"I was wondering where you got to," Deva said. //Nobody else was though, they didn't find your body but they hoped you'd fallen in a hole somewhere and broken your neck.// "Here, I brought you some cigarettes."
"Thank you," Avon said. It would be pointless to repeat his side of the rest of the conversation, since most of it was an antiphonal arrangement of "Fuck off." He took a cigarette, lit it, and stretched the pack toward Deva.
"Filthy things," Deva said. "Never touch 'em. Stunt your growth." //He looks awful, in a glam Wuthering Heights sort of way.// Deva noted that, although Avon hadn't shaved or combed his hair, he had washed recently--washed himself, and a shirt and a set of underclothes now hung over a carton to dry.
Late at night, it must have been, when he crept out of the storeroom half-full of electric and electronic components of unknown usefulness to help himself to a roll of blankets (now on the floor), some clean clothes, a handful of food concentrate bars, and some bottled water (piled on one of the cartons).
"They told me you were clever....Just going to sulk in your tent forever? And they told me you were brave. They must have done better as press agents than historians."
Avon blew a plume of smoke at the ceiling. "Ought I to worry about //thank you for// secret poisons? You're one of Blake's people, after all."
"I am. But I told him not to do that bounty-hunter routine. Fuckwit stunt like that, he's lucky he only got himself nearly killed."
"A refreshingly original approach, but I can't be persuaded to adopt it."
"You'll feel better, eventually," Deva said.
"I know," Avon said. "I count on it."
There was no reason to shiver. Avon knew that the ambient temperature of Gauda Prime in the autumn was not low enough to induce hypothermia even in an unprotected subject. He was inside the base, which did have a heating system of sorts. He was clothed. He was wrapped up in blankets.
He was annoyed. If he couldn't pull himself together better than that, he'd never be able to manage.
He spent a luxurious moment choosing the theme to obsess on, There was the tip of the iceberg (the deliberate cruelties he could remember, the hurt he had carelessly caused, the mistakes, the misjudgments) or the bulk of the iceberg (for everything he could remember--and there was plenty of that, he couldn't imagine why Blake kept bitching about being mind-wiped--there must have been, what? three or ten or eight hundred equally damning items that he couldn't). //What do you, or what are you, Angelo?//
He wondered how far the parallel extended. Anna-dead, Blake-not dead, so that was a flaw right there. Anna-dead by his hand, Blake-alive through no virtue of Avon's.
Anna, he decided, deserved to be killed, but he didn't deserve to have to kill her. Anyway he had done penance in advance. And he thought that had been a luxury too--to be in a situation that dramatically narrowed down to what had been inflicted on him, and what he could relax and fear was to come. How simple that was, compared to this Bosworth Field parade of the victims of his decades of careless stupid cruel acts. "Despair and die," they said. He was one-for-two already.
But Blake? On balance, Avon decided that he should have seen through the act, which gave it a high place in the "Stupidities" column.
"What do you suggest I do, then?" Avon asked. He lifted one of the sandwiches from the plate Deva had brought and looked at it as if he wasn't quite sure what it was for. He put it down after a couple of bites. //I have supped full of horrors//
"Depends, doesn't it? If you're not up to much right now, we've got about fifty kilos of spuds going rotten because no one can be arsed to peel them. I'm from Noveyno Zemblaya--very particular about my spuds. Your girls are out pot-hunting again. The black girl stalks 'em and the blonde girl shoots 'em, I can't see us going short of meat until everything goes into hibernation. And nothing like a nice roast potato to go along with the Sunday joint, eh?"
"Yorkshire pudding," Avon said dispassionately. Even at the moment, he couldn't let an opportunity for debate slip by.
"Haven't got the eggs, no native avian species on GP. If you think Kitchen Patrol is beneath you, there's always the computer system. The computers are a pile of wank but there's nothing I can do about it. I'm a systems and operations man, not a hardware bod. I've got my work cut out for me changing the plug on a lamp. Oh, and we're dead short of money, it'd really help if you nicked us a lot of it. Then we could buy some eggs."
Operation Restore Confidence was, quite simply, a rout for the Federation. The Gauda Prime garrison had the home court advantage, a pretty good defensive perimeter, and excellent anti-spacecraft missiles. On the ground, after Vila sorted out Arlen, they had Dayna for ass-kicking and name-taking and Soolin for ripping through machine gun belts like a parrot cracking sunflower seeds.
Blake missed the early part of the battle, having the long shallow wound on his side tended to. The one caused by the bullet that Avon (who couldn't possibly miss at close range, if there hadn't been some visual-field disturbance that couldn't possibly have been caused by tears) grazed him with, before a couple of people pulled him away from Blake and someone else ripped the gun out of his shaking hand.
The question of how to patch up relations between the two who (rather like Britain and France of the First Calendar) had often been enemies but had been allied when it really counted quickly became moot when the Federation attack started.
Avon fought like ten Furies. His aggression was untameable enough to keep him constantly amazed to hear himself say "If you're going to kill me, just get on with it" when he was desperate to stay alive. So he wouldn't hang back in battle when he wanted to die.
He didn't have his own gun anymore. It didn't matter much, his pocketknife was quite capable of creating an aversive reaction in the first trooper it went in the ventral surface and out the dorsal. And soon there was quite a buffet of dropped weaponry to choose from.
Deva walked into the cellar, carrying an empty galvanized tub and a potato peeler. ("Give that murdering bastard a knife? I don't think so," Guaviene in the kitchen said. "I'll vouch for him," Deva told her.)
"Sack of potatoes, Avon. Avon, sack of potatoes," Deva said, but the introduction was unnecessary because Avon had already slit open the burlap bag and was rinsing handfuls of potatoes under the cold tap of the stone sink. (The knife was quite clean, you don't let a good pocketknife get rusty after you use it.)
"Not Kerr Pinks, I don't think. That's your first name, isn't it?"
"It depends whom you ask," Avon said. There was a stool with three desperately unequal legs, so he sat on that and started to peel potatoes. Deva filled the tub with cold water. The potatoes made a satisfying splash as they landed.
