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A Stitch in Time

By Sheila Paulson
A STITCH IN TIME

[Blake's Seven & Beauty And The Beast]

Sheila Paulson

Avon looked around the dark tunnel and frowned in confusion. A moment before, he had been in the dome laboratory of Dr Chandar, prepared to investigate his research, accompanied by a complaining Vila Restal. Now he was here, and he had no idea where 'here' was. Taking a firm grip on his clipgun, he raised his bracelet to his lips and activated it. "Soolin, bring me up," he ordered, only to receive a burst of static in reply. A second attempt produce only more static, forcing him to conclude that the bracelet was either damaged or jammed. He couldn't use it to escape, at least not yet. Maybe he was too far beneath the surface for the bracelet to work. He'd have to climb higher, maybe returning to the sub-basements of the dome. It wouldn't do to be trapped here on Earth by the Federation, not when the Federation were actively seeking him. If Servalan were on Earth now, she would be delighted to discover that his mission had gone wrong.

He glanced around the dim cavern, lit by faint light that trickled through several cracks in the walls. Maybe he wasn't as far down as he'd thought; perhaps this was directly beneath Chandar's lab; maybe he had fallen through a trapdoor and been stunned. A slight confusion might inevitably follow something like that, though he had no memory of falling. Besides, coward though he was, Vila would have located him by now. There were few places Vila couldn't manage to open if he were scared enough, and being stranded in a mad scientist's lab on Earth in one of the domed cities was not the kind of place Vila would wish to remain alone. He would even view Avon's dubious companionship as better than that.

"Vila?" Avon called softly. If there were enemies here, it would never do to alert them by shouting for Vila. If the thief were nearby, he would hear Avon, and if he wasn't, then no one else would hear him.

The mission had been a risky one from the beginning, one that none of the others had liked, and one on which they had come only under protest. Orac had picked up a report on a Federation scientist named Chandar who was developing a device which could selectively alter time. Avon had been skeptical of the success of such a machine, but Chandar had displayed records which seemed to prove he had altered something--a Federation officer with detailed records, who had been a member of a certain academy class, was offered for confirmation; no one in the class could remember him or his family, though Chandar had photos and computer records, which had been shielded in his lab and which had not vanished or altered when his tampering was completed. The man in question was now believed to have died in his teens in a flyer accident before he could enter the academy, but the pictures and reports--and fingerprints, and other means of identification matched him perfectly. Scepticism ran high among the authorities who had studied his reports, but Commissioner Sleer had proclaimed herself interested in them. Avon, who was inclined to be skeptical, knowing how easily computers could be used to falsify such information, could not risk the remote possibility that the old man's process worked. How easy would it be, if it did work, for Servalan to selectively erase any one of them? Avon did not take kindly to the thought of being erased.

So they came to Earth and he and Vila had teleported down to the city. It had proven so easy to gain admittance to the deserted lab that Avon was doubly suspicious, but once Vila had managed the doors, Avon went to work at the computer and began to download files to Orac for processing. The program was not, as he had expected, a time machine, for transporting people to and fro into history and the future, but it could be adapted so. What it did was provide a window into any given time, focusing on a selected individual or place. Then that person could be manipulated, killed, elevated into position. There was a backup system which led to a different screen on his panel, one which referred to a 'Gate'. Vila was alarmed, suggesting an opening into another time, but Avon had scoffed at the idea. Surely not even Vila could expect to enter another time through a glass-fronted screen thirty centimeters square.

"Then why call it a gate?" Vila demanded, "And if it isn't a way into the past or future, why is it set up for dates?"

"It would be a monitoring tool only, Vila," Avon had snapped impatiently. "It's set so far back in time there would be little effect on anyone living today. You would alter the times by setting these controls--no, you fool, don't touch them!"

Vila jerked his hand back as if it had been stung, "I wasn't going to touch them," he argued. "Only turn on the screen. That couldn't hurt, could it?"

"I would prefer to avoid that risk."

But Vila's meddling must have activated something because all at once, the screen glowed and an image appeared, a dimly lit passageway or cavern, in which nothing was clearly visible. After a few moments' scrutiny, Avon realized it could not harm them and he returned to his work with Orac.

"Avon?"

"Now what, Vila?" Avon snarled impatiently.

"I don't want to make trouble, but have you looked at that plate you're standing on? It's glowing."

Avon glanced down at his feet involuntarily and started to step to one side.

His memory resolved itself. The panel must have been some kind of teleport platform. Was this the dark tunnel that had been visible on the screen? Was there a way out? If Chandar was of an unforgiving nature, he might decide to send meddlers into a place from which they could not escape. Doubtful of Vila's ability to reverse the process, Avon made himself wait on the off chance that the bungling thief could retrieve him, but after twenty minutes, nothing happened. An alarm might have gone off, summoning the Federation. Vila might be a prisoner now, or, more likely, he might have fled in a panic. Avon's only chance out of this mess would be Orac, who had been recording the entire process. It would be wise to stay in this vicinity if not the exact spot, so that Orac could locate him and retrieve him.

There was, of course, the possibility that the others would cut their losses and run. Avon frowned. He might do that himself. He had no faith in the others' good nature. If it had been Blake, now, well, Blake would have done everything possible to retrieve him, but then Blake had always been a fool. He had even trusted Avon.

A scuffling in the tunnel behind him alerted him to impending danger and he tightened his grip on his weapon and ducked into the shelter of a stalactite that cast even darker shadows in the already dimly lit passage and waited. If it was Federation....

But it wasn't Federation after all. Instead, it was a young man with light hair and tatterdemalion attire, accompanied by an alien of an unfamiliar race. Aliens on Earth were rare, the Federation being markedly human chauvinistic, and even on Liberator, Avon had seldom encountered aliens. This one, though far hairier than mainbreed humans, was not so alien as the Andromedans, for instance, or Blake's Zil. Avon had to hide a smile at the thought of Vila's reaction to the sudden appearance of a hairy alien, something he had always feared.

He thought himself well concealed, but the alien must need less light to see by than the human youth, for he came to an abrupt stop and put out an arm to stop his companion. "Someone is here," he remarked in accented but fluent Terran.

"Where?" his companion demanded. "Who...."

"I have you covered," Avon announced coldly, his gun at ready. "Don't try anything or I'll be forced to fire."

The human took an involuntary step backward, but the alien showed no trace of fear. "Your weapon is not necessary," he explained kindly. "No one will harm you here. If you are on the run, we will permit you to go your way. If you need refuge, that might be possible, too."

"And if I choose not to believe you?" Avon demanded skeptically. "You're only trying to disarm me."

The alien moved so quickly that Avon had no time to fire, sweeping the gun from his hand effortlessly. Avon jerked back a second too late. Passing the clipgun to the young man, the alien stared at Avon but made no threatening moves. Avon held the gaze coldly, wondering at its eyes and their similarity to human eyes, their expression reminiscent of Blake at his best, recalling the times when he had genuinely seemed to care for his crew as much as he did for his blasted rabble. Avon resented the reminder. He preferred not to remember Blake at all.

"Never saw a gun like this," the boy burst out in astonishment. "Take it apart?"

"No, we shall lock it away," the alien replied. "We want no guns here."

"But it's different," his companion protested, grinning, and offered, "Make you another?"

The alien chuckled softly, giving him an affectionate pat on the shoulder. "One is too many."

Avon had been biding his time and now, while the alien and his friend squabbled over the clipgun, he took his chance and fled. The light was bad and he thought he could elude them. Pushing free of them, he raced down the tunnel, hearing their cries of protest behind him. "Not that way!" the alien shouted, thudding along behind him at an amazing clip.

"Dangerous," called the young man. "You'll fall!"

Avon hesitated. He didn't believe them, but they must live down here and maybe they knew the hazards of the place. Whoever they were, they didn't look Federation. For all he knew, they were more of Blake's rabble, though they had seemed remarkably uninterested in the clipgun, at least the alien had. More likely this was a hiding place, a way to avoid the Federation entirely. The youth had the feel of a Delta grade about him. He'd probably fled a labor gang and sought refuge below the domes. Perhaps there was a whole colony of fugitives down here.

But before he could decide if they were telling the truth, the tunnel proved their words in the worst possible way, by collapsing beneath him and pitching him forward into darkness.

He didn't fall very far, but it was far enough to make the landing painful. He felt his ankle give beneath him, pitching him forward. His head collided with something and, with a burst of stars before his eyes, he lost all interest in the proceedings.

Vaguely, and with a confused and blurred sensation of pain, he felt a hairy hand touch the side of his face and knew the alien had come down after him. "Help me lift him," the deep voice instructed, and a scrambling sound announced the arrival of his ally.

"Can you hear me?" the alien asked, resting his hand on Avon's shoulder.

Avon made a faint, confused sound of pain.

"We are going to move you out of here," he was told. "We will not hurt you, but it will be painful to move you. You have many bruises and a sprained ankle, and I fear you have a concussion. But we promise you that we will not turn you over to the authorities without hearing your side of the story first. I know you do not yet believe that, but it is true."

"Always keeps his word," the human added reassuringly. "Trust him."

"I trust no one," Avon hissed, and passed out.

*****

"But I tell you, he just vanished!" Vila wailed. "I couldn't find him anywhere. And there were troopers coming. I could hear them. I had to teleport."

"You idiot, Vila," Dayna snapped at him. "For all you know, that machine could have sent him back in time, and you've run out on him. How can we hope to get him back without that place?"

Vila shuddered. The troops had nearly caught him, and his last memory before the teleport had taken him was the sound of their firing and the crackle of sizzling wiring. The place was probably fried, effectively destroying Avon's only chance of rescue. Via hadn't been very fond of Avon since Malodaar, but Avon hadn't killed him on the shuttle and, while not ready to be forgiving, Vila was not quite prepared to wish Avon stranded in time, either. At least, he told himself, not permanently. Stranding for a while might do him good, but not forever.

