Circle of Fire

Suzan Lovett

For Gayle, with thanks

(If trapped within a circle of
fire, the scorpion will turn
its deadly sting on itself.)

        Blake simply couldn't credit it. Yes, Tarrant obviously believed what he had been led to believe, but since when was Avon given to accepting anything on appearances, or taking anybody's word for it? The man always looked for ulterior motives. Surely he could now see past the ulterior motive to the real purpose.

        Besides, he had already said, "Avon, it's me, Blake." What other proof did Avon need? Maybe the assurance that Blake was in charge here. That should make him feel secure, let him know it couldn't possibly be a trap.

        "I set all this up."

        "Yes! " "No!"

        In an impossible blend, Blake heard Avon cry out two very different things simultaneously, a strangely synchronized echo, refuting its own self within the same breath.

        There was also a blur of movement at the periphery of his vision, but it was to his left, and that eye afforded him little sight.

        Too intent on reaching the man facing him, somehow, some way, but now, Blake ignored everything and tried to ford the chasm between them. He approached, held out his hand. "Avon, I was waiting for you."

        He saw the rifle move. Of course he did. He even saw it come to bear on him. And never for the briefest instant did it occur to him to feel the slightest threat.

        Not even when he heard the rifle discharge.

        He didn't see it go off; suddenly, somebody was between him and Avon, cutting them off from each other.

        Instinctively, Blake reached to catch the man who had seemed to materialize out of nowhere, for he was falling. Caught unprepared, not braced for the weight of the body, Blake went to his knees with it. Only when he felt blood welling, warm and thick, under his hands and saw the obscenely gaping wound did he realize that Avon had indeed fired.

        Fired at him. Except someone had gotten in the way.

        Blake raised his eyes to the face of the man who had taken the shot meant for him.

        Reality spun, tumbled. For a long moment, his mind refused to even accept, let alone assimilate, the evidence of his eyes. With some effort, he tore his disbelieving gaze from the pale face and looked up, at the black-clad man standing there, where only a moment ago he had been sure Avon was standing, before he had unexpectedly found Avon inside the circle of his arms.

        It didn't help.

        Impossibly, it was Avon, now blankly staring at his rifle as if it were an alien manifestation. Blake tried again, but neither face changed to restore some semblance of order to his existence. He was still holding Avon. The first apparition was still transfixed at the same spot, wearing Avon's face, holding the rifle in the hands Blake had thought were Avon's.

        Except, Avon would not, could not, have fired it. Not at him.

        Blake's confusion cleared instantly.

        He glared defiantly at the impostor. "And I thought my trap was elaborate. Go ahead, finish what you've started - or I'm going to kill you," he promised. He wasn't armed; he was on his knees holding a bleeding man, but he didn't doubt his ability to keep his promise. As far as he was concerned, the stranger-a clone, a surgically altered double, whatever - was dead already.

        The man's head jerked up, eyes still blank, frozen - inhuman. "No." he said in a flat, detached way. "Enough. No more." The rifle snapped up. His tone became a menacing hiss. "Stay away from me, all of you."

        The rifle swung around, holding everything and everyone at bay, as the man backed up. Then he bolted.

        Let him. He wasn't going to get far. This was Blake's domain. He was the hunter here.

        "If you're part of the assassin squad," he growled at the people - Vila? Vila? - who had come in with the impostor, "carry on. If not, don't gape. Help me help him."

        They were all looking lost, totally bewildered, none too sure of anything. Then Tarrant, despite being the injured one, seemed to collect himself to a degree and took a step forward.

        "Hold it!"

        Blake had forgotten Arlen. He twisted around, careful not to jar Avon, one hand still trying to stanch the blood flow, saw her gun raised purposefully.

        "This nest of rebels is now under Federation arrest," she said.

        Obviously, he had made another mistake.

        "You're in the middle of my base," he told her. "How far can you get?"

        "Farther than you think. My orders say 'dead or alive,' Blake, so..."

