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Jabberwocky part 16 - Mutoids

By Sheila Paulson
"You do realize, don't you, Blake, that this new scheme of yours is utter madness?" Avon glared at the rebel leader across the flight deck of Jabberwocky, his face tight, his muscles rigid. "As an experiment, it will achieve nothing, for it is clearly destined to failure. It won't even be a glorious failure, simply nothing. I assume that is why you have neglected to inform Avalon of your plan."

Vila studied Avon surreptitiously from his seat on one of the forward couches where he had been ostensibly playing at Thief, the computer game Avon had once, in a benevolent mood, designed for him; it didn't do to study him openly when he sounded as cold and furious as this. Most people became hot and angry, Avon turned glacial. He could withdraw into his pre-Jabberwocky persona at the drop of a hat, usually when the subject at hand applied to his telepathy, his psi-healing abilities, or even to threats to any of the crew of Jabberwocky. That he had come so far, had grown easier with the crew, and that his verbal attacks were more often the way he cloaked friendly banter, made this morning's anger all the more blatant.

This time, Vila agreed with Avon, though. He agreed that Blake's latest plan was insane, too; at best a waste of time, at worst a threat to Avon, and, by extension, the rest of them. But Blake had always been as stubborn as Avon, especially where his Cause was concerned, and he held his ground. Pacing around the flight deck, he stroked his chin, a sign of deep thought--or else a stalling tactic. Probably planning his next argument.

That his latest idiotic scheme--Avon was right about that--would endanger Avon more than any of the others, and would certainly disconcert and annoy him, as well as causing him to expose himself to what was certain to be failure, didn't stop Blake from dreaming. Freedom for his rabble was a goal he'd never yielded, not for one minute. That he might consider mutoids deserving of freedom had never occurred to Vila. It had never occurred to anyone with sense, especially anyone who had ever faced the wrong end of a mutoid para-handgun.

Tarrant, had been idly playing a game of Ship and Asteroids on the other forward computer, but he would be in linkage with Jabberwocky, and would know everything that was going on the minute he wanted to. He wouldn't guess what was going on inside Avon and Blake's minds unless they were in link-mode, though. Vila popped in to see, and found only Tarrant there. Well, probably Thorm, too, but the avatar of Jabberwocky, whilst always in linkage with the disembodied brain at the heart of the mindship, didn't deliberately enter link-mode, only when the others did, although he was always linked with Jabberwocky since he was Jabberwocky, and even when he did, he wasn't quite visible, absorbed in the Jabberwocky whole. Vila wasn't sure he understood the distinction, but it didn't really matter. He liked Thorm, who was, in ways Vila hadn't tried to define, somewhat different from Jabberwocky. It boggled his mind when the two spoke together, a conversation the psych-tech, Perren, always referred to as the ship's split personality.

Abandoning his game, Tarrant stretched his long legs, grinned at Thorm, who sat across from him on the forward couches beside Vila studying a book viewer, and rose. He was just enough taller than Blake that he could loom when he wanted to, and he did it now. Avon could ignore looming with the best of them, but his was a deliberate ignoring. Blake didn't even notice.

"Blake, do you honestly believe a mutoid can be restored? Even if he weren't mind-wiped and physically modified at the start of the process, there's the need for blood serum. Restoring a mutoid's original memories won't remove that compulsion, and even if it could, it might lead to insanity when the victim remembered what he had become."

"You doubt my abilities?" Avon purred. He couldn't loom, being shorter than Tarrant, but he had mastered the art of looking down his nose at the taller man, even if it meant slightly standing on his toes and tilting his head. Someday, Vila would need to show him in link mode how he looked when he did that. Someday when he was braver than today.

Typical Avon. Using psi-healing on a mutoid was probably his least favourite idea in the universe, but let someone decry his abilities, and he would defend them. He didn't think he could really reverse the mind-erase of a mutoid, did he? They claimed it couldn't be done.

"I doubt your ability to do the impossible," Tarrant said. Was he consciously challenging Avon, or simply being realistic? With Tarrant, you couldn't always tell. Challenging Avon had been a habit of his since the day they had met. "You couldn't restore all of Blake's memories after the Federation mucked about in his brain. Sorry, Blake," he threw the apology at the rebel. "But you know it's true. Your memories were blocked. All trace of a mutoid's original personality is wiped, erased. Gone. They claim the mind is completely rebuilt."

"So the Federation has always informed us," Blake insisted. "When did we start believing everything the Federation says? Besides, Avon did remove the final blockage when we were stranded on Malodaar so that I could remember Cella. The cost of totally rebuilding a mind would be prohibitively excessive and hardly worth the expense of creating mutoids. They might as well make androids. If we believed their lies, we'd need to acknowledge that we were butchers, that I had molested young boys, that..."

"Point taken," Avon said hastily before Blake's temper could explode or his dark memories of his rigged trial could swamp him. He glowered at Tarrant for the reminder--even when angry, he tended to defend Blake, although no attack had been intended. "However, you will recall the skill that went into creating the Avalon android, and the way it could discuss complex ideas. I see the value in that if simply to capture us. But you may be correct that creating mutoids would be prohibitively expensive if it was necessary to entirely rebuild the brain. Reprogramming the brain, however, is well within the abilities of the Federation, for they did it to you. Eventually, it did break down. Perhaps something in the serum mutoids need to survive reinforces the blockage. It might be interesting to examine the formula. However, if there is a chance for mutoid restoration, it would need to be physical as well as mental, at least to remove the need for serum. While a bionic reconstruction should not alter memories, the mind-wipe would do that. Orac?" He whirled and inserted the little computer's key.

The perspex box glimmered, lights blinking brightly. *What is it now? I am conducting my own researches and have no time for your petty concerns.* Typical Orac. One would think Ensor had created him to study the whole galaxy, not to be useful.

"Set your researches aside," Avon gritted in the tone that even Orac knew better than to disregard. "Blake has determined we must restore mutoids. You will examine all material available on the creation of mutoids and determine if there is even a remote possibility that it can be accomplished."

*That will take time and effort and will prove pointless, for mutoids are blanked, some repeatedly. No trace of the original remains.*

"Or so we have been told repeatedly," Blake argued. "Come on, Orac, we needn't believe everything we're told, especially when the Federation is doing the telling. Your researches will prove if it was another lie."

Orac's lights blinked. *Interesting. An excellent point, Blake. For a human,* he added disparagingly. *Very well. There are at present six mutoids, four male and two female, held captive in the base incarceration facility. Jabberwocky, display images.*

Six faces, all impassive, all wearing the distinctive mutoid headgear and garb, flashed on the main screen, clearly a feed from the prison cell. One female was dark-skinned like Dayna, the other very pale by comparison. The dark-skinned one was somewhat older than the usual run of mutoids, perhaps one of the early prototypes. The males were so similar in type they might have been brothers. Servalan might have chosen them for her mission for that reason. Even she couldn't find mutoids attractive, could she? Vila shuddered at the very idea. On the other hand, maybe it was their non-expression that made them similar.

One was taller than the others by half a head, one about Vila's height, but the others were around Blake's height. One was very broad in the shoulders, but there was nothing else distinctive about them. Neither of the females faced the camera directly, but one of the males, the broad-shouldered one, stared directly at it, as if he understood he was monitored, and almost as if he resented it. There was slightly more than blankness in his stare.

"That one," Blake said, pointing at the starer. "He might be the best choice."

"You are assigning him personality on the strength of a direct look at the camera," Avon disagreed. "Or is it that you knew him before he was modified?"

"No, he's not familiar," Blake said. "I don't recall ever seeing him before."

"He looks suspicious," Vila piped up, abandoning his game entirely to jump into the conversation. He shut down the program. "If a mutoid were smart before he was converted, he'd probably still be smart, wouldn't he?"

"Not necessarily, Vila." Avon scarcely glanced in his direction. "The modification process removes individual will. A mutoid might possess the capacity to learn, but would be unmotivated to do so unless instructed. Its motivation would only include that which it is instructed to do or programmed to do. Which is why anyone who works with mutoids must give extremely specific commands or program in specific knowledge. This one may have been given instructions to arrange an escape for Servalan, if she should be captured. The fact of his capture would not halt the programming."

"There's also instinctive survival," Blake said. "Unable to obtain the life-sustaining fluid, they will seek victims to fill the need. That almost happened to Jenna, the time Travis and his mutoid were stranded with us and pitted against us."

"All animals will hunt for prey, Blake. Do not humanize mutoids. Once, they were human, and if you must resent the Federation for denying them their humanity, I will not be surprised, nor will I disagree, for to tamper with a human mind is a crime I fiercely resent, but not even you can reverse the process."

"We don't know yet that it is irreversible, only that the Federation claims it is. Not all their processes work as well as they would wish."

"That's true," Vila offered, knowing Avon wouldn't welcome his input, but compelled to speak. "After all, I had my head adjusted by some of the best, but it never took." He tapped himself on the forehead."

"Since one must actually possess a brain for it to be altered, Vila--"

"No, Vila is correct." That was Jabberwocky, and he enforced his agreement with a flick of mind-link. "Avon, you know this is true. My history was blocked from me, and it was intended to be permanent, but it wasn't. You were able to help me. You learned how to destroy programming in your healing mode, and have used it several times, all successfully. If there's any chance at all that these mutoids can be saved, we must save them. If they are programmed to forget, you can eradicate that programming the way you did your own and Gan's."

"That's what I think," Blake said unnecessarily. From the wry grimace Avon cast his way, he must have agreed that Blake's agreement was redundant. Blake threw him a rueful glance; Avon would hate to link with a mutoid. Well, that was only good sense. Anyone would.

Orac huffed. *If you are finished discussing a subject that cannot be resolved simply by discussion, I will begin my research. I must not be disturbed as I perform your needed instruction.*

Avon whisked away the pad. "Very well, Blake. If Orac determines there is a chance for your scheme to work, I will consider it. If it decides it is impossible, then you will yield it, and the six mutoids in Avalon's prison will remain there until a decision is made about their fate."

Jabberwocky removed the image of the mutoids, and Vila was glad. They made him uneasy. Even though he knew they couldn't possibly see him, it felt like that one was watching him, and he didn't mind at all when the screen blanked. If the mutoids were observed too long, Vila might have to observe the feeding process, because Avalon and Blake had determined they must be preserved whilst they remained captive, and he didn't like the thought of that, even if it only meant they inserted the serum capsules in the chest cavity. Vampires, they were. If one of them broke loose, would he drink the blood of anyone he captured? With his luck, he would probably encounter Vila.

The six mutoids, along with Servalan, had been captured two weeks earlier, during tests with Jabberwocky and Essilon, the second mindship developed by the rebels on Ryalon. During manoeuver at a distance from the base, they were attacked by Servalan's new Mark-70 mindship, but, fortunately for everyone, Servalan's lies to the brain within the ship, Darsan, had been exposed, and Darsan had thrown in his lot with the rebels. Tarrant's brother, Deeta, now worked and trained to form a permanent bond with Darsan, although he was not yet fully linked and would not be until he was determined ready--and until Avon, Blake, and Avalon were convinced that Darsan's loyalty was valid. As one proof of the ship's new commitment, the mutoid pilot had remained on the ship when Servalan had come aboard Jabberwocky after the six she originally sent had been restrained by Darsan, but had broken free and been killed when the ship was boarded. Since they had no value in trade as Servalan might, no decision had yet been reached concerning their fate, and Avalon was still considering her options. It had even been suggested the mutoids might be given commands to work for the resistance, but no one relished that idea, least of all Vila. If Federation troopers knew key words to revoke such commands, you'd have your supposed allies shooting you in the back.

"There is another matter to consider," Jabberwocky spoke aloud, his fascia blinking. "I have just instructed Orac to cross-reference the faces of the mutoids with former rebels to determine if any of them originally had rebel allegiance, and also with records of past criminals. It would do us little good to restore a crimo."

"Restore crimos?" Vila echoed. "We have enough trouble already. Let's not do that."

"Let's not do what?" Hugh Tiver, the ship's doctor, strode in with Soolin at his side the way she usually was these days, trailed by Perren, their psych-tech. Since their return to base, Perren and his two cohorts, well trained on mindship control, had been over on Darsan, working with Deeta Tarrant, examining the controls, and helping to determine who might be suited to crew the Mark-70. Avon had spent half his time there, too, accompanied by Orac, to determine what modifications had been put in place since Jabberwocky had come off the assembly line. Anything that could be incorporated had been duly noted, and once Blake worked this mutoid nonsense from his mind, Avon planned an update for Jabberwocky.

At Space Command Headquarters, Supreme Commander Arpel must be gnashing his teeth.

Or maybe not? He'd tried to destroy Jabberwocky, but that had been mostly to prevent an all-out war between the Federation and the Resistance, who would stand no chance against the Federation in a space battle without their mindship. Now, with Essilon's testing going so well and Darsan almost ready for linkage with Deeta, the Resistance could probably walk all over the Federation. Darsan still needed additional crew, but that wouldn't happen until Deeta had formed the permanent link.

If that was what Avalon decided. She was all for peaceful solutions; wars were nasty, messy things that left a lot of bad feelings, not to mention too many corpses. Vila didn't want to be one of them.

Perren studied Avon's face with that intense look that proved he was thinking hard, then strutted over to confront him, that stray lock of brown hair that always trailed over his forehead bouncing as he walked. "What are you up to, Avon?" No teasing the way he usually did. He must have sensed the mood--he was good at that--and decided to cut to the heart of the matter. He wasn't a puppeteer, but he was the closest thing the Resistance had to a psycho-strategist.

"Do not ask me. Ask Blake. The latest lunatic plan comes from him, from whence all lunacy originates."

Instead of taking offense, Blake grinned. "I just wondered, since we had six mutoids, if we could determine a way to restore them. Think of the advantage it would give us. Maybe we could trigger a reversal universally."

Perren's brow wrinkled. "Not sure it would work, unless we turn the great brain on them to make sure there's anything to restore." He caught Avon's eye, then he chuckled. "Now I see why you're so against it, Kerr, old man. That's what Blake wants you to do, isn't it? Link with a mutoid in healing mode. I don't blame you for being unhappy about it. Wouldn't be my first choice, either."

Avon grimaced fiercely, and Vila wondered whether he objected to being called Kerr, which he did, or whether he loathed the idea of Perren reading him so well. He should know better than to think Perren wouldn't. What else was a psych-tech for, after all? Vila was sometimes convinced that Perren could read minds, even if he knew it wasn't really that. What he could do was read the slightest twitch on somebody's face, or the way he moved or stood, and offer crazy theories about it. The better he knew a person, the better he could do it, but he wasn't bad with strangers, either, once he'd let them talk and had time to study them. If he weren't right so often, Vila could have discounted him. The only advantage Vila could see was that he didn't give people away unless it was necessary in a crisis, and he didn't expect them to talk about their feelings, either. Just as well.

"Blake is wrong this time," Avon said in the tone of voice that implied such a state was the usual one.

Blake only grinned. "If I am wrong, I'll be sorry, and I realize there might be no hope. I won't give up on it until I'm convinced there isn't. Imagine what we would do to save one of us, had he been converted. We wouldn't wring our hands and say, 'There's no hope,' not until we had tried everything."

"Do you believe it's even remotely possible, Blake?" Soolin asked. If anyone sounded suspicious, it was Soolin. "What about partial conversion and then the mutoid turning on us?"

"I think it's remotely possible. We can use safeguards. Even mutoids can't break free of techno-locks. If there's even one chance in ten thousand, I won't give up."

"Not when the work--and the risk--falls to me," Avon said dryly.

"Not entirely," Jabberwocky said, both aloud and through the mind-link, but allowing all of them to hear him. "If you do it, I will go with you and boost you in linkage."

"Somehow," Avon said, "that utterly makes my day."

 

                                                                               *****

 

Blake knew as well as everyone else that reversing the mutoid process was highly unlikely, that it might prove impossible, and that success might depend on a combination of factors that would not prove universal. A flaw in the process might have blocked rather than removed all memories, the number of times a mutoid had been blanked might affect the outcome, and the key factor, that only on a one-to-one basis by the use of Avon's psi-healing might it be done at all would certainly limit any propaganda value. Avon loathed the psi-healing process, although he had used it whenever it had been needed to aid the crew, and even to aid Deeta Tarrant, whom he'd had no reason to like or trust. He'd even tried once, without notable success and with great risk, to heal himself. Blake knew he would use it this time, but only if it had a remote possibility of success. He might attempt it and fail, and refuse to try again, and no one could blame him for that.

Blake intended to determine the mutoid who offered the greatest chance of success. The one who had watched the camera so sourly might be best, unless that was part of Servalan's plan. Maybe the mutoid was bait so she could learn more about Avon's healing and determine if it would be worthwhile to risk capturing him to force him to use it for her purposes. Avon wouldn't--but if his refusal meant someone he cared about would die, Blake wasn't sure what he would do. Forced to trade Blake for his captured son, Kyl, on a mission, Avon had intended to offer himself in place of either.

The serum craving that caused many to refer to mutoids as vampires presented another problem. It might be impossible to remove without destroying the mutoid or without a bionic reversal, which could be dangerous, even assuming anyone in the Resistance possessed the skill to do it. He'd have to ask Hugh to work with Orac on that particular facet and put Orac to work on the physical aspects of the conversion process. There might be a subtle memory implant to convince them they must obey their Federation overlords or be deprived of feeding. If Blake had been running the program, he might have done it that way.

As everyone went about their daily tasks, Avon vanished into the computer crawlways without a word of explanation. Probably brooding. Perren arched an eyebrow after him, shrugged, and let him go. He set off to make his round of the other two mindships, for Essilon had only begun to undergo its training flights, and Darsan had not yet fully bonded with Deeta Tarrant, largely because Del's brother still suffered from the remnants of brain-burn from the sensor link he'd worn as First Champion of Teal. Temporary links with Darsan for longer and longer periods were proving therapeutic, and Perren worked with them regularly. His two companions, Edge and Tanz, were already over at Darsan, and Dayna was with them, working on the weaponry systems, noting the upgrades, and working to design similar ones for Jabberwocky. She and Tanz often worked together; her weapons design background and his engineering skills complimented each other.

Orac had sent a faint hint through several remote planetary systems that Servalan had defected. That the rumour would make its way to Space Command Headquarters eventually in its roundabout way with no way to trace it to Ryalon might actually convince the powers that be. A trade then, if the rebels went for it, would return Servalan to Space Command under a cloud, doubly so for losing the Mark-70. Blake had no doubt she would find a way around it eventually unless she were executed out of hand, and the fact that the Mark-70 was now a resistance ship would affect any possible credibility. Even if she weren't jailed, she might be demoted from the rank of Space Commander.

Vila set off for the market with a vague excuse, and Tarrant decided to go to Essilon and talk with his counterpart, Garenn Martagg, taking Hugh with him. Soolin lingered, calmly checking the weapons system and coordinating with Dayna through the mind-link, boosted by Jabberwocky and, in Dayna's case, Orac. She wasn't one for idle chatter, so Blake left her to it. Instead, he asked Jabberwocky to display the mutoids on the screen one at a time and to monitor for any evidence of awareness beyond the general mutoid level. While those ran, Blake updated the logs with the aid of Thorm.

//Blake.//

Jabberwocky's mental voice sounded worried as he drew Blake into link-mode. //I need you to look at this. Don't speak aloud.//

The rebel glanced at the screen that displayed the fair-skinned female mutoid. She was staring at the floor so he had a poor view of her features. He sent a question.

//Wait.//

Jabberwocky's alarm ran through the link, and that was enough to alert Thorm, who presumably already knew what was going on, to set aside the log recorder control and stand before the main screen. Blake shifted sideways so he could see, just as the mutoid raised her head.

Blake gasped, unable to repress his shock.

No one ever really looked at a mutoid. They saw the headgear and the garb with the panel on the chest for the infusion of serum, and that was enough. But Blake looked at this one.

She looked just like Soolin.

//Shift image,// he thought urgently to Jabberwocky.

By the time Soolin responded to Blake's gasp, the screen displayed the mutoid with the surly glare, still staring at the camera in his cell. His mouth was twisted, his eyes hard.

Soolin joined Blake, who sent a private mental urge to Jabberwocky to coordinate with Orac and discover if a member of Soolin's family could have undergone the conversion process. Supposedly, they had all been killed, but it might be possible one hadn't. Jabberwocky agreed.

"I see why you wonder about restoration," she said. "Although that may have been his normal expression before conversion. Avalon's tests prove they all require the serum implants, so he's really a mutoid. He doesn't look like he'd ally with the resistance."

"We can't assume that. He may have just enough awareness of his state to resent it. I don't understand Servalan's willingness to accept him if that is so."

What would Soolin think to discover a mutoid with her face? Would she be furious that Blake had kept it from her? Blake had done it to buy time, to learn what he could, before he broke the news to her. She wouldn't thank him for it, but Blake refused to offer such shattering news without complete information. He knew how he would feel if someone he loved had undergone mutoid conversion.

Had that been a part of Servalan's plan?

Because of the past experience of holding Servalan captive, the security around her was excessive. She would have no chance to escape this time, and Avon had eradicated the programming that had driven him to shoot Tarrant in her last escape attempt, a plan for her to take over Jabberwocky. Avalon's gaolers had learned from the experience. Her cell was isolated; she saw no guards, so there was no one for her to disaffect. But Blake could speak to her through a viscast. He was sure she would admit nothing, but if Perren watched her, he might find clues in her facial expressions and in her posture.

Blake sent a private message to Jabberwocky. //I think we need Perren here, and probably Hugh, too. Can you fetch them? And make identification of the female mutoid and this one Orac's top priority. Determine if there is any record of Servalan's choice of mutoids being specific, if you can.//

Jabberwocky sent the message to Orac, and suggested Blake activate the little computer. //I have given Orac instruction to track the original identities of the two mutoids as well. Although the Federation claims all mutoid records are deleted from the files, I doubt that to be entirely true. It was said my records were deleted, but Orac found them. I think mutoid records exist, extremely deeply buried, and Orac will be able to crack those files in time. He might even be able to restore them if they were truly deleted--or deleted after these six were captured.//

Yes, Orac could read any file as long as tarial cells were involved, and tarial cells were common throughout Federation record keeping. Still, once the Federation had realized Orac's abilities, certain records might have been stored in alternate systems; the record keepers would have been crazy not to have done that. Blake thrust the activator into its slot. "Orac, at this point, I will need the prior identities of all the mutoids."

*So Jabberwocky has already informed me. Typical redundancy. Such information will take time to isolate.*

"What, for you?" Thorm asked, with that grin that always produced dimples. Who would have expected an avatar body to have dimples? "The greatest computer in existence?"

*For anyone else, it would be impossible,* Orac said haughtily. *I have already identified the mutoid presently on the screen. His original name was San Bennan. He was a pilot of considerable skill, the top of his class at the Federation Space Academy. He graduated seven years before Tarrant and was expected to rise in rank, which he did. At the time of his conversion, he was a Space Major.*

"People of that rank aren't usually converted," Blake objected. "Why was he?"

*Information is sketchy, but the implication I can read from multiple files is that Bennan developed resistance leanings. Evidently, the woman he loved was a member of the resistance, and he had become disaffected through her. Later files prove she was actually a Central Security agent who betrayed him. One of his officers had reported several minor instances in which he had been sympathetic to captured rebels, and she was assigned to run him. General records report he was killed in a battle with a resistance ship, but closed files prove he was converted.*

"He shall indeed be delighted when he is restored to discover an agent was running him," Avon said from the doorway. His mouth had twisted, probably remembering Anna Grant. Blake grimaced. For all he knew it had been Bartolomew, Anna's Central Security persona, who had betrayed Bennan. He hoped not. They didn't need any more complications, and that would be a major one, especially if Avon were to enter his mind and release buried memories.

he is restored?" Blake asked to steer Avon's thoughts away from Anna Grant.

"Knowing you, Blake, you will insist." Avon's eyes were hard, but not out of anger at Blake. Perhaps he had a fellow feeling for anyone who had been betrayed by a Central Security agent. One didn't dare assume so, or even worse, say so. Certain triggers always sent Avon into mild regression, turning him into to the man he had been at the time of Terminal.

"I have never seen that much expression on a mutoid's face," Blake said instead. "Perhaps Servalan instructed him before the mission that if any of them were captured he should--"

"Should what? Pretend the conversion was failing? No one would believe that. Are you claiming she understands psi healing and chose that mutoid deliberately to lure me in?"

Avon stood toe to toe with him, and the darkness in his eyes proved he understood much of Blake's reasoning, and also that he would be expected to break the mental blocks in Bennan's mind, a process he would loathe. When Blake hesitated, Avon continued, "No one would believe it, except perhaps the great bleeding heart, Roj Blake. It is entirely conceivable that Servalan could arrange just such an experiment as part of a plan, should she be captured. She is no doubt aware of my abilities, and the entire galaxy realizes your desire to free the rabble. Why not a mutoid, as well?"

Soolin edged closer. "He could be right, Blake. Servalan is devious, with layers upon layers of subtlety. I would put nothing past her."

"Do you think this is a mind-trap for Avon, then?" Blake asked. He needed to warn Avon of the mutoid who resembled Soolin.

Avon replied before Soolin could speak. "Why not? It is exactly the type of scheme she would relish. Don't forget, she had entered into a light link with Darsan before her lies gave her away. She has more understanding of the mind-link process than anyone else in the Federation since the death of Rendall Weed. I have never trusted her. The last time she was a prisoner on this base, she escaped, and turned me against you in the process. She would not confront Jabberwocky and Essilon using an untested mindship without an escape plan, just as she concealed another ship on Terminal in case she failed to secure the Liberator."

Blake, Avon, and Soolin studied the mutoid Bennan. "We should run scans on all of them," Blake decided. "Mutoids being considered expendable, it is also possible that she has implanted explosives or other devices in them, possibly even a plague sphere the way she tried with the android version of Avalon. Even though we ran scans when we brought them in, there might be protections around such devices. Jabberwocky, notify Avalon."

Blake glanced at Soolin briefly, then nodded. "Perhaps we should go over to the cells, Avon." Quickly he sent a thought to Jabberwocky, to explain about the female mutoid to Avon.

Avon's face tightened as he received Jabberwocky's information, and he darted a quick look at Soolin. You have not told her? He sent to Blake through his telepathy rather than link-mode.

Though Blake was no telepath, Avon was no Auron, and could read responses from people, if he knew them well and if they thought hard enough.

"I'll come with you," Soolin volunteered.

No doubt she meant it as a portion of her bodyguard function, but Blake didn't want her to see the female mutoid without warning. //Jabberwocky,// he prodded because Jabberwocky could contact Orac outside of link mode.