"You forget, Vila," Tarrant interrupted before the thief could burst out with his fears, "Orac was recording all of that. If anyone can duplicate that device, it's Orac. How about it, Orac?"

The computer displayed its interest in the problem by responding immediately. "This is a complex mechanism. It will require much study before I can formulate an answer. As to whether it can be duplicated, I see no reason why not, though it will be time consuming and will require much detailed work on your part. A pity Avon is the one missing, for he could have completed the needed work far more easily than the rest of you."

"It's nice to be appreciated," Vila muttered under his breath.

"I do not appreciate you," Orac returned haughtily. "Now I require time to study the device. When I am ready for you to begin your work, I will inform you." Its lights began blinking industriously and Tarrant pulled the key.

"We'll check back with him later. As for now, I think we should get out of here. I don't like being this close to Earth. It makes us too big a target, and we don't have Liberator anymore. It will be harder to get away if we're spotted."

"Just leave Avon?" Dayna asked skeptically.

"He won't like that," observed Soolin, folding her arms across her chest and regarding the others with a detached stare.

"The point being, Avon is not here," Tarrant reminded them. "Theoretically, he's somewhere in the past. You can't remember what that machine was set for, can you, Vila?"

"The past, I told you, it was set for the past."

"Not good enough, Vila."

"Well, Orac'll have it recorded, won't he, then?"

"Maybe we're all missing the point," Soolin remarked abruptly as Tarrant set the course to take them out of the solar system. "Maybe Avon was transferred to somewhere else on Earth--maybe that scientist has developed a rudimentary teleport system. Or maybe...." Her voice trailed off thoughtfully, her expression inscrutable.

"Maybe what?" Vila prodded, positive he wouldn't like her answer.

"Maybe that plate he was standing on was a weapon, a defense mechanism to protect the laboratory. Maybe Avon wasn't shifted in time or location. Maybe he was vaporized."

Vila's stomach lurched and he was pulled up sharply at the reaction. After Avon had tried to kill him, he couldn't possibly have any feeling left for him, could he? If he did, what did that say for his common sense, let alone his survival instincts? But the fact remained that, while he was still furious with Avon and hurt by Avon's betrayal, he didn't want Avon dead. He tried to tell himself that it was because if anyone was going to do away with Avon, it should be him, but that wasn't the answer.

"Then maybe we should get right away from here," he made himself say. "Hanging around's only likely to get us caught."

Soolin eyed him through narrowed eyes and even Tarrant turned from the controls to give him a considering stare, but Dayna burst out, "We can't do that. We've no proof Avon is dead."

"None that he's alive, either," Vila insisted.

"Only the fact that Orac didn't seem to think we'd be wasting our time looking for him, and Orac wouldn't bother if the device was nothing more than a weapon to vaporize trespassers." She looked at Vila consideringly. "We're not going to run and leave him here."

"Surprisingly loyal, " Tarrant muttered.

"Someone must be." She cast a dark look at Vila. Tarrant followed the look but didn't comment, and Vila had the uneasy certainty that Tarrant knew exactly what had happened on that shuttle of Egrorian's.

"So what do we do now?" Soolin asked practically.

Tarrant smiled, displaying what seemed like a vast quantity of predatory teeth. "What we do best," he announced. "We wait."

*****

Avon awoke with a pounding head, a throbbing ankle, and a multitude of lesser aches and pains. He was lying on a bed that would have been comfortable if it weren't for his injuries, and the light on the other side of his closed eyelids felt dim. Cautiously, he risked opening his eyes and found himself in a candle-lit chamber, bathed in a soothing, yellow glow, while a bearded human completed fastening a support bandage around his ankle.

Sensing Avon's revival, he looked up curiously. He was at least twenty years Avon's senior. He wore an air of authority without dominance and a sense of calm that Avon had never been able to emulate that reminded him of Blake at his best. Avon stared at the man, realizing he meant him no actual harm. But when he looked at Avon, he saw a threat. Not a fool, then.

Avon's mind was surprisingly clear, though he knew he was too badly injured to attempt an escape. From the savage throbbing in his ankle, he doubted it would support him and his vision was fuzzy. If he didn't lie very still, the room would swirl around him and he would probably pass out again, which made him effectively this man's prisoner.

The only advantage was that he did not wear a Federation uniform or a jailer's visage. Perhaps he didn't realize who Avon was, or didn't care. Until he understood the situation properly, Avon would do nothing to alienate him. Perhaps, by then, he would be strong enough to defend himself. Until then, he would play this by ear.

"So you're awake," the man said. "My son brought you to me. He tends to bring home strays. What do you remember of your arrival here?"

Avon narrowed his eyes. "Two men encountered me in a tunnel. One of them was an alien. He took my gun and when I tried to run, I fell. He claimed I would not be harmed." He looked down at himself deprecatingly. "Interesting how seldom men keep their word."

The man had frozen. "An alien?" he echoed. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean the man who found me was not a standard human. I'm not familiar with his planet of origin, though I've traveled more widely than most people, but...."

He came to an abrupt stop because the man was gaping at him as if he didn't believe what he was hearing. "Planet of origin?" he repeated.

Avon massaged his temples. "Must you keep repeating everything I say? Are you so isolated here that the concept of travel to other worlds has escaped you? How do you explain the alien else?"

"I know of no aliens here."

"Ah yes. It's to be passed off as head injury, no doubt."

"You are severely concussed. This is the first time you've spoken coherently, though your words have made me doubt you this time, too."

"This time? How long have I been here?"

"Two days."

Two days and the others had not located him. That seemed unlikely and was also a very bad sign. How deep beneath the city had he fallen? He looked at his wrist and saw that his teleport bracelet was gone, in fact, his arm was bare. His clothing had gone, too. "What have you done with my possessions?" he demanded coldly.

"We have them safe for you," the man replied with a touch of resentment at the veiled accusation. "We are not thieves here."

"My gun?"

"Safe."

"By which I presume you will return it to me when it is time for me to leave?"

"Perhaps," the man replied. "I am called Father. May I know your name?"

Avon hesitated. To give his name was to expose himself to danger but, after two days, he was not in Federation hands, though surely someone here must have recognized him. He said flatly, "My name is Avon. Suppose you tell me where I am and how I came here?"

"As for how you came here, only you can tell us that, and this place is secret. You've seen...the alien. Surely you realize why he must be kept a secret?"

"If you plan to make war on Earth, you have my permission as long as you take the Federation with you."

"The Federation?" He smiled abruptly. "But I'm echoing you again. Suppose you tell me where you were before you came here?"

"I was in the North American dome. This place is beneath it, isn't it? A secret base?"

Father's lips twitched in an abortive smile. "I have never heard it described in quite those terms but it will suffice."

"So he is awake?" The alien entered with a long stride, unfastening the billowing cloak he wore and tossing it aside, pausing to rest an affectionate hand on Father's shoulder. "You suffered a bad fall," he said to Avon. "But your injuries are not serious."

Father smiled up at him, then turned back to Avon. "This is Vincent," he said. "My son."

Avon's eyes widened. "Biologically impossible, I should guess."

"Adopted," Vincent confessed.

"What is your planet of origin?"

Vincent stared at Father in astonishment.

"He has been speaking of aliens and travel to distant worlds since he awakened. Either he has come from further than most of us believe possible, or he has come from a refuge within his own mind."

"Why is it so difficult to believe what I am telling you?" Avon demanded. "One would think you had never heard of the Inner and Outer Worlds."

Vincent's catlike lips quirked in a smile. "Perhaps because we have not."

"This is a trap," Avon snarled. "Leave me. If you mean to attempt brainwashing you must...." Then his voice trailed off as he remembered the device he and Vila had been examining before he had found himself in the passage. "What year is this?" he demanded suspiciously, hoping his sudden speculation was wrong.

"1989. Should that matter?" Father asked.

"So," he breathed. "It was a time traveling device."

Father and Vincent exchanged skeptical glances. If he were so far in the past, in the Twentieth Century, old Calendar, naturally, they had not yet been exposed to space travel. But then how to explain Vincent?

"I would be more inclined to believe your story if it weren't for you," Avon told Vincent. "Twentieth Century Earth was entirely human. How did you come to be here? Through an unlikely accident, such as my own?"

"We do not know the answers to that," Vincent confessed ruefully. "I was found as an infant and taken in."

"You can't believe his story, Vincent," Father protested, pacing back and forth, a slight limp evident as he made his way across the chamber.

"It feels as if he means what he is saying," Vincent returned. "I sense a strong feeling of privacy about him and a need to conceal himself from others. His reaction to me was instinctive, but bore none of the instincts of those above. He showed no surprise when he first encountered me. Had I traveled to distant worlds and seen all manner of beings, I believe I would be less likely to react with fear to the sight of an unfamiliar life form." He sighed faintly and Avon heard a wistful note in the sound and realized that Vincent was as effectively stranded in the Twentieth Century as he was and that, perhaps, it was worse for Vincent, who was an alien in his own home. The momentary sympathy vanished immediately as Avon narrowed his eyes. He was inclined to believe their story; if the device he had examined could affect the past, travel into time was a logical extension of its function. But he doubted they would believe him.

Father put a hand up to check Vincent. "He's not well enough to reason this out yet, Vincent. We must let him rest. When he wakes again, some hot broth might help."

"I will stay with him," Vincent offered, taking his place in a nearby chair and stretching out a furred hand to retrieve a book from the bedside table. Avon saw that it was a collection of the sonnets of William Shakespeare.

After Father left, Avon lay unmoving, too spent and weary to carry on further conversation, but unable to sleep. His muscles were taut with tension and unease, and he felt abandoned in a place where no one would watch his back. No one had watched it on Scorpio, either, but he felt even more alone here than he had in his own place, and he knew that if he slept like this he would dream. The dreams were familiar ones; Cally crushed in the rubble, Anna dead in his arms, Blake missing, possibly dead, Vila in the shuttle, staring at Avon with bruised, accusing eyes. Avon shifted restlessly and closed his eyes.

