Jabberwocky - part 14 - MalodaarBy Sheila Paulson
The adult and slash stories are being published simultaneously with Malodar. They are not essential to the saga, but add something extra if your tastes lie in that direction.
This zine is dedicated to all those people who tried to buy either Malodar or the Jabberwocky Collected edition from Janet Walker and have yet to see a copy. You're the main reason I decided to reprint Jabberwocky. I can't give you your missing zine, but at least Sheila and I can make it available from another source.
Thanks are due to Harriet Monkhouse for proof-reading and to Val Westall for the art work. Val's art has improved enormously over the last few years, I particluarly like the fact that many of the illustrations here are to match specific scenes and are not just portraits. Avon's new outfit also looks rather nice on him. I should add that Val did some of these at incredibly short notice, so the resulting quality is even more impressive. Val is now selling original art and will also do commissions. Contact myself or Val for details.
After my last editorial, all of two weeks ago, I was asked about Morgan's Boy. Morgan's Boy was an eight part BBC drama in which Gareth Thomas played a Welsh Hill farmer who is living all alone on a remote farm after the death of his elderly mother. The story is set around his relationship with his nephew who comes to stay with him. It's very sad in places and not for those who want happy fantasies. (It's a long way removed from Jabberwocky) It is one of my favourite pieces of television and Gareth Thomas was nominated for a BAFTA for his part in it.
I'd write more, but my neck and arm are hurting, and you'd probably far rather get on with reading the story, so turn the pages and enjoy Malodar.
Blake begins behaving oddly, and problems develop with the ship as Jabberwocky begins to remember his long suppressed past - his memories had been blocked when his brain was used in the mindship. In the meantime, Jenna Stannis and Del Grant have teamed up and have one objective: Kill Avon. When their plan goes wrong and Tarrant is gravely wounded, only the combination of the mindship and Avon, the untrained telepath are able to save the pilot's life, and at this point, Tarrant becomes Jabberwocky's linkmate. Jenna joins the crew.
"But Vila," Cally protested. "Just because Egrorian and the tachyon funnel were part of my prophetic dream doesn't mean Avon has any intention of pushing you out of the shuttle over Malodar. Avon is quite different now, and you know it. Besides, my dream did not always parallel reality."
"I don't care," Vila insisted. "I don't mean to complain or anything, and Avon's changed, we all know that, but I always say don't press your luck. Malodar was a trap in Cally's dream after all. Why should we believe it's safe now just because Egrorian's been sending little love notes to Avalon and the resistance?"
"He does have a point," Avon observed dryly, though his eyes were darker than usual. "After all, in the old calendar they used to say a leopard couldn't change its spots. Why should Vila trust me?"
Perren, the group's psych tech, skewed around in his chair and stared at Avon with the kind of fascinated interest an extinct leopard might have shown its prey, but he didn't say anything. Noticing the look, Avon returned it through narrowed eyes, then pointedly turned away.
"What is a leopard?" Cally asked with interest.
"An undomesticated feline, presumably a spotted one," Tarrant replied. The pilot seemed to know a number of esoteric historical facts and tended to spout them on occasion, but possibly Jabberwocky might be prompting him. Such information might well be contained in their ship's data banks.
"It's a big, nasty cat," Gan put in unexpectedly.
When everyone stared at Gan for his display of information, he grinned, spread his hands in a deprecating fashion and explained, "I saw a viscast, a historical play about life on the frontier when Earth still had them - frontiers, I mean. Wild animals attacked the settlers from time to time."
"See," Vila put in. "I always said unsettled planets were dangerous, didn't I, Avon? Didn't I, Blake?"
"Repeatedly, Vila," Blake replied, a grin on his face.
"But then you think everything is dangerous, Vila," Avon pointed out. "So why should an unsettled planet be any more dangerous than a top security Federation base - or indeed, a shuttle with me?"
"But Cally dreamed it."
"It wasn't always exact, was it?" Tanz asked from his position beside Dayna. "I mean, I went over the crew logs and studied all the instances that tied to Cally's dream. Dr. Plaxton was a woman in the dream and died, and our Dr. Plaxton's a man, and he's alive and well. Servalan never was a commissioner, and Blake wasn't killed on Gauda Prime, and the Scorpio blew up and you never had to take on that Dorian character. So this will probably be different, too. Besides I want to see the tachyon funnel. Think what we could do if we had one. It'd be incredible."
Cally had dreamed of Egrorian, a renegade Federation scientist, who, while in exile on the planet Malodar, had developed a tachyon funnel, a device that would destroy matter instantly at any range. In the dream, Egrorian had set a trap for them and Avon and Vila had found themselves with the tachyon funnel on a shuttle too heavy to escape the planet's gravitational pull. Avon had sought Vila through the ship with intent to toss him out to lighten the load. Though this had never happened, and though Avon had never descended to the depths of his counterpart in Cally's dream, Vila had always hated that part of the dream. Since getting Jabberwocky and learning the crew could, for brief periods, be drawn into a telepathic linkage with each other through Jabberwocky's artificially created telepathic powers, trust had blossomed amid the crew, and they were closer than ever before. Vila knew Avon wouldn't try to kill him now, but he didn't like to take unnecessary risks. Why strew temptation in Avon's path, after all?
"I admit the tachyon funnel would be useful, and even if we never used it, I wouldn't want it to fall into Federation hands," Blake said thoughtfully, massaging his chin as he paced back and forth between the two rows of seats at the front of the flight deck. "But don't worry, Vila. You won't be the only one there. I shall come as well."
"So will I," volunteered Perren unexpectedly. When Avon looked at him in surprise, he grinned. "I'm the closest thing you've got to a puppeteer. If anybody can read Egrorian and reason out what games he's up to, I'm your man. Besides," he added, grinning even more widely, "it will irritate Avon to have me along, and that's one of my joys in life."
"Perhaps I should go as well," his friend Edge remarked. "After all, I am a physicist, the only one you've got."
"Exactly," said Perren. "I'm not sure we need to risk you."
"I will be able to determine whether or not the tachyon funnel is what it seems," Avon said. "Besides, I took one thing from Cally's dream. I designed the false Orac I had in it as a contingency plan. Since it seemed likely we might encounter Egrorian, I felt it would be a practical solution. It will prove particularly useful. I can use it to relay specifications to this ship which Edge can assist to interpret. The fewer people down there the better. I don't know if you're needed, Vila. You may rest easy, safe on the ship. We can have you teleport if necessary. I'm not sure why you should go either, Blake," he said, frowning at their leader. "Except, of course, to prove you won't send one of us where you won't go."
"I'm going because Egrorian asked for me specifically, Avon," Blake explained, smiling at the computer tech. "As you'll remember, I wasn't present in Cally's dream until the end. Egrorian could hardly send for me within its limitations. This time he has. I think you, Perren, and I should make an excellent team with Edge standing by on Jabberwocky to read Orac's information."
"So do I," Vila agreed brightly.
"Some of us will need to stay on base because of the second mindship," Jenna put in. "Cally in particular."
The Auron nodded. "Once the ship is fully functional, my telepathic skills will not be needed but until it is completely ready, I am the only one who can reach the pilot telepathically besides Avon, and Avon is needed on the mission." She did not add what all of them knew, that Cally was better able to deal sympathetically with the man who had volunteered to donate his brain for the second mindship, a man so gravely injured only his brain still lived. "However, I must be here to complete the work." She looked at Perren. "Since you must go to assess Egrorian, I am needed here the more."
"I should stay, too," Tanz volunteered reluctantly. He, Edge and Perren were closer than brothers and none of the three enjoyed being separated by missions. "One of the three of us needs to be here to run tests on the psi linkage." He turned to his two friends. "You two watch yourselves."
"Yes, without you there we'll undoubtedly fall into dire peril," Perren teased. "Don't worry, buddy. We're as prepared for this as we can get."
"I will stay as well," Jenna volunteered. "I have tests scheduled with the crew of the second mindship. They need a pilot, and Tarrant must accompany you because of Jabberwocky. I can work with the proposed pilot; we've put in a lot of time so far, and I want him to keep his hand in. You will need to be careful, Blake."
"We will," Avon said pointedly. "Is there anyone else who wants off."
"On the contrary, Avon, there is someone who wants on," Jabberwocky interrupted. "Since we are not scheduled to leave for three hours, Kyl has asked permission to come aboard."
"If he thinks to go on the mission..." Avon began, knowing his son often tried to wheedle his way along on Jabberwocky's missions and determined not to permit it this time, since the mission in Cally's dream had been so dangerous.
"No such luck, old man," Vila teased as if in an attempt to atone for his earlier wariness. "Pry him away from his new girlfriend? Not likely."
"Have you met her yet, Avon?" Hugh Tiver asked. "A very nice girl. She's been through a lot, escaping from a prison planet where she was sent when someone in her family was convicted as a resister. She's a devoted rebel. You'd like her, Blake. I think Kyl is good for her."
"Yes, I've met Cella," Avon replied. It still stunned him to believe his son was old enough to be attracted to the opposite sex, though it shouldn't. Kyl was sixteen. "Hugh is correct. You'd like her, Blake. She is rather obsessed with the idea of rebellion. Now who does that remind me of?" he queried whimsically.
"I haven't seen her," Blake replied. "If Kyl wants to bring her aboard, that's fine, but the visit will need to be short. What about you, Vila? Coming along for the ride?"
Vila hesitated, eyeing Avon out of the corner of his eye, then he shrugged elaborately. "Oh, all right, I'll come, even if I won't go down to the planet. But don't say I didn't warn you, everybody."
Kyl arrived then with his friend Cella in tow. She was younger than he was by maybe a year, a tall girl with a face that was sad in repose but that now held a glimmer of excitement as she looked around the flight deck. Vila studied her thoughtfully. He'd never liked the idea of the families of resisters being dumped on prison planets, though it was better than summary execution. They'd seen it happen all too often, though. Blake's own family had been sent to one - only to be executed while false messages from them reassured the mind-wiped rebel that they were well. Vila's own crimes had been civil rather than political, but he'd wondered if any of his family had ever been deported after he'd joined the Liberator. There had been no way to find out, though he'd tried without success to trace them after the crew had Jabberwocky. Dayna and her father had stranded themselves on Sarran, which could amount to the same thing. Cella had a wary air about her as if she'd learned young to be on the defensive and only Kyl's proprietary hand on her arm enabled her to relax.
She had light brown hair that she wore long and straight and dark brown eyes. In some ways she looked older than her years, but that was more a trick of the expression than anything. Enforced rebels, those who had been made that way by Federation mistreatment, had a tendency to cynicism. Blake was the rare exception, but there were times when Blake could brood over his past, some of which was still lost to him. Kyl, too, had been wary when he first boarded Jabberwocky, though Kyl's reasons had been personal.
"This is Cella, everyone," he introduced her with a proprietary air. "She's been here on Ryalon for three months and Avalon's had her vetted, so she's okay. Cella, you remember my dad, Kerr Avon."
The girl's eyes fell upon Avon and she studied him with some caution. Well, that made sense, thought Vila. Avon could be a right intimidating bastard at the best of times, and Vila wasn't sure how good these times were. Kyl had probably warned her about his father. Yet Avon produced a fairly genuine smile for the girl. Kyl, as much as Jabberwocky, had assisted in the humanizing of Avon, and Perren was pushing around the edges when he thought no one was looking, to complete the process. Vila did his share, too, and Hugh had also been good for the computer tech. The return of Blake had put its seal on the process. At least Avon was polite to strangers now, much of the time, even if he still went armed when off the ship, even on Ryalon.
Cella relaxed slightly at Avon's smile. Vila hid a grin of his own. If Avon had any idea how devastating that smile could be to women, he didn't show it, and Vila wasn't about to tell him. It was much more fun to watch the results.
"And this is Blake." Kyl adored his father but he had an element of hero worship for Blake as one of the rebellion's reigning icons. It showed in his voice. He took Cella's arm and guided her over to the rebel leader.
Cella looked even more nervous than before, lowering her eyes then risking a slanting look up at him. She'd heard of Blake all right. Probably had a crush on him. Some of the local teenagers did. Vila didn't mind. He preferred women a bit more mature than Cella to display an interest in the 'famous' Vila Restal. Girls who followed Blake around were at least assured of kindness whenever Blake noticed them. Those who followed Avon were more cautious in their devotion.
Cella stared at Blake as if he couldn't believe she had just been introduced to a legend, her eyes round with disbelief. She said, "Hello, Blake," in a wary voice as if she feared she wouldn't measure up and would be tossed off the ship. Her expression was uneasy and Vila noticed her hands curling up tightly into fists, not as if she wanted to strike someone but because of a tension that washed through her like a flood. The thief saw Perren notice and narrow his eyes. You couldn't get much past Perren when he slipped into his psych-tech mode. Vila shot a questioning look at Tarrant, who fielded it and then let his face smooth out the way it did when he and Jabberwocky were in mental contact. The more people alert the better. You could never tell when an assassin might sneak in, and Blake was a prime target. Cella didn't look like an assassin, but assassins who looked like assassins weren't very likely to rise to the top in their line of work.
"It's good to meet you, Cella," Blake said in friendly tones. "I wish you could have the full tour but we're preparing for a mission, so Kyl will have to make it the short version."
She blinked in surprise and some of the tension went out of her. Not a secret assassin then, just a young girl who was nervous about meeting the idol of the people. She looked a little disappointed, as if she had discovered the legend was really only a man, but she masked the feeling immediately. "That's all right. I wasn't sure I should be here anyway, but Kyl thought it was a good idea."
Kyl's expression was completely unreadable. Vila had seen that kind of look on Avon's face more than once when Avon was being particularly difficult and didn't want anyone to have a clue to what he was thinking. Vila had always been able to read Avon pretty well, though he usually didn't admit it, but Kyl was a little harder. Part of that was his youth. Vila had always liked kids but he hadn't been around that many of Kyl's age lately, and he simply didn't know the boy as well as he knew Avon. Kyl's particular idols had always been his father, Blake, and Jabberwocky.
He proved that now by leading Cella over to the computer's main fascia. "Jabberwocky, this is Cella," he said proudly as if he had made a rare discovery. Ah, young love, thought Vila with a sideways grin at Avon. Kyl had known Cella some weeks now, but this was the first time he'd brought her to the ship.
"Welcome, Cella," Jabberwocky said, his voice, as usual, warmly human. No one would ever mistake that voice for a typical computer one. Of course Orac didn't sound like a computer either. He sounded irritated and annoyed half the time. But Jabberwocky sounded like a real person, which he was to all the crew.
Cella put up her hand and touched the screen briefly, winning her an approving look from Tarrant, who tended to resent people who didn't know how to treat his bondmate. "Hello, Jabberwocky. Kyl's told me a lot about you." She smiled at the fascia.
"And he's told me about you," Jabberwocky said. "Welcome to the ship. Kyl, I think it would be kind of you to introduce the others."
"Oh. Yeah. Thanks, Jab." Kyl grinned impudently at the screen - he and Jabberwocky had been friends from the moment they met - and made his girlfriend known to everyone else. This was one of the few times the ship's entire complement was present on the flight deck at once without several of them in some kind of linkage with the ship. Kyl had chosen his moment well. He rattled off the names, grinning at each in turn. He was a lot friendlier to Cally now than he had been at first. Coming here newly, he had been wary of her because of her relationship with Avon, but he'd grown friendly with her over the months. Jenna still seemed to awe him a little, as did Soolin, partly because the young gunfighter took no guff from anyone. But he was on better terms with Dayna since his meeting with Cella, because he no longer had a crush on Dayna and could treat her like a friend, when he wasn't wanting to take the android apart and study her inner workings.
Tarrant was next, and Kyl had always liked Tarrant, and often wheedled piloting lessons from him. He chose Dr. Tiver next, and Hugh greeted Cella with his usual warmth, making the girl smile. Gan stuck out a big paw and engulfed her slender fingers, Tanz bounced up enthusiastically - but there was nothing new in that; he did everything with enthusiasm. Edge nodded, paying more attention to his mini-computer and psi detector than he did to her, and Vila suspected he was taking readings to see if she had any latent psi talents. He was always doing that to new people, planning maybe for the day when the Rebellion possessed a fleet of mindships and would benefit from scattering natural telepaths aboard the ships.
Perren greeted her with a teasing wink that made her blush. Perren always flirted, even with younger girls than Cella, and he had a coterie of teenaged girls who dreamed about him, though it was their older sisters he was interested in. Perren was always in love with one woman or another from the base, and he had a way with the ladies. Cella rose to it with innocent enjoyment that made Kyl give him a dirty look even though he had always liked Perren.
"Ignore him," he said to Cella under his breath. "I always do."
"Oh, I wouldn't ignore any of your friends."
"Then here's Vila. Don't ignore him; he'll pick your pocket."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Vila assured her. "You don't look wealthy enough. Besides, any friend of Kyl's..."
"You're his father's friend aren't you, you and...and Blake?"
"Well, I don't know if I'd put it like that," Vila said hastily, noting a glint in Avon's eye.
"I shouldn't," Avon replied predictably. "Not when you wouldn't trust me on the shuttle."
Vila's eyes widened. He was always a little surprised when Avon resorted to good-humoured teasing, though it was becoming a little more common these days.
"You don't mind?" he asked.
"Mind a survival instinct? Far be it for me to discourage any one of you who might inadvertently stumble upon one. You're all far too trusting."
"But we've got you to protect us," Perren said smoothly.
"Come on." Kyl caught Cella's hand. "I'll take you to see the rest of the ship."
She hung back a moment longer, her eyes lingering on Blake. Vila wondered if anyone but himself noticed the shadows in her expression. He sneaked a sideways glance at Tarrant and lifted a questioning brow. Tarrant nodded slightly. Maybe Jabberwocky knew something. Though she was trying hard to seem natural, that girl was wound tight as a string and it might be good to learn what was wrong with her. He let himself slip into link mode.
//She is very upset,// Jabberwocky said into his mind. //She had different expectations when she came here. I can't read her, and it wouldn't be right to intrude without her permission, but she is unhappy. Kyl makes her smile.//
//She's not going to stab Blake in his sleep, is she?// Vila projected.
He felt Tarrant's silent laughter through the link. //Don't be melodramatic, Vila. She met her hero and he didn't pay particular attention to her, that's all.//
//Better be sure,// Vila insisted and slid out of linkage, only to find Perren regarding him with steady interest. That was the trouble with having a psych tech on board. He had an annoying habit of noticing things Vila would prefer went unnoticed, though Vila had liked Perren from the beginning.
No one else had noticed anything unusual. Avon was standing next to Blake, talking to him about the mission while those who were staying on Ryalon were preparing to get the supplies they needed from their cabins. When it became apparent that the entire crew wouldn't always go on every mission, Blake had arranged housing for them on the base, so they could have permanent portside residences. Avon never stayed there and Blake and Tarrant rarely did, but all the others occasionally stayed over from time to time. Now, Cally, Tanz, Jenna and Dayna headed for the door. The android had been designing the weapons systems for the new mindship and working closely with Tanz on the linkages, though she would have worked closely with Tanz in any case. With their departure, the crew was down to nine plus Jabberwocky and Orac. Suitable for the mission, even if they ran into hostile ships. It gave backups on several systems, and Hugh was along to treat any injuries. Vila shivered. He didn't like the thought of that, though he did like Hugh.
"Better make sure the kids go, Blake," he said. "You know how Kyl gets when there's a mission."
"He wouldn't stow away again," Avon said flatly, folding his arms across his chest. "He and I have resolved that issue."
"Besides, he has Cella now," Soolin pointed out. As Blake's bodyguard, she came on nearly every mission, though she had looked past Blake now and found Hugh there. The two of them were a couple these days, good friends into the bargain. It certainly made Blake more comfortable, Vila thought wryly.
"Jabberwocky," Tarrant said aloud, though he could communicate sub-vocally with the ship whenever he wanted to. "Report to us when Kyl and Cella leave."
"She seems like a nice girl, Avon," Blake said encouragingly.
"She's had a rough time of it," said Avon unexpectedly. "Kyl says she and her mother were left on a prison planet for five years before they were taken off by a smuggler and gradually worked their way here. Cella's father was a resister. Her mother died before she could get here. Avalon arranged for her to live with a family here and that family lives near Kyl's foster home."
"You've never met the girl before?" Vila asked.
"I've seen them together, no more. Kyl says she hates the Federation. She wants to join the resistance the moment she's old enough. Another recruit for your cause, Blake."
"She's too young, Avon. She's even younger than Kyl."
"Kyl says the minute he turns seventeen he wants to join the crew," Perren put in. "He'll be old enough legally then."
Avon opened his mouth to deny any such possibility then shut it again. Vila grinned as he realized that part of that was worry for his son and an urge to protect him, but Avon was also gratified that Kyl would choose to spend more time with him. Of course, being Avon, he would never admit it, except possibly in private to Cally.
He said now, "I must go and speak to Cally before she leaves," and strode off the flight deck without a backward look.
"He'll probably make sure Kyl gets off," Perren said with a grin. "Come on, Edge, let's track down our wandering boy and make sure he's okay."
"Of course he's okay," Edge said reasonably. "He's going to be with Dayna."
"Then let's go and make sure you can research this tachyon funnel."
Edge lifted an eyebrow. "The odds against such an unlikely possibility as failure are impossible to compute, being so high."
Perren elbowed him cheerfully in the ribs and led him off the flight deck.
Hugh chuckled. "I have a dream of Avon and Perren getting locked in a cabin together for a day. The mind boggles at the possibilities."
Vila chuckled. "You think they'd both come out alive?"
"Of course they would," Blake insisted, grinning. "Frustrated, maddened, impatient, but definitely alive. Of course Perren has new ammunition now. Kyl's getting older. Imagine him marrying that girl. Children? Avon a grandfather?"
That won a snort of laughter from Tarrant. "I'm sorry. It's impossible to imagine. Come on, Vila. I want to make sure the docking bay is in good shape. I'm going to put you to work."
"Work?" echoed Vila without enthusiasm, but he went along anyway. Last time anybody had him doing hard work, he'd managed to convince Jabberwocky to entertain them with dirty jokes. He was sure he could think up something this time, too.
"I told you it wouldn't work."
"I didn't believe you," Kyl said, shaking his head in disappointment. "I was so sure. I thought that would do it if anything." The two of them were sitting side by side on the chairs outside the medical unit, his arm very firmly around her shoulders. "There's always the frontal attack."
She shook her head. "No. I won't do it. I don't think it would work, and not being believed would be worse than anything. There's got to be a way." Her shoulders slumped beneath his arm. "Oh, Kyl, what am I going to do?"
"We need more time, that's what we need. Either that or something dramatic, but we haven't figured out what to use, so it's got to be more time. And there's only one way to get it. I'll be in trouble with my dad, but we have to take the risk. And we need help, someone who won't turn us in. Do you trust me?"
She lifted her eyes and gazed at him in surprise. "Of course I do. You know I do. We're in this together." It had taken her a long time to trust him; she had been wary and suspicious of all comers at first, but Kyl, who had been through rough beginnings on Ryalon himself, had befriended her. He'd come here thinking it was his own choice, only to find out he'd been used to get to his father. Fortunately Jabberwocky had been able to detect the contradictions in his story in time to help save Avon's life. Cella wasn't programmed. Avalon had had tests run. They'd found evidence of long ago beatings from the time on the prison world, but she had managed to avoid rape and torture. She had explained to Avalon and the doctors that for the last four years she'd disguised herself as a boy. Kyl thought it was a good thing she'd arrived on Ryalon when she did because that disguise wouldn't have worked much longer. Here with proper food and care, she had blossomed into impending womanhood, and he thought her much too beautiful to deceive any but the most stupid of observers. No boy ever had eyelashes that long, and even the most bulky clothes couldn't have concealed her burgeoning figure. Kyl was smitten. Now that he knew her full story, he found himself even more smitten than before. It was almost as if it had all been meant from the beginning.
"Then trust Jabberwocky too, because he'll never betray us," he insisted earnestly. "He cares, and he'll understand. Let me tell him. It's the only way."
She jumped to her feet, braced in a defensive stance. He'd seen a lot of that at first, Cella against the universe, but lately she'd been unbending more and more. Now it was back and he realized how much this disappointment had set her back. "It was hard enough to tell you," she said. "I was afraid you'd think I was making it up just so you'd like me."
"I already liked you," he said with such utter simplicity she started to relax. "Don't worry about that. It's okay. Really." He pulled her down against him again and she leaned into the circle of his arm. "Jabberwocky," Kyl said aloud. "I need your help."
"I won't help you stow away, Kyl. Avon would dismantle me if I even tried."
"As if anybody would let him," scoffed the boy. "Come on, Jab, just hear us out. This is really important. We're not trying to get a joyride. I've - I've outgrown that. I know I'm okay with Dad now. I'm not trying to prove anything. But this is really important. It's Cella's whole life, and not just her. Will you pull us both into linkage so you'll know we're not lying, and I'll tell you in there? Come on, Jab. I know what a good sport you are and how much you like the others. It'll be fun, I promise you. Just listen. Please."
"You should give lessons to your father," Jabberwocky said. "He never wheedles. He threatens. For those of us who know him, we can take him as we see fit, but it's harder for strangers. Very well. Link. Don't be afraid, Cella. I won't read your mind, only what you show me. Just relax. Take Kyl's hand for a reference point and let your mind drift."
She looked at Kyl with growing apprehension. "Are you sure about this?"
"You know it. I'd trust Jab with my life. We all do. He's linked to Tarrant now, but he's been linked to Blake, and Cally, and to Vila and my dad for shorter times."
"Will Tarrant know?" she asked uneasily.
Jabberwocky chuckled. "No. I hear all things on this ship, but I respect privacy. Your secrets are safe with me unless they are needed to save a life."
She hesitated a moment more, uneasiness clearly written on her face, then she nodded. "All right. Do it."
Jabberwocky drew the two of them into linkage.
Half an hour before departure time, Jabberwocky spoke aloud. "All passengers are now ashore. We can depart at your order, Blake."
"Kyl didn't make trouble or smuggle himself into an empty cabin?" Avon asked, lifting his head and staring suspiciously at Jabberwocky's fascia.
"No. No one has smuggled himself into an empty cabin. No one is here who lacks a valid reason for his or her presence. I would know. I monitor the entire ship. You should be aware of that, since you're my father."
"I am your designer, not your father," Avon said but without impatience. He was used to that. "I wish you would find another way to address me if it is simply too much bother to call me Avon."
"Come on, Avon," Vila teased. "Designer's the wrong word. You can't design something alive. Jabberwocky's right. You are his father. Makes him and Kyl brothers, doesn't it?"
"If we are ready, I suggest we depart," Avon said somewhat stiffly. "I have some work to do with Orac Mark II if we're to pull off the exchange Egrorian proposed. The last thing we need is for him to discover our deception before we are safely back to the ship."
"Better make sure he hasn't got a tachyon funnel Mark II," put in Tarrant from the pilot's position. "If you can deceive him, make sure he doesn't deceive you. And watch out if he wants to put you in a shuttle."
"Why, Tarrant, you're developing a suspicious nature," purred Soolin, joining the conversation abruptly. He looked up, favoured her with a wry look, and turned back to his instruments.
"With Avon's splendid example, how could I fail?" he asked.
That made Blake smile. "We need someone with a suspicious nature," he observed. "It helps to keep me honest."
"We have several," Soolin pointed out. "Myself, Jenna, Avon of course, and Perren."
"Hey, I try," Perren said with a grin. "Once I learn who to trust, then I can just watch everybody else. Except of course that I can trust Avon and it's always interesting to watch him."
"I see no point in idle chit chat," Avon interrupted, half concerned about what irreverent data Perren might decide to expose. With Perren, one could never tell, and he'd always claim he was doing it for Avon's own good, which made it worse. "If we are prepared, I suggest we depart before anything can go wrong. Other than Vila, of course, who is wrong by nature."
Vila howled a protest. "That's not fair, Avon. I never did anything to you. I was just sitting here minding my own business. Attacked without provocation!" He looked around the flight deck for supporters and found only amused grins, but he persisted anyway. "Now you can tell why I didn't want to go in the shuttle with him. I'm put upon, and here I am completely harmless."
"Completely useless," Tarrant muttered, but he was smiling and there was an edge of fondness in his voice that had never been there in the old days as if he enjoyed Vila's prattle more than ever before. He and Vila were getting along much better these days. Avon wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. He wasn't accustomed to a mellow Tarrant, but then the link with Jabberwocky had done Tarrant good. Vila might even help humanize him further if he was willing to banter with the pilot the way he did with Avon. Link mode made for strange bedfellows.
