Back in TouchAuthor:
9,500Summary: It's only taken Blake a few hours from learning to turn the light switch on to making his bid for leadership. Avon supposes that really that shouldn't have surprised him at all. Notes:
The sequel to Ensemble
. While Ensemble took place across 5 years this covers the following 10 hours.
The red wine curls and splashes around the bottom of the glass. It's not Avon's first drink tonight but he thinks it probably ought to be his last.
During his years in the Presidential Palace he developed a taste for the really expensive stuff and there are cases of fine vintages from across the Galaxy stacked in one of the Scorpio's holds, carefully kept at precisely optimum temperature. He's not going to run out any time soon but he still shouldn't drink too much alone.
Avon puts his feet up and leans back, savouring the warmth of the drink and the quiet of his quarters. The ship is humming around him tonight, the noises oddly variable, but nothing is wrong. He's going to go to bed after this glass. Dealing with everything else will wait until he's rested.
There's a knock on his door. It startles him and he tips the glass inadvertently, curses at the drops on his shirt and the person on the other side of the door equally. Five years he's flown the reconditioned ship and no-one has ever knocked before. No one has ever been able to.
He regains his mental balance with an effort . "Come in."
Blake pushes the door open with a slight expression of disbelief which fades as he sees Avon' s scowl. “Am I interrupting anything?”
“Not particularly. Are you alone?” That's unusual; not unknown but unusual.
Blake nods. “Tarrant's putting Scorpio through every procedure he can think of. Tuning her up, he says. He's roped the other two in to help while they still think turning dials and pressing buttons is an exciting novelty.”
“You're bored with it already then?”
Blake laughs. “Not really. Look!” He flicks the light switch off and on with a delighted grin, turns serious again. “But I thought that you and I should talk.”
Avon reluctantly waves him to a chair, watches as Blake sinks into it while the cushions around him don't move. He doesn't really want this conversation tonight, whatever it turns out to be about, but he's known Blake for long enough to know that he won't be able to slide out without at least pretending to listen.
“Would you like a drink?” he tries experimentally.
“I'd love one.” Blake leans forward, passes his hand flat through the bottle. “Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be on the cards as yet. Do finish yours.”
Avon takes another sip, contemplating Blake. “So?”
“So it turns out that your hallucinations can operate your ship and you're not surprised.”
Avon shrugs. “If what I perceive isn't real, why should I be surprised at whatever happens?”
“That's not it, though.” Blake is leaning forward, intense. “Five years, Avon. In that time you and I have argued about everything from the new constitution of the Federation to which way up to hang that bloody awful picture from Heros you got given. And in all that time you've never once told me that my opinion doesn't matter because I'm nothing but a figment of your imagination.”
“That would be rather an ad hominem argument,” Avon points out.
“So? You're keen enough on those when it suits you. Crazed revolutionary tends to be your favourite epithet, after all.” Blake smoothes the leather over his knees. He's a little nervous, Avon realises. Odd.
“What do you really think about the changes?”
“They are curious,” Avon concedes.
“And yet you're not curious about them - about us, are you, Kerr Avon? Your insistence on pinning down every detail of how the universe functions had never extended to us. You've never asked us what its like to be ghosts, or whether that's what we think we are. You never even researched your possible psychiatric conditions or the drugs that might have suppressed us. You took us entirely for granted and now you're doing the same with this new found corporeality. Don't you want to know what is like for us to be able to interact with Scorpio again after all these years?”
“Not really,” Avon says honestly. “Asking you about your supposed internal mental states can't possibly produce any meaningful data. You're Roj Blake. What else do I need to know? “
“You might want to know what happens next,” Blake suggests.
“Flying the ship becomes less work for me. Why should anything else change?”
Blake laughs at that. “You haven't even started to think this through then. Take a minute. Do it.”
Avon thinks about it, turning the crystal glass in his hands, looks back up at Blake. “You're talking about mutiny.”
Blake grimaces. “Not the way I'd put it. But we do now have the capacity to fly Scorpio without you. That gives us a little leverage when discussing where we might take her.”
That's a startling thought after all these years. While he was the only person who could interact with her the ship has always been unarguably his. It's only taken Blake a few hours from learning to turn the light switch on to making his bid for leadership. Avon supposes that really that shouldn't have surprised him at all.
“And what will you do when you get wherever it is? You can't touch anything, you can't speak to anyone. No one can even see you. Scorpio alone is useless to you.”
There is a slight judder- they have decelerated faster than the ship can compensate for. Avon grabs the bottle. “Vassal! Report!”
“Message from Soolin,” Vassal responds. “We have found an asteroid field and we're going to try some target practice. Might be a bit bumpy for a while. End message.”
“Anyone in here would have heard that,” Blake points out. “The ship's our medium now, carrying messages from the dead to the living. I expect she’ll do it considerably more accurately than you ever did.”
Avon can hear the low whine of the guns now. Blake doesn't need to tell him what that means. While they have Scorpio they can talk and listen to the outside world, with the ship's weapons to back them up. The only thing standing in the way of his ghosts finally operating on their own volition after five years of helplessness is Avon himself.
He can't afford to seem perturbed. “Nice timing,” he tells Blake. “Not, I imagine, coincidental. You're all in on this.” A thought strikes him. “What do you do when I'm asleep? Puff into nonexistence or sit around and discuss how to plague me when I wake up?”
“You've never asked before.”
“I've never cared before. Since now it appears my ship may be hijacked while l sleep I'm keenly interested.”
Blake smiles. “Since you gave up up the presidency and we came back here there have been all sorts of changes going on under your oblivious nose. We stay around now all the time, whether you're conscious or not. “
“So what do you do?”
“I sit there, mainly.” Blake gestures at Avon's chair.
His chair? “Why?”