There was a rustle of pages as Vincent opened the book. "Shall I read to you?"

Startled, Avon opened his eyes. He couldn't remember anyone reading to him, not even when he was a child, but the idea was not as repellent as he had expected it to be. Certainly there were far worse things than being read to. Vincent's voice was deep and flowing and, if nothing else, it might put him to sleep.

"If you wish," Avon replied ungraciously.

Vincent smiled faintly and selected a sonnet at random.

Avon didn't listen to the actual words. He had read various plays by the Bard and had enjoyed them, but the sonnets had always put him off, full of romantic sentiment that Avon found tedious. Listening now, he realized that the poetry was meant to flow; like the plays, the sonnets sounded well aloud, and Avon enjoyed the reading , though he sensed that, for Vincent, the sentiment was real. He loved someone deeply and read the poems as a tribute to her, but surely there were no others like him here. Avon didn't care about other people's love affairs, even unlikely ones. Love affairs only led to betrayal, and those who believed otherwise were fools.

But the mellifluous voice poured over him like soothing balm, and Avon felt his rigid muscles begin to ease. He shifted cautiously, trying to find a position that did not hurt too badly, and let himself go with the flow. He was curiously relaxed, wondering with sudden alarm if Father had drugged him. But there was none of the blurred lethargy a sedative might produce. If he were really in the past, perhaps he was safe, at last from the Federation.

He didn't trust either Vincent or Father, of course, or the other man who had been with Vincent in the tunnels and who had been so interested in the clipgun. But he felt no malice in Vincent. Later, when he was well, he would try to rationalize that feeling but, for now, there was only a strange and unlikely peace as he drifted into sleep. Vincent would watch his sleep, and he defied anyone to get past such a powerful looking being. Fangs and claws aside, the alien musculature looked as if it could handle most crises.

Avon's last thought before he dozed off was to wonder what Vila would make of this hairy alien.

*****

"It's been two days," Vila complained, casting a resentful look at the contraption that was steadily taking over Scorpio's flight deck. Orac was the only one of them having a good time, working on redesigning the equipment that had been damaged on Earth, ordering all of them about as if they were all Delta Grades, and picking on Slave until it reached new depths of subservience. Vila enjoyed the sight of Tarrant jumping to obey Orac, but he was sure that when Avon was back, Tarrant would find a way to make him pay for the experience. When that happened, Vila planned to go to ground somewhere safe. He'd had enough of Avon's bad temper.

"It looks like it'll take at least two more," Soolin remarked. She seemed cool and disinterested but she was quick to help with the design of the equipment. Vila wondered if she liked any of them but all but then, why should she? None of them seemed to like each other any more, least of all Avon, not that he had ever liked any of them to start with.

Vila smothered a sigh. Thinking of Avon hurt him now. He'd always believed Avon liked him, at least a little, and that, as long as he was careful he was safe with Avon, but that one time had finally come when taking care wasn't good enough. The only reason he was alive was because Avon had found something heavier than he was to toss off Egrorian's shuttle. He hadn't expected Avon to sacrifice himself for Vila's sake, but he'd hoped Avon would have tried just a little harder to find a solution to Egrorian's treachery. On the other hand, maybe Avon had simply panicked. Vila had done it often enough, himself, and he might have come to terms with it more easily if Avon had said he was sorry--or if he couldn't manage the words, if he had let Vila know some other way that he regretted the incident. Vila would still have been hurt, but he could have accepted that. One of the reasons he was working so hard to construct the time travel device was so Avon would have one more chance to apologize to him. Vila narrowed his eyes. If he didn't, then the thief was well rid of him, and it wouldn't matter any more.

He didn't believe it one little bit.

They had returned cautiously to Earth, and now Vila sat looking at the planet on the main screen, wondering if Soolin had been right, if Avon were simply a prisoner on Earth. Would it be possible to determine if there were a form of teleport in the lab to shift intruders to a secure cell?

"Maybe we should send somebody down to make sure Avon isn't down there," he proposed tentatively.

Tarrant looked up from the panel he was working on. "Volunteering, Vila?" he asked in surprise.

"Maybe." He stood up defiantly. "We're awfully quick to believe he's in the past, aren't we? It shouldn't be so hard to check. We could teleport into that room again and see if there's any evidence of a teleport."

"We wouldn't get near the place," Dayna objected.

"But we've got to try," Vila insisted.

"If we put you down, you'd be on your own," Tarrant replied. "I can't spare any more of us. Then we'd probably have to rescue you, too."

"But Orac could attach a monitor, a tracer or something, and if I was still on Earth, you'd have that to go on."

"Avon's teleport bracelet didn't help him. What makes you think you'd be any safer than he was?"

"I don't know. But I want to try."

"You're a fool," Soolin insisted.

"That's what Avon always said."

Tarrant looked at him levelly. "All right, Vila. If you want to go looking for him, you can go. But I won't teleport you into the room directly. Outside. If you can get in, fine; have a look for Avon. If the place is too well guarded, then we'll bring you up again."

Vila nodded. He hated the idea of going down there again, but he had no choice. He wasn't sure why, but he believed he had to go after Avon. Damn the man! Vila would have no peace until he was found.

Oddly enough, the room was not guarded at all. The door was sealed up, but Vila had no trouble getting in. He called in to report his success, then he prowled across the room to the access panel that had been glowing when Avon stood on it. It was glowing faintly now.

Deliberately Vila stepped forward, placing first one foot and then the other on the panel.

Suddenly the floor was spinning around and the lab vanished before his eyes. The device was still working. Vila cried out, "It's happening," into his bracelet. There was no time for an answer.

*****

When Avon woke, he felt better. His mind was clear and he could think without the feeling that he was wading through mud. Of course, his body ached all the more for having time to stiffen up, and his ankle felt like fire but, as long as he was careful not to move, he could detach himself from the physical pain and allow himself to face his problem without distraction.

He lay listening to the almost subliminal sounds around him: rhythmic banging on metal, some kind of a code signal perhaps, and the occasional rattle and thunder of machinery that increased and faded again, like a ship passing only different. Ground vehicles in this distant century? Underground trains, he rather thought, casting his memory back to what little history he'd been allowed to read--and the forbidden books he had been unable to resist. They called it a tube or metro or subway; he wasn't sure which or, perhaps, they were all the same.

Vincent meant him no harm, though Father was suspicious of him. Avon must be doubly cautious here since he did not know his way around and since he was helpless, unable to return home. Home? A sour smile twisted his lips. He could not remember a place where he had ever felt at home, unless it was Liberator at the beginning, before Blake's fanaticism began to drive him further and further from the rest of his crew. Avon caught himself at the thought. No, Liberator had not been home either. He had never allowed it to be. Had he wanted it to be?

He ignored that thought, too, glad of a distraction when Vincent issued a young woman with shoulder length brown hair into the room. Never perceptive about people and their relationships, Avon could nevertheless feel a bond between these two even though they were neither looking at each other nor touching, not even with a hand-clasp.

"Catherine, this is Kerr Avon," Vincent introduced them. "Catherine Chandler. She lives above and works in the D.A.'s office."

"D.A.?" The term was unfamiliar.

"District Attorney," Catherine clarified hastily, looking at Vincent in surprise.

Avon shook his head. "I know what an attorney is, but not how this specific position fits into your culture. Didn't Vincent explain where 1 came from?"

"He told me where you claim to come from," she returned. "He doesn't think you're lying, but sometimes people believe impossible thing."

"In other words, you suspect I am mad." Avon smiled, and she winced at the sight of it. "Which may well be accurate on your part, though not with regard to my time of origin."

"You doubt your sanity?" Vincent asked with gentle interest.

"Perhaps."

"Then how do you expect us to believe a story on time travel?" Catherine wanted to know. "Vincent brought me down here to see if I can help you. If you are using your correct name, I can find no records of any criminal activity or any missing persons reports. I ran your name through our computer files and state records, even national ones, and you weren't there. Now that I hear you talk, I realize I might be checking the wrong records. You sound British. I'll need to check passport records and such things."

"Unlike Vincent, you are not prepared to take me on trust?" Avon asked. He respected her caution.

"Vincent can't allow himself to take you completely on trust either, Mr Avon," she returned. "The safety of other people is at stake. Vincent thinks you need a refuge, and he is prepared to offer you one, but the final decision is not his. I doubt the council will welcome you if you continue to talk about madness."

"Would you have me lie?"

"No, I would have you try a little honesty. Aside from the delusion about the future, you seem rational to me. While your story isn't something I'd easily believe, Vincent has taught me that nothing need be impossible simply because it seems to be." She smiled up at Vincent and put out her hand for his. He took it and squeezed it.

"You realize that your contention this is the past requires a leap of faith on my behalf as well," he reminded her. "I'm not accustomed to faith as I've learned to be suspicious. In my time, conditioning and programming are common, and this could be part of an elaborate drug-induced hallucination."

"So, the future is not a 'brave new world'?" Vincent remarked.

"Hardly, in the sense you mean," Avon remarked. "Though if you speak of the Twentieth Century novel rather than the Shakespearean quote, you might be more accurate than you believe."

"They allow such books in your world?"

"Hardly." He laughed bitterly. "My father held a high position and was allowed more leeway than many people. I used to read banned books whenever I could, learning early never to mention it to anyone. The fact that I am doing so now makes me wonder if I have been drugged or conditioned to believe your story."

"I think he means it, Vincent," Catherine said, regarding Avon with sympathy that bordered on pity. He resented it.

"It doesn't matter to me if you believe me. Either the people from my time will reverse the process or they won't. There is nothing I can do from this end." The thought of being stranded here disturbed him, though the pragmatic side of his nature began to weigh up the pros and cons of such a situation.

"I believe him," Vincent replied.

She smiled up at him. "You have a gift of seeing the truth--and the best in people."

Vincent returned the smile. "We must not keep him talking. He needs to rest. Father said not to disturb him for very long."