Deva didn't have to be on duty for another twenty minutes, so he flourished the potato peeler and sat down next to the tub and started peeling potatoes. "Bit like Hercules being set to spin, hmmm?"
"Here, take this if you're staying," Avon said, surrendering the stool and sitting down on the floor (which had the virtue of not swaying). After practicing on a couple of potatoes, he managed to produce a single translucent spiral of peel per potato.
"Did any of the Scorpio crew survive?" Avon asked. "Christ, it's been days, and I haven't so much as asked." //Splendid, another count in the indictment.//
"They all did," Deva said. "Tarrant's a hospital case now, spent most of the battle flat on his handsome face..." //Good, that got a flicker of reaction// "...'cos of the concussion and the shaking-up he got during Scorpio's little chat show with the ground, but he should be up and around in a day-ish. Vila's a bit queasy from being stood rounds--and the booze supply's low, that's another thing we need the money for. Dayna's hands are swollen up, somebody ought to teach her that man is a tool-using animal. Soolin's fine, I get the feeling she tends to come out on top in any situation.
Glad you mentioned it, though. You might want to tidy yourself up a bit--or don't--for tomorrow evening. Supper's at 18:00 hours, not that you'd know, and Blake's called a muster beforehand. He wants you to pin on the medals."
Deva was encouraged by the horrible sound that Avon emitted, because he thought that it must have been laughter.
"You're such a drama queen," Deva said. They had progressed from the cellar to the kitchen. "You wash. I'll dry."
"You don't think a certain degree of spectacle was called for?" Avon asked. //I never realized how enjoyable it is to do things for which there will be no consequences.//
"Dropping to one knee and begging Blake's forgiveness in front of everyone was a bit OTT," Deva said.
"Everyone's a critic. Look, Deva...is that your first name or your last, by the way? Or is it just the one?" //Like Cally. Oh, Jesus.//
"Surname," Deva said. "My first name's Grigoryii. You're ducking and diving."
"I tried to kill him, Greg. A postcard wouldn't be quite enough, would it? A Gorillagram, perhaps?"
"Smartarse. He didn't say he forgives you."
"I didn't think he would, but I owe it to him to humiliate myself."
"And offering your hand to a load of people you knew wouldn't take it."
"They got their medals, though. When it comes to it, I didn't treat them very well when we were on the way here. Understandably they resented it somewhat, but they made some allowances because they knew that I was blind and addled with love for Blake. And then...well, it must have seemed as if I were throwing it in their faces."
"You were in love with him. They all knew it. Barring Blake. But you never did it with him."
"Blake? Of course not."
"You've got the wrong bits, haven't you? One thing to my purpose nothing, and so forth?"
"You have a surprising mastery of classical allusion."
"I'm practically illiterate, but I read a lot."
There were still a dozen plates and cups, and all the pots, left to wash. "How's the fuel supply here?" Avon asked. "If it's adequate, it should be eminently possible to have a dishwasher and a dryer."
"Triffic. Just the sort of thinking I was looking for. You'd have to build 'em yourself, of course." Deva hesitated. "Late one night...." he said.
//Don't be ridiculous// Avon thought. //*Living* people do that.//
"...after everybody's off asleep except the sentries, well, would you like to have a look at the computers? Anything you recommend's bound to be better."
Dayna strode into Blake's room after only the most perfunctory of knocks, and before any possible answer. //Lovely, he's got a real bed, not one of those wretched cots!// She peered at his mid-section, checking for bandages. There didn't seem to be any. "How are you feeling?"
"Quite fit, thank you. They shouldn't even have wasted the regen gel on me, should have saved it for those who were more seriously wounded. Ah, what did you want?"
"This," Dayna said, winding him in long arms and further entangling him with a booted foot hooked around his ankle, and kissing him.
Blake broke away, half a minute later, with some difficulty. "What was that for?"
"Curiosity," she said. "But that's easily satisfied. And admiration. First I saw you, I knew there was something special about you."
She sat down on the bed, which wasn't much cop as a bed unless you'd been sleeping on an army cot for nearly a month. Instead of wearing a GP Base uniform, she had painstakingly scrubbed and pressed her own jumpsuit. She unzipped the front all the way down to her belt, and eased the top back from her shoulders.
The sight of gleaming burnt umber skin (against the dubiously-white sheets), and her firm small breasts, pointing outward pugnaciously, deprived Blake of reasoned argumentation for a moment. Dayna stared straight at the bulge in Blake's trousers and grinned. If anything, this operated as a stimulus package with inflationary effect.
"I'm old enough to be your father," was the first thing that Blake could think of to say.
"You're not, though, are you? I've spent a couple of years--the best years of my life, they should have been--bumping through the galaxy with a right load of old misery-guts. Two years of Vila going, "I'm so scared," and Avon going "we're so fucked," and Soolin going, "Nothing matters," really she's the one that should have been called Zen, not the computer. The only one with a bit of go was Tarrant...but now that I see the comparison, really, who'd have a boy when there was a man in the running?"
Blake reached forward, but only to tug the zipper upwards. "I'm very flattered, my dear, but it would be unfair and unprofessional..."
"Oh, crap," Dayna said. "Look at that. Be a crime to let that drop off for lack of use, wouldn't it?"
It hadn't exactly gone unused all these years, and Blake thought that his first objections were probably sound, but dammit she was a grown woman and as consenting as you could find in a month of Sundays. So he sat down next to her, put one arm around her shoulders, and stroked the nimbus of her hair (the crop had grown out a little).
She gave a triumphant whoop, and grabbed the front of his shirt.
"You know," Avon said. "I once asked Tarrant if he'd calculated something on his fingers. I think that would have provided a higher level of technology than this stuff."
"I told you the system wasn't up to much," Deva said defensively.
"There's some interesting stuff in some of those boxes in my room--ah, where I've been sleeping. I can build you a new secure server for a start. I have some fairly good algorithms to disguise the source of the transmission, so we can download a good deal of what we need. And then I can get started on stealing you some money."