“You are full of questions about us now that you're feeling paranoid. It's peaceful. I would think you could appreciate that.”
“There are empty quarters you could sit in.” Avon points out.
“I like to hear you breathing. It's soothing; it can almost put me to sleep as well.”
Avon had long since given up any expectation of privacy. They try to preserve the facade, he'll give them that. Once he's retired to bed they are always silent and invisible, as if he's truly alone.
He'd thought, in the early days, that they really did leave. He'd met someone : a computer specialist who seemed to need neither his patronage nor his money, an intelligent young man that he could talk to. Still frustrated by the need to keep a predatory Servalan at arms length he'd bedded the man, apparently to their mutual satisfaction. It had taken his appalled watchdogs to tell him what anti reform slogans the man had been mouthing at his hidden video camera during the periods that Avon had been... well, face down.
Avon had taken several lessons from that incident. First, that a prime minister didn't have friends; not live ones, anyway. Second, that his people were better at watching out for him that he was, and it didn't matter that that should be physically impossible. And thirdly that they always watched, regardless of their promises.
He's slept alone all the years since. It isn't a great inconvenience. He sees to his own infrequent sexual needs using carefully nameless and generic fantasy images and the others politely pretend that they know nothing about it.
To have Blake watching him; that's not so far from what he had assumed anyway. He finds it difficult to raise any real objection but he tries a little mockery. "That could be considered uncomfortably stalkerish ."
“You should be used to it by now.” Blake tells him. “We've stalked you since Gauda Prime,”
“I'm not here,” Blake says sharply, “to answer a hundred questions that you should have asked years ago. I'm here to talk to you about Scorpio.”
“You can't have my ship, Blake. It's not the Liberator.”
“But I can't leave either. If we have no say in what happens, what does that make us, Avon?”
“Whatever you've been for the past five years, I imagine.”
“You weren't directly responsible, or at least not consciously, before. If you deny us now you are physically enslaving us.”
Avon laughs. “Enslaved! What kind of ridiculous rhetoric is that?”
“You want us to fly your ship for you, to follow your orders. You don't offer wages and we are not at liberty to leave as long as you stay. How would you define our relationship?”
If Avon had had any idea what would result from his attempts to give his people some kind of home he'd have left well alone. “You don't have to fly the damn ship, Blake. You can sit around and do nothing but make bloody useless remarks like you've done every single day since you were shot dead.”
“Since you shot me.”
That again. They hadn't had this particular argument for years. Avon finally loses the remnants of his temper. He storms down to the bridge where the others are still blasting asteroids with much jollity.
“Vassal. Override. Take us somewhere quiet and safe and shut everything down. I need to work on your control system.”
“No.” Blake is in front of him. “This isn't the answer, Avon. We need to talk.”
“You do far too much of that. I'm not interested.”
The others are around him now, asking questions. Blake's deep voice answers them. “Avon intends to reprogram Vassal to accept only his orders. Isn't that right, Avon?”
There is a general outcry of protest.
“If you think I'm going to let you bunch of... of parasites take over my ship,” Avon snarls at them, “you can think again.”
They do crowd close sometimes. He thinks nothing of it until Tarrant shoves him in the chest and he reels backwards. What the fuck was that?
Tarrant looks equally bewildered. Avon starts to turn his shoulder away in apparent disdain, then swings back, his fist thumping into Tarrant's gut with a satisfying impact. Tarrant folds.
“Stop it!” Blake is pushing between then. “Stop it now!”
Avon is breathing a little heavily. “How long,” he demands of Blake, “have you kept this one quiet?”
Blake shakes his head. “I didn't know... I don't know why.”
“Because he's Scorpio,” Soolin says. “Like us.”
“Not at all like you,” Avon says. This is unsettling to say the least. “So now I need to worry about having my throat slit in the middle of the night as well as my ship stolen.”
“I should have waited until you were sober,” Blake mutters. “There's no reasoning with you tonight.” And louder. “Apologise, Tarrant.”
“He hit me,” Tarrant protests. He seems to have recovered completely.
“You shoved him first. We all felt it.”
“I didn't expect...” Tarrant looks at Blake and sighs. “I'm sorry. Physical violence was uncalled for. But Scorpio isn't yours, Avon. You don't have the right to take it from us.”
“Of course it's mine.” Avon tells him. ”I can't just hand it over to you lot. I don't even know what you are.”
“You know who we are,” Blake says.
That's true enough. Avon looks around at the four most familiar of faces. This needs resolving somehow. He can't throw them off the ship, after all. He chokes down his indignation and tries reason instead.
“Look. It would be insane of me to subscribe to some sort of majority rule. After all I need certain things from Scorpio - food, water, life support- that none of you do. The ship is all I have to keep me alive. That's my priority. Yours might be something else completely.”
“Keeping you alive is top of our list too,” Vila says. “It's not that we like you very much, it's just that we don't know what happens to us after you die.”
“You'll understand if I don't entirely want to depend on your cowardice, Vila,” Avon snaps. And to Blake, because he thinks that's where the influence lies on this.
“I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll reprogram Vassal with three changes. First so I can't be locked out of its systems for any reason. Second to give me an emergency override. For emergencies. Thirdly if something unexpected and fatal happens to me the ship will stop responding to more than the most basic operations and weapons won't be one of them. You can stay on board, if you like, but you won't have much fun.”
“You're a paranoid man, Kerr Avon.”
“That's what's kept me alive this long, which is more than can be said of any of you. Once that's done I might be willing to enter into consultation about what we do next.”
They glance at each other and vanish.
“Vassal. Where did the others go?”
Of course. Vassal will take their orders and their messages but it still doesn't acknowledge their existence. They are talking somewhere; he can feel it, distantly, but he can't read their moods.
“How long until we reach that quiet and safe bit of space, Vassal?”
