Substitute by Judith Seaman

Dr... Who?'

Soolin stirred restlessly in her chair, as though she'd heard an echo of the words. Ruthless, uncaring words. They had been back at Xenon Base for three days and she was no closer to settling her own ideas about that trip. Now that she had the chance to think, she was finding it surprisingly difficult.

When they'd first got back there had been no time to think. Avon had driven them all to work, checking and double checking the stardrive, making sure they all knew exactly what its capabilities were and how to use them.

They all knew... That was a twist that had puzzled her about Avon from the beginning. Dorian had never been interested in sharing his knowledge or letting her know too much about how the equipment of the base worked. He'd told her the minimum necessary to enable her to operate the basic systems, no more. Avon had insisted that she learn everything she wanted to know and more. And yet Dorian had professed to love her while Avon acted as though he barely recognised her existence. Since he had come she'd learned more about the base and about Scorpio than ever before. She could fly Scorpio now, if she needed to...

That brought her back to where she'd started. Tarrant and Dayna had accepted Dr. Plaxton's fate. It seemed they trusted Avon for themselves, they'd known him for a year or more. She didn't know him. She'd joined them much as Dr. Plaxton had done. Worse, she'd started by threatening Avon and forcibly declaring that she gave no allegiance, no loyalty. Did that make her as expendable as Dr. Plaxton? And if so, was it worth waiting for the inevitable moment to arrive? She could fly the ship...

She looked across the room to where Vila was playing with the puzzle cube she'd given him. She'd found it in one of the workrooms and had thought the bright colours and shifting patterns would amuse him. She'd been right, and now they were all being driven mad by the clicking sounds as Vila tried to solve the puzzle.

She grinned rather ruefully. At least Vila had perseverance. She'd tried it herself and given up. Tarrant had taken it at one point and spent several hours on it before throwing it back to Vila in disgust. Dayna had said she'd seen one before and had no intention of getting involved. Avon had taken it out of Vila's hands, considered it without doing anything, and then handed it back with the comment that it should keep Vila occupied for three weeks.

"Can't you do it, Avon?" Tarrant had asked. "Then we might get some peace."

"I have more important things to worry about," Avon had said, and walked out.

Tarrant had laughed, but Vila seemed to have taken it as a challenge. He had three days to go and never moved without the cube in his hands. He was frowning at it now, holding it as if he'd reached an important point, though the thing looked as far from a solution as ever.

"Why do you trust Avon?" she asked.

"Avon?" Vila queried, sounding surprised. "Who said I trusted him?"

"You stay with him."

"Ah." Vila grinned slightly. "Avon's careful, he's got a better chance of surviving that way. If you stay with him you're probably in the safest place."

"As Dr. Plaxton was?"

Vila looked uncomfortable. "He survived, and so did we."

"What happens if it's him, or one of us?"

"Run?" Vila suggested hopefully.

She sighed in exasperation. "How did he get involved with Blake anyway?"

"We were all on the same ship... You know what happened."

"I don't know why he went with Blake. Or why he stayed."

Vila studied his cube nervously. "Ask Avon, not me."

Soolin glared at him. She needed to know more about Avon, but that was one subject no one was keen to talk about. Tarrant and Dayna just flatly refused to comment. She would have thought it would be easier to get Vila to forget his discretion.

"You don't trust Tarrant, do you?" she said, trying a different approach.

"He takes stupid risks."

"And Avon takes calculated risks, like trying to hide beside an asteroid?"

"He's changed," Vila said slowly. "He cared more for Cally than any of us realised. More than he realised. I think he feels he killed her. He's making destroying Servalan into a personal vendetta, and that's not really like Avon."

"You're not really as big a fool as you pretend," Soolin admitted, getting up and walking to the door. "Perhaps you're right. I should ask Avon."

Vila twisted the cube and studied the scattered colours. "Be careful what you say to Avon, he doesn't like people prying.

She flushed angrily. "Thank you, Vila," she said acidly. "I didn't think you'd be so concerned."

"If you upset Avon he takes it out on all of us."

She came back into the room and faced him. "Maybe you should keep quiet."

"I thought you wanted to know about him?" Vila said. "Whether he'll try to kill you? Prying might be a good way to find out."

"If you can't keep quiet then get out," she snapped.

"You were asking the questions!"

"Just get out and take that cube with you."

"I thought you were going," Vila said innocently.

"No. You are."

"I belong here," he said. "You don't."

She took another step towards him and he stood up in sudden alarm. Recognising real fear, she moved forwards again, the killer instinct roused. Vila backed up slowly, then turned and ran. She followed slowly to the door, in time to see him hesitate in the corridor. He saw her and turned away, heading for the airlock to the surface. She watched as it cycled and let him out, then she went back into the control room. At last she had some peace.

Continued in The Way Back

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