//Yes,// Jabberwocky replied, and his voice was sad, regretful. Blake could tell that he had drawn in Avon for his response because Blake could sense him there. //The mutoid in question is kin to Soolin, most likely her sister. She was taken from the planet Gauda Prime as a teenager, but not slain. She and a man who was not kin to Soolin escaped the murder of Soolin's family, but were captured two years later, and she was converted. She has even served under Servalan--//

Who, no doubt, had recognized her, or had recognized Soolin when she had first encountered her.

Avon studied Blake, but his face didn't change, although he darted a measuring glance at Soolin.

Generally suspicious, Soolin noticed the glance. "What aren't you telling us, Blake? You're linked with Jabberwocky and so is Avon. Don't you think the rest of us are entitled to an explanation of your secrecy?"

"Jabberwocky has discovered the identity of another of the mutoids." It couldn't be kept secret any longer. This wasn't the way Blake would have chosen to tell it, but it would have to come out. He wished Perren were here for his psych-tech abilities, or Hugh for his natural sympathy and his relationship with Soolin. He faced Soolin. "This won't be easy for you to hear, but one of the mutoids may be...a member of your family."

Soolin froze into statuelike stillness, all expression drained from her face. She didn't even protest that all her family had been butchered. At first, she said nothing, then she whirled. "Jabberwocky, display the mutoid on the screen." Not one iota of emotion sounded in her voice.

Jabberwocky obeyed. The mutoid's head was bent, but Soolin's gasp proved she didn't need a full face viewing. "Impossible," she hissed. "It's a trick, another of Servalan's plots against us."

"I wish it were a trick." Jabberwocky's voice was rich with sympathy, and Blake suspected he was reinforcing his words through a personal link. "Soolin, she came originally from Gauda Prime. She was taken away at the time of your family's murder by a man named Rolf Horper."

? He was the one who sold us." Fury twisted Soolin's face and she spoke through gritted teeth. One hand went automatically to the clipgun she wore although she did not draw it, and Blake realized the weapon had become a form of security. "He must have meant to take advantage of her. I remember seeing him watch her and I saw the lust in his eyes, and I hated him. My father trusted him, but I never did."

"Apparently two years after they fled Gauda Prime they were captured. Or perhaps he used her as a bargaining tool."

"He liked young girls," Soolin spat. "She must have grown too old for him." She was silent a moment, then she said very quietly, "Carlan imagined she loved him." Then she said under her breath, "I am glad I killed him."

Blake could feel Jabberwocky offering wordless sympathy, but she clenched her teeth and ignored it, her face so utterly impassive as she studied the screen that Avon could not have bettered her expression.

She hesitated, then she whirled to face Avon. "Can you restore Carlan?" she asked. "You and Orac and Jabberwocky between you have removed programming and cured other problems. You must restore her."

Avon hesitated, his eyes intent, then he spoke very gently. "Carlan's life has been a series of horrors. Might it not be kinder to allow her to...continue to forget?"

She glared at him, deliberately holding his rare sympathy at bay. "No. That gives her no chance to ever be herself. I don't know if you can reverse it, Avon. They'll want you to start with the other one because everyone will think his process has begun to fail. But if his can, then why not hers? Why not all of theirs?"

"That is what Blake needs must determine," Avon said. "Once we are certain none of them are in any way implanted or sent here as a threat to us that we would be unable to contain, I will attempt it."

Blake knew he would not enjoy it, and that his offer was extremely reluctant, yet when the chips were down, Avon had never held back from the psi healing he had not asked for and still hated. He had linked with Del Grant, who had wished to kill him, and with Deeta Tarrant, a man he had no reason to value or trust. But he did value and trust the members of Jabberwocky's crew, some more than others. He would understand Bennan's suffering at the manipulation of the Central Security agent, and Soolin's pain at her sister's fate.

He tightened his grip on Soolin's shoulders in a rare gesture of comfort. "I fear it will fail. But I will try." He added to the room at large. "I have sent for Cally. Her telepathy will assist me, if she agrees to it."

"And mine," Jabberwocky jumped in. "I will take us into linkage together."

Oddly enough, Blake was the one who offered caution, although he knew that, in kinder times, Avon would twit him about it. "Before you start, the mutoids must undergo thorough scans to determine there are no delayed triggers or lethal implants of any kind."

"And very carefully, too," Thorm put in. "I remember, before I was Jabberwocky, we captured a suspected rebel. He had swallowed a device that was designed to react to scans. When they tested him, it exploded, killing him and three other people, including the psycho-strategist brought in to twist his mind and turn him from the cause of the resistance. Servalan surely has that information. If she used anything of the sort, deep scans would prove dangerous."

"So we don't scan them, and it goes off, and we do scan them and it goes off." Avon offered a bright, crocodile smile. "Just what I love most, a win-win situation."

 

                                                                               *****

 

Bringing the deactivated Orac so it could continue its researches on site, Avon, Blake, and Soolin set off for the prison section of the Ryalon base. On the way through the central market, they encountered Cally, who joined Avon, touched his hand briefly, and spoke to him in an undertone, then fell in beside Soolin. Unless Jabberwocky enhanced it, Soolin would not be able to respond to Cally's telepathy, but she would be able to listen. Avon, who could listen if he chose, deliberately did not, once he realized Cally was telling Soolin the fate of her clone sister, Zelda, when Servalan destroyed Auron, and offering her understanding. Instead, he linked with Jabberwocky and, through him, reported to the rest of the crew that one or more of the mutoids might have dangerous implants. He also informed them about Soolin's sister. He left it to Jabberwocky to explain to everyone that it would be better if they didn't fuss. Then he directed Jabberwocky to contact Avalon and arrange for her to meet them at the cells.

Gradually Perren and Hugh, Tarrant, and, finally, Vila and Gan, joined them. Jenna was over at Darsan with Edge, Tanz, and Dayna, and Jabberwocky had told them to stay there. The newcomers fell into step. Avon promptly handed Orac to Vila.

For once, the thief didn't protest being so laden, even if he must have long realized that Avon's insistence on Vila carrying Orac was not only a means of getting at Vila but a sign of trust. Vila simply passed Orac to Gan. Gan, of course, accepted it phlegmatically, but his eyes twinkled before he sobered.

"So we're all going to be blown up?" Vila asked, his faint smirk at passing off the task to the larger Gan nearly smothered by a barely submerged panic instinct. Vila might panic loudly, but it would generally be a vocal panic these days, usually either before or after the crisis, but rarely during. He wouldn't run, not unless all of them did, although he had never lost the habit of complaining. "Or be poisoned? It's as bad as Albian. Could they implant a solium radiation device in a mutoid? Can they make one that small? I think we should instantly go into orbit and wait there till it's safe."

Although Avon appreciated the sentiment, mention of Albian reminded him of Del Grant, which in turn reminded him of Anna; she had not been far from his thoughts since learning of Bennan's betrayal. "Shut up, Vila," he said automatically through tight lips.

Vila cast an edgy glance at Soolin. "Well, you know what I mean," he muttered, and added penitently to Soolin, "Sorry. For my next trick, I'll chew off my other foot."

Displacing Cally, Perren and Hugh fell in protectively on either side of Soolin, ignoring Vila, and Avon left her to them whilst he pondered the possibility of a solium device small enough to be implanted in a mutoid. A plague sphere such as the one employed by the android Avalon might be more likely, although it would need a trigger or a programmed action on the mutoid's part to be activated, and Servalan would prefer it to remain inactive whilst she remained in close proximity to it. Maybe a trigger could begin a breakdown of an outer coating, a trigger that could be activated by various types of scan as they had theorized. Perhaps a physical search for a scar might help, although most scars were easily removed or concealed, unless they were too severe or unless the victim could not afford the surgery. Servalan would hardly leave helpful clues.

At capture, the mutoids had been thoroughly searched for weapons, their clothing scanned and then returned after several implanted receivers were removed from their helmets. Since their garb was modified to allow for the serum and since the helmets were so distinctive, in the event of an escape, they would be instantly discovered. Orac had examined them for subcutaneous implants such as Perren and his friends had unknowingly borne, which had not triggered solium devices or plague spheres or any other possibilities they had not yet considered, but deeper probes might well activate Servalan's plan. For all they knew, the surface scans might have set in motion a timed reaction.

"I would suggest all unnecessary personnel be removed from the cellblock, including other prisoners," Avon suggested to Blake. "Perhaps even from the base itself."

The rebel's eyes widened. "In case Orac's examination triggered a delayed activation?"

"Or in case one of the mutoids did it by a process we do not yet understand. I suggest we bring the male mutoid Bennan to a sealed room, where we can question him." When Soolin opened her mouth to protest that her sister should be the first candidate, Avon raised his hand to silence her. "Whilst it is possible the sight of you might trigger a reaction, even if it is only surprise at the resemblance, that reaction may well be the trigger for a possible device. It may be the very reason Servalan selected her for the mission."

"I have the right to see her," Soolin cried.

"Yes, you do. But I would prefer you see her in a safe, controlled environment after we have determined that bringing you into contact with her will not trigger a violent explosion that could damage or destroy this base or kill everyone in it."

"You can't be sure that would happen."

"No, but we can't be sure it will not. I do believe her presence on Servalan's mission is not by chance. Do not doubt Servalan is aware of your identity and the mutoid's, and that she serves as a back-up plan in case her mission should fail."

Soolin hesitated, her face cold. "Maybe," she said. "But consider this, Avon. The odds are that if her mutoids were captured, Servalan would be captured and would fall victim to any such plan if it were intended to destroy the base. I don't believe she would risk her own life."

"Maybe she meant only for that mutoid to be captured," Vila threw in. "We can't be sure. We need to find out. Maybe she should be scanned."

"Vila speaking sense? Perhaps she has already triggered her device to create such a radical effect," Avon purred. He then added more softly to Soolin, "If there is a chance of restoring your sister, we will take it. Even if I did not wish to, Blake would insist. But we must not endanger us, the people of the base, or Ryalon itself in the process. Triggering such a device might kill the mutoid, and I don't think you'd want that."

"Always rational, Avon," she snapped, but she appeared to realize the sense of his caution.

"As are you," he reminded her.

"What about Servalan?" Perren asked. "Maybe we ought to question her first. Remind her she's right here and a target if she set any traps."

"She might have set a trap to which she is immune," Hugh offered. "If it is a form of poison, she may have prepared in advance by taking an antidote."

Blake nodded. "I've notified Avalon, and additional monitors are activated in every cell, including Servalan's. Guards have been doubled, and monitors in the passages are set to check for gas or poison or any alteration in the quality of the air, with sensors set to test for minute vibrations. Life monitors outside each cell will report any physical changes in the prisoners. Other prisoners have been transferred to a separate location."

"Thorough, for once," Avon remarked. If he persisted long enough, Blake just might learn sufficient wariness for survival. "Or did Orac suggest it?"

"Jabberwocky did," Cally said. "He told me through his telepathy. I think it might be beneficial for us to interview the mutoid in link-mode, or even in gestalt, and do it before we interview Servalan, so we can confront her with as much information as possible."

Blake agreed. "I want you and Avon in there with him, Cally. You won't be able to read his thoughts since he is not telepathic, but you can detect emotions."

She inclined her head. "I can."

"Mutoids are emotionless, Blake," Gan put in. "I've seen enough of them to realize that. They kill mindlessly if ordered, and if not, they don't. Either way, they simply don't care."

Avon wondered fleetingly if Gan's woman had been killed by mutoids, but elected not to ask. There were enough raw wounds involved already.

"They certainly appear that way," Blake argued. "This one had evidence of facial expression which I have never before seen on a mutoid. I have seen physical pain, but animals show pain, and even pain is muted in mutoids. The possible expression could be at a command from Servalan, although I can't guess why she would give that particular order."

"You can never tell with her," Vila argued with an elaborate shudder. "She might have learned enough about Avon's healing to think he'd be sure to try. But I wouldn't trust her if she said my name was Vila Restal."

An interesting theory even if Avon had already considered it. Vila was definitely coming on. "So Cally is to detect supposed emotions in the mutoid. What is it you will have me do, Blake?" Avon asked. He knew without asking, but he wanted Blake to say it.

"You will do what you do so well, Avon. Fail to trust. We need your suspicion."

"Finally, he appreciates you," muttered Vila just loudly enough for Avon to hear him.

"And so he should. And the rest of your merry band, Blake?"

"We'll monitor visually, and also in link mode with the two of you. If we send for Thorm, he can relay anything from the linkage to Avalon."

"Whilst Orac monitors the mutoid for implants."

"Electrodes were attached before without harm. We will do that now."

"Oh, joy," Avon muttered. "I am sure Orac will enjoy that every bit as much as we do." He was glad the activator was not in place, or he would have had to listen to Orac's complaints all the rest of the way to the cells.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Cally settled in her chair and studied the mutoid who faced them across a table. Electronic restraints secured him, and electrodes monitored him. At the first sign of any physiological changes or power build-up, evacuation would take place. Although Cally's people had never approved of prisoner restraints, she knew Avon would never approach him without safeguards, so she restrained her sympathy far more easily than if the prisoner had been unmodified.

At a suggestion from Jabberwocky through the link, the mutoid had been brought in without his helmet, revealing disarrayed hair of a dark golden blond that straggled around his face. Unable to use his hands, he tossed his head to remove it from his eyes, but that could have been instinct. She detected no emotion from him, not even curiosity, even though he studied them intently as if to measure his enemies.

The man had a strong face, with a firm jaw, narrowed eyes, a somewhat hawklike nose, and broad cheekbones. His eyes were the colour of stormy water, and he held himself alert, watching them from under thin brows. Unlike most mutoids, he wore a mustache, a thing uncommon in the Federation but more frequently seen in the Outer Worlds, and, in growing numbers, among members of the resistance. Thorm had a mustache, like his son Dorn, but that had been deliberately designed to match Jabberwocky's original body. Unlike the mutoid's hair, his mustache was well trimmed, as if he possessed the vanity to see to it, or as if he had been instructed to tidiness, a far more likely option. He was Blake's height, broad-shouldered and sturdy, with no spare flesh; Cally had never seen a mutoid with excess weight. Because he was physically enhanced, she was almost glad of the restraints.

If he were uncomfortable under Avon's merciless scrutiny, he did not show it. He didn't turn it into a staring contest, but simply studied Avon in return, then Cally. The stormy-water eyes measured her without surprise.

"You are an Auron," he said.

"And if she is?" Avon sounded his most smug and obnoxious, and she knew from link-mode that he had chosen to be irritating, leaving her to display sympathy, since that was a ploy that sometimes worked with prisoners.

The mutoid's eyes flicked to Avon, then to Cally, as if Avon's words bothered him as much as the colour of the walls did. "Auron was destroyed," he said. "You are Cally; you are a wanted rebel."

"Yes, I am," she said. And sent him a telepathic message. But it is you who are the prisoner. Would he react? Could mutoids receive telepathic communication?

As a telepath himself, Avon would have heard her sending unless she had sent it privately, but of course he knew through the link, as did the others watching on a monitor in another room. He held his peace, his face as impassive as the mutoid's.

For an instant, the mutoid's eyes glittered, then he said in the same calm, patient, passionless voice, "I will not remain a prisoner."

So he could receive telepathic signals. Perhaps all mutoids could; certainly he knew of the fall of her people. How much actual knowledge of the galaxy at large were mutoids permitted to retain?

"You might die." Avon's words were meant to be threatening, although he spoke them with no expression whatsoever.

"As might you." It was simply a statement of possible fact, not even a threat. The expressionless face did not alter as he spoke.

Cally studied the mutoid, then she sent, San Bennan.

His eyes glittered as he 'heard' her telepathic message, but his features did not alter. "Your words mean nothing to me."

"It is your name. It is who you once were."

"I am a mutoid. My previous life no longer matters."

"It no longer matters that they took away your name, your personality, your kin, your life, everything that mattered to you?" She was tempted to reach across the table that separated him and touch his hand, but she knew Avon would explode in his icy way if she even tried.

"It does not matter," he said. "Memory is only an encumbrance."

"The man you were would have fought tooth and nail to retain his memories."

"It is unimportant," he repeated, unmoved. "I have no interest in what you say."

No matter how hard she looked, she could see nothing in his face or his eyes to indicate anything different. The flicker of his eyes might have simply been a function of the brain enhancement from his conversion.

When she hesitated, Avon spoke with that coldness that would have made her shiver, were it directed against her. "Then tell us instead what commands Servalan gave you."

"I have been instructed to reveal nothing to my captors."

"Then you have revealed one set of orders, and that is contrary to Servalan's wishes."

"No, for that is what I was instructed to say." His tranquillity, or perhaps his indifference, remained untouched by Avon's accusation.

Avon leaned closer; he had a habit of doing that when he wanted to make a point. "You do realize that you may have been booby-trapped to kill us and die with us," Avon said very smoothly.

"If that is my duty, I will fulfill it."

"Then why did you glare at the monitor in your cell?"

The mutoid paused, and for an instant Cally wondered if Avon's question would provoke a response. But when he spoke, it was calmly. "I studied my environment, including the monitor, to learn as much as I could of your security. It does not affect my duty to respond to your question, for you would expect a prisoner to learn what he could of his captivity."

//Avon, Cally, Orac is reporting a heightened bodily response to discussion of his original identity.// The words flowed through the link. Cally acknowledged them and sensed Avon doing the same.

Continue to use his name and to use your telepathy, Avon sent to her, and allowed the words to go through the mindlink but not to the mutoid. And to Jabberwocky, //Have we any information yet on Bennan's family?//

//Orac is researching it. We will share information as it is revealed.//

//And the mutoid Carlan?// Cally asked, letting her sympathy for Soolin flow through the link.

//Also seeking information,// Jabberwocky assured them. Without words, he relayed what little information had already been located. Bennan had a brother who had disappeared to the Outer Worlds after his capture. That may, however, have been the Federation's story. The families of enemies of the state were either killed out of hand or exiled to remote prison worlds, or at times, held as a control for the actions of their kin.

//What is the brother's name? Is his location known?// Cally asked.

//His name is Frayn Bennan. There are no reports of his death and no listings of resistor kin on prison planets in the central computers.//

Cally sent her thanks through the linkage, and drew strength from it, as she always did. The exchange had been so brief that Bennan had not noticed a gap, or at least had not allowed his curiosity to show.

She faced him. If he were not restrained and if he did not produce the strength of a mutoid, she would have offered her hand to him despite Avon's imagined reaction. What of your brother? she sent. What of Frayn? Much better to use telepathy than to speak aloud, although she did not channel her words to him but let them go out to the link through her thoughts.

The sea-coloured eyes flickered much more strongly than before, and the mutoid's mouth tightened. "That name means nothing to me," he said, but stiffly.

Under the table, Avon's knee nudged Cally's, and he sent her a quick mental signal to persist.

Your brother's name means nothing to you? She caught a wisp of information from Jabberwocky. Your younger brother. At another mental prompt, she gestured at the room's vidscreen, where the image of a man who looked somewhat like the mutoid appeared. There was more red than gold in his hair, and he went clean shaven. His eyes were wider than his brother's with a somewhat exotic tilt. The two shared the same nose. But the main difference between the mutoid and Frayn Bennan was that Frayn's face was alive and full of expression. The image had caught him smiling, a smile so contagious that Cally smiled in return.

//Continue to display it,// Avon sent to Jabberwocky.

The mutoid stared at the image, his face utterly without expression. But as he looked, his jaw bunched, and abruptly, his eyes glittered brightly with unshed tears. His mouth traced a narrow line like a scar across his face, and he clung to silence as if it were salvation.

"Your brother," Avon said. "I once had a brother."

Cally stared at him, for he rarely mentioned his brother, and never from reminiscence.

"He is dead," said the mutoid very quickly. "When you were sentenced to Cygnus Alpha, he was executed. Your parents were too highly connected to be killed out of hand."

Avon froze, all colour draining from his face. Under the table, Cally groped for his hand and closed her fingers around it. He didn't grip in return, his fingers stiff as sticks.

He has been instructed to foment trouble among us, she told him privately. To show your distress is to allow Servalan to win.

That and her sympathy, as well as the universal comfort of the link, was enough for Avon to regain control. She could sense Blake in linkage, offering silent support, and even Vila, although his was through an offer to come in and strike the mutoid on the mouth. That Vila would never do that, not from cowardice but because it took even more than this to provoke him to physical violence, almost made Avon smile. He sucked his pain inside and closed it away, deep within the fortress of his inner being, where he might, later, perhaps admit Blake or Cally, and prepared himself to continue the interview. He did not offer thanks, not in words, for that was never his way, but he assumed an expression even more impassive than a mutoid's.

"At least I know his fate," he said as if he had taken mutoid lessons. "That is sufficient. You do not know Frayn's fate. He may be dead, violently and horribly, at the hands of the Federation whom you are forced to serve. He may be running, desperate, without hope."

to prevent a recurrence. Could there have been a design flaw? Could a worker, perhaps a secret resistance operative, have interfered with the conversion? Or were some people simply more resistant to it than most? Perhaps Bennan was. She believed he had recognized the picture of his brother. A quick question to Orac routed through Jabberwocky revealed Bennan had been converted only five years. The process had been long-established by then.

Before she had gone to Saurian Major, Cally had heard a story, passed in secret among her people, that an Auron had been modified. The horror had spread among the Aurons through their telepathy, and Cally, then scarcely more than a child, had experienced nightmares in which she had awakened, weeping in pity for that poor Auron, trapped, alone and silent, in his mind, never to hear the voices of his people.

To her knowledge, no other Auron had undergone modification. Was it possible the telepathy factor had interfered with the process? This mutoid might not be telepathic, but he had instantly heard and understood her mental communication, recognizing it for what it was.

Could telepathy withstand the full force of the mutoid conversion?

Had Bennan possessed a slight talent before he had been converted?

Her speculation went to the link, and she could feel Perren considering it. He should understand more than most because he had studied Aurons as well as working out the linkage process in the original creation of Jabberwocky. Hugh was there, too, offering what he knew of the physical processes in mutoid conversion; physical and mental enhancement. Memory erasure, of course, but that did not always work because Vila had undergone personality adjustment but had never stayed adjusted, and nearly all of Blake's blanked memories had returned even before Avon's first healing. Neither process was the same as mutoid conversion from what Orac could ascertain, but some of the processes might be similar.

//He is not telepathic now,// she sent. //But I cannot say what has been done to alter him. If conversion can steal telepathy as well as memory, it is even more of an abomination than I had believed, and we must discover a means of reversal.//

Orac displayed another picture of Frayn Bennan at a younger age, perhaps twenty, full of all youth's conviction that the world was his for the taking, that he was immortal, that he could accomplish anything he dreamed of. Then he displayed a third picture, an older Frayn, his eyes hollow with despair and bitterness, a lock of white in his hair that looked as if it had been turned following an injury to his scalp. Most of the youthful dreaming was gone, but his chin thrust stubbornly with a determined resistance to fate.

The mutoid gasped, but his face didn't change. Only the stormy-water eyes revealed anything. "I do not know this man, nor does his fate matter," he said in mutoid tones. But his eyes glittered.

"And if he is dead, does it matter?" Avon asked.

"No," said the mutoid.

"Yes, San," Cally spoke very gently. "It matters. It must."

"The past means nothing."

"Then why," she asked even more quietly, "are you crying?"

An automatic hand went to his cheek, fingers tracing the moisture there. "I accept no memories," he said.

"Your heart does." She knew Avon would scorn such sentiment, as he always did, but instead he sent a hasty message to Orac to test readings for internal threat, for the possibility of a device. Orac sent a negative through the link, channelled by Jabberwocky.

Through the link, Blake queried Avon about the possibility of a psi healing. Avon's face twisted.

//I will go in with you, if it will help,// Perren offered.

Avon hesitated, and Cally could feel his resistance as if he had snapped every barrier he possessed into place. Psi-healing worked best when the other party agreed, but San Bennan, trapped inside the mutoid, might be screaming for release, unable to shatter the shell that encased him. Cally feared that shell might break anyone who thrust against it. Even if Avon could penetrate it to the man Bennan had once been, the wounds might be too deep for even Avon to repair. Even if it worked, he might not be able to heal Bennan without the aid of someone trained in the workings of the human mind.

Avon didn't dislike or resent Perren as much as he once did, but he found the psych-tech annoying. Would he willingly take Perren into healing with him? Or would he walk away from the entire process?

She knew Avon well enough to be certain the tears that glittered in the mutoid's eyes would never affect him. In healing mode, he could be sympathetic, but, expecting a well-conceived trap from the mind of Servalan, he would be suspicious of tears. If Blake persuaded him and it went poorly, he might even blame Blake, and with the intensity of the bond between them, enhanced by several healings and reinforced by link-mode and gestalt, she shuddered to imagine the end result.

But she could sense the mutoid's pain, a pain so deeply buried the mutoid might not even be conscious of it. Yet his eyes darted to the picture of his brother every few seconds, then away, as if he were compelled but fought it with the programming that had turned him.

Avon went so long without response that Cally feared he would not answer at all. But at last, he heaved a sigh so full of frustration and resentment that even Jabberwocky winced. //Not until we are certain there are no hidden devices within his system,// he insisted. //Jabberwocky, verify with Orac.//

It was such a major concession that Cally automatically took Avon's hand and squeezed it. He seldom rejected her touch, and he did not now, but he threw her such a sour smile she feared he would appear five times as touchy afterward to make up for his concession.

Shall I go in with you? she sent to him privately.

No, Cally. I will need you as control. If you sense emotion from him, you can send to me, even when I am deep in the healing link.

She nodded.

"The past is unimportant," the mutoid insisted, but there was such an element of desperation buried under the impassive words that even Avon flinched.

//Avon, Orac says he can detect no devices within the mutoid.//

//What aren't you telling me, Jabberwocky?// Avon challenged.

There was a gap, which was enough for Avon to glance involuntarily toward the hidden monitor by which the others watched the session. When Jabberwocky spoke into their minds, it was with such deep compassion that Cally shivered even before his words hit home. //The device is planted in Soolin's sister.//

"Yes," hissed Avon as if he had expected that. The healing portion of his nature sent wordless sympathy to Soolin, but he frowned as it was rebuffed by Soolin's defensive walls. Her wordless protest ran through the link, then was gone as she dropped from the linkage.

//I'll go to her,// Hugh sent and followed her.

There was a silence, then the door opened and Perren entered the interrogation room, his mouth tight. //We'll leave Orac to determine how to neutralize the device,// he said. //But now we had better work on this one. Orac is also scanning for traces of the brother.//

Avon nodded. He spoke aloud to the mutoid. "You were converted by a process said to be irreversible. However, it is possible it can be reversed. We are searching for your brother, Frayn. When he is found, if he lives, it would be better if you could remember him."

"The past is an encumbrance."

"No, it's how we learn and grow," Perren said.