Catherine nodded." All right, I'll continue checking. We must be sure of you," she told Avon.

"I wish you luck."

"Does that mean that you intend harm down here?"

Avon met her eyes. "Only if I am harmed. I have no reason to threaten anyone else otherwise. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not enjoy causing pain."

She held his eyes for a long time, then she nodded. "You haven't always been fortunate enough to avoid it," she observed. "I'm sorry."

Avon turned away. Not only was his head throbbing painfully once again, but he did not want to speak to this woman any longer. She and Vincent between them saw far too much and he did not intend to expose himself to them any further.

"Let him rest." Vincent was annoyingly understanding. He put his hand on Catherine's arm and guided her from the room.

When they had gone, Avon found himself unable to sleep. His last words to Catherine echoed in his mind. 'I do not enjoy causing pain.'Was that why he had avoided Vila so carefully since returning from Egrorian's base? He could have done nothing else on the shuttle, and even the memory of Vila's hurt, resentful eves could not change that. Did Vila honestly believe Avon would nobly sacrifice himself to spare him? Dying together would be the sort of foolishness Tarrant would preach but likely not practice, and Dayna and Soolin would certainly have considered Vila expendable if the choice was that they were to die in his place. Vila knew that. Yet he kept looking at Avon expectantly and Avon was unable to understand why. In a crisis situation, his own safety must come first. But Vila's eyes had haunted Avon and he had taken to avoiding him. One would have expected the thief to have avoided him entirely, but whenever he turned, there was Vila, hovering in the background, his very posture a reproach. Avon did not know what Vila wanted, and neither did he understand why he should care if Vila wanted anything at all. But his words to Catherine had been true. Avon did not enjoy causing pain. He had never been granted the luxury of avoiding it but, given a choice, he would go his own way and avoid the complication. Once he had sought Vila in the shuttle, it became fact. He could not change it, and if it happened again, he would do the same.

He forced his eyes shut but that was worse, for Vila's reproachful expression haunted him all the worse behind his eyelids. Dayna's face, back on the Scorpio after Dr Plaxton's death was just as accusing, and that situation perplexed him still further. It had been a clear choice; save himself, his crew, hie ship, or all of them die. Dr Plaxton was expendable. With her death, he saved all the others. Yet the others had looked at him with loathing as if he had been torturing a kitten. What did they expect of him?

Not that it mattered, for his purpose had never been to fulfil the expectations of others. It was only lately that he found his nights full of unpleasant dreams, full of their bitter eyes, their pained stares. Along with Blake, they haunted his sleep and he could not understand why. Better to be rid of the lot of them so that he could be free.

He should have known better. Being rid of Blake had not freed him any more than he had been freed by Anna's death. Memory lingered painfully in each instance, and the only way to forget was to continue as coldly as possible and insist to himself and to the others that none of it mattered.

It was a pity it didn't work.

*****

Vila popped back into existence in a darkened tunnel and stood blinking, his hand tightening nervously on his gun, half expecting Federation guards to pounce on him and drag him off to prison. But no one came, so he took his bearings, putting a rough-hewn wall against his back so nothing nasty could creep up on him. He couldn't begin to understand what had driven him to come after Avon like this. He didn't even like Avon, did he?

But it wasn't finished. The shuttle crisis stood sharp and clear in his mind and until it was resolved, he would have no peace.

There was a faint echo down tie passage and he stiffened, drawing himself into a small ball and hiding behind a projection of stone. "Someone's coming," he nattered to himself. "At least, I hope it's someone and not something. Well, I'm armed. They'll find it's dangerous to tangle with me." He tried his bracelet without result, unsurprised. If this is where Avon had come, he hadn't been able to communicate either, and that meant that it was shielded--or that it was in another time. Vila preferred the first solution. Much easier to escape if all they had to do was find the surface.

Another sound, this time much closer. Vila chanced a peek down the tunnel and his head emerged directly in front of a fair haired young man. Both of them yelped and jumped back, startled, then, remembering he was armed, Vila collected his scattered wits and aimed at the man. "Don't try anything."

"You're another one," the man insisted. "Better put that away. Nobody will hurt you."

"That's an old trick," Vila commented. "I think I'll just hang onto this until I'm sure, thank you very much. Another one, eh? You mean Avon, don't you? What have you done with him?"

"Friend of yours?"

Vila hesitated. "Something like that. I've come after him. Where is he?"

"Ran away," the native confessed. "Fell down a pit. Hurt. Vincent took him to Father."

"Fell down a pit?" That didn't sound like Avon. "Ran away? Why? Did you threaten him?"

"Vincent says he doesn't trust anyone."

"Whoever this Vincent is, he's right. Avon doesn't trust anyone, not even himself." Maybe that was part of the problem. "How badly is he hurt?"

"Father says concussion and a sprained ankle. Has a headache, Catherine came to see him. Take you there."

It was the best offer Vila had received all day. "See that you do," he ordered, trying to get a firm grasp on a situation that was rapidly getting out of hand. "My name's Vila Restal," he explained.

The stranger patted his chest. "Mouse. This way. Hurry."

Vila heaved a sigh and followed his prisoner? captor? deeper into tunnel.

*****

"He seems very bitter," Catherine said. She and Vincent had returned to his chamber and now she sat on the edge of his bed while he paced about the room. "I don't know what he's been through, but it's been very bad."

Vincent turned to face her. "I know that, Catherine. I wish I believed I could help him."

Her face lit up. "If anyone can, you can, Vincent. I know that. You can do one thing for him that I doubt has been done before, not in a long time. You care."

"He seems a lonely soul," Vincent replied. "He greeted us with hostility, but a cornered animal will even attack those who mean it well until it learns that some people are trustworthy. I don't think Avon believes that anyone can be trusted. It will not be easy."

"Will the council let him stay here?" she asked.

"They might. Father is concerned about the violence he feels in Avon and I must be concerned, too, but no one will turn him out while he is helpless. Once he is well, he may not wish to stay. I do not believe he will betray us."

"But, Vincent, you said he spoke of betrayal in his delirium."

"Of others betraying him. I would not take such ravings for fact."

He said he did not enjoy causing pain," she mused thoughtfully, taking up a small statuette of a cat and stroking it, enjoying the feel of smooth, cold stone under her fingertips. "I think he meant it. But I think he has caused pain. I don't want him to cause you any."

"I can protect myself, Catherine. You know that."

"From physical attack," she conceded. "I always feel safe with you. But you can be hurt--inside. Don't risk too much with this man, Vincent. He may not worth it."

"I cannot turn my back on him, Catherine. I sense something in him that might have been good. Everyone else has turned on him. I have no wish to add myself to the list. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt--until I know he what he means. Perhaps he can learn that not everyone is his enemy." He stopped his pacing and came to stand beside her and she rose and put her arms around him.

"I don't know what it is, " she said, "but when you expect the best of others, you have a way of drawing the best from them."

"You can do that, too, Catherine. I have seen it in you, in your commitment to helping people. What I do is no different than that."

She smiled against the strength of his shoulder. It had taken Vincent to evoke that kind of commitment from her. She wondered if he would be able to draw any from Avon.

"Well, I'll keep checking," she replied. "But I don't think I'll find anything."

"You believe him, then?" He took her by the shoulders and held her far enough away to look into her face.

"I don't want to believe him. It's too unbelievable."

"You cannot believe six unbelievable things before breakfast?" Vincent asked her with a smile.

She hugged him again. "I can now," she agreed contentedly.

A clatter in the doorway announced Mouse's arrival. "Vincent, another one," he cried. Catherine pulled free and they turned to stare at the young tunnel dweller as he escorted a second stranger into the room. "Vila Restal," Mouse announced. It took Catherine a moment to realize that he was introducing the man. "This is Vincent and Catherine. Friend of the other one," Mouse continued with a gesture at Vila Restal. "Came to find him."

"What have you done with Avon?" the newcomer demanded in a voice that would have been ominous if it hadn't been shaky with nerves. The sight of Vincent had failed to nonplus Avon, but Vila was another matter. He gaped at Vincent as if he feared an attack at any moment.

"We only treated his injuries," Vincent replied. "Would you like to see him?"

"Yes. Take me there."

"You will not need the weapon."

"Oh. Won't I?" Vila looked even more uneasy, "Don't try to take it away," he commanded.

"No one will harm you," Vincent assured him soothingly. "We did not hurt Avon. He was suspicious of us and he ran. The tunnel where we encountered him was old and he fell into a pit. Come and see him. You may keep your gun until then."

Catherine moved forward cautiously. "Where have you come from?" she asked.

His eyes fell on her appreciatively. "From the future, maybe," he announced defiantly. "There was a strange machine. Avon understood it. He always knows about things like that. It sent him where we couldn't find him, so I came after him."

"Because you're his friend?" Mouse asked.

Vila opened his mouth to answer then closed it again. "No, " he insisted deliberately, but Catherine thought the denial hurt him. "Crewmate," Vila corrected. "Avon doesn't have friends."

What did he do to you, Vila?" There was that soothing tone of Vincent's that never failed to reassure Catherine. It worked this time, too, for Vila turned to him trustingly, his grip on the gun by no means as firm as it had been.

"Nothing, yet," he said darkly. "But that doesn't mean he didn't try, does it?"

Catherine remembered the cold, hard look in Avon's eyes and the words he had spoken. 'Contrary to popular opinion, I have never enjoyed causing pain.'that meant 'popular opinion'believed he did. Vila believed it and it had devastated him. She could see the pain in his eyes, a different pain from Avon's but no less real.

"He didn't enjoy it," she burst out, causing the others to stare at her in surprise. "He said so."

"Told you about me, did he?"

"Not directly. He's been unconscious most of the time and the last thing he wants to do is share his life history with us."

"He said he does not enjoy causing pain," Vincent added.

Vila started to deny that, then he went quiet, thinking it over. Finally, he said in a small voice, "Still causes it, though, doesn't he?"