        She glanced at him, no more than a brief, downward flicker of her eyes, but in that split instant a shot rang out, caught her right between the eyes. She crumpled to the floor; her gun went clattering, skittering away.

        It was the blonde woman, Blake saw, and marveled at her speed and accuracy.


        The weak, pain-hoarse voice focused all his attention immediately on the man he was now cradling to his chest. Fleetingly, he remembered that the other man in Avon's form had not called him by name, not even once. "Yes, Avon," he said, and it suddenly felt so very right, "I'm here. Don't move, I'll get the med - "

        " time."

        "Of course there's time." His attempts to stop the blood were failing miserably. His hand couldn't cover the wound. He pressed his whole forearm on it, and it still didn't quite work. That damn weapon, favored by the more ruthless bounty hunters of the planet. "Save your ener-"

        Avon's hand gripped his shirt front. " damn...fool!" he hissed.

        That was Avon, all right. Blake found himself smiling fondly at him despite the circumstances, felt a prickling behind his eyelids at the same time. "I'm listening, Avon." Anything else had to wait.

        "You have to go...get Fast."

        "I have to get you to - "

        "No. The Federation...they know. They're...coming. No time, Blake...for anything." The fingers tangled in his shirt tugged urgently. "Go on, go. Get it was all...a waste."

        He sounded so agitated that Blake took the restive hand in his, squeezed soothingly. "All right, Avon, we're going. Together."

        "Blake, Blake!" Deva's voice came before the man burst into the room. "They've found us; the base is under - " He came to an abrupt stop, looked around and asked, "What happened?"

        "Get a med team in here, Deva, quick, and evacuate the base. Warn everybody this is no drill. All emergency procedures are now in effect." He felt Avon struggle to get his attention. "I'm still here, Avon."

        A vague motion indicated the Scorpio's crew. "Take care...of them. Not their...fault. None of it. I want"

        "If that's what you want, yes, of course." He had to turn to Deva. He had other responsibilities for the moment, but he held Avon a little closer, gripped his hand a little tighter. Tarrant, Vila, and the two women were edging closer, but Avon had just vouched for them, so it was all right. "If there's time, clear the ammunition dumps. If not, blow them up. Activate the charges throughout the base. Try to save the ships, as many as possible. Other than that, lives are first priority. Scatter, regroup, and counterattack; you know the plan."

        Deva was already at the computer terminal, passing on his orders. "First get the medics here!" Blake yelled at him.

        "Uh, I don't think you need them," Tarrant said quietly.

        He glared up at the young man, furious, then became aware of the laxity of the hand in his. He looked down at the deathly still body. "No!" he denied stubbornly, but he already knew. Utter desolation swept through him. Over two years of wanting, needing, Avon back, and he hadn't even noticed the moment he had lost him.

        Somebody was going to pay.

        He restrained the rage long enough to lay the body down gently. Next second, he was on his feet, roughly grasping both Tarrant and Vila by the fronts of their tunics. "You brought that killer here. Who was he, who in the name of all hells was he?"

        "Avon." Vila squirmed. "Blake, he was Avon."

        He shook the thief until he heard his teeth rattle. "Don't dare call him by Avon's name! There's Avon."

        "B...b...but, it's true, it was Avon; we all know it was Avon."

        "Do we?" Tarrant asked. "Or did we just think so? He had changed, Vila; he wasn't the same man. We often wondered what had happened to Avon, remember? He was different; we all felt it."

        "Well, yes, but..." Suddenly Vila's eyes widened. "He was different. He tried to kill me! Avon wouldn't have done that."

        Disgusted, Blake shoved both men away from him. They had been duped, too. He indicated Avon's body. "He gave you his protection, so you have mine - for now. Deva, get them to safety. I'll deal with them later."

        "Where are you going, Blake?" Deva asked.

        "Hunting," he said shortly.

        "Blake!" Deva grabbed him by the arm. "Are you out of your mind? We're under attack. You belong with your people; you're their leader.'