“Seventy six minutes.”
He waits, thinking wistfully of the other half bottle. Blake's right that far. He would be better at this sober. It's hard enough to adjust as it is. He's had five years in which he could ignore them or tell them to go to hell with impunity, and he has, often enough. Now he's back to having to negotiate, make concessions, and he doesn't like it.
They are out for a long time. When they return it's Tarrant in the lead. Avon's not sure of the significance of that.
“You took your time. Dissent in the ranks?”
“We were mainly discussing whether in the somewhat unusual circumstances it was fair to cut you any slack.” Tarrant says cheerfully. “We concluded, reluctantly, that we'd be generous this once. You're probably in shock and after all you've always been a crazy bastard. So we're going to let you indulge your paranoia on this occasion. You may make your stupid changes, and then we'll get on with the important stuff.”
“They are merely reasonable precautions.”
“Yes, if you're sharing your ship with thieves and murderers. We thought we were on the same side, Avon, after everything we've done for you over the years. You ought to know that we are really quite disgusted with you. Go on, get it done.”
He wakes in the darkness from a dream of Servalan in his bed, uneasy and aroused. Half asleep, he is about to finish what the dream started when he remembers.
“He's not here.”
Avon pulls himself up to a seating position. He doesn't fancy lying on his back to talk to Tarrant, certainly not in the state he's in. “Where is he?”
“On his own. It was his choice.”
That doesn't entirely make sense. Avon feels odd, as if he hadn't really woken at all. The ache of lust isn't going away. Maybe he's dreaming still. Why is Tarrant in his rooms?
“What's going on?”
“Can't you tell?” Tarrant's voice has a slightly rough edge. Thoughts of sex keep intruding into Avon's head. He wishes the man would go away so he can go back to fantasising. Not Servalan, he tells himself. Not Anna either. There must be someone he wants that he hasn't killed. Three out of three’s a pretty poor record.
“Is there a problem with the ship?”
“Then go away. I need a little privacy.”
“That's not what you need.”
Tarrant's voice has deepened. In Avon' s current state even that sends flutters down his spine. He decides to go for forthright- it might shame the man into going.
“Look, Tarrant,” he says. “I'm a little dishevelled. I was dreaming of... of someone. I'd like the privacy of my own bed to resolve the matter. Without an audience, if you could be so kind.”
“You really don't know what's going on?”
“No I don't. I don't really care either. I've told you this is a bad moment to talk.”
“We don't have to talk,” Tarrant says.
“What else are we going to do?”
“For God’s sake,” Tarrant says. “You must be able to tell what's happening. Can't you feel it?”
All he can feel is the fog of lust, all around him but oddly separate, almost as if it had some external source...
Oh God. Backwash.
If Blake was on his own, that left… “Is that Soolan and Vila?”
“Well, tell them to stop!”
“After five years of enforced abstinence? I don't think they're going to listen to me.”
“It's really disturbing.” He flicks the light on. “I'm going to need a great deal of alcohol to blot this out.” At least he can't pick up specifics from the other two, just this haze of arousal.
“There's an easier alternative.” Tarrant grins at him. “You're not the only one affected.”
“I thought you were disgusted with me?” He's buying time. He's never considered Tarrant,or any of them, in that way. He saw their bodies decay. What's left were merely shades, until now.
“I was. But I've been incorporeal for five years too and right now I want a bit of what they're getting. You might be a selfish paranoid bastard but if I'm going to screw someone on this ship you happen to be my first choice.”
“How flattering.” Avon contemplates Tarrant's open smile, well aware that there is always more behind it than the man gives away, and runs through his options. Send the man away and get paralytically drunk or jerk off to someone else's orgasms or lie here being excruciating uncomfortable until they've done. They'll all know, of course, what he chooses. Or Tarrant.
It's not just tonight. It will happen again. He's got no way to control them; he never did have. He thinks of Blake, on his own somewhere, hiding from it all. Avon has to do better than that.
Tarrant looks exactly as he did on the day that he died. It's a sight normally too familiar to be titillating but there's enough arousal in the air tonight to make anyone reasonably easy on the eye seem like a good option. Del Tarrant's always been that.
Avon sighs in mock reluctance. “Do those clothes come off?”
A flicker and the man's naked. Lean and muscular and comfortably endowed. Avon feels a moment of insecurity. The last five years haven't been particularly flattering to his own body. He's getting older now, no denying that, and Tarrant won't ever get older again.
Still, Avon's not dead. That's one thing he's got going for him. He slides off the bed, walks over to stand toe to toe in his black silk pyjamas. Tarrant's skin feels cool to the touch. It's been a very long time since Avon made contact with anyone for more than a ceremonial handshake.
Avon's not sure that he up for kissing but Tarrant takes that decision out of his hands, wrapping his fingers around the back of Avon's head and pulling his mouth hard against Tarrant's own. There are undoubtedly worse things than Tarrant's tongue exploring. Avon slides his own hands down the bare back, across the muscles of the man's arse, tugs them close enough to compress both of them. Skip the rest of the preliminaries; not only is the thought of foreplay with Tarrant slightly bizarre but the backwash he's getting now is definitely climactic and it's feeding his own urgency.
Tarrant seems equally happy to go straight for the bed. “Lubricant?” Avon pants.
“Won't need it.” Tarrant pushes Avon willingly onto his back, lies on his side to run his hands across his chest then down to his groin. There's something... not just the feel of it. Something strange. Avon realises what it is and twitches, startled. “You've got your hands right through my clothes. “
“They don't count as Scorpio, apparently.” Tarrant laughs. “Next time you're being an ass on the bridge I'll have to remember that I can do this."
His hand curls around Avon’s scrotum, tugs hard and Avon curses him for a dead sadist. “Just get on with it.”