"Did he have choice?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Vila insisted. "Take me to him.'

Vincent exchanged a look with Catherine behind Vila's back, then they turned to take Avon's friend to see him. Catherine hoped it would help them both, but, somehow, she doubted it.

*****

Vila trailed unhappily after Vincent and Catherine with Mouse bringing up the rear as they went to see Avon. The sight of Vincent had frightened Vila but the alien had proven non-threatening and he didn't fear him any more. He couldn't help wondering what Avon would do when he saw him. No doubt Avon would be furious that Vila had come after him, considering it a stupid mistake. Vila was half-afraid it was a stupid mistake. He didn't look forward to the confrontation.

But it seemed the confrontation would have to be postponed. When Vincent ushered him into the room, Avon was deeply asleep. Vincent stretched out his arm and blocked Vila's approach to the bed, and the thief let him, standing there staring at the unconscious Avon with very mixed feelings.

Avon's head was bandaged and he looked too pale though, in the dim, golden light of this underground place, that might go with the territory. He slept fiercely as if, having finally relaxed enough for sleep, he was making up for lost time. His hair fell forward over the bandage, matted with sweat, and he looked younger than he had since they had gone to Terminal. With the tension wiped from his face, he didn't seem so cold, so remote, and Vila, who had never seen Avon asleep before, stopped in dismay. He knew that, when Avon opened his eyes, the new Avon--the one he didn't like--would look out of them, and Vila regretted that. But viewing him now reminded him of Freedom City and other happy occasions, and he wished he could turn back time.

That reminded him that he was really in the past. Turning back time couldn't change Avon back to the way he'd been before. Could it? He sighed unhappily.

Vincent gestured to the door again and Vila nodded and followed him from the room. He'd have to talk to Avon later.

"I would like to ask you some questions," Vincent said softly. "I cannot help Avon without knowing more about what made him like this. I think you want to help him. I believe you are his friend even if you are reluctant to admit it. Will you talk to me?"

Vila hesitated. The other three looked at him expectantly.

Finally, Vila shrugged and put his gun away. "Why not?"

*****

When Avon awoke again, he remembered the dreams, vivid in his mind; Blake, Cally, Vila in the shuttle, Anna, all of them reproaching him. He had slept deeply and it had helped physically but, as he had long since discovered, sleep had its price and the memories of death and betrayal were vivid when he opened his eyes to the dimly lit chamber.

"So you're awake." It was almost an accusation.

Vila! Avon turned so quickly his head swam and he had to concentrate to keep from being sick. He wondered if he had dreamed it all and if he were back on Xenon Base or the Scorpio but, when his vision cleared, he was still in the tunnels and Vila was sitting curled up on the foot of his bed.

"What are you doing here?" Avon demanded angrily, annoyed that Vila had managed to put him at a disadvantage.

"Looking for you. Someone had to do it."

"You mean you were fool enough to take the risk of following me?" he accused, furious with Vila for doing anything so ill-advised.

"We didn't know if you were prisoner somewhere in the domes or whether the time machine really worked," Vila explained in a small voice. "I came after you wearing a homing device. The others are duplicating the machine so they can bring us back."

"And if they fail?" he asked scornfully.

"Then you'd be stuck anyway."

"But you would not. Why did you come, Vila?" It was suddenly very urgent that he know the answer to that question.

"I don't know."

Vila was no help. Denied anything concrete to rail against, Avon fell back on defense. "I do not need you here," he snarled, "Leave me alone, Vila."

"No." Vila glared at him. "You might think you can do what you like and no one will care, but I've had enough of it. You can't run now, so maybe you'll just have to listen. You attack everyone who gets in your way and pretend it doesn't matter as long as you survive. Well, it does matter, and the only one you really hurt is yourself. I'm tired of it all, and so are the others. I don't know why they bother trying to find you."

"You assume they would seek you even if they chose to abandon me?" he asked disbelievingly. "And you have selflessly followed me to ensure my rescue?"

Vila stared at him. "No," he said. "I'm not sure I want you back, either. I don't know why I came except that there's something unfinished between us. We can't just have it end without resolving it."

"The shuttle, you mean." Avon felt unbearably weary. He should have known it would come to this, that Vila would manage to pick a time when he was not well enough to deal with it. If his head didn't throb so painfully, he could maintain his lofty disinterest and wither Vila with a few well picked words. But there was nothing to say. Given a similar circumstance, he would do the same thing, choosing to save himself at the expense of others, even Vila. Certainly Vila would have expected no different. In spite of his surface persona, Vila was not really a fool, certainly not fool enough to believe that Avon would selflessly jump out the airlock to preserve his life. That Avon might regret the circumstances and even the loss of Vila could make no difference and there was no point in saying so. "I did what I had to do, Vila. There is nothing more to say."

Vila's face fell and he returned Avon's deliberately expressionless stare with one of his own. "That's plain enough. You said it once before, I'm expendable."

You are not expendable, Vila. But he could never say that, especially when his own actions had proven it a lie. He had been given two choices on the shuttle, neither viable. Save himself or save Vila. He had chosen, as any reasonable man would do, to save himself. He was smarter than Vila and his skills had a broader base. The survival of the group as a whole would benefit from his survival more than it would from Vila's. Of course, he had not thought of that at the time, nor given a thought to the others. He had simply reacted. The fact that he had taken so long to find Vila perplexed him, but he would have found him if he had not found Egrorian's trap. Fortunately, he had found it and neither of them had died.

But Vila might as well have died, for he was lost to Avon now. Avon looked down at the man who sat at the foot of his bed. He had drawn his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around then as if to shield himself from Avon, and Avon didn't like it. The cringing, whining side of Vila's nature had always irritated him. He said stiffly, "If you've nothing more to say, Vila, I would like to sleep."

Vila exploded out of his cocoon. "Nothing more to say? Nothing more to say? You bastard, what do you think you are? You play with all our lives, you cause Cally to die and for what? So you can stay alive a little longer? Well, I'm sorry, Avon, but I don't think it's worth the price. Tell me just what the bloody hell you want to survive for. You don't enjoy it. Do you want to survive so that you can punish yourself for Anna's death, or because Blake didn't bother to come back after Star One? We were all you had left, the girls and Tarrant and I, and the way you've been acting, you don't deserve them any more, either. And you don't have me, not after Malodaar. I'm sorry I came after you. No, I'm not sorry, because now I know it's finished. I'll have to stay around until they come to find us, but when we get back, I'm leaving, Maybe I'll even decide to stay here. It's a better world than ours, and after you go back where you belong, it'll be even better!" He jumped to his feet and stalked across the room. Avon watched him go, expecting him to turn back, but he didn't? Why should he look back? There was nothing left for him here.

Avon sagged against his pillows, surprised to discover he'd half sat up as Vila left. Surely he didn't want the thief to come back. He didn't need Vila. He didn't need anyone.

He closed his eyes but sleep wouldn't come. His thoughts whirled round and round in his head, making him feel thoroughly sick and even more thoroughly confused. For once, Vila had spoken his mind and he'd spoken more to the point than Avon could have believed possible. Why did Avon want to survive so strongly? Surely not because his life was so wonderful. If anything, he should have chosen the other alterative, as he had almost done when Anna died. Yet a part of him had struggled against it, even as he had removed his bracelet and faced Servalan alone and defenseless. He had accepted his reprieve and fought fiercely for his own survival ever since as if he had violated some private code he had not acknowledged and didn't understand.

So perhaps Vila was right. Survival for its own sake was not enough. But then, what was there? Avon had learned a long time ago not to rely on other people. He'd seen enough suffering to deem it a foolish risk, and he'd witnessed it in the suffering of others; Dayna, when her father died, Tarrant at the Teal-Vandor convention, Vila after Malodaar? Why? Why should Vila care?

Why did it disturb Avon that he had--and that he did no longer?

This was foolish and futile. Angry with himself for wallowing in maudlin sentiment, Avon lay quietly a moment. Perhaps Vila was right, perhaps this time was better than his own Perhaps he should slip away now and leave them all behind.

He let his eyes rove around the room, discovering his clothes hanging on a peg in the corner, his boots standing neatly beneath them, and he gathered his strength before he tried to stand. He was weak and dizzy and he doubted his ankle would support him very far but perhaps it would take him far enough. Once his boots were on, they would provide additional support.

Sitting caused his stomach to rebel again and he bent over while dry heaves wracked his body. It was a long time before he tried moving again.

His ankle was firmly strapped up--someone here knew what he was doing. Although standing on it felt like someone was driving needles through it, it would support him so, with slow, uneven steps, he crossed the room to the clothes rack and began to dress.

It proved much harder than he had expected. He had to sit down on a nearby bench to put on his trousers, and when he raised his arms to pull his tunic over his head, he became so dizzy that he almost fell. With the bandage in place, the boot would not fit. Well, he would just have to carry it.

No one noticed his exit. Vila had not waited around and that was good, although a small part of him protested. Ruthlessly, he stamped the thought down, closing his mind to it. He did not need Vila. He did not need any of the others.

The sound of voices startled him and he drew back as he heard running feet. An instant later, two children raced around a bend in the corridor and stopped dead at the sight of him. The elder of the two, a boy, took a cautious step forward. "You're supposed to be in bed!" he said sternly.

"I am not a prisoner," Avon ground out through clenched teeth.

"Of course you're not a prisoner," the boy replied in surprise. "But you're sick. Jenny, go fetch Father, or Mary, or Vincent. We have to get him back to bed."

"But--"

"Just go. I can take care of myself."

"I'm not going back to bed," Avon insisted, though the way the corridor was swaying back and forth, bed seemed an excellent idea. The pounding of the girl's feet thudded in his head, and his ankle was in danger of buckling beneath him. He leaned against the wall, bracing himself with the palms of his hands and faced the child, feeling curiously at bay. Damn them all, he thought. Damn them all. He didn't even understand who he was cursing, only that he was alone, defenseless, and that he was being forced to do what he always vowed he would never do, rely on others in order to survive.