Avon threw him a scornful look. "Platitudes will scarcely assist him," he pointed out. "If we are to do this, let us do it quickly. You have never experienced the process. We will maintain the restraints at all times, Cally will remain apart from the process, and I would prefer to have a guard present as well. Jabberwocky will maintain a surface link, prepared to pull out at risk. Do you understand that, Jabberwocky?"

"I understand," replied the filtered voice, "but I must make my own judgments."

"If I tell you to leave, it will be to preserve your life," Avon insisted. "The same for you," he added with a sideways glance at Perren.

"I understand," said Perren in exactly the same tone as Jabberwocky.

Avon's face tightened and his hands curled into fists. "Neither of you understand. If I tell you to depart, it is to preserve your lives. This is a type of programming I have not faced before. Blake would have me do this, but I have not yet discovered the full nature of the risk."

"If it's too dangerous, withdraw, Avon," Blake insisted over the speaker.

"Well now, that would defeat the entire purpose of the exercise." He faced the monitor. "Blake, no more than you do I like the concept of mutoid conversion. Every one of us might face that, should we be captured. Death is more likely, but considering Servalan's vindictive nature, the fact that she is a prisoner does not preclude her escape or a prisoner exchange, at which time she would relish seeing the lot of us as mutoids. I do not intend for that to happen."

He forced the words through clenched teeth, and the mutoid watched him, eyes narrowed, when he wasn't staring at the image of his brother on the screen.

"This is not about your cause, Blake," Avon continued. "It is about self-preservation, a quality of which many of you are devoid. There is nothing further to say. Orac, first I need to know if there is any form of linkage between this mutoid and the Carlan one that would trigger the device implanted within her?"

Orac's voice was huffy. *Of course not. However, I would recommend a force wall being put in place around the interrogation room as an additional precaution.*

"That can be done, Avon," Avalon said over the intercom. "It will be ready in two minutes."

He nodded toward the screen, then he went into telepathy. Perren, you and I must both be in physical contact with the mutoid and each other. You take his left hand, and I will take his right. Then we will join our free hands.

He allowed Cally to hear, and she hid a smile at his fear that Perren would make an irreverent comment, as was his wont.

Perren didn't. He merely shifted the table then drew his chair closer. The mutoid's restraints bound him to the chair, which was bolted to the floor, steel bands around wrists, ankles, waist, and chest, but his hands were free. When Perren gripped his left hand, a grimace ran across his face and he jerked his head to clear the stubborn lock of hair from his eyes.

A barber would not come amiss, Avon sent privately to Cally, and she struggled not to smile, although any desire to smile faded quickly.

Avon grasped the mutoid's other hand then reached for Perren's.

"Does this mean we're dating?" Perren asked very lightly.

"In no lifetime," Avon replied, although he was not quite as offended by the quip as Cally would have expected.

The mutoid did not struggle. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"You will see."

"Ready, Avon," Avalon reported. "Force wall in place."

"Proceed," urged Blake. "And, Avon? Be careful."

"Well now, Blake, careful is not the term I would use. I may never forgive you for this."

Cally was certain Blake could hear the faint edge of wry humour in the words. If not, she would certainly tell him.

"Close your eyes," Avon told Perren, and sank into the psi-link.

 

                                                                               *****

 

"This means nothing." The mutoid's voice held no emotion, but Cally could feel a near tremor running through it.

//Yes, it does,// Perren sent through the link. //He might not have all his memories, or even many of them, but his feelings aren't gone. He recognized the name. Maybe Servalan taunted him with it to test his conversion. Or maybe he discovered computer files. But he recognizes the name, knows it's his brother. He half-believes he doesn't care, that the past means nothing. If the conversion is failing, he will fight all the harder to hold onto it.//

//Why would he do that?// Soolin asked. //You would think he'd be glad to find himself.//

Cally heard the note of pain in her voice, the fear that her sister would not fight to find herself, if even she could. The conversion was intended to be irreversible. It had never broken down before.

If they had control, they would be glad, Cally sent directly to Soolin. If it is within my power, we will find a way to reverse this process.

They could not assume the process was irreversible. The Federation would have concealed news of any failures and worked frantically Total darkness surrounded him, so intense a black that Avon could see nothing. The only warmth in that chill night was the clasp of Perren's hand as the psych-tech's fingers closed convulsively around him. Do not speak, Avon sent to him and strained his telepathic senses for Perren's, I won't.

He had entered healing mode with Cally before, the first time he had healed Blake, and her presence had warmed him. Perren wasn't exactly the person he would choose to warm him, and he feared the tech would see more than he should, would come to understand Avon too well, but that could scarcely be helped. Blake would never give ground, especially after the mutoid had cried so silently. He would view that as proof the mutoid conversion was failing. No matter what commands Servalan had given the mutoid, she would hardly have instructed him to weep at the sight of his brother's image.

Avon cast about in the darkness, letting the spark of his healing fire guide his direction. He tried to summon the tower of his psyche, and it appeared before him, gradually showing light in the windows that had once been narrow cracks that scarcely anything could pass through. From Perren's gasp, he saw the tower.

//Progress, Avon,// he sent through the healing link, causing Avon to realize that link-mode and gestalt granted understanding, and that perhaps, any of the crew, except possibly Dayna, might be able to join him in healing. Not, of course, that he would welcome it.

//Progress?// he asked as dryly as possible.

//Not enough doors, but many windows. I'll wager there were hardly any when you started.//

He was sharp enough to cut himself. //My psyche is not the issue here. I shall seek the mutoid now. All you need do is hold on and follow where I lead.//

//I bow to my mighty leader.//

psyche dwells in a circus tent.//

//Not a bad idea.//

Avon ended that conversation and closed his mental eyes, letting his healer sense quest out. At first, there was nothing, then a faint tug of energy allowed him to turn in the proper direction. With Perren's essence at his side, he drifted toward it.

So gradually that at first he did not even notice it, a landscape came around them, lit by an unearthly green glow, a colour he associated with a mouldering corpse. Faint sounds teased his ears, howls and moans like the spirits of the dead, intermingled with lonely animal cries. Avon had never heard the sound of a wolf's howl but he suspected he was hearing it now.

//Wolves,// Perren sent, and Avon nodded. He wasn't sure Perren would 'see' the nod, but it hardly mattered.

They went on. The landscape was utterly barren; no plants grew at all, and not even the ruin of trees and grass marked the desolate plain. Only the faint slope of hills defined the landscape.

As they neared the heart of the mutoid's focus, small details appeared, grotesque and morbid, a row of tombs such as one saw in deliberately frightening vistapes. No names were inscribed on any of them, but Avon suspected they were the tombs of Bennan's memories.

The thought went to Perren, who shivered in such a way Avon felt it through the link. He nudged Avon mentally and pointed to the central tomb, an actual monument with a narrow spire that rose halfway into the sky. At its base, a closed door barred entry.

//Well, I'm not going in there,// Perren sent wryly.

//We must.//

He could feel Perren's grimace as they crossed the barren ground that led to the entrance to the tomb. There, he halted, extending his senses toward the surrounding tombs. They were barricaded, not with fences or walls or force fields, but with a surge of unfamiliar energy, a chill and bitter energy that sent hungry little tendrils as if to suck the life from him and Perren. Avon could see them, narrow black strands of energy like airborne snakes, and he projected counter-energy to sear them as they approached. Perren yelped, then as if he understood, he let energy flow through the link of the hands that were joined in the interrogation room to aid Avon in defending against the strands.

"Soul suckers," Avon said aloud into the deathly stillness.

"Memory suckers," Perren corrected. He nudged Avon to indicate another set. "I think it's their job to keep memories from returning."

"Clever of you," Avon said. "I always appreciate a man who states the obvious."

Perren grimaced at him, then warned of a few more of the strands.

Avon charred them into nothing with the power of his healing gift. When they turned to dust and blew away and no more emerged, he offered Perren a toothy smile.

"Uh, I wouldn't be too happy yet," Perren muttered and pointed at the encircling tombs.

Out of them emerged zombie figures, mostly skeletal, shambling not toward Avon and Perren but toward the towering tomb. When they needed to approach the two, they never hesitated, but stalked directly at them, so intent that they would be able to pass through anything that blocked their way.

Perren yanked Avon sideways before one of them could pass through him. "Let's play nice with the zombies," he urged.

Fastidiously, Avon freed his arm from the psych tech's grip and leaned closer to the closest near-transparent figure. As he watched, its features developed, the eerie death pall that hung over it melting away. It took on more human form, and a quick glance around proved the others had done the same.

"Memories," Avon breathed. He wasn't sure why his healing gift had given Bennan's blocked memories such a grotesque form. It was rare for him to see other people in the dreamscape, although Vila's healing had taken place in a tavern with people at other tables who had mostly paid no attention to them, but had glanced their way on occasion. He glanced past them to see if any location memories existed and discovered at the fringes of the desolate valley, scenes appeared, although they took no colour or depth but resembled ancient photographs from the Old Calendar, such as Avon had once seen in a museum, often of historic sites or people sitting stiffly and staring straight ahead, clad in strange and formal garb. These pictures resembled scenes in the domes, and several involved a pursuit ship.

The developing people bunched around the tower that was Bennan's psyche, pressing against it, but its walls rejected them. Here and there, a crack showed, revealing faint light within, but they did not grow.

"What now, o mighty healer?" Perren prompted.

"Now I find Bennan and open the tower," Avon replied as if it were blatantly obvious. He circled the tower, frowning, conscious of Perren trailing him like an annoying puppy, resembling Tanz in his fascination for the new and unexpected.

"It is not enough to remove the obvious memory eaters," Avon explained tightly. "There will be more of them, perhaps of a different sort, surrounding Bennan, or else the memory people would be able to reach him."

"You mean he's in there? How do we get in?"

do not get in," Avon replied. "I must go in alone or at least force open the door. If I bring him out, you may then do what you fondly assume will heal him, but only after I have cleared the way."

"I didn't think you'd be your usual insufferable self in here."

"And you were wrong. How surprising."

Avon approached the tower, and the memory people stepped aside just enough to allow him through. Arms pressed against his side to prevent touching any of them, Avon passed through the narrow gap, and Perren edged after him. Short of ejecting him from the healing link, Avon could never prevent him from being himself, so he heaved a put-upon sigh and said, "Do exactly as I do, and spare me your pointless questions."

"You take the fun out of everything, Avon."

"Patently."

When Perren's dreamscape image rolled his eyes, Avon concentrated on the tower. He would need to force an opening, so he sidled along until he reached the sealed doorway. Beside it hovered one of the memories, and Avon recognized it as Frayn Bennan, the missing brother. He knew it wasn't the real Frayn, and he doubted he could speak with it, but he said, "Frayn, stand aside. I must do this."

The ghostly figure stared at him. It did not speak and its expression held no questions.

"It doesn't really understand," Perren said. "It's only a composite memory of his brother. We might converse with it, but it would have no bearing on the real person, assuming he still--"

"Be silent," Avon hissed. Suggesting anywhere near the tower that Bennan's brother might be dead would be utterly counterproductive.

With a self-directed curse, Perren nodded.

Avon pressed both hands flat against the door.

Cold and clammy like a day-old corpse, it was solid with no give to it. Even as he curled his fingers into the crack around its frame, he sensed a stubbornly enduring substance that would hold against him if he fought it for a hundred years.

Perren copied Avon's movement, and the shocked grimace that twisted his mouth proved he experienced the same atavistic reaction to the substance that Avon did.

"You bring me to the nicest places," he muttered.

Avon dug at the crack with all his strength, and it widened slightly with a ghastly creaking of hinges, leaving a gap barely wide enough for Avon to insert his fingers. He squeezed them into the opening and tugged with all his strength.         

As the door creaked and groaned open, a golden burst of energy flowed out, passing directly through Avon's body and barely grazing Perren, who jerked his hands free instinctively.

Avon lacked that choice. Cold permeated his very being, oozing into every molecule, enclosing him, sealing him away from everything. One by one, his memories deserted him, and what frightened him the most was that he could feel them going. The crew of Jabberwocky vanished one at a time, pop, pop, pop, and Avon moaned as they left him. For the longest time, perhaps no more than several seconds, he clung desperately to the memory of Blake, but then he, too, vanished. Perren, linked with him, remained, but he seemed distant, a stranger, until Avon no longer knew who he was and why he kept yelling, "Avon!" Who was Avon?

The man at his side finally stopped yelling, and faced the golden light that glowed like a tall pillar at his side. "San Bennan," the man said. "Your memories have returned."

The golden light swirled and coalesced into a man. His features were almost familiar, but Avon was not curious enough to wonder about the strangeness that surrounded him. He merely listened because a portion of him insisted that he needed knowledge for survival.

"I am San Bennan," the form said. He wore a strange helmet, and his hands clutched at his chest, and then he winced and cried, "No! Nooooo!"

"Easy, easy," the other man said to him. "Yes, you were a mutoid, but we have returned your memories. We may be able to reverse the need for blood serum, too. But there is no more block to your memories. Look around you. Let them come to you."

The man called San Bennan stared past the speaker, and saw many forms approaching. "Frayn," he murmured and held out his arms.

Instead of hugging him, the figure lunged at him and merged into him, sinking into his body and vanishing. The other shadowy forms ran at him, one by one vanishing into Bennan, who took them all in, growing more solid with each penetration. It was a curious sight, but Avon did not understand it, nor grasp why the other man watched the procedure with a huge grin on his face.

When all the forms had merged, the man took Bennan's arm and pointed to a series of pictures that surrounded the valley. Avon expected them to be flat and devoid of colour, but instead each appeared brilliantly lit, three-dimensional. San Bennan cried in delight.

"This is a dreamscape," the man explained. "We're here to heal you, to return your memories. You will be free, and we will help you."

"But I'm a mutoid." He shuddered as he spoke.

"Physically and in part," the man said. "Yes, that's true. But we think we can put an end to that." He cast a doubtful and worried glance at Avon. "Anyway, it worked for you. Our top scientists will get to work on the physical conversion, the serum thing. We have some brilliant people, and I'm one of them."

"Certainly vain," Bennan muttered. "Where is this place?"

"It's a dreamscape, like I said. Are you ready to leave it?"

"I don't like it," Bennan said. "What's that tower?"

"That, my friend, is where you were imprisoned--well, imprisoned in your head. But that's over now."

"And who's that?" he asked, pointing at Avon.

"He's the one who saved you."

"The one who made me remember?" Bennan asked, and his face tightened. Odd when one could feel no pain, no emotion, one could recognize it on the face of another. Pain there was, pain at the memories, a deep, intolerable ache. Better that he need feel no such thing.

Yet that ache came with other things, with benefits that far outweighed...

No, that was pointless. Only in refusing to care could one find safety.

So why, then, had he freed Bennan's memories, if freed them he had?

Bennan glared at him. "Maybe someday I'll be glad," he said. "But right now..." He hunched his shoulders away from the man's reassuring clasp, then, before the man could realize what Bennan intended, he swung his fist and belted Avon on the jaw.

Darkness swooped over him, and the last thing he could remember was the dreamscape whisking away and a man with dark curls and a woman rushing at him and crying, "Avon! Avon!"

 

                                                                               *****

 

"What's wrong with him, Ven?" Blake demanded of Perren as Avon collapsed into his arms. He hadn't expected Avon to fall over when the healing ended. Gently, he and Cally eased him into one of the chairs.

"I hit him," Bennan said. "At least, that's what I remember." When Perren had lunged at Avon, he had let go with both hands, and Avon's clasp on the mutoid had relaxed. Now he sprawled in his chair but there was no mark on either hand to verify the mutoid's words.

"He did something," Bennan continued in a dreary voice. "He gave me back my memories, but I'm still a mutoid. Those five years won't go away. I killed innocent people. I forgot my brother. He's out there needing me, and I forgot him. God." He would have buried his face in his hands but for the restraints; when they pulled him up short, he studied and accepted them, but resentment seethed in his eyes.

"What is wrong with Avon?" Cally asked as she and Blake settled him as comfortably as they could. "He does not respond to my telepathy."

"That's because he's unconscious," Blake reassured her. "It's obvious."

"No, it is not obvious, Blake. I can reach him in any state."

"It was nearly impossible to reach him when he tried to heal himself," Blake reminded her. "I had to go into healing mode to bring him out. But I can't understand what happened this time. Did the healing backfire?"

"When he is unconscious, his responses will be vague and disoriented, but at least I sense him. Now I sense nothing, only a diffuse, passive existence. I can find no trace of Avon's personality in his mind." She gasped, stricken, one hand pressed against Avon's chest, her shoulders slumped, her face alive with fear.

Blake jerked as if she had struck him. "As if he had become a mutoid?" he asked.

Cally froze and Perren, who had hovered just beyond her, caught his breath.

"The image of Bennan passed through him in a golden shape," Perren explained. "Avon had destroyed twisted strands we thought were memory eaters, and they were gone, but Bennan was sealed away in a tower, and when Avon ripped open a gap, a golden form emerged. It passed through his dreamscape form, and he sort of...stopped responding." He hesitated, then said reluctantly with none of his customary flipness, "...stopped being...Avon."

"That's not true," Blake protested, even as he feared it. The healing link had never before boomeranged, not like this. When Avon had been trapped in his own mind, he had still been Avon. How could the essence of Bennan passing through Avon's body have removed his memories? Impossible. Mutoid conversion also altered the brain. Just having a ghostly form pass through him in the healing landscape couldn't turn Avon into a mutoid.

But it might block his memories. Could it take away his ability to feel?

Avon had long claimed that excessive emotion was pointless. If this event had removed or blocked his emotions, would he even try to fight it? Might a portion of his mind believe there was peace and safety in no longer possessing the ability to care?

As he stared at Avon's blank, impassive features, Blake's stomach knotted. Even in unconsciousness, no trace of pain appeared. But worse, there was no shred of Avon-ness about the lax figure. He might have been a statue or a mannequin. Or a corpse.

"I cannot reach him," Cally repeated, a despairing wail against fate.

"Jabberwocky?"

"I am here. Avon is gone from the link. It was a clean, instantaneous severing, as if he had never been here." That Jabberwocky spoke aloud rather than through the link was telling. Had the severing damaged the link or affected Jabberwocky? Jabberwocky had been ordered to withdraw at the first sign of trouble.

"How much did you see?"

"From Avon, everything until the golden light passed through him. After that, I still had a light link with Perren, but he was distracted, trying to explain to Bennan and trying to understand what had happened to Avon. He asked me to seek for him, but I could not find him. Although I can see him through the monitors, I cannot touch his mind. I am repelled every time I try as if a barrier stronger than the force wall flings me away."

"I caused that?" Bennan asked, curious and slightly repentant. "I didn't mean it. The part of me that's...me wouldn't have done it. The mutoid part might have done it, not vindictively but because of commands." He bowed his head. "They turned me into a monster. I have destroyed too many people already."

Blake left his hand on Avon's forehead, where he could feel no fever heat, but he studied Bennan, who sat, his cheeks tear stained, his eyes hollow, not from emptiness but from colossal pain. "What did Servalan command you to do?" he asked through gritted teeth.

His body jerked at the name. "Servalan? We were told she was Space Captain Sleer and instructed to obey her every command, but now I realize she was Servalan. I don't remember most of the details, but I think it was that, if we were captured, to cause whatever disruption was necessary to allow her to escape." He jerked suddenly and scanned the interrogation room with a wild glance. "The female mutoid, the fair one, has an implant. It is a bacterial device that will kill all humans within a radius of three square kilometres and then become impotent. She can implant it by biting very hard on one of her teeth, and will do so if certain triggers are met." He groaned. "She was instructed separately, and I was not told what those triggers are."

"So the device is in her teeth?" Perren asked. "Jabberwocky, relay that to Avalon and the security teams."

"Confirmed."

"Yes, in one of her teeth, and very well shielded. Since mutoids rarely chew food, only a deliberate act or a violent disruption would trigger it. I wish I could help you with the trigger, but the Space Captain was very secretive."

Hugh raced in, followed by Ralker, the base's chief physician, and they converged on Avon, displacing Blake and Cally with the ease of doctors everywhere. Vila followed them into the room, but stopped just inside the door, his eyes enormous, his face pale, his shoulders hunched like a man who fears a beating.

"Avon?" he said barely above a whisper.

Soolin stopped in the doorway, staring first at Avon, which caused her mouth to tighten, and then at Bennan. While the doctors examined Avon, she stalked over to Bennan and said, "What is the nature of the device implanted in my sister's tooth?" Only someone with a heart of utter stone would not shiver at that question.

Bennan stared at her, then his eyes widened, and he said in a suddenly gently voice, "Yes, she resembles you strongly. I'm sorry. The bacteria is airborne, small enough to pass through solid matter. It will destroy her when she bites on it, and she will do so the moment she is threatened, or anyone tries to remove it."

Soolin jerked backward. "There must be a way to remove it safely," she insisted.

"Or neutralize it," Blake suggested.

"Unknown," Bennan said and bowed his head. "I am very sorry."

"Pulse and respiration are not far off normal," Ralker offered while Hugh passed one of the portable diagnostic tools he always carried over Avon. While he considered the results, Ralker went to the door and beckoned in two security guards, whom he instructed to place Avon on the table. Blake helped to settle him comfortably, while Cally hovered at Hugh's side. Blake had rarely seen Cally look as helpless as she did then. Vila didn't approach, but from the way he had planted his feet, Blake was sure it would take the threat of a solium device to eject him from the room.

"What do you have?" Ralker asked Hugh. The base surgeon was a lanky man in his late forties. Blake only knew him casually since Hugh did most of the treatment of Jabberwocky's crew, but he knew from Avalon that he was a gifted physician and a good man.

"His system is slightly depressed, but what worries me are his brain waves."

Brain waves?" Vila echoed, and he wrapped his arms around his chest as if the room's temperature had dropped. "You mean his mind is affected?"

"It is, but it's not conventional brain damage, Vila." Hugh tried to sound reassuring, but he failed. "It's something else. I'd like to connect him to diagnostic equipment. He's unconscious, but there's no physical cause. Perren, what happened?"

"You heard in the link," Perren replied drearily. "The essence of Bennan passed through him, and then Bennan remembered everything and Avon went all stiff and weird. He was looking at us, but I don't think he knew who I was. And then Bennan decked him."

Vila uncurled himself and lunged at the prisoner like an avenging angel. "You hit him? You knocked him out? Why?"

Bennan didn't even try to defend himself, even if he hadn't been restrained in his chair. He did raise his palms in an effort at pacification, as much as he could do whilst still restrained. "It wasn't me, Restal," he said, not in defence of his action, but as if he wanted to understand it himself. "I remember it; but vaguely. All my memories had returned in a huge wave, and I knew what I'd lost and how I was changed for all time, and that, even remembering, I was still physically a mutoid. And I just...lost control. If you need to hit me in return, go ahead." He raised a desolate face to Vila.

Vila's hands curled into fists, and he hesitated, then the fury trickled out of him as if someone had pricked a hole in him for it to escape. "It's not physical in there," he said. "But..." he looked around, caught Blake's eye, and must have taken strength from Blake's understanding, because he said, "I couldn't really see it. We were sort of...peripheral. I've....broken programming, so I understand. It leaves you all knotted up inside. But touching him in there must have transferred..."

"Transferred the mind block mutoids are given?" Hugh asked. "How could a non-physical touch do that? The mindscape isn't physically real." He muttered a curse under his breath. "But it can carry over, like it did when Avon tried to heal himself and became trapped in his mind."

"I would take Cally or Blake in with me if I could find his mind," Jabberwocky offered. "But all I sense is emptiness."

Vila's breath hissed as if he had been punched in the gut, and Cally keened softly. It was left for Perren to offer a solution, but one that no one liked.

"It was Bennan's touch that did it," he said. "Something transferred. I'm not sure if Avon allowed it or if he had no chance to fight it, but it changed him immediately. I think if we go in looking for him, Bennan will have to come."

"That's insane," Hugh argued. "He might make it worse."

Perren shook his head. "I don't think it can be worse," he said. "I let it happen. I didn't know I was letting it happen, but nobody messes with my friends and gets away with it." He glanced at Bennan. "You didn't do it intentionally; not even Servalan would guess we'd try psi healing on a mutoid, so she couldn't have given any orders to deal with this. By then, you were starting to remember, and I'd bet my entire fortune, such as it is, that the last thing you were thinking about was how to hurt Avon."

"I wasn't even aware of Avon as a person yet," Bennan admitted. "I didn't even try to--to walk through him. Something was drawing me away from the darkness, and I was desperate for the light." He shook his head and the lank hair bounced around his face. "It was my memories. They were returning."

"So you remembered. The healing worked?" Soolin cried. "Then Carlan can..." Her voice trailed off and she stared at Avon. "He should have healed Carlan first."

When Hugh simply looked at her, she put one hand against her mouth. "I mean..."

Blake glared at her. "Soolin, we had to start with Bennan. He was the best choice, the most likely to be restored. Had we started with your sister, she would have activated the bacterial agent, and we would all be dead now. Instead of..." He let his voice trail off, unable to finish it aloud. Instead of only Avon. But that was not true. Avon was still breathing, and even if his brain waves were depressed, he still had them. Nothing had defeated them permanently yet. They had doctors, they had a psych tech, they had Jabberwocky, who might be able to link with Essilon and Darsan for additional strength. They would find a way to help Avon. They had to.

"One thing we must do," Ralker said in a level voice, "is to erect a force wall around the prisoner with the bacterial plague device. Will that prevent its spread?"

"It would depend on the nature of the wall," the mutoid--former mutoid?--replied doubtfully. "I lack the information to say for certain."

"Send for Edge and Tanz, Jabberwocky," Blake ordered. "Have them establish one." The two scientists were the best qualified to do the job.

Jabberwocky spoke through the link, //Already done, Roj.//

Blake should have expected that. Jabberwocky always anticipated such orders. "Bennan, I don't suppose you know the formula of the bacterial agent?"

"No. There was no reason for to tell me. Mutoids are never given extraneous information. Nor was I told if the Space Captain had taken an antidote. That way, if she were captured, she would remain unaffected."

"What would trigger it? Obviously captivity has not."

"No." His forehead wrinkled as he considered. "There would be specific triggers. If threatened or if it is removed would be the obvious ones." He shook his head. "I'm trying to remember if I were there when any other orders were given. My head aches."

"Examine him, Hugh, if it's safe to leave Avon," Blake said. "Scan for any such agents within him."

"If there are, I wasn't informed," Bennan replied, but he allowed Hugh to pass his scanner over him.

"His readings are different due to his physical modifications," Hugh reported after a minute. At his side, Soolin studied the readings, although she lacked the training to understand them. "The need for blood serum has not abated, but he clearly possesses his own memories. The headache does not indicate a breakdown of the physical modifications to his brain, but it does indicate stress. I suggest we free his wrists but leave the other restrains in place, and I can safely administer an analgesic spray."

