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A Fine Collection of Allies

By Sheila Paulson
A Fine Collection of Allies

by Sheila Paulson

 

Blake's wound throbbed fiercely. The rough landing of his life pod had jarred it open again and he had been too weak to do more than wait for the Liberator to repair itself and come after him. Unable to contact the others on his teleport bracelet and fearing that the battle against the Andromedans was going badly, there was little he could do but rest, hoping his ship would find him, hoping the others would come after him. At first, he had lost track of time but surely it wouldn't be much longer. His greatest fear was that someone would come upon the Liberator while it was weakest and destroy it--or board it. That might create serious problems, though he remembered the defense the great alien vessel had thrown against the crew of the London and against himself, Jenna, and Avon. Surely even weakened, Zen would protect the ship from anyone who tried to take it.

Wearily he tried his bracelet yet again, telling himself sternly that it was much too soon to expect a response, refusing to permit his expectations to grow too high. No one would answer this time either. If he believed that, he could hold on a little longer, in spite of his wound, in spite of the threat of an Andromedan victory. "Blake to Liberator. Is anyone there?"

+Liberator is on station.+ Zen's sudden answer sent relief surging through him. +Auto repairs have been completed.+

"Are any of the others on board yet? Can you bring me up?"

+You are the first to be located, Roj Blake.+

"Then bring me up."

+Teleport requires manual operation.+

Blake stiffened. "Orac isn't on board?"

+The one called Orac was removed from the Liberator by Kerr Avon. However, an alternative solution is possible. Wait.+

"Wait?" echoed Blake under his breath. "There's not much else I can do, is there." He should have known Avon wouldn't leave Orac behind when he abandoned ship. Probably assumed he would be the first one located afterward, which might not be so unlikely if he were the last one to leave. Or perhaps it was his way to protect what he would now consider his ship. Blake was not sure the others would be so willing to give the ship over to Avon; certainly they had not agreed to it, and he suspected that if it came to a struggle, Jenna would give Avon a run for his money. But all bets were oft now. The battle had been going badly when Blake had been forced to abandon ship. If the Andromedans won, humanity would need the Liberator to hold out against the forces that wished to destroy them. Surely Avon would understand that. Though he claimed to value no one, he would certainly value his own people over an invader who wished to destroy all life in this galaxy. When Avon returned to the ship, the two of them would have it out--assuming they could return to the ship.

+Ready to teleport,+ Zen Intoned, and before Blake could question him, he felt the familiar sensation of the teleport taking him. A moment later he was sitting in the teleport facing a stranger behind the console, a curly haired young man in a Federation uniform whose gun lay within easy reach of his hand.

At the sight of Blake, who probably looked too weak to stand let alone struggle over a weapon, he relaxed his instinctive reach for it and rose abruptly. "Your ship's computer says you need medical treatment," he remarked. "I'd prefer to claim salvage rights since you'd abandoned this vessel, but the situation is too serious for that."

"The battle?" Blake asked in concern.

"The battle," the young officer confirmed with a nod. He gestured down at his uniform. "Don't take this wrong. I've been using this for protection. I'm not Federation, not that it'll matter. Enough of the Andromedans got through that we're guaranteed trouble in the future. Even if I were Federation, I wouldn't turn you in now."

"Turn me in?" Blake asked carefully, pushing himself into a more comfortable position and bracing his sound shoulder against the wall.

"You're Roj Blake. I recognize you."

"Interesting. The Federation's done a good job of keeping my face out of the media press releases. They don't want to encourage the masses to follow me--unless you really are Federation."

"I was," he confirmed. "Former Space Captain Del Tarrant. I had enough of them and left, taking my ship with me. Since then I've been roaming around the Outer Worlds getting involved in other people's wars." He grinned in a blinding display of white teeth. "I came in against the Andromedans, and my ship was badly damaged. That's when I found this ship. The repairs weren't complete, but life support was back on line."

"And you had no trouble?" Blake asked carefully. Evidently Zen had trusted Tarrant enough to allow him information on teleport functions, but then Zen had an obligation to his crew, and Tarrant had been all that was available.

"Trouble? You mean the defense system on the flight deck? I didn't have trouble with it but a Federation squad boarded too and it killed them. Your ship must have recognized that I was not Federation."

"It didn't with us," Blake disagreed, eyeing Tarrant suspiciously.

"I felt the pull," Tarrant replied. "It showed me an image of my brother and tried to draw me in. But I knew Deeta couldn't be here--I don't believe in that kind of coincidence. It gave me enough resistance to hold out. Besides," he added, smiling, "Your Zen must have realized how awed I was by this ship. I'm a pilot," he added as if saying, 'I'm the next thing to god.'

Blake wondered if it were truly conceit or if he were as good as all that. Maybe he was because Zen had not resisted him. Blake wondered how Jenna and Avon would take to him, and smiled at the Idea. Reminded of his crew, he raised his voice. "Zen, we need to locate the others. Initiate standard search proceedure."

+Confirmed,+ came Zen's disembodied voice, and Blake could feel the surge of power as the great ship started to move.

"What about that wound?" Tarrant asked. "Do you have a surgical unit on board?"

Blake nodded. "It's not a wound from the battle but it's opened up again. We have the means to treat it."

Tarrant stretched out a long arm and pulled Blake to his feet, steadying him as he swayed. "Have any of the others called in?" he asked as Tarrant steadied him.

"There's been another signal or two," Tarrant confirmed. "I didn't know the voices. I told Zen to set priorities according to risk to the people. He must have thought you were worst off because he went quiet analyzing signals then we came after you first."

If no one was hurt worse, Blake would be grateful, but that could mean that some of the others were dead. If they hadn't all called in... He let Tarrant guide him toward the medical unit, astonished at how well the arrogant young man seemed to have got on with Zen. Maybe it was because he was a pilot. Zen had interacted with Jenna before him or Avon when they had first come aboard after all.

Once his wound was dressed and a healing pad in place, Blake felt a little better, but for the moment, while they headed for the next rescue, he was content to stay in the medical unit. Tarrant remained with him, prowling about with blatant curiosity, and Blake watched him, reluctant to trust the young man without proof. Zen had trusted him enough to listen to him, but then Tarrant's orders matched Zen's priorities; Blake doubted the computer would have obeyed if Tarrant had ordered Liberator to turn tail and run.

Tarrant wore a possessive air about the ship, as if he considered it his own, and Blake knew he would have to do something about that. Unless Zen was ordered to do so, he would not take Tarrant's orders as valid, and as he half drowsed, waiting for the pad to do its work, he contemplated devising orders for Tarrant to give the computer which would prove he ran nothing. But that was not as important as the current crisis, so he nodded to Tarrant to activate the voice link with Zen.

"Zen. What is the status of the battle?"

Tarrant paused in his wanderings and came over to stand near Blake, braced for the possibility of bad news. Blake wondered if the threat toward humanity had given them common cause and realized it must when Zen replied.

+Federation losses have been extensive,+ Zen informed them. +One hundred forty seven Alien vessels penetrated the galaxy and avoided destruction. There is evidence that some of these ships were damaged, but not destroyed, and the alien fleet has regrouped and is challenging late-arriving Federation vessels. The Liberator's present course will take it away from the battle and it is recommended that battle be avoided at least until such time as backup can be obtained.+

"A lot of backup," Tarrant agreed. "This ship's the best hope we've got against the Andromedans. I wonder what they're like."

"You'd rather not know," Blake returned with a sour grin.

"Not remotely human, then?" Tarrant nodded, unsurprised.

"Not remotely--though they can assume the appearance of humans if necessary."

"That's bad," the young pilot responded. "How big is your crew. I've heard of Avon, Vila, Jenna, Cally and Gan. Are there others?"

"I'm not sure I want to tell you," Blake returned. "Convince me you're trustworthy. That uniform tends to discourage me."

"I'll be happy to be rid of it," Tarrant replied. "Convince you? That fleet out there should convince you. Do you think I want alien shapechangers roaming our galaxy? Even if I were Servalan's right hand man, I'd want the same thing you do right now, to defeat them and protect us. With a ship like this, we stand a good chance of doing just that."

Blake doubted their chance would be as good as all that--even with a fully charged and sta"ed Liberator, their chances against the aliens were only slightly better than their chances had been against the Federation, and even if they were united with the Federation now against a common foe, their new 'allies' would turn against them the moment the Andromedans ceased to be a threat. So might Tarrant, and the longer he stayed aboard and the better he came to know the ship, the greater danger he would be.

Blake decided to leave it to Orac. Though Ensor's creation resented being used as a lie detector, it could make sense of Tarrant's declarations of support better than any of the others might. The fact that Zen had not injured or killed Tarrant and that he had instructed the young pilot in the use of the teleport to retrieve Blake spoke in his favor, but Avon would be unhappy to find a new crew member already in residence when he returned to the ship.

"I feel a little better," Blake said truthfully. "I'll show you where you can find some different clothing. At least you won't look so threatening to the rest of my crew."

He went with Tarrant to find new clothes. The strongroom was too near for him to risk Tarrant finding it yet. Though something told him the young ex-Federation officer meant no harm, the boy's lust for the Liberator made Blake wary. He would put no more temptation in his path than necessary, at least not before the others returned.

Dressed as a civilian, Tarrant looked slightly more innocuous, but he had an edge that made Blake cautious. No matter how pure he might claim his intentions, and in spite of admitting he wanted the Liberator, something he could have kept silent until a more propitious moment, he might be biding his time. Slowly recovering under the healing pad, Blake knew he must wait and watch until he could be certain of Tarrant.

They went to the flight deck. Blake drew back-momentarily when he found the bodies of the Federation squad. "I suppose we should put them out the airlock," Tarrant admitted. "But there was too much to do at first, and I was here on sufferance. I didn't want to get that close to an airlock myself."

Blake didn't blame him. "We can do it now," he decided.

Tarrant eyed Blake's wound and grinned faintly. "You mean I can do it while you direct?" He set to it uncomplainingly.

"Zen," called Blake. "Confirm that those men are dead." He had not checked the bodies.

+Confirmed.+

Remembering his own arrival on the ship, Blake frowned as something occurred to him. The look on Jenna's face after her linkage with Zen, her claim of being totally known, made him consider another possibility. "Zen, when we first boarded this ship, you linked with Jenna. She said she was totally known."

+State your question,+ Zen replied.

"Did you do the same thing with Del Tarrant?"

+Affirmative.+

"He says he is no longer a Federation officer. Is this true?"

A sound behind him announced the return of Tarrant to the flight deck. He gave Blake a slightly sour grin. "Checking up on me, are you?"

"In my place you'd do the same."

"I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't," Tarrant replied. "It would have made me wonder how you'd achieved as much as you did."

"I never achieved enough," Blake replied regretfully. "Zen. Answer the question."

+Del Tarrant is no longer a Federation officer. He is a gifted pilot whose presence can benefit the Liberator.+

Tarrant's grin broadened into a genuine one. "I can't wait to fly this ship," he announced, suddenly sounding very young. "Zen wouldn't let me do that. I'm not used to that kind of computer. Zen's self-aware, isn't he? No wonder you were able to do so much with the Liberator. This is more than just programming."

"Avon would disagree with you," Blake replied.

"He's the computer specialist though. He'd see it as more advanced programming. I think I'd disagree."

"Wait until you meet Orac."

Tarrant shot him a curious look and went to remove the last body, and Blake sat down on the forward couch. His wound still hurt, though the pain was easing into a dull but bearable ache. If Tarrant was no longer Federation, it removed one threat, though the young pilot had been a mercenary and was not instantly trustworthy simply because he'd left the Federation. Blake knew Avon thought him too soft, too willing to take people on trust, but Blake had no way of knowing it Tarrant was what he claimed to be until Zen had verified it. Tarrant might even have been an Andromedan, though Blake doubted Zen would have given an Andromedan instruction in teleport functions. If Tarrant had not been here, Zen might have linked with Orac wherever it was, and operated the teleport that way. The fact that Zen hadn't worried Blake. He hoped Avon was all right.

"Zen," he called out, "How long before we rescue the next crew member?"

+Two point three eight hours,+ intoned the computer.

"Which of them is it?" Blake asked anxiously.

+Avon.+

Blake heaved a sigh of relief. Avon. He and Avon had been increasingly at odds lately, his Cause driving a near-unmanageable wedge between them, but how much of that had been his growing obsession to destroy the Federation? How much had Avon changed? Most of the change had been in Blake, and Avon's behavior had been a reaction to something he could see but could not control. He had agreed to stay and fight with Liberator when it seemed futile simply because he had given his word. Avon had always valued the giving of his word. He possessed more integrity than he was willing to admit, but he had resisted that promise. Blake had feared it would be the final straw, but when he had come to the flight deck before the battle and faced an Avon who was resentful that Blake had not trusted him to do as he had vowed, his declaration of trust had stopped Avon in his tracks. Blake doubted Avon had believed him but it was true. Trust was not always wise and he was certain that his trust of Avon hadn't been. He'd never given Avon reason to believe it either, once telling Jenna that Avon might run when he suspected Avon could hear him. He had thought Avon wanted to run then, but when Avon had teleported down to Horizon and rescued him, nearly shooting him in the process, Blake had not been very surprised.

Now Avon was returning. How hostile would he be? How resentful of Blake's manipulations? Blake knew Avon had resisted him, had fought liking him, had in one way welcomed Blake's growing obsession as it presented him with a valid excuse to hold himself at arms length. That he had needed an excuse was the one thing that gave Blake hope for a future relationship. The tensions between himself and Avon had had all the others walking warily around them. Blake hoped to change things, since the crisis at Star One had shocked him into taking a second look at himself. He hoped he could manage differently. If not, the future would be even bleaker than it looked right now.

Avon was alive, at least as far as Orac had been able to report to Zen. That was one less worry. "What about the others, Zen? Are they alive?"

+Vila Restal has been in contact. He reports his situation as perilous in the extreme.+

"Then why not go after him first?" Blake asked, though Vila considered many things perilous and his hyperbole need only be a reaction to a potentially threatening situation.

+Avon's situation is perilous as well,+ Zen reported. +His location is on a direct course to Vila's location.+

"What about the others?"

+Cally is en route to the planet Chenga,+ Zen explained. +That is Vila's location. Jenna is on a hospital ship on route to the planet Morphenial. Her situation is stable and as a result will be retrieved last.+ They were all alive then. Blake heaved a shaky sigh. He had been afraid to let himself hope until now. The relief was so overwhelming that his growing tension snapped, allowing him to relax. Gradually, he slipped sideways on the couch, the strain of the past days and the weakness from his wound finally catching up to him. He slept.

*** *** ***

 

Kerr Avon materialized on the Liberator without a moment to spare and with a great many questions. Orac had reported Blake had returned to the ship and was sleeping, making Avon wonder if his wound was worse. From his own less than gentle landing in his life capsule, he realized that Blake, still weakened from Travis' shot on Star One, might have had an even rougher landing. Orac had temporarily lost contact with Liberator, but had been able to restore it later, informing him of Blake's survival. Servalan didn't know that, and Avon had no intention of enlightening her. She hadn't told him any secrets either.

Avon was certain the battle had gone badly--how could it be otherwise when one ship, even a ship as well equipped as the Liberator had been left for some hours to fight off a fleet of six hundred ships? Too many alien vessels had penetrated the Defense Zone and though the Federation had arrived in great numbers to fight alongside the Liberator, it was inevitable that some of the enemy survive. Avon's experience with the Andromedans on Star One had convinced him that even Servalan was preferable, though it was a moot point, but it had not enabled him to trust her, and he had been glad to leave her behind.

He had no choice but to bring Dayna Mellanby back with him. Thanks to his war with Servalan, Dayna's father was dead, and Avon felt a bitter responsibility for that act; though had Servalan encountered Dayna and her father without Avon's intervention, Hal Mellanby would still be dead and possibly Dayna with him. She had nowhere else to go, and her expertise with weapons might prove useful.

Now she and Avon stood on the teleport platform staring at the total stranger who came striding into the section, a weapon in his hand. When he saw them, he lowered it but did not put it away. "Avon, I presume," he said with a smile that Avon didn't trust.

"Who are you?" Avon demanded suspiciously. Orac had not reported this man's presence--the computer had much to answer for. "Where Is Blake?"

"Sleeping on the flight deck," the stranger replied. "His wound reopened when his life capsule landed. He needed the rest. I'm Del Tarrant."

"You seem to have made yourself at home," Avon observed sourly, noting Tarrant's use of a Liberator gun. He suspected he'd seen the outfit Tarrant was wearing in the wardrobe room too.

"Zen had to make use of me," Tarrant returned. "A Federation death squad boarded before I did, but your ship's defenses finished them."

"And not you?" Avon asked. Interesting. He remembered the difficulty of resisting the image projected by Zen's defense system. It had taken Blake to break the spell. That Tarrant had resisted it said something for him, though Avon was not yet certain what. He did not trust the young man. "I'd like to see Blake," he insisted deliberately.

"Then we'll go to the flight deck." He cast an interested look at Dayna. "And who is this? Neither Cally nor Jenna, surely?"

"Dayna Mellanby, Del Tarrant," Avon returned, taking Dayna's bracelet and storing it in the tray along with his own.

Avon was inclined to be angry with Blake. The man had been driving them far too hard even before Gan had paid the price of his obsession. Lately Avon had begun to believe if he did not put an end to Blake's influence, he would die himself--or become too drawn in to escape. He had started holding Blake at bay with hard words, fueling his anger with every grievance he could find, until, driven to the breaking point, he had informed Blake he wanted it ended. Blake had assumed Avon hated him, but Avon did not quite do that. He simply wanted free of him, another matter entirely. He was not surprised that Blake did not understand it for he did not understand it himself. He only knew that not even his resentment of Blake's manipulation of his crew--especially himself--did not prevent him from going to Blake's rescue on Star One when he learned Travis had arrived. Blake was a dangerous man, and Avon resented the hold he had over him. Better if they could have parted then, cleanly, but it had not worked that way, and Blake, fool that he was, had insisted he had always trusted Avon, from the very beginning.

Avon knew that could not be true, that it was most likely only one more form of manipulation. Bad enough Blake had forced him to stay and fight off the Andromedan fleet until the Federation arrived. Worse he should try to tie Avon to him still further.

Avon went to the flight deck prepared to annihilate Blake with words for everything he had done to him.

Blake was still sleeping, curled up on the forward couch, his hair tousled, his face a little flushed. He slept with the fierce abandon of the very young or the pure at heart, and it was so ludicrous that Avon almost stepped forward to shake him awake, but at the last moment, he held back. Looking down at Blake he asked impartially, "Is it serious?"

"No, he's recovering nicely," Tarrant replied. "He's lost blood and he's been through a lot. He needs the rest."

Dayna joined Avon, staring down at the sleeping man. "So that's Blake," she said softly. "My father enjoyed listening to reports of Blake. We followed any news we could get of all of you and the ."

Dayna was one of the least maternal women Avon had met, but here she stood looking down on Blake sympathetically. Avon remembered her care when she had rescued him from the Sarrens. He could not remotely imagine Servalan caring for an injured man, not unless she stood to gain for it.

Finally Blake stirred as if alert enough, even in sleep, to feel eyes upon him, and he shifted restlessly and opened his eyes, blinking up at Avon blankly. Then his expression changed and to Avon's considerable astonishment--and discomfort--a smile of world-class proportions lit his face. A moment later he damped it as if suspecting Avon would not welcome his delight, but it didn't go away entirely, banked behind his eyes and still smoldering. "Avon," he burst out, sitting up so quickly that it must have twinged his re-opened wound, for he paled, gasped and clutched at his shoulder. Avon was surprised to note that his own (purely instinctive) gesture to help Blake get his balance was backed by Tarrant's, the younger man drawing back at once as if he feared he was poaching on another man's preserve. Avon's eyes narrowed.

"Well, Blake," he said levelly, setting Orac aside on the table. "I see you have failed to take proper care of yourself. It's a wonder you've survived as long as this."

"You seem to be intact," Blake returned, the warmth that had initially been visible retreating behind a wary stiffness as Blake put himself on guard. That was just as well. Avon found it much easier to deal with Blake that way. The open, caring Blake had always been the most dfficult to shield himself against. He wondered if Blake realized that. But now, he must be remembering their furious exchange before going down to Star One, instead of Blake's attempt to convince Avon he trusted him.

Avon's lips twisted sourly. "Intact?" he echoed. "Oh yes, perhaps. Certainly back here, on my ship, Blake. Did you conveniently forget it was to be mine after Star One?"

"Even if I had, you wouldn't have allowed me such a lapse," Blake returned, shifting slightly as if to ease his wound. This time Tarrant did intervene, checking to make certain the pad was still in its proper place. Casting an unreadable glance at Avon he withdrew to the opposite couch, sitting down and folding his arms across his chest as if he were prepared to be entertained.

Avon shot him a resentful look before turning back to his primary target, Blake, aware of Dayna joining Tarrant on the couch and conversing with him in low tones. Realizing he was another newcomer she might want to learn what had been happening, or maybe she was simply curious about the ship. Without shutting them from his awareness, Avon concentrated on Blake. "Zen informs me we will next retrieve Vila, then Cally," he said in neutral tones. "Orac reports that our attempt to halt the Andromedans until the fleet could arrive was not entirely successful. Are we now to align ourselves with the Federation to defeat this new threat?"

"I've considered it, Avon," Blake replied.

"Using my ship?"

"Using any vessel we can lay hands on, Avon. Surely not even you are selfish enough to refuse to fight this particular enemy."

Avon hesitated. "Perhaps not. Servalan was on Sarren, Blake. I left her there. She had shelter and no doubt she will find rescue, but whether or not it will be by her own people is debatable."

"You let her live?" Blake asked, eyes narrowing. "I'm surprised at you, Avon. Every time I do something like that you find fault with me."

"It was not by choice," Avon returned. "Had it been possible, I would have left a corpse behind. But she was necessary for a time, since she alone knew the location of Orac. After that, there was no option."

"If there had been, I would have killed her," Dayna put in coolly, causing all three men to look at her, Blake in surprise and Tarrant with a startled consideration as if forced to revise his first impression of her. Avon introduced her to Blake.

"We've left Sarren behind," Tarrant reminded her.

"It's more important to crew this ship again than to worry about might have beens," Blake chided, looking around the flight deck. "Once everyone's on board, we can plan our strategy."

Avon sat down beside him, rather worn from his exertions on Sarren. "Plan our strategy?" he enquired. "Assuming the rest of us will be interested, Blake?" He eyed Tarrant and Dayna suspiciously. "And what of our passengers?"

"Zen seems to have accepted Tarrant," Blake replied mildly.

"Whether the rest of us shall do the same remains to be seen," Avon returned.

"He's a pilot, Avon."

"So is Jenna, and we are familiar with her motives."

"You mean you trust her?" Blake asked with some amusement.

"I trust no one. But I know what to expect from her." He frowned at Tarrant. "This ship is mine now. Fighting alien hordes is not how I would choose to use it."

"Perhaps not," said Blake, watching Avon through slightly narrowed eyes. "Would you turn your back on the rest of humanity?"

"The rest of humanity has already turned its back on me," Avon responded. "But I see you will allow me no peace if we do not discuss the subject. We will wait until everyone has returned before any decisions are made."

"It may be your ship, Avon," Tarrant spoke up suddenly, "But you're not a pilot. Zen accepts me. I intend to stay here, with Blake. I doubt you'll put him off the ship. I have as much right to fight the Andromedans as anyone, and with this ship, I can do it better than I could anywhere else."

"If Blake is fool enough to trust a stranger..."

"Blake is cautious, as he should be. He'll find he has no cause for alarm. I don't love the Federation. But I don't like the idea of an alien invasion either."

"And you have chosen to follow Blake," Avon observed smoothly. "Be very careful, Tarrant. Blake may be charismatic, but his followers are not his primary concern. For his cause, he will sacrifice anything."

"Yet you're still here," Tarrant pointed out with a dazzling smile.

"For the Liberator," said Blake quietly, and Avon turned a suspicious look in his direction, wondering at the faintly mocking note in his voice.

Tarrant's smile turned into a knowing grin and he relaxed again. Avon's eyes narrowed at the sign of easy understanding between the two men. Surely Blake had not welcomed him without question. Or perhaps he saw in him someone ardent enough to follow him into hell without question. Avon doubted Tarrant would be an unquestioning follower, though he seemed drawn to Blake's personal magnetism.

"What about me?" Dayna asked abruptly. "I've nowhere to go. Have you need of a good weapons designer on this ship? Tell him I know how to fight, Avon. I could easily earn my way."

"You will like her, Blake," Avon said promptly. "She's very bloodthirsty. If we come face to face with Servalan, you must watch her carefully for she is primed to kill her. Now that Servalan is president, she will be all the more dangerous. Perhaps you will need a huntress at your side."

"Presidents in time of peril can gain an amazing amount of support," Blake replied thoughtfully. "Servalan is not my choice of ally, but she might be best equipped to defeat the Andromedans."

"You'd side with Servalan?" Dayna cried, looking at Blake in considerable disillusionment.

"Servalan is human, Dayna," Blake returned. "I don't trust her and never will, and I have no intention of putting myself and my crew into her hands. But she will defend the Federation against the invader."

"Gaining strength for herself as she goes." Avon stood up and walked forward to stand before the main screen, turning to face the others, his hands clasped behind his back. "This invasion may play right into her hands. She will use any tool that comes to hand to defeat the enemy, including you, Blake. Then, when the Andromedans are beaten, she will turn on you. It you believe anything else, you are a far bigger fool than I believed possible."

"How could I ever be that, Avon?" Blake asked with a sudden smile, and Avon felt his annoyance melting away. He wouldn't let it go, however, schooling his face to retain its impersonal glare.

"All too easily. But this discussion is pointless. Perhaps when the others are back on board, we can talk sense into you."

"I am talking sense, Avon," Blake returned. "Not necessarily an alliance with Servalan, no. That might be too great a risk. But we must stop the Andromedans quickly. They're shapechangers. Leave them too long and they'll go to ground. Even if we defeat them ship to ship, enough of them will survive to be an ongoing threat. Eventually they'll take positions of power, replacing prominent Federation officials just as they replaced the technicians at Star One."

Avon smiled slightly at the thought of Servalan being replaced, her body hanging empty and discarded in some darkened room. But even less than that did he relish the idea of an alien in the body of the President of the Terran Federation, manipulating the galaxy. Eventually there would be no safe place left, no bolthole for him to run to when he finally had enough of Blake.

That thought pulled him up short. Only days before he had been proclaiming loudly that he wanted to be rid of Blake and his influence immediately. Blake had taken it as hatred, but it hadn't been. lf so, he would never be thinking of staying with Blake now, especially when he knew how it would all end. Blake would get him killed yet, and if he failed at that, he would get the others killed or manage to die himself, leaving Avon in the unenviable position of assuming Blake's mantle. Avon didn't want it. He had no desire to be a leader, only to be left in peace. But a corner of his mind nudged him with the thought that it was preferable to be left in peace on the Liberator while Blake played his war games than to be left in peace in a safe bolthole away from Blake. That made it all the more imperative to end Blake's hold on him.

But not yet. With an alien force at large in the galaxy, the Liberator was the safest place going, and Avon valued his safety--or claimed to do--above all else. He would have to stay, at least for now, at least until he saw what happened next. If nothing else, he could talk Blake out of alliances with Servalan. Maybe they could use her without risking themselves. But he owed Blake nothing and he would not commit to anything.

"Perhaps you are right," he temporized. "At least with regard to the Andromedans. We must wait and see what they intend." Turning to Orac, he inserted the computer's activator. "Orac, you will monitor the Andromedan fleet, keeping us informed of its movements, of any planets visited by Andromedan ships. Your task will be to insure that no Andromedan replace a human and begin a rise to power."

+My circuits are presently engaged, and the task you specify is impossible.+

"Oh, come, Orac," Blake prodded, entering the fray. "You've always boasted that your powers were tar beyond our puny expectations. Now Avon gives you an important task and you fail us. I shall be forced to conclude that you have been exaggerating."

Tarrant grinned at Dayna at Blake's tone, but Orac snapped back, sounding quite angry, +If anything, my abilities have aIways been understated. Very well, I shall monitor the Andromedan fleet. But not even I can kill every Andromedan at a distance.+

"That's where we come in," Dayna explained.

"We?" asked Avon.

"It's to my advantage to defeat the Andromedans," she returned. "I'm human too. I won't side with Servalan, but short of that, I'll do whatever is necessary. What do you say, Blake? May I join you?"

"We'll need qualified recruits," Blake replied. "Seven of us can run this ship, but with more, we can accomplish far more than we have achieved so far."

Dayna looked delighted, and her scrutiny of the flight deck suddenly became possessive, as if she now considered it her ship. Avon nodded. He had seen Dayna fight and knew that once her considerable appetite for mayhem and danger was toned down she would be a good companion in a fight. Blake would learn that for himself as time went on.

As for himself, Avon preferred to avoid Blake's obsessions, whatever they were, and his only reason for remotely considering going along with Blake was to keep the Liberator intact. He was fairly certain Cally would support Blake especially if he had toned down his fanaticism. Perhaps even Blake was capable of learning from a mistake. Jenna, too, would back Blake as long as he was remotely reasonable, and Vila would complain all the way but would tag along. These two new recruits were unfortunately gung ho, but perhaps that could be turned into an advantage later. Avon regarded at Blake sourly. This was not working out as he had hoped.

*** *** ***

 

As the Liberator neared the planet Chenga, Vila's desperate transmissions ceased, but Zen and Orac answered Blake's worried questions with reassurance. Vila still lived and wore his bracelet. "I hope we can teleport him," Blake muttered.

"I'm certain Vila hopes so, too," Avon replied. "I shall go set the coordinates."

Dayna studied Avon with interest. He had an unusual manner with Blake, different than she had expected, different from his treatment of her. She had expected him to be openly supportive of Blake; her father had paid close attention to any reports of Blake, and those reports always mentioned Avon fighting at his side.

Her father... She forced her thoughts away from the memory of her father's death, turning the pain into a desire to avenge him. Surely with this great ship and its legendary abilities, she could get the revenge she sought. I will stop her, Father, she thought sadly and turned her mind to the here and now.

"I'll come with you," she volunteered. "I'd like to see how the teleport works."

Tarrant unfolded his long legs and jumped up too. Avon cast a sardonic look at Blake as if to ask if he meant to make it a group project, but Blake shook his head.

"I'll wait here," he said. "I'll see what messages I can pick up. Perhaps someone else out there needs rescuing."

"This is hardly a mercy vessel," Avon protested, leading the way off the flight deck without pausing to see if Tarrant or Dayna followed him. Dayna hurried to keep up.

Blake didn't meet her expectations, either, though it was difficult to judge while he was still recovering. Yet, he had no hesitation about standing up to Avon, and Dayna liked that. She had been drawn to Avon when she first saw him, but part of that was the novelty of meeting an attractive stranger. Even if teachers had been imported to train her during their exile--though she had never considered it so--she had seen no civilized person but her father and Lauren for several years. When the last of the teachers went she had been a child and now she was an adult. Remembering her actions in the cave, she was slightly embarrassed at her temerity, but she had learned early on that if she wanted something, she must take steps to attain it. She wasn't sure Avon was what she wanted, but she had needed to satisfy her curiosity. Looking at Avon's set shoulders as he walked ahead of her, she smiled faintly, then turned to study the profile of the man who walked beside her.

Tarrant was certainly beautiful, but it was a coltish beauty; he was young enough to have his uncertaintites and to feel the need to prove himself. Trying to prove himself against Avon might produce some interesting pyrotechnics. She planned to enjoy the resultant fireworks. Though she had had enough excitement lately to last some time, she knew she would soon be looking for something to liven the atmosphere. Maybe Tarrant could help create a few sparks.