More footsteps, running. He wondered how much time had passed. Then Vincent appeared, trailed by a frightened looking Vila and by the older man, Father. Avon tried to draw away from them and failed.

He watched with curious detachment as the tunnel began to swim around him, spinning in ever-widening circles, and he was only dimly aware of Vincent lunging forward to catch him as he fell.

*****

Voices came to him dimly, and he lay concealed behind his eyelids and tried to make sense of them. The pain seemed muted and remote, and he was almost comfortable until a slight, unwary movement sent fire to his ankle and made his head spin. Better to pretend he still slept.

"...do not understand why he tried to run...." That was Vincent, his deep, mellow voice filling the chamber even when he spoke softly.

"...had to." Vila, of course. Vila's theories in Basic Avon were always entertaining but, just now, Avon did not want to listen to them. "...always does...when feelings are involved. Avon faces danger head on. It's emotion that makes him run. I--yelled at him. Told him I didn't care. He never would have admitted he wanted me to care in the first place, so he'd have to pretend it didn't matter. 'Good riddance, Vila.'that's what he'd say. But he doesn't mean it, then, does he? Doesn't know what he does mean. He missed Blake when Blake left, but never could admit it. We chased Blake across the galaxy more than once, and Avon always had to have a cold-blooded reason for it. Never fooled me."

"You understand him well, Vila."

"No. Not really. I think I read things into him that I want to see. I want to believe he cares about the rest of us. I want to believe he isn't dead inside. Sometimes I can believe it and, other times, I know if I do I'm as much a fool as he always claimed I was. When he tried to kill me, I was half ready to give up on him, but I couldn't quite do it. I had to come after him. Maybe I'm just a masochist. I had to prove I'm only a worthless thief, someone for him to use when he needs a door opened and nothing the rest of the time. If I accepted that, then it wouldn't have to matter any more, don't you see? I won't have to care for him any more, and then I'll be safe because I can't get hurt."

"That is what you believe he does, is it?" Vincent prodded gently. "He is safe because he shuts himself off so he will not risk hurt?"

"That's what he likes to think," Vila said knowingly. "Wears this great stone face and hopes everybody believes it. But watch his eyes sometime. I never saw anybody's eyes give so much away. The thing is, he did mind that he might have had to toss me off that shuttle, though he had to pretend he didn't give a damn. Even if he'd do the same thing again next time, he did mind."

"Then he must suffer far more than most people," Vincent returned, his voice grave and thoughtful. "The very thing he tries to avoid returns to hurt him. He has constructed a trap for himself and all the exits lead inside once more."

"Yes, that's it," Vila agreed eagerly. "What do you do for someone like that? Can you help him?"

"Only if Avon can help himself, Vila. I can do my best. I can talk to him and listen to him, but he must come to terms with himself before he can be healed. There is a man living in the tunnels who was an alcoholic above. He finally made himself stop drinking and has lived here fifteen years without seeking liquor. But until he could accept the fact that he was an alcoholic, he could not stop drinking. Avon will not stop lying to himself until he is willing to acknowledge that he does it. The longer he goes without doing so, the good man he might have been is worn away, like a boulder in a stream. 'River does not run. River presses its heavy self down into the stone, and stone refuses.'"

"That's a quote," Vila said brightly. "'Stone refuses'. That sounds like Avon." He heaved a vast sigh. "All I ever wanted was for him to say he was sorry. I know what he's like, I know he'll do it again. But if he said he was sorry, I could live with it. Is that too much to ask?"

"For him, it may be. Did you ever tell him what it was you wanted?"

"You don't tell Avon things like that. Besides, I wanted him to think of it on his own. Would have meant more that way." Avon could feel Vila's eyes boring into him and lay perfectly still, holding himself quiet until the sensation went away.

Apologize to Vila? It would be meaningless. Vila knew better, knew Avon would save himself over Vila if it ever happened again. What purpose would it serve except to soothe Vila's lacerated sensibilities? A waste of energy. Or was it?

"You cannot expect him to be what he isn't, Vila," Vincent chided him gently. "You cannot expect him to go against his nature. And you cannot expect him to read your mind. Catherine and I have a very deep bond, closer than love and friendship. I feel her pain, her fear, her joy, yet I cannot always guess her thoughts. She must sometimes tell me what she wants from me, what she hopes from our relationship. If that is the case between us, who are truly in tune with each other, how much worse must it be for you and Avon now that you are out of step?"

"Out of step?" echoed Vila. "We've always been out of step."

"No, not like you are now. You blame him, and I think he blames himself and you. He would not have chosen to harm you, but he was put into a situation where he was given no choice. He did not wish to feel anything for you, but I suspect he did. Now he blames you as much as himself because you got under his skin. And remember this, Vila. He did not find you."

"Because he found that other thingummy first."

"Because he stood outside your hiding place and then walked away again. You told me he did that."

"I didn't...." Vila's voice trailed off. "I never thought of that, not that he could have found me. But it doesn't matter because he would have come back and tossed me out if he hadn't found another way."

"You must not blame him for something he might have done, Vila. He frightened you and you were hurt because you believed he would not threaten you, because you believed he was your friend. He made a mistake when he was frightened, a mistake he could not help but make, not when his entire life taught him to look out for himself first. If you hate him now, you hate him for being Avon--and that's why you loved him in the first place."

"Here now, I never said I loved him," Vila burst out in an embarrassed voice.

"You did not need to say it, Vila. Anyone but Avon could recognize it easily. I think you're so upset now because you still care and you fear it has all been for nothing."

"Hasn't it?" Vila asked in a thoroughly miserable voice.

"Only if you waste it, Vila. Only if you let him go on suffering. You knew him for what he was all along. You do not kick a mad dog because it turns on you. You try to show it that friendship and love work better."

"Avon would call you a fool. He always did when Blake talked about ideals. And he's right. Where do ideals get you in the long run? The Federation always wins."

"And it will continue to win as long as people are afraid to believe in anything. If the Federation is brought down by cold blooded violence, then cold blooded violence will be come the basis of the new Federation, too. Your Blake had the correct idea, perhaps just not the proper method for getting his message across."

Vila was silent a moment and Avon strained to hear what he would say, but instead, Vila changed the subject. "He might wake up soon. Can we leave him?"

"I will stay with him, Vila. I do not wish to leave him alone."

"Because you think he'll run off again?" Vila suggested knowingly, scrambling to his feet.

"Because no one should have to wake alone in a strange place. Turn left when you leave here and go along three doors and Mouse will take you to a place where you may eat. I will send for you when Avon wakes up."

"What makes you think I care if he wakes up or not?" Vila demanded, but his tone didn't even fool Avon.

"You care. Please do not stop. He needs you, Vila. If he goes back to your own time without your friendship, everything will continue to deteriorate. You don't know what you have to face back there. It would be better to face it together."

Vila left without answering.

*****

Vincent was reading Notes from an Alchemist, a book of poetry Catherine had given him, when Avon stirred out of sleep six hours later. Father had come to visit and had spent some time fussing over Avon's ankle, and Avon had halfway roused to wakefulness before he drifted into sleep once more. Vincent had told Father a little of what Vila had said, and Father had frowned and looked very thoughtful. He was not prepared to allow Avon stay in the tunnels, and he said so.

"Vila and Mouse went above," Vincent reported.

Father grimaced. "That's all we need. Mouse has a larcenous enough disposition without encouragement from an out-and-out thief."

"Vila will never harm him. I like Vila."

"I like Mouse but you know he has been in trouble before."

"He will be all right. Vila is too worried about his friend to put any serious thought to thieving."

"Let us both hope you're right." Father completed his readjustment of the bandage around Avon's head. "This one is another story."

"This one is a lost soul, Father. He needs help as badly as anyone who has ever come here. I am glad Vila followed him here, because I think Vila is his last chance. If he cannot come to terms with Vila, I do not believe he will ever come to terms with anyone else again."

"Do you seriously feel that you can help him, Vincent?"

"I only know I must try."

Father had smiled at him suddenly and kissed him before he had gone on his way, and Vincent knew Father would give him every chance to succeed. Father had the safety of everyone down here to consider and would have to choose their survival over Avon. Being the leader of their community had never been easy. All too often, dissent had come upon them, often dissent over small matters, but still requiring all of Father's tact and his gifts of foresight and understanding to make it right. Vincent wondered if even Father could break through the hard shell of Avon's reserve.

Now, as he watched Avon shift uncomfortably on the bed, Vincent lay aside the Eiseley book and picked up something smaller, carrying it over to the bed. Avon's eyes opened and he stared at Vincent blankly before they focused.

Vincent held out his hand. "Your teleport bracelet. Vila told me of its function. If your friends try to return you to your time, you will need it."

Avon fastened it around his wrist without speaking, his face revealing nothing. He did not bother to deny that they were friends, but Vincent sensed his discomfort over the term.

Drawing up a chair, Vincent sat down beside the bed. "Do you feel better?" he asked.

"A singularly foolish question." He frowned, considering it. "Certainly not well enough to abandon your hospitality a second time."

When his eyes performed a hasty reconnaissance of the chamber, Vincent smiled slightly. "Vila went above with Mouse--the one who was with me when we first met. He will return soon."

"Don't imagine that I care."

"I do not need to imagine something I know to be true."

"Ah, yes, your attempt to convince me of the error of my ways. Feel free to analyze me at your leisure. I have, naturally, granted you permission to question Vila about my past and welcome such prying as your normal right." The sarcasm could have warped the subway lines overhead.

"I did not ask Vila questions," Vincent defended himself. "I let him talk. He needed it badly. He cares very much for you, and that is why he was so badly hurt when you intended to throw him off the shuttle."

"If he had held the gun, he would have done the same thing," Avon defended himself, then fell silent as if he resented being put in a position where he needed to defend himself.

"That is not the issue. I think you regretted the situation, Avon. Am I right?"