"Do it," Blake said. "Then we need to rescue Avon from whatever happened to him." He watched Avon. There was no evidence of peaceful sleep about him. He had seen Avon asleep a few times, and always marvelled at how relaxed he looked. He did not look that way now. Despite the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, he looked as 'peaceful' as a corpse laid out for a viewing.

I still cannot reach him, Cally said directly into Blake's mind. He could not answer her telepathically unless Jabberwocky boosted him, and he did not ask the ship to do so. Instead he put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently, then drew Vila over and encircled him with his other arm. The three of them, with Jenna and Gan, had been together with Avon from the first. Losing him did not bear thinking of.

Vila briefly allowed the comfort, then he weaselled away from Blake's grip and went over to Avon as Dr. Ralker fussed over him and set up various monitoring devices he had sent for. At first, Vila simply looked at Avon, then he curled his fingers around Avon's wrist.

"Avon," he said. "You're lying down on the job. Would you rather have it said that I'm not the only lazy one in the crew? You need a big glass of adrenalin and soma." His words trailed off, and he uttered a faint sound that was almost a sob, then he turned away and walked out of the room without looking at anyone.

Perren glanced after him, considered Avon, said, "I'll be back," and went after him.

He passed Thorm in the doorway. The avatar paused then approached Avon. Bending down, he grasped Avon by the shoulders, and closed his eyes. Hugh opened his mouth to protest, then he withdrew two of the monitors and caught Ralker's arm to pull him away.

Cally watched Thorm as if she believed he could perform miracles. Did Jabberwocky have a plan? Was he trying a link this way to protect the rest of them because, at first hint of trouble, he could block his link to Thorm? While Thorm could function separately for brief periods with no contact to Jabberwocky, he would lose the ability of linkage if he did so. Blake started to ask a question through the link, but Cally sent a quick negative through Jabberwocky and through telepathy.

.

Hugh said nothing, but Soolin glowered at all of them. Bennan only stared at what he could not understand and held his peace.

After an endless interval, Thorm let go. "He is there," he said. "He is within very deep walls, and Jabberwocky cannot penetrate them."

"The same kind of walls that blocked my memory?" Bennan asked. "I'm sorry. If I passed them to him, I didn't do it on purpose."

"No one said you did," Thorm said before anyone else could snap at the mutoid. "His healing instinct may have drawn the wall into himself, or it may have been an involuntary transfer. The reason does not matter, only the fact."

The urge to protest, to assign blame, surged through Blake, but he squelched it. How could blaming the mutoid for an involuntary action aid Avon now? Helping him, restoring him, that was the only thing that mattered.

No, he corrected himself. That might be the most important thing to him, to Cally, to Vila and the others. But he had to look beyond that now. Before they could reason how to heal Avon when he had been the only psi healer they had, they had to deal with the threat of the Carlan mutoid. Avalon had ordered an evacuation of the base and anyone within several kilometres of the cells; he knew that without being told. It would be better to take Avon to the ship, bringing the mutoid Bennan with them, and possibly Servalan.

Would an examination of Servalan's blood to filter the antibodies in some way trigger the mutoid's programming? Did a link exist that would activate at any form of tampering?

"We need to evacuate the base," he said aloud. "Bring Bennan. Once we have done that, then we will also need Servalan."

"To test her blood?" Hugh asked. He was quick, was Hugh.

"Once we're rendered immune, we can deal with the biological agent, and remove it," he said.

Soolin gazed at Blake as if he had just promised her a miracle. In return, he smiled faintly, but in his mind he knew miracles never came cheap, if they came at all. Even neutralizing the agent or triggering it safely, would not free Carlan from the bonds that sealed away her memories, nor would it remove the mutoid compulsion for blood serum.

Worst of all, it would not return Avon from the dark place deep within his mind that not even Jabberwocky could penetrate.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Cally sank into linkage with Jabberwocky, her eyes never leaving Avon. When Tarrant sensed her in the link, he welcomed her, and whilst he did not grant her total linkage, he waited, ready to assist her. She smiled faintly to think how once he would not have cared what happened to Avon. He would likely not acknowledge it now, but he did. All of them did. Link-mode and gestalt were not true telepathy, but they were as close as non-telepathic humans could come. For Cally, and now for Tarrant, they need not be alone and silent within their minds.

//Have you ideas, Cally?// Jabberwocky asked. //I have tried repeatedly to reach Avon, and I am flung away each time.// He sighed through the link, so human a sigh that anyone who did not realize they were communicating with a disembodied brain would never guess it. //I tried to link with one of the other mutoids, not Soolin's sister because of the biological agent in her tooth, and I was repelled in much the same way I was from Avon.//

//Are you saying Avon's memories are blocked the way a mutoid's are?// Tarrant asked. //Everyone always thought mutoids were blanked, that their memories were totally erased.//

//It is not as easy to erase a memory completely,// Jabberwocky said. //My memories were blocked, but with me they needed to do it selectively or lose my piloting ability. They could not remove language or knowledge of the Federation, or the social order, or the way a military society works. Once you begin selectively removing memories, you risk their return, as it happened with me, and with Blake. Most of his memories returned on their own, and the rest were accessed by Avon on Malodaar after the blocks around the memory of Blake's wife and daughter started to fail.//

//So you are claiming mutoids are not totally mind-wiped?// Cally asked. //How does that apply to Avon?//

Jabberwocky was silent a moment, then he said, //I must bring in Perren.//

The psych tech entered the linkage, followed by Vila, who joined in automatically. He could always tell when someone was in linkage, although he only joined in when he felt the urge. Since this was about Avon, he would hardly stay away. He sent a wordless greeting around the group.

//Perren,// Jabberwocky greeted the tech, and explained without words what he had discussed with Cally and Tarrant. //Psi healing should not have bounced Bennan's mutoid memory block onto Avon.//

//I don't see how it could,// Perren replied. //Avon still hates the ability to heal, because it reveals so much of him. In spite of growing trust for all of us, his instinctive reaction is to shield himself, even from us. Less from you, Cally, or Blake or Vila, but the urge will not go away because of a year and a half of mind-linking. He had a great many years to become the man he was, and that will never fully change. He might trust us all now, and even like us, although he sometimes pretends not to. But if he didn't, he would never tolerate me when I pester him and try to burst his bubble and humanize him. He knows I won't take it too far.//

//Avon would never welcome a mutoid nature,// Cally insisted, //and even if it might appear a refuge at times, he would not surrender his mind for it. This I believe. If he had truly killed Blake the way he did in my dream, he might seek forgetfulness, but I do not see how it could happen by accident, or simply by the mutoid's essence passing through his astral form.//

//You probably understand his healing better than I do,// Perren said. //This is the first time I've ever been in the healing mode, and it proves Avon has a much better understanding of human nature than he shows in his daily life. Of course he's brilliant, but brilliance doesn't always tie in with understanding of how people work. Edge is brilliant, too, but he's a little lacking in the social graces, like Avon. Avon might be rude deliberately while Edge doesn't even realize he's being rude. In the healing mode, Avon knows instinctively what to do. I haven't reasoned whether the dreamscape comes directly from Avon's mind, the way he sees it, or whether it's a combination of his own mind and the mind of the person he heals, or if it's simply the way psi healing looks. You're not an Auron healer, Cally, but have you ever assisted in a healing?//

//Not on Auron, but I have been with Avon when he sought Blake after Witt ejected him from the link. I am not certain if it is Avon's projection, the way he perceives healing, or if it comes from the minds of those he heals.//

//He said my mind lived in a bar,// Vila reminded them. //So a lot of it might come from the mind of the person he's healing. But this tower stuff, I think that part's Avon.// He hesitated as if judging his level of trust for the ones in the link. //He didn't have to come in and find me; I was awake and just...//

//You are always welcome in my mind, Vila,// Jabberwocky said. //We have such fun together.//

Vila grinned. He was still hovering near Avon. As Cally watched, men arrived with a gurney. Others unfastened Bennan's restraints, and fell in to guard him. Cally heard Hugh instructing them to take them to Jabberwocky, and Blake saying they would not teleport until they left the base complex.

As they left the interrogation room, with Soolin hanging back until Blake spoke softly to her and put his arm around her shoulders, urging her to leave, Vila continued his link conversation. //Avon didn't need to come in and find me. I wasn't lost. All those other times would be different.//

//And Avon knows you very well,// Cally said with a mental smile. //When he sought Blake, Blake was deeply isolated. Avon must have conceived of the tower image and after that it would be automatic when he needed to seek someone's psyche.//

//But that still doesn't explain what happened,// Tarrant objected.

//No, but I think it was more a backlash than anything,// Perren explained. //Avon was not happy to heal a mutoid. He often finds external blame for things that don't suit him. A part of him envied the lack of emotion the mutoid displayed. Hey, wait, don't all of you jump on me for it. It wasn't a very big part, and it was more habit than anything. I bet he likes to think he wasn't touched by emotion, that he is above that, that he would find protection in the freedom from emotion.//

//I have sensed that reaction from him when bad things happened,// Jabberwocky agreed.

//But he doesn't really mean it; it's just how he protects himself,// Vila argued. //He likes us now.//

//Yes, but he had many years to be the other way,// Perren reminded him. //In a crisis, people will fall back on the familiar.//

As they departed the base, Blake gathered them into a circle around Avon's gurney for teleport directly to the ship, where Edge and Tanz greeted them, accompanied by Dayna. Soolin burst into a protesting explanation about the device in her sister's tooth, and Tanz offered the sympathy that flowed so easily from him while Edge pulled a number of small devices from his capacious pockets and took readings of Bennan, muttering, "Fascinating," several times. Bennan eyed at him warily, eyes narrowing.

"We'll take Avon to the medical unit," Hugh urged. "This way, Ralker. You've been here before."

While the orderlies wheeled the gurney out of the teleport section, Blake raised a hand for the others. "Cally, you've been linking. Have you reasoned a way to find Avon's mind?"

"We were just getting there." Perren was still in link mode but he spoke aloud, although the words were reinforced in linkage. "I think it was a backlash, myself. A mistake."

? Blake blurted, and Cally sensed his struggle to resist grabbing Perren and shaking answers from him.

"Avon defeated weird strands that symbolized memory eaters. I'm not sure how he did it but they sizzled into dust and blew away, and when he did, there was a row of tombs..." He described the incident. Vila shivered. "Finally, a glowing form emerged from the tower, and it was Bennan's psyche."

"It was as if I'd been locked away forever and couldn't even find a door," Bennan admitted. "Suddenly there was an opening, but I wasn't solid, I wasn't whole. I drifted free, and there was someone before me. I passed through him, as if I were a spirit. I hadn't planned on it, but when I did, all the walls around me melted away. None of it felt quite real. So it must be my fault."

Vila glared at him, but Blake shook his head. "No, it wasn't your fault. You were hardly aware of what was happening and you didn't do it deliberately. I know how difficult it is to break programming; I wasn't a mutoid, but my memories were suppressed, and they returned. The final ones returned not that long ago. Someday, I'll tell you about it. But even if you were throwing off the walls that blocked you, I don't see how that could rebound on Avon."

"Healing instinct?" Oddly enough, it was Edge who offered the suggestion.

Perren stared at him, then he grinned, licked his finger, and drew an invisible chalk mark in the air. "You learned that from me, didn't you, you boy genius? You could be right, too. Avon does have the instinct. He hates it, but it's there. Now, I'm not sure I blame him. I understand what he's been through to get there--not as well as a lot of you do, but this is my field, after all. Except I don't have the telepathy to go with it. I just like people in general better than Avon does."

"Some of the time," Tanz teased him, then he turned wide, hopeful eyes to Jabberwocky's fascia. "Jabberwocky, do you know a way to get Avon back?"

"I have tried very hard, but the walls around him are extremely rigid."

"Well, I have an idea," Perren said. "That's why you needed me in the link, isn't it, Jabberwocky?"

"I know we need to restore Avon," Soolin said, and her voice was cool and hard. "But what about Carlan? Will you let her activate the biological agent and die?" She glared at them universally.

"No, we're going to talk to Servalan," Blake said. "She'll be here soon, and Hugh and Ralker will take those blood tests we talked about. Once we've found the antidote in Servalan's blood, we'll be able to cope with Carlan. We haven't forgotten her, but you wouldn't wish anyone to die because we rushed into it."

"You only have his word that she's the one," Soolin objected.

"No, Soolin," Cally replied. "We have our knowledge of Servalan. It is exactly what she would do, and Orac has verified it. I do not say she would have expected Avon to restore Carlan's memories. She might have a grasp of his abilities, but I am certain she believes the mutoid state cannot be reversed. Even Servalan couldn't conceptualize what she believes impossible."

"You will not let Avon heal her the way he did Bennan," Soolin said and turned her back on them.

Blake went to her and grasped her shoulder. "Soolin, we must see to the safety of the people on this base and on this planet before we even try. Yes, we want to save your sister for you. But we must do it in such a way that no one dies, including Carlan, and that what happened to Avon happens to no one else. The odds are high that Servalan did not administer the antidote to any of the mutoids."

Tanz edged past Blake, detached his hand, and put his own arm around Soolin's shoulders. He hadn't shown himself to be particularly close to Soolin before, but he had a generous heart. "We'll help if we possibly can," he said. "Edge and I need to go to the lab. We took readings of all the mutoids when they were captured, remember? Edge just took more of Bennan. If there's any answer, we'll find it. That's a promise."

Soolin edged from his grip and nodded, the cool and impersonal expression she had worn at the beginning firmly in place. Cally knew Blake wanted to help her, but there was nothing yet for him to do.

"We need to bring Avon back to understand how he freed Bennan," Thorm said. "I could not reach him either when I touched him, only sense him through the physical touch, but then I don't have the full powers of the Jabberwocky entity, just a portion. Perren, you have an idea?"

"I have one. Not sure how safe it would be, or even if it would work, but I think we need to try it before much more time passes. The longer Avon's trapped in there, the harder it will be."

Vila shivered. "I know what it is," he said in a small voice. "You want us to go into gestalt and find him that way, don't you?"

It was the obvious answer, possibly the only one. Cally nodded. "When we enter gestalt, we are far stronger than the sum of our parts."

"Then we'll try it," Blake decided. "But first, we must deal with Servalan. I don't like the idea of bringing her to Jabberwocky, no matter how thoroughly she is guarded. Cally, will you stay with Avon? I'll leave a guard as well."

"I will stay." She settled beside Avon and took his hand. His fingers lay, still and cold, in hers, and she shivered. "I will continue to use my telepathy, and Jabberwocky must try, too." She smiled at the ship's fascia. "You can do that and deal with Servalan at the same time, my friend."

"I can. And I will leave a guard with you, too."

One of the guards nodded and fell in near Cally.

"Wait," Hugh objected. "I don't want Avon and Servalan in the same room unless there's no other choice. It isn't only that she'd gloat, but it would give her a sense of power, and we don't need that. We'll put Avon in the next cabin."

"Your cabin?" Blake asked. Cally knew he had chosen his cabin to be near the medical unit in case a patient would need him quickly.

"We'll take the whole diagnostic bed." He gestured for the selected guard to help, and Tarrant and Thorm, being the tallest present, each took an end. Cally went with them, and Vila looked like he wanted to come, but he stayed where he was, watching Avon mournfully as he was borne away. Bennan remained, still under guard, but they would keep him apart from Servalan.

"We will save him, Vila," Cally assured him as she followed Avon. She reinforced it telepathically. Sometimes, now, she could receive from Vila if he were even halfway in link mode, but all she detected from him now was a huge cloud of sorrow.

Hugh checked the settings of the device, nodded. "I do not think he will rouse in the next ten minutes," said Hugh, "but if he does, send to me, and I will come." When she nodded, he followed Tarrant and Thorm, and the door slid shut after him.

Cally took Avon's hand once more. "Now, my friend, I will try to find you in the place where you have hidden yourself. Jabberwocky, if you will link with me, we shall go in together."

The touch of Jabberwocky, familiar and loved, warmed her, and they merged into a oneness that Jabberwocky blocked from the others, for they had their own tasks, and she knew Jabberwocky could link individually and collectively and keep each link separate if need be.

//If there is danger, we will protect the crew,// he explained, and after that, their thoughts were shared and wordless as they delved into the shadows of Avon's mind.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Servalan surveyed the mindship's medical unit and studied the faces of her captors. That they would be temporary captors did not mean that they could not harm her now if they chose to do so, and from the looks on their faces, harming her ranked at the top of their list of urgent tasks. Dayna Mellanby--robot or no--looked positively murderous, and even Restal had shed his cloak of cowardice and glared at her with a fierce cold hatred. So, she faced the Vila who had whisked Orac away from her at Terminal, not the one she could intimidate. She sent her most intimidating glower in his direction, and he didn't so much as quiver, his hatred unabated.

What had stirred them to new fury?

Blake himself regarded her steadily and purposefully. "Put her on the bed," he said to the guards. "Leave the restraints. Servalan, if you struggle, you will be sedated. I would prefer to keep you conscious."

"So that I may feel the torture you mean to inflict?" she challenged him.

is your way. It is not mine. Today I can understand why you might revel in it, but I refuse to stoop to your level."

"Today?" She scanned the room as the two burly guards deposited her on the table, refusing to do anything so undignified as struggling. There, behind Blake with the decorative Dr. Tiver gripping her arm, Soolin shot fire with her eyes, blatant hatred burning there.

Ah. So they had recognized the mutoid. Servalan smiled to herself. What might they do to alter the mutoid, assuming it were remotely possible? The harder they tried, the greater their peril. She would be safe. The plague's distance was variable. It might reach even here. Then she would watch them fall, one by one, and her moment of triumph would come. The ship's mind would be shielded, and possible that avatar of the mindship would remain untouched, and Dayna.

She surveyed the people gathered around her. The base physician whose name she had not bothered to recall was with Tiver, although neither of them had yet approached her. Jenna was present, and the three techs who had betrayed her after their early work on the mindship. Two of them worked on equipment on the far wall, but the sarcastic one, Perren, watched her the way a spider watches its prey, waiting for it to struggle in the web. She would not give him the satisfaction of struggling.

There, too was Gan, or, rather, the clone Gan. Another of Arpel's failed plans. "You do realize your Gan is a clone, don't you, Blake?" she asked sweetly.

"He is still Gan," Blake replied. "Don't try to foment discord among us, Servalan. It can't be fomented."

Where was Tarrant? Ah, there he was, standing in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest, regarding her with the same loathing the rest of them displayed.

And where was Avon? That alarmed her, that he was not here. What was he up to? She was sure it would not be to her benefit, and the times she had spoken with him since her captivity had proven all traces of programming from Terminal had been eradicated, for he had never by so much as a flicker betrayed the slightest response to her trigger phrases. Did linkage with the ship prevent it? Were they linked now? She glanced at the fascia. Yes, it blinked with steady lights.

"Hello, Servalan," the ship said. "Do you miss Darsan? He does not miss you. He tells me you do not have what it takes to be a mindship's partner, and that does not surprise me. A certain lack of selfishness is needed."

"Where is Avon?" she asked, ignoring the ship. She wouldn't dignify its stupid name by using it.

Jabberwocky ignored the question. Instead he said aloud, "Shall I send him in now?"

"Is she completely secured?" Blake asked.

"A moment." Tiver lowered a domed cap attached to leads, and secured it on her head. "Now she is. Servalan, this device will send pain into your mind if you fight it. If you lie still you are free to think your evil thoughts and sneer at us, but if you struggle, you will suffer. It will not kill you, but if you struggle too fiercely, it will render you unconscious."

"You shouldn't have warned her," Soolin said icily.

"Because of your dear sister?" Servalan asked. "She served me long ago, even at the time I used the robot Avalon. After I realized you were with Blake, I took her into my crew."

"To use against me," she hissed.

"Why, Soolin, one uses whatever tools come to one's hand. You are pragmatic enough to understand that." Servalan smiled so sweetly that Soolin's face twisted, and she fought to lunge past Blake.

He caught her by the shoulders. "No, Soolin. That's what she wants. And yes, Jabberwocky, send him in now."

"Send Avon?" She turned her head expectantly to the door. Of all of them, she considered Avon her main rival. Blake, of course, was a figurehead and to capture him would be enough to restore her power. But Avon was, in a sense, the power behind the throne, that massive brain turned against her interests every single time. To disable him, to turn him, would be a triumph. She would, of course, tire of him eventually if he ever sided with her, but until then, it might be glorious.

The door opened, but instead of Avon, one of her mutoids entered and stopped just inside the room. They had seen his helmet removed and tidied his hair, but the mutoid garb was instantly recognizable.

For the first instant, hope of rescue surged through her, but it took no longer than that to recognize the expression on the mutoid's face. Hatred. Mutoids were expressionless. Yet this one was not.

He strode over to the table like a savage animal stalking its prey, and raised his hand to strike her. Deliberately, she did not flinch.

"No," said Blake. "Don't give her the satisfaction."

The mutoid lowered his hand, then he backed away from her. "If I stay too close, I'll choke the life out of her," he said. "And you want her alive."

"Why, Blake, you have reprogrammed my mutoid."

"I'm not a mutoid, you filthy bitch," the mutoid snarled. "You took my memories, but they've been restored, so don't lie there and look shocked."

It wasn't possible. It couldn't be. Mutoid memories were erased. They were often repeatedly blanked. She had relied on the blanking process on so many occasions that to suspect mutoids might suddenly remember rocked her world. "What have you done?" she asked. "Blake, what have you done?"

Blake smiled at her, but it was a hollow smile. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she studied him. To restore a mutoid would be a massive coup; word of such an accomplishment, released through the Federation might even topple the government, sending the Inner and Outer Worlds into chaos. How many twisted secrets would be revealed, how many petty treasons exposed?

"We have exposed another Federation lie," Blake said. "All mutoids' memories are completely removed. False."

Then where was his triumph? Why did Soolin still glare so murderously if there was a chance to save her sister? Ah, so it was a fluke. It had to be.

No, there was more. Was Avon at this minute involved in whatever process they had used? Was he attempting, even as they spoke, to free the mind of Soolin's sister?

Or was something more complicated at play?

The mutoid took one step forward. "My name is San Bennan, and if I find out you've--"

"Bennan," said Jabberwocky. "No."

If he found out she had done what? She studied the face. Bennan. She remembered him. He'd been a space major who had disaffected, and at his trial it was determined that for his treason he be sentenced to mutoid conversion. Could it be that he had more power than the Arbiter had suspected, that one of his friends had interfered with the conversion, rendering it incomplete? Much better to believe that than to think conversion reversal could be universal. It would explain why Soolin still glowered.

"So," she purred. "Bennan. You had a friend who helped you when you were converted. The must not have been comprehensive, or you would not be free. Was it done through the mind-link process?"

"I don't have to tell you anything, and I won't."

"Not even to ensure a supply of blood serum? I am certain that awaking memories did not alter your physical modification."

"What can be physically modified can be reversed," the base physician said coldly. "We have already begun a study of Bennan's physiology to determine the steps required for physical reversal of the serum need. I suspect it won't be difficult. Its main reason is to make the mutoids dependent, is it not?"

"No," she said, delighted to refute him. "That is only one reason. The other is that the bionic rebuild requires more nutrient than can be taken in through normal food consumption."

There, she had trumped them. If Bennan had hated her before, he now looked as murderous as Soolin.

"That is not necessarily true," the mindship said. "There are other means of nutritional supplementation, and we can devise one less intrusive than the serum. It should not prove particularly difficult. I'll enjoy finding it."

Tiver loomed over her with a new device. "Servalan, I require a sample of your blood."

She froze. "Why?" Although she let no expression show, she suspected he might be lying, that instead of drawing blood, he might intend to inject her with a lethal serum.

"Because we need it." Although she stiffened against it, he drew a vial of blood and placed it in a processor and activated. "Orac, study results," he instructed.

Over on the far wall, the computer she would give her eyes to possess blinked busily, and said, *Confirmed,* in such an abstracted voice she feared he meant to discover any possible vulnerability.

"Tell me this," she said as if she had no interest in the result of the blood scans. "Is Avon at present attempting to restore the female mutoid?"

"Carlan," Soolin corrected. "At least use her name." Then her eyes hardened even further. "No, don't use her name. You aren't fit to speak it."

Suppose they found the antidote in her blood. Did they suspect? No, they knew. Bennan would surely have told them. She gnashed her teeth. Damn him.

"She understands what you are doing, Hugh," the mindship said. Had it read her mind? How dare it!

"We expected that. It doesn't matter." Tiver grinned at the fascia, just as if he were smiling at a person, then he abandoned his processor and loomed over her. With those curls and teeth he was as handsome as Tarrant. She allowed herself one second to enjoy the view before she snapped into her piranha mode.

"And why, tell me, does it not matter, Hugh?" She said his name as caressingly as possible.

Soolin practically growled at her.

"Because there is nothing you can do. If you fight, you will struggle in growing pain until you are unconscious. Every one of us is alert to your devious nature, and none of us retain the slightest remnant of programming for you to exploit."

"Not even me," Bennan said with relish. He didn't look entirely whole; how could he? He must be shattered at the restoration of his memories. Perhaps he could be exploited, but he had to be shrewd. No one rose to the rank of space major without keen intelligence and the ability to use power.

On the other hand, there might be tools to use against him. She cast her mind back, and the answer occurred to her. It was always wise to keep useful information tucked away until it was needed.

"And if I could give you your brother?" she asked, widening her eyes soulfully. "Frayn." She caressed his name with her lips. "I know his location, and one word from me would free him."

"She is lying," Jabberwocky said. "Not entirely, but there are lies in her words. She does not know where he is, although she is aware of his existence. Do not believe her."

"I would not believe her if she told me my name was San Bennan," the former mutoid snarled. "Servalan, tell me where you believe my brother is. If you lie, that device you wear will detect it."

Tiver bared his teeth at her. "It might regard a deliberate lie in the same category as a struggle."

"And it might not. He ran. He ran and left you to us. There is no loyalty in him."

"That," said Blake, standing four-square and consciously noble, like an ancient saint, "is your perception."

"Interesting. And yours is?"

"That, like any sane person, he went to ground, fearing he would either be imprisoned or killed and that he could do nothing to reverse them mutoid process."

"I told him to run, when they let me see him before the trial," Bennan remembered. "It's common knowledge what they do to the families of resistors; when they don't kill them, they send them to prison planets. I expected to be sent to Cygnus Alpha, not to be converted, but I told him to get away before the trial. He didn't want to go."

"But he went." She played with the words, tossing them out like game pieces on a board. "He went and never looked back."

"Is that why Don Keller went to Virn?" Blake asked with a sudden smile.