Vila stuck out his tongue at Tarrant, then ducked away in pretend fear of blows. His eyes were twinkling. He was enjoying himself hugely, a fact that was evident to everyone watching him.
"All right," Blake decided good-humouredly. "We'll go. Vila, call in for clearance, would you?"
Vila did. They were granted immediate take off from Avalon herself who told them to be careful on the mission, then all of them linked in preparation for departure. Avon found it easier these days to blend into the linkage, though he preferred to do it when there was a specific purpose, such as take off and landing, and the inevitable space battles instead of doing it simply for pleasure the way some of them did. Tarrant, of course, was so close to Jabberwocky that he did it without even thinking about it, but Cally loved the linkage and often joined in simply for pleasure when she was aboard. Hugh, that outgoing type, found enjoyment in link-mode. Blake, though not particularly skilled at linkage, enjoyed it mightily and scheduled regular linkup times when the crew could get together for that purpose alone. While it was true that linkage and the stronger gestalt in which they could function as one entity rather than separate but linked individuals had saved their lives on more than one occasion, Avon was essentially a private person and had never learned to relish the mental closeness that Cally thrived on. Soolin tended to agree with him; she was a touch-me-not by nature, and Edge, while willing to participate, was less open than either of his two friends. Perren often chose to maintain a slight distance, watching them all, and Avon didn't care for that, especially when he would catch the psych tech regarding him with amusement. Yet he had never felt a threat from Perren, other than the threat of being too well understood, and if it came to that, Blake understood him that well already as did Cally, Vila and Hugh. Avon heaved a sigh. Life had been much less complex before linkage. But on the other hand, he felt safer, in spite of the intimacy of the link, than he had in years.
As if he knew that, Blake turned his mental attention in Avon's direction, his linked projection full of warmth. Blake had a habit of doing that, and it irritated Avon. He quite preferred his warmer feelings to remain unacknowledged, but Blake had never been good at that. He spewed bright drops of affection like a fountain, sprinkling everyone within range. Jabberwocky had been good for Blake, too. Before link mode, Blake was willing to care about humanity but had trouble one on one, though he didn't even realize this was a problem. Now the ready warmth of his nature had been freed, and while it made Avon uncomfortable from time to time, he seldom complained about it. He knew inside, where it didn't show even in link mode, that Blake was a part of his life, closer than kin. To dwell on the idea was foolish, maudlin and sentimental, and served no purpose, but Avon didn't bother to deny it any longer.
Jabberwocky had given him something he'd never really known, not since his brother had vanished long ago. He had given him a family.
Disgusted with his sentimental maunderings, Avon concentrated quite hard on the launch, prepared to step in and intervene at the first trace of trouble. He monitored all the computer linkages; one fringe benefit of linking was the ability to see all of that in his mind in a flash. His computer knowledge, always top of the line, had grown, and he suspected he would be a match for Ensor now if he put his mind to it. Perhaps he could design another Orac, one that was less inclined to overweening ego. That might be a worthy project, something to make available to the various mindships. Avon considered the accolades that would be showered on him at his success, and smiled a crocodile smile.
//Show-off,// said a voice in his head. Avon looked up and saw Blake smiling at him in sheer delight.
//Coming from you,// he responded, choosing to use his own particular telepathy rather than the link mode, //that's rather good, Blake.//
Blake laughed aloud, which made several people turn to stare at him. Avon assumed a totally bland expression and tried to pretend he was somewhere else. That didn't stop Perren and Hugh from looking at him knowingly and Vila from eyeing him with an all-too-knowing grin. He found it irritating, and favoured them with dark glares, coming out of link-mode immediately.
The ship left the atmosphere and most of the others left linkage, leaving Tarrant still in, and Vila, who seemed to like the state. Avon had never understood that. Vila had always been a chameleon of a man, concealing the real person behind a variety of facades, but he couldn't do that in link-mode. Yet he invariably relished the state. Look at him now, smiling fatuously. Avon grimaced. He hoped he didn't wear a similar expression when linked.
Vila shook himself like a hairy animal emerging from water and emerged, catching Avon's stare immediately. "What did I do now?" he wailed. "You're not still mad at me because I wouldn't go down to Malodar with you?" He probably wouldn't have asked the question if not for the momentary vulnerability that sometimes hit in the moment of transition from being linked to one's normal state.
Avon considered it. "That man in Cally's dream was not I," he said. "And one assumes neither was it you. However you would be useless baggage on such a trip. In Cally's dream we lacked the resources to do the job properly."
"Useless baggage," repeated Vila, grimacing. "I can tell when I'm not wanted."
"Patently untrue, Vila," Avon said in an exaggerated voice.
"What's that mean?" demanded the thief with ponderous suspicion.
"It means you're still here," Tarrant said wickedly, his eyes lighting up at the perfect opportunity to score.
Vila made a face at Tarrant, but there was no real heat in his voice when he said, "Shows what you know."
"I have serious work to do," Avon said. "Perfecting Orac Mark II. The rest of you may remain here and indulge in futile chit chat if you desire." He turned and walked off the flight deck.
"I'll go along and assist," Edge stated, rising quickly and starting for the doorway. "I want to study his work. If he can build a second Orac, I might be able to assist."
Avon slowed his steps long enough for the tall computer specialist to catch up. He rather enjoyed working with Edge, who didn't talk too much and who asked appropriate, intelligent questions. When the two of them were working, Avon could still find traces of his old self, the person he had left behind when he first met Anna Grant and became involved in his plot to defraud the Federation Banking System, and he relished those moments. He had changed; there was no denying that. But at least when he worked computers with Edge, no one was pushing him to admit it. It was a totally undemanding friendship, one he was coming to relish. Of course the fact that he relished it spoke of the changes within him, but at least with Edge, there was no need to be on guard.
"You're up to something."
"Me? What did I do?" asked Vila in surprise. He and Tarrant were in the rest room, enjoying a late meal while Blake sat a watch on the flight deck. Tarrant had been running flight plans in his head, calculating all those kind of things pilots enjoy, sharing them with Jabberwocky, scarcely aware of Vila's presence, and in the process, he'd come up against a feeling that wasn't quite right. He knew Jabberwocky intimately, and this felt different. Casting about in his mind for comparisons he remembered the journey to retrieve IMIPAK. Jabberwocky had planned to attempt a contact with his son, Tarrant's old friend Dorn, and had covered up the presence of Dorn's Andromedan ship when detectors picked up traces of it at the extreme edges of range. Though Jabberwocky had learned his lesson that time, Tarrant couldn't help feeling he was concealing something again, and finally he was driven to say so. These days, Jabberwocky was rarely secretive with him, though he didn't share private information about any of the others unless it was necessary for the proper functioning of the ship.
"Not you," Tarrant now said to Vila, willing to share his concern with the thief. "I never have to guess when you're up to something. It's always obvious. I meant Jabberwocky."
"Why, what's wrong?" asked the thief, alarm sliding into his voice. "This is a trap after all. I knew it. I think we should turn around and go home again."
"It's not a trap," Jabberwocky said smoothly. "You're remembering IMIPAK, Del. I give you my solemn word I haven't contacted anyone off this ship and have no plans to do so."
"Why don't I trust that?" Vila's question was whimsical. He looked at Tarrant worriedly. "I think you're right. That's not a straight answer. Come on, Jabberwocky, give. What are you doing to us?"
"Nothing. This doesn't involve you at all. I admit I have been a touch high handed but for a greater good. My only concern is the possibility of a trap, but Orac has been scanning all reports out of Space Command Headquarters in an attempt to learn if either Servalan or Arpel has planned anything remotely connected with Malodar or Egrorian."
"I bet Avon put Orac up to that," Vila said.
"No, I did it," Jabberwocky replied. "I don't want to take unnecessary risks. This mission comes with all the baggage of Cally's dream and that makes it harder on us than usual. However, I've compared reports of Egrorian with the images I have taken from Cally's mind. It appears to be the same man, just as she got Soolin right. Since Dr. Plaxton was completely different, there was no guarantee Egrorian was the same. Yet it would seem to be. He is accompanied by Pinder, a brilliant mathematician, or he was when he left Earth. No additional information is available at this point, whether Pinder was exposed to Hofel's radiation as in Cally's dream, whether Egrorian plans to use a shuttle, or whether he will encumber it with the microscopic piece of neutron material embedded in a crystal to prevent escape from the atmosphere. I can't guess his motivation in that. The shuttle would have burned up in the atmosphere but it would have taken the tachyon funnel with it. Unless he has a dummy to give to Avon, or he thought Servalan could somehow intercept the shuttle, or unless Servalan didn't care about the tachyon funnel and only wanted Orac. This is interesting. A pity Cally isn't here."
"No, just as well," Vila said promptly. "She hated that dream. I think she wanted to come along to make sure she could change it, but I think it's better she didn't."
"Well, I think the only advantage of the tachyon funnel would be to keep Servalan from getting it and using it against us," Tarrant decided. "We don't want a weapon like that in her hands. I think Blake plans to destroy it the minute he gets it in his possession. You know how he can be when he thinks he has a higher purpose for the good of humanity."
"Destroy it, and all Egrorian's plans," Vila put in. "And probably Egrorian too. No, Blake won't do that."
"Avon might," Tarrant replied. "He's a lot more pragmatic than Blake."
"I don't know. Avon's changed, and anyway, I can't see Blake letting him kill somebody in cold blood. If Servalan's there, that's different. Because maybe if we'd killed her a long time ago things would have been easier for all of us."
"How?" asked Tarrant. "The Federation's still there, and at least we know what to expect her. We know we can beat her. We still haven't quite figured out what Arpel is up to, and I think he delights in sending us mixed signals." His eyes narrowed. "And you're distracting us," he burst out, turning to stare at the screen. "Come on, Jabberwocky. Tell us what's going on."
"I can't. I'm sworn to secrecy."
Vila and Tarrant exchanged worried glances. "Sworn to secrecy by whom?" Tarrant asked.
"That's part of the secrecy."
Vila groaned. "I'm not going to like this."
"You never like anything," Tarrant reminded him.
Vila leaned over and poked Tarrant in the arm. "Not true. I like Jabberwocky - and sometimes I even like you. You're starting to sound like Avon. I think it's just that you don't like Jabberwocky having secrets from you."
Tarrant grimaced, knowing Vila was right. He and Jabberwocky had become so close it was as if he was being denied knowledge of his own mind. "Thank you for that brilliant analysis, Vila," he said sourly. "Have you been having psych lessons from Perren?"
"That's me, brilliant Vila. Everybody says so," the thief returned. "I wonder what would be so important Jabberwocky would even keep it from you." He turned his eyes on the computer's main fascia. "Can't you give us a teeny little hint?" he wheedled hopefully.
"No, but the truth will soon be known and then you'll understand. I just want to help my friends." Jabberwocky heaved a very human sigh. "Del, I hate keeping anything from you, you know I do, because it's like hurting myself, but it's just too soon. I know I'll make several people angry, especially Avon, but I can't help it. I have no choice. It's too important for that."
He sounded so sincere Tarrant let himself drift into the linkage. He didn't expect to get a whiff of the secret, but he did get a feeling of reassurance and love from the computer. //I know I made a mistake when I was looking for Dorn,// Jabberwocky told him and Vila, who had popped into the link without a moment's hesitation as if certain of his welcome. //But this is different. I will endanger none of you. I hope in the heat of the moment to create the right mood to do what needs to be done. Trust me until then.//
Tarrant did trust Jabberwocky. It was simply that where emotions were concerned, the ship was not always as reliable as he was when he was using his computer-enhanced skills. The pilot stretched out a long arm and patted the screen. //I trust you,// he said. //You know that. It's just that this mission could easily go wrong. If there are any more ties to Cally's dream, Servalan could well be there with a fleet waiting for us. We haven't heard anything from the main fleet for a time, not since those war games they held before we went to Sarran and got Perren, Tanz and Edge. She could have a couple of flotillas waiting there for us. We're all a little on edge. This isn't the best time for springing a surprise.//
//I know, and that worries me. But we're going armed with knowledge we wouldn't have had otherwise. We've taken every possible precaution, many that Egrorian wouldn't expect us to take. Servalan won't know we expect her either, and we've got the extra range detectors to test the planet before we're within their detector range to see if it's a trap. Edge has been working on them to boost their power. If it comes to a fight, we're good, and we're fast enough to outrun trouble.//
//As long as they don't try to close us in,// Vila offered without enthusiasm. //I wish we were home again. I don't like this.//
Tarrant came out of linkage when the thief did and grinned at him. "Did you ever?"
Avon came striding onto the flight deck that evening prepared to run tests on the detectors and his detector shield before they reached the danger area, and found Blake alone there, sitting in Tarrant's chair, his elbow on the armrest, gnawing at his fist, his face abstracted in thought. He looked a million miles away, so Avon, who didn't care to bother him when he was in such a mood, went over to the proper area of the flight deck and opened the outer panel, taking his monitoring tools from the kit he carried. Blake didn't stir, in fact he gave no sign he'd heard Avon. The computer tech hadn't charged in and greeted Blake with a hearty hello, but neither had he tiptoed in and removed the casing in total silence. His repair work forgotten for the moment, he let his eyes linger on Blake's face, his mouth puckering in concern.
These days he and Blake were much closer than Avon had ever believed possible and, another change, Avon no longer attempted to rationalize it away. He didn't spend time dwelling on it either, but the fact existed; he was Blake's friend and Blake was his, and that was important to both of them. Now here was Blake in a brown study, his eyes open but seeing nothing on the flight deck. The old Avon would have ignored him and gone about his work without a moment's hesitation, expecting the rebel leader was planning new ways to get them all killed. Now it was different. He watched Blake's face, noting the changing emotions, the primary one reflected of frustration. Again and again he would come back to that feeling, and Avon, who had long ago told himself he was learning to read Blake in self defence so he wouldn't have to admit a friendship he would never have claimed in the old days, eyed him with the dawning of worry. It wasn't only because of the mission either, though this pensive a Blake might well go off into another trance down there and endanger them and that must be prevented at all costs. But a niggle of a more personal worry disturbed the tech and he sat there on the floor, his tools spread neatly around him, his eyes never leaving Blake's face.
The frustration held none of the petty irritation of a man who has discovered a minor annoyance. It was a deeper bafflement, as if he had just discovered he had lost something important, maybe even vital, and not only did he have no idea where it was, he couldn't imagine what it was either. There was both sorrow and anger in the depths of Blake's brown eyes. That drove Avon to break the silence.
The question went unanswered at first, then Blake jumped and turned, his eyes widening in surprise. "I didn't hear you come in, Avon, I'm sorry," he said in a completely normal voice.
"Is something wrong?" Avon phrased the question diffidently, willing to give Blake the leeway to back out if he should so choose, but with enough concern that the rebel might feel free to speak if he so chose. There were times when Avon had difficulty recognizing himself, but around Blake it didn't matter. There were, it seemed, things far more important than self-preservation. After his knowledge of the mind-link and gestalt, Avon still might be uncomfortable with so revealing himself, but he had learned that to shield himself at the expense of self-preservation around Blake was to shield himself to no purpose. What he would save would be a cold and empty husk, what he might have become if Cally's dream had been the reality. Avon still defended himself, of course; he would be a fool not to; but never against Blake.
"Wrong?" Blake pondered the question as if he had as many changes in himself to rationalize as Avon did. The hollowness warmed out of his eyes and he let open fondness shine there. He didn't usually do that in company and Avon was glad, because so much warmth deserved return, and while Avon was more comfortable with the others, he still didn't like expressing emotion before them. The old habits were too ingrained for that. "It isn't that, Avon," Blake said thoughtfully as he treated Avon's question to all the seriousness it deserved. "But something's bothering me, something I can't bring to the surface. It's as if I've forgotten something."
"Then it's to be hoped it's not something vital to this mission," Avon said dryly.
That won a quick smile from Blake. "I don't think it is," he responded. "It's not something I forgot to do. It's more fundamental than that. It's as if there were something, well, missing."
"And just how long have you had this feeling?" Avon prompted, his tools forgotten. In the old days he would have scoffed it off and watched Blake like a hawk for signs of trouble, but he didn't do that now.
"I'm not sure. I didn't have it before we left on this mission, at least I don't think I did. I think it began about the time we left. Perhaps my subconscious mind is trying to warn me of something."
"Then I wish it might be a little more clear cut," Avon returned. "I know you, Blake. You work yourself into frenzies over things that are unimportant except perhaps to that scrupulous conscience of yours. Is there, possibly, a danger you haven't mentioned to the rest of us?"
"In link mode? You should know better than that, Avon. One of you would have picked it up when we took off. I'm not good at shielding, you know that."
Avon did. Blake's feelings occasionally got all mixed up with the business at hand, and his great caring for his crew was never in doubt at such moments. While it wasn't impossible that Blake would hold something back about the mission until the last minute, he clearly wasn't doing so this time, at least not consciously. Blake was a lot more openly honest with the others than he had been on the Liberator, when he had sometimes felt the need to trick his not-particularly-gung-ho crew into going on missions that only he considered important. But then this crew didn't resist him either. They might have their own opinions and no hesitation about offering them, but they were much more united in purpose than the old Liberator crew had been.
"I know you let all your sloppy sentiment shine out in linkage," Avon returned tartly, which won a grin from Blake. His tensions eased a little.
"A fault of which you are never guilty," Blake returned. "At least not in group linkage. And of course, no sentiment of yours would ever be 'sloppy'."
"I should hope not," Avon returned. "Come on, Blake, are you going to tell me what's wrong or not?" He stood up and walked over to confront his friend, eyeing him head on. "While I have no great urge to play healer, this little fit of yours might well endanger you - and consequently me, whilst down on Malodar."
"That being your primary concern, of course," Blake responded, a teasing note creeping into his voice.
"My safety is always of prime concern to me," Avon replied in a voice from his Liberator days.
"And that of the rest of the crew," Blake parried. "Don't play games, Avon. Something's bothering me, and I have a feeling it might be important, but I can't get at it." He looked genuinely worried. "I don't think it will interfere with the mission, but it might be important to the mission. Maybe it's something about Egrorian or Pinder."
"Something you forgot?" Avon prompted. Blake's memory had been blocked by the Federation and he hadn't started remembering until Bran Foster's rebel group had been massacred before his eyes. Avon had believed Blake had pretty much remembered everything, but there were times in deeper linkage when he'd wondered about that. He hadn't probed; it was not his way to delve deeper than anyone intended him to see, because to do so would grant the other an equal privilege and Avon wasn't prepared for that yet, if ever. "Something the Federation mind-blocked? Possibly you knew Egrorian before."
"I would have been fairly young," Blake said thoughtfully. "He's been missing a long time. I don't think I could have known him; though it's possible I met him when I was in school." He frowned. "It's not blocked, Avon. It would simply be one of those things I simply forgot, as everyone does. I don't think that's it, either. I've been considering what we know of Cally's dream and having Orac play bits of it back for me." At Avon's urging, Cally had sat down with Orac soon after they'd acquired Jabberwocky and related every detail she could recall of the prophetic dream in case it faded from her mind. She had also shared particularly vivid images with the crew telepathically once her psi powers had returned following her head injury on Terminal. Since a number of incidents had come true in one way or another, key names had been memorized by most of the crew. While it was believed that various changes in the lives of the crew and in the Federation itself had caused a divergence from the events of the dream that grew wider with every passing day, there were still possibilities of danger from it, and the dream served as a guide and a warning. They had managed to avoid Servalan's scheme with Avon's old friend Keiller in a plot to get gold from the planet Zerok through a little devious use of the computer. Dorn Suliman, sneaking in with his Andromedan ship which had shields to protect it, had come away with a shipment of the black gold just before Zerok was ceded to the Federation, leaving Servalan with a fortune in worthless Zerok currency. Avon had enjoyed stage-managing that particular plan, and the gold had helped to fund the Rebellion's continuing plan to mount a fleet of mindships against the Federation Space Command.
"And did you find anything useful in those memories?" Avon persisted. Blake in this frame of mind concerned him because the engineer had a habit of worrying a subject like a dog with a bone until it obsessed him. The last thing they needed on Malodar was an obsessed Blake.
The rebel shook his head. "Nothing. I don't think it's anything to do with Cally's dream. We've learned a lot from it, though. I sometimes rather suspect we changed history when we acquired Jabberwocky. Think of what we've been able to do: combat the use of Pylene 50 to slow the Federation's advance. Even on Earth, we've managed to counter a lot of the use of suppressants now, thanks to the growing rebel network there. I've heard there's a lot of restlessness among the citizenry. Just think, Avon, the time may be ripe. If we can come away with the Tachyon Funnel, we'll be spared the danger of Servalan using it against us, just like we did with IMIPAK. Which reminds me. I heard from my clone recently. He's been making great strides on some of the outer worlds."
"Posing as you, no doubt?"
"No, as you'll remember, he had the reconstructive surgery. He looks a little like me, still, but actually more like my brother." He heaved a sigh. "I never was made to forget my brother and sister, as you know. I got the forged messages which were supposed to be from my family all the time I was the Federation's puppet." He shivered. "They took away so much, Avon. Even now I can't help wondering if there's something important I've forgotten, something that simply hasn't come back."
Avon considered that. While it was possible portions of the mind-wipe still held, and he knew there were gaps in Blake's mind, he hadn't considered doing anything about that before. Avon had learned to eradicate programming, but this was programming of a different sort. Still, the thought of learning a portion of his own mind was blocked would have enraged and infuriated him. If this was what was disturbing Blake now, it might be well to deal with it.
"I could go into healing mode and see if I could tell," he offered. Avon did not like the healing mode, yet there had been times, while in it with Blake, that he had found himself actually enjoying the process. He wouldn't volunteer for that, of course, but it might help the mission.
Blake wasn't sure. "Perhaps when we get home again," he replied. "If it's something very important, this would be a poor time to become distracted."
"You do have a point, though I admit I find you distracted already."
"I was just thinking, wondering..." Blake returned. "With Orac checking for ships and messages related to Egrorian, and the long-range detectors making periodic sweeps, I don't believe we could be boxed in. We might have to run for it, and that worries me because they could send messages and try to intercept us. I wish we had back-up."
"I can arrange for that," Jabberwocky put in. "Dorn's on another mission, but he could be summoned. He'll be free by tomorrow and it won't be out of his way for him to join us. Two ships would have a better chance than one, and the Scourge could rendezvous with us on the way home."
"Can you reach him?" asked Blake.
"I think so. He's my son. We found we have a strong telepathic bond. I know it was designed rather than inherent, but it works. The Scourge doesn't use tarial cells, so Orac can't get a message to Dorn. But I can. The parent/child bond is quite strong. It's a hard link to break. Even when Dorn was so upset to find out I was like this, that bond was there. Never underestimate it, Blake."
Avon eyed the computer's fascia suspiciously. "Thank you for that lesson in filial piety," he retorted.
"It wasn't a lesson I needed to teach you, Avon," Jabberwocky retorted. "You have a fine son, and Kyl and I have a fine father. And I have a fine son of my own." If it had been possible, he would have been smiling.
"The joys of parenthood," Avon said, remembering some of Kyl's more difficult moments. "Not an unmixed blessing. Did I tell you about the lab explosion, Blake?"
"The one where Kyl destroyed the school lab?" Blake chuckled. "You did indeed. Once you knew Kyl wasn't hurt, you told everyone about it. I never saw you so proud of him."
"That was because he figured out what the problem was and redesigned it afterwards," Avon replied. "He learned from the mistake and went on to do a superb job." He heard the pride in his voice and added more coolly, "But we've strayed from the subject. About the mission, Blake..."
"I won't cause any trouble on the mission, Avon," Blake replied. He looked more relaxed, though there was still a hint of that frustration in the back of his eyes.
Avon decided he'd let it go but would watch Blake carefully. He also made a note to talk to Kyl when they returned to Ryalon. From Jabberwocky's words it was possible his son was up to some kind of mischief. Kyl was not a bad boy but he was adventuresome and extremely intelligent, not always the safest possible combination. He resolved to question Jabberwocky the first chance he had to do so in private, in case the boy had confided in him about his plans. Kyl adored Jabberwocky and often came aboard to spend long hours conferring with him, mostly on the subject of computers, Kyl's career of choice, but also about personal things. Avon was not jealous of the relationship; he was pleased by it. But sometimes Kyl revealed things to Jabberwocky he didn't quite like to bring to his father's attention. So far, none of it had led to trouble, but Avon didn't put it past Kyl to get into trouble with all the best intentions in the world. He had a suspicion Kyl was up to something back home and Jabberwocky knew all about it, but simply wasn't telling.
"All right, Blake, I'll buy that, but warily. You can't expect me to let it rest entirely."
"No, Avon. I don't expect that. I'll be grateful if you'll watch my back."
"I always do," Avon replied, and returned to the open console. "And now, if you don't mind, I have some work to do." He returned to the open panel and applied himself to his task, and Blake was silent, evidently lost in his own thoughts. Every time Avon looked up to check on him, he saw that same expression on his face, as if there were something important Blake needed to do. A healing might well be called for once they returned home to Ryalon, Avon thought as he finally sealed the compartment again just as Soolin arrived to take the watch.
Hugh Tiver was a thoughtful man the next morning (for the most part, they used Ryalon time on Jabberwocky for convenience when returning to their base) as he went in search of breakfast. The crew should arrive at Malodar within a few hours, and while Hugh knew everyone was well prepared for any sort of treachery Egrorian might apply to them, he was also aware that the tensions caused by this particular mission might well offset any such preparedness. Blake had been acting a little strangely since leaving base, as if his mind were elsewhere, somewhere far away, and while Hugh had dangled a few hints in front of him the previous evening at dinner, Blake had not wanted to play.
Then there was Jabberwocky, who seemed to be acting strangely too. Tarrant had noticed it and asked Hugh if he had observed anything and, with it pointed out to him, Hugh realized he had. Jabberwocky had something up his sleeve all right. It was not a good sign.
As Hugh let himself out of his cabin and started down the passage, he heard something from the cabin across the hall, and he stopped dead. It had been the faintest of sounds, but that cabin should not have been occupied. It was the one Kyl stayed in while aboard the ship, and Kyl had been left safely behind on Ryalon. Jabberwocky had reported it as such, and Jabberwocky might hem and haw and sometimes avoid questions but he didn't lie. Hugh stood there uneasily wondering if he might have heard a stowaway or if one of the crew might have legitimate business in there, but the sound was not repeated.
If not for Jabberwocky's mysterious behaviour, Hugh might have shrugged it off as his imagination, though he probably would have checked in any case. But something was going on. He couldn't believe Jabberwocky would conspire with Kyl to allow him to stow away, but a stranger would have been detected immediately and reported at once. If there was really someone in the cabin, it was someone known to Jabberwocky. Should it be one of the crew, Hugh would have no problem if he investigated. He wasn't armed, but with Jabberwocky's vigilance, he didn't need to be.
Without pause, he pushed the 'open' button on the door instead of signalling for admittance. The door slid open silently and revealed a perfectly clear view of Kyl and his girlfriend Cella sitting side by side at the computer screen running a program. At the sound of the door, they jumped up and spun around, the girl tensing up and Kyl relaxing as he realized who had found him.
"Hugh," he gasped. "Come in quick, and shut the door. Thank goodness it was you who found us and not my dad."
"You think I won't report this to Avon?" Hugh asked. He knew his responsibilities if anyone did, and understood how angry Avon would be both at his son's duplicity and the possible risk to his life.
"You can't, not yet," Kyl insisted desperately. He stretched out his hand for the girl's and she put hers into it without even looking at him, as if she knew by some mysterious code between them that he had reached out for her. Her face was stricken and worried, and she refused to meet Hugh's eyes. Kyl gestured at the computer screen without taking his eyes from hers. "We've almost got it. Orac will have it any minute now and then we can go to him."
"I knew we shouldn't have come," Cella confessed on the heels of Kyl's inadequate defence. "I knew it would never work. We still haven't found anything, and maybe we won't. All it will do is make your father angry, Kyl. And as for him..." Her voice trailed off miserably.
"It will work," Kyl soothed her, his voice infinitely reassuring. Hugh realized with a shock that the boy's feelings for this girl went very deep. This was more than mere puppy love, in spite of their ages. It might not last but right now one could not underestimate their caring. "Orac will have the proof any time now, you wait and see. It and Jabberwocky between them, there's nothing they can't find."
"They can't find purged files," Cella insisted with dreary certainty. "I know it won't work. They'll think it's a trick. He'll think it's a trick."
"How can they?" asked Kyl as if producing a rabbit out of a hat. "Jabberwocky's been in your head. He knows what a real memory looks like. He can tell the difference, and if he can't, my father can. Dad's a healer, Cella. He can go right inside your mind and know you're telling the truth." He squeezed her hand. "Hugh, you've got to listen. We didn't want anybody, but you're here and you'll have to be in on the secret. Until we get the proof, though, you can't tell anyone about us. It's too important."