Deva handed him two packs of cigarettes. "You must be officially forgiven a bit, you have a cigarette ration now."
Avon handed one of them back. "Oh. Then you keep yours, I'm sure you
can trade them to someone for something."
"About Tarrant..." Deva said. "Have you heard that..."
"That he's no longer permitted to have carnal ignorance of Dayna? Yes, I'd heard."
"Saucer of cream for Table Two! Are you upset? I mean, obviously not that he got the elbow, but why he did?"
"Extremely. As to whether I shall remain inconsolable, time will tell. And, at any rate, as you reminded me, I never had a chance in that quarter."
"It's a turn-up for the books," Soolin said, handing a cup of herb tea to her Scorpio crewmate. "Do you love him?"
"Oh, I don't know," Dayna said. "And I don't know if it's the healthiest thing in the world. Creates all sorts of problems. Thinking of me and Justin..."
"Or Avon and...well, you know," Soolin said.
"It looks like he's well settled too. I can't find it in my heart to try and hurt him, things didn't work out all that badly, after all, but I just don't want to be around Avon. It's like there's nothing left any more, and I want to wait until it grows back."
"Don't hold your breath," Soolin said.
"And now you look like a skunk, too," Vila said, referring to the half-inch of white roots showing at the parting of Avon's hair.
"Look, Vila, Greg and I don't want you to poison the garrison with that rotgut you're selling. We can run a gallon of pure ethanol for you every month, give you the congeners--the things that make different kinds of booze taste different--and you can water it down, flavor it up, and sell it yourself. You make just as much money, the crew stays healthier."
"You and him," Vila said. "Thick as thieves. Two of a kind, you are."
"Lucky how that worked out, isn't it?"
"Oh, I don't mean bent. I mean what you do to people. How you treat them."
"Everyone has a story, Vila."
"Well, I'm not going to tell you. Ask him."
"I suppose it doesn't matter, but I'm sorry. For everything."
"No, it doesn't. It's too late, and even if you said it then, you still did all that, and so what does that prove about you?"
"That's precisely what I said myself, only a longer way around."
"Why the hell didn't you just top yourself?"
"I was going to," Avon said, "But the moment passed. You know how you can never quite tell the moment when you go from running Standard to higher speeds? Well, for a while I felt too bad to do anything at all, I hadn't the energy. And now there are days when I feel I might manage to survive."
"Did it turn out all right?" Deva asked, looking at the gallon-sized carboy on the lab bench.
"Of course it's all right," Avon said. "What sort of idiot couldn't synthesize pure ethanol?"
"The idiots who live here, for a start," Deva said. "Anyway, it's the flavorings that are the problem, not the booze. Unless you think Vila'll just call it vodka and call it a day." //Not that he'd know real vodka if it came up and bit him on the arse//
Avon arranged a series of small Pyrex beakers on the edge of the lab bench, and poured about a teaspoon full of the alcohol, into each one and diluted it to 80 proof. Then he put an eyedropper full of flavoring into each beaker, from a rack of rubber-stoppered test tubes. "Filthy stuff," Deva said. "Never touch it..."
Avon wrote out a label (Scotch, bourbon, aquavit, crème de menthe, tequila, dark rum, amaretto, schnapps, brandy, klaarg, gin, and an unflavored control) for each of the beakers and opened the tasting book.
"Nazdrovye," Deva said, and took a small sip of the Scotch. "Now, that's authentically disgusting."
Avon took a sip out of the other side of the beaker. "No, it's supposed to taste like that--like emptying the ashtray into a glass of club soda."
For some reason, the tequila was the least-worst, especially with orange juice and grenadine. The crème de menthe was the worst (but at least it was green). Klaarg and peach juice--now, that was hideous, they agreed about that. Brandy and horseradish-spiked tomato juice was pretty bad as well.
Avon righted one of the beakers that had gotten dislodged somehow. "Kerry," he said. "That's what my Mum thinks my first name is."
"That's awful," Deva said earnestly. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."
"That's strictly for your information--you'd better not tell anyone else." Avon reached into his trouser pocket. "Oh, and this is for you." (When he burned the jacket he was wearing when he arrived at Gauda Prime--it was splattered with various people's blood--he pried off the silver studs first; waste not, want not.) He handed Deva a thin chain bearing a hand-tooled silver potato pendant.
"Ta, love," Deva said. "I'll never take it off. Never know when I'll get stuck with a bunch of spud-worshipping savages who'll think I'm a god." He looked over at Avon and discovered he was being subjected to full eyelashes. What might have been a powder-light touch (or a wish fulfillment) fled past. "I daresay I could afford to sacrifice some of my future growth," Avon said.
"No," Deva said. "Not cause you're grateful and not cause you're drunk. Not till you can't wait another minute for me. For me. Cause I waited more than a year for you and if I have to wait forever I can do it."
"More than a year? You haven't known me for a month."
"People tell stories, don't they? And lots of them about you. And not a day went by that somebody didn't point out that I wasn't you."
"I'm surprised that that didn't make you hate me."
"Suppose it would, if I'd had any sense. Anyway, Blake kept some pixels. I saw you."
"Don't tell me he had an album of pictures of me."
"Not you specially, but the whole crew. There was one of all of you on the deck, Blake in the middle, you were on the right, wearing a silver shirt. And I thought, yeah, someday my prince will come."
"Three diamonds," Deva said. He was sitting on the floor of the computer room, amid concentric rings of components around him and Avon. "Moxhovn and Fiavetta say they want to learn to play."
"Good," Avon said. "Bridge is a much better game with four. Three no."
"Hardly working, I see," Vila said.
"We're just taking a break, we've been working here for hours," Deva said. "What's that, then?"
"Godalmighty, it's Orac," Avon said. "Where did you find it?"
"Where I hid him, of course," Vila said. "I brought him back for Blake's sake, don't ever think that it was for yours."
Avon rushed off to get Orac's key, leaving Vila uncomfortably alone with Deva. "I heard what you did, you bastard. When you're responsible for someone, you're supposed to take care of them. Not betray them."