“One dose of necrophilia coming up.” Tarrant's eyes are shining. Avon pulls his own clothes off - it seems that Tarrant can't and the thought of being screwed right through them is a little too bizarre.
Tarrant was right; lubricant isn't necessary. Avon wonders if there will be any friction at all but there's enough where its needed. Tarrant's body is smooth and cool, odourless and sweat free and not quite human and the man doesn't breathe. For a flicker of a moment he remembers that same face blackening, whitened eyes shrunken in their dry sockets. The cocky young man he knew as Del Tarrant is long dead, so what is this creature moving inside him?
Then it is just Tarrant again and the man's panting now at least even if he doesn't physically need to. Avon feels him shaking with orgasm, both physically and in the miasma of passion that still fills his head. He groans his own desperation and Tarrant slides down the bed to take his cock in his mouth. A partner who doesn't need to breathe makes for a remarkably intense blow job Avon notes, with the small part of his brain that's still processing thought. His hands slide into curls as his back arches away from the bed. He's only vaguely aware that it isn't Tarrant that he's thinking about as his climax wrings him.
“Don't fall asleep.”
It's a ridiculous command and Avon ignores it. The hand that had been draped across his chest starts prodding at his too-soft stomach. “Wake up, Avon.”
“Shut up or go away, Tarrant,” he says without opening his eyes. “That's your lot. Insatiable idiot.”
“It's not me you need to wake up for. I know you spent a lot of time trying to ignore us but after five years I would have thought you'd be better at reading your links by now. You could at least take some notice of what you broadcast.”
“What?” He reluctantly turns his head to look at the other occupant of the bed. “What are you talking about?”
“You were transmitting very loud,” Tarrant tells him. “Everyone on the ship caught it all pretty clearly whether they wanted to or not.”
“So?” He'd assumed that they'd know about him and Tarrant just as they'd all known about Vila and Soolin. He was prepared to face that one out. After all Tarrant had been the one doing the importuning.
“So,” Tarrant says with a certain amount of amusement, “when you mentally scream the name of an uninvolved third party during sex I imagine that the owner of that name might have a couple of questions for you.”
Oh God. He knew that he hadn't said anything aloud and his ghosts couldn't normally read his thoughts, but if he'd been loud as Tarrant suggested...how could the man have known, otherwise?
“You might feel better prepared if you put some clothes on first,” Tarrant suggests. “You can always take them off again if things go well. I'll see you tomorrow.” He leans over for a brief close mouthed kiss to the cheek. “Thank you, Avon. That was good, if a little perfunctory. Next time maybe at least one of us can break a sweat.”
Then he disappears.
Avon's waking up properly now. He gives up on his shattered sleep and sits up in bed. “Use the door!” he calls into the silence.
He seems to be alone, although he never entirely discounts the possibility that they are watching. The contents of his head appear to be only his own thoughts again; a mixture of irritation, worry and a certain animal satisfaction.
Shower, he thinks, automatically. Get the traces of sex off his skin, except that there aren’t any. Tarrant was right; he hadn’t broken a sweat, and the other man had left nothing; no scent, no sweat, no bodily secretions of any sort, and no marks or sore patches either. The only sign that anything had happened at all is his clothes kicked off the end of the bed.
Avon eyes them suspiciously. They aren’t much evidence on their own. Most likely he’d been asleep, he’d dreamed of Servalan, and then he’d dreamed of Tarrant. The ship-wide orgy, the reading of minds, the hands through his clothes, the random choice of partner- he should have realised that he was dreaming. He’d even got his normally well concealed worry about Blake in there. That’s why everything had had that unreal quality- it had been unreal. At some point he must have woken enough to take his clothes off; they are only his loose night ones, it doesn’t take much.
It didn’t happen with Tarrant. That’s a relief. It can’t happen with any of his ghosts; that’s something he’s always known. He doesn’t want to go straight back to sleep so he dresses properly. He’ll head to the galley for a hot drink. Hopefully he won’t meet anyone, particularly not Tarrant. Avon smiles wryly. It might be a little difficult to keep a straight face, or to explain why he was amused.
Then the knock comes.
Avon sighs. “Come in.”
At least Blake uses the door, he thinks, then remembers that Tarrant vanishing had been part of the dream. “It’s late,” he points out.
“Sleeping badly.” Avon says lightly. “It seems wine, mutiny and six hours reprogramming Vassal don’t mix. I was about to get something from the galley, if you don’t mind the walk.”
“It wasn’t a mutiny.” Blake walks beside him. “We just want a little fairness.”
“You never want a little of anything,” Avon tells him.
That seems to get under the man’s skin. “How would you know? You’ve never been remotely interested in what I want. You’ve never once asked.”
“I gave you Scorpio,” Avon snaps back. “I gave you a voice in everything I did on Earth. I let you stay when God knows sometimes I would have done so much better without you. Hell, I killed her for you. I could have chosen to be cured, I could have been sane, I could have been retired somewhere with my own gold plated planet and her in my bed and instead I’m fighting a bunch of ungrateful dead people for control of one small freighter and if you have your way I’ll lose even that. I know what you want, Blake. You want everything you can get.”
“You could have been corrupted.” Blake retorted. “You would have been, without us. You would have slept with Servalan and lost your way and she would have used you to make the Federation just as she wanted it to be. That’s if you’d survived those first three months at all. Want to try those on your own this time?”
He stops, visibly trying to calm himself. “Yes, you gave us Scorpio. She cost you little but it was well thought of and it meant a great deal to them- to us. But when we come to claim our rights in her we find that she was never a gift but only a suitable cage to keep us in. You can’t behave like this, Avon. Not any more.”
Avon dials a hot chocolate drink from the galley, waits for it to be served. He takes the mug and sits down at one of the tables, wrapping his hands around it, taking his time. He doesn’t appreciate being told what he must do. Finally he looks at Blake.