"Regret is part of being alive," Avon returned, remembering his words to Cally over destroyed Auron. "But it should be a small part."

"Self-preservation, Avon?"

"Perhaps."

"Would it hurt you to tell Vila you regret it?"

"It would serve no purpose."

"It would allow you to remain Vila's friend."

"Vila is better off without my...friendship."

"That is Vila's choice."

"Then perhaps I should make it for him, to prevent his making similar errors in future. Keep him out of here."

"Why, Avon? Because you're afraid of what you might let slip if you faced him?" Vincent prodded gently.

Avon did not immediately reply. This whole discussion served no purpose, unless he conceded that Vincent was right, that he wanted Vila's friendship. He wanted no one's friendship. On the other hand, Vila was useful and alienating him would only deprive him of the services of a competent and gifted thief. He said so.

Vincent shook his head sadly. "I don't envy you, Avon," he replied. "You twist everything around simply because you cannot admit you value Vila's friendship. Why would it hurt so much to say so?"

The question was a fair one, although he resented it. Vincent had seen he received medical treatment rather than abandoning him in the tunnels, and Vincent had taken the effort to talk to Vila about his problems rather than ignoring the whole matter. Vincent did not deserve Avon's hostility, but neither did he deserve to hear Avon's private thoughts. He had not bought that with the care he had given. "Why does it matter to you?" he countered.

"I an involved in mankind," Vincent quoted.

Avon shook his head, moderating the gesture to prevent the cavern from dancing about before his eyes. "Singularly foolish," he retorted. "Blake might have made the same claim. 'No man is an island.'He was ever a fool"

"And you are the opposite, is that it? 'A rock feels no pain and an island never cries.'"

Avon realized he was quoting again and cocked an eyebrow at him. "I don't recognize that one."

"Simon and Garfunkel," replied Vincent with a smile. "A song called I Am a Rock. 'I have no need of friendship/ Friendship causes pain/ It's laughter and it's loving I disdain."

"I don't know who they are, but they make a great deal of sense."

"A coward might think so. When you take shelter to avoid pain, you avoid joy as well. When was the last time you were genuinely happy, Avon?"

"At least I survived." When was the last time he was happy? Had he been happy on Liberator? Surely there had been moments of quiet satisfaction. He had enjoyed his work with Orac, with Zen. Happy? Had he ever been happy? Did it matter if he had been? Had he been happy with Anna? He averted his eyes from Vincent's knowing ones. "I survived."

"I should hesitate to call existence survival."

Existence? Yes, he had only been existing. He found himself remembering Blake's face, the unexpected warmth of his smile, the eagerness with which he had confronted his dream in the beginning, and he remembered his conversation with Jenna on the London. She had not believed in Blake's dream, but she had wanted to believe in it. Avon had scoffed at the whole idea, but now he realized he had wanted to believe, too, not in the dream, but in the dreamer. Blake himself had helped to sour Avon's faint and fledgling hopes, making him grow bitter once more. What would have happened If Avon had let himself believe? The same thing that had happened? Or would Blake have taken strength from the support he had wanted so badly and resisted the fanaticism that had destroyed him? Blake had only been existing when they went to Star One. For all her devotion, even Jenna had recognized that and had warned Avon before he teleported down. Could anything prevent the death of dreams? Would taking the risk only destroy them faster? His own dreams were long dead and the last thing he wanted to do was to stir the ashes. He would hardly rise Phoenix-like, reborn, simply because he felt a stir of wishful regret. Existence? Vincent was right. Survival simply to survive was hardly worth the price.

"What is your answer?" Avon asked coldly. "Make your point."

"My point is that people need other people. The greatest unhappiness I have ever witnessed has come from people who have forgotten that or chosen to deny it. If you were safe in your shell and nothing touched you inside, you might have an argument I would listen to, although I would still regret the isolation. But things do touch you, Avon. Things do hurt you in spite of your isolation."

"I hardly think you can prevent it." Avon struggled to sit up, feeling at a disadvantage flat on his back. Vincent helped him, rearranging the pillow behind his back. When Avon was more comfortably settled, he backed away again.

"No one can prevent pain, Avon," he said, "But friends can make it bearable."

"And when friends die or turn on you?"

"Then you are sorry. But I would rather have the friend first."

"You're a fool."

"Am I, Avon? I have friends, people I can trust with the secret of my very existence. I did not wake up one morning and decide I wanted friends, I put some effort into it. As they are here for me, so am I there for them. It works both ways. Vila will be there for you as he has been all along, without the slightest encouragement. How hard would it be for you to accept that friendship? A simple expression of regret for what happened on that shuttle will do it."

"You don't understand."

"Then explain it to me."

"If it happened again I should have to do the same thing," Avon insisted desperately. "I can't tell Vila I am sorry for something I would do again if the situation were duplicated. It would be a lie." He closed his eyes for a moment, weary and drained. "I betrayed Vila," he said at last. "I have always believed that the giving of my word was the one thing that mattered. I honored that, even when there was great risk to myself. It was the one thing I could believe in. I told Vila he was always safe with me--and I tried to kill him."

Vincent smiled. "It bothered you?"

"What do you think?"

"I think you are not beyond hope. I think you need Vila more than you can admit, and I think it would have been easy for you to find him on the shuttle. You came too close to his hiding place--you knew where he was and you turned away. You did not break your word to him after all."

"If you or Vila believe that, you are both fools."

"I believe it, and so does he, or he wouldn't have come after you into the past. It took a great deal of courage for Vila to do that. For all he knew, he was stepping into oblivion. The panel that brought you here might easily have disintegrated the both of you. Yet he came, and he came without backup. None of the others volunteered to come with him. If he can take that big a risk, I think you can take a risk, too. Talk to him honestly. Vila says people consider him a coward, but no coward would have followed you here."

That was true. Sometimes Vila's fears seemed irrational, but there had always been more to Vila than met the eye. Avon had appreciated that, watching people like Tarrant underestimate him and taking secret pleasure in the pilot's discomfiture when Vila did something unexpected and forced the young pilot to rethink his opinion. If Vila could overcome his fears and pursue him here, Avon owed him more than he had given him so far.

"Perhaps you are right," he said wearily and the concession felt good, as if a burden had suddenly been lifted. "Very well. You'll talk me to death if I don't see Vila again. Bring him in here and I'll get it over."

"It is not a penance," Vincent told him, resting a large hairy hand on his shoulder. Oddly enough, Avon did not resent it now the way he customarily would have done. "Vila is on the surface with Mouse. He might be back now. I will go and see. Are you hungry?"

"No!" Emphatically.

"Some broth, then. I think you are beginning to recover. When your appetite comes back, I will find some crutches for you so you can get around." The hand tightened a moment and let go.

Avon watched Vincent leave with a combination of resentment and confusion.

*****

Vila sat on the foot of Avon's bed and watched him sleeping, wishing that the peaceful look upon Avon's face would appear sometimes whilst Avon was awake. But it would never happen. 'Stone refuses', he thought unhappily. Avon would never come to terms with Malodaar, even if Vila did. Vila knew that to go on as if it didn't matter would kill a little more of both of them, and he couldn't bear it. He'd talked to Vincent for hours, enjoying a sympathetic audience. He'd even talked to Mouse as they explored the complex and fascinating world of Twentieth Century America. Vila patted his pockets to reassure himself that his 'souvenirs'were intact. Better not let Vincent know about them or he'd probably insist they go back.

Avon turned onto his side and curled himself around one of the pillows, his hair tumbled, his face slightly flushed. Father had said he'd be a little feverish but that he was improving, and Vila hoped he would be himself again when the others found them. He wasn't sure he wanted Tarrant and the girls to see Avon looking so vulnerable. Vila smiled faintly. Dayna had once told him Avon had claimed he was at his best while he was unconscious. Maybe it was really Avon who was at his best then.

Drawing his knees up under his chin, Vila leaned against the stone wall and waited. Avon should be waking any time now and Vila meant to be here when he did.

The movement penetrated Avon's sleep and he opened his eyes. He looked round the room, and stiffened when he discovered Vila. Vila smiled brightly.

"Good morning, Avon. Pity you couldn't have come above with me. It was amazing. All kinds of lovely things to steal."

Avon shook his head with the kind of tolerant amusement that Vila hadn't seen since the Blake days on Liberator. "I should have known you'd find some way to get us into trouble here, Vila."

"Not in trouble," Vila insisted. "Nobody up there knows about the tunnels. Even if they did, we won't be here for ever. I won't get caught."

Avon stared at him for a long time, making Vila uncomfortable. "Well, I won't," he insisted.

Avon burst out laughing. "Vila, that innocent look wouldn't fool a blind man."

Laughing? Avon never laughed anymore, not real laughter anyway; only a perverted kind of black humor ever seemed to touch him now. This laugh gave Vila such a touch of deja vu that, to his horror, tears stung his eyes. He turned away abruptly.

"Vila?" Avon sounded shocked. He levered himself up carefully on one elbow and touched Vila's arm. "What's wrong?"

Rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes, Vila turned back. Avon looked absurdly young in the capacious white nightshirt, his hair tumbled forward into his eyes, eyes that actually displayed concern for Vila. It wasn't contrived, a made-up apology for Malodaar to jolly Vila into remaining Scorpio's thief; this was real and it cut through Vila's sense of betrayal like a laser probe through plastex.

"Nothing's wrong," he babbled happily. "You're back, that's all. I'd forgotten what it was like. I haven't heard you laugh like that in ever so long."

"There has been remarkably little to laugh about, "Avon returned, but though the words were damping, the tone was not intended as a reproof.

"Then there's something to work on," Vila told him. "We've been going about it all wrong. Time you started listening to me for a change instead of going your own way."

Avon's eyes dropped briefly, then he looked up again. "Perhaps you are right. Vila, about the shuttle...."