"I know, Vila." Deva said. "But you'd know, if you were in my place, that it doesn't come easy."
They certainly weren't starving, there were plenty of concentrate bars and lots of hardtack and vitazade and porridge and roast veniz, boiled veniz, veniz stew, pate de veniz gras, braised urzanar (too tough to roast), urzanar stew, urzanar pemmican....
There were precious few locks on the base, and none that Blake wanted Vila to open, so Blake indulgently acceded to Vila's and Quinetta's suggestion that they be assigned a four-hour shift together several days a week, after the heat of the day had passed. They always managed to come back with at least a couple of pails of berries (and berry-stained lips), or a trug of mushrooms or wild asparagus as well as grass-stained clothes.
"Look what we found," Quinetta said. "A rock that looks like...well, some kind of insect, I think, or a small crab that's a bit prawny."
"That? It's a fossil," Soolin said. "They're very common in this area, they turn up in a sort of greenish clay soil."
"Oh, those?" Bek said, glad to know a bit more about something than Soolin did. "Chebutykiania macclesey, they're called."
Deva bustled to the other end of the crew room, where Avon was playing bridge with Tonio Fiavetta and the Antonescu brothers, Petr and Martin. Deva shivered at the flash of fury in the split second before Avon said, "I hope this is important," instead of what he wanted to say.
"Quinetta and Vila found a fossil," Deva said, trying to make it quick. "Soolin said that it occurs in a greenish clay soil. Put that together, it means there must be a seam of emuniate, which is..."
"A low-grade ore. Of aquitar," Avon said, dumping the cards on the table and racing out of the crew room to Blake's office.
Deva whistled softly. "How'd you do it?" He opened the wrapper on one of the chocolate bars (his chocolate ration, Avon's, and Soolin's--swapped for his cigarette ration--were stacked on one of the work surfaces in the computer room), broke off a square, ate it, and broke off another square and handed it to Avon.
"Salami tactics," Avon said. "Nothing creative. Just a transfer of all amounts under two and a quarter credits in the Bank of Belmont into a sweep account. And I shut it down before I could get too ambitious, and pingponged it among seven or so other accounts." He felt melancholy at the thought that he had been reduced to so feeble a device, for such small return. And this time it worked.
"It's an awfully peculiar amount," Deva said. "Plenty for what we need, but why that much?"
"Seventy-five thousand for the base. Sixty-eight for a Diffraction set, including shipping. Forty-seven credits for some silk underwear for me. I'm tired of wearing sackcloth and ashes. Apropos?"
Deva found Avon's cigarette ration, lit one, and passed it over to him, they always enjoyed the implied kiss (pending real ones) no matter how often the gesture was repeated.
"Won't Blake want to know where seventy-five thousand credits suddenly appeared from?"
"No," Deva said. "He's a great believer in a can-do attitude. He loves to swan in and tell you that he told you so, you could so do whatever he told you to do before. He isn't much arsed how you did it."
"Cabbages!" Tarrant said bitterly. "I'm flying this piece of shite out to Verakioth, and when we get there, I'll have to hide in it because I can't show my face, and as soon as you buy the fucking cabbages we have to run off."
"Oh, be fair," Bek said. "The reason you're flying it is that you're the best pilot, and this walking pesthole is the best ship we've got. And the reason you're hiding is that you're a hero--well, we think you're a hero, they've put an amazing price on your head. We'd damn well better have supplies before the winter closes in. And it's not just cabbages, anyway."
You could buy fresh food at Verakioth, and strong, coarse cloth for uniforms, and sewing machine parts. Bek hoped that he'd have time to buy a bottle of perfume for Soolin.
"Are you sure?" Vila asked.
"'Course I'm sure," Quinetta said. This was not actually true, but she thought Vila would be a much better dad than the other serious candidate.
"Anybody else up the gum tree?"
Quinetta snorted. "Not that I know about, I s'pose it's me who should be asking you that question."
"Now, Queenie, you know I wouldn't cheat on you. No, it just made me feel a bit special, is all. I'm the only bloke here that's going to have a kid. A kid! Me! My boy Vil', I'll see that he's named after me, I will. And no one'll ever dare to try, to boss him or toss him around."
"You can't just order them up like a pizza, you know," Quinetta said. "Extra garlic, no onions. How do you know it won't be a girl?"
"Gawd, I hope not," Vila said. "You can have fun with a son, but you've got to be a father to a girl."
+The genuineness of the message is confirmed+
"Thank you, Orac," Blake said. He flicked the switch for the tannoy. "Council meeting at 16:00 hours." That would give him a couple of hours to collect his thoughts.
At 16:00, Quinetta brought in a tray of coffees. Dayna pulled her chair closer to Blake's so she could put her hand on his arm. Deva was already there (he knew his position on the Council was marginal), Tarrant was a bit late, DaCosta and Charz were late enough to provoke a homily.
Blake played back the message. "As you remember--well, no I suppose you've heard but you aren't in a position to remember--the last time we were on Silmareno, it was called Horizon, and the King told us we would be welcome, any time. That message is from him. He has a proposition to put to us. Tarrant, if we assemble the whole flotilla, how many people can we transport?"
"Oh, the whole flaming garrison, I expect, as long as some of them don't mind kneeling the whole way out to pray that the ship won't crack up in mid-space."
"If we take him up on the offer, we'd just have to do that once ..."
"All right, what's he want, then?" DaCosta asked.
"An alliance. It'll give us a base..." Blake began.
Tarrant and Dayna laughed, a touch hysterically.
"Been there, done that, got the bandages," Dayna said.
"The idea might work," Tarrant said. "Under different auspices...go on, Blake, let's have the rest of it."
"First off, we'll go to Silmareno to discuss the idea. Of course, things might not work out, so we might want to return here, and we can't just abandon the base. We'll leave a skeleton crew behind. Deva, you can tell... your *friend*...that he's not been invited along. He can stay here with you and work on the overhaul of the computer systems and the mining project and the teleport design. Or, if he prefers, we can leave him off at any planet that's reasonably on the way to Silmareno where he cares to try his luck."