Servalan froze. How could they have possibly learned of that? How could they have learned Keller even existed, or that she had gone to Virn in response to strange signals and had found Keller dead? She had barely escaped from the strange sand that tried to manipulate her. She had left her party behind, all dead, and had escaped with only one mutoid when the rains had come and saved her. Or perhaps, it had not wanted them. She shivered. Once Keller's wife was dead, he had been no use to the sand, for it had wanted breeding humans. Left with only a female mutoid, Servalan would have been no use to them. No one knew the full story of what had happened on Virn. That mutoid had been blanked, and Servalan had marked the planet with a plague warning beacon to keep people away. No one could possibly learn what had happened there.

Yet Blake knew. Could mutoids share tales? No, that mutoid had been blanked immediately upon return, and had spoken to no one before the blanking process.

Could a mindship read her mind? Had Darsan learned of it and shared it with the Jabberwocky mindship?

"And died there," Vila said surprisingly, relishing the words. "Your lover, Servalan. Dead, but not even cold. You couldn't save him. Now you can't even save yourself."

"Surprisingly vindictive, Vila." How could he know she had found the body impossibly warm, preserved by the sand? She had never told anyone of that, and had forced herself never to remember that one instant when she had believed she had come in time only to realize he was well and truly dead.

"Why surprising?" He stood his ground. "You never did a nice thing to me in your life. You would have let them cut me up into spare parts on Chenga. Thanks to you we lost the Liberator. You think I'm not vindictive? You're supposed to be smarter than that. You think you're smarter than me, too, but you're not."

"Please, Vila, spare me your histrionics."

"We don't plan to spare you anything, Servalan, see if we don't."

A glance at Blake proved he agreed with Vila. "Who told you about Virn?" she asked.

"I know many things that would surprise you."

"From Darsan."

"No. You never fully shared with Darsan. By the time he realized all you did was lie to him he would have shared everything he could--and did--but you never let him close enough for useful information. Let us just say we have a way of knowing things. We knew about Pylene 50 without needing to go to Helotrix. We sent a warning to the resistance there that Leitz was a traitor. How do you think we discovered the antidote that we've been sharing with planets ever since?"

Impossible. Still, their knowledge explained why the Helotrix mission had gone so badly. The Bennan mutoid had not been present on either mission. They were trying to distract her, to keep her off her guard, and for what? Long enough for them to find the antidote in her blood? Long enough for them to restore more of her mutoids. That had to be where Avon was.

Didn't it?

"Is something wrong with Avon?" she asked.

From the way several faces froze, she realized she had discovered one of the sources of their fury. Had Bennan attacked Avon before or during the restoration of his memories? Had Avon somehow aided in that restoration? Wasn't he supposed to be a psi healer now? Had it backfired?

Ah. So that was why so many of them were so furious. They blamed her. Yet why should they? A ludicrous idea, too, for he had never been able to heal himself. That might be it, and if so, it amused her. Even if he had altered Bennan and freed him from the mind-block of a mutoid, it had not freed Soolin's sister or any other mutoids, and could not. She need not fear that mutoids would be universally altered. Surely that would be impossible.

With three mindships, was anything impossible?

She needed to be very careful.

Tiver abandoned her to study the readouts on his instruments, a frown wrinkling his brow as he evaluated it, the base physician at his side. There they conferred in tones too low for her to hear.

"You will not find an antidote," she gloated.

"Oh, but we will." That was Soolin. "If we die, you see, you die with us. I will kill you, if it is with my dying breath."

"And I will help," Dayna agreed. "I will remain unaffected, and I have wanted to kill you for a long time. Finally, I will avenge my father."

"I'll help, too." That was Vila, and the way he glared at her made her wonder. Had Vila always been so loyal to Avon? He surely wasn't this angry because of Soolin's mutoid sister.

"You will die instantaneously," Servalan reminded them.

"I would not go out of your way to alienate us, Servalan," Blake said in a tight voice. "Do not forget Thorm will not die, nor will Dayna." He nodded at the Avatar who had entered after Bennan but had taken no part in the subsequent conversation. "Jabberwocky is so well shielded he will not die, either. You are in restraints, and no one will release them. Should we all die, you will die slowly, trapped in this room, for there will be no one to aid you."

The picture his words painted in her mind appalled her, reminding her of the lonely wall in the president's palace where she had been chained at the time of the Sula insurrection. She had been rescued then, but she might not be rescued now. Even her mutoids would die, and while she had no fondness for them, and no regret when a mutoid died, unless its death endangered her, she would not yield them if they could aid her.

"So tell us about the biological agent, Servalan," Tarrant coaxed, baring his teeth in a predatory grin. "Or lie here and die. It won't be starvation that will kill you. It will be thirst. They tell me thirst is not a pleasant way to die. You will find it agonizing."

A shudder ran through her. She had allowed several prisoners over the years to die that way, believing they would relent and share information with her when the ravages of thirst became too severe, but only one of them had ever broken. She had relished their anguish, but now she imagined it, imagined every moment of the long, drawn-out process of death, and she cursed them for it in her mind. They had been her enemies before, and it had grown personal, although she did not wish it to be. Better if she could crush them impersonally. Yet they had defeated her more times than she cared to admit. Whilst she had nearly always passed the blame to others, eventually it would catch up with her unless she could finish them. And here she was, too far from the cells to trigger the warning device she wore implanted and completely shielded under her left breast, even had her hands been free.

They would release her eventually, if briefly, for purposes of bladder and bowel function, unless they connected her to equipment instead, and she would trigger it then. They had just bought their deaths.

But if the mutoid triggered it early? It had been instructed to respond to her signal, but it had also been programmed with a limited degree of initiative, to act should it believe Servalan was endangered.

Would it have realized the cellblock had been cleared of all but mutoids?

What amused her was the knowledge that all the resistance had to do to be safe was to render the mutoid unconscious--or dead--by pumping a gas into the cell? If it acted quickly enough, there would be no time to shatter the tooth.

Or were they hindered by sentiment, refusing to act because it was Soolin's sister, for all the good it did either of them?

She smiled. She would wait as long as she could, and then she would request the amenities. Avon would surely deny her, but Avon was not here. That Bennan was here and free indicated to her that he had not killed Avon in the process of reversal. No, it was something other than that, and the longer she waited, the more information she would gain.

She composed herself, smiled at Blake as if he alone were the one she might trust. "You are not a barbarian, Blake. You would not leave me to die."

"Wouldn't I?"

"Whatever has happened to Avon is scarcely my fault. I am your prisoner as are my mutoids. A prisoner has always had the duty to escape."

"Shut up, Servalan," Vila growled, then he whirled and headed for the door. "I don't want to look at her any longer," he said and left.

"I can't say I like it either, Blake," the computer said. "But I'll watch her. Orac will scan her continually whilst Hugh and Dr. Ralker work."

"I will guard her, too," Soolin gritted, her face rigid and full of hatred.

"No, Soolin." That was Blake, of course. He took her arm. "I want you to assist Cally, if you would. Dayna, you, too."

"I want to kill her," Dayna protested.

At that, Tanz whirled from his task. "No, Dayna. That's her way."

"If this is what her way leads to, she doesn't deserve to live. She killed my father in cold blood and now--"

"Dayna," said the computer, and perhaps he reinforced it with a mental touch because Dayna tensed then eased her muscles as she glanced at the fascia. "We will need you later," the ship continued. "You understand why."

She hesitated, then nodded. "I don't like it, but I do understand," she said.

Servalan didn't, but she knew none of them would explain. As she watched, Tanz hugged her, then he grasped Soolin's shoulders and squeezed.

"We'll solve this," he said. "With all of us working on it, we're sure to."

Perren abandoned his work and spoke to the two women too softly for Servalan to catch more than the odd word. One of the words she heard was 'gestalt', although she did not understand it. On the other hand, Perren was a psych-tech. That was surely part of the lingo. She found him decorative, but far too annoying to pursue brief pleasure with him, especially after he had rejected her advances during the early mindship tests. He was a clever man, far more intelligent than he appeared, and once she had learned that, she had realized he was dangerous.

Tanz saw Soolin and Dayna out, murmuring a few quick words to them in the doorway. All Servalan heard was, "Find Vila."

Dayna nodded, but Soolin's mouth was drawn tight and she went without looking back.

"Hugh?" Blake prompted.

"We have isolated a substance in her blood that I believe may guide us to a solution. She has built up antibodies to the biological agent, and thus we should be able to devise a serum from her blood."

"How long will it take?" Blake asked.

"Perhaps an hour. Even better, Ralker thinks he can devise an airborne antidote that can halt the spread of the virus if it is in place at the time of activation."

"Excellent. Don't tell me any more about it in case by some miracle Servalan breaks free. Orac?" he turned to the priceless little computer. "I want you to begin a thorough scan of Servalan. We have only Bennan's word the agent is within Soolin's sister. It is possible there is a duplicate in Space Captain Sleer." He let her rank roll off his tongue with a smile to indicate how she had fallen from on high.

Curse him. If she'd been wise, she would have done exactly what she said, but far better to waste a mutoid in the process, especially that one. She smiled enigmatically.

*Confirmed,* Orac agreed much more readily than she would have expected from the grumpy device. *I have linked with the Jabberwocky computer for that very purpose. Dr. Tiver, it is imperative you attach electrodes at key body points. I will describe them to you. They must adhere directly to her flesh.*

Servalan would have been glad to smash Orac against the far wall were it not too valuable to destroy. "Are you to watch me stripped of my clothing?" She asked.

"No, that would hardly amuse us," Blake replied. "Jenna, you stay. And Thorm. Surely, Servalan, you would not object to a female guard, and Thorm is an avatar of Jabberwocky, who sees everything that happens on this ship. Of course I will leave these two bodyguards," and he gestured at the burly men on either side of the door, faces impassive, weapons in hand. "They will remain in position and act only if you should attempt to break free."

Blake might be a fool, but he was not so foolish as to remove every guard from the room. Servalan nodded graciously, a queen bestowing favours upon a commoner, and braced herself for the indignity to follow.

 

                                                                               *****

 

 Vila let himself into Hugh's cabin and paused beside the guard just inside the door. He couldn't have endured watching Servalan reason causes to gloat when Avon might be lost to them forever. Avon. After all this time, seeing Avon like that was enough to terrify him, for fear Avon would never be himself, that he would never again call Vila a fool, never thrust his cool, astringent presence into the link as if he suspected it was full of enemies and then gradually and almost unrealizing unwind to admit them, at least to the surface portion of his mind. It was like dashing oneself against a wall of diamonds, Vila thought whimsically. The glitter could dazzle, the facets sting, but it was worth it.

And now, maybe, that was gone. Perren had described Avon in the healing mode, when that glowing cloud that was Bennan had passed through Avon. Had it dumped its mutoid walls on him, or had seeing the unmasked Bennan somehow twisted Avon's mind? Vila hated that. If Avon were asked to explain what he valued most about himself, it was sure to be the great brain. Now maybe that was gone. He caught at a breath that was the next thing to a sob, and forced himself to view Avon as analytically as possible.

Avon's eyes were shut, and so were Cally's, although she sent a wisp of telepathy Vila's way to acknowledge his presence. He thought Jabberwocky might be there, too; Vila loved link-mode and went into it whenever possible. This time, he didn't. Some moments were too private to invade, and even if this wasn't one, he wasn't sure he'd like what he would see in there. In fact, he was sure he wouldn't.

"I think he is rousing," Cally said aloud. Cally had always been strong and fearless but little tendrils of fear curled around the edges of her voice. She was in love with Avon, after all. No wonder she was afraid.

Vila was terrified. He pushed it aside. Sometimes, fear worked for a person--he knew every one of them--and times when it didn't, and this time, Cally didn't need to share a wallow in panic with Vila. "Good, then," he said. "I'll come and pester him. Nothing annoys him more than that, and if we can get him good and annoyed, maybe he'll wake up."

Jabberwocky's blessing flowed through his mind, soothing and comforting, full of approval without words. Vila grinned over at the fascia, winked at it, and then bounced to the bed. Bouncing was hard, on leaden feet, but he did it.

"Avon, old man," he said. "You should have seen us confusing Servalan. We started telling her about Don Keller and Virn, and about Helotrix, and she never learned about Cally's dream, so she has to think we know more about her than she wants us to, and she's worried about it, afraid someone in her circle is secretly a member of the resistance."

"It was fun," Jabberwocky added, flicking a mental grin Vila's way. Too bad it was such a forced grin, just like the one Vila offered in return.

"Fun being your primary reason for existence," Vila said in a parody of Avon's voice, and looked hopefully at Avon.

Avon didn't snap at him to shut up or complain about Jabberwocky's insistence on fun, but he did open his eyes. At Vila's side, Cally caught her breath. Already clutching Avon's hand in both of her own, she lifted it to her mouth and kissed its back.

Avon followed the gesture with an utterly impassive glance, as if he did not understand what she was doing or why, or, worse, as if he did not recognize her. He did tug slightly to free his hand, and Cally's breathing quickened slightly as she released it.

she telepathed. Talk to him.

"Hullo, Avon," Vila said, trying very hard not to sound forced. "Look at you, lying down on the job when we're in the middle of a crisis."

"Define the crisis," Avon said in a mutoid voice. Oh, no. If he knew who Cally or Vila were, it did not show on his face. But Vila heard barriers snap into being in his voice. Surreptitiously, he shifted on the bed as if he expected restraints.

"Cally?" Vila asked.

"Tell him. He has the right to know."

Vila heaved a great sigh. "Avon, we're holding Servalan, but one of her mutoids has a biological poison in her tooth and when she bites it, we're all going to die."

"Die?" Avon still sounded impassive, but he sat up effortlessly, brushing off the other two. "What has anyone done about it?"

"What have you done, lying there like a great lump? What happened to you in there?" Vila persisted, still trying to find anything of the real Avon in there.

"In where, precisely? Who are you to challenge me?"

"I'm Vila, and I always challenge you, and don't you forget it." He darted a helpless glance at Cally.

"And who is she?" Avon nodded at her.

"She's Cally. You love her."

"Love is irrelevant."

Vila grabbed Avon's shoulders and shook him, trying hard not to hear Cally's anguished breathing. "Stop it. You're not a mutoid. You have emotions. You know who we are. You're just trapped inside your head."

"Patently not, when I am speaking to you. You are Vila Restal. You are babbling to no purpose."

"But I always babble to no purpose, Avon. It's what I'm best at, right after stealing. The best thief in the galaxy, that's me."

"Certainly the most egotistical." The words were correct but the tone wasn't. Since Jabberwocky, there would almost be a note of fondness in Avon's put-downs, but now Vila could only hear indifference.

"Do you understand what happened to you?"

Avon's brow furrowed as he considered, then he nodded stiffly. "I was forced into a mutoid's mind. I did not wish to do it, but I did it. I paid the price for it, and when you see Blake, you may tell him so."

"But don't you care?" Vila blurted. He shook Avon again.

Avon dislodged his hands. "No," he said. "Emotions are pointless."

That is not true. Cally's telepathic protest was almost unfocused, she was so upset. The pain of it lanced Vila's body, and he sucked in his breath. If it touched Avon, he did not react, not even by a minute flicker of his eyes.

He did not refute her, as if it were too unimportant to acknowledge her desperate words. Instead he rose, paused long enough to make certain he was steady on his feet, then he started for the door.

Vila gestured quickly for the dumbfounded guard to block him, and, coming face to face with a muscular guard, Avon stopped, studied the man, then said, "If you do not step aside, you will regret it."

"If you listen to him, you'll regret it," Vila countered. He didn't sound as imposing as Avon, but the guard listened to him. He aimed his weapon at Avon's chest. Vila hoped it was set on stun.

"No," said the guard. "You aren't yourself."

"And who am I, then? You? Don't be a fool. I am not a prisoner. I will pass."

"And where will you go?" Vila asked. "Off the ship? Off the planet? Looking for that bolthole you always claimed you wanted? One healing went wrong and you're going to run, is that it? And here I thought I was the coward."

Deliberately, Avon faced Vila, and his eyes remained empty of any emotion. "I see no point in this discussion. If you insist the guard shoot me, then I will remain, until such time as I can devise my freedom." He wasn't even angry, nor resentful at Vila's words. He was just like a mutoid. Whatever had happened in the healing had transferred it to him.

"You're not converted," Vila said. "You're not a mutoid, however much you might think it's jolly to have no past and no future. It doesn't exactly make you safe and carefree, not when the poison in the other mutoid will kill you just as dead as the rest of us."

Avon grabbed his shoulders, but his grip didn't hurt and his fingers didn't dig in. "Explain," he said.

"Jabberwocky, you explain," Vila urged. He wasn't sure he could go on talking to this man who wore Avon's face but possessed none of Avon's persona.

"I cannot, Vila. I have tried. He blocks me. There are barriers unlike any I have ever seen. They do match mutoid barriers to a degree, but they are different." Frustration rang in Jabberwocky's voice that Vila felt through the link. He sent a message to Jabberwocky to tell Blake what was happening. //I think we need him here badly.// He didn't even try to touch Cally in the link. She was strong and would soon be willing to join the fight to restore Avon, but she needed time to collect herself. Like link-mode, her telepathy had failed to reach Avon. Had he erected barriers against the mutoid contact? Or had it been a mental transfer?

Vila didn't understand healing. He'd been in it, and all that had happened was that Avon had talked to him in a mental construct that was like a bar. He didn't understand how this could have happened.

Unless a part of Avon had wanted it.

No, that couldn't be. Maybe after he'd been forced to shoot Anna Grant, or even when he'd shot Blake on Gauda Prime, but since then Avon had come so far. He didn't value pointless emotion, but he did value the members of the crew. He valued Blake.

They definitely needed Blake.

"Your mind games will not work with me," Avon said coldly. "You would be advised to cease them immediately."

"Or what?" Vila challenged.

Avon studied him the way he might idly study a bug crawling through the market, then he returned to the diagnostic bed and seated himself there. "I will wait until you have done what you mean to do, and then, when you are convinced there is no other option, you will release me."

"So you can go where, Avon?" Blake asked from the door. Perren was behind him, no doubt summoned by Jabberwocky.

"Away from here." There was no malice in the words, just purpose. "I see no need to continually submit myself to danger. This time, I have discovered what I have long sought, freedom from any involvement. I shall seek a bolthole, as Restal suggested, far from here."

"Where none of us can touch you?" Blake snapped. He looked furious. "If you think that will be safe, you are wrong. Safety in numbers may be a cliché, but it is also true. We've proven that over and over, in link mode and gestalt, in our frequent defeats of Servalan, and simply in our understanding of each other. You designed Jabberwocky, Avon. You've long claimed the ship should be yours. Do you mean to give it away now?"

"It does not matter."

Rage surged through Vila, although he wasn't sure if he were angry at Avon, at Bennan, at circumstance. "Oh, that's fine," he snapped. "You think you can be like a mutoid and you'll be safe, but you're not a bloody mutoid, or you wouldn't need to harp about stupid boltholes. It wouldn't matter to you one way or the other. No, this is just an excuse. You went in too deep, you risked yourself too much, and now you're sorry. So you let whatever happened to you happen, and it gives you an excuse, that's all it does. You think you'll be safe in a bolthole? You won't be. Who'll watch your back?"

"If you are claiming you will, then perhaps you should consider your history."

"Or maybe I should remember the way Malodaar played out in Cally's dream and be glad you're going," he snapped.

He whirled, ready to depart, and only Blake's soft, "Vila," halted him.

"What?" Vila challenged. "Look at him. He thinks he's finally made himself safe--safe from us." He gestured at Cally, who had watched their attempt to break through to Avon with hollow, frightened eyes, then at Blake, whose rage masked the brotherhood he had acknowledged for Avon, the link that had bound them long before Jabberwocky was even conceived of, and at Vila, who had been his verbal sparring partner before either one of them had understood the sparring as friendship.

"We can't force him to remember all that, or to allow it to matter," Blake said.

"We can--and we should. Shouldn't we, Cally?"

She started, blinking at him from the deep abstraction Avon's repudiation had driven her into. "Force him to care for us?" she asked. "How would that aid him, Vila? Would it not prove he was always right to fear close ties?"

"No!" That was Blake, in a fine and glorious rage. "It isn't coercion when we do it for his benefit. It wasn't coercion that freed Bennan's memories."

"We are not psi healers, Blake," Cally reminded him, avoiding his eyes. She glanced briefly at Vila, who lifted his shoulders in a shrug. Avon ignored the byplay. He might have left already had he been steadier on his feet, and if the guard had not implacably blocked the way.

"No, but we've been through it. You were in it with him at least once. Vila was healed, Jabberwocky was healed. Tarrant was saved. Even Deeta Tarrant and Del Grant were healed. Gan, too, has been through the process. That does not give us Avon's gifts, but it means that, in gestalt, we might approximate them."

"That might be best," Perren joined in. He'd observed silently from the doorway until now, his brow furrowing as he listened to Avon. "It'll take more than reasoning with him or arguing with him. The reason this has held on, I think, is that Avon has long believed he would be safer if he cared for no one. He wouldn't be, of course, and he comprehends that rationally, but I think a portion of him can't acknowledge it. I was there when the golden essence went through him, and he didn't even recognize me. He does recognize us now, so perhaps that's a good sign. Talking about boltholes isn't what I'd expect from a mutoid. It's what I'd have expected from Avon if Cally's dream had been real and he'd killed Blake."

"But he didn't," Blake argued.

"No, but he did wound you. And ever since then, we've been in link mode and gestalt and he's healed a number of us. He values everyone, but I suspect he probably doesn't believe it's safe to do that. This gave him an excuse."

"You mean it's deliberate?" Cally's face drained of colour. "He chose to abandon us?"

Perren caught her hands and squeezed them. "No, he didn't choose. But when Bennan's walls closed around him, I think two things happened. One, they enclosed him, although he might have used his gifts to break free, and two, having gone into the healing against his better judgment and maybe even feeling you risked him, Blake, I think the whole thing backfired on him. Now maybe I'm wrong. I'm no puppeteer, and even a puppeteer would have trouble understanding Avon's bizarre thought processes. Part of it might simply be a protection. For all we know, he might have seen everything Bennan endured. Can't be pretty. Bennan's one step away from being a basket case as it is. He's bitter as hell, and it will take time and some hard work from yours truly to help him. He's strong, though, so I think he'll make it. Finding his brother would help, if he's still alive. But healing Avon will take more than talking to him like this. Gestalt would be the best option."

Cally shook her head, her curls bouncing around her face. "Ven, I cannot reach him telepathically. Jabberwocky cannot reach him. I remember the tower of his psyche in the dreamscape. I cannot see it now, but I believe all the openings have been barricaded. There is no way in."

"I won't believe that," Blake half shouted. "And you shouldn't either. Cally, you're an Auron, a telepath. Jabberwocky controls link-mode, and all of us are stronger in gestalt than at any other time, when we think each other's thoughts and supplement each other's strengths. You used it to free me from Servalan when she captured me on Parais."

"If you assume I will permit--" Avon began, not coldly but without the slightest trace of anger or passion. Wonderful. He'd been listening to the whole thing. Now he was probably convinced they were plotting against him.

"You don't have a choice," Vila said before Avon could accuse them of that. "And I'll name one reason you haven't thought of yet. What about Kyl? What about your son? Are you going to run out on him, too?"

Avon froze, his face still devoid of expression, but his jaw bunched and his hands curled into fists.

"And Blake," Vila persisted, finding the first trace of hope at Avon's reaction. "He's closer to you than a brother. That makes him kin, too. And Cally? She would die for you, and you know it. What kind of bastard are you that you would walk away from people who love you?"

Avon's mouth tightened. "And do you count yourself one of them, Restal?" he asked icily, covering the coldness with supreme indifference.

Vila gulped. "What if I do?" he snapped, taking the risk. "You're staying and we're going to fix you, as soon as we resolve the plague thing. Aren't we, Cally? Aren't we, Blake?"

Avon jerked himself from whatever state that had produced that minute flash of anger, coldness dominating. "You will explain the plague and do it quickly."

Blake raised a hand for silence before Vila could speak. "Do you want to go now, Avon? To get right off planet before it's triggered? To leave Kyl here to die? To leave us to die? To surrender any hope of becoming Jabberwocky's link mate?" He hesitated, his hand still raised, and concluded, "To let Servalan win?"

Avon opened his mouth, perhaps to claim he did not care, but his lips wouldn't form the words. He sat abruptly on the diagnostic table, his hands shaking, his face drained of colour. "I..." he began, but no more words emerged. Then, before any of them could leap to his side, he sagged, his eyes closed, and he slid off the table to lie unconscious at their startled feet.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Hugh studied another readout on the screen, his shoulders hunched, his stomach knotting. Everything had fallen apart so fast he still could not believe that Avon had roused long enough to proclaim his intent to depart, uncaring about any of them, and then to become unconscious. Blake insisted it was because the discussion between him, Cally, and Vila, had shaken the barriers of whatever had happened in the healing dreamscape, and that the gestalt might yet save him. But then Blake had always been an optimist.

The Avon problem would have to wait. They were so close to preparing the antidote from Servalan's blood. He and Ralker had worked it out, and they were now engaged in deriving the most thorough result, and determining a way to send it, airborne, over the base rather than the need to administer it to each individual. Before they could do that, they needed to determine that it possessed no deleterious side-effects. Another few tests and they would be ready. Avalon had reported the base cleared; to avoid panic, she had passed it off as a drill. Guards in protective suits were going through the base buildings to make certain no one had been left behind. The guards outside the mutoid Carlan's cell wore the same covering. The other mutoids, who might or might not possess equal poisons, were also guarded, and Bennan had allowed his teeth to be examined to prove he was free of a similar biological agent, and for deep scans to make certain no other traps had been placed in his body.

They had needed to manufacture a supply of blood serum for the mutoids in the base, and Bennan had availed himself of it, muttering curses under his breath at the need. Hugh and Ralker had put on their agenda a plan to discover a reversal of the need. It would no doubt require surgery and modification, but Bennan had granted them the right to use him as a guinea pig for the process. If it failed, they would devise a different nutrient that would remove the stigma of blood serum. Perhaps a form of nanites could be injected to offer the nutrient required to support the bionic conversion.

"I'll never be fully human," he said around a twisted grin, "but at least I'll be free if I can be spared the need for serum."

Hugh couldn't even consider that until the threat to the Ryalon base had been contained, but he did put Orac on it. As usual, the little computer protested, but so half-heartedly Hugh realized he was intrigued enough to have begun investigation on his own.

Servalan had been removed from the medical unit and confined in one of Jabberwocky's two cells, under guard by Soolin, Dayna, and two of the base security men, thus granting the others the ability to speculate openly without revealing any secrets, and also removing Soolin from the necessity of hearing their theories, since she would fear they meant to sacrifice her sister to save everyone. Hugh hoped it would not come to that, and not only because of his fondness for Soolin, but because he hated the thought of depriving anyone, even a mutoid, of hope. Jabberwocky, of course, watched Servalan, too. They had to assume no deeply buried programming existed in Jabberwocky, left over from the ship's development, but then once Avon had learned to eradicate programming, he had tested everyone, and nothing had been found.