"That's over, Avon." Vila discovered he didn't need the words after all. Knowing Avon regretted it was enough, and he knew it now. Avon might be forced to do something like that again if similar circumstances presented themselves, but it would be up to Vila to see that they didn't. He was light enough on his feet to avoid being caught twice in the same trap.

"I might do it again."

"I might be ready for you next time."

That won a genuine smile from Avon. "Do you think so?"

"All I have to do is stay in your shadow--so when you watch your back, you'll watch mine, too. You always did before."

"Yes," Avon agreed. "A talented thief is useful."

Vila smiled. He didn't expect Avon to proclaim his undying friendship--that would make both of them uncomfortable. Knowing they were friends was enough for Vila. Maybe he could help turn things around that it didn't look so bleak and hopeless. Maybe they could find Blake--and shake some sense into him.

"Are we still looking for Blake?" he ventured tentatively.

"Blake is on the planet Gauda Prime. I've known that for some time, Vila."

"Then why didn't we go--oh, I see. As long as we don't go, we won't be disappointed."

"Surprisingly perceptive, Vila. Perhaps we will go there after all. But with safeguards."

"Lots of safeguards," Vila agreed.

"I'm sorry, Vila," Avon said finally. "About the shuttle. About--Cally."

Vila nodded and patted Avon on the shoulder. "I know," he replied softly. "It's all right."

*****

Vincent turned to Father with a smile as they moved away from the door to Avon's sickroom. "I think they will be all right now."

"If they are, it's thanks to you," Father told him. "You worked hard to bring it about."

"It is sad when something comes between friends," Vila replied as they walked in the direction of Father's rooms. "But Avon needed what we could give him more than most people did. If they are forced to remain in our time, I shall speak to the council on his behalf."

"I didn't think I would agree with that," Father told him. "But I would now. I wish we could be sure it would last."

"Their world comes with no guarantees, Father. It is a pity we cannot help them find a life like the one we have created here. I think this is what their Blake would have liked to accomplish, but the scale was too vast and he became obsessed with his dream. It twisted away from him."

"Like Paracelsus," mused Father, remembering the early days in the tunnels and the friend he had lost. If Avon didn't have Vila, might he become as twisted as Paracelsus?

Vincent stared at Father sympathetically. "I wish we could find a way to turn him back," he said.

"I should have thought you'd hate him for what he's tried to do to you and to Catherine?"

"And to you. I hate what he has done, but I cannot help thinking there might be a way to deal with him. And Avon...."

"We don't know what Avon will do when he returns to his own time," Father told Vincent. "He might revert."

Vincent nodded. "I have considered that. But I do not think Vila will let him."

"For both their sakes, I hope you are right." And for your own, he thought, his eyes resting on his son's face. Vincent was strong, but he needed to be for he had so much caring in him. The world above might have benefitted from Vincent in a kinder time. But the times were never kind, and Vincent was safe here below, where everyone knew him and loved him. Even though a vast majority of the world was shut away from him, he had made the most of what he had. Vincent, even more than the tunnel culture itself, was a tribute to Father's dream. That was why he hated to see his son risk hurt to help others, even though he could never stop him without changing his very nature.

"I think I am right," Vincent returned. "Do not worry, Father. This time, it will be all right."

"Mouse said they went to Tiffany's," Father informed Vincent lugubriously.

"Has anyone checked Vila's pockets?" Vincent asked with exaggerated alarm, and both of them burst out laughing.

*****

"Try it now," Tarrant urged, pushing several buttons and checking the readings that scrolled out for him on the screen. "Orac, is that it?"

"You have done it correctly--and not before time."

"What next, Orac?" Soolin asked.

"Next, one of you must operate the teleport. I will channel the device through the ship's systems and it will function as a typical teleport although you will be unable to achieve voice communication before you activate. Is that clear?"

"Clear enough, " Dayna replied. "So we've no way to signal them. What if they're not wearing their bracelets?"

"Then obviously the device will not function. There will be enough power in the system to activate the device once. If they are not returned, there will be a delay of 37 hours to allow time for the systems to recharge."

Tarrant looked at Soolin and Dayna, and both of them nodded. There was no way to signal their missing crew members, so the only thing to do was link up the system, boost it with Scorpio's power, and activate. "We'll go for it," he decided. "If they're in trouble down there, the sooner we get them back the better."

"Pity," Soolin observed wryly. "It's been so peaceful here without them."

Tarrant grinned. "It has, hasn't it. Well, all good things must end." He tightened the final connection. "I'll operate the teleport. Say the word, Orac."

"By that, I presume you require me to inform you when to activate. I wish you would be more precise."

"Very well, Orac, " Tarrant snapped. "You know, there's a definite advantage to getting Avon back. He's the only one who knows how to keep Orac in line." He turned to the computer and said with exaggerated clarity, "All right, Orac. Tell me when to activate the teleport."

"I will do so. " A momentary pause while Orac's lights flickered on and off and the new system hummed with power. "Now!"

At first, nothing happened, and Orac snapped at Slave, "Boost power!"

"I am doing my humble best."

The lights flickered and steadied and then, just when Tarrant had begun to despair of success, it started to work. He waited, holding his breath, and, in a few moments, Vila and Avon materialized before him.

Tarrant frankly stared. The two men were sitting cross-legged on the floor, plates of food balanced on their knees. Vila was about to take a bite of a sandwich, and Avon held the leg of some fowl aloft in his hand. He looked rather if he'd been to the wars, for his head was bandaged and so was one ankle, and he was wearing a voluminous nightshirt, his teleport bracelet, and apparently nothing else. Vila wore his normal clothes and an expression of astonished surprise.

"We're back, Avon," he burst out.

"Well, yes, so I can see. Must you state the obvious, Vila?" Before his trip into the past, he would have sounded cold and annoyed, but now there was an edge of amusement in his voice that won an answering grin from the little thief.

"One of us must." Vila rose to his feet with a flourish, passing the plate to Tarrant. "Hold that. I've presents for the girls."

Tarrant received the plate in startled silence, picking up a second piece of meat from it. "That's called a drumstick," Vila explained over his shoulder. "From a bird called a turkey. Go ahead, try it."

It smelled wonderful so Tarrant did, sinking his teeth into the savory meat. It tasted even better than it smelled.

With twinkling eyes, Vila produced two necklaces from his pocket, both overloaded with sparkling stones. "Rubies for you," he said to Dayna, bowing over the necklace as he passed it to her. "And emeralds for you," he added to Soolin, giving her the second necklace.

"Where did you get them, Vila?" Avon asked suspiciously, struggling to stand without putting weight on his injured ankle.

Vila turned at once and steadied him until he caught his balance and, wonder of wonders, Avon permitted it. Tarrant took a closer look at Avon. Maybe he'd been to the wars, but it seemed to have done him good. He looked much better than he had before his foray into the past, in spite of his battered condition.

"What happened to you, Avon?" Dayna asked as Vila and Tarrant guided him to his position and helped him sit down.

"He fell in a hole," Vila replied with great relish. "And got rescued by a hairy alien."

"A hairy alien? In the past? On Earth?" asked Tarrant skeptically.

"Why not? You don't know everything, do you? Does he, Avon?"

"Demonstrably not. Vila is actually correct, Tarrant. There was a hairy alien. You might even have liked him."

"We did," Vila agreed. Now that Avon was seated and Vila's hands were free, he dug out more jewelry from his pockets. "I've decided to start a new collection," he announced. "To make up for what we lost with the Liberator. I made an excellent start back there and the best part is they'll never catch me. And you lot don't care, being so dishonest and all. Am I right, Avon?"

"Honesty is a considerable inconvenience." Avon glanced around the flight deck. "I recommend we leave Earth as quickly as possible. I don't know how you've managed to stay here so long without being caught, but I suggest a little more caution."

"He's right," Soolin agreed. "Take us out of here, Slave. Back to Xenon, if you please."

"And don't take your time," Avon added.

"Yes, Master."

Avon smiled. He had always enjoyed Slave's subservience, which annoyed Tarrant, but this time his smile held a great deal more honest humor than usual. What on Earth had happened to them in the past?

Dayna and Soolin examined Avon's injuries and he tolerated it, turning to Vila with an amused look. Vila smiled and retrieved his plate from Tarrant. "Here now, I didn't tell you to eat it all!" he wailed. "There's no telling when we'll get anything so good again--unless there's a way back into the past.

"We destroyed the device on Earth," Tarrant replied. "Once we knew Orac could duplicate it and once Vila vanished, we couldn't risk Servalan getting her hands on it."

"You were taking a considerable risk with our lives," Avon told him coolly.

"True. But a warranted one. Orac was certain you were in the past and that destruction of the device on Earth wouldn't harm you. We waited until a few hours ago, when we were sure our copy would work."

"I hope Servalan doesn't know we've got a copy," Vila remarked, picking at the remains of his turkey. "But, since we've got it, maybe we should go back in time and erase her."

"I don't believe it works as easily as that," Avon replied. "I think the uses of the device were not as represented. It would be impossible to check it out, but I plan to study it and determine if such a thing is possible. In the meantime, once we have had time to recover from the incident, we will be going to Gauda Prime."

Soolin's eyes narrowed. "It's not a place I'd choose to visit, Avon. I come from there, and I don't particularly want to go back. Why are we going to Gauda Prime?'

"Because Blake is there," Avon informed them. "I think it's time we found him and saw what use we might make of him."

"But carefully," interjected Vila around a mouthful of meat. "Blake was a bit obsessive there, toward the end. So we'll have to make sure he won't endanger us first. Right, Avon?"

Avon favored Vila with a look of impatient tolerance. "Perhaps."

Vila took that as agreement and sampled another bite of food while he stowed his ill-gotten gains back into his jacket pockets. "And whatever we do," he said, "we mustn't destroy the device before I have another chance at Tiffany's. A lovely place. Next time, I'll take you with me, Avon."

"That," returned Avon sourly, although his eyes sparkled with suppressed humor, "is exactly the kind of treat I shall await with bated breath."


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