Avon sat at the teleport console and Dayna slipped in beside him while Tarrant leaned against the wall, folding his arms across his chest. He had a cocky look as if he enjoyed challenging those around him, and irritation flashed in his eyes when Avon gave no sign of noticing.

Dayna watched Avon's long fingers, trying to guess what he was doing. She thought she had figured out which controls were directional as a dot moved across the grid, presumably in response to a signal from the planet below. Vila had not replied to their attempts at contact. Since he had proclaimed himself in dire circumstances, Dayna halfway feared he was dead, but from something Avon had said, the teleport only worked on living tissue. If it didn't bring Vila up, they'd know what was wrong, too late to do something about it.

"When will you bring him up?" asked Tarrant.

"As soon as teleport range is achieved," Avon replied without looking up. A long pause followed, then, when Tarrant started to speak again, Avon put up a hand to forestall him and reached forward to a group of levers, to pull several of them toward him. Dayna stared as two forms materialized in the chamber, a man and a woman, both clad in what looked like hospital attire, both of them unconscious. Vila and Cally, apparently, though she had not realized they had met. She jumped up to examine them, kneeling beside the woman. "She's still alive."

"That one is Cally. I'll introduce you to her when she wakes up. This is Vila." Avon strode forward. "I should really introduce you now. He's at his best when he's unconscious."

Dayna bit back a smile at Avon's tone. He sounded as if he meant nothing but contempt, but she suspected he liked Vila, and she wondered why he would try to conceal it.

Her suspicions were confirmed when Avon bent briefly to check Vila's pulse, then he turned to Tarrant. "You and Dayna take them to the medical unit," he instructed.

Tarrant started forward obediently, then caught himself. "What will you be doing?" he asked pointedly.

"One of us must report to Blake. I believe you have some understanding of the functions of the medical unit." He paused in the doorway. "Alert the flight deck before they come around," he instructed and strode away.

Tarrant stared after him, his resentment obvious. "That one likes giving orders," he observed.

"It needs doing," Dayna said, picking up the slender Cally with ease. "And it's more his ship than ours. Didn't you learn to take orders at the Academy?"

"I'd prefer to take them from Blake."

"Blake would probably have made the same suggestions," Dayna replied and waited for Tarrant to pick up the hapless Vila and lead the way to the medical unit. Grumbling under his breath, Tarrant complied. Dayna suspected he and Avon would have a confrontation in the near future.

*** *** ***

 

"Did you get him?" Blake asked, rousing from a half doze when Avon returned to the flight deck.

"Vila and Cally both," Avon replied. "I directed the others to take them to the medical unit. They were both unconscious, but seemed only stunned." Blake half rose as it he meant to investigate immediately, but Avon shook his head. "I should rest, Blake."

"You trust Tarrant and Dayna to care for them?" Blake asked, somewhat surprised.

"I trust Dayna not to betray us, and Tarrant could have harmed you when you came aboard, but he didn't. While that does not guarantee their trustworthiness, it indicates that they may be of use." Concluding that subject satisfactorily, he sat on the forward couch. "Zen, are there any signs of Andromedans"?"

+None within detector range,+ Zen returned.

"Any other ships?" Blake asked.

+Three Federation pursuit ships at extreme range. They are heading away from the Liberator.+

"That's a start," Blake said with some relief. "I'd as soon get Jenna back before we have to fight again."

"Must we fight?" Avon asked, resigned.

"Oh yes, we must fight," Blake returned. "Don't you see what we have at stake here, Avon? Do you truly wish the Andromedans success over your own people?"

"I have no fondness for 'my own people,' Blake. However, I understand their motivations more easily than those of the Andromedans, and recognize their strengths and weaknesses. I should even prefer Servalan to one of those creatures." He met Blake's exultant eye. "However, do not take that to mean you have recruited me to your cause. I am here and I will fight, but for a far more reasonable goal--survival."

"What else?" Blake asked lightly as if he suspected no other motivation.

Avon, who knew him rather better than he was willing to admit, smiled sourly and changed the subject. "How long until we retrieve Jenna?"

"Four hours."

"Then I suggest you spend it sleeping. You haven't entirely regained your strength."

Blake's look held mild surprise. "Concern, Avon"?"

"Why not?" Avon returned lightly. "Or common courtesy, something that puts me at no disadvantage."

"Would it be so terrible?" Blake asked, climbing to his feet with what looked like the last of his strength. "Being at a disadvantage, I mean? Oh, not against Servalan, but here, among friends?"

Avon grimaced. Blake's way of getting under his skin was second to none. "I prefer the upper hand," he replied. "And from the look of you, you need a hand." He took Blake's arm. "I'll see you to your cabin," he said smoothly.

Blake must have been too tired to resent Avon's offer of help, or perhaps he simply didn't see it as a means of displaying the upper hand. Instead, he bestowed upon Avon a fond smile and allowed himself to lean upon the tech all the way to his cabin. Avon seethed, but only a little, and that for appearances. Blake might be unbearable at times, but life was so much more interesting with him around.

*** *** ***

 

Cally revived first, surprising Tarrant, who was monitoring the two sleepers after sending Dayna off to rest. At first, the Auron lay there quietly, recognizing her location with some surprise. Then she turned to the other table and registered Vila's presence. A smile lighted her eyes, warming the planes and angles of her face. "So we are home," she said to herself, then she saw Tarrant. At once she was wary, on guard, every inch the warrior. "Who are you?"

"Del Tarrant. I've joined your crew. I found Liberator abandoned and drifting and came aboard. I rescued Blake first."

"Is he well?" Cally asked. She had not yet relaxed, but she seemed content to gather information. Sitting up cautiously, she flexed her fingers as it there were some lingering pins and needles.

"Yes. Everyone's back but Jenna and we'll retrieve her soon."

"You seem very much at home," Cally observed.

"Yes. I like this ship. Zen accepted me, much as he accepted Jenna when she first came aboard. How do you feel?"

"Surprised to be alive. They meant to kill us down there, for spare parts surgery. Servalan was there."

"Servalan!" he echoed in surprise. "Another prisoner?"

"No. She managed to contact the Federation. They were very anxious to have her back. She took time to say goodbye to us. To gloat."

"She'll have precious little time for that," Tarrant replied, giving her a hand to her feet. "We don't know how many Andromedans got through the fleet. The defense zone went down when Star One was destroyed, and they came swarming in. It wasn't the overwhelming victory they'd hoped for, thanks to the Liberator, but it could mean serious trouble."

Cally's face darkened as she turned away from Vila's readings. "It could be worse than you think," she replied. "The Andromedans are shape changers. They can assume the forms of specific people. If this is just the forerunner of a larger fleet, we are in very grave trouble."

He should have considered a larger fleet. The longer the surviving Andromedans ran loose In the galaxy, the greater the threat of another attack or an Andromedan takeover from within. "I'm supposed to tell Blake when you're ready to wake up," he remembered. "Just a second." He put through a call to the flight deck. "Blake? Cally's awake."

"Blake is sleeping," came Avon's filtered voice. "I'll come down. What of Vila?"

"Still out."

"Or shamming," returned Avon with a faint trace of amusement.

"Avon, I'm not shamming," Vila burst out in tones of outrage. He sat up and looked around the medical unit with considerable relief. "They were going to cut us up into spare parts down there. I'm just relieved to be up here in one piece."

"One more spare part for us," Avon retorted and broke the link.

"He missed me," said Vila with a broad grin. Then he turned to Cally, seeking reassurance. "They didn't cut us up any, did they, Cally?" Tarrant bit back a smile as he made a show of peeking under the blanket to convince himself he was intact before staring at Tarrant with wide, suspicious eyes. "Who're you?"

Cally made the introductions. "He's a new member of the crew, Vila. We're on our way to pick up Jenna now. Everyone else is back."

"Including His Arrogance," Vila returned with a vaguely obscene gesture at the wall comm unit. "Pity." He dangled his feet over the edge of the table. "Here now, where are my clothes?"

"In your quarters, I should expect," Tarrant replied.

"You couldn't go and fetch something for me?" Vila wheedled.

"I doubt it. You're fit enough."

Vila grimaced. "And here I am a wounded hero."

"Neither, in fact," Avon retorted as he entered the room. For all his evident disinterest, he had made good time from the flight deck. "There's nothing wrong with you, Vila. Nothing, that is, that hasn't been wrong with you all along."

"Who's watching the flight deck?" Tarrant asked him suspiciously. He still did not quite trust Avon.

Avon favored him with a resentful look as if protesting Tarrant's right to question him. "Dayna is there now," he replied after a minute.

"Dayna? Who's Dayna?" Vila perked up. "More new crew? Things have changed. I'd better get dressed and go introduce myself."

"That should make Dayna's day," muttered Tarrant sotto voce. Vila amused him, though he suspected he might find the thief irritating on a daily basis.

Avon's eyes twinkled, but he sternly kept his face impassive. "Are you well, Cally?" he asked.

"I am quite well, thank you. How long before we retrieve Jenna?"

"Less than an hour. Blake is still sleeping, but I propose to wake him before we get her. There are many things we must talk about."

Cally nodded knowingly. "We must decide how to face the Andromedan threat," she replied. "Blake intends to fight them, I am certain."

"Alongside the Federation if necessary."

Vila stopped in the doorway. "Fight alongside the Federation!" he exclaimed in dismay. "What's to stop them attacking us?"

"Presumably their need of Liberator to stop the aliens," Tarrant replied. "Blake is right. If the aliens can take anyone's form, they're too dangerous to leave at large. The longer they go free, the greater the threat to us. We'll have to spread the news of their capabilities."

"Orac can do that," Avon replied. "Well, go on, Vila, unless you mean to come to the flight deck like that. Perhaps Dayna would like it."

"Oh yes," Vila returned darkly. "You'd like that, wouldn't you." He left without looking back.

Cally exchanged a smile with Tarrant, then turned to Avon. "I shall go and dress as well. I will like to hear Blake's plans."

"That," Avon returned, "is what I am afraid of."

*** *** ***

 

Jenna was relieved to find herself upon the Liberator once more. There had been moments when she'd wondered if she would ever return, when her bracelet had produced no response to her calls to the ship, when she heard reports of Andromedan ships breaking through the Federation fleet. She'd pictured Liberator drifting and damaged, easy prey for any boarding party, Federation or Andromedan. But when she materialized in the teleport section, it was Blake himself who sat at the controls. He looked a little the worse for wear, his arm still immobilized with one of the tissue regenerators, but his eyes had regained their normal life and fire. The zeal that had drawn her to him at first but which had grown obsessive of late had resumed its old style. She greeted him with a delighted cry of, "Blake!"

He caught her to him in a brief, one-armed embrace. "Welcome home, Jenna. Are you all right?"

"I had minor injuries, some cracked ribs and a few bruises, but I'm fine now. What of the others?"

"Everyone's back now you're here. Do you want to rest, or are you up to a council of war?"

"The Andromedans?" she asked in alarm. "How many of them got through?"

"More than a hundred ships. Our work is cut out for us. We've got to contain them and do it quickly, or we shall never stop them."

"I'm ready to discuss it," she replied promptly, realizing how necessary it was. "I did nothing but sleep on the hospital ship." She fell into step with him. "Is everyone else all right?"

"There were some minor injuries, but everyone's fine. We've picked up some new crew members."

She wasn't sure she liked the sound of that. "New crew? How many and what are they like?"

"I'll introduce you. I think they'll be of some use, and one of them is a pilot, so you'll have decent backup for a change and not have to rely on the rest of us."

"Some of you aren't bad," she conceded. Avon, in particular, had worked hard to master the Liberator, and he had more of a flair than any of the others, though he didn't approach her league. She rather liked her position as the great ship's only real pilot and didn't welcome competition. It the new man was worth his salt, he wouldn't like playing second fiddle either.

She knew that was true as soon as she saw him. Easy to pick out the pilot between the two of them, for this one might as well have had "Federation Space Academy" tattooed across his forehead. He even stood with the natural arrogance of a Space Command trained man, legs a little apart, head up and back as he looked around like a king. He and Avon ought not to get on at all, and that could be interesting.

She was prepared to dislike him intensely, but then he saw Blake, and favored him with a look in which respect and hero worship held no small part, though he tried to disguise them. So he was already Blake's man. Blake wouldn't have mentioned that, and besides, the pilot looked like no yes-man. He might admire Blake and even support him, but he'd speak his mind.

He spoke it now. "So you're Jenna. I've heard good things about your skill. I'm rather looking forward to seeing how good you really are. I'm Del Tarrant."

"Really?" she asked with evident disinterest. "Ought I to have heard of you?"

That won her a nod of acknowledgement from Avon, of all people, and a momentary flash of resentment from the young man. He opened his mouth to defend himself hotly, then he reined in his temper. "Oh well, you've been on the run."

So he had a sting, did he? Suddenly Jenna began to enjoy herself. She knew her worth and rated it highly. Let Del Tarrant see how well he stood up against a more experienced pilot. A little set down might do him good.

"This is Dayna Mellanby, Jenna," Cally introduced, bringing forward a young woman who had the wary grace of a wild creature and the look of someone who knew very well how to defend herself from danger. She was young, probably not more than twenty, if that, but she didn't look inexperienced. "She's a weapons tech," the Auron added. "That will be very useful."

"I've seen some of the weapons she has designed," Avon agreed. "And she has a positive knack for explosives."

"A girl after your own heart, in fact," Jenna returned. "I see you survived, Avon."

"Don't I always?"

"I survived too, Jenna," Vila put in. "And you didn't even say it was nice to see me. Cally did when we met. But then Cally's got good taste."

"From time to time," Avon interjected. "Now that you've arrived, Jenna, you must listen to Blake's newest plan, the one that unites us with our old enemies, the Federation."

"It is necessary, Avon," Cally returned practically.

"Necessary for whom?" he asked. So that had not changed. Avon still went his own way and did not march to Blake's drum. Jenna eyed him narrowly, then she smiled a little. Avon was still here, and it was ever his way to argue.

"Necessary for our own survival if you consider nothing else."

"Necessary for humanity," Blake defended, striding forward to stand before the main screen and turning to face them all. Of late he'd been pushing too hard, rushing them from one danger to another as if only his own desperate drive could save the galaxy. Now he seemed newly inspired, as if he had realized what he was doing and meant to make amends for it. This time, not even Avon could deny he was right.

But Avon could. "The survival of the rest of humanity has never been my primary concern."

"You'd be awfully lonely with nothing but this great ship to protect you from hordes of nasty aliens," Vila piped up, turning to Avon as if he expected the tech to listen to him for a change. "Besides, they must know all about Liberator, the way we held them off while we waited for the Federation to arrive. I don't know how safe you'd be. Wait a minute. I don't know how safe we are. Blake, are you sure this is such a good idea?"

"My hero," said Avon sardonically, but there was genuine humor in his eyes. Lately he'd been harder than usual as if the battle against Blake took all the humanity he'd ever possessed. Not, thought Jenna with amusement, that it was ever very much.

"It's necessary, Vila," Blake insisted, but not as if he were trying to browbeat the thief into following him. Instead he sounded like he really meant to convince him, and the sincerity in his voice moved Jenna more than she had expected. She had never quite managed to believe in Blake's dreams before, although she had wanted to, but she thought she might believe in this. It was a more pragmatic dream, nothing great and glorious and unrealistic, but something that needed doing, something they could do better than most.

"Blake's right," she said. "We have to do it. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to see is a roomful of empty skins with your faces. We must take this threat seriously. What have you done so far, Blake?"

Vila grimaced in exaggerated disgust at the thought of the empty skins, and Avon, who had seen it down there on Star One and had described it to the others as they waited for the aliens to attack, gave a slight nod as if to concede her point. Avon needed a realistic goal, something practical and down to earth. Not for him the dreams that inspired Blake, though for a non-believer, he was awfully persistent. Jenna suspected there was a withered idealist buried in the computer tech, someone who had once known bright dreams but who had lost too much to risk ever dreaming again. When they weren't tearing into each other with angry words, he and Blake were good for each other.

Cally would follow, of course. She was a true believer but she was more realistic than Blake and her practical experience had done them all good. As for the newcomers, Jenna didn't know yet. If Tarrant was half as good as he thought he was, he'd be useful. A good weapons expert as a help too. Maybe Dayna could design something that would hurt the Andromedans but wouldn't affect humanity.

"We've not had the time to do much yet," Blake replied. "We had Orac send a message to Space Command Headquarters alerting them to the threat we discovered on Star One, that the Andromedans can assume human form. Servalan used the crisis to gain power--she is now President as well as Supreme Commander. She will use the crisis to consolidate her strength, but she did believe you when you warned her of the threat of invasion. I think she will believe us this time too. She was on Chenga earlier, but she will be scurrying back to her headquarters now as fast as she can go. While I wouldn't trust her with our lives, I will trust her to take that threat seriously. In the meantime, I want other suggestions. What can we do to stop them? We can't fight that many ships single handed. The Federation will fight them as well as it can and we'll have to help, but there are bound to be other options."

"I should think the first thing would be to devise a method of detection," Avon suggested. "A device which will tell us if an alien has come among us passing as human. To do that, we will need an alien to work with. Since we do not know their limitations, that could prove dangerous. They had no trouble infiltrating Star One, taking over the personnel there one by one. They may not behave exactly the same as the people they absorb, but they appeared human in every respect. You spoke with some of them, Blake. Was there anything obvious about them?"

"Nothing. I had no idea they were anything but human--until it was too late."

"Which presents us with another problem," Avon replied, "The fact that anyone of us now might be an Andromedan." Everyone tensed up and began to look about suspiciously. "Orac," Avon continued, "How would you suggest we determine whether or not one of us could be an alien?"

"Medical examinations have determined that Blake, Cally and Vila are as they were," Orac replied. "If the rest of you are prepared to undergo the same testing, it can be determined quickly."

"I wonder," Cally mused. "If aliens take human form, would the difference appear in such tests?"

"When I killed the alien on Star One it reverted to its natural form," Avon replied. "I should think it inevitable that some differences appear. Perhaps we could capture one and run tests upon it."

"And then what?" Blake asked.

"Kill it, of course."

Cally shuddered. She would not like the idea of holding an alien for purposes of experimentation. Clearly Blake didn't care for it either. Jenna could see why Avon would suggest it. This time, she might even side with him, for it was imperative that they learn as much about their enemy as possible, and quickly too.

"Avon's right," she said. "We must learn what they really are. They were prepared to give us no quarter, and they started this war. We hardly owe them courtesy."

Avon looked surprised at her support, but he masked the look. "I suggest we retreat to the medical unit so we can be sure of ourselves. For all you know, I may be an alien."

"I always suspected as much," Vila muttered under his breath and fled the flight deck before Avon could lay hands upon him.

The tests proved the Liberator free of shapechangers, and they returned with relief. But they knew no foolproof method to test for alien presence, for they simply knew too little.

"I shall build a failsafe into the teleport," Avon decided. "It will monitor each of us when we teleport down to a planet, and when that person returns, it will make a comparison."

"And do what?" asked Tarrant, looking interested. "Teleport them into space? Freeze them in mid-teleport? Return them automatically to the planet?"

"We shall see what can be managed properly. Zen, I shall welcome your input."

Jenna wondered if Zen would refuse it, but Zen replied, +Teleport modification is possible.+

"Excellent." Avon rubbed his hands together in appreciation. "We shall need hard copies of the schematics, and then--"

+I am receiving a priority message for Roj Blake,+ Orac interrupted haughtily. +I am not a messenger relay, and I resent this misuse of my abilities.+

"Who is trying to reach us, Orac?" asked Blake.

+Servalan.+

"Servalan!" burst out Dayna and Vila, the thief in some dismay and the young woman with considerable resentment. "What does she want?" Vila asked uneasily.

+She requests a meeting with Blake and the Liberator.+

"Right on schedule," Avon returned.

"You've been expecting this, haven't you?" Blake asked him. "Did she say anything to you about it?"

"No. She made some vague propositions about the two of us ruling the galaxy together. I didn't particularly believe her. But she hadn't then learned the full extent of the threat we face. She is not a stupid woman. She may well believe it necessary to recruit us."

"Recruit us?" Cally asked. "She will not acknowledge us publicly, surely."

But it seemed she might. +She reports that our actions at Star One have made us galactic heroes,+ Orac explained astonishingly. The little computer evidently enjoyed the idea of being a hero, for its voice was disgustingly smug. +The Andromedan threat is very real, and we were the ones in the front lines, as well as the ones who gave the warning.+

Avon shook his head. "I should doubt that."

"I doubt it will last," Tarrant countered. "Word of the Liberator's presence might have got out, with so many different people fighting against the invaders. I'm sure the Federation wouldn't have announced it. If this war drags on very long, the people will forget again, and when it's over, Servalan will claim victory and pretend we never helped her."

"But it's a chance," Blake burst out. "A chance to do some good, to convince people we're more than terrorists, maybe even to fight from the inside." He was in the full blossom of enthusiasm again, and Jenna saw Avon regard him consideringly before he shook his head.

"No, Blake. You will be a tool to her hand, no more."

"That may be her intention," returned Blake with fierce intensity. "It is not mine. She may mean to use us, but we know that. We aren't fools to believe her guileless. We're prepared for any threat. We'll be using her."

Avon shook his head. "She'll expect that, Blake. She's hardly a fool. She's accustomed to using people, and compared to her, you are an innocent. You believe in freedom--she believes in power."

"Then you say we shouldn't go?" Blake asked.

"No. I don't say that. I don't believe we would be killed out of hand. She needs us too much for that. I want to hear her offer--and I want to know what resources she is using in the detection and destruction of aliens."

"Then we'll go," Blake decided. "And after, Avon?"

"What about the rest of us?" Tarrant demanded. "Don't we have a say in this?"

"Avon just has his say louder and longer than most people," Vila explained.

"Set up a rendezvous in a location where we are unlikely to fall victim to aliens or a Federation trap," Blake instructed Orac. "Choose a place we can reach first. I think you would prefer to remain out of Federation hands, so choose well, Orac."

+Naturally.+

The coordinates were set--by Tarrant under Jenna's supervision, so she could watch his performance--and they went to meet with the President of the Federation. Jenna had to admit that Tarrant seemed competent. He had taken the time to familiarize himself with the equipment once Blake had instructed Zen to accept his orders, and he looked at ease as he took the ship onto its new heading manually. Of course routine course changes were not difficult; the unskilled crew of Liberator did them all the time. Once the meeting was out of the way, Jenna planned to run some complex programs for Tarrant to see how good he really was.

He watched her. "Planning a test for me, Jenna? Make it difficult. I don't like being bored."

"It will be difficult enough," she replied, holding her temper in check. This one was too cocky. She would enjoy it if he got his comeuppance.

Leaving him at the controls, she went to see what the others were doing. Avon had a series of instruments and equipment spread out before him on a table drawn up before the forward couch, where he was taking readings of various esoteric pieces of computer equipment. "What are you doing?" she asked.

Though she had expected evasion, he replied at once. "Designing a hand scanner which I hope will detect Andromedans. I wish I'd had the foresight to take a tissue sample from the corpse at Star One. It would be useful."

"Avon?" It was Dayna. "Do you think it might be possible to design a weapon or a gas or something that won't harm humans but that will affect the Andromedans?"

He looked at her with some respect. "An excellent idea. Once we know something of their basic metabolism, we can plan such a strategy."

"In the meantime, let me show you the Liberator's main weapons system," Vila offered, joining them and taking Dayna by the arm. "I think you'll like it."

Dayna went off with him to the weaponry position, and Avon raised his eyes to exchange an amused glance with Jenna. As she left him to his work, she marveled at the change in him since his argument with Blake a few days ago. She would have sworn then that nothing short of a miracle would have kept those two from killing each other, but now they seemed easier together. Perhaps it was the different nature of the threat they faced, one that even Avon could understand and appreciate, or possibly both men realized they had gone too far and had backpedaled, trying to find a new common ground. Jenna had always sensed a kind of attraction between them, not a sexual attraction, but something strong all the same. Given different circumstances, she thought they might have been friends. A pity it hadn't worked that way. She thought it would have done them good. Frowning, she wondered if there was any way to help them achieve it.

Blake had not moved from his position as they set the course, but now he got up. "I'll walk along with you, Jenna. We have some hours before the rendezvous. I think I'll use them to get some rest."

She nodded, waiting for him. Like Avon, Blake had changed. He no longer seemed as fiercely driven, as determined to inflict his own particular vision on the galaxy at large, whether the galaxy wanted it or not. She knew his desire to achieve freedom for the masses had not gone away, but it had gained some perspective in the face of this larger threat. That was good, and she meant to encourage it.

"I'll check your wound," she offered as they set off in the direction of his quarters. "Tarrant says it's much better."

"You don't like Tarrant, do you, Jenna?"

She smiled a little. "I don't dislike him. I know the type, and he can be arrogant. I'll trim him down to size and he'll do, I think. If he's half as good as he thinks he is, we'll be glad of him."

"I think he knows his stuff," Blake replied. "Zen welcomed him the way he did you. I wonder if Zen was programmed to respond to pilots, or if pilots simply have an affinity for this ship."

"This ship would be hard to get out of one's system," she agreed. "I'm glad all of us made it back."

*** *** ***

 

Servalan, Supreme Commander and President of the Terran Federation, looked around the bridge of her flagship and smiled to herself. She had more confidence than most of the tools at Space Command Headquarters, the ones who had warned her to avoid meeting with Blake, especially now that his star was rising after his heroic stand at Star One. But Servalan knew Blake and was beginning to know Avon, and was certain she could use them.

The Andromedans were a serious problem. shapechangers as they were, they presented a far greater threat than she had expected, the danger of infiltration, even as high as the Council itself. She needed far more information on this phenomenon and who better to provide it than Kerr Avon, who had actually seen the change occur. With the vast resources of the Federation limited by the great loss of ships and personnel, it was necessary to take help where it was offered, and Blake was idealist enough to offer it. Fine. Servalan could use that, use the Liberator and its crew for as long as necessary, then find some way to discredit them thoroughly before she destroyed them.

In the meantime, her actions to hold an implacable enemy at bay would cast her in the role of a heroine, bravely standing against the hordes that meant to destroy humanity. She would come out of this ali the stronger and build her power base on her defense of the galaxy.

Never for a moment did she consider the possibility that she might lose. Though her fleet was in a shambles, she still had her ground based personnel, remote ships that had not reached the battlefield in time to fight, the resources of a hundred planets, even those devastated by the destruction of Star One.

Star One, too, was a lesson to her. Had she been in power thirty years ago when it had been moved to such a remote and badly defended location, she would have vetoed the entire plan. Out there, accessible to a threat that someone had suspected even then, it had controlled climates on many worlds, worlds now thrown into chaos and destruction. Such an idiotic plan could never have come from her own fertile brain. Never again would she allow Federation power to rest upon such a slender thread. It was time to plan for the future, to consolidate her power, to devise methods to hold that power safely. She would not preside over a ruined empire if she had any say in the matter. Instead, the people of the galaxy would watch her rebuild, to go from strength to strength, and in the process she would become so strong that no one would ever bring her down.

*** *** ***

 

The planet chosen for the rendezvous with Servalan was Nidrax 4, an unsettled world in the 9th sector. Liberator achieved orbit first, extra range detectors probing the surrounding space for signs of ambush, but there were none. Instead a fleet of three ships approached from the direction of Space Command Headquarters. One of them would hold Servalan, who seemed desperate for the meeting.

Avon had reached the conclusion that while Servalan might claim to need them, what she really needed was the Liberator. If the threat were less immediate, it wouldn't have surprised him if she chose to take it from them, but with the Andromedans already loose in the galaxy, she had no time to train a crew to manage the mighty ship. She would expect the Liberator to be hostile, or at least difficult to control. Orac had verified her statement that they were now considered heroes for trying to stem the invasion single handed. Odd as it seemed, it granted them a kind of immunity. Avon knew it would never last, but it might be possible to take advantage of it, carefully, for a time. He needed information and Servalan might have access to that which he sought.

The three ships settled into orbit, positioning themselves near the Liberator, and Blake sent Jenna and Avon across with a bracelet for Servalan. As a sign of her good faith, she agreed to come unarmed with only one mutoid to back her. Avon watched her carefully when they materialized upon the Liberator, noting her surprise and alarm when she saw Dayna Mellaby, a feral expression upon her face, watching her from behind the teleport console.

Blake, who had been sitting beside Dayna, rose to greet the president. "Servalan. We have much to discuss. We'll go to the flight deck."

Servalan's eyes flicked around the teleport section, committing what she saw to memory. No doubt the mutoid had been ordered to do the same, for she stared too. Nodding with the graciousness of a politician amidst her enemies, Servalan fell into step with the rebel leader, her mutoid two paces behind her. Avon exchanged a glance with Jenna, then they started after them while Dayna closed down the teleport and jumped up to follow.

Servalan had never been on the Liberator before. The vast flight deck was a surprise she could not conceal, though she composed her face immediately. The blinking lights of. Zen's fascia drew her first. "Your computer?" she asked, intrigued.

"We're here to discuss the alien threat, not my ship," Blake returned smoothly, steering her toward the forward couch. "Please, be seated, and we'll get down to business."

Avon allowed Blake's assumption of possession go without argument. He considered the great ship his own but would not undermine Blake's authority before Servalan. Though loath to admit it, he had chosen to follow Blake now, effectively returning possession to the rebel. Blake had welcomed it, though no words had been spoken. Now, as if Blake could sense the tenor of the tech's thoughts, he glanced in Avon's direction and shot him a look that Avon could read all too clearly. Blake understood what he had done and wag thanking him for it.

Avon turned away under the guise of inserting Orac's key. It brought him under Vila's gaze, and the thief shot him a cheeky grin. Know-it-all, Avon thought.

"I haven't met all your crew, Blake," Servalan replied. "I know most by name and by reputation, but I have not yet met this one." Her eyes turned to Tarrant with no little appreciation. The young ex-officer flushed slightly but amusement touched his eyes.

Going around in a circle, Blake introduced everyone, even those she already knew. Servalan looked at each in turn as if she expected their input to be valuable. It was a trick of leadership, no more. Blake did much the same when he wanted something from them. Avon was pleased to note that none of them seemed particularly gratified.

"We are met here," Servalan began when Blake had finished, "Because of the threat our galaxy faces at the hand of allen invaders. Some of my people have encountered the aliens face to face and have learned the danger they present. One of my men managed to kill three of them and to preserve a body for study." She turned to Orac. "Orac, with your abilities, it should be reasonably simple to analyze tissue samples and to assist us to develop a defense against these creatures."

+Such an action is well within my capabilities,+ Orac returned immediately. +Present your samples.+

"They will be made available in due course. Blake, the Liberator will be invaluable in our attempt to defeat the Andromedan threat. I do not believe you will refuge to defend humanity against them. Though we have been at odds and will be again, our paths run together now."

Avon nodded fractionally in acknowledgment. Had Servalan pretended this temporary alliance might be permanent, he would never have believed her. He was not certain he did now, for a very clever woman could a"ord some honesty when she spoke. lt would be what she did not say that would damn them.

"What is the status of your fleet?" Jenna asked abruptly. "Can you contain the Andromedans at all? How many of them have broken through? How many have been destroyed since then? Do you know which planets might have experienced landings?"

"Those are indeed important questions, Jenna," Servalan replied. "Fleet strength is sufficient to prevent the invaders from advancing deep into our space, from reaching Earth. At present there are 137 alien ships unaccounted for, but some of them may have been destroyed so completely that we have not yet recognized their debris for what it is. Some may have crashed on various planets. Teams are searching now. The bulk of their fleet has formed into an armada, which seems to be moving in the direction of Earth. We will block them and we will fight them. That need not require the Liberator, at least not yet."