“What happened to Dayna?”
Blake frowns at him. “She disappeared.”
“I know that. Why?”
Blake takes the seat across from him. “Because you stopped listening to her.”
Avon sips at the drink, smiles at the man across the table. “So it’s that easy?”
Blake is on his feet and for a moment Avon thinks he will launch himself across the table, but the man controls himself, slamming his hands down and leaning forward to hiss, “That was a long time ago. I think you’ll find us harder to kill these days. Thieves and murderers- that’s a mirror you’re looking in, Avon. We won't be used and discarded any more.” The galley door slams as he leaves.
The chocolate tastes bitter. Avon drinks it all anyway. Things couldn’t be much more screwed up if he really had slept with Tarrant. He tells himself that this has happened before, more or less. There have been several occasions on which he’s fallen out with his people so badly that no-one has spoken to him for days or even weeks. In the end they always come round because he’s the only game in town. And, his conscience murmurs to him, because none of them want to go the way that Dayna went.
They need him to exist, and yes, he’s used that to get his own way so often that it’s second nature now. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. There’s no point in pretending this is a democracy of equals. He's the only one who survived Gauda Prime. The others are... something else.
In his two years as Interim President Avon had been careful to appear neither venal nor greedy, but after everything they’d achieved for the Federation he’d been entitled to a retirement fund. Orac had already been hidden away in Scorpio ever since it was presumed destroyed with Servalan. He’d asked for the never successfully duplicated Star Drive.
The civilian members of the Federation Council trusted neither each other nor the military. The Star Drive, being singular, was a problem. Avon was a safe pair of hands; the man was stepping down voluntarily from supreme executive power, after all. They voted him the Star Drive back, another refit of Scorpio to his precise specifications and a significant but not outrageous amount of money (a useful precedent to set by men and women with their eyes on the top job themselves).
Scorpio is again the fastest ship in the galaxy, carrying the most powerful weapons that a ship her size can handle. She is not just Avon’s prize but his responsibility. He can’t hand her over out of some pathetic desire to have them like him. He doesn’t even know what kind of thing they are, not any more.
Avon makes his way to the command centre, inserts Orac's key.
“Run a hypothetical,” he says to it.
“You should be aware that ninety nine point eight three percent of hypotheticals are a complete waste of time.”
“Postulate entities, with the apparent personalities of my old shipmates, that can communicate only with me and who appear to have no other way of interacting with the physical world.”
“Your hallucinations are repetitive and uninteresting.” Orac says.
“Postulate, I said. You're a logical machine. Do it.”
“If I must. Postulate accepted.”
“Good. Now postulate a change in their apparent abilities after five years so that they can now interact physically with Scorpio and Vassal.”
“Ridiculous,” Orac says. “But postulate accepted.”
“Right.” He can feel someone behind him now. He doesn't turn round. “Given those postulates, what is the likelihood that their abilities will change again?”
“For any given time period the universe can be divided into things that evolve and things that do not. Your hypothetical creatures have already demonstrated their ability to change. It is highly probable that they will do so again. Alternatively they could have hidden their abilities from you from the start, in which case it is probable that they will have further hidden abilities which will come to light.”
Orac goes on without a pause. “Non-hypothetically, your hallucinations and delusions are clearly becoming more florid. It is probable that as you continue to deteriorate mentally your perception of what your fictitious entities are doing will become more extreme.”
“I didn't ask for a psychiatric assessment,” Avon snarls. “Hypothetically again, what is the chance of the postulated entities being dangerous to me?”
“Without any information about their motivations, physical or psychosocial requirements the probability of conflict arising is not calculable.”
Avon sighs. There had been an outside chance of something useful but all Orac has done is confirm precisely his own assessment.
“Ask it,” Blake says from behind him, “for a reassessment of that last, based on the additional postulate that we are who we say we are.”
Avon closes his eyes. “How does that help . .. never mind. Orac. Additional postulate. The entities appear to believe that they are and do at all times behave as if they are the people who died at Gauda Prime. Recalculate the danger to myself.”
Orac hums for a while. “Conflict between the entity Roj Blake and Kerr Avon has previously resulted in the death of Roj Blake. The actions of Kerr Avon may be considered to have contributed to the deaths of Del Tarrant, Vila Restal and Soolin. Revenge may be a possible motive for any of the entities believing themselves to be these persons attacking you. Other potential motives for conflict include obtaining control of the ship Scorpio and obtaining control of myself. In addition where a small number of humans or human like entities are confined in a space together it is necessary to consider sexual desire and jealousy as motives for conflict.”
“Orac's not a great fan of human nature,” Avon says lightly. It's a poor attempt at hiding his dismay.
“You asked it for a hypothetical and that's what you got. Orac' s data on us ran out on Gauda Prime. You've had five more years and Servalan's death to factor in, Avon. You know we're long past seeking vengeance. You don't need to rely on that thing's guesswork.”
Avon automatically glances at Orac but of course it hasn't heard Blake speaking. He turns around, reluctantly. “If I could be sure of anything about you I wouldn't be asking Orac.”
Blake just stands there, looking at him. He's hurt, Avon knows. Conscience niggles again. He can't give the man what he wants but he doesn't have to be cruel.
“If I'd known what was happening to Dayna I'd have found some way to save her. I don't consider any of you expendable. I need you.”
“You have a strange way of showing it.” Blake is unbending.
“It's been an extremely trying few hours.” Avon sighs. “I know to you this all looks simple but from my side it's not straightforward at all. You've changed, Blake, into something I don't understand. I can't pretend I'm just dealing with the same ordinary human body and mind that you had back on Liberator.”
Blake raises an eyebrow. “Was I ever ordinary?”