A deeply concealed implant had been discovered under Servalan's left breast, and they determined no action of hers could activate it, if it should prove a trigger. Hugh had run a nullifying scan over it, whilst Servalan fumed, then seen her more tightly restrained. The last thing they needed was to trigger Carlan's dental implant before they were ready.

Since the medical unit was crowded, what with the presence of the three techs working in conjunction with Hugh and Ralker, Tarrant and Jenna had departed to the flight deck, and from there Jenna had fitted herself in the secure garb and rendezvoused with Avalon, in link-mode for instantaneous communication if needed.

"I think we have it," Ralker said, quiet triumph in his voice. He didn't exult, although Hugh suspected he wanted to, but most of that was because Blake and Vila were there, and they had nothing to exult about. None of them did, really, not whilst Avon lay unresponsive, guarded by Cally and Thorm, and the stolid security guard who had been there from the beginning. Once Servalan had been taken to the cell, they had returned Avon to the medical unit, so that Hugh or Ralker could examine him periodically. He was not restrained--none of them had liked the idea of restraints for him--but he was closely watched, mostly by Cally, her misery almost visible in giant clouds of despair, and by Vila, who made no secret of his unhappiness. He had programmed himself a huge glass of adrenalin and soma but he had done no more than sip it once or twice.

"You have it?" Blake snapped to attention, abandoning Avon to Cally and Vila's tender mercies, emerging from the curtained section, and leaning over Ralker's shoulder. "Show me."

"We have identified the antidote; it is designed not to break down in the system, and thus it remains effective. It can be purged more easily after the crisis. It is nearly a nanovirus in its own right, but it does devour the type of plague Bennan reported. We can extract a self-replicating sample from her blood and have done so. I would recommend it being injected to anyone who must enter the cellblock in case the protective suits are not sufficient. And I have injected myself," Ralker added. "I will undertake the injections. However, we do not know if there is a time limit before the mutoid will act." He glanced around the room, likely to make certain Soolin hadn't returned. "I would advise giving the mutoid the injection but for one factor. Any interference with the mutoid would assuredly cause her to trigger the toxin."

"That's why we are preparing the airborne compound," Hugh said. "We should have it ready within half an hour. I'd like to talk to Avalon before we start it; she should be the one to give the final approval. I'd also like to test it, and will do so upon myself before anyone else experiences it."

"Is that wise?" Blake asked.

Jabberwocky joined in. "No, likely not, Blake, but necessary. Orac and I are monitoring every step of the process, and Orac will determine if it is safe to test. Ralker has displayed no negative reactions."

*I have discovered the full nature of the toxin,* Orac said in that smug voice he produced to boast of his superiority to human minds. *Bennan's information was correct, as far as it went. The toxin will kill anyone within range instantaneously in two seconds. Anyone with extraordinary resistance will last perhaps five seconds. After fifteen seconds, exposure to the air will neutralize the virus, and within another minute, it will be safe to enter contaminated areas. The ideal biotoxin. Even the minute amount that can be contained in a tooth can indeed kill every living being within at least three kilometres. Bennan's information was correct there, too.*

Bennan merely nodded, although he didn't look especially vindicated. "When she told us of it, it didn't matter. Mutoids truly feel no personal concern. If we were ordered to shoot ourselves in the face, we would simply do it."

"And that is one more reason why we fight."

Typical Blake. He probably had a list of the Federation's atrocities and could whip them out at a moment's notice. Hugh agreed with him. It was the plan to initiate a pacification program and expect Hugh to do it gladly on his own homeworld that had turned him into a rebel. He had his own list, and he could think of reasons to tie in with every member of the crew.

In his right mind, Avon, would have insisted Blake was redundant, but Avon was unconscious, or at least pretending to be. A glance at the readout screen over the diagnostic bed proved him to be somewhere in between, not fully aware, but not fully unconscious, either. They couldn't fuss over him, not when the crisis affected so many people, but eventually they would. They needed Avon, astringent and suspicious, and prepared to defend himself and anyone who fell within his realm of protection, although he wouldn't put it quite like that.

*This vessel is beyond the maximum range,* Orac continued. *However, areas of the marketplace are not, and that data has been relayed to Avalon, who has ordered the danger area be cleared and extended the boundary slightly, in case the information is not completely accurate, and to allow for wind drift.*

Hugh set the final test to run, notified Jabberwocky to monitor it through link-mode, and nodded to Ralker to watch the result. Then, knowing it would take time to be certain, he went to Avon and ran a gently beeping scanner over him.

At the sound, Avon opened his eyes to watch the process, and stared first at the device, then at Hugh. If he recognized Hugh, he did not acknowledge it overtly, but his mouth tightened. "Am I a prisoner here?" he demanded.

"Of course not, Avon, but it wouldn't be safe to leave the ship until we have the antidote to the biotoxin."

Avon's mouth curled. "You have injected Ralker. If you inject me, I can safely depart."

"No," Vila cried automatically.

Ralker lifted his eyes from the readouts. "No," he said. "Avon, the injection is experimental. I am willing to take the risk, but I will inflict it upon no one else until the tests prove one hundred percent conclusive."

"And if I am willing to take the risk?"

Hugh frowned at Avon. "As your doctor, I am not willing to take a risk on an experimental serum that can be proven in less than half an hour. Surely a pragmatist can see the sanity in waiting until then."

Avon nodded, closed his eyes, and ignored the rest of the scan.

When he had finished, Hugh stepped aside and motioned for Cally, Blake, and Vila to join him, and then summoned Perren. He went into link-mode and urged Jabberwocky to draw them in. //His readings are marginally different from his normal ones, but I don't think there's anything in there that I can read that would cut off the gestalt. Yes, he'd probably block link-mode, and since he's a telepath himself, he can deliberately block Cally's sending, but I don't think he could resist all of us.//

//Would he hate us for it?// Cally asked. In link-mode, she always shone bright as a flame.

//At first,// Perren agreed. //And he might pretend he wasn't grateful, but that does not mean we shouldn't do it.//

//I agree,// Blake said. //Despite his self-proclaimed loathing of the process, he has never refused to heal any of us in need. Now he is in need. If he protests, we can say we're simply returning the favour.//

Jabberwocky chuckled. //He will not like it,// he said. //But we will do it, once the base is safe.//

//And if he tries to leave before then?// Hugh asked.

//He won't.// Vila sounded positive. //As long as there's danger, he has a nice, safe, pragmatic reason for staying. We just don't have to tell him when it's finally safe, not until the gestalt is ready.//

//Sneaky, Vila,// Blake approved. //Then we're agreed?//

Consent flashed through the group, and they dispersed automatically to their duties. It had happened so fast that Avon didn't react to it. He had certainly not tried to eavesdrop. Maybe whatever had happened to him in the dreamscape prevented it, and even if not, Avon might choose to have no involvement.

Bennan emerged from his corner, one eyebrow quirked as he studied them. He might guess a little about the mindship and the crew linkage, especially since he'd served on Darsan, but he was still shaky, and probably not at the top of his game. He went to Cally and caught her hands. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to do whatever I did. I've done enough harm to people to wish never to do any more."

"You did not do it," Cally said. "You did not choose to become a mutoid, and you failed to understand the process used to free you."

He shook his head, but not in protest. "I understand it now," he said. "I experienced it, and before I was converted, I was not accounted dull-witted. I could see what Avon did, how he discovered the blocks to my memories and somehow seared them from existence. The last block was around me, and when I emerged from my prison, I shucked it off. I'm not sure how I knew to do it, but I think he understood. Whether he took it deliberately or not, I can't guess, but he took it. I can't guess if he could fight it from inside."

"At first, he didn't know me," Perren said. "There in the link, I mean. But he knows us now. It might be breaking down, but it won't break easily."

Bennan looked over at Avon, who lay unmoving, eyes closed as if to detach himself from everyone in the room. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Vila opened his mouth, probably to rant at Bennan for causing what had happened to Avon, but Hugh knew Bennan hadn't caused it deliberately. He had simply been tempted by freedom, and Avon's healing instincts would have been at work. At best, it was purely accidental. At worst, Avon had been unable to resist the lure of uncaring.

Hugh hoped it wasn't that.

"I'm not sure," Blake replied, when Vila couldn't force anger at Bennan, in spite of his fear for Avon. "I'm not sure if you're stable enough to assist him yet."

Bennan studied Avon's utterly impassive face, then each of them in turn, and he hung his head. "I was desperate," he said in a very low voice. "But that is no excuse. I can't take my memories and my freedom at his expense. I couldn't live with myself if I did."

"He means it." Perren walked around Bennan in a circle, studying him with the full force of his training and experience. "A lot of that is guilt for what he did when he was a mutoid, but that was beyond his control, and it isn't his responsibility. No one is strong enough to stave off the conversion process."

"I certainly wasn't," Bennan agreed. "I thought I was. I was sure I was strong enough to hold out, to keep at least some part of me aware, although that would have been worse, I think. But I wasn't. I dug in my fingernails and held on as long as I could, but it washed over me so fast and so overwhelming I couldn't fight. That was all I knew of myself until Avon freed me. I still don't understand why he did it, why you wanted to free me. I can understand why you want to free Soolin's sister, since Soolin is part of your team. Why did you choose me first?"

Blake took the man's arm. "Come and sit. We chose you because you were glaring at the camera. You had facial expression. We thought you would be our best chance, and, once we understood the process, we could try someone who might be harder to free. Had you noticed any returning memories before we freed you?"

Bennan frowned. "No, but I remember a vague dissatisfaction, a slight edge of resentment when I was given commands. I wondered if other mutoids did, but when I tried to ask one of them, I got the usual programmed response. I wasn't motivated enough to push it, but I wondered."

Interesting. Hugh nudged Perren to go on with the questioning. Had Bennan's fight to resist caused a weakness in his programming?

"You were a space major," Perren said. "Orac accessed your records and we found out. It's possible you had some highly placed friends. Maybe your process wasn't as thorough as usual. Maybe you hadn't been blanked. I'd think repeated blanking would put a mutoid further away from what happened to you."

"If I was blanked, I don't recall it, but then I wouldn't," Bennan said. "I do have memories of my time as a mutoid, of the officers I served under with no obvious gaps. Servalan claimed we would be blanked after this mission, and I resented it. The others simply took it as a fact. Several officers requested me. I think one of them actually might have been a friend of mine. He reminded me of my name, and I told him it didn't matter, since it didn't, then. But I did take note of it. I never mentioned it; I had no compulsion to. The compulsion is to obey orders. Sometimes mutoids are programmed with useful information on missions, but if I ever was, I can't remember it. I was always the lead mutoid." He didn't sound proud of it, just stating a fact. "Until Space Captain Sleer--Servalan. She just chose from the available mutoids, and the only one she deliberately picked was the one who was kin to your crewmate. She found that amusing. She'd worked with that mutoid before, and reminded her of it. That mutoid did not remember; she only said, 'As you say, Space Captain,' completely unmoved. I'm not sure if you can break through with her or not."

As one, they all looked at Avon. He may have sensed their gaze, for he opened his eyes. "Chatting with a former mutoid will not halt the plague, Blake," he said pointedly and closed them.

"We're awaiting the final test results, Avon. I'm sorry if you expect us to sit in total silence."

Avon ignored the sarcasm. He had always been good at ignoring what he did not want to hear. Instead he snorted and folded his arms across his chest.

"Do you remember anything else that would help us?" Blake asked Bennan.

"I've been trying to think, but it's all tangled up. I remember Sula, and I think she betrayed me."

Cally gasped, and Vila's mouth dropped open. "Sula?" Blake asked in an undertone.

Avon heard them. He turned his head in their direction, then deliberately averted his gaze. But his muscles tightened. So he did remember that. Hugh knew about Anna Grant, how she had used the name Sula when married to Councillor Chesku, how she had been a Central Security Agent known as Bartolomew, how she had betrayed Avon. If the knowledge they had both been betrayed forged a bond between the two men, Avon did not react. He lay, face deliberately impassive, but his hands had curled into fists.

"I thought she cared for me," Bennan admitted. "But when they prepared to convert me, they told me she was running me. I didn't want to believe it, but I do now. Too many things add up. My memories are all clamouring for attention, and there are too many ambiguous ones where she's concerned." His mouth tightened. "I'd like to kill her."

"Too late," Vila said with a too-bright smile. "Avon already did."

Bennan glanced over at Avon, who averted his eyes. "You, too?" he asked in a near whisper.

Avon did not reply.

Bennan approached Avon. "I'm sorry about Sula."

"I am not." No emotion showed in Avon's voice, but Hugh saw his fist were still clenched.

Blake turned the discussion. "Leave that for now."

Bennan nodded and backed away.

"Did she choose Soolin's sister deliberately? The tooth implant?" Hugh asked, glad Soolin wasn't present to hear him. She hadn't come into link-mode when they had conferred silently, but then she had never been one to jump in at random, the way Vila often did.

Bennan heaved his shoulders in a shrug. "I think she did. She was smiling when she spoke to her, one of those very smug smiles that mean she expected to enjoy herself very much. At the time, I only noticed it and didn't analyse. Mutoids don't." He shuddered. "The others didn't seem to feel as alone in their minds as I did."

Vila glanced at Avon and then away. "I'd hate that. I like people around me."

"But do they like you?" Avon's question was as near an automatic response as Hugh had ever heard.

Vila brightened, then his face fell as he realized it.

//Do not despair, Vila,// Jabberwocky said into the heads of the ones in the room. //That he can respond in such a way is a sign of hope.//

At a startled and unfamiliar presence in the link, they closed ranks until they realized Jabberwocky had drawn Bennan in. //Welcome, San. This is what we call link-mode. We aren't always in each other's minds, or, more accurately, in mine. I'm Jabberwocky, the mind of the mindship. You've heard me speak before.//

//Not...not like this.// Bennan's response was faint and shaky, but with strength to it. //This is wonderful. After so much emptiness, I could come to love this. It's amazing.//

//I could feel your need,// Jabberwocky said. //Del, does Deeta still need crew for Darsan?// Tarrant was always in linkage with Jabberwocky, and although he hadn't participated in the last link, Hugh had sensed his presence, listening. He was there now, too.

//You mean Bennan?// Tarrant's surprise blasted through the link. //You don't remotely imagine that would be safe?//

//Not yet, anyway,// Perren replied. //But his instinctive reaction to link-mode is so positive he may be a natural for it.//

Cally projected doubt. //It may be that he has been unknowingly lonely for so long that he would grasp after any contact, the way I bonded with Jabberwocky when we first took the mindship when I had lost my telepathy. In any case, Deeta is still suffering from brain burn, although he is healing. To add to the problem with a former mutoid might be too much for Darsan to deal with.//

//Who is Darsan? Who is Deeta?// Bennan projected.

They told him singly and in chorus, explaining the capture of the Mark-70 mindship from the resistance's point of view, and Bennan nodded, understanding. He'd been part of that mission, after all. //Sometimes I could hear the ship,// he admitted. //I don't think he could hear me, though. I never admitted it. I wasn't programmed to, and a part of me simply censored the thought. If the Space Captain noticed it, she never showed it.//

Cally's attention focussed. //That is two points in your favour, San.//

//Two?// Perren studied Bennan, both in the link and visually. //What two, Cally?//

//The first that he is so receptive to the mindlink that he could experience it slightly even as a mutoid.// She smiled suddenly, a smile that chimed through the linkage, warm and generous and soothing. //And the second is that he called Darsan 'he' rather than 'it'.//

//I felt a 'he', not an 'it',// Bennan replied, //Just as I do with Jabberwocky. I do not know if Deeta would take me, though.//

Hugh doubted it himself, but it would be an intriguing solution to the problem of the former mutoid. A mindship such as Jabberwocky would instantly realize his motivations, and Jabberwocky had not hesitated to link with him. Jabberwocky could not heal him, but he certainly could offer comfort. Darsan was learning, too, and relished the permanent bond he was nearly ready to form with Deeta Tarrant.

//But he did that to Avon,// Vila objected with a mental wave at the diagnostic bed. //We shouldn't reward him for it.//

//Vila, his mind was altered. You should remember how that feels. It was done to you more than once,// Jabberwocky reminded him. //Not everyone is as fortunate as you, that mind adjustment does not work permanently. He did nothing deliberate to Avon. We have no time for this now; it's too early to consider. The test results are coming through, and it is more important to ensure the safety of this base. I suggest we maintain a light link as we release the airborne cure. We need to determine how long it will remain viable in the air, and once we do, we need to trigger the release of the biotoxin so we can neutralize it.//

Jabberwocky was right. He felt Bennan leaving the link and saw him blink around as if he had to adjust to a smaller world after the vast and reassuring one that had touched him so briefly. No time to deal with his sensibilities now. The Carlan mutoid might act on hidden programming while they waited.

Hugh joined Ralker and Edge to study the readouts. Yes. It would work. Released into the air simultaneously through the base ventilation system and from several locations throughout the market, it would spread within minutes. Within ten minutes, it would be safe to trigger Carlan's implant.

"How long to distribute?" Blake asked.

"Fifteen minutes," Tanz replied from the other table. "I've planned the distribution whilst you developed it. It can be ready to go that fast."

"Then, do it," Blake approved. "Well done, all of you." He glanced sideways at Avon, who was paying no evident attention, but who simply lay, eyes open, gazing unseeingly at the ceiling. His fists had partially relaxed, but tension still thrummed through his body.

Blake touched the light link they already had. //Jabberwocky, relay to Orac to seal the doors of the ship if Avon tries to leave.//

//It might be better to take him with you when you confront the Carlan mutoid,// Orac replied.

//Before the gestalt?//

//At least you would have him under your eye. If he fights it, of course we will secure him on the ship, preferably here, rather than at liberty, because he could do enough damage in the computer crawlways to break free of the ship if he wanted to.//

Leaving Hugh with Tanz and Edge to see to the nuts and bolts of airborne distribution, Blake went to Avon, who glanced in his direction with no trace of interest.

"If you have finished settling my fate with Jabberwocky, Blake, I should prefer to depart."

"I thought you would come with us to the base, once this is secure, so you could witness the failure of Servalan's biotoxin."

Avon's disinterest was so deliberate Hugh was sure he would take the bait. Would he have abrogated his hatred of Servalan as easily as he had revoked all claims of caring and belonging? Hatred wasn't a stronger emotion than love, but it was, at times, easier to cling to.

"I should rather see it applied to her," he replied in a voice that barely displayed the slightest interest. "Then, at least, I would be free of her."

"As you are free of us?" Blake snapped. "You can't have it both ways, Avon. If you don't care about us, then you don't care about her, either."

"You mistake me. I merely wish to ensure my continued survival. If I seek a bolthole, I have no guarantees she will not use the vast resources of the Federation to locate it. If she were dead, that threat will be less severe, for not even the supreme commander is as driven to destroy us as she is."

"Us, Avon?"

"She wishes to destroy both myself and you. The word 'us' is correct. It does not imply unity."

"Damn you, Avon--"

Avon didn't even flinch from the fury in Blake's voice. "I think that has already been done," he said as if it didn't matter. "Very well. I will come with you. If nothing else, one more of Servalan's plans will fail."

"And does that matter, Avon, since nothing else does?"

"Even a mutoid would wish to make certain his enemy was destroyed," Avon replied.

a mutoid!"

Avon sat up. "Not technically, no," he said. "I am ready."

Cally crept up beside Blake. "Do you wish yourself a mutoid, Avon? I would not have said you were such a coward as that."

Unmoved by the pain in her voice, he climbed off the table and looked around the room. Then he sent a telepathic message strong enough for everyone in the room to hear it. Leave me alone.

It must have blasted right through Cally's head because she gasped and staggered, and would have fallen if Blake had not caught her arm to steady her. She collected herself, but her face hardened, not from coldness but from strength. None of us will leave you alone, she said. Among my people, to be alone and silent is the greatest curse we could wish upon anyone. You might consider it a blessing, but it is not, and you will not have it, not from me, not from any of us. If you are too cowardly to face us as we are, then try to walk away, and see if any of us will permit it.

She had claimed Avon had not received telepathy from her before, but he received that. Everyone on the ship must have received it. He certainly did, if by no other evidence than a tightening of his muscles, if his expression did not change.

Was it a trace of improvement?

 

                                                                               *****

 

In the end, Ralker set off for the base with the equipment to release the antidote into the air, Edge and Tanz with him, all three of them shielded by protective suits. Soolin and Thorm went with them, Soolin garbed protectively, but Thorm, who faced no threat from the biotoxin, needed no hazard suit. Blake suspected Hugh would have gone with Soolin if not for Avon's need. Dayna remained in sentry mode to guard Servalan along with the security guards until she was returned to the prison sector. Dayna could also stop Avon if he tried to leave. He would not thank her for it, at least not until healing took place. Tarrant remained on the flight deck, but Jenna opted to go to both Essilon and Darsan, to determine if linkage from either of the other mindships would aid in the healing process, and took Gan with her.

The rest of them remained in the medical unit, determined to proceed with the healing once the base was reported safe. Avon ignored them, his face impassive, but Blake, who could read Avon better than most, suspected he saw calculation in his eyes. He was not as coldly impassive as he had been at the beginning. Which led Blake to try a new experiment.

"It's odd, Avon."

The dark eyes flicked in his direction and then away. Of course his curiosity would be aroused, although he had never liked playing to such remarks, and clearly didn't now. He wasn't as impassive as he had been at first. "Unsurprising," he said. "Everything is odd here."

Not one of his better rejoinders. Blake concealed a smile. "It's odd that you would so willingly accept outside manipulation when your skills are so honed to fight programming. This might not be conventional programming, but any external force that alters behaviour might well be considered programming. Simply because you might relish being devoid of feelings does not mean you would relish manipulation."

Avon's eyes narrowed. "It is not manipulation to go where one wishes to go."

"Not even if Servalan is behind it?"

"She is not," Avon replied stonily. "She would never have conceived of the possibility of healing a mutoid."

"Yet she chose among her crew a mutoid whose programming might be failing, suspecting I, for one, could not resist the challenge. And any understanding she has of the healing process, which might be inaccurate in spite of her reasoning ability, might lead her to suspect I would ask it of you. I would not set limits on her scheming, nor doubt she would have more than one arrow to her bow, and you are intelligent enough to believe the same."

"And if I am?" No yielding in his face or his voice.

"Then I challenge you. Defeat the programming. If you wish to become impassive, to hold us at bay, even to leave, no one would stop you, once the programming was eradicated. You are not a prisoner here."

"Well now," said Avon with a nod at the guard at the door, "it seems that I am."

"Only because of the external control in your mind, Avon. Remove it and then you may do as you wish."

"And if I refuse?"

Blake couldn't tell if the "if" was part of bargaining or simply a question. Avon would test him, of course. He always had. But he'd tested with his own mind. Now, Blake could not guess the limitations of what had happened to him. From the tone of Avon's speech, which held more emotion than before, the process could be failing on its own, but Blake did not wish to wait. "Then you will be healed, at which time you may make your own decisions. You removed programming before, even your own. You were motivated to do it then. What makes resistance more palatable this time? The fact that it is not prodding you to harm us? That suggests concern."

"Does it?" He could not have sounded more implacable.

Vila edged closer to Avon, his face mournful. "Avon, I'm the coward. Not you. But if you use this as an excuse to run, then you'll be the coward."

Avon studied Vila silently, and Vila plunged on. "Worse, if you run, you'll let Servalan win. You might as well hand Jabberwocky over to her and sell out the resistance while you're at it. She'll be after you right away, or Arpel will, or any troopers who see you. Go ahead, take the coward's way out. I ought to know that doesn't work."

Still, Avon did not speak, but his eyes burned. "What would you have me do, Vila?" he challenged at last. "Submit my mind to your blundering?"

"Heal yourself. You did before, the time the programming made you shoot Tarrant."

Avon flinched. Excellent. His feelings were not gone. But then he pulled the mask of uncaring into place. "The end result being so wonderful, Vila?" he challenged.

"Yes. It is wonderful. You even like linking now. Jabberwocky said you were never more ready for the bond link as when you let it go. If you stay this way, then all that will be as if it never happened. Go ahead, regress. You're the one who'll suffer most for it."

From Cally's quickened breath, Blake knew she would suffer as much if not more, and he was certain he and Vila would feel the pain, even more than they did now. Jabberwocky protected soothing words into Blake's mind, intended, also, for the others in the link. //Don't stop,// Jabberwocky urged. //He will still need healing, but it will be easier if you can reach him.//

Perren uncurled himself from the chair he'd withdrawn to when Blake had confronted Avon, and stalked over to the table. "Think it's easy to have no feelings, Avon? Just ask Bennan how easy it is. You don't believe it anyway. I've had all these months to humanize you, and I'm not giving up now. Be a coward, hold us off, and we'll still fight for you. Or work with us and let it be your triumph. I'm certain which way I'd choose. I'd rather help to rescue myself than have to let other people help me while I was some poor, pathetic lump. But then if that's what you like..."

"You dare--" Avon began with icy fury, then the words chopped off and he reclaimed his impassive mask. For an instant, his face worked, then it smoothed, but his muscles tautened, and his jaw bunched. Suddenly, he glared at Perren. "You risk much." He forced the words out and followed them with, "Very well, Blake. Attempt your healing. I will resist it."

"On purpose?" asked Vila in a small voice.

"No," Avon admitted. "You are all correct. I require...healing. I do not entirely...welcome it, but do what you will. If I can assist, I will do so."

Jabberwocky spoke aloud. "Blake, the airborne process has begun. Orac reports it is effective. Soolin will go with the guards to confront her sister, and the tooth will be removed. If she triggers it, no one will be harmed. It is safe to begin the healing process."

Avon heaved a vast sigh. "And then, no doubt, I will be compelled to heal the other mutoids," he protested.

"Soolin will expect you to heal her sister," Blake replied. "As for the others, perhaps we will learn enough in the gestalt to deal with it in a group."

Avon grimaced, then, after a struggle within himself, he said, "I am ready. Expect me to fight you, Blake. It is...not entirely my wish."

"We understand that, Avon."

"Gestalt, then," Jabberwocky decided. "I have requested extra guards for Servalan because the process will drain me, and I do not wish her to escape if her shackles should come undone. They are now in place, and more protect each exit."

"May I join you?" Bennan asked.

Perren tilted his head, and studied him. "Why?" he said.

"Because in a way it's my fault that Avon's mind was interfered with. I didn't intend it and I couldn't control it, but I'd like to help put things right. Jabberwocky, you've touched my mind. You know I mean what I say."