Not unless the battle went badly and Liberator could save the day, or perhaps be sacrificed for Servalan herself. She would not want Liberator destroyed, hoping to possess it when all this was past, but if necessary she would cut her losses.

"Other important questions," Avon interjected smoothly, "regard the nature of the guarantees you will give us, should we choose to work with you. Blake, of course, is determined to save humanity no matter his own personal cost, but the rest of us would prefer to emerge from this with a whole skin. As you learned on Sarran, I do not trust you. Anyone here who does proves himself a fool. Let us have it clear. It we are to cooperate with you now, we shall require safeguards."

Not even Blake objected to that. Vila nodded eagerly and muttered, "Safeguards," in agreement.

"I cannot promise you total immunity from prosecution," Servalan replied. "Even as president, such power is beyond me. I can, however, grant you protection now while martial law exists. Orac can verify that it has already been done. It is possible that your actions will make you so well known and so popular that to kill you would become very difficult. Your own actions will determine the outcome. If Blake can see the necessity of working with me for the protection of the Federation, perhaps something can be done."

"I'm working for the preservation of humanity, Servalan," Blake returned. "Not to consolidate your power base. I won't pretend I can accept what the Federation does to people simply because there's a common threat. It conditions don't change after the Andromedans are defeated, I'll be in the same position I was in before, and so will you."

Avon shook his head. Trust Blake to otter her more honesty than she meant to give him. No doubt Servalan would try to find a way to rid the galaxy of them afterwards in something that appeared accidental, either that or she would have discredited them so thoroughly that their status as 'heroes' would offer them no further protection. On the other hand, lying to her to give them temporary protection seemed both futile and demeaning, and Avon found he preferred Blake's way. It was clear and straightforward. Though Blake could be as devious as the best of them, he had too much integrity to hide behind false promises now.

Suddenly Blake looked up and caught Avon's eye. The tech suspected Blake could read his thoughts as clearly as if he'd spoken aloud, but Blake didn't say anything. Only his eyes spoke, and for once Avon didn't turn away or cover the moment with a sneer.

"I expected as much," Servalan told Blake. Avon had expected contempt from her, but there was none. She accepted his words and went on from there. "What I will offer you, Blake, is immunity during the crisis. On that you have my word, which I am prepared to register publicly."

"You are desperate, Servalan," Blake returned, a taint smile upon his face. "I accept that. Who defines the end of the crisis? What stops you from arresting me and announcing that the immunity ended the previous day? I seem to remember a war in history in which the date of the conqueror's reign was changed to the date before the final battle, so he could accuse his opponent's legitimate followers of treason."

Tarrant nodded as if he recognized the reference, and Avon's eyes narrowed slightly as he considered the younger man.

Servalan smiled smoothly. "An intriguing strategy, Blake. However, though you do not deserve it, I will give you one day past the destruction of the final Andromedan ship."

"Which news you will keep from us with every possible effort?" Jenna suggested.

"Why, Jenna, how can you say such a thing? Besides, who is to say that you will not see reason in the interval and come to accept my rule as the voice for order I intend it to be."

"Avon might disagree, but I am not impervious to reason," Blake replied. "When people are allowed freedom, when they are not constrained with suppressants and torture, when innocent people are not confined for the 'crimes' of their relatives, when all men are free to dream their own dreams, then, Servalan, and only then, will I accept your rule."

"I didn't come here for speeches," she said, "but to get terms. I think that has been done. Tissue samples will be made available to Orac. If you will fetch one further member of my crew, he will present you the necessary specimens."

"And the battle?" Tarrant asked. "You want the Liberator for its power. If it comes to a fight, you'll expect us in the front lines."

"As yet, there is no major battle. My fleet harries the Andromedans, destroying ships here and there. It keeps them from concentrating their drive toward Earth."

"The main fleet may be visible." Cally said, "But that doesn't mean others haven't made planetfall and assumed human form. There could still be an internal threat."

"I am aware of that," Servalan replied. "If Orac can design a detection device for us, we can prevent it. It is more important we have that than anything else. It is true we have lost many ships, but their own fleet is vastly reduced. Find me a means of detection and stand by to fight if it comes to that and you shall have immunity during the war." She rose. "If that is sufficient, I will return to my ship and give you instead Dr. Ketter."

"Give us Dr. Ketter?" Blake echoed blankly.

"Why, Blake, did I not make myself clear? Ketter is a biological specialist. He will bring the tissue sample and remain to work with Orac."

"No," returned Avon sharply.

"You said nothing about placing a spy aboard my ship," Blake returned accusingly.

"I am not concerned with spying," returned Servalan impatiently, flicking her skirts aside as she started to stride toward the exit. "I am concerned with saving the Federation. You may not believe this, Blake, but I do intend humanity to survive. I feel as strongly about this as you do."

Dayna spoke for the first time. "Without their survival, you'd have no more slaves."

"I believe in order, Dayna. To rule this vast, unwieldy empire of mine, there must be order. In the pursuit of that order, people must occasionally make sacrifices."

Dayna shot her a disgusted look. "Semantics," she muttered. "That's all it is."

"As the case may be," replied Servalan. "Our goals run parallel to each other for a time. Only a fool refuses to see reason when it stares him in the face. Ketter will join you. He is a scientist, not a politician, and his only goal is to stop the Andromedans."

"We will take him," Blake replied. "Temporarily." He looked around the flight deck, at each of his crew. "He will be guarded, Servalan. I'll allow him to do us no harm."

Avon snorted impatiently. Blake was no good at such things. If Ketter were conciliatory, Blake would be prone to trust him, and the actual guarding of the ship would be left to him and to others equally suspicious. In actual fact, Servalan was inserting a spy in their midst, no matter how skilled he might be in concealing it. Avon vowed that there would be on person on Liberator who would refuse to trust the newcomer.

*** *** ***

 

Blake knew Avon was furious about Servalan's latest scheme; it was a valid fury, but it was also something they could not as yet control. Servalan's message was clear; refuse to allow Ketter on board and be denied the necessary tissue samples. While they might acquire such samples elsewhere eventually, time was of the essence. Getting them now could mean the difference between survival and defeat. Blake decided to allow the man to join them temporarily. He would expect Avon to see that nothing went wrong.

Dr. Jon Ketter didn't look particularly threatening. He was a tall young man with a shaggy mop of light brown hair which he wore parted in the center. Sometimes, when he turned quickly, it would fall forward in his eyes, and they soon accustomed themselves to his shoving it back impatiently. He had the slightly stooped shoulders of a scientist who bent over his lab equipment his every waking moment, a rather absentminded air that would be a blessing to any spy, and warm brown eyes like a puppy's. His accent was educated; an Alpha, surely, but when introduced to Vila, whom no one could mistake for anything but the Delta he was, Ketter greeted him with the same pleasant smile he had given the others. He wore no gun, carrying only a large stack of specimen jars and record tapes balanced against his chest, a du"le bag dangling from the other hand. As a spy, he could have walked up to any top secret installation and been invited in for tea and secrets.

"This is an honor," he was saying earnestly to Avon, who regarded him with as much wariness as he would if he'd found a viper in his bed. "Not only working with you--I know about your computer studies, you see, and though I'm in a different field, some of my research recording is that much easier because of your technical programs. I wonder if you remember my father, Dr. Lenard Ketter?"

"Dr. Lenard Ketter?" Avon froze in complete astonishment. "You are related to Dr. Lenard Ketter?" He sounded as if he was saying, 'You are related to God?'

"Who's Dr. Lenard Ketter?" Vila asked. "Not that computer type who only talked to Ensor because nobody else could ever understand him? Smartest man in the Federation, was he?"

"One of the smartest," Avon sounded like he were grinding his teeth. "I took several of his classes. He was one of the few who not only knew how to teach but understood all the implications of what he taught. Perhaps Ensor had the more creative mind, but he couldn't convey it." He looked irritated as if he had been forced to revise his thinking about the younger Ketter. Blake knew it wouldn't make him lower his guard. If Lenard Ketter were as brilliant as that, Jon Ketter was even more likely to be a threat to them than Blake had imagined.

"I remember him talking about you," Ketter went on. "He was excited because he said he'd finally found a pupil who could see what he was talking about. He said one student like you made it all worthwhile."

Unguarded delight shone on Avon's face for a moment before he recollected himself. "He was an excellent teacher," he said flatly. "You didn't follow him in his field?"

"No. I'm happier with what I do," Ketter replied, but there was a faintly wistful note there as if part of him still regretted it. Blake didn't know if it were deliberate, an attempt to gain the sympathy of anyone with the wit to understand it, or just a moment of truth. In either case, Ketter was dangerous. Jenna was eyeing him with some slight maternal sympathy which caused Blake to hide a smile. Maternal? Jenna was certainly no older than Jon Ketter. Cally, too, regarded him with interest. Perhaps her Auron abilities might tell her something. Though she could not read minds, she sometimes had useful feelings about people and situations.

"And now, you are working for Servalan," Avon said cuttingly. Perhaps, he, too, had felt a moment of reluctant understanding for Ketter and meant to cover it up.

"Not entirely," Ketter replied. "Yes, she sent me here, and yes, I'm working with her, because we can't let these creatures take over Earth and the rest of the galaxy."

"She told you to watch us, didn't she?" That was Vila. "Spy on us and all. We know."

Ketter flushed, suddenly all youth and awkwardness as if he'd not reached thirty after all. "Well, I have to," he conceded. "I'm loyal and you're all terrorists. You don't look much like terrorists, though."

"Assuming you'd know one when you saw one." Avon smiled too brightly.

"He knows one," Cally reminded them. "He knows Servalan herself."

Ketter looked around as if he felt himself besieged. "Do you have lab space for me?" he asked.

"Yes, and we'll show you presently," Blake replied. "First there are precautions to be taken. Come along to the flight deck." He caught Avon's eye over the younger man's shoulder. "Did you think I'd allow him free rein, Avon?"

"Sometimes I am not sure just how much you will risk." But the malice Blake had half expected was absent from the quiet observation.

"Zen," said Blake when they entered the flight deck. "This is Dr. Jon Ketter. Tell Zen your name," he urged the doctor, pointing to Zen.

"My name is Jon Ketter, Zen," the young man replied obediently.

"You will monitor his presence on the ship," Blake instructed. "You will alert one of us should he attempt to damage the ship, plant explosive charges, plant homing devices or in any way threaten the smooth functioning of the Liberator. You will obey his commands only in time of crisis, should they be necessary to save the ship. You may also answer simple questions that do not relate to the functioning of the Liberator or to you."

+Confirmed.+

Blake was relieved that Zen had agreed to all of that. Though Avon looked like he was waiting for Blake to forget something important, he seemed satisfied with Blake's instructions. "We'll show you a cabin," Blake went on. "You can leave your gear there. Vila, take his samples to Lab 2."

"Vila, take his samples," the thief muttered in some irritation, grimacing as he got a closer look at the green substance in one of the sample jars. "Ugh. It won't ooze out and take me over, will it?"

"It's quite dead," Ketter assured him. "They wouldn't allow me a live one. But cheer up, Vila. I seldom work with live samples anyway. The most of that I'll be doing is to culture some tissue and introduce DNA samples from this." He finished loading the containers and tapes into Vila's arms. "Don't drop any of that, now. I don't think it would contaminate you, but it's better to take no chances."

"Contaminate me?" Vila echoed, horrified. "Someone come help me. I think I'm going to panic." Laughing, Tarrant began to pluck containers from the thief's arms. "Come along, Vila. Let's get these stowed away."

"See," Vila said pointedly to Avon, who had made no move to help. "Some people on this ship are human."

"Oh, I shouldn't count on it, Vila," Tarrant returned as they left the flight deck. "I simply didn't want to have to kill you if it came back to life and absorbed you."

Vila's anguished protest echoed back to them as they headed for the lab. Dr. Jon Ketter chuckled to himself. "You've an interesting crew, Blake. I'll certainly prefer it to the President and her mutoids."

"You don't like mutoids?" Cally asked him with interest.

"Like mutoids? I think it's a perversion."

"So it is," agreed Blake. "Why do you imagine the Federation does it?"

"To rid itself of the type of criminals who can't be reprogrammed," Ketter replied promptly.

"Doesn't the programming itself bother you?" Cally persisted.

"We shouldn't allow dangerous criminals to run loose. Crimos are a threat to any honest man."

"Well, he knows how to parrot the party line," said Jenna. "But we should have expected that." She sounded slightly contemptuous, and anything maternal had vanished from her voice.

Ketter noticed. "I suppose you'd allow them to run about unimpeded? If we can preserve the peace and protect the rights of the innocent..."

"The innocent have no rights," said Avon surprisingly. "If you heard of Blake's trial, you know of one miscarriage of justice. The charges against him were false."

"I know that," Ketter returned. "Child molesting? No, they did that to make sure Blake's rebel activities wouldn't be allowed to continue."

"Do you think that's right?" asked Dayna, studying him thoughtfully.

"I think someone overreacted. It's unfortunate, but no one seems to believe it any more. Blake is the hero of the rabble after all. The Deltas love him, and the oppressed..." His voice trailed off and he looked annoyed with himself. "Where's this cabin you're going to show me?"

Blake decided to leave it. If Ketter was to pretend to sympathize with them, it was a clumsy first attempt, but if he were really beginning to understand what Blake was fighting for, it was better not to push him too hard. He'd only argue back, defending what he'd been conditioned to believe. Blake wanted him to think for himself, and he'd do it better if left alone.

So he shot a warning look to the others, and took Ketter's arm. "Come on. I'll give you the ten credit tour." The silence of the others was loud as he left them.

*** *** ***

 

"He's very good, I think," Jenna said when Blake had gone. "That attitude strikes just the right note with us. Blake will try to convert him now. It's got to be a ploy, an attempt to gain our sympathy."

"I think so too," Dayna replied. "He can't see how illogical the things he said were. Servalan's got him ready to believe anything she tells him. He thinks we're all monsters, but he's going to pretend different. I don't trust him."

"Nor do I," agreed Avon. He went over to Orac, whose key had been left in place. "Orac, did you monitor the conversation which included Dr. Jon Ketter"?"

+Of course I did. Such a person could be a threat to me, and I took the precaution of informing myself on his background, training and experience, as well as evaluating his conversation on the flight deck.+

"He is working for Servalan, is he not?" Cally asked. She didn't know if that were true, but she was not prepared to say so yet. She was not certain what she felt, beyond an unspecified threat which mayor may not have come from Jon Ketter.

+Yes, he works for Servalan. She recruited him and assigned him the task of joining the Liberator crew. She knew that only someone with a very specific task to perform would be allowed on board this ship, and the task assigned to him is one which he can perform excellently. His rating as a scientist is very high, though not as high as my creator's or even that of his father, who was Ensor's inferior. In his field, he is as skilled as Avon is in his. He has written many learned papers which have been well received and his work in DNA structures of alien life forms is the pioneering work in the field. He has done cloning experimentation as well, though information on such is highly restricted and further data will take many hours to access.+

"Then leave it for now," Avon replied, "Though we may ask for it later. What of Ketter's politics?"

+He has shown no interest in politics to date,+ Orac replied. +Based upon records I have accessed, it is my considered judgment that Ketter has never given the political situation any concerted thought. You will note from his remarks that his political views are immature, in essence parroting the things he was taught. His life has been sheltered, as is the life of any top scientist whose work is productive for the Federation. He has never been exposed to suppressants. His every wish has been granted until now, when Servalan withdrew him from his own research and sent him here. Though he resents that, he believes, with a somewhat simplistic faith, that he is doing his duty to save humanity. Viscast tapes sent to an associate implies as much.+

"In other words, his life has been made easy both by his father's great success and his own successful work in a separate field," Avon replied. "He has never been exposed to Federation brutality and oppression. An innocent, in fact."

"Why should someone like that rebel?" asked Jenna. "He must have had it all. It's seldom that Alphas see past their own luxurious existence."

"You did," Dayna suggested.

"That was different."

Cally shook her head. "I don't believe we'll solve it now. What of Servalan's ships, Avon?"

"They've gone. We're going in the opposite direction." He frowned. "Orac, I expect you to monitor them and report any deviation. Also," he added as if as an afterthought, "Monitor all transmissions leaving this ship and report anything not instigated by one of the regular crew."

"In other words, watch out for Ketter," Dayna confirmed. "Maybe we'd better check him to make sure he's not an alien."

Cally nodded. "I shall suggest it to Blake." She left the others still speculating. The newcomer was likely to cause problems, but she wasn't certain what to do about it.

*** *** ***

 

Ketter's test proved him free of alien contamination, and he set up his lab with prompt efficiency. Once Orac had processed the Andromedan tissue samples, it correlated that knowledge with their prior test results. Unless the aliens altered their entire DNA pattern instead of just their superficial appearance, it seemed unlikely that one of the crew could be an alien. They were safe.

"Unless, of course, an Andromedan boarded the Liberator while the rest of us were gone," Avon suggested brightly.

Vila shuddered. "You're trying to scare me." When Avon didn't reply, he turned to glare at the tech. "I know you're trying to scare me. It's not nice of you, Avon."

Tarrant chuckled. They had all gathered on the flight deck, including Dr. Ketter, to set up work schedules to deal with the alien problem. "Zen," Tarrant called out. "Will you give us a report on all life forms presently on the Liberator."

Avon turned a slightly resentful face upon him as if annoyed at Tarrant's presumption, but the pilot stood his ground. He was a member of this crew now, whether Avon liked it or not and he meant to take full advantage of the fact.

+All members of the crew are presently on the flight deck.+

"That was not the question," Avon said smoothly. "Are there any additional lite forms which were never designated as crew members presently on board Liberator."

+Negative.+

Vila relaxed dramatically. "See, I knew you were trying to scare me."

"Not merely 'trying,' Vila," Avon purred, winning a sour look from the thief and amusement from the rest of them. But the tension had been broken. Only Ketter held himself aloof but that was to be expected.

Blake rose and walked forward, turning to face them, his back to the main screen. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."

"Work?" echoed Vila unhappily.

Blake ignored that. "I think we'll eventually be needed to fight the Andromedans, so I plan to avoid anything that would require a vast expenditure of power. It there is any truth in Servalan's words, we shouldn't need to fight the federation itself, though I won't accept it as a given."

"Surprising." Avon eyed Blake with some doubt. "I should have expected you to fall in with her alliance."

"I'm not the tool you think me, Avon," returned Blake sharply. "Why don't you, for once, listen what I have to say before you start finding fault with it. You just might be surprised."

Avon looked surprised now. Tarrant half expected him to make a sharp remark or stalk off in a huff, but he didn't. Instead he gave Blake a narrow-eyed stare and made a show of patience. "Proceed," he said with repressed sarcasm.

"Servalan feels she has us at a disadvantage," Blake continued. "In some ways she may be right, since she has put a man on Liberator. We've taken what precautions we can to deal with any threat that may arise from that. For now, the Federation fleet is harrying the Andromedans, whittling them down to a more manageable number. It we have to tight again, the odds won't be so overwhelming. That's why I want us ready for battle with all the power levels high.

"In the meantime, we'll research the aliens' metabolism with Ketter. That knowledge must be shared with people throughout the galaxy. There could be Andromedans on a number at planets by now, and with fleet strength down, we'll lack the force to make a planet by planet sweep to clear them away. That will have to be done later, but by then, a number of them will have assumed human form and be harder to detect."

"When I'm finished, we'll be able to detect them in whatever form they assume," Ketter put in. "That's the whole purpose of having me work with Orac and Avon."

"The rest of us don't count, I see," Vila piped up.

Ketter grinned. He looked like he'd already taken Vila's measure. "I didn't say that. You'll be very useful, Vila."

"Cleaning out beakers and such," Jenna told the thief.

Vila cast her a dark look then turned back to Ketter. "How will we detect them, then?"

"I'll devise some tests."

"Assuming the aliens will allow us to perform tests on them, that should be fairly efficient," Avon retorted, looking none too impressed.

"What I mean to do eventually is to devise a method of extermination. Some type of virus which can be introduced into the air or drinking water of a planet which will kill Andromedans without harming humans or the planetary ecology."

Blake hesitated. "Kill them out of hand?"

"I thought that was the whole point."

"Blake has a nagging conscience," Avon informed the biologist. "Never mind that these beings intended to wipe out humanity. Blake needs must give them a fair chance."

Blake frowned. "I know they must be killed," he returned. "I don't have to like wholesale slaughter."

"It was different when we used neutron blasters," Avon informed the assembled company informatively.

He and Blake exchanged looks of some irritation, then Blake shrugged. "I know you're right, Avon. I just don't like it."

"I see Blake's point," Tarrant volunteered. "I don't like it either, Blake. It smacks of mass murder, and that's the kind of thing that drove me out of Space Command."

Ketter shot him a startled and speculative look. The doctor was in for a rude awakening. Blake had cautioned them all that they were not to try to convince him to come over to their side but to be natural around him and let whatever facts fall that may. Ketter would resist a deliberate attempt to 'brainwash' him, but a more subtle approach might work. Blake wanted to win him over since they were committed to working with him for the duration.

"But I agree with Avon this time," Tarrant went on. "They attacked us ruthlessly. Their admitted plan is to wipe us out. We don't have the luxury of fighting like gentlemen. If we did, there'd soon be no humans left at all."

Blake nodded. "I know that. It just seems cleaner face to face in a space battle."

Tarrant respected Blake's ideals, but he was glad Blake had an Avon on his side. Though Blake could be as ruthless as the next man--Cally, Jenna and Vila had told him some interesting stories--he had a higher honor that attracted Tarrant. It was what he'd looked for in the military, deluded himself he'd found, but had finally been forced to concede was entirely missing. His desertion had been embittered by his disillusionment. Perhaps he had reacted the way he had to Blake because he'd still needed heroes. Blake wasn't perfect, but he possessed the ability to dream. Tarrant still held the seeds of bitterness and knew himself capable of harder behavior than Blake. But deep within were still remnants of the idealistic cadet who had meant to find glory in Space Command, to show his father and Deeta what great things he might achieve. Those dreams were dead now, but Blake could give him new ones. Tarrant was Blake's man.

That didn't mean he wouldn't question Blake if he had his doubts about the man's actions and Blake appeared willing to listen to his point of view. He offered it. "I agree. But we haven't that luxury."

Blake nodded, favoring Tarrant with a smile before he turned back to the biologist. "Then you'll continue with your research, Ketter. I know you want Avon's help. What can the rest of us do?"

"Besides washing beakers," Vila muttered.

"I'll draw up a schedule," the young doctor replied. "I'm told Vila has some computer expertise. That could be useful."

Vila perked up, casting a startled glance at Avon as he realized the tech was the only one who could have told the doctor. "My work requires some knowledge of computers," he said importantly. "Of course it's less detailed than his nibs', but if you need backup, I'm your man."

"Heaven help us," muttered Jenna, smiling.

Blake dispatched everyone to their tasks, and Avon scooped up Orac and fell into step with Ketter. Tarrant watched the younger man engage Avon in conversation as they left, and saw Avon responding quite naturally to him, though his posture suggested wariness. Better that Avon work the most closely with Ketter, since his naturally suspicious nature would not be affected by any liking he might feel for the biologist.

Blake had arranged workspace for Dayna to develop new weapons and now he and Jenna went along with her to see what she had in mind and what she'd achieved so far. It was Tarrant's watch, but Cally and Vila stayed on the flight deck with him. Cally set to checking the communications relays and replacing a panel here and there that needed adjustment. Vila made no pretense of doing anything at all but sprawling on the couch, sipping something green from a glass, and watching Tarrant.

The young pilot sighed inaudibly and began to run his own systems checks. He was glad it wasn't his place to deal with Vila, though he sometimes suspected the thief was tar shrewder than he wanted people to think. On that note, he grinned. "Vila. Come and help me with this."

Vila looked up, grimaced, and hesitated, evidently deciding if he wanted to defy Tarrant or not. He must have decided to avoid confrontations, for he shrugged, donned a put-upon expression and complied.

*** *** ***

 

The next few days accomplished very little. Tensions were high because of Ketter and what he represented, but he proved a pleasant enough companion, who did not feed them the party line for hours on end. He often seemed surprised at some remark or other, but he was more interested in his work than in recruiting the crew to join the Federation or even to convince them of the error of their ways. Avon approved of his lab techniques, worked very hard with him toward the goal of destroying the Andromedans, and watched him like a hawk. It was never Avon's way to trust his enemies, no matter how soft spoken and easygoing they seemed.

The lack of live samples put some constraints upon the doctor's work, but he was delighted with Orac and spent long hours closeted with the little computer, under Avon's dour supervision, setting up repeated tests. Sample jars and petri dishes littered his lab, and the room grew progressively more cluttered.

Vila was often recruited to set up tests with the doctor, adjusting the settings for various measurements. Since most locks were computer controlled and since Vila was a whiz with locks, he had a basic grounding in many systems, though his purposes were quite different than Avon's. He didn't develop programs, but he knew how to run them. So while Avon and Ketter devised various programs to measure the effect of poisons and toxins on the alien tissue samples, it was Vila who assisted the doctor to run them. Avon and Orac monitored the outcome, and both made suggestions.

Ketter also made use of anyone who came his way, to fetch and carry for him, to tidy away things he'd finished with, to listen to his theories, and generally to talk to when the day's work was finished. He worked long hours, and liked to unwind by chatting for a few hours in the evenings, ship's time, to whomever would listen. Avon tended to avoid the bull sessions, but the others often helped Ketter unwind. Mostly he talked shop, and Blake. who made an effort to monitor his progress, demanded a report at the end of each day. Tarrant seemed interested in the research, though it was clearly not his field, and Dayna appeared to like the young man though she distrusted his involvement with Servalan.

Tarrant seemed to enjoy listening to Ketter, too, asking about his research. He displayed a large general knowledge, and often produced some obscure fact that the rest of them didn't know. Jenna decided he had been well educated. She spent a lot of time with him running through the Liberator's systems, devising test programs to measure his piloting ability. So far, she hadn't confounded him though she'd come close a time or two. Technically, he was one of the best pilots she had ever seen, and he had an imaginative flair that took him beyond the merely competent and pushed him into the gifted range. Soon he developed a feel for the Liberator, working well with Zen. All he lacked was the hard practical experience Jenna had gained on her smuggling runs. Sometimes he fell back the book instead of relying upon his instinct, but not often. He watched Jenna closely, learning from her all the time, and gradually her resentment turned into a comfortable rivalry. Each of them had their own strengths, and while she was confident that she was the better pilot, it kept her on her toes to have sharp competition. Besides, he had a good grounding in Federation maneuvers and Academy theory that supplemented Jenna's own knowledge. Between the two of them, the Liberator was the best piloted ship in the galaxy.

Blake spent his time monitoring the Andromedan fleet. Jenna knew he had accepted the responsibility of defeating the Andromedans virtually singlehandedly, and that he would not rest while they wandered at large in the galaxy. It was he who had urged Ketter to suggest to Servalan when he sent her his weekly communique that the defense zone be reinstated as a protection from a second wave, should it materialize. Jenna was not surprised to find that Servalan had already taken such steps. The president was not one to let such things slip past her. She had installed detectors to sound an alarm if messages were transmitted in that general direction. Presumably the Andromedans had intended to send for backup, or possibly more of their species to colonize the galaxy if their invasion was successful.

It felt strange to encounter the odd Federation ship with impunity. The first time they'd picked up a Federation flotilla heading in their general direction, everyone had assumed battle stations and prepared for an attack, only to receive a communication from the captain in charge, reporting that there was no trace of Andromedans in the sector and asking if the Liberator had detected any ships on their patrol.

Tarrant had glanced at Blake for permission and, getting it, had responded with crisp military precision that they had seen no aliens this far out. It was with some disbelief that they had watched the flotilla pass them and retreat into distance.

"I don't like it," Vila announced. "They're lulling us into complacency, that's what they're doing. Lulling us."

"You have a truce," Ketter reminded them. "They know we're working on the Andromedan problem and that one of their own is on board."

"Do you seriously imagine your presence on this ship would save us should Servalan decide the truce was at an end?" Avon asked in some disbelief. Though he still regarded the young biologist with suspicion, he was the one who spent the most time with him, and he had begun to argue with him instead of simply ignoring his remarks as beneath his contempt. Jenna thought it was as close to acceptance as the younger man was likely to get.

"Of course," Ketter replied. "Servalan gave you her word. Besides, everyone knows what the Liberator risked for the rest of us. You fought to save us from the Andromedans. You've got friends on every ship in the fleet."

Avon snorted impatiently. "I sometimes wonder how someone with your naivete survived as long as he did in the present Federation system. Ivory tower idealism is a wonderful thing--while it lasts."

"What would you know about it?" snapped Ketter, for once fighting back. Avon grimaced.

"More than you think. Your father expected me to take my place in his lab, devoted to pure research. Do you believe I willingly turned my back on that offer to take a minor job in the Banking System?"

Ketter stared. "My father never understood that."

"Another idealist, to the bitter end. A man may not always choose his own career. One needs the proper connections to enjoy that liberty."

"You mean the Federation blocked you?" Ketter shook his head. "That wasn't how my father heard it. He heard you'd opted for something that promised rapid promotions and higher pay."

"Higher pay?" Avon laughed. "I never achieved one third your father's salary." He realized the others were staring and added abruptly. "I was considered political, though I wasn't. Only those who never question the system are allowed to achieve any degree of success."

"As I've long pointed out," Blake said quietly.

Avon turned very slowly and looked at Blake. "When you have convinced me that your actions can change the system, I might consider listening to you. Until then, I shall remain as I am." He turned abruptly and left the flight deck. Blake's face showed sudden comprehension that Jenna didn't understand, and he shook his head and followed Avon out.

Ketter looked around the flight deck. "I seem to have tread on his toes. I didn't mean that. My father thought he sold out to a special interest group. That's what we were given to understand. He always regretted it, but he never held it against him." That got everyone's attention, but Ketter shook his head. "No, that's Avon's business. I won't give away his secrets." He clammed up and returned to his lab, taking Vila with him, but later, when Vila appeared in the rest room, he knew no more about it.

*** *** ***

 

Three days later, the Liberator had its first encounter with Andromedans since the battle at Star One.

Jenna had been on watch when Zen reported ships at the edge of detector range. "Federation ships?" she had asked crisply, catching the eye of Avon, who was tinkering with the force wall under the 'helpful' eye of Vila, who was passing him his tools. About to slide under the console again, Avon halted abruptly, waiting for Zen's reply, Vila's outstretched laser probe ignored.

+Negative,+ Zen replied. +Ships in question match specifics of various vessels encountered near Star One.+

"Andromedan?" echoed Jenna. "Avon, is the force wall down?"

"It can be up in minutes." He vanished into the panel again and the motion of his legs suggested furious activity.

"Vila, summon the others," Jenna ordered crisply. "Then clear the neutron blasters for firing and put up the radiation flare shield."

The thief hurried to obey. As the six enemy vessels drew closer, the others came racing into the flight deck, taking their positions. Blake halted at the sight of Avon's legs. "Is the force wall down?"

"For the moment. We'd been clear and it needed monitoring."

"There were two panels near burnout," Vila volunteered uneasily. "It might not have held if Avon hadn't checked it. The auto repairs wouldn't have fixed them until they failed. Which would have been right in the middle of a battle."

"They're heading right for us, aren't they?" asked Dayna practically.

"With that many ships, they can take on single ships without much risk," replied Tarrant. "They'll likely recognize us when they get closer if they haven't by now. They won't ignore us, even if we can outfight that many of them. "

"Without the force wall?" Cally asked. "Zen, is there any way to assist Avon?"

+Negative. Panels must be installed manually.+

"Can you reroute around them to give us protection if the ships reach us before Avon is finished?" Blake asked practically.