        Blake violently shook him off. "I told you nobody was indispensable." Again he looked at Avon. And I was so wrong, he thought. He picked up the gun Arlen had dropped.

        "Go," he ordered Deva, who still looked ready to interfere, "or I'll go through you."

        Wisely, the man believed him. "This way," he told the Scorpio's crew with a resigned shake of his head, and led them out at a run.

        Blake took a moment. He couldn't afford to carry Avon's body out. The base was due to go up in one big ball of fire as soon as the evacuation was complete. Consigned to the flames. Fitting enough. But he did straighten out the limbs, so Avon wouldn't look simply dumped there as if nobody had given a damn. That was when he noticed how thin the man had become, almost fragile, the drawn face, hollow past the emptiness of death, and the hair gray at the temples. The years hadn't been kind to Avon either.

        He was wearing a gun. Avon had always been very good with a gun. Why hadn't he shot at the assassin, or called out a warning, or something? Anything but jump directly into the line of fire as he had done.

        When did you become a martyr, he asked silently. I was supposed to be the one with a death wish, remember?

        As his hands ran over the body, leaving red trails in their wake, inside a pocket he felt something small, hard, sharp edged. He pulled it out. Orac's key. Of course. He tucked it into his own pocket.

        He rose, his eyes still unwilling to break the last contact, and carefully, resolutely locked away the denial and the grief. Mourning would have to wait until he had the time and was debt-free. He also choked down the blaze of anger until all that was left of it was a cold, clear purpose. Then he turned away from the body.

        Time to give Avon the companion, as Cally would have put it, for his death.

        The impostor had run out the way he had come in. He must have headed for the main landing silo. There was nothing else in that direction. He could have left the base by now, of course, but that silo held only planetary-range vehicles. The ship that had brought him to Gauda Prime was scattered along a mile of orchards. He was going nowhere fast. At least nowhere out of Blake's reach. After a year of the bounty hunter routine, he was an excellent tracker.

        Deva and the others had also gone that way. Blake hoped none of them had run into the impostor. He also hoped that, if they had, they'd had the good sense to leave him to Blake. Nobody was going to deprive him of his prey.

        He ran out of the tracking control center and found Deva's group heading back toward him. "What's wrong?"

        "The exit is blocked. Something's jamming the bay doors," Deva supplied

        "What is? How?"

        "I don't know, but let's not argue with providence. If the troops were able to get through the silo, we'd have been overrun before we knew what hit us." 'Deva attempted to pull at him as Blake hurried by. "Didn't you hear me? You can't get out that way!"

        Perhaps the impostor hadn't been able to either. He shouldered past Deva easily. Then he saw what Vila was carrying. "Orac! You've got Orac. Good job, Vila."

        "Yeah, I don't know why he didn't...but, Blake, I don't have the key. Avon, I mean, well, that other one's got it."

        "No, I have it." He hurried along, calling back, "Deva, guard that machine at all costs."

        "Blake, be careful," Deva shouted after him. "This side of the base looks clear so far, but if they find the service shafts they can surprise you along the way."

        Leaving nothing to chance, Blake checked every niche, every crevice along the tunnel. He paid special attention to the service shafts, not so much because of Deva's warning, but because they would have afforded a way out for somebody trapped in the silo. So far, the dust inside the crawl ways hadn't been disturbed. If the impostor had not been able to leave before the exit was jammed, he was in the landing bay.

        It was a huge hangar, dimly lit, filled with vehicles and plenty of hiding places. The large doors stood open. As he approached them, Blake dimmed the lighting along the corridor as well, and backed into a darker cubicle until his pupils dilated. Then he slipped into the hangar, took cover.

        As it turned out, he didn't need his eyes. His ears registered.... Laughter? A mockery of it, yes - with a thread of the maniacal in it. When he could believe his ears, he followed the nerve-grating sound.