"Oh, he'll stay here, all right," Deva said. "With me."
Deva caught up with Vila just outside the crew room. "I know you're anxious about Quinetta, so I won't keep you long. //Alison was sick as a parrot the first few months, both times// "How did you...how do you open locks?"
"Don't think I'm going to tell you."
"Oh, not the trade secrets. But I'd really like to know your general approach...it's to do with something I'd like to ask you."
"Well, I dunno, you just sort of feel inside and you can tell how they're put together, so that means you know how to un-put-together them."
"That's what I thought. You have a sort of...well, mechanical empathy. You instinctively understand spatial relationships." Deva took a couple of datacubes out of a trouser pocket. "I'd like you to have a look at these, if you would. You see, we'll need to build a lot of equipment to mine and process the ore, and then a lot more to build teleport systems. Which means we'll need factory crew, and to get it finished this side of the Third Calendar we'll need someone talented as chief machinist."
"Chief machinist?" Vila asked. "You mean, tell people to bring me my tea and that?"
"More or less," Deva said. "Here. Take 'em. You can sleep-learn the cubes on the way out to Silmareno."
The native instruments reached their highest pitch of triumph (like a pig caught in a hinge) as the palanquin was borne in, on the sturdy shoulders of Blake, Tarrant, Bek, and Westaway. Westaway didn't know Vila all that well, but he was about Tarrant's height so they had some hope of carrying the thing safely.
Vila climbed out, magnificent in his gauze pantaloons and matching parrot-green floor-length waistcoat. A jeweled tiara held a rampant peacock feather above his head, and he wore three thickly chased cuff bracelets on each arm. The crowd cheered.
His bride was already waiting for him, surrounded by a giggling crowd of Silmarene maidens and matrons. Quinetta's ginger hair fell free, over the shoulders of her yellow silk robe. The robe was worked all over in crewel, flowers, vines, and fruit for fertility. At that point, it was like locking the barn door after the horse had gone--or opening the barn door after the horse was asleep--but she looked lovely.
King Ro and Queen Selma entered, and everyone stood aside, forming an aisle for them to sweep through. Everybody bowed, other than the undeterred musicians up in the gallery.
Ro accepted Blake's salute with a kiss on both cheeks. Ro gave Blake a huge leather-bound book, and Selma gave him a jeweled gold goblet full of wine.
As the ritual prescribed, Blake gave the goblet to each of them in turn. He drank nearly all of the remaining wine himself, and then poured a few drops over Vila's head and then over Quinetta's.
Selma's lady-in-waiting signaled to Blake that he should give the empty goblet to Tarrant. Then Blake opened the book to the spot marked by an embroidered red ribbon, and read out a very long passage in archaic language that afterwards everybody agreed didn't seem to have much to do with the matter at hand.
"This is all of it?" Ro asked, gazing at the two sheets of printout.
"I do beg your pardon, Majesty, but you must remember that the Occupation period was rather lengthy. No one remembers the old ceremonies--if there were any--and we only ever had the one anthropologist," the Royal Archivist said.
"I suppose you did your best," Ro said. "Well, get together a commission and work something up. Something with a bit of go to it. I like Vila."
It had been quite a knees-up, and Tarrant still felt a little blurry the next day when he was summoned to Lady Berinthia's chamber.
She dismissed the servant, and poured out thimblefulls of Mulled Hair of Dog from an elaborately chased brass pot and served him with tiny savory pastries.
"What do the characters on your garment signify?" she asked. (He wore
a black leather jacket, with a white panel on the back with
"Kein' Hoden, kein Eisenkreutz" in red Gothic letters.) "It's the FSA motto," he said. "Ahhh...it means, "No guts, no glory," he expurgated, thinking that perhaps "No balls, no Iron Cross" would be too indelicate for a sheltered court lady.
She leaned forward from her nest of cushions and touched his arm gently. "No, no, you do yourself an injustice!" she said. "I am certain that you are valiant as well as young and handsome."
She looked so earnest and kissable that he tilted her chin up gently and kissed her. She threw her arms around his neck, and got down to work.
Her feudal title was Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber, but her Civil Service rank was Eprouveuse.
"Next slide," Ro said. It was the small Council Chamber, so his sole insignia of rank was a slim diadem of gold bearing a trio of huge opals, not one of the State Crowns. "Jandisiddh is a small, predominantly agricultural world that has traditionally maintained close ties with Silmareno."
Orac sniggered--anyone who knew the first thing about stellopolitics knew that Silmareno had repeatedly colonized Jandisiddh, grabbed everything that wasn't nailed down, gone away, and come back when there was time to accumulate some more stuff to take.
"The people of Jandisiddh are rightly concerned that, in this time of great instability, they are at risk of brutal occupation by the Federation. Yet there is little consensus about how to combat this threat, or how to govern domestically. In the course of full, frank talks exploring the situation, it has emerged that the current ruling family is willing to abdicate in favor of...well, the single person who can unite every faction on Jandisiddh. And perhaps, proceeding one planet at a time..."
Ro inclined his head slightly, and began to applaud, and soon everyone in the room except Blake (and Orac, but for reasons as much of configuration as ideology) stood and applauded Blake too, as the first balm of praise salved some of the wounds of the past.
Queen Selma read through the report again. It was not unreservedly positive, but she liked Tarrant's looks, and decided to give him a chance. If nothing else, he'd come in handy in the Space Force.
Only two sentries walked the corridors of Gauda Prime Base, and one monitored the security screens. Four more of the shadow force remaining on the base were asleep.
Down in the middle level, in the crew rooms, Deva had one of his hands twined in Avon's hair, the other clasped his shoulder tighter and tighter, as Avon sucked his cock with immense care and deliberation.
It's not that Avon felt any uncertainty at all about the activity or his associate. But he always needed something to distrust (and quite often was proved right). At that point, his suspicions had been projected onto the stability of the army cot Deva was sitting on.