“No,” Avon concedes. “And that doesn't help either.” He sits down, waves Blake to follow. “I lost you and only got a part of you back. It does have certain advantages sometimes over dealing with flesh and blood people, but some parts of you- the physical ones - were... dead. Gone. Forever, I assumed.”
He watches a reaction flicker over Blake's face but he can't interpret it.
“I was never aware that you had any particular attachment to my physical body.”
Avon shrugs. “I'm only human. I've spent a long time on my own, physically anyway, and after a few years the idea of other people's bodies has a certain appeal.”
“So Tarrant...,” Blake starts, then tails off.
“What about Tarrant?” Avon says suspiciously.
“It’s not for me to judge, but do you really think that was a good idea, Avon? You could at least have waited until the Scorpio situation was resolved.”
It hadn't been a dream then. Oh God, that meant he'd actually let Del Tarrant fuck him. And what Tarrant had said about broadcasting...
“It probably wasn't a good idea, no. As I said, it had been a very trying day and the whole thing blindsided me a little. Not that it wasn't fun. Tarrant's reasonable enough company when you don't have to listen to him talk,” he adds, remembering that he can never be sure which of them is listening. “I've got no complaints on that score. But as you say the timing was unwise.”
“So you won't do it again?” Blake says with a little too much intensity.
Avon feels he's being pushed and he never likes that. “I said the timing was unwise. That's all. I've no intention of monopolising him, if that's what's worrying you.”
Blake scowls. “Don't be ridiculous. I'm not interested in Tarrant.”
“Why's it ridiculous? It's not as if you can stop off at the next planet and cruise a couple of bars, Blake. Your options are fairly limited. I wouldn't think you'd want to be too choosy.”
“Whereas you've got endless fields to play. Is that your point, Avon?” Blake’s scowl has deepened several points.
It really hadn't been. “There are many things you can accuse me of but promiscuity is hardly one of them, as your and your voyeuristic comrades know full well.”
“You've been waiting all this time for Del Tarrant, maybe.” Blake suggests coldly.
“Don't be idiotic.” Avon frowns at Blake, trying to work out what the problem is. Idealism, maybe. “You do know that people have sex for recreation, don't you? Not just as a statement of undying love? Which, incidentally, is very definitely not what I feel for our mutual friend.”
Blake grimaces in distaste. “That's your business.”
“Yes,” Avon is curt. “I'd think so, anyway. Yet I sleep with one person in four years, and an old friend at that, and Roj Blake takes it upon himself to disapprove because it's not romantic enough?”
“I just thought you were better than that.”
“Better than what? Human? No, I'm not. Tarrant's not a fool. It wasn’t claiming to be anything but a civil offer and that was welcome enough. There's no bloody law that says I have to wait around until ...” He's gone on too long. He can't find a safe end to that sentence. Before it tails into silence he changes tack. “Where did you vanish to last night, anyway? Tarrant was in your chair.”
“I thought that maybe you'd be affected by the other two.” Blake's voice was low. “I knew that I was. The thought that something might happen under the influence of that was frankly horrible. I have a little pride.”
“A little more than me, you mean.”
Blake shrugs. “I assumed you'd have at least as much pride as me, to be honest. I didn't expect Tarrant to seduce you so easily, certainly.” He looks a little doleful. “There's no earthly reason why you shouldn't be in love with Tarrant, of course.”
“Hang on.” Avon holds up a hand. “I can think of several. And I’ve just told you that I’m not.”
“Well, you were clearly having a good time anyway. There wasn't any escaping that.”
“You're the ones who haven't given me any privacy for years.” Avon mutters defensively. “All this sharing stuff has certainly never been my idea. Four years. Once. Remember? And Soolin and Vila started that. It's not as if I drag you through the most sordid of the pleasure worlds on a regular basis, Blake. I could hardly be more restrained.”
“I know,” Blake tells him. “But take it from me, once is bad enough. It's like watching that awful pornography you can buy where they superimpose the faces of people you know onto the performers, but much much worse.”
It's an unpleasant image. Avon regretfully says goodbye to the prospect of an actual sex life again if even only with Tarrant. “Fine. Next time your lot decides on an onboard orgy I'll take up knitting or something. Or are you going to get them to stop too?”
“They aren't nearly as bad,” Blake says. “We're linked much more weakly to each other. If you're not directly involved it can be ignored, with an effort.”
Convenient for everyone except him, as usual. “That gives you a choice of everyone else then. I'm sure you'll come to some arrangement.” Avon knows that he's not hiding his mood well, but this really doesn’t seem fair.
“As if I would, after last night. Avon, please. Do be reasonable for once.”
“What about last night?” Avon's not sure if Blake's feeling left out or morally superior. Probably both. He's got no right to either. “You and Tarrant ....”
“How long are you intending to keep this up, Avon?” Blake’s getting annoyed again. “Sliding off the subject.”
“I thought we were having an embarrassingly frank discussion.” Avon retorted. “One I certainly wouldn't be having if you hadn't insisted.”
“This isn't frank. You talk about sex with the casual ease of the man of the world that you want to be thought of as. I'm not interested in gymnastics. Tell me what your heart's doing.”
“Nothing,” he snaps, instantly defensive. “Nothing at all.” Too defensive, of course, because Blake's smiling now as if he's confirmed everything.
“And now you're lying.”
He hates it when Blake calls him out like that. “Listen, Roj Blake, or whatever you might actually be. I loved Anna. At least that's what I thought. It turns out that I only loved the person she was pretending to be. When I found out, someone died. I don't usually make mistakes once. I certainly try not to make the same ones twice."
“A perfectly good rationalisation.” Blake says. “How long did you manage to stick to it?”