        That was when he saw the ship. It was black, not much larger than the terrain vehicles or the regular flyers in the hangar. But the drive pods - streamlined, auxiliary units - were bigger and more sophisticated than any ship could conceivably need, dwarfing the sleek, arrowhead-shaped module. Totally unfamiliar to him, it was nevertheless a spaceship. Blake suddenly realized this must be the ship that had brought Avon to Gauda Prime. Upon closer scrutiny, he noticed that the drive units had jagged protrusions on them, remains of pylons severed violently somewhere along the way. At one time, there had been one or several more layers to the ship, but it had been through some upheaval. How far had Avon come, and through what?

        He concentrated on the sound again. It was coming from somewhere very close to the ship. Stealthily, he circled the area, then froze in disbelief.

        The man who dared look like Avon was sitting on the steps of the ramp to the ship, carelessly outlined against the illumination spilling from the entry hatch, one of his elbows propped on an upraised knee. The rifle dangled loosely from his hand. His head thrown back against the railing, he was still chuckling softly.

        Much too easy to pick him off like this. Not enough satisfaction.

        Blake took a firm hold on his gun, aimed it, stepped out into view. "Having fun?" he growled.

        The impostor didn't give a start. "Ah," he said without so much as a glance at Blake. Then his head slowly turned. Leisurely, he started to rise, with the easy grace that was so reminiscent of Avon, his rifle looking, for all purposes, forgotten. "I was expecting - "

        Abruptly he cut off, stiffened, and in a blur of movement almost too sudden for mere eyes, his rifle snapped up. Even though Blake had been ready, both shots rang out simultaneously, echoed in an avalanche of sound through the hangar. Blake saw him take the blast squarely in the chest, heard the strangled cry. He watched the impostor go tumbling down the steps, found himself holding his breath, waiting. Then he realized he was braced for a shot that wasn't going to arrive. Belatedly, he also realized the cry of pain had not come from the direction of the man in front of him.

        Blake whirled around. A black-clad Federation guard was lying twenty feet behind him. The helmet had been no protection. The impact-explosive projectile of the rifle had taken half his head away. He still had a death-grip on his pararifle. Blake wondered exactly where that weapon had been aimed some seconds ago. At the impostor, it had to have been. But Federation assassins usually didn't go around killing Federation guards, or vice versa. If the impostor hadn't been Federation, what had been his allegiance? Too late to find out now.

        He threw a backward glance at the man sprawled on the floor at the bottom of the ramp. Lifeless. His work here was done; revenge and debt had both had their due. He should return to his people. But, irresistibly, the strange ship drew him.

        Out of habit, he kicked the impostor's rifle out of reach as he stepped over the body and started up the ramp.


        He spun around. The eyes that looked so much like Avon's were open. Not lifeless, he realized, motionless. Blake marveled at how he had managed to stay so still when he must be racked with agony. Forgetting the ship, he came to stand over the man by straddling him, with his gun aiming down and his finger ready on the trigger. Now the labored breathing was clearly audible, as if the impostor saw no reason to restrain it anymore.

        "Who are you?" Blake asked.

        It took a few tries for the man to speak, but somehow he managed an incongruously steady voice. "Wouldn't believe me...if I told you."

        "Who are you?" Blake insisted.

        "Never mind. Considering. But...tell thing. Your setup... It wasn't a trap...for Avon, was it?"

        "Of course not. And Avon would've known that."

        The eyes closed. "Good. Hate to think...I had survived... only to be...a bigger fool." He took a deep breath, a tortured, raking sound. "You're right, Blake, he's Avon."

        "Was," Blake spat out.

        "Will be-no, would've been. Semantics. Quite it turns out." He smiled. Pain turned it into a grimace. "Doesn't matter. Best for all...if he's your memory." He gasped, convulsed, then seemed to control the pain by sheer will power. His eyes opened, bore into Blake again. "Finish it, Blake."

        "You welcome death." Blake had meant to pose it as a question, but found it coming out of his mouth as a sudden insight.