"What could be important enough to stow away on a mission when you know how your father feels about such things?" Hugh asked. His friendship for Avon did not blind him to the certainty of how badly Avon would take this latest act of Kyl's, how angry he would be, and it made him understand the bad temper Avon was sure to display. He loved his son very much and would be worried about him in addition to his anger at Kyl's defiance, no matter how pure the motive.
"I think he'll understand," Kyl said hastily and with almost certainty. "Because Blake's his best friend, and anything we can do for Blake will matter to Dad. You know that, Hugh."
"I do know that, but I don't know how stowing away on a dangerous mission is going to do anything for Blake except to make him nearly as angry as Avon."
Kyl reached past him and pushed the 'close' button on the door; it slid shut behind the doctor. "Because Dad told me what had happened to Blake back on Earth after his first trial, and so did Jabberwocky. They wiped his mind, erased his memories. Blake said a little to me about it once. He said it was one of the reasons why he fights, not just because they did it to him but because they've done it to lots of people, because they're the type of government that considers doing such things appropriate to keep their power. Don't you see, they took everything from him. Not just his freedom, but everything that mattered, everything that makes life worth living, everything he cared about. Friends and family, everything. They let him remember his brother and had him get fake messages, because they had to let him seem to remember something or he'd have questioned a whole lot sooner than he did. They gave him a kind of shell of reality to hold the programming together. But they took away everything." Kyl's eyes were huge both with sympathy and understanding. "I know what that's like. They had me for years, and tried to make me kill my own father. Blake wants to fight the people who do such things. I'd follow him anywhere." Kyl was not, it seemed, too old for hero worship. His voice rang with ardent devotion.
"I can understand that," Hugh replied sympathetically. "They wanted me to give my own world suppressants. My own world! We all have a reason to fight, Kyl, and we all have compelling ones. Tarrant saw so many atrocities he had to defect or lose any shred of self respect. Dayna and her father had to live in isolation or die. Soolin's entire family was executed. Cally saw Servalan put her whole world to death with an engineered plague. I know what you're saying and I understand it but I don't see why that made you stow away. You know about this mission, how many pitfalls we're facing with it and all the baggage that came with Cally's dream. It's simply too dangerous. Why couldn't your zeal for the cause wait until a safer mission?"
Kyl opened his mouth to speak, but Cella held up her hand. She lifted her head proudly and there was suddenly a sense of familiarity in the gesture. Hugh's eyes narrowed. She said, "It's my fault. Kyl is doing it all for me. Because I couldn't wait. After all this time, I couldn't bear to wait another day. And what if it all went wrong and you didn't come home? Then I'd never have had the chance to - to..." Her voice trailed off and tears spilled from her eyes and ran down her cheeks. She lifted her fist and scrubbed at them the way a child would. Kyl snatched up her hand, his face full of distress at her unhappiness, and reached up with a very tender gesture to wipe away the tears for her. Biting her bottom lip, she composed herself. "I - I thought seeing me would be enough, but it wasn't. You can't guess how much that hurt, after so long, after the prison planet and having to pretend to be a boy and sleeping with a knife in my boot because if they found out I was a girl I'd have been dragged off to be raped or worse." She shivered uncontrollably and Kyl put his arm around her shoulders and held her, facing Hugh with manful determination, prepared to intervene if Hugh did the wrong thing.
Then Cella lifted her head. "I knew him instantly," she said. "Not just from the viscasts and 'wanted' posters and those things, but I knew the way he turns his head and the light in his eyes and the way his hair curls, and I was so sure he'd know me as soon as he saw me, but he didn't. How could they do that to him?" she demanded. "How could they make him forget his own daughter?"
Hugh was dimly conscious of his jaw dropping. He stood there staring at the girl, eyes wide with shock. That was it, that was the resemblance he'd seen. The same intensity in the same brown eyes. The long, straight, light hair had distracted any of them from noticing how much her eyes were like Blake's, but now that he could see it, there was also the same stubborn cast of chin. It wasn't a strong resemblance, not even as strong as that of the red-headed Kyl for his father, but it was visible all the same to anyone who was really looking. Cella had come aboard expecting Blake to see her and recall those lost memories, but Blake must still have a particularly strong block in that area, and not even the sight of her had broken past it.
Hugh knew that families of resisters were usually exiled to prison planets or sometimes even executed. If Blake had had family at the time of the first Freedom Party's downfall when he had injured Travis and been taken alive as an example, the last thing the Federation would have wanted was to remind him of their existence. Possibly his wife, Cella's mother who was now dead, had been a resister as well, but the girl would have been too young to be a threat to anyone. Yet she had been sent off with her mother, which was, in one way, a blessing, that she had not been entirely stripped of family. She and her mother might have hoped Blake would come for them one day, or had they been told how he had been made to forget? Did they live in hopelessness, knowing themselves forgotten, or did they simply make the best of what they had, planning to find a way back to him one day? Cella had certainly done so, confident in the belief that her father would remember her and welcome her with open arms. No wonder she had looked so stricken on the flight deck when no such thing had happened. Hugh had met Cella on the base before she'd come to the ship and had heard the story about her escape from the prison planet. He had known there was a resister in her family but the identity of that resister hadn't been mentioned. Now he understood why.
"You're Blake's daughter," he said. "I didn't realize."
"Nobody did." Her voice was small. "I remember him, though I was just little when he went away. I remember the way he laughed, and how he had a special smile just for me. But when I finally got to Ryalon, I heard all about Blake and no one ever mentioned a family or that he'd ever tried to find us. I met Kyl and I didn't trust him at first." She threw an apologetic smile at Kyl as if to atone for that earlier lapse in judgment. "When I finally did, I asked him a lot of questions about Blake, and he told me about Ushton and Inga and about other relatives, my uncle Darin and the others who were supposedly in the outer worlds but were really dead, and never a word about Mother and me. And he told me the Federation had blocked my father's memories. Kyl and I reasoned they'd used extra strong blocks around Mother and me because if he remembered any of that it would have made him break out and he'd have come for us." She sounded positive of that.
"He would," Kyl insisted, and Hugh knew it was true. Blake would have done that and nothing would have stopped him. He would never have rested until he found them. Perhaps it was the subconscious memory of them that drove him so very hard. Maybe it was what had made him focus so strongly on his nameless rabble because he couldn't remember the names of two who had really mattered.
"So Kyl and I planned and planned, and finally decided the best thing to do would be to have me come face to face with my father and to choose a time when a lot of the others were there because even if it didn't work, somebody might see a resemblance. I don't look much like him-"
"Your eyes are just like his," Kyl told her. "I realized that as soon as I knew the truth. I thought it might hit somebody, maybe Jenna, but it didn't."
"And you have his chin," Hugh added. He had no trouble believing any of this, and suspected Kyl and Cella had taken Jabberwocky into their confidence in order to get onto the ship. If Jabberwocky had linked with her, he could tell if she were truthful and he'd be sure to sympathize with the need to reunite a parent and child after finally finding his own son.
She nodded. "But no one noticed and he didn't remember. I was - I was so sure..."
Kyl tightened his arm around her. "I told her programming was tough, especially when it went that deep, and we decided we had to come. Because if anything went wrong, we'd be here and it wouldn't be fair to end it without telling Blake. And besides, Dad could maybe do something."
"Like what exactly?" asked Hugh, though he had a fair idea what the boy had in mind.
"Heal Blake," Kyl said promptly and with certain confidence and pride. "Dad knows how to heal programming. He did it to himself, and he did it to Gan, so why not do it to Blake, too? It'd probably be easy for him to heal Blake, when they're so close." He grimaced. "I thought Dad would notice the resemblance, maybe even more than Jenna. I was sure he would."
"The point is, people don't think of such things out of the blue, Kyl," Hugh said. "I've met Cella twice now before I found you just now, and talked to both of you, and I didn't think a thing. I saw that Cella was upset on the flight deck, but after you'd gone, Vila said he thought you had a crush on Blake, Cella, and I went along with that. I simply didn't think of it. None of us knew a thing about you, and I suspect the records were sealed or erased."
"We think so, too," the boy replied. "Jabberwocky made Orac do some checking. Orac is all huffy about being much too busy, but Jabberwocky made it do it. Orac argued like crazy, but Jab never backs down. They'll find something, some proof and then we'll go to Blake."
Hugh didn't insist they should have started all this and waited on the base. He could understand everyone's reaction to this particular mission, as if each of them believed there was a hex on it. Cella wouldn't have been able to wait. If it all went wrong, she would never have been able to reveal the truth to Blake. She and Kyl were young and ardent and didn't always think everything through, but short of simply flinging the news at Blake before the mission, which they had been loath to do without Orac's possible proof, there had been no other options, at least none they could accept.
"Are you going to tell my father?" Cella asked, turning her eyes warily upon Hugh. She wasn't a person who trusted easily, not after all she'd been through, even if Kyl's ready confession to Hugh had proven how much the younger Avon trusted the doctor.
Hugh considered it. "No," he said after a minute. "But there are two people I'd like to tell."
"And one of them is Dad, right?" Kyl asked uneasily.
"Yes. The other is Perren. He's a psych tech, and he's very good at his job. If anyone can help Blake through this revelation, those two are the ones."
"Will you tell Blake before he goes down to Malodar?" asked Kyl.
"I don't know yet. We aren't sure of the setup. If Orac's findings come through, I think we'll have to. But there's something else to think of. I know you want your reunion and I don't want to do you out of it, especially if there is the remotest chance it could go wrong. I think we're as prepared and wary as we could possibly be, and have a combination of skills that can get us out of almost anything, though I won't say we're always invincible because we aren't. But might it not make the mission harder for Blake, Cella, if he knows about you?"
A flash of temper showed in her eyes and vanished as quickly. She hung her head. "I know, but-"
"That's not fair, Hugh," objected Kyl. "If - if anything goes wrong and Cella doesn't get to talk to Blake, do you think you could forgive yourself for that? Do you think Blake could?"
Hugh knew that was true. It didn't seem fair to let it go. "I tell you what," he said. "Let me bring Perren in and ask his opinion. He may seem flippant but he really knows his stuff. I want you two to wait right here, all right?"
"Will Perren know what we should do?" Cella asked, though her eyes had brightened a little at the thought of him. Hugh realized if the girl had taken time to have a crush on anyone, it might be Perren, who had played up to her so well.
Kyl nodded emphatically. "I really like Perren. He knows his stuff. Okay, Hugh, go for it."
"Blake's daughter." Perren looked Cella up and down as if he were seeing her for the first time. "So that's what all the fun and games were about. I knew something was wrong when you met Blake, but that never occurred to me. Something about this ship seems to attract long-lost children. I wonder if I have any..." He grinned brightly. "Never mind. Jabberwocky?"
"Yes, Ven?" The computer sounded interested. Perren knew Jabberwocky had schemed and collaborated with Kyl's plan because he'd had a successful reunion with his own child not that long ago, though it had been a difficult process. Avon had reunited with Kyl and it had done wonders for him, from what the others had let fall in passing. Perren knew he had no family, at least no blood family. Edge and Tanz were his family, and now Jabberwocky's crew were slowly becoming kin as well. But Blake had lost family and knew about it. He simply didn't know about Cella or her mother. If the girl was right, they'd been happy and Blake would never have rested until he found them - if he'd been allowed to remember them.
"You've linked with them, right?" asked the psych tech, eyeing Jabberwocky's screen.
"Of course. That's why I let them come along. Because I could see Blake's image in Cella's mind, a younger, more carefree Blake, and a woman we've identified as Jesta Tyree. Orac has been scanning records. We believe any marriage records were carefully purged. So far, Orac has no conclusive proof, but the images of Jesta and Blake in Cella's mind are genuine, and not a plant. It's possible, of course, to implant false memories into a subject's mind. That was what was done when Blake was framed for the child molestation charges. Those children were given false memories, but an exhaustive study of those memories can prove to a thorough examination that there are unlikely gaps and holes in them. They were fabricated skilfully, but they do not merge well with the boys' other memories. Cella's memories flow smoothly and seamlessly. Orac has scanned her and I have formed a deep linkage, and we both believe Cella is who she claims to be. The problem will be Blake, of course, because those memories were either very deeply blocked or eradicated altogether."
"And if it's the latter, there's no way to get them back," Perren said regretfully. Then he shook his head, noticing the way the girl's face fell. "No, that's not completely true. Because we can put you and Blake into linkage, Cella, and he can see them. I don't believe the memories were eradicated, though. Blake has remembered most things. I suspect they wouldn't be able to systematically block some things and erase others; that's too complicated, and gives all the more chance for breakdown. I think there are just stronger blocks this time because they knew Blake wouldn't sit still for it if he suddenly remembered a wife and child."
Cella and Kyl sat side by side on the bed, looking up at Perren and Hugh. "But if they're so strong that not even seeing Cella can break them, what do we do?" the red-haired boy asked. "Have Dad heal Blake? Do you think that's one of the things he can do?"
"He can remove programming, can't he?" Perren asked. "I think he has a good chance of it, and he's worked with Blake before. We won't have to drag him there kicking and screaming." He grinned at the picture that made, which made both Kyl and Hugh smile. Avon might resist, but he'd never do anything so undignified, and he'd resent like mad Perren's suggestion that he would. Perren hoped one of them would tell Avon he'd said it. He had discovered, much to his surprise, that he liked Avon, and it was proving great fun to tease the stiffer, older man. He had a pretty good idea he knew where Avon was coming from. He'd seen people as closed away and cold as Avon could be at his worst, and knew there were always causes for it. Avon had deliberately tried to spare himself pain, for a lot of reasons. The loss of Kyl's mother and the way that had happened. The incident with Anna Grant and her supposed loss to Federation torture, followed by the truth, that she had betrayed him. Yes, Perren could see where Avon was coming from. Couple that with a naturally suspicious nature and an attempt to protect himself from pain, and he had closed himself right up, though not quite tightly enough to never be saved. Avon's healing skills relied on the empathy Avon had long denied and the telepathy his father had tried to beat out of him. How hard it must have been to expose himself to the pain of caring to do something that must seem like it had made him hated to begin with. Maybe it was because Avon could feel empathy that he'd had to close himself away.
"But when?" asked Kyl. "Now, before the mission? Won't that make it harder? Hugh said that, and I can see he's right, but-"
"It might make it harder, but you've come this far," Perren said. "I think you'll have to tell him now. We've got several hours. I know it's not a lot of time. If we could get Blake out of going down to the planet, I'd do it, but Egrorian expects him and if he didn't show up now, he could get hot and bothered and suspicious."
"So what should I do?" asked Cella.
Perren considered it. He'd always thought highly of the effectiveness of out-and-out shock. It might have some benefit now, not to mention creating a wonderful stir on the flight deck and possibly it would shatter the tension that had been building about the mission. Hard to live through the anguish Cally's dream had engendered if everybody was full of excitement about long-lost Cella. Perren's eyes sparkled. "You know, this might be just what everybody needs. Cella, I think you're going to be a first class tension-breaker."
Hugh's eyes lit up as he realized the truth of that. "Everybody's dancing on broken glass, ever since we set out," he admitted. "Vila was going on about being afraid to go on a shuttle with Avon, and you know Vila would lie down on nails for Avon to walk over him and keep Avon's boots intact if he had to. Avon said he appreciated evidence of a good survival trait in Vila, but I think it bothered him."
Perren nodded. "It did. The old Avon wouldn't have wanted to be trusted. He'd have scorned Vila for any other reaction. This Avon considers Vila his friend, though he won't say so. It's more fun for them to play the game. Vila would go if Avon asked him to, in spite of the dream, though, and Avon knows he would."
Kyl nodded. "So do we just walk in?" Now that the confrontation with his father loomed close, he looked quite apprehensive, probably remembering Avon's reaction to his stowing away on the mission to Parais. That had not gone well. He only hoped this would be better.
"Blake deserves to hear this in private," Hugh suggested. "I know you, Perren. A big, dramatic moment in front of everybody. Do you think that's fair to Blake?"
"Aren't they close enough, aren't we all close enough, that it shouldn't matter?" asked Perren, as if it were a given that what one knew all should know. With Jabberwocky and link-mode, they'd know it soon enough anyway. "I'm counting on that reaction. I think it's going to help Blake. If we tell him privately, he'll either believe us or not, but he'll put it all away until after the mission, because he probably can't remember on his own. No, I want a big production number with everybody there. It'll snap the tension, and that might be enough to carry Blake through it. On his own, he'll brood all through the mission and tell us not to say anything, and like as not, he'll be worse than he would be anyway. This way, he'll have Avon to help him through it, right there on the planet. Come on, Hugh, you know it's the only way."
"No ships on the extra-range detectors," Tarrant reported with satisfaction, lifting his head from the screens he'd been studying. "I've had Jabberwocky do periodic scans so we won't find ourselves closed in. I don't think Servalan would want to share the glory of catching us, so I don't think she'd feel the need to bring a large fleet, but on the other hand, she knows how good we are. She might have a flotilla hiding on the surface of a nearby world, one of the others in the system."
"They don't support life," Blake objected.
"Neither does Malodar," Avon reminded him. "A methane and argon atmosphere and a surface temperature of 90 to 100 degrees Celsius does not exactly indicate a holiday resort. It would be to Servalan's advantage to have a fleet hiding, maybe on the other side of the sun. The worlds wouldn't need to support life. The crews won't be wandering around outside. She'd calculate our trajectory and it wouldn't be difficult for her to order ships to hide out of our line of sight. We couldn't scan them through the sun."
"How can we detect them?" asked Gan. This was his first mission since his return to them, and while he wasn't likely to be nervous and didn't have the built-in reaction to Cally's dream that the rest of them did, he was still finding his way. "I'm sure you have a plan, Avon."
"I do," Avon replied in the tones of one who wasn't quite sure Gan was as appreciative of his skills as he should be but was prepared to pretend he had no doubts. Vila grinned at the sight. Avon turned to Orac and inserted the key. "Orac, we have need of you."
"I am very busy," snapped Orac with a predictable lack of enthusiasm.
"What a surprise," said Tarrant, stretching his feet out comfortably before him. "When aren't you. Never mind, Orac, we need you anyway."
"Orac does seem to have its own itinerary," murmured Edge. "It's proven fascinating to study it. Orac, you are a machine. You were designed by a man, and as a result, you are required to obey our instructions."
"Avon started out with logic, too. Orac told him to be more precise," Vila said with a smile. He programmed himself a cup of coffee and sipped it with pleasure. "That's not the way to get through to Orac. You have to threaten it. I'm quite good at it."
"You?" Avon's lip curled. He looked prepared to enjoy himself at Vila's expense. "I'm not sure I dare ask for an explanation of that ludicrous claim."
"I said he'd make a good drinks dispenser," Vila reminded the computer tech in smug tones. "Or an empty space. Remember? Orac as an empty space. Sounds pretty good to me."
"I still say you let Orac get away with too much," Edge persisted. "Wheedling and threatening should not be necessary." He bent over the computer, pushing back a stubborn, blond lock of hair that tended to fall into his eyes. "Orac, you are a multi-tasking unit, and as such should be able to handle a number of complex projects at the same time. If you imply you cannot, you are either admitting your own limitations or displaying a colossal ego. While, no doubt, you'd prefer to admit the latter, I sometimes suspect the former. Engaging all your circuits in one or several projects while denying us your abilities makes you less than proficient in the long run."
"State your needs," returned Orac quite huffily. The computer had always responded to threats, but suggesting it possessed serious limitations was something it would especially resent. "Naturally I can perform a great many functions at any given moment. However, you are not the first to claim me. I have been working on a project which should prove of great benefit to Blake. However, I will set a portion of it aside for the moment."
"Blake?" Avon's eyes narrowed, not in suspicion of Blake but as if he doubted the computer's justification. His eyes shifted to fall on the rebel leader. "What have you been up to without telling us?" he asked,
As startled as Avon, Blake straightened up and stared at Orac. "Nothing at my request, Avon," he replied. "Orac, you know I did not set you to any other tasks than to check for transmissions which might endanger us, implying there were flotillas nearby, and that would benefit us all."
Avon turned back to the computer. "I think you had better explain yourself, Orac," he said, letting an edge of menace creep into his voice. Avon was good at that, always had been. Vila thought it interesting how quickly Avon had absolved Blake from anything resembling a conspiracy, not that he'd given great appearance of suspecting him in the first place. Suspecting Orac, however, still came quite naturally to him, but then Vila hadn't entirely forgiven the little computer for selling him out to Avon in Cally's dream.
"Such information has been restricted," Orac replied immediately.
This time, everyone reacted, even Gan's face showing distrust of the computer. "I think you'd better tell us more, Orac," Soolin said through tight lips. "Who restricted that information." It didn't look as if it would take much for her to draw her gun and blast Ensor's creation into fragments.
"That information is restricted as well," responded Orac.
"I told you he'd make a better empty space," insisted Vila. This was getting worse and worse, and it was a bad enough time to begin with. Tempers had been short ever since the mission began and this new problem with Orac wasn't helping any.
"Orac," breathed Avon in that menacing tone he did so well, "you will inform us what you are involved in and do it now, or I will take great pleasure in reassembling your circuitry."
"It's not Orac's fault, if it's been instructed to maintain silence," Blake cut in quickly.
"No, but it does indicate someone has access to Orac, and that someone may well be a traitor," Avon returned quickly. His voice had gone cold. Vila shivered slightly as Avon's eyes travelled around the flight deck, studying each of them in turn. "Orac reports this current business will serve as a benefit to you, Blake. I find that of interest."
"I didn't give that order, Avon." Blake's voice was completely level. Avon stared at him a long moment as if he could read Blake's mind. Perhaps he could a little. His telepathy was of a different order than Cally's, who could only receive from other telepaths. Avon could read strong projections from non-telepaths, and all of them had learned how to project through their experience of linking. Vila suspected from the intensity on Blake's face that he'd reinforced his words with a mental projection and Avon's face smoothed out though his jaw didn't ease from its rigid lines.
"I know that, Blake," he said simply. "However, this becomes interesting. To benefit you... It is scarcely something as simple as a surprise birthday party, and in any case it is some months until that auspicious day. Who would wish to benefit you in particular? Jenna? She would hardly set Orac a task that would keep it from assisting us in such a crisis."
"Avon?" Jabberwocky's voice cut through the acid in Avon's tone.
That made the computer tech stiffen and turn to stare at the computer's fascia. "Interesting," he said. "Another of your little projects, Jabberwocky?" Avon gave up his old grudges hard, and this particular grudge was easy to trace. Jabberwocky had kept secrets once before, and Dayna had died. That they had got her back in android form did not negate the original action and while Avon had made peace with Jabberwocky, he would never hesitate to dredge up that incident if he felt the need to protect himself or, more recently, one of the others.
"I did not give the order to Orac," Jabberwocky replied. "However, I do assure you no one has played traitor. I have monitored Orac and know that it has not shirked its instructions from you. Should there have been danger it would have been reported. Simply Orac has no time for idle chit chat or games."
"You know about this?" Tarrant accused the ship. "This is what you were holding back before, isn't it?" He probably resented the fact of Jabberwocky's secrecy in a different way from Avon, because he and Jabberwocky's linkage made them share so many things. He had held off from Jabberwocky over Dayna's death; this time he wasn't, but he was wary all the same.
Vila heaved a sigh. He didn't think he liked this.
"My motives are pure," Jabberwocky replied. "I'd have told you if I could, Del, you know that, but it wasn't my secret. And what's more, Perren agrees with it all, and he knows about things like that. I thought it might be fun, and besides, she needs this resolved."
With that cryptic utterance he gained the attention of everyone in the crew. "She?" prompted Vila, suddenly and for no reason that he could think of starting to enjoy himself. Mention of a 'she' might indicate romance. On the other hand, Jabberwocky might well be referring to Avalon herself, the head of the resistance movement. Vila had sometimes wondered if she'd had a thing for Blake, though nothing had ever come of it. Yet she'd worked awfully closely with the clone they'd rescued from the planet where Coser had taken IMIPAK. If it were Avalon, it might mean something to do with the mission, for she would never betray him. But somehow Vila didn't think Jabberwocky would keep that kind of secrets from the crew. "What she do you mean, Jabberwocky? Is there a lady in this? A budding romance?"
"Don't be an idiot," snapped Avon, rolling his eyes in disgust at Vila's deliberately soppy tone. "You will explain, Jabberwocky, and you will explain now. I will not have this mission endangered by a prank or a whim, and I will not have it endangered by unnecessary secrecy."
"It's not a prank or a whim," said the one voice guaranteed to anger Avon the most at this point. Vila jerked around toward the door, conscious of everyone else doing the same. There was Perren, with his hand on Kyl's shoulder - the fat was in the fire now, all right - followed by Hugh, who stood beside Kyl's girlfriend, Cella. She looked even more nervous than she had the first time she had met them all. Ignoring Avon's mounting rage at what he must consider Kyl's deliberate disobedience, the girl had trained her eyes on Blake and was watching him with a kind of desperate longing.
"KYL," said Avon in an awful voice. "This is your doing?"
"It's not what you think," Kyl said stubbornly.
"What I think? You were instructed not to come here, because this mission was too dangerous." Avon's voice was low now, silky, the kind of voice that scared Vila, even these days. "What did you hope to gain by it? And have you dared to use Orac for your own purposes?"
Kyl didn't back down. He didn't even look intimidated this time, which nearly surprised Avon out of his annoyance but not quite. "I did what I did because it was necessary, and I didn't even think of defying you. That's not what this is about. I did it for Cella and for Blake, and why don't you listen, for once, instead of just getting mad at me?" He sounded frustrated, but not angry, and his shoulders were squared manfully. "Orac - yes, I used Orac. We wanted the proof. We set Orac to find it but it couldn't. We think it's erased or buried so deep in the wrong files it will take months. We tried, though."
"The proof's in her mind, Kyl," Jabberwocky cut in. "And I can prove it in linkage. One of you, tell him. This is exciting."
At the computer's words, Avon turned and stared at its fascia, his brow furrowing. He was still very angry, but something had made him curious. His gaze moved from Jabberwocky to the girl, who stood tall and proud, though the hand she stretched out to Kyl shook a little. Avon's eyes widened fractionally, then he masked the reaction and turned to look at Blake who was staring at her in perplexity. Avon stiffened, his head drawing back as he considered whatever it was he had observed. Without a word, he got up, walked across the flight deck, and placed himself at Blake's side. Vila felt his eyebrows lift at the gesture which was as strong a sign of solidarity Avon ever showed. Whatever this was all about, Avon must have figured it all out. He was good at things like that. He hated unsolved puzzles. "You may proceed," he said to the girl. "And I will require proof." His voice was firm and determined, and he folded his arms across his chest.
Cella turned her eyes in his direction for a second, nervous and wary, before looking back at Blake. When she stared at him, her eyes changed, filling with a kind of wistful hunger. "My mother's name was Jesta Tyree," she said, dead level, and no more.
When this produced a blank silence and a series of questioning glances between those of the crew who weren't in the know, her shoulders slumped a little. Kyl tightened his grip on her hand, a gesture which didn't pass Avon, who quirked one eyebrow at his son, causing the boy to flush slightly, though he didn't let go. Vila realized he was right about Avon. He knew what was going to happen; he'd guessed it just like that. Vila frowned, feeling he was missing something. Jesta Tyree? He'd never heard that name before. It wasn't someone they'd encountered on Liberator, was it? Someone on one of those many planets they'd visited? Someone Blake had known.... Vila sucked in his breath as an idea occurred to him and he stared at the girl as if the answer would be spelled on her forehead.
Tarrant drew in his breath with a gasp, his eyes widening with realization and Vila knew Jabberwocky had told him through their bond. The thief could always tell when Tarrant was in linkage; it showed on the pilot's face and made his eyes warm with affection for his link-mate. Now Vila could see understanding spread across the younger man's features and he began to smile, flashing all those dazzlingly white teeth. That was rather more sloppy sentiment than one usually got from old Del, thought Vila, and stared pointedly at the pilot, who only grinned and made a gesture as if to say, "Wait for it."
"Jesta Tyree was her maiden name, of course," Kyl said. Vila could tell he was bursting with eager anticipation. "After she married, she took her husband's last name, the way some women do. Her married name was Jesta Blake."
"WHAT!" Blake came to his feet at that, his whole face radiating shock. He didn't have it figured out yet, but it was plain this involved him and Vila could see confused calculations going on behind his eyes as he tried to make sense of the clue Kyl had just tossed him. "What do you mean?"