And into the brief silence. “Look, Avon. I’m putting my cards face up. You’ve had everything your own way for far too long and you’ve started to believe your own propaganda; the smartest man in the galaxy, the father of the new Federation, the only honest person in politics- and now you’re owed your reward which means Scorpio and complete autonomy. You’d have crashed and burned in the first couple of months running the Federation without us and you know it. We earned our share of your reward and we’ll do better- all of us- together rather than following your orders. This fight over the ship- a bit of it is natural caution, but most of it is sheer arrogance. It doesn’t play well with us, Avon. We know how much you owe us.
“Scorpio…” Avon starts and Blake raises his voice to speak over him.
“I haven’t finished. You’ve been a sodding pain in the last twenty four hours, Avon, but it’s been difficult for all of us. Things are different now. At some point you’re going to figure out that we are more human now, not less. When that happens I don’t want to find I’m waiting in line behind Del bloody Tarrant. I don’t want any of the others. I’m not in love with any of them. I want you. Maybe none of us can technically live without you but I’m the only one who doesn’t even want to try. Now your turn.”
Avon blinks. “You’re very confident.”
“I heard you last night.”
“So why didn’t you say so earlier?”
Blake shrugs. “People say odd things in extremis, sometimes. I had a girlfriend once who…never mind that. I couldn’t figure out why you were with Tarrant if you really felt like that about me. I needed to do a bit of investigation. And the Scorpio issue kept getting in the way. It’s still your turn, by the way. You don’t get to distract me this time.”
Avon sighs, his skin prickling with discomfort. “I’m really not the declaration type.”
“Is that so?” Blake says in mock surprise. “I’ve made it as easy for you as I can. You can manage something, surely?”
It’s still the middle of the night as far as his body clock’s concerned. He’s no idea where the others are. He’s had more individual conversations with Blake (and with Tarrant) in the past day than he’s had for years. He’s got used to dealing with them as a group, but now it’s all about relationships, apparently.
Forty eight hours ago his longstanding crush on Roj Blake had seemed harmless enough. The man was dead, like Anna, like Servalan, and he’d killed all three of them. As far as sabotaging relationships was concerned he was pretty sure no-one in the galaxy could claim to be more accomplished than that. Then suddenly the ship’s full of potential partners and he goes for Tarrant, partly because he’s there in his rooms propositioning him but mostly because it’s a hell of a lot simpler than trying to negotiate something meaningful with Blake. And here the man is anyway, demanding, as Blake always demands, more than he’s ready to give. Avon’s tempted just to walk away and do without except that he can’t, not this time.
“What difference does it make?” he demands. “I’m not any sort of exhibitionist. I’m not going to be doing anything with three other people screaming at me to stop.
“We’ll work something out,” Blake says comfortably. “Anyway I’m pretty sure it’s not as bad if you’re not in love with one of the participants.”
Avon winces at the word. “That’s not helping,” he tells Blake. “All right. I admit that I would prefer to sleep with you than with Tarrant. Will that do?”
Blake is laughing. “Not remotely. Although it’s certainly good to know. Come on, Avon. Cowardice isn’t usually one of your worse qualities.”
Blake is dead. Not just dead but corrupted and decayed and buried by Avon himself deep under the earth. This Blake sits across the table from him, looking no different from how he has looked over the long years. How can Avon proclaim affection to a ghost? A product of his own long deranged mind? It’s insane.
He stands, walks around the table, holds out his hand. Blake slides his own into it. It’s calloused; the hand of the Gauda Prime bounty hunter, not the starship rebel. Avon covers it with his other hand, trapping the warmth. For the first time he wants to believe in the reality of his people. For the first time he actually cares what they are.
“I killed you,” he tells Blake. “Doesn’t that matter?”
“It took me a couple of months to get over it, I admit,” Blake says. “Not many people get that opportunity.” His other hand covers Avon’s. It looks ridiculously like some sort of betrothal ceremony. Avon doesn’t pull away, not yet.
“Do you know what you are?” he asks.
“Not what. Only who. I’m Roj Blake. What else do you need to know?”
“If you’re not real,” Avon says. “If this is all a delusion, then I am so far lost that I don’t even know how to try to find my way back to reality. But then I don’t know what reality has to offer me any more. I suppose that least I might get to keep Scorpio, but computers are poor company, particularly if one of them’s Orac.”
He looks at Blake’s scarred face. “Of course there’s another possible explanation. You could be some sort of telepathic aliens impersonating my friends, in which case I have been terrifyingly lax in letting you infiltrate the most powerful position in human society with contemptuous ease and the human race is probably doomed. I’m rather hoping that’s not the case. It would be a bit depressing to be responsible for genocide, especially of one’s own species. But it would be a good reason not to let you have Scorpio.”
“It would be shutting the stable door, rather,” Blake says. “Anyway I think I’d know if I was trying to wipe out humanity. It’s not very compatible with the whole freedom fighter mindset.”
“Fair enough,” Avon says. “I like to think I would have noticed too. Those are the two possible logically sound explanations. Everything else falls uncomfortably in the realm of souls and ghosts and psychic links, none of which I can possibly bring myself to believe in.”
“I’ve got no answers for you, Avon.” Blake says softly. “Knowing you I guess you’ll figure it out in time, if there’s something to figure out. In the meantime you’ll have to go with your gut. Or better still your heart.”
“If you are an evil telepathic alien,” Avon tells him, “I am going to be very disappointed in you, Roj Blake.” He leans forward, brushes his lips lightly over the man’s slightly stubble- roughened cheek. It feels shockingly electric but he’s pretty sure that’s just him.
“We’ve still got an audience,” he murmurs reluctantly.
“I’ll talk to them,” Blake pulls his hands free gently. “We could reconvene in your quarters.”
That reminds Avon of something. “It’s barely an hour since I was entertaining Tarrant in there. You might want to adjust your expectations accordingly.”