+Negative. Rerouting would pass a charge through the area presently inhabited by Kerr Avon.+

"Failing to reroute might destroy the ship," came Avon's muffled voice.

"If you're suggesting I save the rest of us by passing a lethal charge through you, I don't like that idea very much," Blake returned. "Keep working and let us deal with the problem. Jenna, can you and Tarrant between you dodge any energy bursts they fire at us?"

"We can try. We can do it manually as well as Zen could do it on automatics. Zen, can the force wall be partially reinstated without risking Avon?"

+Negative.+

"Ships approaching," Tarrant reported. "Vila, lock in on them and report just before they come in range. What do we have on their own firing range?"

"It approximates Liberator's," Blake replied. "Some of their vessels had a longer firing range, some a shorter, and we found no consistent method for determining the difference."

"They've fired," Dayna reported. She was in Gan's old position, from which she could fire in tandem with Vila. "Bolt running."

"Avon..." Blake muttered urgently as Jenna maneuvered the ship expertly to avoid the bolt. "We'll get the flare of a near miss," she reported. "It might toss us about a little."

"Stand by for a shaking, Avon," warned Blake more loudly. Glancing around the flight deck, he saw a rather pale Ketter, who had probably not been under fire before, and barked, "Ketter. Get over there and hold Avon's legs steady when the thing hits."

The biologist leaped to obey. Jenna had no time to watch him to see if he were able to help or not, because she had to keep the Liberator steady enough for Vila and Dayna to return fire.

"Firing neutron blasters now," Vila announced. "Bolt launched and running."

"Steady, steady, it's going to hit--now!" Tarrant warned just behind her. His hand came down on her shoulder to keep her in place, since she couldn't release the controls to steady herself. Tarrant reached past her to brace himself against the edge of the console.

The near miss was far too near for anyone's liking. If Tarrant hadn't been holding her, Jenna would have been flung from her seat. Dayna went spilling sideways, crying out in sudden pain, and Vila blurted out in fear as he was tumbled head over heels. Blake sprawled on the deck, and Tarrant gave a yelp as Jenna came down accidentally upon his foot. All but lying down already to stabilize Avon, Ketter kept his hold, though they were flung about. A muffed noise filtered out from the console that might have been a protest from Avon.

Vila staggered up again, rubbing his forehead, blood beginning to drip between his fingers. He clawed his way back to his seat and looked down at the board. "Oh no. They've fired again. It looks dead on. Jenna..."

"I see it. Tarrant, hold me steady. I've got to do this just right."

Though Dayna sounded as if she were in pain, there was sudden excitement in her voice. "We got one! Vila, you did it!" On the main screen one of the ships blossomed then faded into nothing.

"We need that force wall," Blake cried. "Avon, how long?"

"One more panel," ground out Avon. "Let go, Ketter. I need room."

Jenna eased the Liberator gently into a new position, holding course long enough for Vila to target and fire. "Running," the thief announced, and Jenna guided the great ship carefully to avoid the second bolt.

It was a clean miss, to everyone's relief. But that relief was short-lived, as two of the ships fired simultaneously, and avoiding the twin energy bolts seemed impossible. Vila and Dayna fired several times in succession, targeting even as Jenna guided the ship into position.

"Two more clips," Avon called. "Stand by to put up the force wall. Ready...wait!"

"What's wrong?" cried Blake in alarm.

"I can't get it locked in. If It doesn't lock, the whole system will short out the moment we try to use it."

"We're about to be hit," Dayna burst out.

"I can't avoid it," Jenna cried. She pitched the ship forward into a steep dive, taking it down and below the line of fire, but they were too close. Now!" she cried.

Tarrant braced her once more and everyone else held on for dear life. Ketter dived at Avon's legs again, but the tech pulled himself free. "Let go. I'm almost there."

"Zen, put up the force wall the moment Avon finishes," Blake ordered.

The bolt struck the ship. It felt as if they had run into a planet, the whole ship jerking and shaking. The lights dimmed, flickered back, dimmed a second time. Vila lost his balance and went over backwards, and Dayna barely managed to kept her place. Jenna was flung backwards into Tarrant, and he let out a startled 'oof' as the breath was driven from his body.

The ship rocked violently from the second bolt's near miss, and Jenna winced as the back of her head came into abrupt contact with Tarrant's chin. He let out a wounded cry, then burst out, "Look at the screen."

Two more ships exploded and vanished.

"Avon?" Blake asked tentatively. He was rubbing his elbow as if he'd landed on it wrong, and a reddened place was forming on one cheekbone.

"They've fired again. All of them at once this time, Blake," Vila cried out in a frightened voice. "We can't take three more like that."

The lights stabilized at less than full strength. Cally sat up shakily, rubbing her head. Vila tired again, but Jenna doubted he could stop them before they fired again. One more hit before the force wall was in place would mean bad trouble.

In the strained silence on the flight deck, Ketter pulled himself to his feet, looked at the main screen, and sat down again, his face very white except for the beginning of a swelling around one eye. Avon's feet shifted abruptly, found purchase against the other angle of the couch, and his whole body tensed.

"They'll hit in ten seconds," Tarrant announced in a matter of fact voice. "Probably only one of them though." He sounded as if it hurt to talk. "Steady, Jenna," he added. "Hold this course and we'll avoid the worst of it"

"In place," Avon cried suddenly. "Go!"

+Putting up the force wall,+ Zen intoned. The ship rocked but without the intensity of the previous hit, and the lights dimmed again. There was a yelp from within the compartment and Avon jerked violently as if he had taken a charge through his body. Galvanized into action, Ketter grabbed Avon's legs and tried to ease him out.

Dayna whooped triumphantly as two more Andromedan ships exploded. "Let me have the last one, Vila," she demanded, waiting for a clear shot. "Last bolt away," she reported.

"It's turning tail," Tarrant noticed. "It's running."

"Don't let it get away," urged Blake.

"Don't worry, Blake," returned Dayna with a combination of excitement and triumph. "It won't."

"Blake!" called Ketter sharply. The stabbing note of fear in his voice slid into Jenna's chest and made her look at Blake as the color drained from his face. He vaulted over the couch like an athlete and knelt beside Ketter over Avon's limp form.

"Zen, shut down the force wall," ordered Jenna crisply. They didn't need to waste the power now. It would take enough power to run the final ship down and destroy it.

+Confirmed.+

Blake's shoulders set in a rigid line, then Ketter said something in a low tone and the two of them bent over Avon. Craning her neck, Jenna could see what they were doing. CPR. Avon had completed the circuit but he hadn't got out in time. Maybe he'd still been touching the last plate when he reported clear.

"I got him," Dayna exulted as the last ship exploded, but the atmosphere on the flight deck deflated her enthusiasm like a pricked balloon. "Avon?" she said in a small voice.

Ignoring the bleeding cut on his forehead, Vila shut down his position like an automaton and crept forward to peer at Avon, his face etched with fear. "Is he dead'?" he asked. Though Vila and Avon didn't seem to get on well, Jenna had often suspected their squabbles concealed a growing friendship. It had never been made as clear to her as it was now, as Vila stood there with no thought for his own injury.

Tarrant stepped back, rubbing at his chin. She looked up at him. "Thanks," she said. "If you hadn't held me, we might be space debris right now."

He wiped a smear of blood from the corner of his mouth. "You made me bite my tongue," he muttered.

"And skewered your foot. I'm sorry."

He essayed a faint grin then loped down to the front of the flight deck, where Blake gave Avon mouth to mouth resuscitation and Ketter worked on his chest. "Blake," the pilot volunteered quietly. "I'm good at that."

"Then take over," Ketter urged without breaking his rhythm. Blake, who knew what to do in theory but not in practice, waited until Tarrant was ready, then the two of them switched over. Blake sat back on his heels and waited for his breathing to steady.

Jenna took the Liberator down to standard speed and ordered Zen to shut down unnecessary systems. "Prepare a report on the state of the energy banks, and stand by."

+Confirmed.+

She went to Cally, who was still sitting on the floor. "Are you badly hurt?"

Raising her head, Cally looked at Jenna with some confusion. She must have been concussed, for her pupils seemed dilated.

"Where's Orac?" Jenna asked, feeling for Cally's pulse.

"In Ketter's lab," replied Vila.

"Then go fetch it and bring it to the medical unit. Cally has concussion. Who else is hurt?"

"Vila's bleeding," Blake observed.

"I'm all right," Dayna said. "Only bruised. I'll help Cally to the medical unit. Can you stand, Cally, or are you dizzy?"

"Dizzy," the Auron replied. "I will wait. I must know about Avon."

Vila hadn't stirred. Jenna looked at him sympathetically. "I'll get Orac and prepare the medical unit," she volunteered, only to halt in the doorway when Tarrant burst out, "He's breathing!"

Blake closed his eyes for a moment in relief and Ketter put his ear to Avon's chest. "Yes. His heart sounds normal. Let's get him to your surgical unit. I want to check him."

Though he was in fact a medical doctor, Ketter had never practiced medicine, confining his work to the lab.

Tarrant and Blake carried Avon to the medical unit while Dayna and Vila guided Cally. Ketter went after Orac and Jenna gave Zen orders to keep the watch before following the others.

*** *** ***

 

Blake sat quietly in the medical unit, a regeneration pad attached to his elbow and another over his old wound which had slightly broken open in the crisis. His bruised cheek throbbed in time with the beating of his heart and his body felt like it had been used for kickball practice, but the relief that filled him as he watched the steady rise and fall of Avon's chest made him forget his aches and pains. It had been a very near thing.

Zen had reported after the tact that the last clasp to hold the plate in place was faulty and would not quite latch.

"But Avon said it was fastened," Blake had protested. He had returned to the flight deck long enough to hear the power consumption reports and to learn that they had managed to drain several energy banks in the crisis.

+It was fastened,+ Zen confirmed. +It was also held in place manually by Kerr Avon.+

Blake stared at him blankly, and Tarrant, who had been released by Ketter after a routine scan, and who was seated at the pilot's position, looked up in astonishment. "But he knew he'd receive the charge through his body!"

+He did not receive the entire charge through his body,+ Zen replied. +The circuit was closed. He received the backlash of the faulty clasp. The entire charge would have killed him.+

"This nearly killed him," Blake reported. Only the instant CPR had kept Avon alive and free of brain damage.

+It is possible for a human to recover from a charge of the magnitude endured by Kerr Avon. It is not possible for any living being to survive having the total energy of the force wall pass through his body.+

"Did he know that?" Blake asked.

+That information is not available.+

"He knew," Tarrant replied. "He had to."

"Yet all of us are alive--and only Avon was at serious risk if he did it. If he didn't, we'd all have died." Blake smiled a little. "You're all right, Del?"

Tarrant nodded. "Short of having the breath knocked out of me and nearly biting off my tongue, I'm just fine. I'll handle things here. You go and wait in the medical unit. How's Cally?"

"Concussed. She'll feel better tomorrow."

"And Vila?"

"Now the crisis is over, he's noticed he was hurt. According to him, he came near having his head cut off, and singlehandedly saved the day."

"I hope he tells Avon that," Tarrant returned.

Blake chuckled as he returned to the medical unit, where he found Ketter putting the finishing touches on Vila's cut head and fastening a healing pad in place. Cally, conscious but still groggy, turned her head cautiously as Blake entered. "Is the danger past, Blake?" she asked. "Yes. Get some sleep, Cally. Zen reports no further Andromedan ships in this sector, and Orac has cross checked with any Federation ships within five systems. This is one of those times when it is an advantage to be on terms with them. We'll sit here and recharge our energy banks while everyone recovers. Are you all right, Dayna?" The young weapons tech looked up from her position beside Avon. "I'm all right, Blake. Only bruised."

"Then I suggest you get some sleep. I'll stay here for a bit."

"You'll stay here quietly, Blake, and not try to overdo," Ketter cautioned him. "You've been too active. You've never given that wound a chance to heal up properly. I'm going to strap your arm down for the time being. These tissue regenerators are wonderful. I'd like to spend some time studying them when the crisis is over. In the meantime, you can stay here and wake Cally from time to time. I'll run some test programs without Orac. I'll leave him here and he can wake you if you doze off, or else he can wake Cally."

"What of Avon?" Blake asked, casting a fond look at the unconscious man now that he couldn't see it. There were still times when he found himself smarting from the savage sting of Avon's words on the way to Star One. He had truly believed that Avon hated him then, but now he knew it had never been true. Avon might have wanted free of him, but perhaps he had wanted free of the obsessed stranger that Blake had become. His actions today spoke of a change in Avon as well. He would probably say it was a miscalculation on his part that had saved them all or that he believed himself shielded from the charge. He might even attack Blake for ordering Zen to activate the force wall too soon or claim that his actions were solely to save himself. Blake would let him. What mattered was that Avon had done it--and that he had survived.

Ketter shooed Dayna out, ran one more check on Vila before sending him off to bed--"And no adrenalin and soma, Vila, not with a head injury."

"You do take the fun out of things, Jon," Vila complained, but he went obediently, looking back at Avon over his shoulder with wide, worried eyes.

Ketter grinned at Blake. "I sent Jenna off to rest too. We seem to be stable and unthreatened at the moment, and there isn't a person on this ship who isn't black and blue."

"Including yourself. How did you ever manage that shiner, Jon?"

Ketter grimaced. "Avon kicked me."

Blake was still chuckling when he left. That was three hours ago, and since then, he'd been dozing in his chair. Cally revived each time he woke her, and seemed alert, though she complained of a headache and some nausea.

She was sleeping when Avon finally stirred, gave a heart-rending groan and forced his eyes open. For a long moment, he stared blankly at the ceiling, then he turned his head very cautiously as if he were afraid it would drop off. His eyes fell upon Cally and he made a hasty and quickly aborted movement toward her.

"Easy, Avon," Blake cautioned, resting a hand on his shoulder.

Turning carefully in Blake's direction, Avon regarded him in some confusion. "Blake?" he ventured after a few moments of blank staring. He squeezed his eyes shut then opened them again. "I presume I completed the force wall in time?"

"Just in time, Avon. Do you remember what happened?"

"Zen said it would discharge through my body if I wasn't out of there? Is that it, Blake? Did one of you get overzealous and decide losing one of us was better than losing everyone?"

"No. Someone decided to hold the panel in place because the last clip was defective."

Avon's face colored slightly and he dropped his eyes. "It seemed a safe enough risk," he remarked. "The clip was insulated and the system enclosed."

"The clip's insulation was faulty," Blake replied. "You received an electric shock strong enough to stop your heart."

Quite taken aback, Avon was startled into looking down at himself as if to make certain he was intact. It was an act so characteristic of Vila that Blake had to bite back a smile. "What of Cally?" Avon asked, changing the subject abruptly. "Is she badly hurt?"

"She has a concussion. She'll be fine. Vila suffered a cut forehead and the rest of us are bruised and shaken."

Avon turned back to Blake, eyeing him pointedly. "I see. Bruised and shaken?"

"My wound broke open," Blake replied. "Jon says it will be better tomorrow."

"Then why aren't you resting?" Avon asked suspiciously. "Because someone needs to wake Cally periodically and I was the most easily spared."

"I see. And the Andromedans?"

"Destroyed."

"Has anyone considered backtracking their course to see if they've established a base in the immediate vicinity?"

Blake shook his head in disgust. "It didn't occur to me."

"Then I suggest you get on it. It you don't mind, I plan to sleep."

"How do you feel?"

"Rather as if someone has been kicking me about." Avon grimaced and closed his eyes. He tell asleep immediately. Blake sat watching him carefully until his breathing evened, then, satisfied, he went to awaken Cally once more. Avon would be all right.

*** *** ***

 

It took three days for the crew to recover completely. Avon insisted on getting up the next morning though he was obviously a little shaky on his feet. Blake favored his arm at first, but he was careful with it, and Ketter decided not to chide him about it. Instead he watched the rebel leader unobtrusively to make sure he didn't overdo. It surprised him that Avon did it, too, even more unobtrusively. Vila whined and fussed about his injury when he thought it would gain him sympathy and ignored it completely the rest of the time. Cally stayed in the medical unit until she was able to get around without dizziness, then she quietly resumed her duties, pacing herself carefully for the next few days. Jon could have wished all his patients were so cooperative.

Strangely, he was beginning to like these people. He had been unhappy at his assignment to them, though questioning the president had never occurred to him. Only as he grew to knew the rebels on the Liberator did it dawn on him that questioning his orders might not be such a bad thing. He still believed the Federation was in the right, that order and discipline were necessary and that Blake's ideas would only lead to anarchy. To rule such a vast empire, it was necessary to face some restrictions, and Jon had never minded them, such as periodic food shortages, long waits for public transportation, some restrictions of news viscasting, and controls on employments. He had been raised to believe that Alpha grades deserved the privileges they were granted because they worked hard, using their intellects to better society.

Jon's father had been a great man, showered with favors, rank and privilege. Federation officials and military personnel jumped when he requested tools and equipment, and Jon had always believed it was his due. Jon himself worked hard in his chosen field, desirous of being as famous, as skilled, as respected as his father, and he had felt it only proper to have access to the equipment and research materials he needed. The Federation had always benefitted from his work, after all. The Delta grades did necessary work, but their contribution was menial and obviously they did not merit as high a salary or as luxurious housing. Delta grades expected no more, deserved no more. Or so Jon had believed until he came face to face with the first Delta grade he had ever really known personally, Vila Restal.

Ketter had been polite to Vila, for he felt he should treat all men equally. He had expected Vila to be gratified, but VIla had not even noticed the biologist's condescension, acting as it nothing was new. Jon had watched him interact with the others, including Kerr Avon, his father's most brilliant student, and he had been astonished to see Avon treat Vila as it he were a friend and an equal. At first Jon had believed Avon's putdowns were a sign of condescension, but when Vila retaliated gleefully without punishment, he began to wonder. It surprised him to realize Avon did not consider Vila inferior because of his grading. Though Avon never hesitated to find fault with any of his companions, including Ketter hiaself, it had nothing to do with rank. Vila was very intelligent, and Avon appreciated that.

None of the others picked on Vila for his grading either, not even Tarrant, the former Federation Space Captain. Finally, Jon began to wonder if his natural assumption of superiority was a form of snobbery. When he discovered himself enjoying Vila, he began to wonder if this was a result at Blake's rebellion, and whether it was a good thing or not.

In general, he didn't like the idea. He had worked hard for what he had and didn't want to be told he must share it with someone who hadn't earned it. It dawned on him that he was an intellectual snob. Perhaps that was why he found himself appreciating Avon so much--he could understand Avon's motivations. Avon had come to know Vila, realized Vila was highly intelligent, though he didn't always act it, and had accepted him for what he was, not what he was rated.

Ketter decided he didn't know enough about Blake's aspirations. None of the crew had tried to convert him, though he had realized Blake was restraining himself with a considerable effort. While Jon wasn't quite ready to encourage him, he decided to consider the things he saw more seriously. There was no point in mentioning any of this to Servalan. At the moment, they were all on the same side anyway.

Avon had suggested backtracking the six attacking vessels to look for an Andromedan base in the sector. For the first few days, they stayed where they were, recovering from their injuries while the Liberator recharged its energy banks. Orac was conscripted to backtrack the Andromedans and to locate planets along their projected course. Ketter included a description of the battle and their plans to look for Andromedans in his next report to Servalan, who asked to be kept informed of any potential Andromedan contamination. She also demanded progress reports on Ketter's tests.

The tests were proceeding slowly, hampered by the lack of living tissue upon which to experiment. Ketter found any number of methods of killing Andromedans, but all of them had an adverse effect upon humans. Though there were large differences in their basic genetic structure, the aliens had several similarities to human DNA. It were these similarities which allowed the invaders to assume human form. Testing proved that the Andromedans made some changes in their body chemistry when they altered form. Less than a complete change, it was far more thorough than he had first imagined, making it all the harder to devise a method of exterminating them.

It did, however, give Avon enough information to modify the teleport. The device memorized a person's basic structure when it teleported them up or down. The bracelet made the actual move possible, breaking down and reassembling the body's molecules. The crew's basic patterns were recorded in the teleport itself, and he designed in a failsafe, allowing for certain minute variations caused by injury and illness. The variation created by the assumption of that particular human's form was far greater, and, using Ketter's test results, Avon set to work to prevent teleportation if the subject differed too wisely from the norm. It would not affect routine functioning of the teleport, but if an Andromedan captured and absorbed one of the crew, it would not be teleported.

"Will it work?" Blake asked as Avon reported his preliminary design complete.

"It should. I'll test it when we reach a suitable planet."

"Excellent. It won't protect us completely--but it will prevent them from taking over this ship." He turned to Jon, who had been working with Avon. "What about your detectors? Any progress?"

"I think I've got that. I've been running tests. It's still fairly rough and I'd like time to perfect it, but I've designed a scanning device that should give us an inexact reading." He sighed. "We've started producing them. I want everyone equipped with one eventually." He heaved a sigh. How different this was from his own work, and how much he missed it. Yet this had its own excitement, and the challenge of working with different people who were not academics. It added spice to his life.

"We'll have a prototype in another three days," Avon replied. "The only difficulty will be finding an Andromedan to test it upon. Has Orac found a likely base for those six ships?"

"Four of them," Blake replied. "I think we'll need to take them one by one."

"And test every resident one by one?" Avon asked skeptically, shutting down the teleport section.

"Zen is capable of thorough scans of planetary surfaces, if we set up the tests properly," Blake replied. "I'm wondering if there isn't a way to design your scanner into the Liberator itself. If we can scan from orbit, we can pinpoint alien concentrations and deal with them far more easily."

"It should be possible," Avon replied. "I can design a link to cross-access the necessary information. I'll discuss it with Zen." He set off for the flight deck, full of enthusiasm.

Blake looked after him with some fondness. "He seems to be enjoying himself."

"He's using his skills," Ketter replied. "It always helps. What about you? Avon says you're a competent engineer. I still think we'll need hand held scanners, to carry with us whenever we make planetfall. Do you think you could design a format for something to wear on our belts? Maybe even with an alarm that beeps when we encounter an Andromedan? How small do you think you could make something like that?"

"It depends on the amount of circuitry it's expected to carry," Blake replied thoughtfully. "Let's go along to your lab and I'll see what I can do."

Ketter grinned. Blake seemed to be enjoying himself as much as Avon was. It was a pity the rebellion took all his time. Maybe Jon could find ways to use his other talents from time to time to give him a break from fighting his personal war.

He caught himself, frowning. That sounded as if he meant to stay on the Liberator. He knew he didn't. Once the Andromedan threat was over, it was back to his own laboratory for him. Probably Servalan would start hunting Blake again. After this war, he and Blake would be enemies.

*** *** ***

 

The four planets along the projected course of the Andromedan ships were all in the Sarin system, all capable of supporting life. Two of them had been settled in the Old Calendar, and the other two had been colonized by the first two, one apiece. The system was divided into two separate and opposing governments, both technically ruled by monarchs. Sarin Prime, the third planet was ruled by Patriarch Montar, a middle aged man who was reputed to be hard as nails and who had resisted Federation involvement in his system. He had worked out a deal with various free traders, who maintained a thriving trade between Sarin Prime, its sister planet Sarin 4 and other worlds in the sector.

The Patriarchy considered itself the traditional enemy of Sarin Minor and its colony world Gorlan, ruled by Justicar Fella, a woman in her mid forties who viewed Montar her arch foe. The people of Sarin Minor were devoted to their planet and to maintaining it in its natural state, where Sarin Prime was a high tech world. Sarin Minor maintained a sophisticated fleet of starships and its capital city, Adilla, was a marvel of modern technology, but beyond the city, life was simple.

Several centuries of hostility existed between the two systems and no matter which the Liberator approached first, the other would resent it. Since a choice must be made, Blake elected to go to Sarin Prime first. The Liberator achieved orbit without fanfare, the entire crew gathered on the flight deck. As yet, the new detection system had not been linked with Zen for planetary detection. The work had been begun but it was not yet ready for testing.

There were no Andromedan ships in orbit and the ships they did find appeared to be going about their business tree of hindrance. A contact came from the surface immediately demanding to know who they were and what their business was with the Patriarchy.

"This is Roj Blake of the Liberator. We're checking planets for traces of Andromedans."

"Andromedans?" The voice sounded startled. "This far into the galaxy? Have you traced any Andromedan ships here?"

"Not exactly," replied Blake. "But a projected course could lead here. We request a meeting with Patriarch Montar."

"I'll pass the word along. The Patriarch takes a keen interest in galactic affairs, and the entire planet supports you in your resistance."

"Thank you," replied Blake, startled. "But the most important thing now is to prevent the Andromedans gaining a foothold in the galaxy."

"Yes. We've always kept the Federation away from here, so the Patriarch might see you. Wait and I'll contact the palace." They expected a long delay while the wheels of bureaucracy cranked along at its usual snail's pace, but contact resumed in ten minutes. "Liberator, this is First Minister Jolak. The Patriarch is eager to meet with you, Blake. We'll give you coordinates and you're welcome to use your teleport device to come down and meet with him. Bring as many of your people as you feel necessary. We knew there was an Andromedan threat, but we didn't expect it to touch us here."

"We'll be down shortly," Blake replied, noting the coordinates. He signed off and looked around the flight deck. "Well, opinions?"

"Likely a trap, Blake," Avon replied. "Planetary governments are not usually so eager to see you."

"The circumstances are different now, Avon," Jenna corrected. "The fleet is in disarray. A planet that welcomes us is less likely to face reprisals. Sarin Prime has never liked the Federation."

"I think it's to our advantage to get the Patriarch behind us," Tarrant agreed with Blake. "We'll have an immediate opportunity to test the planetary leaders themselves. Were I an Andromedan, I'd want as high a position as possible. I say we go for it."

"It sounds like you're trying to make deals behind the Federation's back," objected Ketter. "It will go into my report to Servalan."

"Then come down and see what I do," Blake returned. "But keep a low profile. These people hate the Federation. I hardly need use recruitment speeches here. At the moment, we've something urgent to do, and that's what I plan."

"You're still laying the groundwork for allies afterwards," the biologist objected.

"I should leave him on the ship if I were you, Blake," Avon objected. "He'll undermine you down there."

"I think he has too much sense for that," Blake replied easily. "Besides, we'll need him to run the tests. It will be your job to watch him, Avon."

Avon nodded. "And to watch your back, something at which I've had a great deal of practice."

"You stay here, Jenna," Blake told her. "You can take the Liberator off-station if something should go wrong. Vila, you' II operate the teleport. Dayna, stay here too. Cally, Tarrant, you're with us."

The landing party materialized in a spacious courtyard open to the air. It was spring in the capital city, the air fresh and sweet smelling from the banks of flowers that ringed the courtyard. Pillars in the neo-classical style ran along three of the four walls. The other opened into a vast hall, and it was from there that a party of tour men approached them eagerly. Two of the men were bodyguards, the other two obviously planetary officials. Their garb was typical of any Federation planet, but one of them, a hard faced man of middle years, wore a great golden chain around his neck with a round medallion dangling at mid-chest. It was this man who stuck out a hand to Blake in greeting. Evidently he had recognized him. "Blake? I'm Montar." The harsh lines smoothed away to display a genuine warmth. "This is indeed an honor. In the past year I've given some serious thought to contacting you. The Federation grows tedious, and now that it's weakened could be the ideal time to strike."

"I couldn't agree with you more," Blake replied enthusiastically. "Except for one thing, Patriarch. The Andromedans."

"Yes, we've had reports of their incursions. Why not leave them to the Federation while we consolidate our own power base?"

"There's a good reason why not," Ketter said hotly. "What do you know of the Andromedans?"

"This is Dr. Ketter," Blake Introduced, taking the time to make his own people known to the planetary leader, who retaliated by introducing the second man as Minister Jolak, and designating the other two as 'my escort.'

"Come into the Hall, and I'll give you refreshments," the Patriarch offered, leading the way inside, where a table was spread with a lavish repast. "Please, help yourselves."

"It Is a good thing," Avon muttered to Cally with a gesture at the table, "that we didn't bring Vila."

Blake grinned before turning to the Patriarch again. "Dr. Ketter represents the Federation," he explained. "While my position toward Federation repression hasn't changed, we must work together now. You see, the aliens are shapechangers, capable of assuming the forms of specific people."

The Patriarch, whose face had darkened at the news of Ketter's identity, relaxed into deep thought. "If true," he said, "It is indeed a grave threat. Can you prove your words?"

"Avon has witnessed it firsthand."

"As have I," Cally replied. "At least, I did not see the actual transformation, but I saw the body of one I had believed human after it was shot. It had resumed its own form, a disgusting, green slimy creature, almost formless."

"I witnessed the actual transformation," Avon explained. "I was under attack and I fired. The body fell, then it began to change." The look on his face was thoroughly convincing.

Montar frowned. "I don't like the sound of any of this. It goes against nature. Have you biological reports on the aliens?"

"That is Dr. Ketter's field. He brought us tissue samples and reports of his studies. We also have the means to check anyone you wish, to determine if Andromedans have insinuated themselves into your household."

"What, here on Sarin? Nonsense!" Then he caught himself. "But it isn't nonsense, is it, Blake? Run your test on me first. I want my people to have proof that I am who I claim to be."

"I strongly disagree, Patriarch," Jolak protested. "The nerve of these people, to suggest such a thing. They may be skilled assassins. How do you know this man is really Blake?"

"I recognize him," the Patriarch replied. "I've followed his career. Of course he could be an impostor. Define the parameters of your test device and use it first upon yourself. Under those conditions, I will agree to be tested, as will the rest of my household."

Jolak looked unconvinced, but he was silent while Ketter explained the device's function, and tested it upon Blake and the other members of the party, finishing with himself. He produced a sample of Andromedan tissue from his supply case and ran a test on it, showing the results to the Patriarch and his Minister. "Does that satisfy you, sir?"

"You appear to know your stuff," replied Montar. "A pity you're on the wrong side. Test me now. I'm ready."

"I protest, sir." Jolak's face held outrage.

But the Patriarch waved aside his objection and motioned for Ketter to start. Both he and Avon watched the device give out its reading. "The Patriarch is human within the specifications of the test," Avon announced.

"Do Jolak next," Montar urged. "Show him it's harmless. You see, Jolak, I am unharmed."

"We don't know that, Patriarch. I resist this test."

"Don't resist too strongly, old friend, or I will wonder about you," Montar said in a gently teasing voice. "Have I sheltered an alien in my own cabinet?" He smiled mockingly. "What are these visitors to think if you do not cooperate with them?"

"That I demand my privacy and my dignity as a human being."

"Test him," Montar ordered. "I will have no one in my household refuse the test--or defy my orders." A thread of hardness wove its way into his voice.

"No!" Jolak jumped backward as if in panic, but before Ketter could raise the device, the Minister drew a gun and aimed it at the biologist.

"Look out," Blake cried, shoving Ketter aside. The device went flying from the young man's hand, but Jolak made no effort to pull his shot. He fired anyway, and Blake uttered a choked cry and fell. Avon's gun spoke at the same moment, striking the Minister who collapsed without a sound. Then everyone drew back in varying degrees of alarm and repulsion as the his body shivered, bubbled, and transformed itself into a formless blob upon the marble floor.

"He's an Andromedan," Tarrant cried.

"I want a sample," Ketter said quickly. "Maybe it's still alive." He dove forward, pulling instruments and containers from his pouch.

"Blake?" Avon spun around to join Cally who knelt beside Blake's body. His face pale, he looked as shaken as Blake felt.

Blake stared up at Avon in dumb surprise, unable to frame words. He felt pain run up and down his side, but he was alert enough to hear Avon's question and understand what was being said.