"Come on up here with me and hold me," Deva said. Avon hesitated, then lay down next to his new-found land. Vindication arrived immediately as the cot collapsed. They just laughed and gathered the blankets around them.
Vila had got out of the habit of knocking on doors, and he was halfway through bursting into Blake's suite of rooms before he remembered that Blake and Dayna might be very unwilling to entertain visitors.
Tracking them by their voices, he found them in the receiving chamber, sharing a dining couch and having a light meal.
"It's not exactly Terra, is it?" Vila overheard Blake ask. "Bit of a come-down for our expectations."
"I quite fancy being the First Lady," Dayna said. "What'll you be, then, Roj? President? Prime Minister? King?"
Vila had never seen Dayna wear quite so little as the length of eggshell silk gauze carelessly wrapped and tied around her, but the style was consistent. The real surprise, for him, was Blake's fuchsia velvet night robe caught up in a gold lame obi, with snub-nosed slippers to match.
"Vila, what is it?" Dayna asked. "Is Quinetta all right?"
"Yeh, suppose so, why shouldn't she be? Blake, you remember the monopasium mine--well, it'd stick in your mind, wouldn't it?"
"It stuck in everybody's mind," Dayna said. "They tell me they got an honest day's work out of you."
"I went by there for old time's sake, I thought they'd put a kiddies' playground there or something..."
"I hope not, Vila, given the radioactivity levels," Blake said.
"Point is, they didn't put anything there, it's still the same, it's still a mine, still got lots of blokes with nasty weapons guarding it, and still got miserable buggers inside breaking rocks."
"It's all right, Vila, we'll have lots of lovely machines in our mine, even if we had enough people to go around we wouldn't make them be slaves," Dayna said.
"Sit down, Vila," Blake said. "Just this once! You're not to keep trotting into our rooms all hours. I'm not quite as naïve as you seem to think. I know that Ro isn't perfect, and he hasn't quite made his kingdom into the garden spot of the galaxy. But I've decided to throw in with him nonetheless. We've been having a war for years, and I'm sick enough of it to try politics for a bit. All this time, we've been running and hiding, or fighting off pursuit ships--all in aid of not getting killed--or taking the initiative and trying to identify the right people to kill and then kill them. All in the aid of a world that rewards honesty and decency with something better than torture and bloodshed."
"But that's what I'm saying, Blake. You can't automatically think Ro is a good 'un just because he says he's on your side. And that's even assuming he really thinks he is on your side and isn't just doing it to soften you up for the kill while he counts the money for selling you down the river."
"There aren't any good 'uns once you get above the individual level," Blake said. "There are good people, but only institutions that are more or less corrupt. For all those years, I suppose I assumed that I would go on fighting the Federation without compromise until death. Looking back, I must have thought they'd do for me in a matter of weeks, months at the outset. So I didn't need much of a plan. Now, and mostly thanks to Dayna" (he squeezed her hand) "I'm beginning to think I might go on, and might even win the day. I'm going to give it a try, Vila."
"That's it, then? Just going to cut and run?"
"We'll be preserving our options. And don't think it's the coward's way out--it'll be bloody difficult to set up the new regime and keep the Federation at bay! We won't give up GP base, either in case this doesn't work out, or in case the Federation cares to chance its arm again. But if we do move on to Jandisiddh, we'll be making progress. And if we make a go of it, then other worlds will want to throw in with us...particularly as we can offer them teleport capacity."
"We haven't got a teleport."
"Oh, well, Avon will stop whining eventually and get it done, he always does."
"He's not the same any more, Blake. He was on a roll for a while--losing the Liberator, killing Anna, losing Scorpio. But then his last two big coups were trying to murder you and me, and he made a right balls-up of that, didn't he?"
"Well, Vila," Dayna said, "Sounds a bit like you're upset with Avon for not doing a better job, but at least I'm glad he didn't manage to kill Roj. If a thing isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well."
When Deva walked into their room, he found Avon lounging, enjoying his first cigarette in ten days.
Deva threw himself down on the--what, pallet? mattress? futon? that Avon was lounging on. It felt divinely soft and yet resilient, and when he moved, the aromas of camomille, sage, and bay wafted out at him. "Sentimentalist," he said.
"Where'd you get it?"
"I had Keithley and Danuta take some of the shocks off the dried maize and go out and gather some straw and leaves. There were some tarpaulins in storage. This is Prototype-1, I'd like to have enough to go around by the time--by the time the garrison gets back."
"We won't need quite enough to go around--Blake and Dayna have a bed already. And there are quite a few pairs--Vila and Quinetta, Guaviene and Danuta, Westaway and Maryon Hevruch, and so forth. Why don't you give just one to Bek? That might bring Soolin round." Deva threw his shirt on the floor, registered Avon's flinch although he had his back to him, and picked it up and put it into an old duffel bag Avon had dedicated for laundry. "Christ, I'm flaked--seems like there's twice as much work when there are only one-tenth as many people. Or maybe it's ten times as much." He pulled a nightshirt over his head, discarded the rest of his clothes, and dived under the blankets before he had a chance to freeze seriously.
"Greg," Avon said to the back of his lover's neck a few minutes later, "Why did you bother with me, in the first place?"
He had miscalculated. Deva was still awake, and said, "I fell for you already, you know. So I might as well get the benefit of it once you finally got here. Look, I really didn't fit in here. I'm short, I'm queer, I'm common as muck--got everything I need to get on in life. And now I've got you--well, as much as anybody ever gets you, Kerry--and instead of it being me and my right hand on a cot, now I'm making love with you on a mattress. So I was right, wasn't I?" //When a poor man gets to eat a whole chicken, one of them is sick. So how's a bloke like me going to get near one like you, except when you're smashed to bits and I get to put the pieces back together?//
In the morning, they took some notes on Prototype-1's performance. The stuff inside tended to shift around, so they decided there should be some kind of strings or ties or buttons to hold it in place. The rooms were small, so the mattress should probably fold up for storage.
Deva winced, as Avon's hand closed on his like a vise when Blake came into the room and sat down next to Dayna. Blake gave her a fond, fleeting kiss on the cheek that she turned into a full-on embrace.