Avon's hand landed on his shoulder. "Wait, Blake," he said. "I'm just beginning to understand. Go ahead, Kyl," he urged. He might still be angry at his son, but right now that was secondary. "Explain." Apparently he believed Kyl was innocent of malice, but Vila wondered that he'd take this at face value. Though Kyl wouldn't have meant ill, he might well be deceived. He hadn't lived enough years to understand really sneaky behaviour, though he was learning fast.
"I mean she was his wife," Kyl said, somewhat awkward in the face of Blake's total befuddlement. "Blake's wife. We know they blocked his memories and I suspect they blocked that a whole lot deeper than the rest. Because they knew if he had a hint of it, he'd never stop fighting; he wouldn't have settled down and played their nice, tame recanter. He'd have torn apart the inner and outer worlds looking for them. Blake, Jesta Tyree was your wife and Cella is your daughter."
Blake's eyes radiated shock. It wasn't that he doubted Kyl's words. He'd know the boy wouldn't knowingly lie to him. But the meaning of Kyl's and Cella's claim must have rocked his very roots. He stood there, mouth open, face blank, staring at the girl, unable to find anything to say. In the silence that affected all of them, even that talkative man, Ven Perren, who stood grinning behind the young pair, Kyl took up the threads of his story again, a little awkwardly.
"Cella and her mother were sent to a prison planet when you were captured and mind-wiped, Blake. They were there for years, but recently they managed to escape. I - I'm really sorry about Jesta, about your wife, but she had been sick a long time and she died on the way here." He put his arm around Cella's shoulders when the girl's bottom lip quivered in memory, and Perren, who had started forward, pulled back and let Kyl offer her comfort. "Ever since she escaped the prison planet, she's been trying to find you again, Blake," continued Kyl determinedly. His eyes touched his father's face and Avon gave him one brief nod, not much in the way of encouragement, but from Avon it was more than Kyl must have expected. He gathered himself together and ploughed on. "Once she got here, she realized you didn't know about her, but she didn't know why until I told her what the Federation had done to you. We couldn't just let you come into danger without telling you, but you were on a deadline with Egrorian, so we had to stay. It wasn't defiance, it was desperation, don't you see?" This last line was directed to his father, who made an impatient gesture as if to defray that kind of thing until later.
Gan was favouring Cella with a benevolent smile, delighted at the news, while Soolin eyed the girl narrowly as if seeking out a resemblance. Edge looked fascinated with the whole thing, which explained all their questions in one easy answer, and shot a curious glance at Perren, who grinned with the air of a magician producing a rabbit from a hat and gave him a thumbs up gesture. Tarrant sat up a little straighter, watching Blake. He was listening to Jabberwocky; his eyes had that look, but he was paying attention to Blake, too.
"Old home week," said Vila quickly to break the tension. "Any more lost heirs in the wings? We've got Kyl and Dorn and now Cella. Anyone else want to make a claim?"
"Oh, shut up, Vila," said Avon automatically, then he turned to his son. "You can, of course, prove this?"
"Jab can," Kyl returned, confident of his point. "I thought of that. I remembered I was programmed and meant to get the mindship, and it could have been one more of the Federation's schemes. I'm not stupid. So I checked. I did all I could with what I could access on the base, then I came aboard and recruited Jab. I figured he'd want to help because he knows how it feels to get back a lost child. And I wanted to help because I knew how wonderful it was to find my father." He flashed a quick, brilliant smile at Avon that made the computer tech's eyes warm even though he covered the reaction immediately, the rest of his face expressionless. "So I had Jab pull us into linkage, and I know it's true. I saw Cella's memories of her father. He was younger, but he was Blake. They were a family. A good family. That's why there's still so much - so much good inside Cella, even after all she's been through." He blushed rather hotly at this statement, as embarrassed as any teenager at letting his feelings out in public. He smiled at the girl, whose eyes lit up, then he looked at his father, who nodded, accepting Kyl's proofs as far as they went. Both Avons turned to Blake.
The rebel stood unmoving, his eyes wide and shocked. "But - this can't be," he said in a daze. "I - I remember..."
"Most things," said Avon as if he knew his way around Blake's mind without a moment's hesitation. "This, if true, might well be something the Federation would need to block very deeply. A wife and child... they found another way to take mine away. Do you doubt they could take yours?"
"Not like this," Blake said, anguished. "Not to take something so important and make it as if it had never been." He looked like he'd just discovered his heart had been ripped out, leaving a huge, hollow cavity in the middle of his chest.
"It's monstrous," Gan said. "But that's what the Federation does, Blake. They take away what we care about. They don't want us to care, because then we'll have something more important than their control, something to make us ready to question and resist. It gets so it's easier not to care about anything, or at least not to let it show, because if we do, we'll lose it. The way I lost my woman." He heaved a sigh. "We've all lost, Blake."
He was right, and that was what Blake had always preached when he'd spoken of freeing his rabble. Now Blake stood unmoving. "You can remember it." He looked at Cella, desperately studying her face. "It's true? You're my daughter?"
She nodded. "I - I can remember. They didn't take away my memories. I was nothing to them, just someone to stick away on a prison planet where no one would ever know. I didn't realize what they'd done to you, and I'm sorry. I-" Tears spilled out and slid down her cheeks though she didn't sob aloud. "When - when Mother died I knew I had to find you. But when I walked in here the other day and you didn't know me, I - I thought I'd lost you too."
Blake took two quick steps forward and put his hands on the girl's shoulders. He didn't hug her. In spite of her identity she was a stranger to him, but in their joint distress, she leaned into the grip and put up her hands to clasp his forearms.
"But she hasn't lost you, and you haven't really lost her," Kyl said, the picture of stubborn determination. "Because there's a way to get your memory back, Blake."
"I think it's already begun," said Avon unexpectedly. "Blake, remember when we spoke the other night, you said you felt you'd forgotten something, that something was bothering you. Perhaps that was it, the sight of Cella, reminding you of your past." Evidently he had decided to trust his son and Jabberwocky enough to believe this, at least for now. "And you are correct. Though it is not my choice of occupation, I might be able to make the necessary adjustment."
"You mean a healing, Avon?" Blake asked him, his head coming up and hope touching his face, taking away some of the sickness.
"Avon can heal programming, remember?" That was Tarrant, probably prompted by Jabberwocky. "He healed his own, and Gan's. You can do it, can't you, Avon? Would you have known about this programming before?"
There was a silence while Avon considered it, evidently shuffling through his memory to recall his waltzes through Blake's mind. "It must be very deep," he said thoughtfully. "I only recently came to understand how such programming works. I confess I have not made a thorough study of it, but it does work. This is a different type. What I fought before was a compulsion to act, something that influenced a person to act against his desires when a trigger was activated. What we must have this time is a deeper blockage, something meant to appear quite normal. It will be harder to find, but unfortunately, I have been forced to spend a good deal of time investigating Blake's mind. It is not quite so distressing as visiting Vila's, but-"
"Hey!" protested Vila, though not as strenuously as he would have done. The spate of words would relax Blake and distract him as much as possible.
"As I remember, your mind lives in a tavern," Avon responded. "Easier to deal with Tarrant, because I know enough to recognize a colossal ego."
"Living with one every day," Tarrant retorted. "Your own."
The girl was still clutching at Blake's arms but now she turned to Avon. "Is it true?" she asked. "Kyl says you know how to do this kind of thing. Can you do it for my father?"
Avon nodded. "Perhaps, and I can in that way get at the truth." He said it flatly, as if challenging any of them to doubt it.
"That's what I want," Cella said in a small voice. "The truth."
"So do I." Blake looked at her, his eyes full of frustration. "If this is true - they took more from me than I ever believed." He looked as if he wanted everyone to tell him it was no more than a practical joke, though it would be a cruel one. If that were true, he could live with it, but Vila suddenly wondered if he could live with the real truth. A wife and child on a prison planet, their lives at constant risk, waiting for Blake to come for them, and he never had. That he hadn't known, wouldn't negate the fault for Blake. He would blame himself for it because that was his way. And now the wife was dead. If Avon played his games in Blake's mind, Blake might remember a woman he had loved very deeply, and it would leave a wound as raw and fresh as a shot from a Federation hand blaster.
"I hate to call it to your attention at such a moment," Tarrant cut in, sounding surprised as if he'd just realized it, "but we've entered the Malodar system."
Avon turned abruptly to Orac, becoming all business. "Orac, are there any Federation ships in the system?"
"Negative," replied Orac, "unless such ships are grounded and powered down. There is no evidence of tarial cell activity in the immediate area."
"That doesn't disallow Servalan," Soolin reminded them in a cautious voice. "Her ship doesn't possess tarial cells, remember?"
"Somehow, I had recalled that," Avon returned dryly. "Blake, as touching as is this reunion, at the moment our lives hold a higher priority. Kyl, I will speak to you later. Cella, welcome to Jabberwocky, but I could have wished the pair of you had chosen a more auspicious time for your visit. If you will move aside while we deal with the present mission, I promise you I will do what I can with Blake's memories at the first suitable moment."
Blake led the girl over to the forward couch beside the drinks dispenser. "Cella. I don't know what to say to you, except that, had the Federation granted me the memories of you and your mother, I would never have left you on that prison planet."
"I know that now. We thought - we were sure they'd executed you and that was why you hadn't come. But..." her voice trailed off and she sat down. "At least you know now, even if you don't remember. I can wait."
Neither she nor Blake looked as if they could wait with any proper patience and Vila didn't blame them. He wondered if he'd ever had any kids the Federation had blocked out, except that conditioning had never stuck with him. He'd have remembered on his own. Pity, that. He'd always wanted kids. He'd have taught them to be the best thieves in the Federation - no, in the galaxy.
The crew promptly assumed their positions and went into the light form of link-mode that allowed them to manage ship functions at optimal conditions. Vila was at the weapons array, a position he and Dayna shared. Soolin managed communications as a backup to Cally, so she slid into that seat. Avon, whose job was to regulate computer functions and monitor the detectors and the detector screen, didn't bother to sit down, but stood beside his position, partly concentrating on that and, from the look on his face, partly running a quick check on Blake as if he could spot the blockages he must have always missed. Even Jabberwocky, who had been linked with Blake for a time before Tarrant became the ship-brain's permanent link-mate, had never reported anything, but then deep blockages of this type had to be well hidden or Blake would have stubbed his mental toe on them before now, especially since most of the other mind-blocks were gone.
Edge and Perren took positions, too, Edge monitoring the screens that measured linkages, a position no one had really filled before. It had become his job to check for dangers to the link state, such as had happened with Gan when he had first come aboard. Edge knew how to read those graphs and projections better than anyone, and he and Tanz had modified the screens to allow for the group linkage, something none of the others had possessed the training to do. Had they been here in the early days of linkages, they would have been able to regulate the gradual development of the link to prevent the headaches that had plagued the crew whilst learning the link processes.
Hugh joined Cella on the forward couch, while Kyl hesitated then cautiously edged over to stand beside his father. Was he taller than Avon now? If Avon noticed that he said nothing about it, but he didn't gesture Kyl away. The boy had the sense to say nothing and to make no claims, but after a few moments, Avon bent and pointed out something on one of the readout screens to him.
"I'm receiving a message from the planet," Soolin announced. "It's Egrorian, Blake, and he wishes to speak to you."
"Put it on the main screen," Blake commanded, and rose to position himself. At this point, Avon did gesture Kyl to one side, and the boy went obediently, if reluctantly, and sat opposite Cella.
A picture formed, an older man with thinning hair, a face they knew from their experience with Cally's dream in link-mode. It was the same man about whom Cally had dreamed. Vila felt a trickle of unease at the sight of him. Behind him stood a second man, younger, taller. If this was Pinder, he had never been exposed to the Hofel's radiation he had in Cally's dream. He was reputed to be a brilliant mathematician. Cally's Pinder had been no threat, but this man's face held a bright intelligence and a hardness that told them he would be no pushover.
"Egrorian, Pinder," Blake greeted, chancing the second man's identity and making surprise flicker briefly in the younger man's face. "I am Blake. You sent for me?"
"You come well informed, I see," said Egrorian, his expression full of consideration. He might not have made a good schemer, because the fact that he schemed was visible, but on the other hand, one couldn't read him any deeper than that. Vila didn't trust him on sight, and he sneaked a glance over at Perren, who was awfully good at taking the tiniest of clues and putting together complicated chains of reasoning that often proved completely right. The young psych tech wore his poker face, bland and unrevealing, but he was concentrating on Egrorian.
"It's necessary to be well informed," returned Blake. "We're in the midst of conflict these days. It's always wiser to know as much as possible about the people we deal with. You said you had an offer for us."
"Yes, a fair trade. Here on my remote world, I am cut adrift from the galaxy at large. In truth, I prefer it, but to be entirely cut off also limits my ability to keep abreast of the scientific community and discoveries which might benefit me. Since some of my inventions might well benefit you, I saw the efficacy of a trade."
"You spoke of a tachyon funnel," Blake reminded him. "Such a device would indeed prove useful to us if, of course, it does what you claim it does."
"You need only test it," Egrorian replied. "With my skilled assistant, I have created a device which will destroy matter at any range. I believe you are engaged in conflict at the moment. A battle with the Federation. The Federation brought me to this, in essence a prison. I have no fondness for them. Perhaps if you were to use the funnel to defeat them, I might emerge from my self-imposed exile and take the place to which my scientific genius entitles me."
Self-imposed exile, thought Vila. He'd tried to take over the Federation, and failed. He was as much a political criminal as any of them. He hadn't wanted to overthrow the Federation because of its tyranny, but he'd wanted to control it for the sake of power. A scientific genius he might be, but a political genius, not likely.
"I have brought experts," Blake replied. "To test your device and assure me it does as promised."
"Just as Pinder and I will test your Orac device for its function. Stranded away out here, far from the main lines of trade and communications, we feel a need for a device that will allow us to monitor the inner and outer worlds. Call it self-interest if you must, or self-protection, if you are inclined to be... generous. But your Orac computer would be of great benefit to us. Here, as we are, we could use the tachyon device ourselves, as range is no deterrent, but you, with your more specific targets could damage the Federation more thoroughly, and since they have chosen to exile me, I feel the urge to, shall we say, even the score." He smirked.
Perren nodded as if he'd recognized Egrorian's game, but his expression didn't change.
Vila hoped Avon's relay switch was as well hidden as he hoped it was. Egrorian had been rather easy to bluff in Cally's dream, at least with the false Orac, but he'd proven rather adept at bluffing in return. This time, with a mentally alert Pinder to assist him, he might well discover that Orac Mark II was no more than an elaborate communications relay. Of course, knowing Avon, he had probably learned from that part of the dream. Vila had seen the false Orac and had to admit it was impressive. Many of its complex circuits were genuine; it had amused Avon to play with it, to make it as clever a device as possible, short of the real Orac's gifts. It was in actual fact a rather ingenious computer, but it fell short of reading tarial cells, and to work well, it required a relay, either with Orac itself or with another powerful computer. That one link was a skilled invention on Avon's part, though it lacked Orac's ability to link voluntarily with other devices possessing tarial cells. This link could do that, but not voluntarily. The link needed initiation from outside, devoid of Orac's self-contained brilliance. Yet Egrorian must have some contact with the Federation, however slight, for how else would he have learned of Orac. The obvious answer, Servalan, made Vila feel quite cold with uneasiness.
"Naturally," Blake replied. "I have some small complaints against the Federation myself." He carefully didn't look at Cella. "We can teleport to your location, bringing Orac with us so we can be mutually assured of each other's integrity."
"You possess matter transportation capability." Egrorian looked slightly taken aback as if he had not been warned of that. Then he shook his head. "I fear such a device will not function properly here, because of the shielding in place around my base. And you could not teleport outside; the atmosphere is lethal, not to mention bitterly cold. I have prepared a shuttle for you to ease your journey. I will not risk the tachyon funnel with a device which may alter its function, or allow you the opportunity to use that as an excuse."
"Then, of course, you will allow us the privilege of inspecting the shuttle," Avon purred smoothly, stepping up beside Blake.
"And you are?" Egrorian eyed Avon without enthusiasm.
"This is Kerr Avon," Blake explained. "He and one other will accompany me to the surface of the planet. That is not negotiable."
Blake was good at playing a strong hand, but Vila didn't quite like it this time. If the tachyon funnel was real, it would be easy for an irritated Egrorian to blast them out of orbit. Vila saw Soolin notice it and realized the minute the connection was broken she would begin to lobby to go down with Blake. As she was his bodyguard, that made sense to Vila, though she wouldn't learn as much about Egrorian and Pinder as Perren would.
"If you fail to cooperate," said Pinder suddenly, "we won't give you the tachyon funnel. Three of you are acceptable, but you must not come armed."
"And if we find your terms unacceptable?" asked Avon.
"Then the tachyon funnel will be offered to the highest bidder," said Egrorian, exchanging a quick look with Pinder. "Even I am not above taking a great deal of money from the Federation. They offered a hundred million for Orac, if I am not mistaken."
"You are remarkably well informed for someone who lives cut off from civilization in such a remote outpost," Blake observed.
"Indeed," Avon added. "Why do I find that suspicious?"
"My dear Avon, I'm told you find everything suspicious. Do you doubt we were careful to research potential customers. True, we are remote, but we are not entirely cut off. We have contracts with suppliers of foods and other materials, whom we pay with goods and equipment. They are often amazingly vocal with only slight encouragement. Do not believe us cut off from the universe because we choose to make our home far from the Federation's influence."
"They have a way of noting such things as the regular movement of your suppliers," Tarrant pointed out without rising from the pilot's chair. "I've run such cargoes in the outer worlds myself, and often we'd have to shift our runs rather quickly to stay a step ahead of the Federation. We won't take kindly being snared in a trap, and we have ways of fighting back."
"Another voice heard from," said Egrorian in the tones of a man who is enjoying himself mightily. "One with some knowledge. Life is always dangerous. Some goals are worth a risk. I think the tachyon funnel might be worth just such a risk for you, Blake. I challenge you. Come down with Avon and another person of your choice, but leave your weapons behind. If the tachyon funnel does not meet your needs, be on your way and we will find another buyer. But I have enough confidence in my work-"
"In our work," interjected Pinder in a voice so soft Jabberwocky's crew could scarcely hear it, but they did.
"Yes, of course, our work, my boy," said Egrorian smoothly, stroking Pinder's arm. "Where would I be without your mathematical genius. But, as you know, every team must have a leader, and this is hardly the time." An edge of hardness ran through his voice as he turned back to the comm screen, and so he did not see the matching hardness in the young man's eyes. Pinder had been twenty-eight in Cally's dream, and this man looked that age. No matter what his relationship with Egrorian, he would hardly relish being stranded on this rock, wasting his genius this way. Egrorian was in hiding. He couldn't go back. But that look on the younger man's face held something Vila couldn't quite read, though it made him very uneasy. He looked round, exchanging a nervous glance with Tarrant. More and more he was certain this was a trap.
"Pinder will bring the shuttle to collect you," Egrorian insisted. "He will be unarmed as a sign of good faith. You see how I trust you. You could easily kill him, steal the shuttle, blast my position from orbit. But I know you will value the tachyon funnel." He turned to his companion. "Go and meet them as we had arranged."
"Right away," said Pinder in the tones of someone who doesn't appreciate being bossed around, and moved out of frame.
"Well, Blake," continued the scientist. "Have we a deal?"
"Not until Avon examines the tachyon funnel," Blake agreed. "But we will meet with you, and also show you our own goods. However, since Orac will remain under our control until the trade is made and since Orac's powers are quite awe-inspiring, I would suggest you keep your end of the bargain. Blake out." He made an abrupt gesture, and Soolin switched off communications.
"I don't like this," moaned Vila.
"Do you ever?" asked Avon.
"You think I'm wrong then?" challenged the thief.
"No, actually I agree with you," returned Avon. "I don't like it either. The dream diverges; Pinder is undamaged."
"And stretched near the breaking point," inserted Perren. "I don't know what his motivation for going into exile with Egrorian."
"Lovers?" suggested Soolin in the tones of one who could not imagine the possibility of anyone being attracted to Egrorian. Possibly he'd looked better ten years earlier, and he did have a brilliant, if megalomaniac, mind. Equally brilliant, Pinder might have found that attractive, but ten years of domination had worn away any fondness he might have felt. Or at least covered it with suspicion and made him doubt it was returned.
"I should doubt it, at least not now," Perren replied. "But Egrorian controls him, and he's becoming resistant. He might well try to scotch Egrorian's deal and if that happens, the fallout will hit us. We're targets no matter what we do. As well paint big bulls-eyes on our chests."
"But if the tachyon funnel can really zap us no matter where we run, what chance do we have?" Vila asked nervously.
"So now you understand the physics involved?" Tarrant challenged.
Vila made a face at him. "I'm a brilliant man. Always was, always will be. But I'd rather Avon did all the work, so I sit back and pretend proper awe."
"If that's proper awe-" Kyl began, grinning.
"If Vila knows what is good for him, his awe will always be proper," Avon interrupted. "We have to go down there. We can't leave the device with him. If Servalan is indeed lurking down there, Orac may be able to detect her through the Mark II relay. I can make adjustments for that purpose."
"As can I," offered Edge. "Our psycho-kinetic detectors are geared to read psi powers, but they can be altered to pick up the biorhythms produced by living beings. A few adjustments and you will be able to detect how many people are down there. I'll get one ready before Pinder arrives. Perren knows how to use it. While Servalan has seen the devices, I doubt she'd expect them to function as life scanners. They can do the readings better than Orac could." His blue eyes gleamed. "This should be rather interesting, actually." He produced one of the detectors from his pocket and began to lift off the casing. Kyl drifted to his side, fascinated, as always, at such equipment, and hung over Edge's shoulder, watching.
Cella went to Blake's side. "Be careful down there, Blake," she said in a small but urgent voice, looking up at him as if she had to memorize his face in the next ten seconds.
He returned the look sharply, then his face softened. "Cella, I'm sorry there isn't time for Avon to attempt to break down the programming. I wish I could remember you, but I can't. I know something should be there - I can feel something is missing - but I can't get past that. Avon will tell you it started after you came aboard and I first met you. I think that means something." He put out his hand to her, and she clasped it. "You didn't call me Blake before, did you?" he asked in softer tones.
"No." She was silent just long enough to make everyone start casting around for something to say to fill the silence, then she opened her mouth to speak. "I - I called you 'father'."
He gave her hand a slight tug, and with a happy cry she landed against his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist. Over her head and out of her line of sight, his face held anguish at the knowledge of what had been stolen from him, not only Cella and her mother but Blake's memories of them, and fierce regret that he could not recall her now, when it mattered. "Then call me 'father' now, please, before I go. When I get back, we have a lot of years to catch up on, you and I."
"Oh, Father," she breathed and hid her face in his shirt front, half engulfed in the full flowing sleeves Blake liked to wear. "I'll remember for both of us, until you get back."
Avon stood at Blake's side, waiting, and when the rebel freed his daughter, Avon nodded quickly at Kyl, who stepped forward obediently to guide her back to the couch. "We're ready, Blake," Avon informed him. "The shuttle has cleared the airlock. It's coming up through the atmosphere now."
"Jabberwocky, you and Orac scan the shuttle," Tarrant instructed. "Make certain there's no evidence of trouble on board."
"The shuttle contains one passenger," Orac responded. "It is not weighted with neutron material; its trajectory confirms that."
"They wouldn't want it yet," Vila said, eyeing the mark on the screen that showed the shuttle's course. "They'll want to spring it on us later. I've got an idea. Orac, monitor the shuttle when the others return, and if there's any trace of neutron material or other problems, like bombs or homing devices or anything nasty, have Jabberwocky telepath to Avon about it."
"Why, Vila, you actually said something clever," Avon said just behind him. "Surely this means there's something wrong. We couldn't be fortunate twice in a row."
"I am clever," Vila responded, hiding a smile at Avon's backhanded praise. "I just like to let you do the work." He turned to Perren and said in a perfectly audible aside, "It makes him feel smug, you see, and he functions best when he's smug."
"I've noticed," agreed Perren.
"So have I," agreed Tarrant. "Jabberwocky, monitor the docking."
"I'm doing it, Del. So far there's no sign of trouble. I should think they'd want to wait until they've got Blake, Avon and Ven down on the planet before they try anything."
"Any evidence of other ships on the surface?" asked Blake.
"Nothing yet. Egrorian is right, though. Their base shielding is strong. It would prevent teleporting unless lowered - and it would also shield any ships down within the base area."
"Then there might be trouble down there," Gan said unnecessarily.
"There's always trouble," Vila replied. "Remember how it was on Liberator. Blake loves leading us into trouble."
Avon's eyes narrowed and he turned to Tarrant as if subsequent events had made him forget the possibility of risk for them all. "At the first sign of danger, take the ship out of here," he instructed. "We can't allow it to fall into Federation hands." Kyl turned from Cella at those instructions and looked at his father as if he suspected these instructions were given because of his presence here. He opened his mouth to protest and then thought better of it.
"What about you?" he asked.
Avon regarded his son thoughtfully. "Well now, I knew what I bargained for when I agreed to follow Blake," he said. "It is a thought that sometimes exasperates me, but one with which I have learned to live." There was almost fondness in his voice, enough to make Blake's head come up. Avon continued pragmatically, "In any case I am inured to the stupidity and gung ho idealism and have factored it into the equation."
That made Blake smile. "None of us are here against our will, Avon."
"You're quite wrong, Fearless Leader. Kyl is here against my will. You will bear that in mind, and the fact of Cella's presence, when we contend with Egrorian."
"I can take care of myself," Kyl insisted, perhaps unwisely. "Jab's taught me a lot about how the ship works and I'm good at linking. I can help."
Clearly Avon's first reaction would have been to forbid him to do anything of the sort, but perhaps he had learned a little wisdom in dealing with his son. "I shall expect it," he responded. "You are here. You will earn your keep."
Kyl's whole face lit up, but all he said was, "I will, and Hugh and I will look after Cella until you get back."
"The ship is ready for docking," Jabberwocky cut in. "Avon, I will maintain a light link with you, if you've no objection. Since we've been link-mates for a short time, I am familiar with your mind, and your telepathic skills will assist. If there are problems, you can notify us that way. I doubt any threat down there will be able to block that link out, even if their shields block our normal communications through the teleport bracelets."
"Do you think they might?" asked Blake, turning to stare at the computer's fascia. "We could read Egrorian fine."
"Which I think he allowed," the mindship replied. "Avon, if you would agree, I could form the link now."
Avon hesitated, then his face cleared. "I always averred that this ship and I would link for mutual gain," he said. "I will go and fetch Orac Mark II and meet you at the docking area." He strode off the flight deck without a look back.
"Ready, Perren?" Blake asked.
The psych tech exchanged thoughtful looks with Edge and rose to his feet. "Let's get it over with."
"The time has come," the woman said, "to speak of betrayal."
"I will not betray you, Sleer," Egrorian said smoothly.
"That I expect, knowing you would die for it, and you would be scant use to me dead."
"No, there are ways I can help you, my dear lady. With my genius and your political acumen, we can rule the Federation together. I will not call you by your other name; I am not such a fool that I would ever reveal the secret we both know. But it is that particular knowledge which heartens me. I know your abilities and respect them highly. I can help you regain that which you have lost through the manipulations of your enemies, and in return, I expect to rise with you. The capture of Orac will be simply the first step we will take together on the road to power."
Servalan hid her impatience at this wordy fool. Yes, he would assist her to gain Orac, and the tachyon funnel with it, and with those two tools at her command, she would again rule the universe. Egrorian himself would simply disappear along the way. If she had not intended to burden herself with the brilliance of Kerr Avon for more than a dalliance on the path to power, much less likely would she be to tolerate Egrorian. Pinder now, Pinder was decorative, but he had nothing else she wanted.
Tracking down Egrorian had taken her several months, and she had begun this process as soon as she recovered from the wounds sustained on Murray's World when she had tracked the psi experts there after the mindship crew had retrieved them from Sarran. Servalan cursed her own mistakes, but it was not her way to dwell upon them. She would go on. This time, she needed genius, and in her researches she had been reminded of Egrorian. With careful tracking, very careful because she did not want to alert Supreme Commander Arpel to her machinations, she had learned of the scientist's isolation on Malodar, and discovered he had useful tools to trade for knowledge and power. It had been easy to slip away, to make the contact, to learn of the tachyon funnel. It was exactly what she needed to gain the power she lusted after, but it was not all she needed. Such a tool had more than one use. It would serve her well when this was over, and in the meantime, it would serve as bait.