"I do. The gestalt is not like simple linkage. It is intense, and the people in the link will see into your heart and mind. You will become a part of a cohesive whole and will function as a part of it, as if you belonged to a hive mind. You functioned remarkably well in linkage for a newcomer, but I suspect that was in part a balm for the emptiness you have experienced the past five years and in part because of Avon's healing. You will emerge from it with such a massive headache sleep will be the only easement. And if, at any time, any of the others wish you to exit the gestalt, you must do so. However, I believe it will benefit Avon to have you there. I will bring the others into linkage first." He sent a quick mind-flick at the others in case any of them had violent aversion to Bennan's presence. No one objected.

Blake suspected Vila hoped his presence would draw all the blockage off Avon automatically, but he didn't say so. Cally nodded. Perren sneaked a suspicious look at Bennan, then inclined his head. In linkage, Tarrant sent, //Why not? We will need a physical link first.//

Blake and Cally went to Avon, one on either side of the table, and took his hands. Blake offered his hand to Hugh, and Cally to Vila, then Perren grabbed Vila's free hand and offered his other to Bennan, who hesitated before he took it. The rest of the linkage could simply be a part of the gestalt from a distance.

So Jabberwocky pulled Cally and Blake in first, accepting them, opening to them, blending them into the whole of his consciousness. Cally's spirit opened like a blossom in sunlight, even the pain of Avon's situation easing enough for her to enter wholeheartedly into the group. Blake had never found linkage as easy as some of the others, but he had learned to relish the gestalt; it was when they were all at their best. He opened to it with a conscious effort, but then the way smoothed before him and he merged into the gestalt.

Vila joined next, wholeheartedly. He loved link mode and plunged into the gestalt with relish. He sent a wisp of delight through the group. Adrenalin and soma afterwards, and a ripple of laughter surged through them. Tarrant, already there, chuckled. When not, Vila?

Perren plunged in, and then Dayna, too, although she found gestalt difficult in her android state and needed to be boosted by Orac. Funny that the little computer never protested. It was present, too, its mind sharp and crystal hard, little edges glinting in the strange dreamscape that stretched before them, overlaying the medical unit so that they could see both places without even needing to blink. Hugh joined them, ready to monitor Avon in the link.

Jenna arrived, boosted by the Essilon mindship, its tidy, organized mind hovering at the edges of the gestalt, not quite a part of it but offering strength to Jabberwocky, who welcomed him gladly. Darsan joined, too, as backup, but neither of the other mindships pulled in their linkmates. Blake could sense Martagg in Essilon's mind, although not the rest of his crew, and Darsan had not pulled in Deeta except in the lightest of linkages. Perhaps just as well.

Bennan entered then, hesitating, and Jabberwocky welcomed him and offered a cocoon of warmth around him that the former mutoid welcomed, a cozy, protective blanket. Bennan's mind opened to them revealing his pain, his despair, the chaotic jumble of his memories, his hopes, and the group soothed him and took him in.

A little mental juggling and they were one, a united whole, prepared to try something they had never done before. Healing had always been Avon's province, although several in the group had experienced it. Cally took the lead, not only because of her caring for Avon or even for her Auron abilities, but because she had been present with Avon in the first healing, and thus understood it better. She shared what she could with the others in the gestalt, so they knew and understood what she knew, experienced what it was to be Auron, to know one was never alone. Her people had a linkage similar to the gestalt and she always revelled in it. Now she gathered the threads of their separate consciousnesses and braided them into a mental mesh, keeping their separate components distinct as well as united, a dichotomy, surely, but true all the same. It was magnificent. Bennan hovered around the edges of the link, not as fully a part of it as the others, but enough of one that his presence was unobtrusive.

Cally guided them deeper into the dreamscape, until the medical unit vanished around them, replaced by a stark valley, joyless and gloomy with thunder muttering in the distance and the occasional jagged stab of lightning zigzagging the sky. As they studied the place in their shared consciousness, Vila sent, Jabberwocky, you bring us to the nicest places.

Laughter rippled through the link, then they banished it, because before them appeared a tall, dark tower.

Cally stiffened to attention, her gasp echoing through the gestalt. That way. The command rang through the group, not merely Cally, but all of them, bound by their linkage.

In the midst of it all, Bennan cried in surprise, This isn't the same place.

The other was your mind. This is Avon's.

Bennan's understanding flowed through the group.

In the distance, the tower stood tall and proud, and Blake, who had seen it before, recognized the various windows that had gradually developed as Avon allowed more and more people in. The windows remained, but over the whole structure, a near-invisible surface glinted with an edge of gold that reflected strongly in the lightning and blocked off each of the windows, revealing only darkness within. Yet even as the group watched, faint internal light flickered at several of the windows.

"He's there." They said it aloud, as one, and, with a thought, flowed across the barren ground until they reached the base of the tower. There they halted, studying it with more than their eyes. Not only could they see the hard, engulfing surface that coated the tower but they could feel tremors through the ground beneath their feet, little shivers as if something inside the tower battered at the walls. The nearest window to them glowed more brightly than the others as if Avon's psyche sensed them and was drawn to them. The possibility sent a surge of hope through the gestalt.

As one, they pressed their hands against the surface. It was an impulsive reaction because none of them were healers and they could only go on instinct. Maybe Jabberwocky directed them, maybe Hugh, or maybe Perren, but the impulse hit the group as one.

Beneath their hands, the surface stung like ice.

Bennan yanked his hands away, and pulled the others with him automatically. I can't. I can't, he moaned, separate from the group but still linked. I can't bear the emptiness.

The group encircled him, edged him slightly backward, and again touched the cold walls, sheltering him from them. After a hesitation so slight Blake could scarcely detect it, Bennan's essence joined them, shivering. I must.

The courage he projected heartened the group, and it pulsed through them with enough warmth to ease the icy touch. Blake could feel Jabberwocky sending reassurances to them all and a brief mind-touch to Bennan to remind him his mind was not empty, then a new impulse came, and Blake acted on it.

He grabbed a tool that materialized out of his need, a heavy, metal bar, and thrust its tip against the surface that covered the glowing window. We know you are in there, Avon. Come out to us. Fight it.

The inner light flared, warm and glowing, more orange than gold, but with a fierce heat that might be strong enough to weaken the glittering shield Bennan's redemption had secured around Avon. If Blake and the gestalt could penetrate it, Avon could join in. His fire had always warmed others, even when it failed to warm himself. This time, the gestalt would warm him in return.

Fire. They needed their own fire. As one, they drew away from the tower, remaining in full view of the glowing window, and collected a gigantic pile of driftwood. Interesting it was so ready to hand. With a mental touch, they lit it and fed more wood to the blaze until it roared so high and strong they gave slight ground before it. Standing in a semi-circle around it, they faced Avon's tower.

His window glowed more brightly, and so did the other windows. Blake could not identify them, but he/the group knew each window represented someone Avon had admitted to the garden of his essence. The barrier glow remained, but its sheen was thinner.

We have come, Avon, they sent to him. We have come to free you.

Avon did not respond with a mental contact, but the barrier bulged, then sagged, then bulged once more. Avon was fighting it.

That was when Bennan stepped out, still linked, and approached the tower. He thrust his hands into the heart of the barrier and curled his fingers around it. With a savage yank, he tore chunks of it free and cast them into the fire with fierce aversion.

With a triumphant cry, Vila jumped after him and ripped away another portion, then the rest of them were there, even the other two mindships, and somehow Gan had joined in, too, and everyone was ripping free the barrier and tossing chunks of it into the blaze. Suddenly hands thrust through the window, tearing at it with sudden aversion, and Blake rejoiced to feel the cool, acerbic touch of Avon's presence on the edges of the gestalt, although not yet completely part of it.

Blake lunged, caught the hands, and yanked with all his strength. Avon shot from the tower, barrelled into Blake and Vila, who was suddenly there, too, and the three of them tumbled to the ground at the base of the roaring bonfire with Cally hovering over them, shining with hope.

Avon said into the heart of the linkage in his old astringent tones, you have a unique way of inviting me to your party, Blake.

Vila whooped, and Cally pressed closer, offering the whole of her essence. Avon simply blended into the gestalt as if it were his rightful place, and there, apart from the real world, he let them in as if it were the most natural thing he could do. He did not open himself as fully as the others did, but neither did he thrust up rigid walls.

Blake suspected Avon would be stiffer than ever for a time, once this was over, but he knew Jabberwocky would warn the crew when Avon needed them to back off. He didn't need that now. He needed to believe he had not alienated them beyond bearing, that he was still a part of them, even if a part of him would always maintain a slight distance. Avon's nature wouldn't fully change. He might not show gratitude for their welcome--Blake would have been astonished if he had--but he accepted it in his own way, one eyebrow lifting, his mouth twisting, but, in the gestalt, everyone understood. Even Perren did not push for greater comprehension, but Blake could feel his satisfied smile.

As they watched, the rest of the golden shield fell away in chunks that drifted, as light as fallen leaves, into the flaming bonfire, to perish there in ashes, revealing the tower, tall and strong, the warm rich glow of firelight dancing in the many windows. Were there more of them than there had been the last time Blake had been in here?

Bennan's essence drifted closer to Avon with none of the inimical golden glow Perren had reported from before, the former mutoid's form sure and strong. Like Avon, he possessed his own bitterness and memories that were closed away from the group, but less of them than Blake had expected. Avon's healing of the mutoid had been completed by the gestalt. In my mind, I hit you. If you want to return the favour, I am ready. He waited for Avon's ruling, prepared to accept whatever revenge he might choose.

Avon hesitated, and the group waited to see what he would say, not one of them projecting speculation, although a quiet certainty began with Blake and spread through the rest of them, so that the group held back with an inner smile.

When Avon spoke, a combination of laughter and grim determination rang in his mental voice as well as a shared understanding that might refer obliquely to Anna Grant. I would prefer to reserve any such action for Servalan, he said. I rather relish the look of surprise on her elegant face as my fist connected.

Apart from Avon, who only offered a wry smile, they emerged from gestalt laughing.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Soolin studied the monitor to her sister's cell, chilled and shaken by the placid, impassive visage on the face that had once held life and vigour. Carlan was the elder by three years, and Soolin had been closer to her than to her other siblings. The bond between them had been strong--until the day Soolin had returned from an outing to find the rest of her family dead. She had not been given the chance to see to the bodies; that must have been Horper's doing. He would not want it revealed that he had taken Carlan. He left GP, and even though Soolin protested that he had caused their deaths, no one would acknowledge it. He was the last of the men she had pursued, and she had made his death as slow and painful as possible. If she had known Carlan's true fate, she would have taken twice as long.

Clad in the bulky protective suit like the two guards who guarded the entrance to the cellblock, she was prohibited from entering her sister's cell. Avalon had forbidden it, and the guards stolidly obeyed. They had recognized the mutoid as her sister when she had come, and they were tactfully sympathetic. Better to ignore them. She wanted no sympathy. She wanted her sister restored, and she was determined Avon would give Carlan her memories, assuming the others could restore him. If they did, presumably he would require a grace period first, but she would see he acted. He had saved others. He would save Carlan, too.

No matter how hard she looked, she could see no trace of the expression that Bennan's face had revealed, even before the reversal of his conversion. Carlan sat, utterly impassive. At times, she would rise and perform exercises that must be part of the routine regimen of a mutoid. Once, she went to a small cabinet on the far side of the room, withdrew a flask of serum, and calmly replaced the one in her chest cavity.

Soolin watched every step of the process.

With the helmet's visor blocking her face, she could not even wipe away her tears.

Finally, the speaker sounded in her helmet. "Release of counter-toxin successful." It was Tanz's voice. The frequency shifted. "Soolin, we've blocked it. Avalon thinks it might be useful for your sister to see you. Do you want Edge and me to stand with you?"

Jabberwocky touched her mind. //We will begin the process with Avon. Whilst that is in progress, none of us in gestalt will be available to you. If you wish Edge and Tanz, we will keep them from the gestalt.//

She wanted no one, but Edge and Tanz were scientists who understood the process of creating mindships. Did any of their training carry over to mutoids? She wanted revenge for what had been done to her sister, but Servalan was on the ship, not here, and she had not done the conversion. //Yes, I would be glad of them,// she responded, and if "glad" were not the correct word, then it was an acknowledgment of what she had learned through the link. She pushed the button on her throat mic. "Tanz, I am not certain what you and Edge could do, but your monitoring equipment might mark responses. What about the biotoxin? Will someone remove it?"

Edge replied. "We have asked the base dental specialist to deal with it. Studies of her initial scans have located the correct tooth. He has been injected with the direct cure, and so will Tanz and I be, and you, since we will be in direct exposure. Once that is done, we will go in, but it is safe to remove your protective garb."

Edge and Tanz brought the dentist with them, a perky little man named Banners, vivid red hair standing out around his face as if it had been electrified. He offered her a wary smile.

"Don't worry, Soolin. This will be a painless process."

Edge calmly administered the antidote to Soolin. She had always rather liked him for his calm and phlegmatic nature. When others were upset and flying into panic, he remained rational, but then he was grounded in his friends. Perhaps, she thought whimsically, that was why she had gradually accepted life on Jabberwocky, when she had originally meant to keep her distance and depart as soon as possible. More comfortable as an observer of life, she had been pitched into it headlong as a participant and had survived the experience. Like Avon, she preferred her emotions never run amok, like Avon, she knew losses. Yet it was with the open and caring Hugh that she had found the first true peace she had found since her family had been killed.

If Edge noticed she had been crying, he said nothing, and even nudged Tanz with a sharp elbow, perhaps to keep him from speaking. "We will enter the room now. It might be wise if you refrain from speaking, but make certain she sees you. If there is any form of breakdown, the sight of you might affect it."

"Maybe it could," Tanz cried. "But even if it doesn't, there are ways around it. The others'll help Avon. And if that works, the gestalt, I mean, then maybe they can heal her in gestalt, so Avon won't have to go through the game of pretending he doesn't want to help."

"Pretending?" she echoed. "He hated the idea of reversing Bennan's memory block. You saw him afterwards. He won't help Carlan. I know he won't."

Tanz grabbed her upper arms and squeezed. "I know he will. Ven will make him do it--for his own good as well as for your sister." He grinned encouragingly. "Besides, Avon only grumbles to maintain his reputation. He doesn't like healing, but I think something inside him makes him do it. It's one way of getting revenge on Servalan, and he's always glad of that."

There was more understanding in Tanz than she had expected. For those motivations, Avon might indeed risk helping her sister. She held onto that hope as they entered the cell.

Carlan raised her head and studied them, her face utterly impassive. When she saw Soolin, nothing altered, and no curiosity showed upon her face. Yet she was the one who spoke. "You resemble me," she said. "Why is this?"

"Does it matter?" Edge asked before Soolin could speak.

"No, but it is possibly a plot, and it is my duty to understand such plots."

"Can you think of a reason for the resemblance?" Tanz asked. He was all but bouncing on his toes; how could he be excited at a time like this?

"Yes, perhaps her appearance is a plot to interfere with my duty. A rebel action to defeat the Federation. Or, perhaps, she is kin to the person I once was."

Soolin gasped at the dispassionate way Carlan listed the possibilities. "And if I am kin?" she asked.

"Then there is less danger to my duty."

"Is duty all that matters to you?" she snapped.

The mutoid studied her, but Soolin could see nothing in that unexpressive face, no spark of Carlan, not even the faintest edge of perplexity.

"Of course. What else could matter? The past is a hindrance."

Avon had almost sounded like that when he had emerged from the healing. Although Soolin had expected it, its pain stabbed through her like daggers.

Banners approached. "I have come to examine you."

"I will not permit an examination. You are a member of the resistance, and the enemy of the Federation."

"I intend no harm to you. Because you are Soolin's sister, I would not hurt you."

The mutoid opened her mouth to protest, then she said, "Soolin." It was not a question, neither was it a form of address. Instead, she simply tasted the word. Before hope could flicker to life in Soolin, the mutoid continued, "Yes, you are Soolin. You are on the wanted list. You are a member of the rebel Blake's crew."

am not a member of the rebel Blake's crew," Banners said and gestured to the two guards to restrain her. She struggled fiercely, using all her heightened strength, and flung one of the guards across the room where he collided with the wall and sprawled on the floor. Edge and Tanz jumped in to replace him, and after a savage fight, restraints were secured. The mutoid watched them, not with a resentful glower but warily, planning to break free. As she was subdued, two more guards arrived, followed by a medic to examine the fallen guard, who was already reviving. The medic removed him, and the two additional guards remained, standing one on either side of the door.

Banners approached her, waving a scanner over her. "Yes, it's there," he said. "Mutoid, you will open your mouth."

"I do not obey your commands."

"Antidote first," Tanz warned, and hit the mutoid's arm with a hypospray. She hissed at him, then, viciously, she clamped her teeth together. The tooth broke and she opened her mouth to emit a cloud of near-transparent gas.

Everyone froze. This was the telling moment that would prove whether or not the counter-toxin worked. Even if the airborne agent was in place and they had all been inoculated, Soolin held her breath. But as the seconds ticked past, none of them experienced shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, or dizziness. Beside her, Edge released a relieved breath.

Banners studied her. "There, you have done your duty," he said. "Now, if you will open your mouth, I will simply remove the fragments and repair your tooth. There is a solid, pragmatic reason for my action, and I do not do it to boost the rebellion, simply to deal with the aftermath of your obedience."

Carlan growled at him, then she opened her mouth. "It is to my advantage to be whole," she said. "If you implant devices, I shall know."

"I will implant no more than a new molar," Banners said and set to work.

Soolin watched as he used a suctioning device to draw out the shattered remnants of the tooth, rinsed her mouth and used another suctioning device on the rinse. Very calmly he scanned her mouth, then probed at the damaged tooth. "Ah, excellent. This was cleverly done. The tooth was halved, and the top portion simply lightly fastened into place. Easy to replace it." He hummed to himself as he worked, and Soolin glared at him. How dare he be happy?

Carlan bore the process easily. There was evidently no pain, or perhaps mutoids simply possessed higher pain thresholds, but then dentistry was in general a painless process. As they waited, Carlan, barred from speaking by the appliances fitted into her mouth, watched them warily. More and more, her gaze flicked to Soolin. Was that a good sign? Or was she simply evaluating Soolin for threat?

"There, finished," Banners said. "The cement will dry within two minutes. After that you may speak as normal and you may eat, if mutoids take additional substance besides serum."

"Mutoid diets are not your concern."

"In a way they are; however, I see your teeth are coated with the usual anti-decay process common throughout the Federation and are sturdy and well maintained. I must say this is fascinating." He packed away his gear as he spoke. "If you people have no more need of me, I shall be on my way."

When he had gone, the guards shifted, watching the secured Carlan, Tanz leaned closer, intent on reading expression on her eyes, and Edge removed various small devices from his capacious pockets and took readings of Carlan. "Hmmmm," he said, but offered no explanation.

"What?" Tanz demanded bouncing back. "What do you detect, Edge?"

"Her readings are different from Bennan's, but slightly. They are also different from those of the other mutoids, who are universally the same, save for slight differences caused by body mass, age, and sex. I have allowed for them. Judging by these readings, Bennan was, as Blake suspected, the best candidate for reversal. Carlan is the next best, although with less potential than Bennan."

"Carlan," said the mutoid. It was not a question. It merely sounded like mindless repetition.

"Carlan. That is your name," Soolin blurted. "You are Carlan."

"Who I was no longer matters."

"It matters to me. It matters to anyone who hates mutoid conversion. It matters to anyone who ever had family lost to them. Are you happy to be a mutoid? Do you realize our family was betrayed to the Federation and they're all dead, all but us? You serve the ones who killed our family."

"The past is an encumbrance."

"They have your all nicely programmed to chant the party line, don't they?" Tanz flung at her. His hand reached for Soolin's, caught it, and squeezed it in brief comfort, gone so quickly she scarcely had time to feel the reassurance he projected to her with the trailing edges of link mode. He couldn't access more, of course, not with the others in gestalt, but it was enough to know that she was not alone.

Once, she had believed she would always be alone and had preferred it, for family and friends only caused pain; they went away or died, and she had suffered enough pain. But how could she accept linkage without accepting the family of Jabberwocky? Pain would always come, but Cally believed wholeheartedly that to be alone was the greatest pain possible, and that, in the joy of group union was to be found comfort and security, even peace. Soolin wasn't sure if she had found peace there, if she would ever find peace, but she had found support and reassurance, and it gave her the strength now to confront her sister.

"Carlan, I am Soolin. I am your sister and I love you. We will free you from this bondage, and restore your life."

Still impassive, Carlan stared at her without replying, but a faint spark of curiosity blossomed in her eyes.

Into the silence Jabberwocky sounded faint and tired, for the gestalt was draining. //Soolin, Edge, Tanz, Avon is restored. We must rest, and then we will see to Carlan. We will do it in gestalt, for it will be easier on all of us, and your presence there will be essential, Soolin. Will you bring your sister to the ship? Far easier here than on the base.//

Soolin sent her understanding and received Edge and Tanz's responses, then she slipped from link mode and explained to the security guards that Carlan must be transferred to Jabberwocky. If there were any hope of restoring her, the healing would take place there.

Ralker joined them as they prepared to leave. "My people are working on the possibility of reversing the need for blood serum. They haven't yet determined if it is possible, but they will study one of the remaining mutoids after thoroughly testing him for additional biothreats. I'll join them. Have Tiver contact me if he needs me. I wouldn't mind a chance to study Bennan when we're closer to understanding the process."

"I'll stay and work with them," Tanz volunteered. "We never worked with mutoids, but we do know a lot of other things that might help."

Edge agreed with him, so Soolin fell in beside the security guards for her return to Jabberwocky.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Restoring mutoids? When Darsan reported it in mindlink to Deeta Tarrant, he was scarcely surprised. He had seen so much already, and not simply with the mindlink, that it would take a great deal to astonish him. At first, the idea of a permanent mental bond had appalled him, an aberration beyond considering, but that was before Darsan had touched his mind in the depth of a crisis, allowing him to discover peace and healing in it. The idea of becoming Darsan's bondmate still staggered him, but the idea of not becoming bonded to the Mark-70 was far worse. At times, Deeta scarcely knew himself. He only knew that, for the first time since the sensor net had been implanted in his brain as First Champion of Teal, he felt truly alive.

Now someone else was learning how to feel alive. A restored mutoid? He questioned Darsan about it, and Dar showed him memories of Bennan in the link. Returned memories swirled about him, and he gloried in them, just as he gloried in a linkage he might never have imagined. He had been a mutoid since before the original work began on the first mindship. Had it been a need to make up for five years of emptiness in his mind that had caused him to revel in a link with strangers? Deeta had lived for years with strangers in his mind and had never welcomed them. But his joy when linked with Dar matched the joy he'd sensed in the altered mutoid, a kinship with someone he had never met, except on the fringes of a link. Life could be surprising.

//He was a space major,// Darsan said. //But he couldn't endure the Federation any longer. They caught him, of course, and that was his punishment for becoming a resister. He commanded a small flotilla of pursuit ships.//

//And your point is?"// Deeta asked, already knowing. Amazing how often he didn't need explanations; the realization permeated him through the link.

//We have need of a commander. He has need of a home.//

Deeta broke linkage and stared in disbelief at Darsan's fascia. "You are seriously considering allowing a mutoid to command this ship?"

Dar grinned. Deeta could always tell when the mindship was smiling, even if he didn't have a face to smile with. "He isn't a mutoid any longer."

"And what about his craving for blood? That wasn't removed because his memories have returned, was it?"

"No, but they're working on that, over at headquarters. Ralker's people are on it. Imagine if it works. A restored mutoid won't have any love of the Federation."

"They might manage physical restoration, but I imagine Avon would put his foot down at the thought of mind-healing every mutoid that comes his way, especially after the way it backfired on him. I've been through healing with Avon, and it's a very personal thing. I'm still surprised he did it for me when he had no remote reason to care one iota about my well-being."

Darsan laughed. "He might not relish it, but I think it's in him, that it compels him even if he loathes it. He linked with me once. It was probably to discover if I still had any feeling for Servalan, to make sure there was no programming, and to test if my erased memories would return. They will, but we decided it was better to leave it until everything was stable, and I can wait until we're linked and you'll be there to help me. I don't think Avon would have trusted me without testing. He's been in Bennan's mind. He'd be able to judge if Bennan meant the resistance ill. But he probably won't work one-on-one with all mutoids, only Soolin's sister."

"I think I'll head over to Jabberwocky. Without bonding, can you maintain a link with me over there?"

"Easily." He chuckled. "We're only a few days away from the permanent bond, anyway. Don't forget, until Ralker works out the details, it's easy to maintain a supply of serum. We maintain a supply of food, after all. Go ahead. I liked Bennan. And he needs us."

"Wonderful," Deeta groaned. "Send a message over to Essilon, if you would, and tell them where I'm going. They probably don't need to trail along to Jabberwocky, even if Martagg wants to. And before you say it, I won't consider Soolin's sister as a possible crew member until we're certain she can be restored and that she has even the remotest interest in joining the crew. Remember, Cally thinks that telepath she encountered a month ago would be a perfect member of our crew."

"I remember. He arrives soon."

"Well, just consider, what will he say if he learns we're considering at least one mutoid as a member of the crew?"

"He's a telepath. He'd be able to sense the return of memories, even if he couldn't receive telepathically from them. We don't have to decide now. Just consider it."

Without need of farewells since Dar was in his mind, Deeta set off for the original mindship.

 

                                                                               *****

 

"Orac," Avon commanded coolly as they gathered on the flight deck, automatically taking their flight positions although they had no intent to leave the base. "I suggest you enhance the rumours you sent that Servalan had defected. I do not trust her, and will only cease to suspect her when she is dead."

When Orac huffed, *Confirmed,* without protest, Avon smiled in satisfaction. At least one entity on the ship knew its place. He glanced around the flight deck, noting the presence of Blake, Vila, and Cally, who had an annoying tendency to hover, Tarrant, secure in the pilot's seat, his hand on the link pad even though he didn't need it. Hugh was there, and Perren, doctor and psych-tech studying Avon as if he were an exotic specimen in a lab experiment. Neither of them had actual flight positions, so they took one end of the forward couches. Jenna was still on Essilon with Gan, or so Avon imagined. He did not particularly care where they were, except that they would be two less crew members to stare at him as if he were an exotic beast. Perren's two cronies remained at the base medical unit. Might they stay there the rest of the day. Avon mainly required an audience when he meant to be clever, but it was bad enough that Hugh and Perren kept on studying him as if they expected him to explode in all directions. He intended to put the incident behind him, and if others were not willing to do so, he would freeze them with his iciest behaviour.

Bennan sat on the other forward couch where Cally programmed a cup of rast for him. "I'm not sure if you are able to eat and drink, but try it and see. If you cannot, no matter, but you have a sense of smell, surely, and can enjoy its savour that way."

"I can drink," Bennan agreed. "The serum is my primary nutrient, but even a modified body needs additional fluids. It will not nourish me, save to prevent dehydration, but I can enjoy the flavour. As a mutoid, I was always glad, in as much as is possible for a mutoid to be glad, when offered coffee. I will try your rast." He sipped it and offered Cally an approving smile over the rim of the cup.