Avon looked at the conference table, where Vila and Soolin were already seated. He took a ragged breath, unclasped his hand from Deva's and put both his hands flat on the tabletop. "I've called this meeting because, as you know, we're developing a teleport system using the native resources of aquitar-bearing ores. It'll be a slow process, because we have to build the mining and refining equipment as we go, but that'll give some time to improve the system. I'd like to go over your experiences with teleport, with a view to reducing the difficulties."
"Oh, well, the Liberator teleport was streets better," Vila said. "*Everything* about the Liberator was better."
"Yes, it was better for getting teleported," Dayna said, "But all that carry-on when you had to teleport someone else! The Scorpio system was a lot simpler at that end, and that was better."
"In both situations, the teleport bracelet itself was something of a stumbling block. Perhaps we'll come back to that--it may be the best design solution--but at the moment all design approaches are being considered," Avon said.
"Well, make 'em so they don't fall off," Vila said.
"*Fall* off!" Blake said. "If I had a ten-credit chip for every time someone flourished a gun in my face and took away my bracelet..."
"It wasn't really your bracelet, though, they all could be anybody's," Vila said. "Not like the guns, with the iso-thingie response."
Avon made a note. "Do you think that the teleport device should be specific to one person, then?"
"Oh, what do you care what I think? What did you ever care?"
"You can trust me to care about the device," Avon said.
"Of course," Blake said. "You'll have the honor of being the first to use it, once it's done."
Avon flinched and steadied his voice. "Soolin, what do you think? You've only used the Scorpio teleport, but I'm sure that gave you a good deal of insight into how to improve it."
"Does it have to be something outside ourselves? Could it be an implant, perhaps, or even a drink that would change the body chemistry?"
"Biochemistry? It's not my field, but perhaps we can solicit some outside expertise..."
"I hate to think what that would do to the schedule," Blake said. "You've already missed two milestones."
It was a lot warmer on Jandisiddh than on GP, which was lucky for the thousands of people thronging the Plaza and spilling over into the nearby streets.
Just as scheduled, as the band played the last selection in its Pops program, Blake and Dayna stepped out onto the balcony (surrounded by a transparent shield, of course--no point in asking for trouble), with Vila, Soolin, Bek, Westaway and Klyn lined up a bit behind them.
The crowd cheered themselves hoarse before Blake could so much as say a word. It wasn't much of a planet, he knew he'd probably have a honeymoon of about two days before he had to fight to defend it, and he'd lost so much and made so many compromises along the way.
He knew all that, but he couldn't help being happy to stand on that balcony, as a newly acclaimed sovereign rather than a hunted fugitive. Now he was a man with a lovely young consort, not one with nothing to hold onto but frozen loneliness and a ransacked store of memories.
Sooner or later, he'd get tired of mindless luxury. Sooner rather than later, he'd be sick of party politics. Knowing all that, he was determined to squeeze as much joy out of the moment as possible, he wouldn't insist on cold-pressed extra-virgin happiness. He pulled Dayna toward him (she looked wonderful in the crimson Field Marshall's uniform with its weight of gold braid and gold buttons) and kissed her soundly for the cameras.
"There are so many people who I would like to thank for this victory today. Our ally, King Ro of Silmareno. Vila Restal, who has been with me from the very beginning." Dayna ran to the back of the balcony and lifted up Vila's hand like a winning prize fighter. The band broke into "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Vila broke into sobs. He wished he had Queenie up there with him.
"Soolin. Toril Bek. Lilia Klyn. Dafydd Westaway. Without their loyalty and their courage, we would not be celebrating today. And, of course, there is a brave man who is not with us today but is in all our hearts." Vila caught his breath. "Colonel Del Tarrant, DSO, First Baron Tarrant of Gauda Prime."
Vila wiped his eyes with his sleeve. //Probably stands for Decorative Staff Officer. Poor old Avon, wish I could see his face when he heard that//
Which also ran through the minds of the skeleton crew at GP base, assembled in the crew room to watch the closed circuit broadcast (oh, the Federation would know, soon enough, but no point in making it sooner rather than later).
However, Avon and Deva weren't in the crew room. About an hour beforehand, they launched an elaborate pretense of having forgotten the time of the broadcast. By the time it started, they were genuinely engrossed in a design discussion about how large to build a teleport/communications device (with integral two-shot derringer) suitable for concealed carry, and how to differentiate between legitimate teleport requests and those made by an unauthorized user or under duress by an authorized user.
Nothing showed above the Swiss roll of blankets on Prototype-1 except for two dark heads--mahogany and walnut--and a sliver of Deva's shoulder.
"I never told you what I did," Deva said.
"You don't owe me anything and I owe you a great deal," Avon said. "So you needn't for my sake. And nothing you say will change the way I feel."
Deva huddled down even further into the blankets, until the edge was at cheekbone level. "They go a bomb on families, on NZ," he said. "They don't round up the queers more than every few years or so, but I wanted to be on the safe side. Always been cautious. So I picked a plain girl, God help me, because I thought that she wouldn't know the score. And cause I thought she'd be grateful. And there was a long engagement to save up, and she thought I was a perfect gent so we could have a white wedding. I got her in the family way soon as I could, and then she was glad I didn't trouble her. Did it again as soon as I could, then she thought I sloped off to the pub every night so I wouldn't have to listen to the littl'uns yowling, and I never talked to her because she had turned into a cabbage.
Well, at first it was the pub, but you can imagine what kind. And then I met a bloke, and I was 'round his flat all the time. But then the time came around for the purge, and I was the sort that could pretend and he wasn't. So as soon as I read in the paper that there'd been arrests for immorality, I took it on the run and came here. I knew they'd get my name out of him, and probably sooner rather than later. And Christ knows what happened to Alison and Caitlin and Tom, but it can't have been anything very good, can it?"
Avon spun him around until he could take Deva's face between his hands. He kissed him on the forehead. "I'm sorry. We'll make it up to everyone."
"How the fuck're we supposed to do that?" Deva asked, blinking furiously.