Knowing the purpose of the tachyon funnel, Blake would do anything in his power to keep it from falling into the hands of Space Command. It was possible he might even trade Orac for it. If not, luring the mindship here would bring Orac into the sector, and while Servalan did not want to lose the mindship, she knew capture or destruction of that vessel would give the Federation a much better chance to wipe out that nest of rebels on Ryalon. So she baited a careful trap with Egrorian, luring Blake to the surface, knowing Avon would come down with Blake whether Egrorian asked for him or not. Once she had Avon and Blake in her power, and Orac, there would be no end of possibilities. And if Avon and Blake died in the process, well, that was a pity, especially Avon, but it would gain Servalan power. Returning with Blake's head on a platter might even make her re-emergence as Servalan possible and rid her of her masquerade as Sleer.
She had not expected Egrorian to recognize her and at first he had given no evidence that he had, but it hadn't taken her long to realize he knew she was Servalan. That was dangerous, of course, and she meant to monitor him closely before leaving here with the items she needed, Orac, and either the tachyon funnel or the plans for it. Egrorian's delightful scheme for ridding the galaxy of Blake appealed to her, because where one could construct a new tachyon funnel the loss of the prototype meant no danger. She was even more pleased when she learned Egrorian had created two, one which he planned to sacrifice with his intended destruction of the shuttle.
The only thing Servalan regretted about that was the loss of Avon and Blake's bodies to take back to Earth with her. But weighed against the certainty of never facing them again, she fell in with Egrorian's plan. He had meant to use Orac himself, of course, but promptly changed his scheme to use it in conjunction with her, if she would take him back to Earth as her consort. With his vast knowledge, he assured her quite seriously, he would design for her a series of devices as useful as the tachyon funnel. When she mentioned the IMIPAK device and its purpose, he had positively chortled with glee, rubbing his hands together in unctuous delight. Perhaps she would keep him long enough to manage that, perhaps not. A tool which could be reversed and used upon herself might be best forgotten, and Egrorian, with the knowledge such a device could exist, had simply become too dangerous. She would allow him to carry out his scheme as planned, retrieve Orac, destroy Blake, and then Servalan would summon her flotilla, even now carefully concealed on one of the other planets presently on the far side of the sun, and attempt to capture the mindship. If it failed, she would destroy it, since the Federation was only months from completing the second Mark 60 in any case.
The only certain outcome, Servalan decided, was that she was finally going to triumph. And that for Sharn Arpel, when she swept him out of her path and became again Supreme Commander! From there, the distance to the Presidency was only one small step.
"You see how I can help you," Egrorian pointed out.
"Yes, I do see it," she returned, stifling her impatience. "But that is not the betrayal I meant. I warn you, Egrorian, that if you try to turn against me, I am more powerful than you can imagine. Your location is well marked, and my people know I am here. If I do not return within the allotted time, they will swoop down and reduce this planet to a cinder, including you, Pinder, and every product of your so-called genius they do not liberate from you first."
"As they should," he said quickly, only a slight tremor about the hands marking his uneasiness. "But I would never betray one so beautiful, so gracious - so powerful. As it is with you, power and control are important to me. I find them veritable - aphrodisiacs," he concluded.
"Yes, well, there will be time for aphrodisiacs after Blake and Avon are dead and Orac is in my hands. You will remember, I have seen Orac and will recognize it, not only its appearance but its voice. I will be monitoring your conversation with them and if I hear one hint of betrayal, you will pay for it. Power and control are important to me as well, so important I will do all I can to maintain them. I may choose to share some of that with you - but only after we have broken the back of the rebellion with the appropriation of Orac and the defeat of Blake and his own crew. And as for Avon..." She let her voice trail off. She could think of no way to separate Avon from Blake that would not give away her presence on the planet, not that she meant to allow Avon to live in any case. It would simply have been delicious to enjoy him as her prisoner for a short time before she cast him aside. But no matter. She could amuse herself with Pinder for a time; he was decorative and brilliant in his own right, and it would irritate Egrorian no end. She would enjoy that.
"They will be returning soon," Egrorian said. "My dear madam, if you will take yourself to the control center, you will be able to monitor the discussion to follow and you will be able to signal me as we planned if they attempt to perpetrate a false Orac upon us."
"I shall do so," she said and swept away. Here on Malodar, where no one could find her, she had put aside the military garb she'd been forced to wear in her disguise as Sleer and returned to the flowing gowns she had always enjoyed when she was in power. They looked rather charming with the longer curls she wore now, but when she returned to power, the curls would go, too. Still, she was a beautiful woman and knew it, and as she walked away the thought that Egrorian was looking after her with lust in his eyes made her smile an enigmatic and self-satisfied smile. Let him have his enjoyment. He would have little more.
Pinder welcomed Avon, Blake and Perren into the shuttle with an expressionless face. He was young, still in his twenties, but there was an older look in his eyes. Avon studied him intently, trying to read malice in the stranger's face, but if it was there it was concealed behind a stoic mask. Only his eyes were unfriendly, but they had been unfriendly to Egrorian, too. He might simply be of sour disposition, but Avon was unwilling to accept that as the man's motivation. He spread his arms at the man's gesture, to show himself unarmed and hoped Pinder's check would not reveal the scan-blocked gun he had taped to his calf inside his boot, where the leather masked its shape. Not even Blake knew he was so armed, but Avon refused to face Egrorian without a weapon.
He looked at the shuttle, saw that the flight deck was reached by a ladder, saw in fact that this was the shuttle of Cally's dream. It would have made Vila nervous, but Avon only nodded, confident he knew where it would conceal its secrets. He and Cally had gone over the dream before the mission, in their own telepathic gestalt, allowing him to familiarize himself with every possible nuance. Though they had known the dream might well diverge from reality, as it had done on more than one occasion, Avon felt the more he knew about it, the better his calls would be in a crisis. Now he felt comfortable with the shuttle's layout. Obviously the neutron material had not been added if, indeed, that had been Egrorian's plan. Whether Servalan was down there or not was another factor to consider. The dream Servalan had been prepared to sacrifice them for Orac. This one might well feel the same. Avon suspected that if she were present, she would be watching every minute and was glad he had designed the Orac Mark II with voice-activated controls, keyed to his own voice; Avon meant to speak as he inserted the key. The original Orac had instructions to interact with it until such time as Avon and the others had safely returned to the mindship, or until such time as their deaths prevented it. "When Egrorian or Servalan gives you a command that you must obey them, you will bear in mind that they are not speaking to you, but to the replica, and you may lie to them," Avon had explained. "You are instructed to tell them you will comply with their wishes, and you will create an illusion of that until the previous terms have been met. But you will not obey them. Do you understand?"
"Though you could have been more precise, the instruction is clear," Orac had returned.
Convinced he had done all he could to safeguard them and the computer, Avon had left it at that. Now he wondered if there were other options he might have employed.
Pinder came down the ladder. "If you will follow me," he said, pausing when they would have done so immediately. He held out a sheet of plastex to Blake, making a gesture for silence when the rebel would have spoken. Avon edged closer and read the words printed there over Blake's shoulder. It said simply, "This ship is monitored. Say nothing of this message. Egrorian means to betray you. I will help you in exchange for sanctuary."
Perren slid in beside Blake and read it, too, then looked at the rebel leader who said simply, "Show us to the flight deck." His face was unrevealing, though Avon could read it better than Blake would have expected. Blake might believe the message, though knowing him, he would probably choose to offer Pinder sanctuary out of the goodness of his heart. Avon knew better. This message could be part of Egrorian's plan, and Avon was uncertain what benefit Pinder could be to the rebellion. He was reputed to be a brilliant mathematician, of course, but Avon did not see how that would help them. He wasn't prepared to take risks for a total stranger, but he could see the crusading look begin in Blake's eyes, and heaved a silent, exasperated sigh. Considering how Pinder had been treated by Egrorian in Cally's dream, Blake would no doubt want to 'rescue' him.
Perren caught Avon's gaze and frowned slightly. He wasn't sure either. They went to the flight deck, and it was very similar to Cally's dream. Avon set Orac Mark II down in the same place and monitored everything Pinder did on the short flight down to the planet. Blake asked questions; what kind of trade system they had, how long had they been there, did Egrorian still hold his exile against the Federation, all questions he would probably have asked anyway, and knowing Egrorian was monitoring the conversation didn't change that. To sit in stony silence the whole way down would have only aroused suspicion of Pinder.
The young man had lived here all his adult life. Perren watched him thoughtfully, judging his reactions. Did he hold being here against Egrorian? Might he help them in a pinch? Avon refused to trust the possibility. He preferred to help himself. Blake, of course, needed watching in such situations, great bleeding heart that he was, but Perren had enough cynicism to back Avon, should he need to.
Egrorian was waiting when the shuttle lowered itself into the launch area and a domed roof slid shut above it. The area was unpressurised, but a docking tube slid out to marry with the shuttle's opening, and soon they were leaving it behind. Egrorian came forward to meet them, greeting them effusively.
"This is a treat indeed," he said, his eyes brushing past the people almost rudely in his interest in Orac. "Is that it? I must confess myself fascinated to see it working."
"We'll give you a demonstration," Blake responded. "You certainly have a remote location. With your abilities, surely you could write your own ticket on any number of non-Federated worlds."
"And spend all my time watching my back?" Egrorian responded. "I have safety here, and I do not need more than my work. I have Pinder, too, a brilliant mind." He smiled absently in Pinder's direction as if out of old habit. Pinder didn't smile back, but Egrorian did not seem to notice.
"Come to my lab," he urged. "There I have laid out refreshments whilst I examine Orac and you study the tachyon funnel, so we can each be certain we are getting the bargain we hope for. I think you will find the tachyon funnel to be all I've claimed and more."
"Yet you are willing to part with it?" Perren interjected smoothly. "Surely it would serve as a defence for you on such a remote planet where pirates or even Federation flotillas might find you? Seems strange for you to part with the best weapon you could make." He had his PK Detector in his hand and was studying its readings, his face thoughtful. As he spoke, he looked up at Egrorian and put it away.
"I don't know you," Egrorian said. "You are not familiar to me at all."
"Ven Perren," Blake introduced quickly.
"Psych tech," responded Egrorian, causing Perren's eyebrows to lift slightly. He might appreciate the recognition of his name, but he didn't believe it a coincidence either.
"Interesting. You must have excellent communications channels."
"I do," replied Egrorian simply. "How else would I have learned the value of Orac or how to reach you to get it. I have a crew manifest for your vessel. A mindship. Intriguing. But to answer your question," he continued with an abrupt change of subject, "Why not part with the funnel? Surely since I designed it I am capable of creating more. Possibly I can even make refinements on the current design. You need not fear I am unarmed and helpless, and rob me of my greatest creation."
"We don't behave like that," said Blake with such obvious sincerity that Egrorian would have been a fool to doubt it. Blake had a knack that way. Long before he was comfortable doing so, Avon had often believed in Blake's sincerity. Egrorian was a suspicious man, though. He guided the way into the room and ushered Avon to a device positioned in the room's center while Perren moved close to Blake and spoke quietly into his ear. Blake nodded and lifted his right hand. Servalan was here - or at least someone else was here. It was no more than they had expected. Perren would leave the device active in his pocket. If Servalan approached it would beep softly, warning them of her arrival.
Ignoring Perren and Blake and their momentary communication, Egrorian gestured proudly at the device. "The tachyon funnel," he said.
"Orac," replied Blake, taking it from Avon and placing it on a table. "Examine it to your satisfaction." His eyes caught Avon's and looked a question and Avon nodded. He had understood the signal and was prepared.
"But use this," Avon said to the scientist. He inserted the key, which triggered blinking lights, and said aloud, "Orac, meet Egrorian."
"I am very busy," snapped Orac's relayed voice. "I have no time for social amenities. My researches take up my time quite satisfactorily, though it is interesting to encounter Egrorian, who does have an adequate mind - for a human."
Egrorian looked slightly taken aback. "Does it always run on like that?"
"Why do you think we were willing to exchange it?" Perren asked with a flippant grin. "All the time, it goes on. It's useful, but Avon's working on a back up for us so we won't have to do without it, and..." He let his voice trail off as if he hadn't wanted that information out, and Avon favoured him with a glare. Perren's ingenuous words were almost too unbelievable. Unless Egrorian believed himself so far above them intellectually that he would consider them no threat at all, he could hardly disregard an evident slip as anything but deliberate. Still, he had told them about the possibility of constructing a second tachyon funnel.
"I see," said Egrorian. "Orac, I have several tasks for you, so that I can be certain you are in fact as gifted and useful as has been claimed. You will perform these tasks for me, and perform them now."
"I have been instructed to obey your commands," Orac said sourly. "So give them. Time is wasting."
Egrorian heard that with sheer delight and rubbed his hands together in glee like a child who has just been given a gift. He started talking to Orac, asking it to provide information about his background and education, and Avon left Blake to watch him and went to the tachyon funnel, raising his teleport bracelet and keying it on. "Jabberwocky, are you there?"
The response was faint and filtered. "Yes, but there is interference from the surface; it appears to be inherent in the shielding Egrorian has round his base. However, I have Edge on line if you wish to compare notes on the tachyon funnel. Is everyone all right?"
"Everyone is fine," Perren said into his own bracelet. "And Egrorian is quite taken with Orac. Edge, are you there?"
"Ready," replied the physicist. "How does it look, Avon?"
The tech had pulled off the casing in several places and was studying the control panel. "It looks quite possibly to be what it claims," he admitted. "The routing of the power is particularly elegant. I will describe the circuitry to you, and we will go over it in detail." He began to do so, repeating himself occasionally when the channel snowed up. Contact was always recaptured immediately, and though he instructed Jabberwocky to continue to scan for ships with the extra range detectors, nothing seemed to be anywhere in range. Yet he had a very bad feeling about the whole thing. There was a large trap here, and it wasn't just the possible presence of Servalan in her Sleer guise, trying to use Egrorian to snatch Orac and the tachyon funnel at one go, taking with it, if she could, the mindship.
"Intriguing," he said to Egrorian. "I notice you've found a way to shield against the damaging effects of the interaction between magnetic forces and neutrons."
"That was a problem indeed," Egrorian replied, lifting surprised eyebrows at Avon's remark. "In fact, Pinder came perilously close to ending his life during the creation process. He was only moments away from being exposed to Hofel's radiation. But fortunately, I managed to isolate and control the reaction, and it was prevented."
"Fortunate indeed," Avon replied and went back to his relaying of information. Orac would report every word, and if they managed to come away without the funnel, they might have enough information to create another, should it be wanted. Blake might not want it, but Blake did not control the entire rebellion. Given an invasion by the Federation's main fleet, Avon meant a working copy of the funnel to be at hand, available to the resistance.
Edge ran tests on everything Avon reported, running it through the real Orac, though that was not mentioned in their communication. All the while, Egrorian cooed and fussed over Orac. Pinder hovered in the background at first, but when Avon finally started to seal up the casing, he noticed the mathematician had vanished.
Catching Perren's eye, he quirked an eyebrow in the direction of the door.
"Went to get antigrav units to shift the tachyon funnel," Perren explained. "It will make it easier to move the funnel to the shuttle." He took out the PK detector again and studied it, presumably adjusting it to differentiate between Servalan (or the other person on the base) and Pinder so they would know who was returning.
Egrorian took out the key from the Mark II Orac and inserted it again. "Orac, you are a genius," he exulted. "This is even better than I had expected."
"Yes, I know," returned Orac. "Have you quite finished wasting my time with inanities and useless research?"
"Yes. I am ready to begin with genuine research," Egrorian replied. "As soon as these others have gone, we will begin our work together, you and I. There will be nothing we cannot achieve. I wonder what's taking Pinder so long."
"I'm here, Egrorian," the younger man returned, sliding back into the room. He looked breathless and harried, but if he had been doctoring the shuttle, he would no doubt be tired, especially after having manoeuvred the neutron material, no doubt with the antigrav devices he now carried. "I've got the equipment and am ready to send them back on the shuttle."
"And not to go with them?" Egrorian asked. When Pinder's mouth dropped open in near-comic dismay, the older man smirked. "I know you. You feel your life is wasted here on this isolated rock with only an old fool for company. With Orac, I do not need you any longer. You may go with them if they choose to take you."
Utter horror flashed through Pinder's eyes but he masked it immediately. "How will you get your shuttle back?" he demanded.
"You can, of course, program it on remote," responded Egrorian. "You are a gifted scientist. You know that much."
Avon pondered this. Surely Egrorian would expect Pinder to spill the beans the minute they were aboard the shuttle, since he obviously feared the journey. Yet, probably privy to Egrorian's plans earlier, he had still asked to come with them. There was much here that Avon didn't understand. Knowing the neutron material was on the shuttle, it would be an easy matter to disconnect the antimatter skids from the funnel and use them to shift the neutron material immediately. Yet, why even bother with it if Egrorian meant to send Pinder along, unless it was an new plan of his, a last minute change - or unless there was more than the neutron material on the shuttle. Perhaps Egrorian had a contingency plan, one which had failed in Cally's dream, or one which she had failed to foresee. Pinder could hardly speak now, while Egrorian could harm him. Most likely, since Egrorian meant to rid himself of Pinder too, he had planted the neutron material as the obvious decoy, something they might logically reason out when they failed to lighten the vessel. Once they had rid the ship of it, they would relax as they sped toward escape velocity, while, unknown to them, a second threat would build; a fault in the engine, a shot from a second tachyon funnel? Avon would need to communicate with Orac the minute they were aboard.
There was, of course, the possibility of teleport. Jabberwocky had rehearsed that bit, knowing it had been the speed of two moving vessels which had created the problem for Scorpio. However, Jabberwocky was a more powerful ship than the Scorpio had been in Cally's vision and Jabberwocky was in geosynchronous orbit over Egrorian's base.
"It sounds appropriate," Avon said, causing Perren to narrow his eyes and exchange a puzzled look with Blake. "We will take the tachyon funnel. Attach the antigrav skis," he said. "Blake, about Pinder, do you really think it wise?"
"If he wants to come, we can certainly watch him well enough. He may have some useful skills." No doubt Blake was thinking about the man's message, even more suspect now in the light of Egrorian's virtual ordering the man off the planet. Pinder looked doomed as he fastened the skis in place, his face white.
"But - but - but - Do you really want me to go, Egrorian?" Pinder asked, gazing at his mentor with shocked eyes, his face full of hurt. Whether it was the knowledge that the man he must have had feelings for at one time meant to send him to his death or simply that Egrorian wanted to be rid of him, Avon was not certain.
"You are wasting your life here with an old man like me," Egrorian said smoothly, his voice almost a purr. "Out there are more worlds than you could dream of. You are not a wanted man such as I." Since Orac had just relayed that information in response to Orac's queries, he must have believed it wouldn't matter to reveal it.
"No more. I free you. Go out and enjoy your life. Take the funnel now whilst I run one more check on Orac to convince myself completely I am buying what they claim I am." He waved the horrified young man away. Wearing the expression of one condemned to a horrible death, Pinder let himself be steered toward the door, guiding the funnel on its antigrav pads.
When he had vanished, Egrorian returned to the perspex box on the table and beckoned Blake, Avon and Perren closer. Avon felt suspicion run through him, but Egrorian only asked several easy questions which Orac was able to field with ease through the relay, and poked around lightly in the computer's innards. He did not discover the communications relay booster. Perren hovered close, studying the man, then backed off and looked at his monitor once more, fiddling with the dials. He, at least, looked enthusiastic. Avon wondered why.
Satisfied after a mere ten minutes, Egrorian beamed upon them. "Orac will serve me well," he announced in delight. "Come. I will go along with you to the shuttle."
They made it to the shuttle unfettered and found Pinder waiting, just detaching the antigrav pads from the tachyon funnel. He looked up at Egrorian with hopeless eyes, then turned away. Avon studied his surroundings hastily, nodding to himself as his eyes identified the neutron material contained in a crystal. Yes, Egrorian was running to schedule, all right, but what else had he dreamed up with which to threaten them? This was too easy. Servalan would not want them free, though she might want them dead. As for Pinder, he had no hope but to tell them everything the minute they raised orbit, knowing Egrorian might monitor their conversation anyway.
Egrorian bid them farewells, even going so far as to embrace his young 'friend', though Pinder took the hug stiffly, his face devoid of all expression. When the older man had left, the young mathematician sealed the door, his eyes wide with fright. "We have major trouble," he said in an undertone. "This shuttle will never escape the atmosphere."
"I think it might," Avon said, striding over to the neutron block and kicking it. It didn't move. "Once we have this off the shuttle. I know of Egrorian's plan to prevent us from escaping the atmosphere."
Pinder's eyes grew wide with disbelief, and then sudden hope flooded into them. "You had Orac find out?" he guessed.
"Something like that," replied Perren, grinning. "I'm just glad Egrorian is predictable, though I wouldn't put it past him to have a backup plan. Do you know of one?"
Pinder hesitated. "Not - not really. There are a lot of things he can do. We just have to be ready for them, and maybe I'll be able to figure them out in time to counter them."
"Unhook the skis from the funnel and we shall shift it as soon as we have left the atmosphere," Avon instructed.
"And we shall take you with us," Blake told Pinder. Blake would. He always sympathized with those in distress, assuming he noticed them in his larger campaign to free the entire galaxy.
Pinder's face crumpled in relief as he jumped to help while Blake hurried up the steps to launch the shuttle. They couldn't eject the neutron material while still on the planet and hope to get through Egrorian's shield that was even now opening to let them free. "I wasn't sure if you'd guess what was going on."
"More than you think," added Perren. "So tell us," he coaxed invitingly as they felt the roar of power beneath their feet as Blake began to manipulate the controls, "What else is going to go wrong?"
Servalan emerged from concealment as soon as the shuttle launched. "Sending Pinder was stupid, Egrorian. They will doubt your every action. He will tell them they have the dummy tachyon funnel."
"Small matter it will make at this stage. We will have Orac; we had to lure them down, but now they have served their usefulness. And it will save me killing him directly. Perhaps I am a fool, but he has been useful. Let him go, but I will not kill him face to face."
"Scruples, Egrorian?" she asked, lifting a bored eyebrow.
"No, Servalan. Simply say I find personal violence crude and messy."
No cruder than you, she thought with scorn. Her hand slid to the gun concealed in her sleeve and hovered there, prepared for him to betray her too, since it was so obviously a part of his nature. But if he intended betrayal, he did not let it show. Perhaps she was still useful to him, to get off this isolated planet.
He strode to his control console. "You wanted the mindship, my dear lady. I will give it to you now."
Her eyes widened as she realized he had not fully revealed his plans to her. "What do you intend?"
"Why, to immobilize the mindship until your fleet can dock with it and take it over. It should be easier than I expected, knowing the vessel has a human brain at its core. I will merely project an electro-metabolic pulse through the vessel, which will render all on board unconscious for a period of two hours. The electrometabolic pulse cannon is a weapon I designed in my early years here to protect myself. It has served me well, over the years. If you cannot take the ship in the appropriate time, you do not deserve to have it."
"Why, Egrorian, you delight me," she purred, well pleased at the plan. Yes, he was useful, though grotesque and dangerous. A pity his usefulness would end with that pulse and, presumably, a similar one through the shuttle. They could not rid the vessel of the neutron material if they were unconscious, could they? This was better and better. She would have to make Orac copy every one of Egrorian's files and very carefully purge this base of everything useful when she departed, including Egrorian's life. Finally she had the power at her hands to allow her to take back the galaxy. "I shall enjoy this." Abruptly she held up a hand. "Wait. This will not damage the mindship?"
"Of course not. The ship is in stable orbit. Even if the human brain is stunned, the ship will maintain that position long enough for your ships to dock with it and take over, and as the brainship revives, it will regain control of the autonomic ship functions. Summon them now. I will fire."
His hands swept over the controls, and both of them were so caught up in their plan that neither of them noticed the blinking lights of Orac Mark II as that particular communications relay device passed along everything that was spoken to the original Orac high overhead.
The pulse beam swept upward toward Jabberwocky.
"The shuttle's away," Tarrant reported with relief, monitoring the tiny dot that marked its trajectory on the main screen. "From the way they're rising, I'd say they're still encumbered with the neutron material. It should be gone soon."
"I've projected the time necessary," Edge said with his pocket computer in his hand. He often relied on that rather than on the flight deck computers, simply because it was independent of them and convenient. He had monitored the conversations on the planet with obvious concern for his near-brother, Perren, and for the others, but his quicksilver mind had never stopped working, projecting possible dangers, ways for Egrorian to betray them, and threats Servalan would pose if she were indeed down there, sharing the information with the rest of them. Tarrant was glad of his powerful intellect. "There are bound to be additional problems," he added. "I've had Orac calculate the other planets in this system and it reports the second planet's orbit which positions itself on the far side of the sun is the most likely hiding place for ships. Knowing that, and knowing we can control a teleport beam if it should be necessary, we can be away from here before the flotilla is within firing range."
"Unless Egrorian has another ace up his sleeve," Soolin said broodingly. She had been restless ever since Blake left, pacing the flight deck as if she expected ships to pop out of nowhere and attack them. Hugh had paced after her, trying to calm her until Gan said:
"Let her go. She thinks better that way."
Surprised, Soolin had turned to stare at Gan. They were still virtual strangers, but Gan was proving a more perceptive man than Tarrant had expected from the comments Avon had let fall. Vila, of course, had never done anything but praise Gan for his common sense and stubborn practicality, and his sense of ethics, all qualities Vila lacked, or preferred to deny he possessed. Tarrant had somehow not expected to like Gan, but he had. The new crew member was never likely to become his best friend, but he was already coming to value Gan's common sense and lack of ego in a ship already too full of egos.
"Do you think Servalan might have something else waiting?" the thief asked now, nervously. "She always does. I don't like this. It feels like waiting for the other shoe to drop. I know something's going to go wrong."
Avon's filtered voice came over the communications system. "We are ejecting the neutron material now." The dot that represented the shuttle seemed to leap forward toward escape velocity.
"They did it," exulted Vila, grinning a mile wide and bouncing up on his toes in relief. "Put your money on Avon. He never lets anyone get the drop on him."
"Information," said Orac sharply, his tone as portentous as Zen's had been on the Liberator. As he spoke, a beam of light stabbed up through the atmosphere at them from the direction of Egrorian's base.
//Del, gestalt! Now!// The words were so intense and so compelling that Tarrant responded automatically, opening his mind to Jabberwocky as fully as possible. Such an action was second nature to him after being bonded as long as he had and he didn't have to think about it. His trust in his link-mate was absolute and if Jabberwocky told him to enter the gestalt state in the middle of a crisis, Tarrant knew he had a good reason for it.
"Force wall," blurted Soolin and started for the control switch, but before she had taken two steps, the starch went out of her knees and she sagged forward. Hugh reached out to catch her, opening his mouth to call her name but no sound emerged, as if he were trying to speak in slow motion.
"What's happening?" Vila's voice stretched out long and slow like a recording played back at the wrong speed, then he simply puddled down in a heap on the flight deck, his eyes sliding shut. Edge bolted to his feet, eyes widening, then, before he could do anything, he fell face down on the nearest couch, his pocket computer spinning out of his sagging hand and clattering across the flight deck. Gan pushed himself upright with every ounce of his tremendous strength and blurted, "Orac, get us out of..." before he, too, succumbed to the mysterious paralysis that swept across the flight deck and dropped like a stone.
Kyl tried to force himself to his feet, even as Cella sagged beside him, and he turned to face her in alarm, though his movements were already slowing down as if he were wading through unset plastine. His eyes met Tarrant's in shock and alarm, then he eased down beside the girl as he lost consciousness too.
Tarrant felt his knees begin to buckle, and even as he started to collapse, he experienced a curious suction as if he were being drawn free of himself. At what seemed like lightspeed, he rushed out of his body into a tunnel of darkness, dimly aware, as if it were happening to someone else, that he had collapsed back in the flight chair, head lolling against the backrest. It was as if the sprawled body belonged to someone else.
Then, abruptly, he was somewhere else.
"Something's wrong," Blake called from above.
"The shuttle?" cried Avon, sprinting for the stairs, only one step behind Perren as they hurried up the ladder. Pinder hurried after them muttering worriedly to himself.
"No, Jabberwocky," Blake replied. "I was in contact with Jabberwocky, who was monitoring us, and now I'm not getting anything. Try your bracelet."
Avon did, sending the signal. "Avon to Jabberwocky. Respond." He realized the link he'd had immediate access to had vanished without a trace, and even with telepathy he was getting nothing.
"Come in, Jabberwocky," Perren urged, worry lining his voice as his face tightened. "Edge? Damn it, Edge, answer me. Somebody. Respond. What's wrong."
