all mingling into one as he came slowly to his feet.
"Is that why you killed him?" he asked huskily. "To take the visas for yourself and...and someone else? Who? Who have you--?"
"The ship, Avon. Move!" She had no idea what he was talking about, but whatever it was could wait for a more convenient time. She did not intend to be trapped here on the very brink of escape.
"No." Again, the menacing yet deceptively calm tone. She kept the gun trained on him, but he never seemed to see it, any more than he had seemed to see her, really see her, all along. All the same, when he took a step toward her, she raised the weapon threateningly.
"Don't force me to kill you, Avon." She was surprised at just how much she meant that. "Please..."
But he kept coming, a slow and deliberate approach that was mindless of the gun. So it had all been deceit, and he intended now to keep the promise he had made to her often enough. To kill her. Avon had always prided himself on keeping his word.
She pulled the trigger.
Avon's slow stride was unimpeded, and it took her a moment to realize that the weapon had failed to fire. One charge, she realized with a mounting panic. It must only have had one charge left. She would have to run, and find her way out on her own. Only there was no time now for that option. Avon had reached her, taken a painful grip on her wounded shoulder and pushed her roughly against the wall. Those terrible eyes were boring into her, seeking, questioning, demanding things she couldn't answer. Impossible, nonexistent things. Things born of madness.
"Let me go," she pleaded, desperation overcoming all vestige of authority. "Please..."
"Oh no," he said, and his voice broke at the words, becoming a low, pain-wracked whisper. "I never let you go. I never did..."
She had heard him use those words before once...years ago. And with that sudden and horrifying recognition, she understood his delusion, and the role in which she had been cast.
"Avon. Avon, I am not--"
The words were cut off by a hand at her throat, a gentle-yet-firm pressure driving her further to the wall. She watched him, pleading eyes the only entreaty left her. But the hand did not close as she had expected it to do. Instead, it caressed the white contours of her neck, wandering fleetingly to her ear and the oversized earring that adorned it.
If she fought him, tried to strike him with the useless gun or kick him as hard as her flagging strength would allow, there might be a chance. There might be...
He kissed her with the same forceful passion they had shared twice before, on Sarran and on Teal, only now there was something more in the embrace. Something decidedly deadly.
Her effort to twist free came too late. His hand had reclaimed its lethal grip, and began to inexorably tighten on her throat...
* * *
Gauda Prime had been lost to rebel forces once again. It was, Marn knew, a temporary setback that would be rectified as soon as the Supreme Commander's forces arrived. Until then, there would nothing for it but to surrender, and hope for the best.
Just for the moment, however, the captain and his one remaining cohort had no one to surrender to. It would take the overruning forces time to find them, time to separate the living from the dead.
Coltrain...yes, that was his name...was coming toward him, a black shadow in the smoky, ruined corridor. Marn stroked his beard and peered at the man's faceless helmet.
"Over here, sir."
Marn followed him, unsure what this concerned and finding that he didn't really care. Coltrain still carried his paragun, and Marn wondered if that were wise. You tended to fare better at surrendering if you were no longer brandishing a gun.
Coltrain was leading him through a juncture strewn with bodies. Some of these men he had known. Others wore the insignia of the fifth fleet. And one of them...
One of them was Arno. Had been Arno. Marn paused to stare down at the dead man only briefly before Coltrain's voice drew him away. The trooper had halted nearby, and pointed with his gun toward a figure in black that sat forlornly against the wall. Avon. Marn recognized the man, just as he recognized the limp white thing he cradled in his arms. But the eyes that looked back held no recognition. They were dark, empty, and focused on something not there.
"If they're part of the rebel force, we could use them as hostages," Coltrain was saying, displaying an ignorance the captain found appalling. "We could buy our way out."
Marn's laugh was dry and mirthless. "Can't buy your way out of anything with a corpse," he muttered, and then studying Kerr Avon's fixed gaze for a longer moment, added quietly, "Two corpses..."
Gunshots echoed from somewhere close by. The alarms that had become so much a fixture that he no longer heard them cut off abruptly, leaving the junction in total, unrelenting silence.
When footsteps became audible, and voices heralded the approach of the enemy, Marn took Coltrain's gun from him and tossed it into the heap of unprotesting troops that littered the floor. Then he sat down to wait, along with Avon and the no-longer-dangerous ex-president of the Terran Federation.
There was really nothing else to do.