"It is not serious, Avon," Cally reassured him in a gentle voice. "He was moving and only caught the backlash. It's a nasty burn, but it will heal cleanly. Do you hear me, Blake? You'll be fine. Don't try to move just yet."

"I doubt I could," he managed. "But I'm...all right, Avon."

Avon stared at him a moment longer, his face unrevealing, then he scooped up the test scanner and activated it, pointing it at the two bodyguards. From the look on his face, they tested human. As Blake watched, the two of them holstered their weapons which they'd drawn when Avon fired, eyed each other uneasily, and goggled at the body of what they'd believed to be the First Minister.

"I can't believe it," Montar burst out, shaken to the core. "Blake, I can't apologize enough. I'll summon the surgeon. We'll do everything we can for you. On my own staff! I can hardly believe it. Only this morning we reminisced about our boyhood together."

"The Andromedan takes information from the human it replaces," Avon told him. "It sucks the body dry and leaves a shell. In its place is an Andromedan who knows a great deal about that particular human. It can operate equipment, function among that person's friends. Now do you understand the urgency of the situation?"

"Urgency! It's a disaster. Why anyone could be taken over. It's appalling."

"Patriarch, may we take Blake back to our ship?" Cally asked. "We have the means of treating his wound there. He will be well tomorrow."

"Yes, of course, you must do that. But I would request some of your detection equipment. If my First Minister could be taken, there's no telling how many people here have been affected."

"Patriarch," Blake managed to say, "I think they took Jolak because they could not get at you. We have no way to scan the planet as a whole, though we hope to incorporate such equipment into our ship in a matter of days. If we could stay in orbit and continue testing, we would be grateful."

"Of course, Blake. But don't worry about that for now. Go and have your wound treated. If I might keep several of your people to test my household, I would be grateful."

"Avon and Ketter, would you stay?" Blake asked. He suspected Avon would prefer to keep busy to avoid worrying and pretending unconcern while Blake's wound was treated. Besides, the two men worked well together, and Avon was best equipped to watch the young Federation doctor.

Avon gave Blake a sour grimace, tempered by the restraint he sometimes used when Blake was hurt. Later, when he returned to the ship and Blake was bandaged and recovering, Avon would favor him with scornful criticism, but now he only nodded abruptly. "Go back to the Liberator, Blake. We shall continue the testing." He rested a brief hand on Blake's shoulder before climbing to his feet.

"l could stay too," Tarrant volunteered, "In case there are more of them down here."

Blake nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Del."

Cally raised her bracelet and called for teleport and the last thing he saw before the ship came around him was Avon watching him soberly.

*** *** ***

 

The Patriarch arranged the testing with enthusiasm and firmness, summoning his people by sections, and ordering them to proceed in an orderly manner through the Hall of Audiences. He did not explain the purpose of the test, which Avon thought was wise, and no one asked. The staff of the Palace came through the audience hall in a line, from the lowliest to the highest ranking, pausing one by one for Ketter to run his detection device over them. Avon stood behind him, his gun in his hand. Opposite him, the Patriarch's bodyguards, also armed and ready, waited patiently to defend their sovereign from the threat of aliens. Tarrant held his gun as well, looking dangerous enough, and though Avon found the young pilot far too enthusiastic, he appreciated the backup now.

"l don't understand it," Ketter said to Avon as he worked.

"What is it you do not understand?"

"Blake. He saved my life. If he hadn't pushed me aside, I might have been killed. Yet I tried to sabotage his plan of an alliance with Montar."

"Blake often acts without thought," Avon returned. He hated it when Blake risked his life in some new idiocy, and he resented Ketter for being the cause of it this time.

Ketter studied him consideringly. "l know you're angry because I put Blake at risk, but I never meant it. I've never been under fire before, Avon. I had no idea what it was like." He shivered. "At least not personally, man to man. I didn't have time to panic when the Andromedans attacked us--Blake ordered me to keep you steady and I just did it. But face to face is different."

"lt comes down to you or your enemy," Avon replied, realizing how shaken the other man was. The last thing he needed was to have Ketter lose control. "Blake is quite prepared to risk his life nobly for someone else."

"You wouldn't have done it?" Ketter asked curiously.

"I prefer to attack rather than defend whenever possible. Had I been Blake, I would have fired first."

Ketter turned away from the equipment as one of the kitchen staff was tested and proven human. "You did fire," he remarked. "But not first." He eyed Avon consideringly. "Or perhaps you would have fired first if the main threat had been to Blake."

Avon shook his head. "He was faster than I expected."

Ketter nodded. "I think their reflexes are lightning quick. You and Blake moved at the same time. He's important to you, isn't he?"

"Blake is a fool."

Ketter ignored that. "I never could understand why anyone would follow him. I knew he was a resistor, but I thought him no more than a charismatic terrorist. Yet I don't sense that in him. Something draws people to him, even people like you. Even Tarrant, who started out to take the Liberator for himself. I think he might have done it if Blake hadn't been there. Now he follows Blake, though he's the last person I should have expected to join Blake's crusade. I'm drawn to him myself."

"Servalan will appreciate that."

Ketter put up a hand to halt the next testee, made a slight adjustment to the device, and frowned, then his face cleared. "You're of the Auronar," he informed the man, who looked like a scholar or librarian. The planes and angles of his face resembled Cally's, but his hair was fair and straight.

At the question, the Auron smiled faintly. "And if so?" he asked.

"One of our crew is also from Auron," Ketter explained.

"Cally," agreed the man. "I know of her. My people consider her a deviant for her rebel activities, but I wonder. It has been a long time since I was last on Auron. Perhaps I should communicate with her."

"She might value that," Avon replied. "She finds it difficult among humans, who can't use telepathy." He wasn't sure why he made the suggestion, except that he had seen a wistful expression flit across Cally's face from time to time when she thought no one was looking. If she must be stranded among humans, she had picked a standoffish group among whom to live.

"I'll do it," the Auron replied. "Thank you. You must be Kerr Avon. I've followed the Liberator's progress since we first heard of Blake and the ship. My name is Dalid." He smiled at Avon with a warmth like Cally's and Avon felt the man's enthusiasm reinforced through his telepathy. He did not shake hands, for that was not the way of a telepath among non-telepaths. Nodding at Ketter, he passed along, making way for the next person.

It took several hours to test the residents of the Patriarch's palace, and no other Andromedans were found there. While the testing continued, a tape of various Andromedan ships was shown to the Patriarch and to those whose duty it was to control the spaceport. Montar returned to report that three possible Andromedan ships had spent a week on Sarin Prime, departing just six days ago. It seemed likely that they had been part of the fleet that had encountered the Liberator.

Avon reported it to the ship. It could mean there were other Andromedans on the planet, but they could not hand test some seventy five million people. "We must remain here until we can complete the planetary detection device," Jenna suggested, her filtered voice concerned.

"Is Blake all right?" Ketter asked, raising his own bracelet. He glanced over at Avon as if suspecting he would not have asked, no matter how much he wanted to know.

"Yes. Cally has him in the medical unit and means to keep him there, though she says it was not a serious wound. He's been through a great deal with his previous wound. I think we'd all like to make sure he's completely recovered this time."

"We should restrain him," Avon retorted sourly. "He will certainly find new ways to injure himself the moment he is freed."

"Why, Avon, I didn't know you cared," Jenna purred sweetly.

"Only because his risks put the rest of us in danger," Avon said flatly.

Tarrant came in with the tape, the Patriarch at his heels. "Well, Avon, we've made a definite identification of three of the ships that attacked us," the pilot confirmed.

"We're grateful to know they won't be returning," Montar added, clapping Avon on the shoulder with enthusiasm. "You and your people have been a tremendous help to us." His fervor faded. "I still can't believe Jolak is dead. We were as brothers. We need further devices for testing."

"We plan to install a tester on the Liberator which can scan an entire planet," Ketter informed him. "It might take several days to complete, though the work is begun."

"There is also the question of the other three ships," Tarrant added. "If three of them were here such a short time ago, the other three cannot have been far away. The other planets in the system, for instance."

"Sarin Minor?" Montar asked with every evidence of enthusiasm, then he grew serious. "Fella and I have been enemies a long time, but this is a threat I would not even wish upon her. You will offer her the same testing as you have done us?"

"Blake will insist upon it," Avon returned positively.

"And our colony world, Sarin 4?" the Patriarch demanded.

"Now that we know there have been Andromedans in the system, we will test every planet capable of supporting life," Avon offered. The Sarin system was of little concern to him, but he had experienced the Andromedan threat face to face, and for once he could understand the need for action. If the Andromedans were seeding their people on as many planets as possible, the threat could get out of hand quickly. Avon had no idea how fast the creatures bred or whether they could clone themselves or incubate large numbers in a short. time. If they weren't stopped now, they could seriously endanger Avon in future.

"We will monitor the entire system," Avon said firmly. "Blake will demand it."

They parted with the Patriarch who made what amounted to a speech about the noble and heroic crew of the Liberator, which Avon found extremely nauseating, though he pasted on a public face and forced himself to endure it. But when Montar had finished, embraced them all enthusiastically, and pumped their hands violently enough to make Avon fear his arm was on the verge of being detached, he was grateful to return to the Liberator.

** *** ***

 

"I insist you stay here, Blake," Cally said for the third or fourth time. "Your wound may not be serious, but it's painful, and your body has suffered repeated shocks in the past weeks." She faced him down sternly, prepared to use everything short of actual restraints to keep him in bed.

"I can't stay here, Cally," Blake argued. He must have felt it put him at a disadvantage to be flat on his back, though at the moment, he would lack the energy to get up. He had managed to walk here, though his legs had wobbled and Cally had needed Jenna and Dayna to keep him upright. He wasn't ready to return to the flight deck, and Cally meant to keep him here as long as possible. "There's too much to do," he protested.

"Avon and Ketter will finish the planetary detector when they return to the ship," she said serenely. "We will remain in orbit while they do that, or else we will contact Sarin Minor and inform Fella of the threat. You need not do everything yourself." She read the screen, then smiled a little. "Rest is prescribed, Blake. I will prepare a sedative."

"No, Cally, I need to stay alert."

"You need to sleep. You have a bad burn and it will take time for the pad to take effect." She pressed a sedative pad against his bare shoulder. Blake sometimes reminded her of a large, intractable child, too stubborn to realize he could not do everything singlehanded and immediately.

He looked at her now, his eyes wide and a little blurred, full of muted reproach. "I want to see Avon when he returns to the ship," he insisted with fierce determination. "Remember that, Cally."

"I will tell him," she agreed. She watched his eyes blur still further as his body relaxed, the pain eased by the drug. "Sleep now, Blake," she breathed in a soothing voice. "Sleep now and recover your strength."

//Cally.//

For a moment, she thought Blake had spoken, but his eyes were closed and his breathing had evened. Astonished, she realized she had heard a telepathic call. It had been so long since one of her people had touched her mind that she could scarcely believe it.

//Cally,// the mental voice repeated. //Can you hear me, Cally?" It seemed some distance away, but not as far as Auron.

//I hear you,// she replied quickly. //This is Cally. Where are you?//

//On Sarin Prime. Your crewmate Avon suggested I contact you.//

Cally was startled, for she would not have expected Avon to understand the loneliness inside her head well enough to encourage a stranger. But Avon had his own loneliness, so perhaps he understood better than he let her know. She felt a wave of gratitude to him before she gave herself over to the contact.

//I did not know one of my people was here. Who are you? Do we know each other?// She was certain this was a stranger, for his mental tone was unfamiliar.

//I am Dalid. We have never met. Like you, I felt the urge to roam, but unlike you, I settled here. I am a scholar, and the need to know of other worlds drew me forth from Auron. I have been on many worlds, this one most recently. It has been my job to catalogue the Patriarch's library, which includes many bound books as well as computer references. I have finished my task and was considering leaving Sarin when the war began and the Patriarch felt I was safer here. But it seems no one is safe. Your friend Avon tested us all. I believe he feared an Andromedan had infiltrated the Palace. The word is that the First Minister himself was one of them.//

//Yes. There is a grave danger now, Dalid. Yet we have a little time. I would meet you. Are the others still on the planet.?//

//I am not certain.//

//No matter. I will teleport down. I should enjoy the opportunity to meet one of my people face to face.// Excitement coursed through her veins as she checked Blake one final time before heading for the flight deck.

Jenna, Dayna and Vila were sitting on the forward couch with Orac on a table in front of them. Vila had a glass in his hand but the contents looked untouched. It was he who noticed Cally first, his eyes narrowing as he stared at her consideringly.

"Cally," he exclaimed. "You look like you've won a million credits. Blake's all right, isn't he?"

"Blake is sleeping," she replied. "He will be fine. I administered a sleeping draught. He has had far too little rest of late, and has not properly cared for himself."

"He never does," returned Jenna with a combination of irritation and fondness. "He thinks he has to win this war singlehanded, as he felt he must defeat the Federation." She glowered at poor Orac, who had done nothing to deserve it. "It isn't Blake that's made you smile like that, though, Cally. What is it?"

"There is one of my people on Sarin Prime," she explained. "A scholar named Dalid. Avon suggested he contact me."

Vila looked startled. "Avon did? He isn't usually the type to do us favors." He shook his head and took a sip of his drink. "Why don't we have this Dalid up so you can meet him face to face?"

"Invite a stranger on board?" Jenna asked doubtfully. "I don't think Blake would like that."

"We've had others on board," Vila argued, defending his idea. "President Sarkoff, and Bek and all sorts of people. Besides, where's the danger of having one of Cally's people up here? Cally's not dangerous, are you, Cally?"

"I am very dangerous, Vila," she replied, smiling. "But not to you," she added when he cast her an alarmed look.

"Avon won't like it," Dayna put in. She didn't seem to mind who Cally invited on board for a visit; she was merely making an observation, not displaying partisanship.

"This isn't Avon's ship," Jenna replied predictably. "It's Blake's."

"Don't say that around Avon, unless you want a fight," Vila cautioned her. He put his glass aside. "If you want go to down, I'll operate the teleport, Cally. Besides, the others will be wanting up soon enough, and Avon will have my ears if I'm not waiting in the teleport section. If he has to stand there two minutes longer than he thinks he should, he'll be grumpy all night." He grinned engagingly at her. "You and your friend won't ignore us and talk about us behind our backs, will you? I've a sensitive nature, you know."

"As sensitive as a rock," Dayna offered, rising effortlessly and stretching her arms above her head to work the kinks out. "I'll walk along with you. It's too quiet here."

"Dayna's got a low boredom threshold," Vila pointed out. "She gets bored when she's not dismembering aliens or wrestling with hairy natives somewhere or other."

"In a pinch, dismembering thieves might relieve the monotony," Dayna observed pointedly.

Vila took a hasty step backward. "Now, Dayna, let's not get unfriendly. What have I ever done to you?"

"Besides existing?" The young woman from Sarren shared a grin with Jenna and followed them off the flight deck.

Cally sent a message to Dalid to ask him to meet her at the place where the original landing party had first teleported, and arming herself with a spare bracelet, she took her position on the pad.

"Wait a minute, Cally," Dayna interrupted suddenly. "There was at least one Andromedan down there. Let me get a gun and come with you."

"She's right, Cally," Vila agreed. "We don't want some nasty aliens absorbing you while your back is turned."

When Cally nodded, Dayna hurried off to return buckling the gunbelt into place. As soon as the weapons tech was in position, Vila activated the teleport, and they materialized in a courtyard fragrant with flowers. Both women took in deep breaths of the scented air, and Cally felt her tensions evaporate in the quiet beauty of the setting.

//Cally.//

She turned to see a very fair haired man several years her senior approaching her, hands outstretched. //Dalid?//

He smiled and she put her hands into his. For the first moments, they exchanged the silent greeting common to her people, a sharing more comprehensive than was common among humans. She could learn more about one of her people in these few moments of shared communion than she could in days of speaking with someone who was mind-blind.

Dalid was indeed a scholar--she could feel his lust for knowledge burning through him as he lowered his guard to her to precisely the degree common among people meeting for the first time. It allowed her to understand him on a superficial level, and him to know her a little. In such a meld, communication went faster than words, and when they emerged, they were smiling at each other.

Dalid promptly astounded Dayna by giving her a little bow. "Hello, Dayna, I am pleased to meet you."

Startled, she lowered her gun. "How did you know my name?"

"Cally told me, of course. You have not known her long. Perhaps you do not understand her telepathy."

"No, not really. She's seldom used it around me." Dayna looked slightly uncomfortable.

"Dayna joined our crew recently," Cally said aloud. "Here is a teleport bracelet. Fasten it around your wrist. Do you need the Patriarch's permission to come on board?"

"Montar is too busy with the thought of aliens taking over his people to worry about me. My term of employment is over anyway. If it weren't for the war, I'd have left a week ago." Cally felt a sudden urge to ask him to come with them, to join the crew of the Liberator, though she wasn't sure they could offer him work tempting enough to give up his research. But it was not her place to select new crew, so she merely smiled at him, and when his bracelet was in place, she signaled for Vila to bring them up.

They were still in the teleport section and she had just introduced Dalid to Vila when Avon called in to be brought up. Dayna had departed for the flight deck. Vila cast an uneasy look at their guest and complied.

Avon looked startled to see Dalid, and the other two shared his surprise. "What is he doing here?" Avon asked in the annoyed tone he favored when things had not been done his way.

"He is my guest." she replied easily. "He will not interfere with you, Avon, so you need not worry. If he had been Andromedan, the teleport would not have brought him on board."

"Let him stay for a bit, Avon," Tarrant argued. "It will give Cally a break to have the company of one of her people." He stuck out a friendly hand. "I'm Del Tarrant. Welcome to the Liberator."

Avon shot Tarrant a disgusted look, then took off his bracelet and started away. "Blake is sleeping," Cally called after him, guessing his destination. "Please do not wake him."

"I had planned to go to the flight deck," Avon returned flatly without stopping.

Ketter passed his bracelet to Tarrant to put away. "Why does he go out of his way to deny his feelings?" he asked of no one in particular.

"He has been greatly hurt in his life," Dalid replied. "I can sense it a little. "

"You mean you can read his mind'?" Vila stood up uneasily as if he meant to edge away the minute no one was looking.

"No. Aurons cannot read minds, even among ourselves. But sometimes people project their emotions unknowingly, their joy and their pain, their love and hatred. Surely even humans can sense such things."

"Of course we can, though not so accurately," Ketter replied. "I've often envied telepaths their clearer vision. I always wanted to run some comparative studies, but the opportunity never came my way." He sighed. "I don't think it has now. I've too much to do. I'd better go and offer Avon a hand on the flight deck."

"Give him time to look In on Blake first," Vila muttered knowingly. "And if you know what's good for you, you'll pretend not to notice."

Ketter smiled. "I don't understand him, but he's never boring." He wandered off slowly in the direction of the flight deck. Vila fell into step with him and began giving him a few creative theories about Avon that would have irritated the computer tech and amused everyone else.

Tarrant glanced around, realized he was the last one left. "I have a feeling I'm de trop, Cally. I'll go relieve Jenna for a bit. We'll have to decide fairly soon if we want to go to Sarin Minor right away or wait until we've perfected the planetary detector."

"It might be politic to go immediately," Dalid suggested. "There is a strong rivalry between Montar and Fella, and she'll already be angry with you for coming to Sarin Prime first. If you wait much longer, she'll take it as a clear sign of favoritism and you'll make no headway with her at all."

"Then let us go to the flight deck," Cally suggested. "Dalid, would you care to come with us to Sarin Minor? Your knowledge might be useful."

"I'm willing to go."

They went to the flight deck where they found Vila and Ketter opening the paneling to the new detector. There was no sign of Avon, but when he returned, he would come with a good excuse for the delay. Jenna and Dayna broke off their discussion long enough for Cally to introduce Dalid.

"I'll relieve you," Tarrant offered Jenna. "Dalid thinks Fella will take offense if we don't go to Sarin Minor immediately, and I have a feeling he's right. Do you think Blake will be irritated if we go without consulting him?"

"No, but Avon will," Vila reminded him.

"Avon claims this is his ship, but I think it's still Blake's," Jenna replied. "Let's go. We can fight it out on the way If we must. The last thing we want to do is to aggravate the situation between the two worlds."

"Montar won't hold it against us if we offer assistance to Fella," said Tarrant. "I think the last thing he wants is a pitched battle between his two planets and the Andromedans right In his own system. I wish we were able to come up with a poison that could kill them all at one go. What about that sample you took, Jon? Why don't you leave the detector for now and run some tests?"

"Unfortunately Jolak was as dead as all my other samples before I got to him," the biologist replied. "But perhaps I can do something. Vila, you can connect these leads, can't you?"

"Can I? Of course I can. Nimble fingers, that's me."

"And feeble brain," Avon commented, entering hastily. He had changed his clothes; so that was to be his excuse for his absence from the flight deck. "I'll do it, and you will assist me, Vila."

"We've decided to go to Sarin Minor, Avon," Jenna said briskly. "I don't think we should leave it any longer."

Momentary resentment flashed in Avon's eyes, but he said levelly, "Yes, I agree. I'll continue this installation en route. There is a definite contamination in this system."

"Then I'll run some more tests on my new samples," Ketter volunteered and hurried off.

"Fetch my tools, Vila," Avon urged and began to open out the rest of the section.

Jenna stretched and massaged the back of her neck. "I'll get some rest, then," she said, and left it to Tarrant to lay in the course.

Dayna took Vila's station as Tarrant read the coordinates to Zen, who intoned, +Confirmed.+

Smiling at Dalid, Cally led him to the forward couch. //It seems your visit is rather a hectic one, Dalid.//

//We can still talk privately,// he reminded her.

Cally smiled at him and plunged into the joy of communicating with another telepath.

*** *** ***

 

Blake awoke slowly, letting his awareness trickle back a little at a time, relieved to notice that the pain had gone. As he lifted the healing pads from its place, he found his skin whole again, only a reddened area marking the burn site. Whoever had designed the Liberator's tissue regenerators had passed up a fortune by not offering them to the Federation. Servalan would love to get her hands on them, and thanks to Jon Ketter, she probably knew all about them by now.

Looking at his watch, Blake saw that it was morning. No one was guarding him, so he got up and put on the ruin of his shirt and his boots. Returning to his own cabin, he showered, careful not to strain the newly regenerated tissue, and dressed again. By that time he was hungry, so he went to get breakfast. As long as he avoided the flight deck, no one would pounce upon him with cries of alarm and send him back to bed.

Avon was before him, solemnly pushing the remains of his breakfast around on his plate as if running it through an obstacle course. When Blake came in, he jerked up in surprise. "You're supposed to be sleeping."

"I was sleeping. I woke up."

"Demonstrably." Avon took a steadying breath as if determined to control his temper. "One of these days, Blake, your heedless actions will be the death of you."

"At which time, this ship will be unquestionably yours."

"It is not the method of acquisition I would prefer. Damn you, Blake, you take risks no sane man would consider."

"Perhaps that means I'm not a sane man, Avon," Blake returned. "Yet I've seen you do the same for me."

Avon dropped his eyes to his plate. He must have decided he wasn't going to eat the rest of it, for he carried it across the room to the disposal. When he returned, he had controlled his features, changing the subject abruptly. "We are in orbit around Sarin Minor, Blake."

"That sounds like a good idea. From what I've heard of Fella, she'd resent it if we didn't get here quickly. Has anyone met with her yet?"

"We arrived in the middle of the night in her time zone, Blake. Besides," he added with heavy sarcasm, "this meeting will require a diplomat, and since you are the nearest we can manage on Liberator, we thought it best to wait until you awakened." His tone moderated slightly. "Do you feel up to it?"

"I think I might survive." He looked at Avon with a combination of irritation and fondness. Avon was the most difficult of his crew, the one least likely to offer him a commitment. Perhaps it was the perversity of human nature that made him want a commitment from Avon more than from the others, or perhaps it was simply that he was drawn to Avon in a way no friend had touched him before. Blake hid a smile. Maybe it was a sign of his poor taste. Avon would have undoubtedly said as much. Yet Avon was not as distant as he'd been before Star One. They'd both changed since then and Blake was glad of it. "Will you come down with me?"

"If you insist," Avon returned, though Blake suspected he had intended to do so whether Blake invited him or not. "And we shall have the assistance of someone who just might possess some diplomatic skills. Dalid."

"Dalid'?" Blake echoed in surprise.

"Cally has picked up a stray," explained Avon. "A fellow Auron who was at loose ends on Sarin Prime. He knows the two systems well and has offered to assist us in dealing with the Justicar, who is evidently a formidable woman."

"Perhaps she would get on with Servalan," suggested Blake. He programmed breakfast for himself. "If anyone could."

Avon grimaced. He resumed his seat with no excuse, and Blake smiled to himself but didn't comment, asking instead for a report of the previous day's activities. Avon filled him in with considerable detail. "...so now we know where some of those ships were before they encountered us," he concluded. "Sarin Minor or one of the two colony worlds seem the best choice for the others. I think we can expect to find Andromedans on each planet in the system."

"How's that planetary detector coming?" Blake asked around a mouthful of eggs.

"We think it's ready, but it wants testing. It will draw power from all the ship's systems, Blake, so before we use it, we must be certain there are no enemy vessels in the area."

Blake finished the last bite of his breakfast and washed it down with fruit juice. "All right, let's get down to business."

"There are three pursuit ships in orbit," Avon added as they started for the flight deck. "They contacted us when they arrived and offered backup. Perhaps it is my naturally suspicious nature, but I cannot help but regard them as a serious threat."

"They are a serious threat, Avon, and I hope you'll go on regarding them that way. I don't want us getting complacent. Should we wipe out the Andromedans, we'll be in a precarious position."

"I'm glad you realize that, Blake. I don't want you risking my ship against Servalan when this is all over."

Blake let the question of ownership go. It was a moot point, especially now, but later on, Avon would probably hold out for everything he could get--unless Blake could win him over first. He wanted to believe Avon would stay with him after the Andromedans were gone, even if the current crisis began a new way of thinking in the Federation itself.

Sometimes, he deluded himself into believing that this new understanding with the Federation might lead to more openness for the citizens who now labored under repression. Servalan had admitted that the Liberator's crew were considered heroes throughout the Federation. There should be some way to exploit that and free the masses in the process, but he'd had no chance to work on it so far. Montar would back him against Servalan, but he was one man. Blake found it frustrating to waste this good publicity, though he could do nothing else. When the present threat was gone, Servalan would attempt to discredit them. Could he anticipate her actions and prevent them?

"Planning your strategy?" Avon asked smoothly.

Blake jumped. "I'm sorry, Avon. I was trying to think of ways to counter Servalan when she turns against us."

"At least you realize she will do so. I've asked Orac to use its predictive ability to determine what she might try. When the time is right, we will have several options."

Blake liked the sound of the word 'we.'

*** *** ***

 

Justicar Fella was a tall, striking woman with raven hair that she wore in a series of elaborate braids wrapped around her head as if it were a sculpture. Two of her six bodyguards were female and they too wore the braids, though they favored a less elaborate style. The men went shaven on the tops of their heads, and allowed the sides and backs to grow long in a series of plaits that hung tree to their waists. It seemed that hairstyles on Sarin Minor were status symbols. Blake wished they'd known that ahead of time; perhaps they could have devised a means of matching the local customs.

"So you are Roj Blake," the Justicar said to him, moving forward until she was less than a meter away from him and locking eyes with him. Dalid had warned the landing party that it was a sign of strength to hold another's gaze as long as the person who had initiated it chose, and though he felt uncomfortable under such a penetrating scrutiny, he held his ground. After what seemed like hours but could have been no more than a minute or two, Fella nodded and turned to the tall, austere man who had followed her into her throne room. The newcomer wore an expression which resembled Avon's at his most remote, though they bore no other resemblance to each other. Unlike the bodyguards, his head was not tonsured, but he, too, wore a number of long braids. His were tied together at the ends with red leather thongs which caused them to catch on his epaulets whenever he turned his head. A striking man with prominent cheekbones and vivid white teeth, he bowed his head as his sovereign turned to face him. "My lady?"

"This Blake is a man of courage, Dammon," she said. "He must be, to come here to me after allying with my enemy."

"We formed no alliance with Montar," Blake replied levelly. Dalid had also warned them that it was considered a sign of weakness to lose one's temper, in spite of the provocation, and he was determined to maintain decorum no matter how offensive Fella became.

"That is not the report of my spies. You spent hours in the palace, running mysterious tests upon the people there. Why have my own people been ignored?"

"Hardly ignored, Justicar," Dalid put in. "For we are here. We will tell you everything you ask, for it is not our way to conceal our purpose from you. We bring you news of a great threat."

"Shapechangers," she retorted with heavy sarcasm. "I find that difficult to believe. Our oldest legends speak of such beings, but we have put legends behind us and matured as a people. Though we enjoy a pastoral lifestyle here, do not believe that we are fools."

"Your own spies should have told you the fate of the supposed Minister Jolak," Blake told her. "You have heard of the Andromedan war. Aliens have invaded our galaxy and mean to destroy life as we know it. They do this by assuming human form wherever necessary and using that form to gain power. One of the Andromedans took the form of Minister Jolak. When he attacked and was shot, he mutated back to his own form, a green, shapeless blob. We have tissue samples for your study."

"You tell alarming tales," she returned haughtily, as if accusing Blake and his people of trying to frighten her. "I do not like them." She studied each face in turn; Blake, Avon, Ketter with his hand held testing device, Dayna who was armed like a bodyguard, Dalid and Cally, side by side, presenting an appearance of siblings. Jenna, Tarrant and Vila had remained on the Liberator.

"I don't like them myself," Blake replied. "You know of me and my reputation. You know I am an enemy of the Federation and have fought against them for two years on the Liberator. Yet this threat is so great that today I face you side by side with Space Major Dill." He gestured at the small military contingent from one of the three pursuit ships. "He will tell you that I speak the truth."

Major Dill, a portly man with salt and pepper hair and a harsh, hatchet face, nodded abruptly. "Yes, he's telling the truth. I've fought against Blake on more than one occasion, and I never believed I'd back him, but this time I must. Our President and Supreme Commander Servalan has ordered it. She is a woman of much foresight, as it is said you are. Perhaps Blake and I will be enemies again one day, but today we stand united against a greater threat."

He cast a sour look at Blake as if it took every ounce of willpower he possessed to back his old enemy. Fella stepped up to him and stared into his eyes. Legend said that the people of Sarin Minor had developed a method of truth reading, boosted by drugs, which could see a man's soul. Dill must have known it, for he had to struggle to stand his ground. Well coached in protocol, he refused to look away.

"So, a Federation officer and a man." Fella turned back to Dammon. "This is an unusual day, my friend. Cause refreshments to be made ready. I will hear their story. But I will tolerate no interference from Patriarch Montar. His people will not be allowed to come here. This one--" she waved a careless hand at Dalid--"has been living on Sarin Prime. I want no part of him."

"He is not a citizen of Sarin Prime," Cally informed her. "He is of my people, the Auronar. His time on Sarin Prime was at an end, so we brought him with us."

"If he is one of your crew, we will tolerate him," Dammon replied. "Won't we, Justicar Fella?"

"Oh, very well," she conceded. "Tell us what you would have us do. Evidently you mean to test my people for evidence of shapechangers. I am certain you will find none among them." She waved a hand at Ketter's device. "Is that it? Test me first. I insist. If Montar could endure it, then so shall I. I will not have it said that he did something which I feared. Test me immediately."

Blake nodded at Ketter, who tested her, Dammon, the bodyguards, and Dill and his men--who kept silent though their faces filled with resentment. None of them were Andromedans.

"And now the rest of my people," the Justicar insisted. "Go and arrange it, Dammon, it you please."

"Yes, my lady." He vanished, and presently a procession of people with braided hair began to wind its way through the throne room.