"We can see your ship," Pinder said in a small voice behind him. "It hasn't been blown up. I think Egrorian must have done something."
"Done what?" snarled Avon, grabbing the man by the front of his shirt and nearly lifting him off his feet. Kyl was on that ship, and if Egrorian had done anything to harm his son, Avon would find a way to blow up the entire planet if it meant that to take him out. "Explain now. Why were you so panicked. Not just the neutron material? You had to know we could rid ourselves of that."
"I knew he didn't mean to let you get away," Pinder said, hanging his head so his eyes didn't meet Avon's. "I've been trying to think what he might use on us and hoped we might outrun it, but now I think I know what he's got in mind. It must be the electrometabolic pulse cannon."
"The what?" Perren grabbed the man's arm and glared at him as if the words made particular sense to him. "You mean a kind of phasic weapon that attacks the conscious centers of the brain? A weapon like that would render everyone it hit unconscious - maybe even Jabberwocky!"
"Jabberwocky?" Blake sounded seriously worried. He might not remember his daughter, but he had to be frantic for her sake, not to mention that of the others. "But wouldn't that affect the functions of the ship?" he demanded, outraged at the idea. "Would the orbit begin to decay?"
"Possibly." Perren's face was thoughtful. "We've done some research in that area," he replied after a minute. "The consensus was that anything that might stun the brain could do damage, but we built in backups. That's one reason why there are so many backup systems. If Jabberwocky had even a few moments' warning, he could have thrown up shields around himself - at least around his physical brain. More time and he could have drawn the others in with him, but I don't know if there would have been time. Orac might have managed a warning if it was still linked to the Mark II, but-" His mouth suddenly fell open and without warning, he pitched forward against Avon's arm, his head lolling against the computer tech's shoulder. Avon supported him automatically, though it grew harder and harder to stay on his feet.
"Electro-" Blake started, then he slid down onto the console and didn't move.
Avon felt the shuttle's orbit shift as awareness deserted him. Perren slid free of his grasp and Avon's knees buckled, depositing him on the floor next to Pinder, his head across Perren's foot. As he lay there unknowing, the shuttle's orbit began to decay.
"You did it," exulted Servalan, watching as Egrorian tried to raise the mindship and failed. "You've stopped them. I'll signal my fleet now." She reached for the communications console and pushed several keys. "That will bring them." Smiling smugly, she asked, "And what of the shuttle? Will it burn up in the atmosphere?"
"Of course not. I've a remote system. The ship can be managed from here. You see, the course is already altering. They will not land back here but out there; they will be confined in the vessel by the unbreathable atmosphere and the bitter cold until your people can fetch them and take them prisoner since there is no one overhead to teleport them. We have Orac, and I have instructed it to respond only to me." As he saw her eyes narrow, he added, "And, of course, I will instruct Orac to respond to your commands as well, my precious. The landing may be a rough one, but the shuttle will likely not break up. Why not use Orac to instruct your fleet? I grant you authority to send such a message. Orac. You will obey Servalan's instructions as my own."
"Confirmed," intoned the computer.
Servalan advanced upon the little perspex box with an almost hungry expression in her eyes. "Orac, you will obey my commands."
"On the contrary," retorted the computer. "I shall do nothing of the sort. My original instructions predate yours. However, I recommend you consider the electrometabolic pulse cannon controls."
"What!" Egrorian nearly screamed in annoyance. "How dare you. Orac, you are under my control."
"Negative. You were fooled by my communications relay."
"The pulse cannon!" Egrorian's face went white. "Servalan. Orac has fed a back-up overload into the system. The pulse will strike us in precisely five seconds and there's nothing I can do to stop-"
The device pulsed, and Servalan and Egrorian collapsed into a heap on the floor, scarcely breathing.
Tarrant blinked. Or did he? Everything he perceived was different from anything he had ever perceived before. There were lights and channels and passageways, glowing brightly and stretching off into vast, immeasurable distances as if he had stepped within a computer. There were paths to be traced, bolts of moving light to follow, sounds unlike any he had heard before, some too fast to identify, some so slow they hurt his ears. He was not sure he was even Tarrant any more. Other sensations flooded him, other memories, strangers he had never met, battles he had never fought, places he had never been. That was Dorn Suliman, Jabberwocky's son, but he looked no more than ten years old. There was Ven Perren, brown hair rumpled as if from hours of frustrating work, wearing unfamiliar clothing and working in a half-finished place that Tarrant realized with surprise was Jabberwocky's flight deck in a state of construction. Servalan and Rendall Weed exchanged conversation while Jabberwocky, newly conscious, listened to their conversation. Other scenes, other times, other places, glimpses of linkages with the rest of the crew, heightened sensations, traces of their memories. Avon holding the dying Dayna trying to pull her consciousness back into her body. Dorn Suliman walking away from his first confrontation with Jabberwocky and the realization that the brain within the ship had once been his father. Witt forcing linkage. Vila standing in when Vangam forced Tarrant out of himself and took over. Vila lying sprawled on the teleport pad, his chest a gory mass of red that had proven to be wine. The memories were as sharp as viscast images before Tarrant's stunned gaze, and he could only let them flow around him, engulfing him in a sea of reminiscences.
"Everything is all right," said a voice inside his head, sharper and more intense than even gestalt, and Tarrant responded to it as if he were being drawn to the golden center. Jabberwocky. He spoke the name aloud and thought it and was it. He was Jabberwocky now, but he was also Tarrant, and he was very confused.
"We're together, Del," Jabberwocky said. "It was the only way I could keep you alert."
"I don't know what's happening." His voice didn't sound like his own, but a distant echo, vast and ringing. The meaning was much closer, as if he didn't even have to conceptualize his words for them to transmit. He was scarcely aware of sounds, sounds like voices. It was even more than link mode when he felt Jabberwocky's thoughts and feelings in his head. This time, it was as if he were thinking them with Jabberwocky, as if he had become Jabberwocky, as if there was nothing to separate them. They were one identity. Tarrant loved Jabberwocky with all his heart, and this incredible closeness moved him so strongly he clung to it with every fibre of his being, joy pulsing through his veins.
"Yes, you do," Jabberwocky assured him. "We are one."
So intense was the union Tarrant felt as if his eyes burned with tears. He let himself flow into it, cherishing each sensation, relishing every new discovery. "We always were," he replied positively. "But never like this."
"It was the only way to keep you conscious," Jabberwocky explained. "Orac told me what was happening, that Egrorian meant to render us all unconscious, long enough to take the ship."
"He used an electrometabolic pulse," Tarrant replied, knowing that without understanding how it had happened. If it was in Jabberwocky's awareness, it was in his own, but he was not used to concentrating on everything all at once, and the limitations of his human mind made him take the knowledge in order. "Why didn't it hurt you?"
"Because Ven knew a long time ago that such a thing might affect me and he designed a shield. I barely had time to erect it, and there wasn't time to draw in more than you. I could only do you because of our bond. I might have managed Cally if she had been here, or Avon, because of his telepathy and because we were bonded so recently, but he was on the shuttle and I couldn't extend that far. I tried to extend to Kyl; he's young and receptive, but I really couldn't reach him completely. He'll probably awaken first though. Your body is unconscious, Del. Only your mind is aware."
"I can't see anything but lights," Tarrant said thoughtfully as he considered his unusual environment. It was strange but there was no urgency in here. Egrorian had attacked them but he knew without explanation that the threat they had to face was no longer Egrorian. There was time to question, because time passed differently here. They could communicate so much faster like this, sharing everything in mere instants.
"This is what I see without my cameras," Jabberwocky replied. "These pulses and lights all mean something to me, but I cannot take the time to teach them to you. If you concentrate on them hard, you will understand them because I do, but don't do it. There isn't time. Instead, I will show you what I can see of our friends."
Tarrant's vision cleared away. The lights and patterns were still there but it was as if a different part of Tarrant's mind saw them. He could see them all, even though he did not understand them, and still see the emerging vision of the flight deck. That momentarily alarmed him as he perceived a danger he had never feared in linkage before. He didn't fear it now; with his complete and utter trust in Jabberwocky he knew the ship would not allow him to be harmed, but he mentioned it anyway. "Witt. You burned him out because he saw too much."
"You see but you do not experience it all," Jabberwocky explained. "I'm shielding you from the full intensity of my functions. But you can see everything I see, even though you do not control it or understand it except that I do, and right now we are each other. Isn't it fun?"
The sense of warmth Tarrant felt at that thought ran through him and for a moment there was nothing beyond that. Jabberwocky was right; it was fun, though Tarrant would probably have used a different word. Then he controlled the total awareness enough to ask, "What of the others?"
"They are all unconscious. Egrorian fired an electrometabolic pulse at the ship. It causes no damage to any of the instrumentation, but it does affect the human brain with a temporary unconsciousness. The strength he used will keep everyone out for two hours. Since at present Orac reports a flotilla of four ships approaching across the ecliptic plane of this system from a position of evident concealment on or behind the second planet, we would have been taken before anybody woke up if Orac hadn't warned me. Now you and I have a big fight on our hands."
"Can I fly from in here?" Tarrant asked.
"Why not? I do." It was as if Jabberwocky smiled. "Imagine the way you manipulate the controls when we are linked. You don't use a hands on technique there, do you?"
"No, but at least I have a frame of reference. All these lights are strange."
"Then I'll give you a frame of reference; my own view of the flight deck. You concentrate on that." The emerging view of the flight deck cleared, the computer lights vanished, and Tarrant 'blinked' again because the perspective shifted frequently. Sometimes it was from overhead, giving a complete view of the flight deck, at other times it switched to varying monitors and gave close-ups. One such 'screen' gave Tarrant the startling view of himself sprawled motionless in his chair, head sagging back against the back rest, mouth open. He didn't consider himself a lovely sight unconscious.
"I'll show you everyone, so you can be sure they are still alive," Jabberwocky said and proceeded to flip images of the crew at Tarrant at too fast a speed. The minute the problem crystallized in Tarrant's mind Jabberwocky knew it and slowed it down.
One by one, they studied the unconscious crew, checking each of them for injuries. They lay sprawled about like puppets with cut strings, Kyl stretched as if protectively over Cella, Soolin on the floor with Hugh beside her, Gan and Vila spilled out nearby. Edge was face down on the couch opposite the one with Kyl and Cella. None of them were moving, and Vila was even snoring a little, a contented look upon his face as if he were enjoying a pleasant dream. Tarrant couldn't hold back a smile of his own at the sight, wondering if he and Jabberwocky could tap into it, but there wasn't time for that.
Tarrant realized a read-out had appeared at the side of each close-up, a medical evaluation, and while he wasn't trained to read such things he knew enough to tell that each and every member of the crew was alive and simply unconscious. There were no signs of trauma, no injuries from falling. Gan was even moving with slight restlessness.
"Is he all right. Will the effects of the limiter harm him?" Tarrant wanted to know.
"I don't think so. The EEG is normal. Perhaps it has made him more resistant, or perhaps he is simply a restless sleeper. Maybe because he's bigger he can absorb more. But that can wait. None of them are in danger at the moment. We have lots more to consider."
"The shuttle?" Tarrant remembered in alarm. It had rid itself of the neutron material, but its passengers were likely to be in a similar state to the rest of the crew. They hadn't accelerated to escape velocity yet. Did that mean they would be slowly sucked back into the atmosphere and burn up?
"I've been monitoring it and so has Orac. Egrorian has rendered them unconscious too, even my father. I don't like Egrorian. But he also set a remote control over the flight pattern and he was engaged in bringing the shuttle down to a soft landing in a remote locale where the crew would be stranded in the vessel when Orac reversed the controls of the electrometabolic pulse and stunned Egrorian and Servalan. She was really down there. I knew she was, and I suspect the PK monitor will have registered her. If we're lucky Ven has recorded her specific pattern and we'll be able to scan for her in particular in future. That will be useful."
Tarrant reacted with alarm to the more urgent problem. "What about the shuttle? If Egrorian wasn't manipulating it any more, wouldn't it crash? Or did Orac take over the controls?"
"The shuttle made a landing," Jabberwocky replied. "It was harder than expected, unfortunately, though Orac did compensate at the last minute, but the shuttle is intact and Orac can monitor no fractures in its skin, no oxygen leaks. They can't leave the shuttle without protective garb and I don't think it can lift on its own. The crew is unconscious, so they were better equipped for a hard landing than they would have been if conscious and braced for it, and since the shuttle is equipped with tarial cells, Orac took a reading and reported they are all still alive. I would teleport them up, but Blake's bracelet appears to be broken and it would be best to leave all of them there so someone can monitor him in case the bracelet fault might indicate a physical injury. They were hit with a lighter dose of the beam, thanks to Orac again, who intervened just in time, and they will awaken before you do. Since no one up here is conscious, I can't teleport any of you down there to give Blake a replacement bracelet."
"I'm conscious," Tarrant offered. "Can't you, well, put me back in my body?"
"Sorry, Del. It can't be done because your physical body is not conscious. I have pulled awareness from you into myself through the gestalt, but putting it back will not rouse you physically."
"But - is there anything left of me in there?" Tarrant asked. "If there's only autonomic functions..."
"Naturally I could not remove your entire consciousness from your body without killing you. But even when unconscious there is brain activity. Dreams exist in a sleep mode, the REM state, as you remember. What I have done is tapped into the part of your mind that dreams. There have been many studies made of lucid dreaming; Ven and I did some research on them a few weeks ago, because my consciousness can function round the clock, yet the human brain requires dreams. Ven theorizes it is possible to partition such things, and that is what I did. By drawing your mind into gestalt before the unconsciousness, I could control your dreaming, so that it matched reality. So while it seems to you as if you have been drawn out of your body, this is similar to a lucid dream on your part. You can control it. I could make you sleepwalk and go down there, but it would be very dangerous for you because my control would thin at such a distance. I wouldn't like to take that kind of risks, not with you, especially when it does not appear necessary. Orac has stable life signs on all four of them."
"Four!" Tarrant blurted, startled.
"Pinder apparently came along for the ride. Either this was part of Egrorian's plot or perhaps he simply wanted to rid himself of Pinder now he has dealings with Servalan. I can't wait to see how fast she will rid herself of him when this is over. Without Pinder to induce him to Hofel's radiation, she will probably kill him herself." There was not a shred of fondness for Egrorian or even concern for his survival in Jabberwocky's voice, but then Tarrant didn't expect it. If it weren't for the mindship's own particular gifts, this would all be much much worse, and it was all Egrorian's fault.
Neither would Servalan's possible actions surprise Tarrant. "So show me the main screen," he urged. "If we have a fight on our hands, I want to see how this lucid dreaming works."
"You can control what you see," Jabberwocky replied. "Simply concentrate on the main screen. Because you're linked through the gestalt, you can see anything I can see, though some of it won't make much sense to you."
"Such as the insides of the computers," Tarrant agreed with a mental grin. "I feel strange, Jabberwocky, almost as if I could get up and walk around the flight deck and touch things."
"You nearly can. In fact you can do it in your mind. Some lucid dreamers are able to manipulate the dreamscape. A story once reported a woman able to put her hand directly through the wall without harming her hand or the wall - it was not a physical wall, of course, but a wall within the dreamscape. However, if you overlay reality with the dreamscape, something you can do through the gestalt, you can even appear to manipulate the controls with your hands, though you will, in fact, be doing it with your mind, and through me. If it will make you more comfortable, you may do it. I will show you." He blended with Tarrant more fully and it seemed that the pattern shifted. Tarrant's usual manual controls were before him and the flight deck spread out in its usual perspective as if the dream Tarrant had arisen up out of his physical body like a ghost, though the colours seemed slightly muted. In this vision, the bodies of the others were mere patterns of light, but he could focus past that by avoiding looking at them. Orac and Jabberwocky would monitor them, but Tarrant would need to concentrate on the upcoming battle. They couldn't run far, not with the shuttle down there, and they couldn't selectively teleport up two of the others and leave one with Blake, especially since the shuttle passengers would revive first. That might have Pinder waking up and being the sole conscious person on Jabberwocky, or with Blake. He might have even been shielded and conditioned not to react to the electrometabolic pulse, and he might still have Egrorian's best interests at heart. There was nothing Tarrant could do but fight, and fighting alone without the rest of the crew, when he was in a dream state, was not without great risk. On one hand, he relished the challenge and found it fascinating, but on the other, he wasn't sure he'd be up to par, and the others' lives were depending on him.
The four ships swept on past the sun, moving in on his position and Tarrant realized that unless he left orbit, he would be nothing but a sitting duck.
"Prepare to leave orbit," he said 'aloud' within the dream state, then he settled deeper into the meld with Jabberwocky and they guided the ship up and away from the planet toward the four pursuit ships even now sweeping down on them. The vessel responded instantaneously to his commands, and the sense of power that gave him was magnificent.
"Information." Orac's voice was different in the dreamscape, clearer and somehow less irritating. "The lead pursuit ship does not possess tarial cells. I cannot interface with it."
"Interface with any you can," Tarrant urged without words. "See if you can alter their flight paths or scramble their battle computers. I'll have to take on Servalan's flagship myself." Strange to be able to communicate with Orac so directly, as if he could speak mind to 'mind' with the computer. He felt Orac's wordless response and knew without needing verification that the computer had already begun work on the commands. Perhaps Orac didn't want to fall into Federation hands any more than the rest of them did.
He was surprised to discover how calm he was, yet at the same time full of an eager excitement. Somehow he knew that excitement was good for him right now, and might even speed his body's return to consciousness. He could concentrate on more than one thing at a time, though nowhere near the amount Jabberwocky could through his multiple linkages. He could see the trajectories of the approaching vessels as they separated so as to come at him from different directions at once, and he let himself flow into Jabberwocky, intensifying their union, so he could direct the battle without conscious commands. It had always been easier to fly with Jabberwocky because his mere impulse would make the ship react and respond. Now he didn't even need to consciously formulate a plan before it was real. Jabberwocky swooped upward to face the main pursuit ship, while choosing a course that would force it to pull even further away from the others. Since Orac might or might not be able to help alter courses and confuse the situation on the other ships, Tarrant had to assume he must take on all four of them, and he preferred not to try more than two at any given time. It would be far too easy for them to encircle Jabberwocky while his attention was focused on any one vessel, and the force wall wouldn't hold forever, even with Avon's multiple strengthening of the shield. He had to keep moving, keep alert, and with Jabberwocky, they could watch all directions at once. The dream Tarrant straightened up, smiling. He looked forward to the challenge.
As the ships came at him, they spread out in battle array, the ship without tarial cells drawing back and allowing one of the others to make the initial approach. When the first ship dived at him, he flexed his 'fingers' and keyed power to the neutron blasters, firing before the enemy vessel could do so. It dived sideways, eluding the beam, but Tarrant had expected that, and, knowing as much of Space Command battle strategy as these pilots he had fired immediately after the first burst, gauging the direction carefully, so as the pursuit ship pilot moved, he moved directly into the line of Tarrant's second blast. The ship went up with a satisfactory explosion, so bright that Jabberwocky automatically dimmed the viewscreen to compensate.
"That's one," Tarrant cried, knowing the other three would be much harder. The remaining pilots had his measure now, knew he had an understanding of their attack patterns, and that would change the way they fought him. A good pilot, a superior one, would put that training behind him now and act on his own skills and instincts. Tarrant watched the image on the strategy screen, noticing the way the three remaining ships moved and realized they were all gifted pilots. Servalan would have chosen no less. She had risen in rank enough to requisition skilled crews for her ships, and even if she had experienced setbacks in her return to power, she evidently could work with the Supreme Commander and override the chain of command. Reports indicated she and Arpel were lovers, which might make it easier for her to get around him and was probably her prime motivation in prolonging that particular relationship.
But there was no time to speculate about Servalan now. Tarrant could do nothing more than let his own instincts take over, instincts honed to a fine edge from his many hours at the helm of Liberator and his time since becoming Jabberwocky's link mate, and the endless training in Rebel Fleet manoeuvres. Working with Jenna had honed his edge too, and he would match himself against any pilot in the Federation's fleet. Whether he could match himself against three of them was another matter, but he had Jabberwocky, the best ship and the best friend a man could hope to have, and he had Orac, and he knew what was behind all this, even if those other three pilots didn't. That just might well make the difference.
Avon's head throbbed unmercifully. He felt as if someone had beaten him with clubs, but as long as he didn't move or open his eyes, he was certain he could control the worst of it. Anger pulsed through him, fierce anger at himself for underestimating Egrorian, for halfway believing the dream would give them enough knowledge to come out of this with a whole skin. They had been so smug, so certain of their safety. While Avon knew he had walked warily, expecting trouble, he realized a part of him had been more complacent than usual, and only the presence of Kyl on the ship had maintained his edge at all.
His left shoulder ached, not as if it were broken or dislocated but as if he had landed on it, much too hard, and it was bruised. That made him remember the lethargy that had swept them all, rendering them unconscious, some kind of projection from Egrorian's base, a pulse weapon that must have triggered unconsciousness in the brain. The shuttle wasn't moving either. It was silent and only the faint chirps and clicks that spoke of life support, lights and other automatic functions disturbed the silence.
Blake! Avon stiffened still further, halfway remembering the rebel collapsing across the control panel. With agonizing effort, he opened his eyes, squinting unhappily against the dimness of the light. He had been right that opening his eyes would be worse.
"Welcome back," said Perren, squinting down at him unhappily. He had pushed himself up into a sitting position and was engaged in energetically massaging his temples. Pallor lay upon his cheeks, and his eyes seemed greener than ever in such a white face. The stubborn lock of hair that usually bounced against his forehead dragged down into his eyes. "Though you won't enjoy it. I was right, it was an electrometabolic pulse cannon. That would create this kind of symptoms. We've been unconscious for nearly an hour."
"Just starting to stir," Perren replied. "Pinder was up before me. He may well be on our side, for he did nothing but stretch us out flat to make us comfortable, and was trying to reach Jabberwocky on the comm system when I woke up."
"Where is he?" Avon asked, trying to look around without turning his head.
"I sent him to check out the shuttle. We've landed on the planet, a rather rough landing apparently. It threw Blake out of his chair and broke his left wrist as well as his teleport bracelet. Pinder had immobilized his wrist and done a quick scan of it. If we had fusion equipment, I could repair it, but as we don't, I'll leave it for Hugh."
"Assuming Hugh is still out there," Avon snapped. With a groan he sat up, rubbing his shoulder carefully. "Have we heard anything from Jabberwocky?"
"Yes. The pulse cannon rendered everyone unconscious, but Jabberwocky was able to shield himself and block out Tarrant's awareness somehow. It sounds fascinating; that lucid dream state I've researched in regard to Jabberwocky's need to dream. Tarrant's body is unconscious, but he's still able to fight."
"Fight?" Avon turned his head and found Blake, lying beside him, his immobilized wrist positioned across his stomach. His hair seemed too long somehow, and in sleep, none of the fierce drive that made him so determined to fight for freedom showed in his face. Avon was not sentimental; the hand he lay upon Blake's forehead was merely to test for fever rather than to stroke back the tousled curls, but the pulse he felt when he pushed his fingers against the side of Blake's neck was nonetheless reassuring.
"Servalan is here. Orac has rendered her and Egrorian unconscious as well. She has a flotilla of four ships. Tarrant has led them on a merry chase, and already taken out one and disabled another. I'll wager he's having fun."
"Yes, he and Jabberwocky both," said Avon sourly, "fun being a prime consideration in all our dealings. Blake, can you hear me?"
Blake moved and muttered but he was not quite awake yet.
"Are you certain of Pinder?" Avon asked Perren with suspicion.
"Of course. All he had to do was slit our throats as we lay here. There's one environment suit in the shuttle. He could have escaped and left us here, opened the vessel to the poisonous atmosphere. He didn't. He talked to me a little while we took care of Blake. Egrorian was his mentor, and so brilliant that Pinder worshipped him. He was young and ignorant and didn't realize what he was getting into. He became Egrorian's lover and fled with him when Egrorian's attempt to take over the Federation failed. Since coming here, he's gradually realized Egrorian cares nothing for anyone but Egrorian and that he had used Pinder all along. He'd published some of Pinder's papers in his own name and stolen ideas from him, and apparently made it pretty clear to him since Servalan came that he doesn't want a lover any more, not when he can have the former President in his bed."
"I should expect Servalan to have better taste than that," returned Avon sourly.
"I expect so too, but she wouldn't let Egrorian know that until she had everything she wanted from him," Perren replied. "She's always been a user. She tried those games with the three of us, and it didn't work. I think that's why she was so vindictive to us. Edge, of course, was so caught up in his work, he missed her seduction attempts and Tanz was too innocent to realize what she meant. He's come on a lot since then. With me, I don't think she believed I could be manipulated, but that was the challenge." He grimaced. "I knew what she was up to, and I'm not a fool, even if she is beautiful. I wasn't having any. She hated us after that, but we were too useful to us to kill. I'm surprised she didn't make a set at Pinder down there. He's certainly more decorative than Egrorian."
"But much less powerful," Avon corrected. "For Servalan, power is as much an aphrodisiac as the sex itself. Still, if Pinder has switched sides, it has proven useful to us, though I, for one, have no intention of trusting him."
"No more you should," said a voice from the ladder. "I wouldn't blame you for not trusting me, Avon." Pinder climbed up the rest of the way. "I have no objection to being watched, monitored, secured. I just want to be away from there. I wish we knew how your ship was doing. Someone will come eventually, and I'd rather it not be Egrorian. I hadn't realized how little he valued me until he sent me with you. I knew if I told you about the neutron material where he could hear me, he or Servalan would simply blast us where we stood. I didn't realize he had a backup, though I should have expected him to try this. He hasn't confided in me in a long time." There was a wealth of bitterness in his voice, more than enough to make him switch sides, at least for the moment. Avon intended to watch him carefully.
"He does mean it," Perren said more softly.
Blake groaned and opened his eyes. "What hit us."
"Egrorian," Avon returned. "Don't try to sit up, Blake, you have broken your wrist."
"We crashed?" Blake asked, looking around. "My head hurts worse than my wrist does."
"That will ease," Avon replied, realizing his own headache had muted to something more tolerable now and Perren had stopped massaging his temples. "We did not precisely crash, but we had a rather harder than planned landing on Malodar."
"The ship is secure, though. No leaks," put in Pinder. "I just checked."
"Jabberwocky?" asked Blake. "We weren't teleported?"
"You were clumsy enough to break your bracelet as well as your wrist in the landing, Blake. They chose to leave us here until they could take us all. In the meantime, Tarrant is fighting four pursuit ships whilst he is unconscious."
"Unconscious - what?"
Avon explained about the pulse cannon. "No one is injured save you," he reported.
"Cella?" Blake's eyes were alarmed. "We should never have brought those children into this, Avon. As soon as we knew they were aboard, we should have backtracked to the first safe planet and left them there."
"While I tend to agree with you, Kyl would be outraged at being called a child. And Cella deserved the opportunity to have a reunion with you before the mission."
"I wish I could remember her," Blake said sadly. "I've hurt her badly by not remembering."
"It was hardly voluntary, Blake," offered Perren. He reached up and shoved his hair back from his forehead. "It's one more strike against the Federation, and there was nothing you could have done about it, because until she came to us, you had no way of knowing you didn't remember her."
"I knew there were still things I didn't remember, I just didn't realize how important they were," Blake replied. "But it should never have happened." He sat up carefully, cradling his injured wrist in his good hand, and slid into a position so he could lean against the bulkhead. "And I don't want it to continue. Avon, I want you to heal the programming."
Startled at the request, Avon said blankly, "Here? Now?"
Blake smiled at him. "Have you anything better to do until Jabberwocky comes for us?"
Put like that, it made a strange kind of sense, though Avon had no wish to perform his healing under the questioning eyes of Perren or, worse, a total stranger who might or might not have been an enemy. "I will not do in front of an audience," Avon replied, though he had healed with an audience before. "Perren, if I am to do this, I want you to take Pinder below and run a thorough check of this vessel. I do not count the pulse cannon as Egrorian's last trick. For all I know there may be a timed detonator here." Frankly he considered the possibility redundant, but it would never hurt to run thorough checks on everything. And it would keep Perren from observing the healing process. Avon knew Perren probably understood what he did as well as anyone, even possibly Cally, and he might be a help in the process, but the man irritated Avon, and in any case, his feelings toward Blake were private and not to be shared with someone who was waiting for a chance to score against the computer tech.
Perren grinned impudently. "Don't worry, Avon. I won't hold any tender feelings you display against you. I know how the healing works. Just your doing it is enough for me." The grin brightened. "But never let it be said I don't listen to you. Come on, Pinder, up and at 'em." He ushered the younger man toward the ladder.
"But I don't understand," Pinder objected. "What is it he's going to do?"