"I don't know. We'll think of something. Rescue, if we can, or revenge otherwise."
There were just ten days to go before End Year, and there was a distinct tendency among the workers to anticipate the festivities.
"Nearly time to stand down, isn't it, Chief?" Guaviene Moreno asked.
Vila looked at his wristchron. "It bloody well isn't, there's a good twenty minutes left in this shift, and you'd have done twice as much if you hadn't all been skiving."
"What's the hurry?" Fiavetta asked. "Till the brass-monkeys weather is over, we can't drag this stuff outside anyway."
"Values," Vila said. "There's more to rebelling than rushing about from place to place shooting, in't there? We want a teleport, we'll need stacks of aquitar. And it takes a ton of rock to make a teaspooonfull. No machinery, no mine. No mine, no ore. No ore, no teleport."
"That was terse," Guaviene said.
"The better to get you back to work, my dear," said Vila.
"Stay or go?" Blake asked. He looked around his near-denuded office at the GP base. Almost everything had been shuttled to Jandisiddh or was packed in a box for later transport. "You can have safe passage off-world, you can stay here and continue to work on the mining operation and getting the teleport into full production, or you can come to Jandy and serve as my Chief Technologist. Don't delude yourself that my distaste for you has worn off, but you're the best talent available to me, and it's important to me that we make a success of running Jandisiddh."
"What sort of title had you in mind for Greg?"
"Oh, I don't know. I hadn't anything specific planned."
"Chief of Staff," Avon said. "I'm not bothered what they call me--officially, that is--as long as I've got decent research facilities and not too much intervention. But if you don't see him right, it's no deal."
"You really do care about him, then? I didn't think you could feel anything for anybody."
"There's a first time for everything."
"I haven't asked you so far, and I won't again," Blake said. "How could you? When all the bloody awful things were happening between the London and Star One, the one thing I could count on was that you'd be defending me."
"A matter of principle," Avon said. "However agnostically, when I believed that you had fallen, I felt constrained to pick up the banner. And when I saw--when I thought I saw--that you had become the enemy of everything you once stood for, and that I had now been deputed to--"
"Even so?" Blake asked. "When we went through the Forbidden Zone, when we staked everything on a single spin of the wheel, and when we saw that the room was empty--well, I didn't blow up the fucking building, did I? That was down to Travis."
"At Star One, didn't they think that you were Travis? There was less and less distinction to be drawn. I simply thought the curve continued."
"Then you could never have known me at all."
"I see that now," Avon said. "Well, at least I've earned my keep here," hating himself for wanting approbation, for wanting to beg for a last time for the love he had never had and in any case had thoroughly precluded.
"Oh, yes, one Lady Bountiful gesture after another. The mattresses are all very nice. The simulations for the teleport system look quite promising. But you know, sometimes I'd rather have Vila pick my pocket than you hand me a planet with my initials embossed on it. There'd be more real human feeling in it."
"I'll ask Greg what he wants to do," Avon said. "I'll have an answer for you by the end of shift." He headed toward the door, estimating that he could manage another three minutes or so without breaking down.
"Damn you," Blake said. "We used to laugh together. And you put paid to that forever."
"We used to fight. All the time," Avon said.
"Because you wouldn't let me get a word out of my mouth without an argument."
"Doubtless you overpaid, but harmony has prevailed in the past months, hasn't it?"
"Because I've more or less put you out of my mind. Naff off now, I'm busy."
Deva had thoughtfully left half a chocolate bar and five cigarettes in their room (nearly everything had been packed up, so the barter options were limited) and absented himself for half an hour after he thought the meeting with Blake would have ended. Then he sat on Avon's lap in their one chair and draped one unresisting, ice-cold hand over his shoulder.
"What should we do?" Avon said. "That is, assuming that you want us to stay together."
"Fuck, I hate it when you're feeling sorry for yourself. Of course we'll stay together. The beds i' the East are soft. I heard a rumor that they've actually got a hotel on Jandy. Double beds. Triple beds. Room service. I asked--we can get an advance on our Civil List salaries and stay there until our bijou flat is ready. If you have to, you can fly back to supervise the mining operation. Anyway, you practically never have to see Blake here, when he's in charge of a grotty little insurrection--you certainly won't when he's Lord Muck of a whole planet."
"I was surprised to see from the roster that you're staying on GP," Bek said.
"It's not much, but it's home," Soolin said. "And it's my first command--I've always been a free-lancer. I'll see how that goes. And equally, I'll see if I can chase the ghosts and make something out of the place."
"I was really surprised to see that Vila and Quinetta will stay here too. Not much of a place to raise a baby, I wouldn't think."
"It's perfectly fine when no one's trying to clean it up.
Anyway, it means a lot to Vila, being in charge of the mining machinery. And they'll go off-planet before the baby's due anyway and come back when Quinetta and the baby can travel."
"When I saw the roster, I applied for a transfer," Bek said. "As far as I'm concerned, wherever you are is home."
"It's an open planet," Soolin said dismissively, but her eyes sparkled.
The Archivist, delighted with another chance to exercise his creativity, whipped up a traditional Silmarene Naming Presentation Ceremony. Everyone drank eggnog and waved around ears of wheat. The queen and the President of Jandisiddh graciously agreed to serve as young Selma-Rojja Restal's Presenters. The ceremony was extensively covered by the vizzies and newschips.
Blake could hold a grudge for a long time but not forever, and occasionally he and Dayna would be invited to small dinners at Avon and Deva's town house. (Not that often--Dayna and Deva didn't really get on.) And one of them must have been quite a party, because he realized a few months later that he had privatized the shipbuilding industry. Deva quit the Civil Service and went to work at the now-bustling shipyard, where there was an immense backlog of orders for teleport-equipped ships with the improved deflector shield and remote-controlled force wall.
After one term, Jandisiddh voted President Blake out of office (in part, because they were afraid of the Field Marshal's dynastic ambitions). He was kicked upstairs to serve as Coordinator of the League of Free Planets, which now numbered 22 members.