“What a delightfully romantic thought that is.” Blake pats him on the cheek. “See you in a few minutes. Try not to exhaust yourself with anyone else while I’m gone.”
Human physiology and middle age being what they are, Avon genuinely isn’t up to anything too serious with Blake despite the profoundness of his newly admitted desire but they do spend a couple of playful hours being thoroughly unseriously naked in bed.
The others had apparently told Blake that they intended to spend the rest of the night playing poker and that they really didn’t care what Blake and Avon might get up to. Avon doesn’t ask whether this version of poker has any special rules about removing clothing. His own feelings are easily strong enough to swamp any possible backwash from the others. If they aren’t actively complaining that’s good enough for him.
He’s dozing, curled up against the solid warmth of Blake, when his stomach gets poked, again. “Wake up.”
“You’re as bad as Tarrant,” he grumbles.
“That’s the way to make a man feel special. Are you ever going to stop going on about him?”
“I shouldn’t think so.” he murmurs, sleepily. “The time we had was very precious... Ow! Look, it’s not my fault if you let him get the jump on you.”
“It was you that he was jumping.” Blake says fondly. “And that was definitely your fault. Shut up about Tarrant and wake up.”
“We need to talk about Scorpio.”
He’s awake now. He doesn’t say anything. He can feel his stomach clenching at prospect of the argument to come. Blake might be his lover but Scorpio is his ship.
“You’ve reprogrammed Vassal.” Blake says. “That’s OK by me.”
“It is?” He hadn’t expected that.
“I’m expecting you to trust us. That goes both ways. I trust you. I don’t think you’ll use that override just because you’re outvoted, and no-one’s going to take away any of your accesses while I’m on board. The one that closes the ship down if you die; we can maybe talk about that, somewhere a long way down the line, but for now I’ll back you up on it. We could all be telepathic aliens, after all.”
“Don’t even joke about that.” Avon hitches himself up the bed. “So you back me on Vassal. Thank you. Now what’s the price?”
“What I asked for yesterday. A voice in where we go and what we do; an equal say for all of us. It’s not that different from what we do now. You listen to us already, far more than you ever like to acknowledge, and you change your plans accordingly. In the future they’ll be our plans, for our ship.”
Blake slides an arm around Avon’s shoulders, fingers digging into his arm. “Scorpio’s your home, Kerr Avon. No-one’s going to take her from you. We can’t talk to Orac, we can’t do anything outside Scorpio. No-one else even knows we exist. You’ve got your override. Give us this.”
If Blake was wrong then Avon would hold out as long as he has to, lover or not, but he suspects Blake isn’t actually wrong this time. If his people want this so much then… he’s always got the override in an emergency. He’s got little to lose from giving it a try. If they all insist on making utterly stupid decisions it’ll be just like the old days, and they survived those, mostly. That though makes him smile.
“Very well.” He turns to kiss Blake. “Congratulations. You now own one fifth of the best ship in the galaxy. Do try to be careful with it.”
“I wasn’t the one who blew up Liberator,” Blake murmurs, kissing him back. “Thank you, Avon. We ought to talk to the others now.”
“Now?” Avon protests. “Certainly not. We’ll talk to them tomorrow, after breakfast. A late breakfast. In bed. And that’s my last executive decision.”
By the time the crew assembles on the flight deck Avon has had both plenty of sleep and the chance for the enthusiastic consummation that he’d missed out on the night before, together with a decent breakfast, and is feeling positively good intentioned towards all and sundry. He even manages to be amused by Tarrant’s sly wink , which is more than Blake is. Jokes aside, there’s a bit of tension there that he’s going to have to diffuse, somehow.
Years of politics haven’t made him any fonder of speechifying so he keeps it short. “You are each entitled to one fifth of Scorpio and everything she carries, with the exception of my cases of wine which none of you can possibly appreciate nearly as much as I do, and Orac until such time as you learn how to communicate with it. Scorpio is now a democracy, God help us. When it all goes terribly wrong again please remember to blame Roj Blake and not me this time.”
“That’s all very well but what about the override and the other stuff?” Vila asks, suspiciously.
“They stay,” Blake says firmly. “We know a great deal more about Avon than he does about us. He’s entitled to a failsafe. He won’t abuse it.”
“You think not?” Vila mutters. “You do know it’s Avon you’re sleeping with, don’t you?”
“Enough, Vila!” Tarrant snaps. “Blake’s right. This is fair. I didn’t think you’d give Scorpio up without a fight, Avon.”
“Oh, I had plenty of fights yesterday,” Avon says, “One way or another. Soolin? Opinion?”
She nods. “I’ll take my share, yes. Where are we going next?”
“Open to the floor,” Avon says smugly. “I’m going to make coffee. Let me know what suicidally stupid thing you decide on and I’ll tell you why you’re idiots.”
He leaves them arguing behind him. It’s a good sound, he decides. It will drive him crazy (crazier) soon enough but for now let them bicker with each other about these things instead of always with him. As he reaches for his mug an arm comes around his waist and he smiles, turning for Blake’s kiss.
“You did well,” Blake tells him.
“We did well,” he corrects. “All of us. We got this far, after all.”
“You make a surprising optimist,” Blake says, amused.
“Enjoy it while it lasts, which on previous evidence I estimate will be no more than about half an hour.”
“Half an hour is about how long it will take the others to agree that my plan to refuel at Sigma Eight is obviously the best option.” Blake kisses him again, jerks his head down the corridor. “A brief interlude, do you think? There’s a lot two optimists could get done in half an hour.”
“I suspect ‘a lot’ is a little too optimistic of you, but we’ll give it a go.” He scoops up his mug and wraps his other arm around Blake’s shoulders as they stumble together, laughing, towards his rooms.