Avon turned to him. "It is not your concern," he returned coldly.
Pinder shrank back and let Perren usher him down the stairs.
"He didn't mean any harm," Blake said mildly. "Poor man is at a complete loss. He's lost the foundation of his existence."
"That may well be, but he has taken steps to initiate changes. Do not ask me to heal him as well, Blake, because I have no intention of doing so. Healing you, however, has become habitual, and I am inured to it."
"In fact you may even like it," Blake said with a crooked smile. "Though I won't expect you to admit it. Don't worry, Avon. I've never used anything from the healing against you. I'm merely content to know how you feel about me, and do not expect you to prove it. Vila once said you saw no reason to prove anything, and I think he may be right."
"You and Vila must have had considerable enjoyment out of discussing me," Avon replied. "Expect no proofs, Blake." He did not deny that the feelings existed, merely shrugging his shoulders in some exasperation.
"Oh, I don't. I am not entirely the fool you think me."
"Well now," said Avon, sitting down beside Blake on the floor and leaning back against the bulkhead, "I do not always think you the fool. I do think you tear yourself up for people who will never benefit from your actions and who will, in all likelihood, never care."
"And that disturbs you, Avon?"
"It irritates me," Avon replied. He was starting to enjoy himself as he always did when he and Blake bandied words back and forth in this particular fashion. While Blake did exasperate him by allowing himself to suffer for his rabble, he was true to what he believed and Avon could respect that. Blake didn't make claims he would not at least attempt to fulfil, and if he risked other lives, he was prepared to stand at their side and take the risk along with them. His obsession for the rebellion at the expense of all else had mellowed now that he did not have to carry its weight entirely on his own shoulders, and he had become a more pleasant companion for that. That Avon had always enjoyed Blake even when the rebel annoyed him most was a given, but one Avon didn't particularly care to advertise, though he suspected everyone on the ship knew it, even Gan. Gan had probably known it in their Liberator days.
"It irritates me that you suffer for others more than for yourself. It irritates me that you give away more than you have to give. However, I have learned to live with that irritation and should, most likely, regret losing it."
That made Blake's eyes warm with that particular charm and affection he could display to best advantage. Avon narrowed his eyes. "You realize, of course, that if this works, you will be facing a pain you had not known existed?"
Blake nodded. "Oh yes, Avon, I do realize that. What I also realize is that I have no choice in the matter."
"I want your word on something before we begin, then." When Blake looked a question, Avon said bluntly, "You are not to blame for the exile of your wife and child or for the death of your wife. The blame is entirely that of the Federation. If I should observe you wallowing in guilt over something beyond your control, I shall be quite irritated with you."
"I should have done something-"
Avon cut him off before he could complete the sentence. "Precisely what could you have done? Resisted programming? Remembered something you had no idea existed? I am quite serious about this, Blake. I am glad you will be salvaging something from the situation, but I refuse to endure your acceptance of a blame that is not your own."
Blake hesitated. "You're asking me to go against my nature, Avon."
"No, I'm asking you not to be any more of a fool than you can possibly help. You won't aid that girl by such behaviour. I know from long experience that assigning blame for something of this nature is counterproductive. When I learned the truth about Arda's death, I faced the same temptation."
"But I am sure you resisted it," Blake replied.
"Not easily. There was, however, Kyl to be considered, as there is now Cella. Becoming a parent at our age, Blake, is not an easy thing. Console yourself with the knowledge that you will pay your dues in inevitable frustration, irritation and complete outrage with fair regularity. It is worth it, of course, but it will be difficult."
"Cheer up, Avon, I'll know you'll be there to help me, as you have always been," replied Blake. "Just as you will happily point out every single mistake I make as a father."
"You may count on it." Avon smiled. "That out of the way, we will resort to my penance. Give me your hand."
Blake offered it without speaking, knowing Avon was never entirely comfortable in the healing state. "Go ahead, Avon, I'm ready."
"Link, then," Avon encouraged, concentrating his attention on the physical touch and the mental linkage he had learned through Jabberwocky. It was surprisingly easy to sink into the healing state. Focusing on the flame that burned at the center of his being, he let himself merge with Blake in the mental union which had grown easier each time he did it.
The fire blazed up, then settled down to a small campfire, while he and Blake sat on logs near the fire. On the other side of the dancing flames, across the clearing, rose two towers, one of which was very familiar to Avon; he knew it from his attempts to heal himself, attempts that had not been entirely successful. He had eradicated the remnants of programming Servalan had instilled at Terminal but as for the rest, he had decided he was too close to the situation to make sweeping changes in his nature. To his annoyance, Perren, for once serious, had insisted Avon was right. In the long run, he said, only life could make the changes Avon might need, life and learning to trust his friends. It could take time, the psych tech had added seriously. "After all, it took you a long time to get this way. You didn't wake up one morning and decide to be a sourpuss."
"Little you know," Avon had huffed in return, but he could see there was some truth to it. Life had proven itself harsh, and people untrustworthy, and it was only recently, since meeting Blake, and then since reuniting with him on Jabberwocky, with the aid of the link-mode that Avon had begun to relax around a few select people. He had told Dayna once he still had his expectations of betrayal, and when she had expressed surprise, he had heard himself claim his expectation was that they would die and thus betray him by first making him care what happened to them and then leaving him. That it would be an involuntary betrayal would not ease the pain, as it had not eased it over Anna, when he had believed her dead for his sake.
Yet perhaps he had healed himself to a degree, for the old Avon would never have been able to do as he did now, open himself up to Blake like this. While he hated healing, he realized it was the concept he hated, and the exposure, and that being here with Blake was not as hard as he had expected. Once actually into the union, it never was.
//Nor should it be,// Blake said into his mind in the telepathy of the link.
Avon couldn't help chuckling. He turned to regard the dream Blake at his side. "Well now," his own dream image said aloud, "here we are again."
"Can you help me?" Blake asked.
Avon considered it, narrowing his eyes as he searched for the long snakelike tendrils that had come to represent programming in his mind. He saw none of them, and that puzzled him. So he turned and considered the second tower.
It was a fortress, barricaded and strong, with no evidence of windows or doors. In all the times he had merged with Blake, Avon had never encountered this tower before in any of the images, and that intrigued him, causing him to wonder if his subconscious mind had produced the needed imagery to deal with the problem. Avon thought himself at the base of the tower and he was there with Blake at his side. Though their dream images did not touch, Avon could feel, deep in his subconscious, the warmth of the grip that linked them in here.
"I don't like this," Blake said uneasily, tipping his head back to look at the huge structure that towered over them both. "What is it, Avon?"
"Perhaps it is your psyche, Blake. You will notice mine, beyond it." He gestured to the second tower. Once it had been nearly as barricaded as the one they faced; with light easing out through the slits and crevices created by Blake himself, Cally, Vila, anyone who had touched him, come too close. Intriguing to find those gaps were now represented by windows, sealed with perspex but uncurtained, to reveal the dancing light that burned within. Avon's inner fire had warmed those around him but had frozen himself. These days, there was a bit of heat in his inner flame and, though he did not allow himself to consider it very often, there were times when he could warm himself with his own inner heat, times when he was secure, content, even happy.
Blake was far more outgoing than Avon was, but his tower was sealed up so tightly it looked as if it would never be breached.
That made no sense to Avon, so he raised his head and looked around, stopping in surprise as he realized the clearing, the towers, the whole dreamscape was enclosed by a much bigger tower, one with arched doorways and broad windows, sturdy and erect, gleaming as with care. An arch had been created to allow the presence of Avon's tower, and in the distance stood others, each with its own place.
The entire dreamscape was within Blake's psyche. The sealed tower represented all that was still blocked from the rebel, either by his own choice or by programming, and to force an opening would likely prove devastating. Yet the larger structure was sound. Avon would have to rely upon that.
He turned back to the fire and summoned it to him, watching it blink out in the clearing and flicker to life again at his feet. "Come, Blake," he urged. "We must feed the fire." He gestured around them at the available firewood, gathering up pieces and adding it to the flames. "We must make it warm enough out here that there will be no need to shield against the cold."
As if in response, Avon's tower was abruptly closer, directly beside the sealed one, and every opening gleamed with light and warmth. It was not too hot, but the perfect degree of warmth, so comfortable anyone would reach out to it. Avon watched Blake's face, saw him smile and lean a little toward the symbol of Avon himself, basking in the glow.
Avon put both of his hands against the side of Blake's tower.
Fire and ice flamed and pulsed through his being, burning and freezing him without touching his flesh, but creating an agony almost too strong to be borne. His whole body jerked and went rigid as if he'd sustained an electric shock, and he closed his lips over the cry of pain that was driven from him.
"AVON!" Blake lunged for him, reaching out to take him, gripping his shoulders, then stiffening as he felt what Avon did. Instead of letting go - Blake never did the easy thing - he tightened his hold and tried to pull the tech free of the tower, but Avon hunched his shoulders fiercely and continued to push at the burning wall beneath his hands.
"Avon, come away," Blake insisted, his fingers digging tight, his voice reflecting the pain that flowed and churned through Avon. In the dreamscape, the rebel appeared unhampered by his broken wrist.
"Leave it, Blake," he gritted through clenched teeth. "Don't you see, this is the only way."
"I'm damned if it is," returned the rebel. He shifted position, slid one arm around Avon's waist and held on, determined to share the agony if he could not free him, and that was like Blake, too. A different warmth slid through Avon, momentarily combating the ferocity of the heat pulsing through him, and his back arched without conscious control, to push him against an easier warmth.
As if he could draw strength from Blake, his hands began to sink through the wall as though it were made of butter, and as if he could sense the danger in this, Blake took a step backward, no longer pressed so tightly against Avon, but refusing to let go. Avon closed his eyes, his face scrunching up tight, as his fingers broke through the wall, creating openings that gave way, crumbling at the edges as he plunged his arms into the cavity beyond up to the elbows.
"NO!" cried Blake, and the presence at his back withdrew abruptly as a sudden door flew open, bathing them both in golden light. Rich and glowing, it poured out at them and Avon dropped his quivering arms to stare into the aperture he had created.
It was teeming with memories.
"No," breathed Blake again, his voice offering no more than a feeble token protest, then he gave a cry and pulled at Avon, sliding him sideways so the bigger man could stand in the doorway himself. Golden tendrils of memory eased out, wiggling like puppies free of confinement and twirled themselves around Blake, rubbing up against him as if competing for attention. Blake's body shifted, tensed, then with a cry, he leaned into the memories, letting them sink slowly into his body, penetrating, driving deep. Blake's face twisted and his shoulders bunched as if he were having a spasm, and when Avon reached out for him, he caught Avon's arm with both hands and clung so tight Avon suspected the bruises might well carry over into the real world.
Some of the freed memories brushed Avon in their haste to slot into place, and he saw as vividly as if he were watching it on a viscast image after image of a younger Blake, with a tall, fair-haired woman whose heart-shaped face held nothing but love for him, of other people Avon identified as Blake's family. There was Ushton, even, and Inga as a child. There was a younger child with the blond woman, Cella's features recognizable in the rounder, more innocent face. Blake staggered as if he could not sustain the weight and Avon, recognizing the sheer pain memories of such early joy could hold now, detached Blake's fingers from his arm and put his own arm around the rebel's shoulders.
The tendrils of memory came faster now. There was Blake with Cella on his knee as he told her stories of worlds full of freedom, worlds he meant to create. Blake's wife looked up to him with laughing eyes, always supporting his rebel goals, understanding and being one with him, going to meetings with him, only stopping when Cella was born, going again when the little girl was old enough to be supervised temporarily in a creche. There were instances when the growing Cella asked Blake questions about rebellion and he explained everything to her slowly and reasonably, cautioning her about what to say to strangers. "I'll be a rebel when I grow up," the child had insisted. "If you haven't won yet, Daddy, we'll win together." Blake winced at that.
Gradually the flow of recollections began to slow, until the open door into the repository of Blake's last sealed memories was only a shell, and Blake was huddled, aching, in Avon's grip.
"I can't - I should have-" Blake began.
"You couldn't have," Avon replied carefully, unwilling to allow Blake to drown in maudlin self-reproach. "There was nothing for you to do."
"But there had to be," insisted Blake as if he were tearing himself apart. "There's always something. Somewhere along the way I could have changed it. I could have remembered. I could have freed them."
"No, Blake," said Avon gently. "The hardest lesson is learning that there is not always an answer, that there is not always something you can do."
"I won't accept that," Blake replied with a last shred of defiance.
"I did not advise you to give up," Avon chided him, choosing his words with care. "But this will eat you alive unless you acknowledge that in this particular instance you were not at fault. You are the victim here, as much as your wife and Cella were. Use it, if you must, as one more motivation to fight tyranny for your rabble, but do not let it destroy you."
"I can't bear it," Blake returned, his face alive with those lost memories.
"You can bear more than you believe you can, Blake," Avon told him, tightening his arms around the other man. "And you will not bear it alone. You have your daughter back. She is a gift from the past, and I never thought to hear myself say anything so stupidly sentimental, but it is true."
Blake gave a choked sound of laughter. "Why do you always have all my answers?" he demanded.
"Penance for my sins," returned Avon as drily as possible.
Blake sputtered with shaky laughter.
The dreamscape slid away from them, returning them to the shuttle's flight deck. They had shifted position here, too; while they had been in healing mode Avon had turned and pulled Blake against his chest, his arms around him tightly. Blake was clinging tight, holding on with all his strength, and his eyes glowed with a painful combination of joy and misery. Without words, Avon put his hand at the back of Blake's head, fingers weaving through the tangled curls, and pulled Blake's face down against his shoulder while great sobs racked the rebel leader. Avon didn't speak, because there were only platitudes, and he had said what needed saying in the dreamscape. It was never his way to offer meaningless patter to fill uncomfortable silences. Instead he said, "I am here, Blake," and no more, but he rested his chin against Blake's bowed head and held him. Once he would have been contemptuous of Blake's breakdown, but not now.
There was a faint sound, and Avon lifted his eyes to see Perren at the top of the ladder. The psych tech looked a question at Avon. "Shall I help?" he mouthed. There was no hidden knowledge in his eyes, no attempt to score against Avon for revealing a side to himself he would have preferred to keep hidden. Perren was in his professional mode, his every concern for Blake. That didn't mean he wouldn't gleefully chide Avon for his 'humanity' later, but right now that was not important. Avon could fight his battles with Perren well enough, and a side of him was beginning to relish the idea.
He didn't need Perren now, though. //Later,// he telepathed to the brown-haired man. //Blake will need to speak with you later, when he is ready. As for now, leave us.//
Perren looked surprised; it was the first time he had ever been the recipient of Avon's telepathic gift, but he nodded quickly and ghosted away down the ladder again.
Blake seemed unaware of him. His body still quivered, but the sobs were easing now. Avon braced himself for the difficult task ahead of him, knowing he could only help Blake if he refused to allow him to descend into guilt and melancholy. It was a hard job, but one Avon had been doing as long as he had known Blake, and, he thought with a wry smile, someone had to do it. It wouldn't be Jenna either, because Jenna tended toward possessiveness and might not welcome a daughter of Blake's with any great enthusiasm. So it behoved Avon to face this now, before it went any further.
Finally Blake's tears spent themselves, and he lay, lax and shaken, against Avon's shoulder. "I didn't know it would hurt so much," he said at length.
"Now, yes, but later you will be glad." More sentiment, but Blake was at heart a man who dealt with sentiment more easily than Avon did. Such arguments would never have worked with Avon himself, but he was not attempting to heal himself.
"If I had remembered sooner-"
"You didn't," Avon reminded him flatly. "The Federation put up the strongest walls I have ever seen. I suspect they reinforced the blockages around such memories with triple strength. They never meant you to remember."
"They took away my entire life, everything that mattered," Blake breathed. "They took away what made me, me."
"Quite," Avon replied. "But we have taken it back again, and, as you have long stated, it is why you fight. Revenge yourself on the Federation if you must, and I must say I understand your reasons more clearly now than I did at first, not just for this, but for many things."
Once that would have won triumph from Blake, but now he only said, "I could have saved Jesta. We could have saved her with the Liberator."
"We could, had we known," Avon said. "Even we could never do the impossible."
Blake pulled back and met Avon's eyes. "I could have saved her."
Grabbing Blake's shoulders, Avon shook him. "No. You. Could. Not. I will not allow you to dwell on such futility, Blake. There was nothing to be done then, and now there are two things to be done, and I will expect you to do them, and do them properly."
Blinking at him, the rebel drew a deep breath and scrubbed a fist across his face to wipe at the tears. "What two things, Avon?" he asked.
"Get to know your daughter," Avon replied. "And win your blasted rebellion so I can finally have the security I have long sought."
That made Blake's mouth quirk. But while he accepted the words, the pain still showed on his face. "They were coming to me when Jesta died."
"Yes, they were. Which shows that Jesta had the common sense not to blame you for circumstances beyond your control. Remember that. Was she a sensible woman?"
Blake stared at Avon, then as if the question had opened the floodgates, which Avon had feared it might, he began to talk about his wife and child.
Tarrant was enjoying himself hugely. Deep in intense linkage with Jabberwocky he felt as if he had become the ship, as if his every intention was put into action without even being conceptualized into thought. Jabberwocky could probably do this on his own, Tarrant realized, but doing it in tandem was more fun for them both. There had been a time when Tarrant wouldn't have believed it possible to let another consciousness so close to him, but, as Jenna had once remarked, there was a peace and freedom in being completely known. Jabberwocky knew everything about Tarrant from his noblest dreams to his petty annoyances, from his assumptions of utter superiority to his moments of total doubt of his own worth, and Jabberwocky loved him completely and without reservations. In a union like this, there was no vying for superiority, no struggle to impress, no conflict of interest. Instead they manoeuvred the ship as if they had grown wings and soared together through the heavens. Tarrant had once been possessive of Jabberwocky, but that was no longer necessary. He had nothing to prove and nothing to defend, at least not in the union of pilot and ship, of friend and friend.
The bonding made the mindship so much more manoeuvrable than the three pursuit ships that it would have been a foregone conclusion from the beginning, except that Servalan had chosen the very best to come up against him. Tarrant would have been flattered, both for himself and for Jabberwocky, had he not known that Servalan's preparedness was not a testimonial to his and Jabberwocky's skills but a backup for a plan she had staked a great deal upon. She did not like leaving things to chance, and when possible she stacked the decks as completely as possible.
The battle ranged here and there, leaving the Malodar system entirely, wheeling out and above the ecliptic, a game of pursuit and stealth, and sudden brilliant moments of conflict. Space battles required good computers to project speed and manoeuvrability of opposing ships because unless damaged no vessel ever sat as an easy target. Strategy computers aided even the most gifted seat-of-the-pants pilot, and were necessary, as were guidance systems, inertial dampers, weaponry and tactical computers. Yet in the end, it came down to the pilot and the ship's abilities. A gifted pilot could in some ways compensate for an inferior ship, but not even the best pilot ever born could make do with what was not there, when power drained, for instance. There were methods to compensate, even then, but most of them involved flight and concealment.
With three opponents, it would have been easy for two of them to engage him in fierce battle while the third withdrew, conserved power, and then came in later with blasters blazing, pounding away with plasma bolts. Many a good pilot had been taken in such a fight, and Tarrant vowed he would not add to their numbers. If the ships had come on him unsuspecting they would use a tactic called the Eclipse Pattern, where one of the ships would block the third, so it could spring out unannounced later and attack, but Tarrant had monitored their arrival and knew how many ships had been there from the beginning.
With Jabberwocky, so close was their bonding he could suddenly pay attention to much more at a given moment than normal. He suspected he would pay for it afterwards with one of those blinding headaches the crew had suffered when learning to use their minds to link with Jabberwocky in the first place, but if he didn't do it, there would be no afterwards in which to suffer. So he threw himself into the experience, revelling in his utter sense of flight and freedom, choosing his flight path and modifying it constantly so as to allow no third pilot to sit out the battle and wait. Jabberwocky was also tied in with Orac through his tarial cells, and it fell to Orac to manage the force wall, at the same time monitoring the other ships, setting small things wrong in them, so their pilots were forced to compensate more often than necessary.
That intervention showed, and Tarrant was glad for it when he got a good hit in to a second ship, forcing it to limp off away from Malodar altogether. Orac reported through the link that it had lost internal gravity and had suffered damage to the power system that would keep it out of the battle altogether. It limped away at about Time Distort 1, and Tarrant instructed Orac to report at once should it return.
"And block its signals if it attempts to send a transmission," he instructed.
"Confirmed," replied Orac, for once without grumbling. Tarrant had the sudden suspicion that the little computer might even be enjoying itself.
The other two ships tried to enclose Jabberwocky in a pincer movement, but Tarrant was wise to that, bringing the ship around on a different vector, increasing speed to circle the nearest of the ships, making it scramble to follow him in a slow and lumbering turn, just as the other ship fired. Tarrant let out a mental whoop of triumph as the first ship flew directly into the second's line of fire and disintegrated into rubble as Jabberwocky swept past, clear and undamaged.
Jabberwocky was so completely there with him that Tarrant could see images of other battles, memories from Thorm Suliman's pilot days, aiding the computers, recalling strategies no longer current with Space Command, methods that might work for their unexpectedness. Tarrant tried them all on the final ship, realizing the luck of the draw had served them up the most gifted pilot last. But perhaps that wasn't surprising.
"It isn't," Jabberwocky responded instantly, and Tarrant saw through the mindship's eyes his theory, that the better the pilot, the longer he lasted in a fight. Whether he was good enough to know he was beaten and stand off was another thing, but Tarrant knew if he'd still been a Space Captain he wouldn't have wanted to explain to Servalan how he had let the mindship get away. Her punishment might well be worse than a glorious death in battle.
"You'll be waking soon," Jabberwocky said into the bond between them. "Concentrate on your physical body. Allow yourself to sink back into it. I will go with you all the way and maintain the gestalt."
"Won't that draw more energy?" Tarrant asked. The gestalt had always done so when the group linked in it.
"Not with you and me," replied Jabberwocky. "No more than knowing myself does. Be easy, Del. I suspect your head will ache."
"I thought of that."
Already signals were beginning to come from his body, muscle twitches and the twitching of fingers and toes. He concentrated on letting his dream self ease backward, sinking down into his physical form, wondering if this was what an out-of-body experience was like. The thread that had bound him to himself had never thinned; he had never gone too far away, and it was easy to let himself drift down into his own form, though for the first moments it was as if he had overlapped a copy and the two portions didn't entirely match. He lifted one of his hands and felt it jerk toward him and flop down again. It was as if he had to learn all over again, then Jabberwocky nudged his mind and he felt the two disparate sections of himself merge and lock together as if there should be an audible click.
The headache slammed home with all the force of an uncompensated launch and he cried out, sagging back in the flight seat.
At once warmth and comfort flowed through the link, wrapping itself around him like a fleecy, warm blanket, and at once the pain eased, allowing him to function again. "Thanks, Jabberwocky," he breathed.
The shaky voice recalled him to his surroundings and he blinked hard to bring the flight deck into focus with real sight. Kyl was scrambling up awkwardly, hands pressed against his temples as if to control the pain there. Automatically he straightened Cella and eased her into a more comfortable position. "What-what's wrong with everybody?" he faltered.
In answer, Hugh groaned, and Edge muttered something decidedly unfriendly under his breath. "They're alive, only stunned," Jabberwocky explained. "Check everyone and make sure there are no injuries, then take over weaponry."
"Really?" At the thought of sitting a position in a battle, Kyl's whole face brightened. He leaped up, shrugging off the pain with youth's resiliency. In record time the boy did a speedy check of pulses and ran fingers over arms and legs to check for breakages. Giving Jabberwocky and Tarrant a relieved thumbs up sign, he jumped for the weaponry console, where Vila or Dayna usually sat and keyed himself into it, sinking so readily into link-mode Tarrant had to hide a smile as he wondered how often Avon's son had practised for this moment. Jabberwocky doubled the controls with him until Kyl had the scenario clear in his mind, then left him to it. The boy called up the weaponry computers and fed data to his panels, his face so lit with smiles he looked the least like his father he had ever done, yet the most like a man.
When the last ship came around and dove for them, Kyl was firing even before it was in range, his joy bleeding through the link and winning a responsive grin from Tarrant. He'd felt like that in his first space battle, too.
He even got in a hit, though it was a glancing one. With a crow of disappointment he realigned the system, cleared the neutron blasters and tried again. Tarrant and Jabberwocky blended to direct the mindship and it slid into position, backing Kyl's manoeuvre as best they could, and the last ship blossomed into a gigantic explosion bright enough to make the screen dampers come on again. Kyl rocketed up out of his position and yelled, "YAHOO!" at the top of his lungs. "I got him! I got him, Jab! Did you see me get him? Wasn't it great! Right on the money!"
"Wonderful and I feel for you," said Hugh, dragging himself upright with an effort, "but do you think you might announce it so the entire galaxy can't hear you." With a groan, he rubbed his forehead, then he looked around at the others as they stirred to consciousness. Soolin was sitting cross-legged on the floor, a sour look upon her face, and Hugh put out his hand to her. She eyed him suspiciously as if she would have snapped at him if he'd shown the first signs of amusement, but he carefully let his face reveal only concern as he drew her up and enclosed her shoulders in a brief embrace.
She leaned into it only briefly, never being one to prove demonstrative in public, then she stalked over to Tarrant. "What happened?"
He explained quickly. "An electrometabolic pulse rendered everyone unconscious, but Jabberwocky pulled me into gestalt first so we could fight."
"It would have rendered us all unconscious," Edge added. He had managed to sit up but had chosen to go no further. "It reacts against certain portions of the brain, damping it down. The gestalt might well have resisted, but this will require much study. When Perren returns, I shall discuss it with him." His face flickered momentarily with worry about Perren, but he controlled his expression immediately. "There is no permanent damage but I'd guess we've been out several hours."
"Blake?" demanded Soolin, causing Cella, who had sat quietly, to gasp and pale and to stare at Tarrant in alarm.
"What happened to the shuttle?" concluded Gan practically.
"It went down on the surface, but no one is hurt," Jabberwocky inserted quickly, "except for Blake, who has broken his wrist. It is not serious, We must return to the planet and bring them up. Servalan and Egrorian will be regaining consciousness shortly, though Orac fed them a higher dose than we got. Still, they did have a remote link to the shuttle."
"Does that mean they could detonate it if they wanted to?" asked Kyl.
"No!" cried Cella, and Kyl glanced at her, abashed, but worried and determined to have an answer.
"It's possible, but they are still unconscious," Tarrant replied, speaking for Jabberwocky. He had set the course back to Malodar automatically as soon as the last ship detonated. It would take them ten more minutes to return. He stretched comfortably in his chair, remembering the intensity of the total link and the way the ship had responded as effortlessly as his own lungs did when he breathed. No one could live like that all the time, no one but Jabberwocky, but Tarrant hoped they'd have future chances to link in such a manner. He'd talked to Jenna about controlling the ship in linkage, and she had mused poetically about feeling the universe against her skin because she became the ship as it moved through space, and Tarrant had known how she felt. He suspected she would kill for what he had just had and knew he would encourage her to feel it as soon as possible. Jenna was a superb pilot and deserved such an opportunity. It was something she would understand and share while none of the others could, quite, none but Jabberwocky himself.
Tarrant found he was quite looking forward to telling Jenna about this mission.
Which reminded him of Cella.
Now that Kyl had finished exulting about his targeting skills and had returned to the distressed girl, she had calmed down slightly but she was waiting for more news.
"We can be back and teleport them up before Servalan and Egrorian awaken," said Hugh quickly. "I'll go down with a spare bracelet for Blake, and immobilize his wrist before we come up again. It will be all right, Cella. You'll see."
She smiled gratefully at Hugh, then collected herself and drew her shields around her once more. The taut, defensive look she must have taken years to develop shone out of her eyes, and Jabberwocky made a distressed sound in Tarrant's mind in concern for her.
//Can you link with Avon?// Tarrant asked him. //Cella might be glad of any reassurances we can give her.//
//I'll try. I was enjoying myself so much I forgot. Don't tell Avon.// He went silent again, then, after a moment, he came back. //Avon reports they are all fine and he wants to know what's taking you so long to destroy a few pursuit ships,// Jabberwocky reported, putting some of Avon's haughty scorn into his mental tone.
//Tell him to try it next time and see what he thinks,// Tarrant replied quickly. //And if you can sound thoroughly disgusted with him for his temerity, do it.// He had to squelch a smile at the thought of Avon's reaction. Avon should know better than to disparage his ride home.