        "I am dead." He tried to laugh, caught himself with a wince. "This is merely...redundant." The last word acquired a gurgling sound, then blood gushed out of his mouth. He started to choke with it, instinctively rolled to his side, curling around Blake's foot. The movement, it seemed, destroyed his mastery of the pain. He cried out, a frothing, drowning sound.

        With no idea of how he got there, Blake found himself on his knees, and with less idea of why, he reached out.

        The man clawed for Blake's gun, found it and placed it against his own temple. With desperate effort, he gasped for air, and drew in enough to say, "Hurts, damn you; finish it!"

        Blake pulled the trigger. It was a kindness by then - although why he suddenly felt the need to be kind, he didn't know.

        The flesh and bone muffled the sound. It barely stirred an echo in the cavern; then all was quiet. Blake rose, curiously reluctant to disturb the heavy cloak of silence, took two steps toward the exit, hesitated.

        He had meant to go into the ship, before he had been...

        Prevented from it?

        He went to it. Entered.

        Just a flight deck. Only necessities. No amenities. Familiar controls, alongside instrumentation of a type he had never before seen, nor could understand at first glance. It wouldn't be much good studying the instruments; most had exceeded their capacity, now melted, fused, wires shorted out and tangled. The ship was a derelict.

        He stepped closer to the vast control panel. And saw something very familiar. Too familiar.


        Impossible. Vila had been carrying Orac. In the opposite direction. Blake had its activator key right there in his pocket. But a key was also sitting in its slot on this machine.

        He pushed the button.

        *I'm much too busy. Go away; don't bother me,* came from the machine in Orac's usual testy, preemptive tones.

        "Orac, is that you?"

        *Well, of course it is! What did you expect? No distractions! I must solve this problem. It is no longer a theory, you see. It is a fact, but it cannot be an absolute reality, or it could not, in effect, have become a fact. Do you realize the implications? If absolutes can be transmuted, equations become meaningless. What equations apply to divergent absolutes - which should be a contradiction in terms in the first place, but isn't anymore. Even the language is not adequate to cover all contingencies. Space/time continuum defies rationality when it is no longer a continuum, but open to tamper...*

        Orac sounded like it was having the mechanical equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Blake couldn't worry about it at the moment. "Orac, is it possible that there are two of you?"

        *Intolerable!* the computer screeched. *Intolerable, and I have told him so. Having two selves may be acceptable to you humans, but I am the most capable brain in the known galaxy - witness what I have achieved. By definition alone, you cannot have two of the 'most' anything. But did he listen? No!*

        "Orac, what are you carrying on about?"

        *Avon's arrogance, Avon's presumption! If a particular reality can be no more, then there is no, redundant as it sounds, real reality. Or, if there are now two realities, then there can be any number of them. Is one less valid than the other? How does one determine validity? If one is Avon, of course, valid simply means what Avon wants. And if he wants to conquer time - and for what, I ask you? Because Avon's past displeases Avon - then conquer it we must. After all, the concept is called Time Distort, he decides, so why should there be limits to it?*

        Slowly, some sense was emerging from the tirade. More sense than Blake cared to make of it. His gun slipped out of his suddenly nerveless fingers and, unnoticed, clattered to the floor.

        Heedless, Orac went on complaining. *From today, and to today, six years, three months, eight days of unrelenting labor, the magnitude and the complexity of which you cannot comprehend - and as far as he is concerned, he succeeded. Because there you stand, alive. His whim satisfied. But my work has barely begun, and all I get is distractions, nothing but distractions, petty human concerns, which are responsible for this state of affairs in the first place. I have already devoted some of my circuits to keeping the Federation troops from breaking into your silo, and I should not be expected to concern myself with any more of your...*

        Horrified, Blake staggered back, away from the computer; not hearing it any longer, until he was at the hatch. Slowly, he turned to look at the body lying huddled in the wash of light from the ship, abandoned in a pool of blood.


The End

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