They found two Andromedans, both of whom tried to bolt when Ketter scanned them. The Justicar's bodyguards shot them without hesitation and without remorse, and she swept over, holding aloft her trailing robe with one hand, to stare down at the formless beings so abruptly revealed.

"Yes, now I understand," she announced. "If there are more, do not kill them, but take them captive." Her guards grimaced and bunched about in a disconcerted manner at the very idea of restraining something like that. "I think a live captive might tell us something," Fella continued. "See if you can find us one."

It wasn't until they neared the end of the line that another person showed signs of fleeing before he could be tested. This time the bodyguards moved en masse and grasped the man, dragging him up to the test device. Ketter ran a scan and gave a delighted cry. "We've got one."

"Be careful of him," Avon urged. "We don't know how they change form. Have you a secure cell, perhaps protected by a force field?" he asked the Justicar.

"Yes. We'll put him there immediately."

When the guards returned, Ketter tested them all over again. They were still clear of contamination. "I'll want to study that one more thoroughly, Blake," he said. "I think we've finally got a chance of discovering what will kill them."

*** *** ***

 

Avon returned to the Liberator to put the finishing touches on the planetary detector. Knowing there was an Andromedan in the Justicar's palace gave him something to measure against to determine the device's precision. Assisted by Vila and Cally, with Jenna and Dalid watching, he fine tuned the equipment, then turned it on.

When a grid appeared on the main screen, Avon moved to his position, into which the controls had been tied, and set the location he hoped to test. At once the pattern tightened and focused and a glowing green dot appeared.

"Is that it, Avon?" Vila asked eagerly. "Is that the one they've captured?"

"Exactly," Avon replied with some gratification, noting that the coordinates roughly matched that of the Justicar's prison. A few more adjustments and the focus intensified still more. "We've done it," he announced smugly.

"Then there's only the one of them down there?" Dalid asked, leaning over his shoulder to peer at his display.

Avon favored the Auron with a cool look. "The equipment does not cover the entire planet at one sweep," explained the computer tech. "If you will give me room, I will proceed to test the rest of the planet."

It was accomplished in a series of sweeps, with each section recorded to display for Blake and for the Justicar, who would no doubt request a hard copy. Sarin Minor was largely ocean, and while it was possible that the Andromedans had established an underwater base, it seemed most likely they would be found on land. Avon scanned the entire land surface of the planet, locating only the one Andromedan already a prisoner. Shutting down the detector, which drew power heavily from the ship, he asked Zen to scan the oceans for underwater habitats. There were none.

He put through a call to Blake on the planet's surface. "Blake? Avon. I have run a planetary scan and found only the one Andromedan in custody. Are the tests proceeding?"

"Yes. Ketter thinks he's making progress with various enzymes. The right one should cause a chemical reaction which he feels will break down the transformation process, attacking a gland in the Andromedans that humans do not possess. It's possible he can refine the enzyme to have no effect upon humans."

"How will it be administered?" Avon asked.

"In water. They aliens need it as we do."

"It won't kill them?" Vila asked, leaning over Avon's shoulder so Blake could hear him over the pickup.

"No, but it will stop them assuming human form. They will then be quite obvious. It should be far easier to deal with them. I believe one of the reasons they took human form in the first place was to make it easier for them to operate our equipment. The other, of course, was camouflage. Now neither option will be available."

"Excellent," Avon replied. "Though I foresee a long battle ahead of us."

"Perhaps not so long, Avon," Blake replied. "We can trust various worlds to guarantee their own safety."

"indeed? And if the high councils of those planets have been taken over? I doubt it, Blake. I think most worlds will need checking by an independent observer."

"Major Dill and his people will assist." From the sound of Blake's voice, the Major was present and listening. Avon didn't trust the man one bit. It could well be that the minute Ketter finished his tests and his enzyme was proven effective, Dill would report to Servalan that the Liberator was no longer necessary.

"How long does Ketter feel it will take?" Avon asked.

"He isn't yet certain."

That gave them a little time. Servalan would hardly be rid of them while the bulk of the Andromedan fleet remained at large. The last report gave them approximately one hundred ships, though it did not include small flotillas like the one that had attacked the Liberator. They should have some weeks grace, even after Ketter finished his research.

"What of the two colony worlds, Avon?" Blake asked. "How soon can they be tested?"

"I would prefer to recharge the energy banks before moving," Avon replied, reluctant to explain further while the Space Major listened. The last thing he wanted the Federation to learn was how much the detectors drained the Liberator.

"Then you can wait until we're ready to teleport," Blake replied. "Stand by. Ketter wants to do a preliminary enzyme test by putting his sample in the Andromedan's water."

*** *** ***

 

Ketter finished his rough studies, carefully measuring the appropriate enzyme into the pipe that ran water into the cell. "It should work, Blake. We won't inform the alien of the enzyme, for it might then transform to lull us into believing it works. I've also taken a sample myself." He pointed to a pitcher of water and a glass on the table before him. "There have been no ill effects, and I've run a scan on myself. The enzyme is harmless to humans. Of course I'll want to give it a few days to make certain before we actually impregnate a planetary water system."

"You took it yourself?" Blake asked in dismay. "Are you sure that was wise?"

"I understand these things, Blake. You can be sure I tested it thoroughly. It won't hurt me. This way, the Sarin people will feel safer when we proceed, knowing it has been safely used on a human."

Blake eyed the young doctor with approval. Jon was right about its necessity, but Blake had meant to take the risk himself. Having his role preempted was mildly annoying, but the end result would be the same. "What now?"

"We join the questioning and wait."

He and Blake entered the chamber where the Andromedan prisoner sat at a table, defiance upon his features. "My name is Jordan Gant," he said in a monotone voice as if he'd made the claim many times already. "I work in the sewage treatment plant. I'm human. Your equipment is broken or else it read me wrong. Look at me. Do I look like those poor creatures you killed?"

"No, but neither did they before they died." Dammon was the interrogator, his benign countenance darkened into something fierce and threatening as he bent ominously over the hapless prisoner. "I've been very patient with you so far. I warn you it won't continue. We can prove you are not what you claim. If you cooperate with us, you won't be killed out of hand."

"I am cooperating with you." He looked up at Blake and Ketter suspiciously. "More of you? Keep him away from me." He gestured at Ketter, who had taken blood and tissue samples earlier for analysis.

"I've taken what I need," Ketter replied. "It proves conclusively that you are not completely human."

"So I've some alien blood in my veins," the prisoner replied. "My family's been out from Earth a long time. Your machine isn't set to measure that, is it?"

"Excuses, nothing but excuses," Dammon burst out in a furious voice. "I think we should kill him now. The sooner the better."

Blake stepped in, recognizing the interrogator's technique for what it was. Should he take the opposite side, the prisoner might relax his guard. "Here now, there's no call for brutality," he intervened, stepping forward and catching at Dammon's arm. "You've kept this man here without food or drink for hours. I doubt even the Federation is so severe."

"His friends infiltrated our people," Dammon replied, catching Blake's intent and responding to it with every sign of increased threat. "I don't plan to reward him for it. He gets no food until he's talked. That's final."

"Then at least a glass of water. How can he answer you if his throat is dry." Blake went to the tap and filled a glass, offering it to the prisoner. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll stay here to insure your fair treatment."

The supposed Andromedan took the glass and clutched it in a trembling hand. It clattered against his teeth as he tried to drink, and more went on the front of his shirt than went down his throat, but after a few sips, he steadied and gulped the remainder. Blake stepped backward, lifting a questioning brow at Ketter, who watched the man intently.

At first nothing happened. The prisoner set the glass aside with a trembling hand, bracing- himself to look at Dammon once more. "You can do whatever you like," he retorted. "I won't talk. I have nothing to say to you except that my name is Jordan Gant and I work in the sewage treatment plant."

Convinced it hadn't worked, Blake had begun to feel disappointment when a tremor wracked Gant's body and he jerked up startled eyes to Blake. "What have you done?" he whispered through lips that struggled to form the sounds. "What have you done?"

Then his features blurred, running together like an ice sculpture hit with a laser. It was grotesque. The eyes stared fixedly at Blake, then they melted as the creature shivered and quivered into a lump of tissue before their eyes. Alive, it oozed forward as if to consume new prey, and Blake jumped back hastily as it stretched out for his foot.

The sound of a Federation hand blaster startled him as the creature's body was blasted to pieces. Major Dill stood in the doorway. "I presume it worked," he said coolly, holstering its weapon. "Well done, Dr. Ketter. Servalan will be pleased. We can take you back to Earth now if you'd like."

"No, there's still more testing to be done," said Ketter hastily. Blake could have sworn he had to struggle to prevent an involuntary step backward. "I must be sure this will work over a wide area and I'll need to be certain of dosage. In this quantity, it will force the aliens to revert to their own shape, but this dosage was fairly concentrated. We have to learn how to blanket an entire planet with it to our satisfaction, and I need Orac for that."

"Very well. It isn't what I'd choose, though Blake seems bearable enough. Don't let him corrupt you, though."

"Don't worry, I'm loyal," Ketter said automatically, though it was evident his mind was on the test. He began to dictate notes into a hand recorder as if he'd already forgotten the Major's presence, and Blake turned and smiled at the officer.

"I doubt either of us could distract him from his work. Give us a few days to perfect the formula and I'll see that Ketter reports it to Servalan."

Dill studied him intently as if to read his mind, then he nodded. "Very well. I wouldn't have taken your word before I met you, Blake, but now I must. A pity you can't see reason. The Federation needs men like you."

"A pity you can't," Blake returned. "You're exactly the sort of man needed to form a new government. Take a look at the oppression the Federation practices and tell me honestly if you don't see my point."

"I see a terrorist who spends his time destroying. When you can convince me there's more to your fight than that, I'll listen to you."

"If there weren't, do you think I'd have sided with you to fight the Andromedans?" Blake asked him. "I could have waited, let you exhaust yourselves fighting them and then come in and picked up the pieces. It would have been easier."

"But not safer. You had no guarantee we'd win. You're using us, Blake. Don't try to make me think it had anything to do with morality."

Ketter looked up at that, his wide, innocent eyes focused on the Major. "I think it has everything to do with morality, Major Dill. I refuse to believe that they're all constantly acting a part around me and that they'd never slip. Blake means what he says. It's a pity he's mistaken, for he's a good man."

Blake chuckled. "Thank you--I think."

"I'm done here," Ketter finished. "We'd better return to the ship."

"Any chance of me coming on board?" Dill asked.

Blake met his eye. "What do you think?"

"It never hurts to ask. You may be on the other side. Blake, but I like you. Pity you can't see reason." He turned and marched off without looking back.

Blake shook his head in amusement as he raised his bracelet to call in. If the circumstances had been reversed, he and Dill might have been friends. Maybe it was time to start thinking of ways to persuade him to attempt reform from within.

*** *** ***

 

Accompanied by Major Dill and his flotilla of three ships, the Liberator proceeded to the two colony worlds in the Sarin system. Sarin 4 proved clean of Andromedan contamination, but when they came into orbit around Gorlan, the sixth planet in the system, a mining colony with a harsh climate and a small population, ships came swarming up out of the atmosphere to greet them. There were a dozen Andromedans in all, armed and ready to defend their secret base.

"Get through to Dill," Blake ordered Cally. "I'm sure he knows what we're up against. Avon, stand by on the detector. We can't risk using it until we're sure we've got them all."

"A dozen ships, Blake'?" Avon asked with some sarcasm. "We're not alone this time, and we have the force wall. If we could handle six before, this should be easy."

"Easy!" wailed Vila in dismay. "Zen, clear the neutron blasters for firing and put up the radiation flare shield. Quick!"

Avon bit back a smile at the thief's miserable expression and shut down the detector. Dayna slid into position and began to charge up her guns, coordinating with Vila, and Tarrant, who was at the controls, looked positively delighted as if he'd been longing for a chance to show his skill.

"I have Dill for you," Cally announced.

"Thank you, Cally. Major, we've picked up a bit of a disturbance here. Can you see them coming?"

"More of them than I'd care to face without the Liberator, Blake. Do you know anything about Federation battle strategy?"

"We get by," Blake returned. "Our pilot is Academy trained."

"Tarrant? Ah yes. Excellent."

Tarrant raised his voice slightly. "Hello, sir."

"Been avoiding me, have you, Del? Thought I wouldn't remember you?"

"Well, no, I never thought that," Tarrant replied, adding in an aside, "He was one of my instructors at the Academy. He's good."

"I heard that, Del. Remember it, because one day we might meet in a less friendly situation. Here they come. We'll form up on you."

"Right. I know the technique."

Avon had little to do in the battle except to judge when to put up the force wall. They had learned to use it sparingly, as it was another power drain for the great ship, so his task was to lower the force wall after each energy burst, raising it again just in time to keep them from being destroyed. It required precision, but not much effort, and it gave him time to notice the others.

Ketter looked uneasy, a useless watcher with little to do. Beside him, Dalid stared at the main screen impassively, listening to the signals sent back and forth between the Liberator and Dill's fleet which was conveyed in a Space Command code that no one but Tarrant seemed to understand. The Auron showed little excitement and little concern, but perhaps that was a racial characteristic, for Cally, too, could appear impassive in moments of crisis. Watching closely, Jenna appeared to regard the entire process as another test she had devised for Tarrant, nodding when he performed a maneuver she approved of, frowning occasionally. Once, when he dove directly at an approaching ship, slipping sideways at the last moment and disrupting it with a nudge of the leading edge of the force wall, she stared in reluctant respect, conceding him the point.

For all his nervous manner and his complaints of danger, Vila handled himself well. On more than one occasion Avon had observed that the thief was nearly always perfectly calm and controlled in the heart of a crisis. It was before and after such a crisis that he appeared to panic. Perhaps it was simply a method of blowing off steam, though Avon was certain the panic was real. The technique was quite effective, making him appear no real threat and causing his enemies to regard him with less than concern. Avon was forced to conclude that Vila knew what he was doing, for he got in some good shots, as many as Dayna, the weapons expert, did.

Dill, too, displayed skill, and Avon was glad it was not directed at them. He had judged the Space Major to be competent and honorable according to his own lights. Blake seemed to like the man, but Blake was not gifted with superior judgment. He trusted people too easily. He even trusted Avon. Heaving a sigh, Avon concluded that Blake might be right this time, for he had no intention of betraying Blake, or of leaving him either, though that could change and likely would one day.

"We've got them on the run," exulted Tarrant, putting the Liberator into a dive that took them under one of the remaining three enemy ships. When it turned to follow, it presented itself broadside to one of Dill's vessels, which took the opportunity to blast it out of existence.

The only casualty of the day was one of the pursuit ships, struck by a last minute blast. The vessel was not destroyed, but it reported life support failure, and Blake volunteered the Liberator for rescue the moment the last Andromedan ship vaporized. Avon protested sharply, warning Blake that bringing Federation troops aboard the Liberator was a fool's gamble, but Blake insisted.

Fully armed, Avon and Jenna went over to the damaged ship with a supply of bracelets, materializing in an atmosphere that was notably thinning, heavy with green vapor that Jenna said was coolant mixture. "It's corrosive, damages the lungs," she explained as she handed out bracelets to the gasping, coughing troopers. "We can't stay here more than a few moments."

The troopers were too concerned with survival to worry about their old enemies. Gratefully, they fastened bracelets around their wrists, and in a moment, Avon, Jenna and six men were safe on board the Liberator.

"Stay right here, and we'll see about getting you back to your fleet," Jenna ordered sternly. Evidently she hadn't enjoyed the rescue mission either.

Dayna sat at the console, a gun in her hand. "All of you stay right there," she ordered. "Major Dill has given us the necessary co-ordinates, and we'll send you over to the flagship in moments."

"I should waste no time," Avon suggested.

Dayna dimpled with amusement. "I hadn't meant to. Are you ready? Good." She activated the system and Avon found himself face to face with Major Dill, who, ignoring Avon's gun, stuck out his hand.

"Well done, all of you." The harsh lines on his face had relaxed into something resembling Tarrant's excitement at a good battle. Forced to transfer his weapon to his other hand and accept the Major's handclasp, Avon resolved to take it out on Blake later. "Jenna, collect their bracelets," he ordered.

"I had planned on it." She went among the troopers, hand held out, clipping each bracelet around her wrist or putting it in her pocket. Avon counted them to make sure none was left behind.

"We've pinpointed their base," Dill announced. "Blake's had your Zen scan the area. There are only two more ships down there, which seem to be disabled. We'll do a quick sweep of the area and blast them. You're welcome to stay on board and watch."

"I'd like to watch," Jenna agreed, and Avon nodded, curious about the pursuit ship. He had encountered far too many of them, mostly from the wrong end of the neutron blasters, and he wanted to see just how efficient the vessel actually was.

Jenna called Blake and explained what they intended, then she stood behind the pilot, studying his readouts, watching his hands move over the controls. From her silent observation, Avon deduced she respected the pilot's skill, though he could tell the man was not as good as she was.

They made one quick pass over the base, Dill himself timing the run, handling the firing. Avon turned to the computer readouts, gauging their course. "Now," he breathed just as Dill hit the firing switch.

As they sailed effortlessly past, the base below them erupted in a giant fireball. The Federation officers reacted with a resounding cheer that made them seem very young. Dill allowed it for a few moments as they climbed back to rendezvous with the Liberator, then he called them to order.

"All right, men. Anyone need medical treatment?"

One of the officers Avon and Jenna had rescued had some flash burns, and he was escorted away to the medical unit. The ship was small, compact and fairly efficient, though no match for the Liberator in speed, firepower or efficiency.

"We appreciated the ride," Jenna told the Major as they settled into orbit. "But we'd like to return to our ship now."

"Fine. Run that scan of yours as soon as you're recharged. We'll stand alert for trouble. I doubt there'll be more of them here. It seems unlikely they would want to infiltrate such a place. We'll need to scan Sarin Prime when we leave here. Blake says you only scanned the staff of the Patriarch's residence."

Avon was glad to be back on the Liberator. Returning to the flight deck. he looked around at an atmosphere gone suddenly tense. "Trouble, Blake?"

"No, not trouble, just bad feelings," the rebel replied. "Dalid thought we should have given them fair warning before blasting their base."

"Fair warning?" echoed Avon in disbelief, turning to face the young Auron, who stood defiantly at the front of the flight deck. "Just like the warning they gave us when they attacked? In case you have not noticed, we are at war."

"There may have been innocents on that base. Perhaps even locals as prisoners."

"Perhaps," Avon replied, unconcerned with the fate of a few prisoners in the overall scheme of things. "But we dare not risk this contamination spreading further."

"Avon is right," Cally told her countryman. "I do not like it either, but it is what we must do."

"Fighting for humanity?" Dalid asked, a hint of sarcasm filtering into his voice.

"Fighting for the survival of life in this galaxy," she replied. "We are not the aggressors."

Dalid relaxed. "You're right, of course. My people are pacifist in nature. It is easier to fight a direct attack than to be the aggressor. I hope I've not offended you, Blake. I'm sorry."

"Your first taste of battle?" Blake asked. "It isn't easy for any of us."

*** *** ***

 

Vila had the night watch. It was quiet and allowed him time for drowsing when no one was watching. Not tonight, though, for there might still be Andromedans about and those Federation ships were too close for comfort. Vila didn't trust them, even if Dill seemed a decent sort. Blake might like him, but Blake could be too soft. He didn't know what it was to grow up with everyone against him. Trusting people was a luxury in the Delta domes, and Vila was very new at it. He wasn't even sure he trusted everyone on the Liberator these days. Much as he liked Jon Ketter, he knew the young man's loyalties were to Servalan and the Federation. He didn't think Jon would hurt anyone because he wasn't the type, but Vila wasn't quite ready to relax around him. Dalid was new too, though he seemed gentle enough. He hadn't taken well to battle. Vila still remembered the sick look on the fair haired man's face as ships kept blowing up before his eyes. He'd seen that game look in Cally's eyes in battle, but Cally was a pragmatist, prepared to fight for her beliefs. Once she decided something was right, she would do it without fuss. Vila liked Cally.

But Andromedans and Federation pursuit ships made a bad combination. Avon had decided to leave the scan of Gorlan for the morning to allow the energy banks time for recharging. Dill would monitor the planet during the night and Zen would do the same, though Zen was operating at less than peak efficiency after the energy expended in battle.

Vila did trust Avon, which surprised him. Avon pretended to trust no one but there was another Avon inside, the Avon who had slipped away to the Big Wheel with him on Freedom City and helped him win a fortune. The two of them had split their winnings and concealed them instead of adding them to the wealth of the strongroom, but it hadn't taken very long for Vila to find Avon's share. He hadn't touched it, though it was tempting to move it just for Avon's reaction. Finally, unable to resist, he had scribbled a hasty note and put it on top of Avon's winnings. "Better be careful. Best thief in the galaxy."

Avon never mentioned it, but two days later, a similar note appeared on his own winnings, which were set behind every lock Vila knew how to operate. It read simply, "Or not." Vila had pondered over that, then he had laughed and let it go. Avon was a dark horse all right. Lately he'd been much more bearable. Vila hoped they'd have another chance to break a bank soon. Avon needed humanizing, and who better to do it than Vila?

He sighed. Lone watches were boring--he liked people around to provide company and to keep the solitude at bay. Alone like this, he could imagine all sorts of nasty things; Andromedans oozing their way onto the ship while Zen's detectors were on minimum, Federation people sneaking aboard, monsters lurking in the shadows. "Hello, shadows," Vila said brightly. "Stay where you belong now, will you?" It wasn't difficult to work up a nice healthy fright.

A footstep behind him made him yelp and spin around. "Oh. Hallo. You scared me. What are you doing here? Couldn't sleep?"

The other approached him silently and Vila let out another yelp as a metal pipe was swung savagely at his head. "Are you crazy!" he shouted, trying to backpedal away without much success, his seat back blocking his progress. "Blake! Somebody! Help!" he shouted, then the bar crashed down on his skull and he dropped like a stone.

*** *** ***

 

The alarm woke Dayna in time for her watch and she grumbled a little as she dressed, for her sleep had seemed far too brief. She didn't like night watches much, though it gave her the opportunity to talk to Zen. She had come to regard the great ship's computer as another person, one who was confined to the flight deck. Though he seldom allowed anything personal to appear in his conversation, Dayna was certain he had feelings and cared for all of them. Avon would probably have laughed her idea to scorn, but she didn't care. Maybe her inexperience with computers and the galaxy at large made her react that way, but Zen gave her a sense of belonging, of home. Though Dayna was a fighter, content with the urgency of her life and prepared to deal with the daily threat she faced, she couldn't forget her father and Lauren, so cruelly dead. She hadn't had time to grieve for them properly, but when she needed to remember them, Zen always listened.

She set off for the flight deck, prepared for another interesting conversation, only to pause in the entry, feeling a sensation of danger so strong that it halted her in her tracks.

The lights were dim on the flight deck, causing great shadows to lurk like alien creatures waiting to pounce. Not particularly fanciful, Dayna shrugged off the image. "Vila?" she asked softly. Surely not even Vila would sleep on duty at a time like this.

There was no response. "Zen? Are you there?"

+Affirmative.+

The familiar voice gave her confidence and she strode forward boldly, heading for the weapons store to take out a gun. Only then did she turn to face the flight deck. The first thing she noticed was the detector console. Someone had opened the section and pulled out all the panels. They lay smashed and broken on the floor as if they had been stomped upon with a boot heel. Unbelieving, she approached the damage, gun in hand, freezing when she saw Vila.

The thief lay crumpled at his position, his body lax, a pool of blood around his head. With a cry of horror, Dayna raced to his side, feeling for a pulse. At first, she couldn't find it, then it was there beneath her fingertips, faint and thready. Vila was alive.

She leaped for the intercom. "Blake! Avon! Everybody! We have a crisis on the flight deck. Get up here now!"

*** *** ***

 

Avon arrived first, sensing desperation in Dayna's frantic call. His first thought was Andromedans, so he took up the gun he kept in his cabin for just such an emergency and frankly ran. People erupted from their cabins behind him but he didn't stop.

Dayna raised her head when he entered, and he saw what she had been bending over. Vila. The thief looked dead, his face as pale as snow against the vivid blood. Avon's stomach turned over, and he approached reluctantly, still wary enough to run his eyes around the flight deck for threat.

"We're alone here," Dayna assured him as the others began to arrive. "Whoever did it had gone before I arrived. I'm not sure when it happened, but it would need to be some time before my watch. He's alive, Avon," she added hastily as he went down on one knee beside Vila and pressed his fingers against the other man's throat to feel his pulsebeat.

Alive, but badly hurt. Avon didn't like the way his pulse felt or the ragged sound of his breathing. Each expelled breath shuddered free of Vila's lips as if he could barely manage it. If he didn't have immediate treatment, he might not go on doing it much longer, and a cold fury filled Avon. "Who did this, Zen?" he called over his shoulder.

+That information is not available.+

"It should be available, damn you," Avon snarled. "Play back your memory of Vila's watch and report anyone who entered the flight deck."

A hand came down on Avon's shoulder, and he looked up to see Blake, his face pale as he looked at Vila. Ordinarily Avon would have shrugged the hand aside, denying the need for comfort, but this time he let it lie. "How is he, Avon?" Blake asked urgently.

"Bad. Dying, perhaps." He meant to sound normal, impartial, but the savage fury he felt at the attack on Vila throbbed in his voice. "Zen, I am waiting."

+I regret that the lowered power levels prevented a recording of Vila's watch,+ Zen replied, and Avon tore his eyes away from Blake's sympathetic ones to stare at the computer's fascia. He couldn't remember Zen ever referring to himself in the first person before.

"Let me see him, Avon." Ketter pushed past him and knelt beside the thief, his knees landing unnoticed in the spilled blood. Raising one of Vila's eyelids he peered at his eye.

"Well?" Avon ground out. "How is he?"

The doctor ran his hands over Vila's head, probing gently at the wound. When he looked up, his face had gone nearly as white as Vila's. "I think he has a depressed skull fracture. He's been hit with something heavy. He needs immediate surgery."

"Dill has no doctor on his staff, just a corpsman," Blake realized. "Can you do it, Jon?"

"I'm not a surgeon, Blake," Ketter burst out frantically. "I'm not trained. I know what needs doing and I've witnessed several such operations, but I'm no expert. I could kill him."

"Then we must go to Sarin Prime. Zen, how soon could we move?"

+At standard by two, we could leave immediately.+

"That won't work, Blake," Ketter objected. "He doesn't have that long. He needs it now." He ran a shaking hand down Vila's cheek. "Oh, God, Blake, I'm the only chance he has."

"Not the only chance," Jenna added from her position behind Blake. "We've got the best equipped surgical unit in space and we've got Orac."

"Orac. Yes. I'd forgotten." Ketter pulled himself together with a visible effort. "All right. We have to try. Moving him will be difficult. I don't want him jarred. Somebody get a gurney and wheel it down here quickly." Tarrant and Dalid raced out of the flight deck after it.

Blake's hand squeezed Avon's shoulder and withdrew. "We have another problem," the rebel added reluctantly. "The person who attacked Vila."

"Whoever did it smashed the detector," Dayna reported.

"What!" Avon jerked around. The sight of the ruin of his work moved him to even greater fury. "An Andromedan," he burst out. "Somehow, one of them has gained access to the ship."

"That should be impossible," Blake replied. He went over to the pile of wreckage and picked up a data board that had been smashed right across. "But it can't be, can it?"

"Zen," Avon spoke again. "Are you capable of scanning for additional life on board at this time?"

+Affirmative.+ There was a much longer pause than normal, and in the interval, the lights blinked once or twice as if the computer were rerouting power for the task. +Only those designated as crew and the Auron Dalid are presently aboard the Liberator.+

"Presently on board?" Cally asked sharply. "Has anyone departed since Vila was attacked?"

+That information is not available.+

"Dill would have noticed if we'd been boarded," Blake replied.

"Unless he did the boarding," returned Avon.

"That's ridiculous," Ketter returned without turning away from Vila. "What would it benefit him? He needs this detector as much as we do."

"Does he? Now that you have your enzyme, he might feel it redundant."

But Avon could find no real motive for the Space Major. Not even Servalan herself would endanger the Federation by destroying a device that could locate Andromedans.

"I would suggest the next investigation take place in your lab," he told the doctor. "If this has been damaged, what of your work there?"

"I'll go," Dayna volunteered. "Jenna, come with me. I don't think any of us should split up."

Jenna armed herself and followed Dayna out, nearly colliding with Tarrant and Dalid, who came racing back with the gurney.

Under Ketter's direction, he, Avon and Blake moved Vila, careful to jar his body as little as possible. Avon looked down at the thief's shuttered, white face, devoid of its usual bright mischief, and vowed revenge. Whoever did this would die. He picked up Orac and followed Ketter.

"There are only two strangers on board, Blake," he said. "Or if you count Dayna and Tarrant, four."

"All of us were away from the ship at the time of the invasion," Blake replied levelly. "Though none of us is an Andromedan, who's to say one of us wasn't programmed."

At that unwelcome thought, Avon's eyes narrowed. "We will run scans with Orac, should it prove necessary."

"But Vila first, " Ketter insisted. "Which of you has the most medical experience?"

"Cally," Avon replied. "Though all of us have worked with the equipment in the medical unit. None of us are capable of performing major surgery, however. Even with Orac to assist, it would be impossible. It remains the province of specialists." He glared at Ketter. "While you are less than satisfactory, you are Vila's only chance."

"If you mean that as a threat, understand I haven't promised you anything," Ketter replied miserably. "I like Vila, too. I only wish he had a better option than me."

Ketter and Cally went to work in the medical unit. Jenna and Dayna joined them as Avon and the others left the room. "You were right, Avon," Jenna said. "Whoever smashed the detector has wrecked Ketter's lab, the hand detectors, everything. His notes are gone, wiped from the system. It was a thorough job."

"And one requiring some skill," Avon realized. He had seen Ketter's files and knew that only a gifted computer specialist could hope to break into them. The son of Dr. Lenard Ketter would do no less, but it pointed suspicion at Avon, who felt the others' eyes on him.

"Avon didn't do this," Blake burst out. "He may be good with computers, but I can't believe he'd try to kill Vila. From the look of the wound, he was facing his assailant. I can't believe Avon capable of that."

"No, of course he is not," Dayna cried.

"But we're the only ones here, and Avon knows the most about computers. He even worked with Ketter's father. He'd know the system best," offered Tarrant.

"Maybe," Dayna replied. "But when he saw Vila, he went dead white, and I doubt anyone can control their bodily responses so easily. If he'd attacked Vila, he wouldn't care what happened to him and he wouldn't be so worried now."

Avon resented her insistence on his worry, but for once it must have operated in his favor for Tarrant's suspicion eased. "I'm sorry, Avon. I know you didn't hurt Vila."

"One of us did," Dalid replied. "We'll have to stand guard until we find out who it was." He looked shaken and frightened, and Avon eyed the man with some contempt. He had met a few pacifists before, some of them worthy of respect, but this man struck Avon as a coward. He could think of no motive for Dalid to have done the damage unless he'd been so shaken by Dill's attack that he wished to prevent a further occurrence. That seemed ludicrous, but he was the one Avon knew the least, and he was inclined to suspect him on general principles. It might be wise to question Cally when the surgery was finished.

"Dalid's right," Blake agreed. "No one must be alone now. I want someone to guard the medical unit while Jon operates. Jenna, will you do it?"

"Of course, Blake."

"Then the rest of us will search the ship. Tarrant, will you and Avon stay on the flight deck?"

Avon realized he wanted no one left alone without a member of the original crew to guard them, and he nodded. "Leave him with us," he added, pointing to Dalid. "I don't trust him."