Servalan's head throbbed, every muscle in her body adding to the pounding beat behind her eyes. With a muted groan, she lay listening, trying to identify her surroundings. The only sound to break the silence was a blubbery snorting sound that she realized with utter disgust was Egrorian snoring. And he thought to be her consort! The fool was useless. His equipment had backfired, stunning them as it had her prey.
Forcing open her eyes, Servalan winced, squinted and sat up. Pain could wait until she examined her situation. It proved difficult to stagger to her feet, but once there she tottered with grim determination to the comm console and keyed in the code for her flotilla.
At first there was no response, and she pressed the keys harder with growing savagery until at last the return button lit. When she pushed it, a wary voice said, "Captain Perol reporting, ma'am."
"And your report is," she prodded impatiently.
"We encountered the mindship. It managed to destroy the other three ships and damage this one. We can't go above Time Distort 1, and something is jamming our distress signals."
"Come and pick me up," she snarled. "I'll get those signals through, you utter fool. Supreme Commander Arpel will hear about this, and he won't hear anything good."
"Yes, ma'am," replied the hapless incompetent. Servalan snarled and shut down communications. Four men, hand-picked, the best in the entire fleet, and three of them were already gone, destroyed. She longed for the day when the Federation's own mindship, now nearing completion, would be available to her, when she could link with it and come out here to pursue Avon and Blake. They would stand no chance against her when she had a mindship even better than the Mark 60. Even now work was progressing on the Mark 70, destined to be her own. Even Arpel didn't know she intended to take the ship, but Arpel would not stand in her way much longer. It would be absurd to waste such a marvel on an ordinary pilot with no skills beyond manoeuvring a ship. The brain at the heart of the new vessel had been an extremely skilled pilot. His would be the responsibility of defeating the Mark 60 in battle, if she did not find a way to stop Jabberwocky first.
Perhaps something here could do that. Egrorian had spoken of a second tachyon funnel, though he hadn't shown it to her. Suspicious old fool; he had been right not to trust her, but it was a nuisance now. If he had a second such weapon on this base, it could destroy the Mark 60 if nothing else could. Servalan in fact began to wonder if Egrorian had even sent the actual device on the shuttle, though it wouldn't have mattered if he meant to manoeuvre it back. Not that he had. He had expected it to burn in the atmosphere, weighted down by the neutron material he had caused to be put aboard the ship. No, he would not sacrifice his creation, not unless there were two, and if there were two, the other one was here.
With a very predatory smile upon her face, Servalan drew her weapon to defend herself should Egrorian revive and come looking for her and went out to search his base for a weapon to destroy Jabberwocky. She did not kill him, because it was possible she might need him to find the weapon, but she would not leave herself helpless against him in his own base.
Unaware of that particular threat, Jabberwocky and crew settled into orbit around Malodar, and Hugh contacted the shuttle. "Avon? Respond."
"I see you have finally returned," Avon said dryly. "And not before time. Should Servalan and Egrorian revive, we might find ourselves in jeopardy here." He hesitated. "How did you fare in the battle?"
Hugh grinned, realizing it was a backhanded query about his son, and motioned the boy closer to the speaker. Kyl's face lit with delight and he leaned in. "Hi, Dad. I blew up a pursuit ship!"
There was a momentary silence, then Avon said, "And where were the crew whose job that was?"
"They were still pretty groggy. I woke up quick," Kyl explained. "Besides, remember you helped me with that game program that simulates Jabberwocky's commands? I've been practising on it in my spare time, learning how to fly the ship. It was even easier in link-mode. Besides, you told me to earn my keep and I did."
"He's got a natural talent, he has," Vila put in, winking at Kyl. "I think I like it. Gives me a chance to put up me feet and watch someone else do all the work. If Kyl wants it, the job is his."
"Thanks, Vila," Kyl replied. "Are you all right, Dad?"
"Reasonably," Avon replied dampingly. "I hope you realize this one particular success does not automatically make you a member of the crew." Hugh could hear quiet pride in Avon's voice, under the rigid instruction, and Kyl must have heard it too because his face warmed. Avon continued quickly, "Blake, however, was clumsy enough to break his wrist - as well as his bracelet. Send down a spare for him and another for Pinder, who has decided to join the rebellion." Scepticism and suspicion sounded in his voice. Avon had never been quick to trust outsiders. Hugh could remember his own early dealings with Avon. "There is, if you will all recall, a remote link to this shuttle from the base," continued the computer tech in the tones of one pointing out the obvious to half-wits. "I, for one, would not relish being detonated whilst everyone enjoys a pleasant conversation."
"Ignore him," Blake's filtered voice came over the link. "My wrist isn't too bad. Just come quickly. I have urgent business up there."
"I'll be right there," Hugh said and dashed off, pausing only long enough in the medical unit to grab a brace for Blake's wrist. Blake's voice had sounded quite different, and Hugh had a sudden suspicion that Avon and Blake had beguiled the time of their wait with a little telepathic healing to break past the barriers that blocked Blake's memory of his wife and daughter. If so, it might be a good idea to get down there as quickly as possible. Blake must have been through an emotional wringer, remembering his wife only to lose her. For him it would be an immediate tragedy, yet he had sounded strangely at peace, except for the excitement lurking in his mellow tones. No doubt Avon had been very busy, and perhaps Perren, too, because he was very good at his work. It was simply that Avon knew Blake better than anyone did, and if anyone could help him through this, it was Avon.
Hugh materialized in the cabin of the shuttle to find the four men waiting for him. Blake was sitting at the control panel, his broken wrist, in a makeshift brace, resting on the console to protect it. He looked a little flushed and his eyes were puffy as if he had lost control and wept at the return of his memories, but there was the beginning of a quiet peace at the back of his eyes, as if he had finally and completely found himself. Hugh sighed with relief.
Avon, of course, hovered at Blake's side. Hugh wondered if even Avon himself realized how often he placed himself there in a crisis, and suspected it was so automatic to Avon that he gave it no thought, but would defend his right to be there with sarcasm, logic and withering scorn if challenged. As Hugh watched, his hand descended to rest on Blake's shoulder, a completely involuntary gesture, but one he never would have made when Hugh had first met him. Now such a thing was second nature. Avon had grown. Blake lifted his head and smiled as if he had read Hugh's mind and was enjoying the knowledge.
Perren, climbing to his feet from his position of leaning against the wall, caught Hugh's eye and grinned. He often chattered nonstop to irritating effect, though more often than not to good purpose, but he wasn't chattering now. It wasn't that Avon would wither him if he dared to comment; Avon would, but Perren wasn't, and had never been, afraid of Avon. It was simply that no comment was needed, not about that. Instead he said, "Thank goodness you came. These three are such a jolly bunch, I thought we might get up a few hands of cards, but none of us had a deck. I was starting to get bored."
Hugh held out the brace. "This is for your wrist, Blake." Setting it on the console, he pulled two bracelets out of his pocket and passed one to Avon and one to Perren. Avon slid the one he had been given onto Blake's healthy wrist while Hugh removed the amateur brace and adjusted the new one, fastening Blake's arm into a sling.
"Put it on your wrist," Perren directed Pinder, who stood uncertainly looking at the teleport bracelet that had been passed to him. "You don't want to stay down here, do you? You may not have heat waves, but the air doesn't have a very pleasant smell. Not the ideal vacation spot, even for winter sports."
Confused, Pinder put the bracelet on, and the minute he did so, Avon hit the comm button on his own bracelet. "Ready to come up," he instructed.
Jabberwocky teleported them effortlessly aboard the ship, and they found themselves face to face with most of the crew. Gan and Tarrant were still on the flight deck, but Vila, Soolin, Edge and the two stowaways were waiting for them. Soolin was the first to move, stepping forward to inspect Blake's wrist with half-angry eyes.
"What good is a bodyguard when you are on the surface and I am up here, Blake?" she demanded.
"Next time, you may come along," he replied, grinning at her.
"Yes, Soolin, by all means come along," Avon replied, his voice full of amused mischief. "I'm sure your protection in the crash would have saved Blake from the terrible tragedy of a broken wrist. Had I realized how useful you were, you would have been included in all planetary missions."
"Especially ones with crash landings," murmured Perren, eyes twinkling.
She gave him a light swat on the arm and backed off. "I wouldn't have come for you," she told him.
"Yes you would. You love me. Everybody does," returned Perren, full of humour.
"I see you are in one piece," Edge told him, his gaze shifting over the psych tech's body as if to seek out hidden wounds.
"Yes, but I'm black and blue from head to toe," moaned Perren. "I think I need a nurse. We have to get back to base quickly. There's a woman in the base hospital who will know exactly how to stroke my fevered brow."
Edge slapped his palm against Perren's forehead, snorted in exasperation at finding not one shred of fever. Perren gave him a fake jab to the ribs, which Edge fended off, grinning. He looked the most relaxed and at ease Hugh had ever seen. "Fever," he scoffed.
"That's not how you stroke a fevered brow," Perren pointed out instructively. "You could have knocked me right over, and that would have been disastrous."
Blake had listened to this byplay without even hearing it. Once he'd responded to Soolin's direct address, his eyes had sought out his daughter and had not left her. She stared back, eyes widening, and Hugh suddenly realized that while they did not really resemble each other, her eyes were very similar to Blake's, especially now as they glowed with sudden fervour. She reached out sideways for Kyl, and he took her hand and squeezed it.
"You've grown." As a conversational gambit it wasn't even original, but Blake looked too stunned to think of clever repartee. "But I should have known you - I should have known you anywhere. Cellie..." He held out his arms to her.
At what had evidently been a pet nickname, the girl's face crumpled and she tore free of Kyl's grip and launched herself at Blake. He caught her and enveloped her in one of his massive hugs, pulling her against his chest, and this time it was evident to everyone in the room that he knew and remembered her. His face, as he bent over the girl, held both happiness and torment, and Hugh could well imagine the contradictions; the joy at finding her, the pain of the lost years he could never recapture, the grief at the death of the wife he hadn't remembered in time to save. There were tear lines down his cheeks.
Hugh started marshalling everyone toward the exit, and Avon said, "Yes, well, I have business on the flight deck," and grabbed Pinder's arm, towing him along with them. Hugh and Perren hung back, but then Perren shrugged and followed Edge toward the door and Hugh came, too, his last sight of Blake and the girl was the two of them standing together, holding on as if they would never let go.
"I blasted the last pursuit ship," Kyl told his father as they headed for the door. "You should have seen it. I was right on target."
"Is that all you have to say?" Kyl asked, staring at his father, eye to eye.
Avon hesitated, then he nodded. "It was...well done," he lauded, and Kyl's smile lit his entire face.
"Information," reported Orac as the crew returned to the flight deck. "Communication has taken place."
"Orac means Servalan has regained consciousness," Jabberwocky put in. "She contacted the damaged ship and it's coming back for her. We could defeat it, of course, but there could be greater problems. We're leaving orbit now before she thinks of the tachyon funnel."
"It can affect any matter anywhere," Avon reminded the computer as if Jabberwocky might have managed to forget something that important. "Retrieving it when there is a remote control on the shuttle seems extraordinarily dangerous. It seems we must destroy it. Blake will be pleased. He never cared for the weapon in the first place."
Blake, his arm around his daughter's shoulder, nodded at that. "It's too dangerous a weapon to fall into the wrong hands. Even the rebellion might be unable to resist its temptation. Jabberwocky, can we destroy it from orbit?"
"Yes. It will be fun. I like stationery targets. But Orac reports a larger problem. Egrorian has created two tachyon funnels. We can destroy the shuttle, but the base is shielded. Orac has already deleted the design specifications from the base computers, but it cannot destroy the actual weapon remaining, only the one on the shuttle. If it is there, it is shielded too well for us to penetrate it."
"If it is there?" asked Avon, eyes narrowing as he considered the options. "Do you mean it might have been transported to Servalan's ship already?"
"If so, which one?" Tarrant asked. "Orac monitored those ships we fought. One of them was Servalan's flagship. We managed to damage it. The others were all destroyed. Orac has a link to its communications channel, but only when it is signalling, since everyone else uses tarial cells and it needs to tie into them at such a time. Her ship, of course, doesn't use them, rather like Dorn's Andromedan vessel. So we're monitoring communications and blocking distress signals but without using the extra range detectors fairly regularly, we could miss something."
"I've got the visual scans all set," Jabberwocky announced. "We can't track it but we can outrun it if it comes back."
"We can't outrun the tachyon funnel," Avon replied darkly. He should have known a crisis of this type would occur. When didn't they?
"You don't need to outrun it," Pinder volunteered quickly, as if anxious to score points for himself. "Yes, Egrorian built two tachyon funnels. The first was the prototype - and it didn't work. He discovered the fault and corrected the process, and the second one worked as designed. There is one other minor thing..." His voice trailed off as he saw them all staring at him, and he seemed to shrink into himself, as if he expected one of them to draw a gun and blast him where he stood.
"The prototype is the one on the shuttle," Avon said with complete certainty. "That's why Egrorian sent you ahead with the funnel and called us back for meaningless tests on the false Orac." It was obvious, though the manoeuvring would have taken some tricky footwork. He took a step toward the mathematician, his face dark with anger.
"I didn't even think of it until you mentioned it," he defended himself. "But that's because it's not a real problem. Egrorian had a small mark on the second funnel, so he'd know which one I took away. I couldn't leave the prototype behind or he would have done something worse than what he did. But I did this." His hand slid into his pocket.
Avon grabbed his wrist and bore it down with sudden strength. "Slowly," he said. "If you mean to produce a weapon..."
"Let him show us what he has, Avon," Perren said, taking a stance at the computer tech's side. "I don't think he's got a weapon. This could be important."
"It is," Pinder said, looking up at Avon without resentment. He produced a small control panel chip from an inner pocket. "Without this, the tachyon funnel on the base is useless. If Egrorian tries to fire it at us, it will power up properly, but when the power attempts to leave the device, the whole funnel will blow up. It will circumvent the tachyon emissions and limit the device to less than light speed. It will reroute all the power right though the device itself. We'll know if Egrorian means to destroy us - because he will destroy himself." He put the chip into Avon's hand. "Study it if you will, and verify it. I really do mean to join the rebellion and this was the only way I had to help, short of telling you about the neutron material."
"Then why were you so upset when he sent you on the shuttle, if you knew he couldn't blow us up?" asked Perren, intrigued with the question.
"He didn't know that," Pinder said flatly. "He was - he meant to kill me. I knew he did. I've - I've realized he didn't care any more, but I - it was just hearing it and knowing he was sentencing me to death. Even if both of us have changed..." His voice trailed off. Perren nodded in understanding.
Edge came to stare at the control panel as if pulled by invisible strings. Lifting it out of Avon's surprised fingers, he scanned it carefully, pulling out a magnifying device like a jeweller's loupe and holding it to his eye. After several moments of careful study, he nodded. "Yes. This is what he claims it is. Without this, there would be no tachyon emissions. I suggest we leave orbit immediately. Egrorian might well fire at us, and I suspect the resultant detonation could have grave consequences for the entire system - and us, if we are still here."
"Take us out, Jabberwocky," said Tarrant aloud.
"Of course if Egrorian chooses not to fire at us, he may be able to reconstruct the device," volunteered Edge.
Perren gave him a quick grin. "He'll fire," he said with certainty. "We beat him. He'll be finding out pretty fast that we didn't give him the real Orac and he'll fire the minute he realizes it. He'll be furious that we fooled him and bested him. People with brains like his tend to believe everyone else is inferior. The knowledge we beat him will be insupportable and he'll have to kill us just to save face. He'll go up in a big boom." The idea seemed to appeal to him.
"Is that why Avon hates it when I beat him at chess?" Vila teased as Jabberwocky's new course took them up and away from the planet and outward in a direction that would prevent them from encountering the returning pursuit ship.
"Avon isn't like that," Perren said quickly. "Yes, he believes himself a genius, but in his own field. Besides, we know him too well. He won't blast you when you win, Vila, he'll tell himself he let you win to keep it interesting."
"In fact, Vila is not a bad chess player," Avon returned. "If you have finished discussing me, I suggest we consider the other dangers we have yet to face. Servalan is down there. She may flee before Egrorian fires the funnel. She will not wish to align herself with him, especially since she does not have Orac and knows it."
"In fact she may steal the funnel and take it with her," Jabberwocky put in. "In that case, she will either use it on us and destroy herself or take it back to Earth and put her scientists to work on it. It may still be a danger to us."
"Nevertheless we can't stay around on the off chance," said Blake. He guided Cella over to the couch and sat beside her, lacing his fingers through hers. The girl's face glowed with happiness. Avon regarded Blake with fond tolerance for a moment, then turned back to Orac. "Monitor the ship as best you can, and report if it leaves the system."
"I am not your father. I have told you that before."
"Yes, Kerr," said Jabberwocky annoyingly. "If I'm not your father, I can call you by your first name, the way I do Del."
"Not if you don't want your circuitry rewired," Avon responded. "You are getting quite out of hand, Jabberwocky, and if not for the fact that you have just saved all our lives, I would have to see about disciplining you."
"Never mind disciplining him," Perren cut in. He produced his PK monitor from his pocket. "Edge, you were right. This works perfectly. What's more, I've got Servalan's pattern recorded. We'll know now if we ever encounter her again."
"Fascinating." Edge took the device and studied the readings, making several adjustments. "Based on this, we can take readings of all of us and feed them into the teleport relays. It might be useful should it be necessary to strengthen the beams, and I see an additional benefit, if it can be developed. With this data added to what we already have in the system, it might be possible in future to teleport people up without bracelets, should one break on a mission. We'd still need them to go down, of course, since we're beaming to a location without a control system, but if we could adapt this properly, we could deal with the problems we've had when a bracelet breaks or if one of us should be captured and the bracelet removed." He looked as if he meant to start work on the process immediately, and Avon speculated on his words and realized there might be a possibility of it. The device gave a much more exact reading than conventional monitoring and scanning devices, and it was possible Orac and Jabberwocky could contribute to it, as they had done with the Dayna program, when they found a way to bring her back.
"It just might work," Blake replied. He, too, had worked on the Federation's teleport project. "We'll get Tanz to help when we're home," he said.
"The Federation ship is going into land," Jabberwocky reported. "I'll monitor its time on the surface. If it gets away and there's no explosion, we'll have to go after it."
"Any time," agreed Tarrant.
Servalan was furious. The tachyon funnel was well hidden. Egrorian would have to reveal it to her; no, she had a better idea. It could stay hidden, safe and secure, and she would leave here - and retrieve the second one from the shuttle. If Egrorian would not give her the information she needed, she would finish him, so he would not be able to use the concealed one upon her. Satisfied with her scheme, she returned to the control room.
Egrorian had vanished.
She should have expected that, and she should have prepared for it. No doubt he had gone to the funnel; no, more likely he was lying in wait for her along the route to the docking area. Her ship would be down in minutes. She had to get there before he could stop her. First, though, she had to prevent his link with the shuttle.
It took her only a moment to punch up the necessary controls, severing the remote linkage, glad she had watched him so carefully when he had manipulated them. He had been a fool to speak and act so openly before her, but she was glad of it now. The shuttle's tachyon funnel would be hers. She would leave the dummy Orac, no doubt linked by transmitter to the real one, for Egrorian if she did not kill him first.
Gun in hand, she crept along the corridor, determined to reach the safety of her vessel. They could land and take the weapon from the shuttle.
Egrorian did not spring out at her until the final moment, just before she was to step into her waiting ship. She went in backwards, her captain standing guard at the opening, and even so Egrorian was almost too quick for her. He came at a rush, firing as she moved, and she ducked instinctively. Perol, too, avoided the fire, and aimed his hand blaster at the old man.
Servalan was the quicker. Her shot took Egrorian full in the chest, and he pitched backwards with a choked-off cry, the gun falling from his hand and skittering away across the floor.
"Go, move," Servalan snarled at the pilot, pushing him aside as she stalked into the ship. "Hurry. We must retrieve the weapon from the downed shuttle and do it quickly. If the mindship is near, they may try to stop us, but once we have the weapon, they will not risk it." She slammed her palm against the controls to seal the ship and she and Perol raced for the flight deck. The blast shield came down automatically behind them as they loosed the docking controls.
Egrorian groaned. Had she stayed but one second longer, Servalan would have seen him move and realized he was not dead. The wound was grave; he knew that; he could feel it, feel the numbness creeping through his body. He was dying, dying alone and without power, and the bitch who had killed him was escaping him. He refused to let that happen.
One hand pressed against the burned-in wound on his chest, he used the other and his feet to propel him across the floor. Slow, so slow, each inch gained at the cost of his own lifeblood. But it wasn't far; the concealed tachyon funnel was hidden right here in the docking bay. There had been no time for Pinder to move it anywhere else at Egrorian's instruction, and he had checked it when he realized Servalan's ship was landing. Checked it and hidden himself with it, waiting for her to come, so he could stop her and take the ship. He meant to get away from here.
But she had been too quick for him; the chance had been lost. Now the only hope he had was to stop her.
Hatred lent him strength as he made the marathon crawl across the room. One metre, half another... He stopped to rest, but carefully, afraid if he let himself slide into the crouching darkness it would devour him and that would be the end. Even though he fought it, he must have dozed once or twice, because time seemed to pass in irregular chunks. But there was the second metre, and, laboriously, a third. Not far now. Not far.
Pulling himself up against the door that concealed the weapon was an agony so acute it almost seemed worth it to surrender to the darkness, but not quite. Falling against a crate that stood beside the weapon, he seated himself there, reached for the controls.
They blurred before his eyes.
The shuttle. She would go for the shuttle. Was she still there, or had her ship gained orbit. He set the tachyon funnel for the nearest life-signs; they were in orbit, slowly rising up out of Malodar's gravitational well. She was escaping. So be it. He would watch her ship come apart in space, a blaze of bright colour then nothing but debris dropping into the atmosphere to char away in little bursts of light. It would be so pretty, the colours, hot as fire, then cold, cold, with death. Yes. He could do it.
There, target locked on. One hand hard against the vast, hollow anguish in his chest, Egrorian jammed his other thumb against the firing switch.
The device hummed, the sound building and building to an unnatural crescendo, hurting his ears, forcing his eyes wide into alertness as he gaped at the device. It built to overload under his stunned stare, all that vast power to destroy channelling back within the weapon.
"Pinder!" he snarled, his voice breaking off to choke and cough, tasting the salty, iron tang of blood on his tongue. A great paroxysm shook his entire body, and he felt the blood gush into his mouth. The hum of the device went up the scale so fast it hurt his ears, then they were bursting with blood, too, as the sound rose beyond his ability to hear it.
The colossal explosion vied with Servalan's blast to his chest to see which would take him first into death.
In the end, he faded to blackness before he ever knew.
"I'm registering a massive explosion back on Malodar."
Avon looked up at Jabberwocky's announcement. "The funnel," he said with satisfaction. "So it is no longer a threat to us? And Servalan?"
"I tracked her ship down to the planet," Jabberwocky replied. "It went for the shuttle, and it was rising when the explosion hit. In the debris, I can't read it any more. Orac will monitor for distress signals or communications, but remember, we can't read that ship."
"It was already damaged," Tarrant reminded them. "It couldn't have sped away before the blast. She might be part of the rubble back there."
"The whole planet is going up in a chain reaction," Jabberwocky reported. "If she's there, she'll have to move quickly to get away. Time distort one will do it if she was out of orbit at the time of the blast. If she was still in orbit, it will be impossible."
"And we cannot track her," Avon replied.
"Do we assume she's dead?" Edge asked, lifting his head from the panel at the science station.
"No," said Soolin hotly. "She's proven to have nine lives. I won't believe she's dead."
"Nor will I, not until I see her lifeless body," Avon replied with rather a lot of relish.
"But even if she's alive, she can't come after us," said Kyl, who had been hovering near Cella while she talked eagerly with her father. She looked up at him now.
"So we're safe?"
"Well now," Avon replied, "I wouldn't claim that even though we are due to rendezvous with Dorn and the Scourge in another eleven hours. We are at war, and we're rather far from the rebellion's sphere of influence. Not even Orac can fiddle every ship's instrumentation between here and our base and, knowing Blake, he is certain to think of some new crisis for us in the immediate future. Relying upon Cally's dream, there are still several perilous missions in store for us."
"I think it best to avoid them in future, Avon," Blake replied. "Orac has tracked rumours of an assassin named Cancer, who may or may not be the Piri of Cally's dream. Should Servalan decide to send her against us, we'd have a new crisis to face. But for now, I should favour returning to base. I don't trust the inactivity of the Federation's main fleet, nor do I trust the theory that Arpel wants to avoid a major battle if at all possible."
"Good, Blake," Avon replied. "It seems as if you are learning. Or could it be that discovering you have a daughter means you intend learning caution? If so, I should be glad of it."
"Anything to make you happy, Avon," Blake replied facetiously.
"If I believed you meant that, I might well feel some release of tension," Avon responded. He turned and surveyed the flight deck. "Jabberwocky, keep monitoring for any evidence of Servalan's vessel. Periodic use of the extra-range detectors seems appropriate."
"Yes, Kerr," Jabberwocky replied.
"I would not, if I were you, make a habit of that," Avon replied and left the flight deck to the laughter of the rest of the crew.
It was night, ship's reckoning, and Avon, who had been working hard with Edge for several hours about the possibility of modifying the teleport to enable them to bring up crew with damaged or missing bracelets in a crisis, had taken a short break before retiring to bed. Blake, who had been assisting the two scientists for the past hour in the ship's science lab, after spending a lot of time with Cella, getting to know her again, rose with him. "What do you say to one quick check of the flight deck before bed, Avon?"
"An excellent idea. From the way Tarrant's been raving about that extra gestalt he experienced whilst unconscious, he's probably still there, linked up with Jabberwocky. Gestalt drains the ship, and I would prefer such researches to take place back at Ryalon."
"Where is Cella?" Avon hadn't bothered to ask that when Blake joined them.
"In bed, I think. We talked for a long time. She told me all the things that had happened to her on the prison planet. It was a very hard life. I know you'll jump on me with both feet if I say I feel to blame for that, but part of it is my blame, because they sent her and Jesta there because of my rebel activities."
"Which Jesta knew of and approved," Avon reminded him. "We all face risks in the way we live our lives."
"I know that, Avon. Allow me a little guilt. I wouldn't know myself without it. But Cella doesn't blame me. She said when I didn't recognize her, it hurt her badly but it proved to her there was nothing I could have done to come for them. We'll learn to understand each other again, but it will take time. I'll arrange for a home for her on the base, the way you did with Kyl."
"She has one," Avon reminded him as they approached the flight deck. "She'll do well. Kyl will look after her when we're on missions, though I suspect he will fight the more strongly to be included in the crew now that he has been blooded in battle."
"We won't allow it until he's of age," Blake reassured him.
They paused in the entry to the flight deck. Lights were dim there, as they often were on late watch. Tarrant wasn't in his flight chair, but he could link with Jabberwocky from anywhere on the ship. The flight deck seemed, at first glace, to be deserted, but when Avon and Blake stepped forward, there was a hasty flurry of movement from the forward couch by the drinks' dispenser and Kyl and Cella drew out of each other's arms and blinked up in surprise at their fathers. Kyl reddened slightly and Cella's face reflected her embarrassment at being caught at kissing Kyl.
Avon strode forward and looked down at them with the interest a scientist might have shown while studying an interesting new experiment, then he turned and gestured Blake over.
"We were just-" Kyl began. flustered and young enough that he lacked the savoir faire to carry off the moment.
"I do recognize what you were just-" Avon replied, sternly suppressing the amusement he felt. Kyl would hardly have gone beyond the line here on the flight deck. "I remind you, Jabberwocky is everywhere on the ship, at any given moment. I, for one, have no objection to kissing, but remember Jabberwocky."
"I - on the flight deck?" sputtered his son. "We were just kissing. It's not a sin." He grinned suddenly. "Jabberwocky was probably enjoying the view."
"It was harmless, Avon," Jabberwocky replied with a smile in his voice. "Besides, I rather enjoyed it."
Cella went even redder than before, looking around wildly as she realized Jabberwocky could have seen everything they did and said. "I'm sorry," she said to her father.
"No, I'm sorry," he told her, "for interrupting."
"If you say, 'carry on,' Blake-" Avon began, shaking his head.
"No, Avon. I'm just beginning to understand something you have known for almost a year."
"The joys of parenthood?" Avon responded with a questioning lift of his eyebrow. He shared an amused look with the rebel. "This is nothing, Blake. There are far more unnerving crises waiting for you. I guarantee it."
"Something to look forward to, isn't it?" Blake said without a shred of alarm, and, smiling rather benevolently, he guided Avon off the flight deck and steered him in the direction of their cabins to bed.
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