"I think we can trust him, Avon, but you're right. He shouldn't be alone. Dayna, you're with me." It seemed a judicious choice. He might guess that Avon trusted Dayna more than he did Tarrant, and would be more likely to watch him carefully, though Avon would allow no one to go unsupervised.

Once on the flight deck, Avon sat before the wreck of his detector and began to determine what could be salvaged. He kept his gun to hand and noticed Tarrant arming himself too.

"Zen," the pilot asked suddenly, "Can you monitor the surgery and report Ketter's progress."

+Negative. Power levels are as yet too low for that, and auto repairs are working on the damage done by the saboteur.+

"Auto repairs," Avon responded in surprise, looking at the chaos before him. "Can you repair this?"

+Negative. Since the device is not part of the Liberator, it will require manual repair. Auto repairs are presently working on the teleport system.+

"Does that mean I must redesign my fail safe into that as well?"

+Affirmative.+

"Whoever did it was certainly thorough," Tarrant replied. "I'm surprised he didn't damage Orac."

"But then I have long claimed that Orac is too valuable to destroy," Avon replied. "Perhaps the saboteur had other plans for it. A pity Orac was not activated when the attack was made."

"Unless Vila had it on for some reason," Tarrant speculated. "Well, we can't interrupt the surgery to ask, but we might learn more later."

"Would Orac be able to tell who did it?" Dalid asked eagerly.

"Not if the activator was not in place," Avon replied. "Orac runs its own research when we are not 'interfering' with it. Since the data is not in Zen's memory banks, Orac cannot draw it from there either. However," he added with satisfaction, "Records of Ketter's enzyme tests will be preserved there since the doctor went over his test results with Orac."

Tarrant grinned. "So we're not too far behind. Should we contact Dill, Avon?"

"And give him an advantage? I think not." He picked up another smashed data board and suddenly flung it against the deck. Dalid jumped.

"Ketter goes into his work wholeheartedly," Tarrant offered tentatively. "He'll do his best for Vila."

"Should Vila survive," Avon returned through tight lips, "he must be thoroughly protected. He must have seen his assailant. Either the attacker believed him dead or he meant to be away from the Liberator before his handiwork was discovered. We must check the airlocks for signs of tampering."

"Why not simply destroy the Liberator?" asked Tarrant. "If I were a saboteur, I'd aim for that. This ship is the worst threat the Andromedans face."

"And it is also the greatest prize. Perhaps they mean to take it intact. As Zen's energy banks recharge, we will run tests to determine further sabotage."

He worked over the ruins of the detector for some time, until Blake and Dayna returned to report no other trace of damage except in the teleport section. "The auto repairs are already working on that," Blake offered. "Has there been any word?"

Tarrant shook his head. "I think we should alert Dill but Avon was against it. What do you think, Blake?"

"I think we'll have to. I'm glad he has a couple of the hand detectors; we'll need them for prototypes."

"I can reconstruct one with your help," Avon informed Blake. "Let us do it now. Then we can test the crew once more." He glared around the flight deck. "I do not intend the person who did this to get away with it."

*** *** ***

 

Cally watched Ketter work, her face furrowed in concentration, only peripherally aware of Jenna near the doorway, gun in hand. Orac kept up a steady stream of instructions, providing information when Ketter's memory faltered, giving constant lite support readings and pep talks. She would almost have suspected that the little computer was worried about Vila, though Orac would have denied it vehemently.

Ketter's face was pale, his hair matted down with perspiration, requiring Cally to mop his face from time to time. He looked like a man in a nightmare, though his fingers were deft and smooth as they operated the probes he worked with. A sterile field had been generated, and Cally was careful to avoid it as she moved the scanner over Vila's head to give the doctor constant reports.

"There's been some bleeding," Ketter announced, "and a clot has formed, but I've contained it, and I'll siphon away the blood." He hesitated for a moment, looking around wildly like a small child who has become lost in a rowdy crowd and is terrified of being trampled. "God, I can't remember half of what I learned."

+Kindly pay attention,+ snapped Orac impatiently. +I will repeat the procedure. First set the electro-clamps, using three of them.+

Ketter pulled himself together. "Take another reading, Cally," he ordered as he obeyed Orac, letting the computer talk him through each step. She ran another scan, paused while Orac analyzed it, mopped Jon's forehead once more, and picked up the scanner, though her fingers felt heavy and clumsy.

This required a skill beyond anything she had ever attempted, even though her tasks were simple enough. Orac knew what needed to be done, having accessed the appropriate data, linked with the surgical unit itself and prepared itself to provide all the needed information. Periodically Jon would ask her to check the readouts on the screen or to run off a hard copy of the area of the brain affected.

Vila was attached to life support, which regulated his breathing, monitored his heart and generally kept him going while the surgery was in progress. He looked small and frail, and Cally let her mind drift even as her fingers performed their tasks, imagining a future in which Vila woke up and protested loudly the fact that some of his hair had been shaved away from the wound. In her imagined scenario, Avon would make pointed comments that Vila had little enough to spare as it was, and the two of them would squabble happily. But Vila was so still and pale that she could not believe it. The look on Avon's face had stirred her to unexpected pity for him, and she was glad he had accepted Blake's comfort.

"I think I'm getting it," Ketter said at last. He looked rather bruised under the eyes as if he'd been kicked again, and fear twisted his face. "I need another scan," he said. "I want to make sure I've got it right. No, from the other angle, Cally."

She complied. At the door, Jenna shifted uncomfortably, transferring her gun to her left hand and flexing her fingers. She asked no questions but Cally could feel her desire for information as strongly as if Jenna had spoken aloud. This tired, with her resistance down, Cally could feel the crew's emotions, lying like a crushing weight of misery and fury across her slender shoulders. She had never made an effort to fine-tune her empathic skills, using them when they came through strongly and ignoring them the rest of the time. Now she wished she had practiced, for it might have helped her to sort them out and to pinpoint the one who was only pretending. One of them was a killer.

Vila had fooled him and survived this long. It was starting to seem as it he might recover, though Ketter still looked harried. It could go wrong. If it did, Cally vowed, Vila would have companions for his death. She would see to it personally.

+That is satisfactory,+ Orac reported. +Now you must close the wound. There is some swelling, but it will go down. The patient must be kept quiet for several days. I will monitor his progress and inform you when he will be able to talk and answer questions. I have many questions myself. Dr. Ketter, kindly pay attention. Pick up the 5 cm. probe and insert it...+

Cally ran yet another scan which revealed no irregularities. A check of Vila's vital signs showed them to be closer to normal and his breathing was much less labored. She watched Jon close the wound, sterilize the area thoroughly though the field did that already, and finally secure a tissue regeneration pad over the wound. He shut down the sterile field with a flamboyant gesture.

For a moment he stood looking at Vila in a dazed manner, then his face went a funny color and he turned and bolted for the lavatory. She heard the sound of retching and moved to help him, but after a moment, he tottered out. "That was the worst experience of my entire lite," he gasped, shaking with reaction. "Orac, I could kiss you."

+I trust you will restrain yourself,+ Orac said hastily, a note of what sounded like panic creeping into his voice.

Ketter managed a weak grin and kissed Cally instead, who had to put her arms around him to keep him on his feet. He let her go and bagged the nearest chair, dropping his head into his hands. "Now I know why I'm a lab man," he announced in a strengthless voice. "Someone better tell Avon and Blake. They'll be frantic by now." He looked up with a feeble giggle. "Even Avon, though he probably won't admit it."

Jenna activated the comm. "Blake?"

"Jenna?" the rebel returned instantly. "How did it go? Is he all right? Well, tell us!"

"I'll tell you when you let me get a word in," Ketter responded, his shock passing into exuberance. "He's alive. It went well. He'll be unconscious for a time, but Orac says there's been no permanent damage. Once the swelling goes down, he'll be..."

"As much trouble as ever," interrupted Avon. "I should have expected him to land on his feet." He sounded so unconcerned that Ketter began to giggle all the harder.

"I told you he wouldn't admit it," he announced to everyone who could hear him, which included the entire crew. "Have you found out who did it yet, Blake?"

"Not yet, but I mean to learn immediately. I won't put Vila at risk by waiting for him to wake up and tell us. I'm coming down there." He signed off, and Ketter struggled to contain his laughter. Jenna shot a questioning glance at Cally.

"It's only reaction," she assured the pilot. "Come on, Jon, pull yourself together. Avon won't appreciate it if you laugh at him."

"Avon needs someone to laugh at him, Cally. It might do him good." But he struggled to control himself. "Give me the readouts. I want to go over them."

He was still reading them when the door opened and the others arrived. Avon was leading the way, and he went over to Vila and stared down at the thief for a long moment, unspeaking. Cally noted the rigidity of his shoulders and the way they relaxed fractionally as he noted the signs of Vila's recovery: the eased breathing, the lessening of the pallor, the regular reading of the monitor. He turned abruptly to Blake, just barely wiping the smile from his face before he was completely turned around.

"You said you meant to know who did it, Blake," he reminded the other man. "I want to know who did it, too, and I want to know right now. What do you suggest? Orac? Did you observe the incident in which Vila was injured."

+No. I was engaged in my own researches and in no linkage with the Zen system.+

"We expected that," Tarrant reminded him. "Do you have an idea, Blake?"

"Something short of torture, presumably," Jenna said.

"I like the idea of torture," Dayna replied. She shot a pointed look at Vila. "Whoever did that deserves torture, and you know it."

"I prefer the truth," Blake replied. "Orac, I have need of you." Cally's eyes rested on Blake's face. His voice had been severe and unyielding, and she doubted even Avon would have crossed him when he spoke like that.

+I am busy.+ Orac sounded doubtful, prepared to be conciliatory. +But perhaps I may assist. State your requirements.+

"I wish you to monitor the members of this crew while I question them and to report when they are not telling the truth."

+I am not a common lie detector.+ huffed Orac. +However, I find myself at risk, and am prepared to comply with your wishes. If the persons to be questioned will allow the attachment of electrodes, I will link with the requisite equipment and read their responses. Though it is possible to deceive a lie detection device, I am infinitely more sophisticated and I will not be deceived.+

"I'll go first, shall I?" Blake offered. "To test the equipment."

Jenna took up her position at the doorway once more, her gun rock steady in her hand. Observing her, Dayna joined her, a relentless expression upon her face, and Tarrant moved to stand between Vila and the others.

"Proceed," Blake ordered as soon as he was connected to the system.

"Did you harm Vila Restal?" Avon asked him, assuming the role of questioner without hesitation.

"No."

+Subject is telling the truth.+

"Did you damage the detector on the flight deck and smash Dr. Ketter's lab?"

"No, I didn't."

+Subject is telling the truth,+ Orac repeated.

"How do we know he won't keep saying that as long as Blake answers questions?" Ketter asked.

"Whose ship is this?" Avon asked, a deadpan expression on his face.

"Yours," Blake replied promptly.

+Subject is telling a lie,+ Orac announced.

Blake grinned at Avon. "I know I promised it to you, Avon. But this needs doing."

Avon glared at him a moment. "One day, Blake, you shall keep your word," he said coolly, though Cally did not sense the resentment she had expected in him.

Blake met Avon's eyes. "There's no hurry."

"No," Avon conceded. "Except to complete this test. Next, please."

"I will be next," Cally volunteered. She fastened the equipment to her arm and answered Avon's questions, and Orac announced her answers to be truthful.

Ketter followed. "I've seen you looking at me, Avon, and I'd as soon clear myself. You think I'm not trustworthy because I'm a loyal Federation citizen, but that's not true. The majority of us are honorable people." He dragged himself to his feet, and half collapsed into the hot seat, and Cally, noting how his fingers fumbled with fatigue when he tried to connect the electrodes, slipped forward and did it for him.

"So you are an honorable Federation citizen?" Avon asked him smoothly.

"Of course I am."

+Subject equivocates,+ Orac returned smoothly.

"You do not consider yourself an honorable man?" Avon pressed on.

Cally smiled faintly at Jon's indignant denial.

+Subject is telling the truth.+

"So it is the Federation you question?" Avon pressed. "That should please Blake. Did you attack Vila?"

"Of course not."

+Subject is telling the truth.+

"I didn't think so," Avon returned. "He is a doctor, though he does not practice it. Had he meant to kill someone, he would have made certain of his work. Did you destroy your lab or the planetary detector?"

"No."

+The truth.+

"Excellent. It remains for Blake to sway him the rest of the way toward his noble cause. That will be all, Jon. Dalid, you are next."

"I resent this," Dalid muttered as he moved toward the chair. "Simply because I am not an official member of your crew, you distrust me. Cally will tell you I am no killer. I'm a pacifist. I couldn't hurt another person. Tell them, Cally. You have been in my mind."

"It is true we have often communicated without words," Cally replied. "But never to any great depth. He values knowledge highly, and that drove him from our world, but he is rabidly loyal to Auron. I know he would never hurt me."

"The question is whether he would hurt Vila," Avon said pointedly. "You don't like humans very much, do you, Dalid?"

The Auron sat down in the chair, but he resisted the electrodes, his face white. "No," he admitted. "Why should I? Contact with humans has never benefitted us. They aren't Aurons, their minds are silent." He shuddered.

"He's a bigot," Dayna burst out.

"Some of my people are that way," Cally agreed. "Just as some humans fear the Auronar for our gifts of telepathy. Dalid, we do not expect you to love us, just to take the test."

"Us?" He jumped to his feet. "US! You equate yourself with these primitives? Their minds are sub-Auron. They are trapped each within himself and you consider yourself one with them? No wonder you were exiled, Cally. You are a pervert and a traitor."

"That is enough from you," Blake shouted with a fine rage. "The last person who deserves your criticism is Cally. You're the one who attacked Vila, aren't you?"

Dalid edged toward the doorway. "I can't allow this detection and destruction equipment to exist. The Andromedans will rid the galaxy of humans. I want that. Swarming allover everything, taking over, threatening my world. Yes, I destroyed your equipment. Yes, I attacked Vila. A Delta grade. Sub-par, even for a human. Little better than an animal. What does he matter in the larger scheme of things?"

Avon went for him, a fist crashing into the Auron's face and driving him to the floor. Blake caught Avon's arm to restrain him, while Tarrant and Jenna advanced on the traitor, guns ready. Sickened and betrayed, Cally stared down at him in horror and dismay. "Oh, Dalid," she cried. "Do you believe the Andromedans will allow Auron to survive? Once the humans were gone, they would have destroyed our people, too."

"They gave me their word," he burst out, rubbing his jaw dazedly.

"Their word?" cried Blake. "They plan to destroy an entire race without negotiation, without compunction, and you'd accept their word!"

"The humans would be gone--and the Aurons are stronger than you think." He rubbed his stomach as if he'd been hit there too, then, quickly, his hand slid into his tunic.

//Blake,// warned Cally without hesitation. //He is going for a weapon.//

Blake's own gun had come out as soon as he realized what was happening, and at her warning, he fired. Dalid fell back, his hand jerking free, the gun sliding from lax fingers. His eyes focused on Cally, accusation stabbing her.

//Cally!// he sent to her, the mental tones laced with pain. //I never thought...you would betray your people.// His eyes went blank and he was still.

She gaped at him in appalled shock, then she spun away, feeling hands grasp her shoulders to steady her. She leaned against Avon's chest in relief, and after a moment of hesitation, she felt a hand pat her gently on the back.

"No wonder he was so upset when Dill destroyed the base," Tarrant observed quietly.

"I'm sorry, Cally," Blake told her. "I had no choice."

"I understand, Blake." Stiffening her shoulders, she eased from Avon's , arms, giving him a faint smile and patting his arm in gratitude. "There was nothing else to do. If you haven't contacted Dill, we should do it now."

"I suggest we let the Patriarch know about him," put in Jenna. "Who knows what sabotage he might have performed down there. A librarian has to know computer systems."

"We should have realized he'd have the skill to get into my files," Ketter replied. He glanced over at Vila, who had not stirred. "Now I want everyone out of my medical unit. Vila needs undisturbed rest. No visitors. When he regains consciousness, I'll let everyone know."

"Someone must stay with him," Cally said. "Let me do it, Jon. I would like something to do."

Blake nodded at the doctor, who took her arm and led her over to the scanners. "Now, Cally, this is what I will want you to do..." She suspected he was giving her busy work, but she did not mind. Perhaps it would take her mind off Dalid.

*** *** ***

 

Pain. Vila Restal felt a fierce throbbing in his head, the first thing that had disturbed his dream-laden slumber. The nightmares had been frightening, but he had been unable to awaken, and finally he had let himself drift. Now they had faded to be replaced by a savage pounding in his skull. He didn't remember what was wrong? Had he had too much to drink.

"No, you idiot, don't sit up." The stern voice was all too familiar. Not hung over, then. Avon would hardly practice his dubious bedside manner if he'd simply drunk too much. A disembodied hand came into his clouded and narrow field of vision and landed itself on his chest, restraining him. Avon left the hand there a moment, then jerked it back as he recollected himself.

"Avon?" Vila whimpered. "My head hurts."

There was a shuffling movement and something pressed against his bare arm. He felt a sensation of cold and a prick, and the pain eased immediately.

"Cold," Vila muttered. "Avon, 'sat you?"

"Who else?" Avon replied. "If you promise to lie quietly, I shall notify Jon."

"No, wait, Avon. Don't go away." Vila suspected he must be fairly sick to ask for Avon's company, but Avon froze like a statue in place.

"I am waiting, Vila."

"Avon, what happened?" Hadn't he been on the flight deck? On watch? Had they been attacked? Why couldn't he remember? "I can't remember. What's wrong with me?" He shivered. It terrified him to discover a large gap in his memory. "Brain damage?" he asked reluctantly.

"No, Vila. You are, unfortunately, your normal self. The rest of us will have to endure it. You were struck on the head," he added with far more patience than Vila had expected. "Such a blow often induces temporary amnesia."

"Struck on the head!" Vila cried, wincing at the loudness of his own voice. That brought the memory back. "It was Dalid! He did it. He came up to me and just hit me. He didn't even say why. Why did he hit me, Avon? I never hurt him."

"He tended to believe humans were his enemies, Vila. He considered you expendable because you were a Delta grade."

"Oh," said Vila in a small voice. "However," Avon added promptly, "I managed to damage my knuckles against his jaw." He displayed his fist, where the flesh was scraped and reddened. "And Blake killed him." The rich satisfaction in Avon's voice made Vila feel better.

"But why?" he persisted. "Just because he doesn't like Deltas?"

"No, Vila. Because he did like Andromedans, and we want to eliminate them. "

"I thought he was funny when Dill blew up their base on Gorlan."

"And you were right. Surely a record, Vila." He bared his teeth in what passed for a smile. "In any case, he smashed the detectors and Jon's lab. We've been working on repairs for two days. Fortunately, Orac had a thorough record of the enzyme formula and we've started producing it again. The detector is still inoperative, but we've injected the enzyme into the water system on Sarin Prime."

"That ought to make the Patriarch happy." Vila yawned. "I'm tired Avon. What else should I know before I go to sleep?"

"Ketter operated on you. Orac says he did an excellent job. Perhaps he managed to improve your intelligence."

"That should put me over you then," Vila countered. "What else?"

"It looks like the main Andromedan fleet is getting ready to make a push toward Earth."

"Oh, no." He looked at Avon knowingly. "And Blake's taking us to join the Federation fleet, isn't he?"

"Naturally. We're in formation with Dill's two ships. I have suggested to Blake that such a battle will be risky for us. We could so easily be blasted by those who pretend to be on our side."

"Then they could claim the Andromedans did it," Vila moaned. "Avon, I don't want to go."

"No more do I, Vila."

"But we can't let them get Earth."

"Earth is one planet, Vila. It is only a symbol. But Blake believes in symbols."

And you believe in Blake, thought Vila, though it would kill you to admit it. "Why don't we come up with a few safeguards."

"Perhaps you have had an intelligence transplant, Vila," Avon returned. "What do you suggest?"

"Maybe that we take Dill and a couple of officers on board Liberator for the battle. They might not be so likely to kill their own, and we can watch them." He yawned again. "What do you think, Avon?"

"It has some merit. I shall suggest it to Blake. As for now, Jon will be annoyed if I keep you talking, and I have never enjoyed sickbeds. Go to sleep." He rose abruptly and headed for the wall communicator.

Vila smiled contentedly and closed his eyes.

*** *** ***

 

"But you have my word, Blake, and Servalan's as well. She has granted you immunity." Dill sat on the Liberator's forward couch, looking around the vast flight deck in some awe. "The last thing we want is to risk an Andromedan victory."

"I know that, Deran," Blake replied. "I trust your word. But you can't speak for the entire fleet, and I don't trust Servalan. She's used us all along. She knows I'm not willing to become a good Federation citizen when this is allover, not unless the Federation changes. She doesn't want to change it, she wants to consolidate her own power, and to have power, she can't let the people be free. Once the battle is won, we'll be outlaws again and you know it. What's to stop some gung ho young officer anticipating her and attacking us during the battle?"

"My word," Deran Dill replied.

"Your word protects me from your two ships and any others whose officers you might influence. I doubt you can influence the entire fleet. I wish you could. I'd have a lot more hope of freedom for the galaxy if you did."

"Blake wants some safeguards," Jenna explained. "We're used to you by now and we know what to expect. We've fought alongside you before, and Tarrant knows you. I'd trust you to watch my back against the Andromedans and that's saying a lot. But will others see it your way?"

"They will obey the President's orders. I guarantee that."

"So long as she does not change them, that might protect us," Avon replied. "I have been talking with Vila in the medical unit. He suggests we have a guarantee for our safety, a high ranking Federation officer or two on board the Liberator during the battle."

"You mean a hostage," Dill returned without enthusiasm. "Come on, Deran," Blake encouraged. "Surely you know by now that my word is good. You would be as safe with us as we are. If the Liberator survived the battle, you would survive, and if Servalan rescinded our parole, we would guarantee to return you to your people somehow."

Dill grimaced. "I believe you. I'm willing to go along with it, too, on one condition."

Avon's face tensed, and Blake shot him a reassuring look. "What condition?" the tech asked suspiciously.

"One of you must take my place."

"It's a trick," Dayna objected.

"I don't think so," Blake replied. He'd come to know Dill by this time and he liked the man. If he were the one asked to be a hostage, he'd expect his opponent to reciprocate. "All right. I'll agree, if you'll accept a condition of mine. You'll announce you're going to fight on board Liberator. I'll switch places with you and fight on your ship, but you can't tell the Federation I'm there."

"He expects you to make all the concessions," Dill's second in command, Lt. Para, told the Major.

"No. He's protecting his life. I'm willing to do it. I'll pass the word to my men. They'll obey my commands."

"Perhaps," replied Jenna. "It does guarantee you some degree of safety, Blake."

"As much safety as we can hope for in a major battle," Avon reminded them. He folded his arms and favored Blake with a wary look. "We should prefer not to come after you in a Federation prison, Blake."

"I'd prefer not to end in one. How's Vila? Will he be up to the excitement?"

"Is he ever?" asked Tarrant.

Ketter grinned. "He's recovering. I think he'll be on his feet by the time we're at the battle site. Dayna had better take the main guns though. We can let Vila be an observer this time."

Dill narrowed his eyes, regarding the biologist suspiciously. "You seem to identity yourself more and more with Blake, young man. I hope he isn't luring you from the path of righteousness."

Ketter hesitated. "Frankly, Major, I'm not sure any more." There was no guile in Ketter; he said what he thought. "The more I see, the more I find myself listening to Blake. Even Dalid had fault to find with the Federation. I'm not throwing in my lot with Blake, but I'm allowing myself an open mind. If the Federation is all I think it is, I won't be blamed for asking questions."

"It sounds like treason to me," Para muttered.

"Now, lieutenant, talk like that only convinces Blake he's right. It doesn't matter now anyway. We have a common foe to fight. Blake's backed us so far and done all he could to help."

Para nodded reluctantly. "Maybe. I can't help the way I feel, but I'll obey your orders, sir."

Avon looked highly skeptical, but then Avon was a suspicious man. Blake vowed to watch Para; he could be dangerous. He wouldn't go against his officer easily, though circumstances might force it. Contact with Servalan herself would be too good an opportunity to ignore. But the odds were against Servalan coming to the battle. She had learned her lesson last time, arriving in hopes of inspiring the troops when it had seemed the battle was turning in the Federation's favor only to learn too late that she had put herself in grave danger. This time she would probably wait out the battle at Space Command Headquarters or in the Presidential Palace on Earth.

Blake turned to Dill. "It's agreed then. Right before the battle, we'll transfer to each other's ships."

"Excellent." Dill rose, terminating the interview, and offered his hand to Blake. The two men looked at each other past a barrier of mistrust and Blake heaved a silent sigh. If he and Dill could come to understanding, it might mean hope for the future, but Dill was only one man. If not for people like Para, Dill might be able to accomplish far more. Blake hoped that all would go well this time.

*** *** ***

 

As the Liberator and its attendant pursuit ships neared the Andromedan fleet, tensions mounted on the great ship. On his feet again, Vila ventured onto the flight deck, listened to Zen's reports regarding the proximity of enemy vessels and Federation ships, turned pale and went away again. "I'm not a well man, you know," he told Tarrant and Jenna, who were bent over a strategy board studying battle tactics. "I'll go pester Avon."

"He's working on the teleport," Jenna told him.

Vila trailed along to the teleport section. He was steady on his feet once more but he tired easily and had looked forward to capitalizing on his weakness, ordering the others about and perhaps even coaxing Avon to wait on him hand and foot, but the proximity of what might be the deciding battle put all that on hold. If they won, he'd be much better by then and couldn't hope to win the crew's sympathy, and just now, everyone was too busy.

The teleport had been badly damaged by Dalid, destroying Avon's failsafe and wreaking considerable harm to the basic system. Once the auto repairs had returned the system to its original state, Avon had started fine tuning it again. Even if they won a decisive victory against the aliens and the enzyme designed by Jon Ketter was introduced into the water supply of all major planets, some Andromedans might slip through their guard, and the teleport system would prove a last defense against them.

Avon and Blake were working there together, and Vila halted in the doorway unnoticed. watching them. They had started out at odds, still wary from their disagreements before Star One, but in the past few weeks, they had slowly grown more comfortable with each other. Dayna had told Vila that Blake had tailed to pass the lie detector test Orac had conducted about whose ship the Liberator was, and he'd expected Avon to resent the fact that Blake still claimed it as his own, but Avon hadn't. Perhaps Avon had mentally returned the ship to Blake to deal with the current crisis, or perhaps he had decided that life wouldn't be as much fun without Blake to pick on. The two of them had circled each other warily like two gunfighters before Star One, and Avon had finally exploded and announced in no uncertain terms that he meant to be free of Blake. But he must have realized that being rid of Blake did not grant him the freedom he had hoped for. Or possibly their brief separation had taught him that mere separation didn't guarantee freedom.

"...Freedom City," Blake was saying when Vila came into earshot. "I wish you and Vila could have seen the look on your faces." He chuckled with fond remembrance. "You asked if we'd succeeded and when I said we had, you said, 'Great. Wonderful. Terrific.' I should have expected more skillful deception from you."

"Perhaps it was simply my natural pleasure at your unwarranted success," Avon returned in a sour voice that deceived no one.

"Yes, I should have expected that, of course. You don't have a poker face, my friend. You think you do, but you don't. You stiffen up whenever you've something to hide. Of course that leaves it to me to guess what you're hiding."

"And you enjoy playing guessing games?"

"You make it a challenge. I've never been able to resist a challenge." He laughed outright. "I loved your idea of reducing Orac's size. I've given some thought to using that one day."

"If Vila told you..." Avon began ominously, causing Vila to withdraw a few discreet steps. This conversation was too good to miss, but there was no point in putting himself in harm's way.

"Oh, no, Avon. I got it from Orac. You hadn't had a chance to warn it to keep quiet. I'd like to know what you and Vila did with all that money. I'd guess it's well hidden."

"You'll never find it, Blake. That money isn't meant for your cause." Suddenly Avon chuckled. "I thought it well hidden, but Vila found mine. He couldn't resist letting me know. He left me a note. A thief, but he didn't touch so much as a credit."

"There's far more to Vila than meets the eye."

"I realize that." Vila preened himself and wished for a recording of this conversation to use the next time Avon and Blake tried to pick on him.

"Did you go looking for Vila's ill gotten gains?" Blake asked with great interest.

"Naturally. And found it. Very well protected, too. Trust Vila to take every precaution."

"I'm sure. You left him a note in retaliation." He grunted as he worked a probe into a section of the console. "Check that reading, will you, Avon?"

"Confirmed," Avon replied. "Hold it in place a minute. Yes, I left him a note."

"How did you get past his locks?" asked Blake.

Avon chuckled comfortably. Vila had seldom heard him so relaxed around Blake. "With my inestimable computer skills of course." Vila could imagine Blake's skeptical look without even leaning forward to see it. After a pause, Avon added, "I used Orac. Any reasonably talented person knows how best to solve his problems and what the best tools are."

Orac. That traitorous little machine! Vila vowed to have harsh words with Orac at the first suitable minute. "Rather like you, in fact," Avon went on. "Your tools are people, though."

"Does that rankle?"

"It did once," Avon replied honestly. "But not as much now. I'm coming to understand you, Blake. You still take foolish risks and you put your cause before common sense, but you've changed."

"Not so obsessive?" Blake asked. "I hope not. Next time, Avon, just point out what I'm doing wrong instead of telling me to wallow in blood up to my armpits."

"Did that rankle?" Avon asked in tones much like Blake's.

"More than you know." Vila edged forward again and peered around the corner. The two men were wrestling a large panel into place on the front of the console, working in perfect tandem, each of them attuned to the other.

"Then perhaps it was worthwhile," Avon replied. "If I could convince you to reconsider this idea of going through the battle on Dill's ship, I'd feel much better."

"It's necessary."

"The Liberator is far safer than a pursuit ship."

"I gave my word, Avon. I'd rather be here with the rest at you, but it's the best way I know to protect us from our temporary allies."

"It's for the rest of us, then?" Avon asked with heavy sarcasm. "Thank you very much."

"Thank you, Avon." Avon drew back as he fastened the last toggle to hold the panel in place, and stared at Blake doubtfully. "For your concern," Blake explained.

"That's your imagination."

"That's it!" Blake burst out. "That so called poker face of yours."

"This conversation has degenerated into stupid sentimentality," Avon remarked, climbing to his feet. "Sentiment is weakness." He stretched out a hand and pulled Blake to his feet, noticing Vila at the last minute. For a moment, his face froze, then he jerked his hand free of Blake's and turned to confront the thief. "And what do you want, Vila?"

"Free entertainment," the thief replied with a knowing grin. "It's been wonderful, Avon."

"So you are feeling particularly suicidal today, Vila?" Avon enquired pleasantly.

"You wouldn't hurt an injured man," Vila reminded him. He loved the sense of camaraderie that existed at the moment. "A depressed skull fracture, remember. I'm fragile just now." He made a great show of backing away.

"Fragile? Your mind is fragile," Avon snapped.

Vila grinned. "More to me than meets the eye," he reminded Avon. "Tell him, Blake."

"Not me. I've more sense to come between the two of you in your arguments. Besides, I enjoy them."

Vila regarded him pityingly. "Enjoy them, do you? Well, maybe. I think I'll go pester Tarrant now. Jenna's starting to be nice to him and we can't have that, can we?" He wandered off, ignoring Avon's muttered invectives. There were times when life on the Liberator was fun.

*** *** ***

 

Jenna eyed Major Dill, who sat quietly on the forward couch beside Captain Greshan from his second ship and watched the main screen. It had felt wrong to transfer Blake to the pursuit ship and accept these two in his place. Orac had monitored fleet transmissions as the Liberator and Dill's flotilla joined the main fleet and had heard the reports that two Federation officers were present on the Liberator. Dill's report had indicated that they were there to make certain the rebel ship would be able to follow the Federation battle plan, and had implied that Liberator would be under his command. Jenna did not object to that, for she knew she would do the actual piloting, backed by Tarrant, who was shaping well. She had enjoyed working with him, seeing him respond to her suggestions, judging his own suggestions for what they were worth. The two of them would control Liberator in the upcoming battle. It didn't matter to her what the Federation thought as long as they didn't come under fire from a pursuit ship.

There was no mention of Blake's presence on Dill's ship, which suited her very well. Jenna had instructed Orac to monitor for that and planned to return him to the Liberator at the first leak. So far, it had not been necessary.

Until now, the Federation ships had merely harried the Andromedan fleet to divert them from Earth, to whittle down their numbers. But now the Andromedans seemed determined to strike at the heart of the Federation and the word had gone out to summon every possible ship to stop them. Though this would be a smaller battle than the one at the edge of the galaxy, the matching seemed even. Federation fighting ships were present at full strength, a puny strength compared with that of a few weeks before, but barely enough to contain the enemy. The Liberator joined the battle just as it began and it was not long before they were in the heart of it.

Tarrant's task was to monitor the rest of the fleet, to arrive at a strategy, to give Jenna ideas. She knew he considered himself the better pilot and most able to interface with the Federation fleet, but she knew the Liberator best, and in the end, that had been the deciding factor.

It was a fierce battle, all the harder because the Federation ships had learned at Star One what the Liberator could do, and they relied upon Blake's ship to act as a center, a stabilizing force. As a result, the Andromedans made the Liberator their primary target. A small band of pursuit ships gave them cover, including Dill's two vessels, and it became a kind of intricate dance, Jenna guiding the ship in an elaborate pattern, darting and weaving in and out, allowing Dayna clear shots at the enemy.

Vila and Ketter had no part in the battle, the doctor because he had never been assigned a battle station and Vila because he was not at full strength. After a number of shots rattled their force wall and Zen announced that the first of the energy banks was drained, Vila went to Dayna's position and joined in anyway. Tarrant worked with Orac, planning and coordinating their efforts with those of the other ships in the fleet, and Cally managed communications. Avon operated the force wall manually.

Explosions filled the main viewscreen, and for the first time, Jenna began to wonder if they had risked too much. Maybe saving Earth was impossible, though the Andromedan losses were at least as great as their own. "They keep coming for us," she said as Vila and Dayna between them picked off another suicide dive at the Liberator. "If something doesn't change, we'll drain our power banks before this battle is over and we'll be a sitting duck."

"They know it too," Tarrant replied. "All it'll take will be a concerted effort, too many of them at once. We'll have to hope the fleet can keep enough of them busy to prevent it."

"I'm not so sure," Vila replied uneasily. "Look at that. They're forming up on us."

Jenna studied the screen. It looked like dozens of ships had attempted to encircle the Liberator. All of them wouldn't get through, but if very many did, they could wear down the ship's power. If all of them fired at once, or fired in a series of shots at the same point, they could break through the force wall.

"I think we're in trouble," Dill said. "Del, can't you warn my ships to come in and take some of them out."

"I've been trying. I think communications are down on your flagship. They took a hit--not a bad one, but enough to give them a shaking--and I haven't had an answer since. They're still fighting and not much hampered but we're out of contact."

"Then anyone. Cally, what can you do for us?"

"I am trying. Everyone is busy." She raised her eyes to the screen. "Perhaps a dozen of them will get through. We will take out several of them ourselves, but it will not be enough. It is up to you, Jenna."

Jenna's stomach twisted in dismay. She was an outstanding pilot, but there were some situations that the greatest pilot ever born could not endure. When she was a smuggler, there had been jokes about the final battle, typical smuggler black humor, each pilot boasting that his own final battle would never come. Perhaps this was her final battle.

Instinctively her eyes sought those of the other pilots on board, the two Federation officers and finally Tarrant. She saw the knowledge she had tried to deny reflected in their eyes.

"We can take some of them with us," Tarrant said, straightening up to his full height, standing tall.

Avon turned abruptly to stare at her. "There is another solution," he observed in a level voice as if death wasn't approaching them at top speed.

"Yes!" She saw it as clearly as he did, and triumph flared in her eyes. It might not work, but it was the best chance they had. "We're surrounded. "We'll have to ram at least one at them. Can you direct the force wall to that area."

"It will weaken it elsewhere. We'll be blasted," Vila cried.

"I don't think so." Excitement surged through her. Ramming was risky, but there was nothing left for them. She saw Tarrant's face brighten with the thought of the fight to come. He would back her, though it seemed mad. "Then we'll go for it," she cried. "If we die, it's been worth it."

"It's been glorious," Dill offered, and for the first time in her life, Jenna Stannis felt a kinship with a Federation officer.

"Ready," she said, gauging the approaching ships. "Stand by everyone. We're going to ram. Brace yourselves."

"Go," said Avon quietly. Jenna set the final course.

*** *** ***

 

Blake found it strange to face a space battle without the Liberator. Dill's ship was efficient, but it seemed small and sluggish, and the enemy ships approached too closely and fired too fast. He felt unprotected as if he'd gone to battle in a vessel made of paper, and the sensation was reinforced when a lucky shot took out their communications. The ship racked violently and the weaponry officer was tossed from his seat and thrown to the floor. When the ship had stabilized, he was revealed to have a dislocated shoulder, and Para turned to Blake with a disgruntled expression and waved him into the weapons position. Blake took a moment to familiarize himself with the equipment, then he began to return fire.

"Liberator's in trouble," one of the troopers offered, pointing at the viewscreen. "They've taken the brunt all along, but this looks bad."

Appalled, Blake stared at the screen. Several dozen ships had encircled the Liberator and were drawing closer and closer. "They mean to ram," he burst out. "They know how much we need the Liberator. We've got to do something."

"Tell me what?" Para asked. "Communications are down so we can't report it. We're only one ship. We'll die if we go in there."

"We can take some of them out, sir," the other gunnery officer offered. "Blake's good, and I can handle it. I say we try."

"Destroying ourselves won't save the Liberator," Para returned.

"But the Major's on board," objected the pilot. "We can't just let him die."

"I don't want to lose the Major any more than you do, trooper. Tell me how to prevent it and I'll be grateful. As for now, draw in on a course of 342 mark 6 and maintain a steady fire."

It brought them around in a circular course, allowing them to send a stream of fire along an arc, taking out three ships. But the others merely drew together to close the gap.

One of the crew let out a wordless shout and Blake stared at the screen. "It's going to ram them," Para cried in disbelief.

Blake stared in astonishment as the Liberator swung around aiming for the weakest point in the encircling ships and began to pick up speed. "No, Jenna," he whispered. "They'll destroy you. Avon, think of something."

But the Liberator raced unheeding to its doom. It struck the lead Andromedan ship, which exploded in a violent burst of smoke and flame, its wreckage careening sideways to strike a second ship. Then it seemed as if the rest of the ships hit at once, and a colossal explosion so bright it made them throw up their arms to shield their eyes whitened the sky.

When the smoke had cleared away, the Liberator was gone.

Blake felt like someone had punched him in the gut. Impossible that the great ship could be destroyed so easily, but the screen showed nothing but debris. His ship was gone, his friends were dead. It was all over, all for nothing.

"Avon," he breathed helplessly.

"Shields up," barked Para abruptly. "That debris could hole us." The pursuit ship rocked as the wreckage of the Liberator and the Andromedan vessels pummeled the shields, but they weren't holed.

The battle surged around them and Blake fired whenever a ship came into range, but his heart wasn't in it. He was numb, devastated, simply going through the motions.

Half an hour later he realized that the tide had turned. The Federation was winning. Ships that must have belonged to smugglers and merchants fought alongside the pursuit ships and battleships, and the Andromedans, who had gained confidence from the Liberator's destruction, began to lose heart. A ship here and there tried to sneak away, only to be blasted by a Federation vessel. Para took his ship after them, caught up in a battle frenzy. Finding some grim satisfaction in destroying alien ships, Blake sat at his position like an automaton, firing again and again.

"Blake! Blake!"

Startled, he looked up and saw Para staring at him. "Blake," the man said in a strangely gentle voice, "You can stop firing now. It's all over but the mopping up."

Blake raised his hands from the controls, flexing numbed fingers. "What happens now?" he asked as if it didn't matter. Maybe it didn't, not to him.

"Now, Blake?" Para was silent a moment, then he reached a decision. "Now I take you to Servalan."

*** *** ***

 

"Why, Blake," said the President smoothly, looking at the man who stood on the other side of her desk. "I am surprised to see you here. Have you seen sense? Has working with my people convinced you of the futility of your revolt?"

He stared back blankly. Even now, twelve hours after the battle, he had not reconciled himself to the loss of his ship, his friends. Impossible. It had to be impossible, some Federation trick. They couldn't be gone, not Avon. Avon should be indestructible, arriving to snatch him from Servalan's clutches and to flay him with a sarcastic word. Not Jenna, who had fought at his side. Cally's loyalty, her devotion to his cause, her practical idealism should still exist. And Vila, had he died in terror, afraid of a war he had never wanted, never accepted? Dayna and Tarrant were so young. Surely they couldn't be dead. Ketter, so near to seeing the light, so ready to listen to Blake's dreams, and Dill, an honorable man for a Federation officer, someone to fight the good fight from within. They were dead and only Blake remained.

"No," he told Servalan, stiffening his spine. "I'll never stop. I can't give up now, or my friends' death would be meaningless."

"They didn't die for your cause," she said briskly.

"They followed me. That's enough. What do you plan to do with me, Servalan?"

"Why that should be obvious. You are my prisoner. The Liberator is gone and no one knew you weren't on board. It I announce your survival, people will rally to your side. I cannot permit that. You are dead, Blake, with the Liberator. For now, I must lock you up, but as soon as I can manage it properly, you will be executed quietly. A pity. I had hoped for better than this."

She had hoped for better? What had she lost? Ships and men, true, but they were strangers, tools to her hand. She hadn't lost family, the only people who mattered. In a sudden fit of rage, he dived for her across the desk, intending murder.

He almost made it. He had the satisfaction of seeing fear dart across her face as she jumped back, then something heavy crashed across the back of his head and he pitched forward across her desk, spiraling downward into darkness.

*** *** ***

 

Solitary confinement. Blake had seen no one for two days, and nothing had broken the monotony but the arrival of his meals through a slot in the wall. He forced himself to eat it though it was like sawdust in his mouth. He had no appetite.

So it had all come to this. All his bright dreams, his fierce determination, his drive, had led him to a solitary cell, alone and defeated. No one knew he survived, so there was no hope of rescue. When Servalan finished seeing to the loose ends from the battle, she would arrange a secret death for him and it would all end. His only satisfaction was that he had helped defeat the Andromedans, that he had touched a few people who would remember him. Liberator was gone in a blaze of glory. His people had died heroes. Nothing Servalan could do would ever change that. Perhaps enough people would hear of it to make a difference. Perhaps those people would realize that Blake was more than a terrorist, that he had fought for a higher purpose.

But it all seemed so futile.

A sound at the door announced a presence and Servalan glided into the room. She wore white, an extravagant gown that showed her figure to great advantage, but he was not attracted and had never been. He eyed her impassively and waited.

"I shouldn't have expected you to give up," Servalan remarked.

"Have I given up?" he asked her, though he knew he had. He'd tried the door over and over at first, and when it proved futile, requiring a Vila to get it open, he'd concentrated on other forms of escape. But no one knew he lived. No one would sneak into Servalan's cells to free a supposed corpse, not unless there had been a secret rebel on Para's ship. Blake rather tended to doubt it.

"Even you can appreciate futility." Servalan smiled a little. "I could use you, Blake, if only you would cooperate with me. I used Travis after he was outlawed."

"I am not Travis," he hissed, drawing himself to his feet and facing her steadily.

"Yes. One of the things that always angered him was his knowledge that you were the better man." She was holding a little case, and now she offered it to him. "The Council deliberated for a day and finally issued posthumous medals to the crew of the Liberator. I managed to obtain yours. I thought perhaps you would appreciate it."

Numbly he took the container and opened it, discovering she had been speaking the truth. It was the Medal of Valor. He found no honor in it now, no gratification, but instead of flinging it at Servalan in disgust, he tossed it aside without much interest. "I find it difficult to believe you came here to award me a medal," he remarked skeptically.

"No. I came here to otter you amnesty if you agreed to work with me. Your survival would be kept secret of course, and perhaps I would have to change your appearance, but there is a great deal you could do for me." She smiled silkily. "Consider it an opportunity to rebel from within."

He knew there would be no such opportunity. If nothing else, he would be Servalan's pet rebel, and he couldn't endure that. Death would be kinder, especially with the others gone. So he shook his head. "No, Servalan. I think not."

Her smile was smug and knowing. "You will change your mind, I think. I give you three days. Surely you are not so weak as to give up because you've lost a few of your rabble."

He resisted her goading, not much interested, turning his face away to hide the pain. "Go away, Servalan," he said. "I will never work for you."

"Will you not hear me out?" she asked.

"No."

"Not yet, in any case. Then I will leave you alone awhile yet." She swept out, by no means convinced of his denial. He wondered what she wanted him for and why he had not been killed out of hand. Perhaps he was being drugged with suppressants in his food. Perhaps she hoped to weaken his resistance that way and condition him to recant his rebellion a second time.

His despair might even be the result of suppressants. It was hard to tell, for he could scarcely avoid depression under the circumstances. It might be natural, but it might be assisted with drugs. He vowed to skip a few meals and see what happened. If he was forced to eat with threats and beatings, he would know the truth.

As had happened with increasing frequency, his mind wandered to the Liberator and his friends. It wasn't real. He kept telling himself it wasn't real. They were hiding somewhere. Avon had activated his detector shield, specially modified for just such an occasion, and the Liberator had slunk away invisible. He liked that scenario, but he knew it couldn't be. In the thick press of the fighting, they would be too close to someone to avoid visual sightings completely. Besides, his people wouldn't run away and leave him behind. They wouldn't abandon the fight. Not even Avon would do that. He had given his word.

Avon. He thought about his friend, probably far more sentimentally than Avon would have tolerated had he been privy to Blake's thoughts. Lately they had begun to find a common ground. How much of that had been due to the Andromedan threat and how much to a greater understanding of each other Blake wasn't sure, but he valued it no less either way. Surely their growing relationship had been real. It was something he cherished, something that Avon must have valued, too. During the truth testing after the attack on Vila, Avon had discovered how Blake still regarded the Liberator. Had the tech remained hostile to him. he would have resented that, but Avon hadn't. Though he had displayed some natural irritation, he had tolerated it, prepared to playa waiting game for the Liberator. Blake liked to think Avon used that as an excuse for staying. that he stayed because he wanted to stay, because he believed he needed an excuse and the Liberator was convenient.

In spite of the ache in his chest, he smiled faintly, then he sat on his bunk and buried his face into his hands in despair. "Damn you, Avon," he muttered aloud. "It was your ship after all, wasn't it?"

"I am glad you finally realize that."

He thought the familiar voice his imagination, wishful thinking, and he hesitated. afraid to look for fear of disappointment. But he could sense a presence with him in the cell, and finally he raised his head from his hands in disbelief. Avon stood in the middle of the cell, looking down at him. There was the remains of a bruise around one eye, but he seemed otherwise intact. His expression was both wary and concerned, but he masked it when Blake moved.

"Now I'm hallucinating," Blake remarked conversationally. His heart thumped in his chest, and he found it hard to catch his breath. Avon here? Avon alive? And the others?

"Perhaps, but I am real, Blake." Real! He was real! He was alive! Blake erupted to his feet. "Avon!" he cried and flung himself at the other man, grabbing him by the upper arms, feeling solid flesh beneath his fingers. "You're alive!" Throwing caution to the winds, he embraced him enthusiastically, trembling with relief.

As he had half expected, Avon stiffened, though he didn't pull away. Instead he waited patiently for Blake to collect himself, one hand patting Blake's shoulder with an almost embarrassed comfort.

"Avon, why aren't you dead?" Blake burst out, drawing back and feasting his eyes on Avon with considerable satisfaction.

"I am quite prepared to discuss it, but, I think, not here." Avon passed him a teleport bracelet, which he accepted dumbly and fastened around his wrist. "Bring us up, Vila," Avon spoke into his bracelet.

*** *** ***

 

Jenna steadied herself for the impact she knew was coming. There was scarcely time to warn the others what she intended, but Avon knew and he grabbed at the edge of the console to steady himself. "Brace yourselves," he shouted as they dove for the nearest Andromedan vessel. He had channeled the force wall to strengthen at that point, but Jenna didn't know if it would hold or not.

"It's the antimatter interface," she cried in warning, and the crew, who had been warned to avoid playing about with that particular control button while they were on duty, had seconds to prepare for the intensity of the negative hyperspace drive that she had not experienced since her early experimentation with the Liberator.

Moments before they hit, she pushed the button. They went through the enemy vessel like paper, and though the great ship rocked and pitched and spilled them from their seats, it held together. Jenna was flung sideways and over, the G forces pinning her against the deck. She heard a few startled cries of pain, but no one seemed able to move.

There was a mountain sitting on her chest, holding her down, but she fought it, struggling up centimeter by precious centimeter, trying to reach the button. "Zen," she panted. "Reduce speed." But Zen didn't comply--there was no response from the computer at all. The lights dimmed, faded, and went out.

In the end, it was the power loss that saved them. The push of the drive weakened and Jenna's hand snapped forward to drive a finger hard against the button. The ship shuddered and the whine of overworked engines faded away to nothing. Sagging back to the deck, Jenna could feel only minimal power running through the deck plates beneath her.

"Zen?" she asked shakily. "Are you still here?"

+Affirm--ative.+ The voice broke in the middle then spun off into gibberish. "What about life support?" she demanded. "Must we abandon ship?"

+Life support...functional flight deck.+

"At least for the moment," she returned. "is anyone hurt?"

Emergency lighting came up, faint and reddish, enabling her to see several inert shapes sprawled on the deck. As she stared in alarm, one of them stirred and turned into a dazed and shaky Cally.

"No wonder you warned us never to use that button," she murmured in some awe.

"Am I dead?" asked Vila, clawing his way to a sitting position. "Everything hurts. I think I'm broken, Jenna."

"You'll live. Check Dayna, will you? And Avon. Major Dill, are you all right?"

"Only bruised, Jenna, though Greshan has a broken arm." He popped up in front of her, rubbing his elbow ruefully then he and Jon Ketter assisted Greshan onto the couch. "I'm not sure what you did, but it seems to have worked."

"Perhaps a little too well," Tarrant observed in a muffled voice. His nose was bleeding and his eyes were slightly unfocussed. "I think the impact threw us off. We're out of the battle. We're lucky we're not out of the galaxy altogether."

"I wonder." Avon rose shakily to his feet, looking as if he'd been to the wars. Blood stained the corner of his mouth and one eye was already swelling shut. "Out here in the spiral arm, we could get well away from any reference points if we went too far. I don't like the look of the main screen."

Jenna glanced at it. "I think it's simply down, Avon. Give us time to recharge some power. We only have life support on the flight deck. I think Zen compensated the best he could. Between all the power we expended firing and using the force wall, this nearly put us over the edge."

"But how will we get back?" asked Dayna, sitting up with Vila's help. "Blake will think we're dead."

"He's bound to do, I should think," Avon agreed. "Those ships will have gone up in a chain reaction, creating a spectacular explosion. When the smoke cleared, we'd be long gone. No one would have seen us vanish. No doubt our fearless leader is mourning us right now."

"You needn't enjoy it," snapped Jenna.

"I do not enjoy it, but I see no way to alter it. There is no communication on Blake's ship. We must wait, and since it cannot be changed, I see no point in bewailing it."

Tarrant had found a cloth to press against his nose. "But how long will it take us to get back?" he asked, sounding rather as if he had a bad cold.

"First we must establish our location, run damage checks, allow the energy banks time to recharge," said Jenna practically. Avon was right; they could do nothing about Blake right now. He would have a bad few days, but assuming he survived the battle, they would pick him up as soon as possible. Jenna doubted she could be as cold blooded about it as Avon was, or as he pretended to be, but there was work to be done and she prepared to do it. "Zen, give us the status of the energy banks," she ordered. "When we tried this before, it didn't drain us like this."

"We had not then been through a major battle nor had we used this ship as a battering ram," Avon reminded her. "Zen, answer the question."

+Energy banks...four, five, six and seven are totally drained. Life support can be maintained on the flight deck and priority...is given to establishing it throughout the ship. Evacuation will not be necessary...but warmer clothing is recommended.+

"Wonderful," moaned Vila. "We're going to freeze here because we'll suffocate if we go after warmer clothes."

"The flight deck is not sealed off," Cally pointed out. I shall retrieve thermal suits and return immediately."

"If you do not return," Avon replied, "We will at least know the extent of life support available."

Favoring him with a sour smile, she darted down the corridor.

"You're not going to let her go off and die are you?" Vila asked Avon reproachfully.

Avon wiped his hand across his mouth, and looked down at the blood on his fingers. "What do you suggest I do?"

"Did you cut your lip, or should we be concerned that you've a punctured lung?" Ketter asked, looking up from the temporary splint he had adjusted on Greshan's arm.

"I bit my tongue," Avon said repressively. He glanced at his watch. "Zen, will Cally need rescue?"

+Negative.+

The computer was right, for in a moment, Cally returned with an armload of environmental suits and began to distribute them. Avon took one and put it on, then he retrieved Orac from the place it had been flung and inserted the key. "Orac, are you intact?"

+Barely. Such a performance was certainly unnecessary, and risky in the extreme. In future, I will require a more secure location before you play your childish games with the ship.+

"He's all right," Vila replied, struggling into his suit. "When can we go back for Blake, Zen?"

+Auto repairs will be complete in forty-six hours.+

"But anything might happen in forty-six hours," protested Jenna in alarm. "Blake's in trouble no matter which way the battle goes."

"But Servalan gave her word, " Ketter objected. "You can't believe they'd take Blake prisoner after all he's done to help fight the Andromedans." When no one replied, he looked around the dimly lit fight deck in dismay, finally turning to Major Dill. "What about you? Surely you'd defend the Federation."

"Blake will be an embarrassment to Servalan now," Dill replied in a matter of fact voice. "They believe the Liberator destroyed. It Blake is left at liberty, he'll be considered a hero and people will flock to him, largely out of sympathy for the loss they believe he has experienced and the sacrifices he has made for them. The last thing Servalan wants is to elevate Blake to sainthood. If the people find out he's dead at her hand, he'll become a martyr. I expect she'll kill him secretly as soon as the furor dies down."

"I don't believe it," Ketter insisted, but he looked shaken, his expression horrified, as his eyes flitted from one to the other of them. Lately Jenna had suspected the young biologist was starting to see things Blake's way, and she wondered if his protest was a last ditch stand to maintain his outdated convictions. They were the sort of convictions that wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. Ketter was intelligent enough to realize that.

"We'll need to pull him out of a cell," Vila muttered mournfully. "I'll have to start practicing my locks again, unless we can teleport directly into his cell. I hope we can. I'm not a well man, you know."

"Assuming Servalan doesn't kill him out of hand," Avon volunteered, a cynical expression upon his face.

"She'd have to," agreed Dill.

"Surely you can see how wrong that is," Tarrant accused his former teacher. "l seem to remember you taught us ethics as well as how to pilot a ship. But maybe it's the same type of ethics that sent young pilots out to butcher innocent planetary populations because their leaders wouldn't join the Federation." His face twisted with dark memories, and Jenna saw Ketter eye him with growing realization that matched her own. For the first time, she understood why Tarrant had defected. He must be another frustrated idealist. They seemed to have their fair share of them. As dismay filled the young pilot's eyes, she realized he regretted the confidence and she felt a sudden compulsion to distract the crew's attention away from him before someone said something that embarrassed him still further.

"It's cold in here," Vila burst out, making a great show of turning up the controls in his thermal suit. His complaint broke the building tension, and Jenna welcomed it, wondering if Vila had done it deliberately. Once she would have doubted it, but she had started to think there was more to their complaining and cowardly thief than met the eye.

"All right everyone, let's see what we can do to speed along the auto repairs," she said briskly, turning to Zen's main fascia. "Zen, can you give us a list of problems that we could work on? Is there any way we can cut into that forty-six hours?"

+Confirmed,+ Zen intoned in a dragging voice like a recording played at the wrong speed. +Forward drive links must be replaced manually...+

Avon turned to Orac as Zen ran through a checklist. "Record Zen's list, Orac." For once the little computer offered no protest.

"Time to work, Vila," Tarrant told the thief, giving him a broad grin as if in acknowledgment of Vila's earlier intervention.

"Work," Vila cried mournfully, though only Jenna and Tarrant noticed that he winked at the pilot before pasting on a much put-upon expression.

"Cheer up, Vila," Avon told him with a bright, false smile. "If nothing else, it will keep you warm."

*** *** ***

 

As the Liberator approached Earth, Orac reported that there was no record of Roj Blake in any accessible files. After careful study, the computer discovered an unknown prisoner who had been incarcerated by Servalan immediately following the battle, after a meeting she had held with a Lt. Para. Major Dill muttered an angered protest that his officer would disregard his orders the moment his back was turned.

"Now, perhaps, you will believe us," Avon told Ketter smoothly. "Not that I wish to promote Blake's cause, but an unreasonable belief in something that has been proven false isn't worthy of your father's son."

Vila eyed Avon suspiciously. The tech had given Ketter far more time and tolerance than the idealistic young fool had any right to expect. It made Vila wonder if Avon had himself once been an idealistic young fool who had believed in Doctor Lenard Ketter.

Ketter stiffened automatically. Mention of his father had the power to sting him from his complacency. But after a minute, he raised his eyes to Avon's and nodded in agreement. "All right. I've been fighting it from the first, but maybe Blake is right." He stiffened his spine and glared at all of them as if to defy them to comment. "I'm willing to listen."

"Servalan won't be happy with you," Dayna told him. "She's not the type of woman who tolerates opponents."

"She tends to kill them," Tarrant added.

Ketter nodded. "Then what would you say to a new crew member? I could keep up with my own research with Orac's help, and I might even have a chance to tone up my medical skills. Knowing you lot, it seems a certainty."

"You've made our day," said Avon sardonically, but he didn't protest further.

They put Major Dill and Captain Greshan down outside the dome, and Avon teleported down for Blake. Orac had determined that the cell was unguarded and unshielded and was able to set the coordinates to put Avon directly there. Tarrant had seen the Federation officers down and teleported back to the ship with their bracelets only moments before Avon returned, a curiously relieved expression imperfectly masked on his face, with Blake. The rebel leader looked around the teleport section with shining eyes and proceeded to embrace Cally and Jenna. Trust him to enjoy the pretty girls. If Dayna hadn't been on the flight deck, he would probably have embraced her too, thought Vila sourly, wondering what he needed to do to get such favor from the female crew members.

"I thought you were dead," Blake burst out, smiling madly around as if he'd just won the Galactic Lottery.

"We weren't sure about you either," Vila replied, moved by all the hugging to give Blake a friendly squeeze. Blake hugged him back enthusiastically, clasped Tarrant's hand and looked around with great satisfaction, taint disbelief lingering in his eyes. Vila doubted he could quite believe in their survival yet. "I want to hear how you survived. I told myself Avon did something with the detector shield but I couldn't make myself believe it."

They went to the flight deck where Dayna jumped up eagerly to greet Blake. Vila smiled knowingly when Blake hugged her too.

Jon Ketter turned to Blake, his face serious, rather like a guilty schoolboy prepared to confess a misdemeanor to his headmaster. "I've been waiting to tell you, Blake--I've come round to your way of thinking. You've finally convinced me." He shook his head, causing his hair to tumble into his eyes. "Actually, it was Servalan who did the final convincing. Orac says she meant to have you killed simply because she couldn't risk having you around and Dill said he was right. That's wrong. I can't support that kind of situational ethics."

"Your simple faith in right and wrong should provide us many enlightening hours," Avon told him wryly, but he didn't seem displeased.

"Then you'll join us?" Blake asked eagerly offering the biologist his hand. "Welcome to the Liberator."

"And you are welcome to it," Vila muttered.

That settled, Blake looked around the flight deck as if he couldn't believe he was seeing it. "If someone doesn't tell me how you survived immediately, I shall start bashing heads together," he threatened. "This had better be good."

Avon and Jenna explained in chorus; the former, in his laconic way, making sure Blake realized it had been his idea, the latter describing the difficulties they'd encountered. Tarrant put in a few enthusiastic words about the Liberator's capabilities, and everyone else added their own bits here and there.

Blake listened, enthralled. "I forgot all about it," he burst out. "After that first time we tested it and almost got tossed on our ears, we never used it, and I doubt it would have occurred to me. You gave me a few bad days, but it was worth it."

"So what do we do next, Blake?" asked Tarrant. "Start fighting the Federation?"

"In my ship?" Avon asked skeptically. He stood directly in front of Blake and purred in an ominous voice, "Perhaps we should discuss my ownership of the Liberator now."

"I know it's your ship, Avon," replied Blake without hesitation but not entirely convincingly. "If you'll allow it," he persisted, locking eyes with the tech, "I hope you'll allow me to use it a little longer. We still have work to do, uniting the outer worlds while the Federation is weak."

Vila watched knowingly as Avon presented Blake with an irritated face and--to no one's real surprise--the use of the Liberator. He did not offer to give the ship back, but those two understood each other very well. Vila wasn't surprised to realize that he and the others considered it Blake's ship, but it didn't hurt to let Avon claim it. Vila wiped away his smile quickly before Avon turned and saw it.

"Perhaps I should charge rent," Avon muttered, turning away.

"And make him pay for damages," Vila suggested with a mischievous grin.

"Not fair, Vila," accused Blake, but he was smiling.

"Fair? No one is ever fair to me. I'm dragged hither and yon about the galaxy, forced to deal with Federation bases and nasty aliens and all for what? So I can be beaten over the head with lead pipes and cut into spare parts."

"And here thought you were already a spare part," Avon retaliated roundly.

"What about the Andromedans, Blake?" asked Cally practically. "I know they were defeated, but surely some of them have survived. Our truce with Servalan is at an end. Will we still guard against the Andromedans?"

"We still have Ketter's enzyme," Blake reminded her, pacing back and forth across the flight deck, getting into his stride. "We shall offer it to every planet we encounter. In the meantime, we'll see what we can achieve against the Federation, working to unite the various rebel groups. Perhaps people like Dill can fight from the inside."

"I should not be surprised," Cally replied. "If we could have kept him longer, he might have come around to our viewpoint."

"He did come around to it," Avon pointed out. "At least he understood it. But he is no idealist. He doubts any good will come of Blake's crusade, but I suspect Blake has corrupted him enough to try. He is only one man, but he may yet achieve some good from within--if Servalan doesn't have him killed first." He shook his head with remarkable tolerance.

"This all sounds unduly optimistic of you, Avon," Blake returned, an affectionate warmth lighting his eyes as he studied the man who both resisted and supported him. "Perhaps, like Ketter, I have been contaminated by your presence."

"Like all of us," Cally observed quietly. "Blake has a way of getting to people."

"Like a virus," muttered Avon under his breath, unwilling to yield completely.

Blake laughed. "I'm too glad to see you to resent that, Avon. Let's start planning our strategy." He sat down, looking around the flight deck at his expanded crew with a benevolent smile. "Between my cause and 'Avon's ship, I think the Federation will find themselves in trouble."

Avon grimaced, but when he spoke, he sounded amused, rather than critical. "Almost as much as we will," he said.

The End


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