That was far more about the mutoid digestive system than Avon had ever wished to learn, but did not bother to say so. The less he said the better since Perren hung with bated breath on his every word, in full psych-tech mode. Much better to steer him toward Bennan, who would surely need a psych tech far more than Avon would.

"Jabberwocky, monitor Servalan," Avon continued. "Whist she is guarded, I do not trust her not to cause her typical havoc."

"She won't cause any trouble, Avon," Jabberwocky replied. "If necessary, I will gas the cell. The guards won't be happy about it, but it will be better than her escaping."

Servalan was a nuisance now. Even if the entire Federation and every member of Space Command believed she had disaffected and deliberately presented the Mark-70 mindship to the resistance, she would, if free, discover a way to begin a new climb to power. It would be more difficult since Orac had enhanced the spread of rumours, but she could always manage to get to Arpel and explain what had truly happened. Not that Arpel would believe her, or, if he did, that he would welcome her. Avon smiled a crocodile smile at the image of Servalan on trial for her life. It might almost be worth her escape to see her face such a public spectacle. Almost.

"Well, Blake," Avon said at his most cutting. "What great feat will you have me perform next? To shift the planet on its axis?"

Blake laughed, annoying man that he was. "Nothing so drastic, Avon. What I have in mind can wait a bit. However, Soolin is bringing her sister here now."

"No," said Avon.

"In gestalt, Avon."

"No." He refused to endure that process a second time. Deep inside himself, where he need not acknowledge it to the others, he had been glad of his rescue. He suspected what had happened to him would have worn off eventually since he had seen a gradual change as the others worked to help him, even before they entered gestalt, but how much damage could have been done during the waiting period? He was not prepared to leave Jabberwocky, not when this ship was his, even more than it was Tarrant's or Blake's. Neither was he prepared to endure such a process a second time.

//Thank you, Father,// Jabberwocky said into his mind. Of course the blasted ship would listen. He had no privacy here.

//I am not your father.//

//No, but you are Kyl's, and he is here.//

Even as the message arrived, Kyl Avon burst into the flight deck, skidded to a halt, and looked around wildly for Avon. When he saw him at Orac's side, he galloped over with all the fervour of youth and grabbed Avon by the wrists. "They said you were hurt," he cried, the words spilling out in accusation.

"They, it seems, were incorrect," Avon said, stiff and pompous. He did not detach himself from the grip, but studied the boy's hands pointedly.

Kyl took comfort in the tone, if not the glance, but he did let go. "Well, something happened, and they said a mutoid messed up your mind."

"No, it was not like that," Avon said. "Simply a bit of healer backlash, and it is now reversed. As for the mutoid, you will see him sitting on the forward couch." With Kyl's vast curiosity, a distraction would be welcome.

Even though Kyl's eyes darted to Bennan, who, without the mutoid helmet and clothing, and with his hair tidy and trimmed, did not remotely resemble a mutoid, he didn't forget the backlash. He simply set it aside, prepared to fuss if necessary. "That's not a mutoid," Kyl scoffed. "He's drinking rast."

"Even mutoids may drink," Bennan said, eyeing Kyl warily. No wonder. At times, Avon viewed his son in the nature of an unexploded solium device. "It is true, I am a mutoid, but my memories have been restored, thanks to Avon. You, I assume, are his son?"

Kyl's eyes grew enormous and he approached Bennan slowly, his fascination drawing him, but with a near-adult trace of caution. "That's fabulous. If we can cure mutoids, the Federation will have even more reason to fear us." He offered his hand in greeting. "Yes, I'm Kyl Avon. I'm happy to meet you."

Bennan stared at the hand blankly for half a second, then he took Kyl's hand in a firm grip. "No one ever shakes hands with mutoids," he said.

The sympathy that was so much a part of Kyl's nature, inherited from his mother, flowed to the surface. It was at such times Avon remembered Arda the most, and whilst he was more vulnerable after the healing, he controlled himself and smiled faintly at Bennan's wary reaction to Kyl. It must be like being befriended by a gigantic puppy.

"I'm good with computers," Kyl said. "If there's any way I can help you using computers, I'm your man. What's your name?"

"San Bennan." He said it positively, no trace of the mutoid attitude. For an instant, Avon allowed a trace of smugness to run through him for accomplishing the impossible.

"Were you converted because you were a rebel?"

"That is hardly your concern," Avon told his son. "Perhaps he does not wish to discuss the event."

"No, it's all right," Bennan said. "I don't mind. I have a brother, and I hope I will be able to find him. And yes, I was a resister, and was betrayed by the woman I believed loved me. She was a Central Security agent." He did not refer to her by name, and Avon was relieved, but he glanced in Avon's direction and then away. "However, I had friends even after my arrest, and your father believes my conversion process may have been interfered with, and that is why he could restore me."

"Even when they think they've taken memories, they haven't always," Kyl said. "My father can heal hidden programming. I was sent here programmed; my father believed I had been long dead until I arrived. I was programmed to cause his death. He fixed that. He can heal anything. That's what he did with you, isn't it?"

Avon's mouth tightened. "As it was not an experience I should care to repeat..."

"He always says that," Kyl told Bennan in an obvious whisper. "Then the next time healing's needed, he does it, even if he pretends it's under protest. If it went wrong this time, he'll mean it more than usual, that's all."

"If you have quite finished discussing me..." Avon began menacingly.

Kyl grinned at him, undismayed. It took a considerable threat to daunt him, but then he was an Avon. "When he sounds like that, I'm in trouble," he explained without the least trace of dismay. He looked around the flight deck. "Hullo, everybody. Why're there guards outside? Is it because of San? I don't think he's going to hurt anybody. They said whatever crisis with a mysterious toxin was over and it was safe to go about our business, so I came straight here. I don't think San means to hurt anybody."

"No, it's because we have Servalan on board in one of the cells," Blake explained. "And we're in the process of bringing a second mutoid here. If you intend to stay, Kyl, I suggest you keep to one side, and just observe. I do not believe you will be in any danger."

Avon regarded him cynically. "So you often claim, Blake, just before fourteen pursuit ships open fire on us."

"Avon's right," Vila agreed, winking at Kyl. "It's always dangerous here."

"Thus continually astonishing me that you remain," Avon countered.

Vila grinned enormously. "That's what I like. Avon insulting me. Makes me feel right at home--and very, very safe."

"You're a fool."

"I'd think you'd try for a new adjective," Tarrant threw in. He was clearly enjoying himself. Perhaps Avon should develop new ways to cut him down to size.

"Rather than fool? Idiot, perhaps. Cretin. Dolt. Dunderhead. Nincompoop. Mooncalf..."

"Here now, he's getting at me," Vila protested before Avon could flaunt his vocabulary further. There were times when Avon actually quite liked being on the ship. "Jabberwocky, help. You're on my side, aren't you?"

"I think I am on my side." He sent to Avon directly. //Play along. You are reassuring everyone.//

//If that means they will cease their constant supervision for fear I shall revert, then perhaps I can endure it. But I warn you, Jabberwocky, I am no subject for speculation.//

//No, but we're simply glad you're yourself. Allow us our relief. Soon enough we shall need to deal with Soolin and her sister. They are on their way here now. There is no guarantee that what worked for Bennan will work for Carlan. Even more than you, Soolin has sealed her heart away. If this fails, she will leave the ship as she did once before. As we feared you would. We must do this.//

Avon did not answer that in words, simply projected the certainty that he did not mean to leave the ship. He was protecting his interests and tried not to consider how his interests now included not only the mindship but the mindship's crew. As for healing the other mutoid, surely they did not expect him to repeat the process on the same day? He would suggest to Perren that he needed a breather first, and Perren might actually agree.

Yet delay would solve nothing. No matter what excuses or denials Avon used, Blake would still expect him to heal Carlan. Worse, if Avon utterly refused, the others would go into gestalt without him, and they did not know how to heal programming. All they had done was to coax Avon out from his walls, in the end a much simpler process.

Unaware of Jabberwocky's intervention, Vila plunged on joyfully. "Well, I think you're pretentious, overbearing, obnoxious, haughty, imperious, snobbish, dictatorial..." Vila trailed off as he ran out of adjectives.

In spite of himself, Avon was slightly impressed. "Why, Vila, I did not realize you actually possessed a vocabulary."

"I can go on, you know."

Avon glanced around the flight deck and caught Cally's eye. She sent a wave of approval and affection at him, wordlessly, through their own mental link. Blake merely laughed.

"I can think of a few adjectives for you as well, Blake," Avon said. A part of him wondered if the gestalt healing had enabled him to move past what had happened, and he resented it, but the resentment was overruled by relief. The shell of unfeeling had been a protection, but it had also been a prison, and he would deny a prison, even if it were largely self-imposed, particularly a prison that affected his mind. "I will offer them, too, the next time you insist I perform such an idiocy as this morning."

"That's right, it's afternoon now, and we never had lunch," Vila mourned. "I'm starving, I am. Jabberwocky, program us all nice lunches, there's a good ship."

"That will have to wait," Jabberwocky announced. "Soolin is at the outer hatch." He added through the link, //Be kind to her, but do not make a production of it. She would be suspicious, and she is distressed enough already.//

The humour that even Bennan had enjoyed fell away as everyone composed themselves. It would not do for Soolin to walk in on a scene of mirth. Avon also realized that Jabberwocky's sending had reached both Bennan and Kyl. The latter sent a worried glance at his father, who merely nodded to him, and gestured him over to the couches beside Perren, who grinned at him in welcome, clapped him on the shoulder, and spoke to him in an undertone. Overhearing, Hugh nodded approval, and Bennan looked startled, but then he smiled faintly.

He was adjusting too well, Avon decided. Presently, he might well enjoy a spectacular breakdown. He nudged Jabberwocky to suggest as much to Perren, who caught Avon's eye, and gave him a thumbs' up.

By the time Soolin entered with two security guards escorting her restrained sister, everyone, even Kyl, had donned a suitably grave expression, and Bennan had rose as if he meant to greet her, or as if he were practising the archaic custom of rising when a woman entered the room. Had he been trained to do so as a mutoid, or did he actually feel concern for Carlan? They had served together, but mutoid loyalty was surely an oxymoron.

Soolin gestured the guards to position her sister in the middle of the room, then planted herself at Carlan's side. A glance around the room detected Kyl, which brought a wrinkle to her brow, then she saw Bennan, dressed in normal clothes, his hair tidy, the cup of rast still in his hand, and her eyes flew to her sister, still clad in full mutoid regalia, face impassive as she studied Jabberwocky's flight deck, no doubt obeying commands; she would surely remember being part of the boarding party that had tried to take the ship. If she felt even the remotest connection to Soolin, it was in no way apparent. The restraints around her wrists secured her hands closely before her. No longer the same menace since the toxin had been dispatched harmlessly, she was still a threat.

Soolin studied her intently, and her expression was every bit as expressionless as the mutoid's, although her hands curled into tight fists as her sides. "Wait there," she said in the tone of an order, to which the mutoid inclined her head. Soolin gnawed briefly on her lower lip, then she whirled as if she could not bear to face her another second, marched up to Avon, tipped her chin to face him eye to eye. "Here is my sister, Avon," she said. "Heal her."

 

                                                                               *****

 

Cally had watched Avon seesawing from cold to content to cold, reverting to bandying words with Vila, as if his emotions had come unglued and would need to sort themselves into place before he could fully relax. The threat of a new healing hung over him, for he surely realized that what the others had done was not so much a healing as a rescue party. They had not been forced to destroy programming, only to assist in the weakening of the walls Avon had both drawn and had thrust around him. To free Soolin's sister would require Avon's full skills, and Cally doubled he was ready--or willing--to try.

Avon would never tolerate cosseting. Even when wounded, he resisted the others fussing over him, and he had distracted Kyl's worry by offering him the spectacle of a restored mutoid, which Kyl had been unable to resist. Yet Cally knew his fear, not only that the healing would fail and that he would disappoint Soolin, and Blake as well, but that it would fail in such a way that it would affect his mind a second time.

I will stand with you, she promised him in their own private telepathy.

He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment, then gripped Soolin's shoulders. "Before we try, there is one thing you should know. Before I attempted it with Bennan, it was my belief--and his--that the suppression of his memories was failing."

"Avon's right." Bennan joined them. "Soolin, you don't know me yet, but I had friends, even after the Arbiter determined my fate, and I believe one of them altered the process slightly, in hopes it would eventually break down. For some months, I had begun to experience flashes, no coherent memories, but the edges of them such as one glimpses in dreams. Resentment build in me, too, which is not the way of mutoids. It is possible that, on the majority of mutoids, what Avon did wouldn't work."

"But it might," she said. "I will not have my sister remain like this for lack of trying."

"There is something else you need consider, Soolin." That was Blake, at his most compassionate; how could he continue to spew compassion after all that had been done to him? Cally valued that in Blake, although she knew Avon could not understand it. Surely a part of him had long relied on it, although he had never admitted it to himself until he had first healed Blake. She had been in that healing and understood the strength of the bond the two men shared.

"What?" Soolin challenged. She caught his hand. "Tell me."

He squeezed her fingers. "The healing of Bennan went well for Bennan, but not for Avon. He needed us to restore him. I do not believe he is ready."

It was one thing for Avon to decide that on his own, but another for someone else to claim it on his behalf. Linked with Avon's mind, Cally could almost feel his resentment as if it were her own. He thought, and she agreed with him, that it would be better to get it over with rather than to have it hanging over him. If the healing of mutoids were to become a resistance agenda, he would need to devise a process that would not require his unique brand of healing. Perhaps a form of hypnosis, surely Perren's purview. Captured programming devices at the base might be studied, and a way found to reverse their action. Cally vowed to talk to Perren afterward, for the abilities of a psych tech would aid them in many ways. He would be quite busy dealing with the aftermath of the process. Although Bennan seemed calm and intact, and even eager to do more linking, eventually the cruelty of what had been done to him would catch up with him. The same would happen with Carlan after she had been freed, and there was not only the mutoid experience but the two years of her captivity prior to that and the memory of her family's death, which would hit her as if it were new.

Avon touched Cally's mind to show her he understood what she had been thinking. "If we wait till I am ready, Blake, we would wait until the universe ends. Better to do it now. If the rest of you intend to aid with the gestalt, I shall endure it, although it will, no doubt, take me weeks to remove the foul taste of it from my mind."

"You think I like the taste of you in my mind?" Vila jumped in a second before Perren could speak. Cally blessed Vila. He always knew when to break the tension.

Jabberwocky spoke directly to Avon, but allowed Cally to hear since he would feel their link. //Avon, I do not believe you can teach the others how to destroy programming. I have seen how you do it, and while I understand what you do, I cannot do it. My mind does not function that way. But in gestalt, all of us are one, and we can enhance you, or, supported by you, do what we could not do apart. Also, we have learned the nature of the threat and thus can avoid it.//

//Simplistic, as usual.// But Cally realized the ship was correct. If Avon could spread the impact through all of themB

Perhaps all of them would be impacted. An entire ship of mutoids.

No, it would never happen that way. Cally would not permit it, nor would Jabberwocky. And surely Avon would be prepared to prevent a repeat of the last crisis.

With a martyred sigh, he spoke. "Very well. I shall do it. Vila, of course, will complain that he is being starved, and while I see no evidence of emaciation, I do believe it would be better for us if we had our meal and a brief rest before we proceed. Also, the gestalt is a drain on Jabberwocky's powers, and I should hate for the process to lower any barriers that might allow for Servalan to escape." He looked around the flight deck. "Two hours. We shall eat and rest, and Jabberwocky shall recharge, and then we will do it. Is that satisfactory?"

Soolin squashed her impatience that was so nearly audible that any Auron would have recognized it two rooms away, then she nodded. They would wait.

 

                                                                               *****

They had just started their meal when Jabberwocky announced the arrival of Deeta. Tarrant went to meet his brother and led him to the rest room. "You've been following what's been going on?"

Deeta's nature was far more suspicious than Tarrant's, which was saying a lot, and he might have a vested interest in the outcome of the mutoid restoration, since he now intended to pilot the Mark-70 and link with Darsan. He couldn't tell whether Deeta had come to Jabberwocky on his own initiative or whether Darsan had sent him, but when he sent a quick mental query to Jabberwocky, the ship confirmed that it was a joint decision. Interesting.

"Dar has kept me posted, and Jabberwocky keeps him posted. Where's Soolin?"

"Since her sister is still a mutoid, they took her to the other cell--Servalan's still here, too. That way the guards can double up in the corridor and make sure Servalan doesn't try anything."

"Would you care to eat, Deeta?" Jabberwocky asked. "Vila was starving, you see, so we decided a feast wouldn't go amiss. I can run up a tasty luncheon for you."

"No, I ate already." He glanced around the room, and Perren and Hugh grinned at him. He'd come to know both of them well since the pair had been working with him on his brain burn and in preparation for his permanent linkage with Darsan, but it would be better to see them off duty, so to speak.

Kyl bounced from his seat, grinning. "Hey, Deeta. I've got a new computer that would be good for you. Shall I bring it over and show Dar?"

"Any time. He likes you." He ruffled Kyl's hair, just as he used to ruffle Tarrant's when he was a boy. Laughing, Kyl ducked away. Memories flooded his mind, and Tarrant banked them for later.

Tarrant's brother seemed so much calmer and happier since he and Darsan had united. It would be good for him when the permanent bond was finalized, but it had already improved him almost beyond recognition. He was so much more like the big brother Tarrant had admired when he was growing up, and less like the virtual stranger at the Teal-Vandor Convention.

Deeta greeted the others, then he smiled at Bennan, who was not eating, of course, but who was drinking more rast. "Hello, Bennan."

"Deeta. I sensed you briefly in the linkage. You're Darsan's bond?"

"Not yet officially; it's all new to me, and we're taking it slow. You're familiar with the ship, though."

"The Mark-70? It's wonderful. I couldn't be as thrilled then as I am now, but I never saw a finer ship." He darted a glance at Jabberwocky's fascia. "No offense."

"None taken," Jabberwocky replied. "However, Darsan will need considerable improvements in other areas before he is a match for me."

"Teleport, for instance," Deeta agreed. "Once that's working, and a few more mods, and the upgrades for you and Essilon, we'll have quite a fleet."

"I imagine Supreme Commander Arpel is gnashing his teeth," Blake agreed with a smile. "Things are looking well for us. I'm sure it won't be easy, but we just took a giant step closer to victory."

"And to the chaos that is certain to follow," Avon replied. "Do you imagine your rabble is remotely ready for the concept of democracy, Blake?"

"Do you think they won't welcome it?"

"Oh, let's not talk politics. It upsets my digestion," Vila protested. "Deeta, what brings you here? I'm sure it's more interesting than all that other stuff."

"To you, perhaps," Avon said, but he eyed Deeta with that high-handed air that always rubbed Tarrant the wrong way. "Pray, enlighten us."

Deeta grinned. Perhaps he was growing used to Avon. "Recruiting," he said. "I need a commander yet. I thought a former space major might be exactly what I need, especially one who thrives in link-mode. What about it, Bennan?" he asked. "Dar and I recognized your presence in the link, and Dar says you're a natural. Now you could be craving it because of those five years, and if so, and if that's all, I'll understand, but Dar thinks you'd be perfect to join our crew."

Bennan stared at Deeta as if he had just beheld a miracle. "You mean you actually would consider me for Darsan?" he asked. "I felt you in the link, and I felt Darsan stronger, much more than I felt the other mindship, although he was there, too. I've been wondering what would become of me. I was sure the resistance would take me in, but I never dreamed of that."

"You can't be serious," Avon objected. He rose and stalked over to Deeta, glaring at him in disbelief.

Deeta loomed over him. Since he was the same height as Tarrant, he was good at it. "Oh, and why not, Avon? You've been in my mind. You should be able to tell when I'm serious and when I'm not."

"Assuming I have given any thought whatsoever to your mind since the healing," Avon countered. "However, if you need answers: One, he is still physically converted."

"Dar has already pointed out that since we carry a supply of food, it would be no different to carry serum until the possibility of alteration. And some of the physical conversion is greater strength and speed, which will be an asset."

Unimpressed, Avon continued. "Two, he has been restored less than a day. I doubt he is yet stable."

"If you mean he might need a psych-tech, we have one. Perren can accompany us on our first few missions if need be. We'd halfway planned on that, anyway."

"Has he always been insufferable?" Avon asked Tarrant in an offensively commiserating voice.

Tarrant grinned. "Always, Avon, and I'm told it takes one to know one."

One dark eyebrow arched. "Touché," Avon said very lightly, but the set of his mouth promised delayed retaliation.

"I'd like to consider it," Bennan said. "It will hardly be your choice, Avon. Darsan and Deeta should be entitled to select their own crew."

"With the authorization of Avalon," Blake reminded them. "I think this might be a good thing, but not one we should rush into. I'd feel better if we could delete the need for serum before any actual missions took place."

Bennan waved his hand. "Another possibility before removal of the serum need, I think it might serve as good cover. A disguise. If I were seen, I could pass as a mutoid, and I remember very well how to appear impassive." He grinned suddenly. "If I should forget, there is always Avon to serve as a shining example."

Vila howled with laughter, ignoring the haughty disdain Avon cast his way.

"If you were caught, you could still be blanked," Hugh said. "You might even be more vulnerable to it since your memories have returned. But if we could reverse the serum need, that would likely not happen without normal programming."

Perren nodded. "You can't decide today. Deeta's not permanently bonded yet. After that happens, you can decide, and that gives San a chance to stabilize. Here's what I think."

"I knew we would come to that," Avon groaned. "The way of the world according to Ven Perren. I shudder to contemplate it."

"Actually, you love it," Perren countered. "But never mind. It's not about you. I think both Jabberwocky and Darsan should maintain a very light linkage with San until the decision is made, not to sense his thoughts because he needs to think them on his own, but just to remind him he's not alone. It also will warn us if anything should go wrong. Not that I think it will," he said, fending off questions with a raised hand. "I just think we need to involve him as much as possible. It's what he needs."

"Thus speaks the expert on the human psyche," Avon scoffed.

"You only say that because you know it's true."

Avon looked down his nose at him in a wordless sneer, then deliberately ignored him. "Before any such decisions are made, I recommend a thorough physical scan and time to evaluate him properly, not just by those of us here capable of doing so, but any base personnel Avalon considers competent to do so. I am not faulting you, Bennan, simply taking the precautions that so many here would carelessly disregard."

Bennan nodded without the slightest trace of offense. "I agree with you, Avon. The last thing I want to do is cause problems for Darsan or for the resistance. But several friends of mine shared my leanings who, presumably, are still at liberty. If Orac could learn their whereabouts, perhaps I could bring you information from inside the Federation."

Tarrant sent a question to Jabberwocky. If the modification process had access to Bennan's mind before his memories were blocked, the other resistance sympathizers might have already been discovered. They might be mutoids or dead, and news of their fate would scarcely aid Bennan. //Have Orac find out. He takes orders better from you.//

Jabberwocky chuckled in his head.

"My other consideration," Deeta went on, "is if this conversion works for Soolin's sister, she might be a possibility for crew for me as well."

Everyone stared at him as if he had gone mad, and Tarrant agreed. He couldn't imagine his brother wishing for the company of mutoids, even unconverted ones. Besides, the little they knew of Carlan's life didn't suggest she would be useful as a member of a mindship's crew. "She doesn't exactly possess Soolin's skills," Tarrant objected.

"No, but restoring her memories won't take away her mutoid training or her physical modifications," argued Deeta. "And she'll have every reason to hate the Federation."

"If you take her, Soolin would come, too," Cally said quietly, and Tarrant realized she had expected them to lose Soolin on Jabberwocky once they learned the mutoid's identity.

Tarrant nodded. "I don't think Soolin would be parted from her sister now that she's found her."

"I wouldn't object," Deeta said. "I like Soolin."

Hugh opened his mouth to protest; he and Soolin were close. But in the end, he said nothing. After all, the ships were all based here. It wasn't as if he would never see her again. He wouldn't leave Jabberwocky, though. Tarrant knew that. Just as well. They had the uncanny knack of getting into the kind of trouble that needed a surgeon.

"When will the healing of Soolin's sister take place?" Deeta asked.

"In about an hour," Blake told him. "We'll do it in gestalt."

"And you can't come in, Deeta," Jabberwocky warned him. "You're healing quite well from the aftereffects of the sensor net, but you're still not ready for gestalt. If you want to stay, you can monitor."

"I'll take you up on that," Deeta agreed. "If nothing else, I can help guard Servalan."

"Someone must," Avon said. "Perhaps we should send her to the cellblock instead. If Jabberwocky draws enough energy to cause a power drop-out, her restraints and the cell doors might give way. I'd as soon avoid an escape whilst all of us are mindlinked and unaware of what is going on around us."

"I'd rather avoid that, too," Vila piped up.

"We'll double the guards around the ship," Blake said reassuringly. "I'd planned on that anyway."

"So you are finally learning caution, Blake." Avon actually smiled. "I must say it is certainly past due."

 

                                                                               *****

 

Servalan remained on Jabberwocky, with four guards at the door and another inside the room. In addition to the restraints controlled electronically, Vila had found a pair of old-fashioned shackles, the kind that worked with a key, and saw them fastened around Servalan's wrists and to the edge of the cot, which was bolted to the floor. All the while she was secured, she had glared at them, the dark gleam in her eyes promising retaliation.

"I should not be so hasty to imagine escape if I were you, Servalan," Avon told her as Vila fastened the last restraint and ducked away as if she could harm him even secured. "Orac has informed the Federation and Space Command that you have defected to deliberately bring us the Mark-70 and implied that your failures to capture us are proof of your disaffection."

"They will hardly believe resistance propaganda," Servalan returned coldly, but her eyes filled with calculation.

"Oh, but they will."

From his place near the door, Blake watched the process. "We have been rather careless of you in captivity before, Servalan. We have learned our lesson."

"Blake is indeed capable of learning," Avon said. "And as for me, I intend to take no chances. Is she secure, Vila?"

The thief nodded. "We should shift anything unsecured out of range of her," he added. "I don't trust her."

"Vila never trusts anyone," Avon replied as they removed any tools she could use to break free of the extra bonds. "And in this, he is correct. Servalan, you are guarded by four guards outside this door and many more outside the ship. Jabberwocky has set additional traps, which I have no intention of explaining to you. We have also arranged an automatic dispersion of sleep gas to be administered to this room should the electronic restraints fail. It will render you unconscious for a period of six hours. In addition, Thorm Suliman will remain in the room with you." He beckoned the avatar in. "You have encountered him before. He is not susceptible to coercion, nor will he be vulnerable to sleep gas."

Thorm offered Servalan one of his dimpled smiles. "I am also physically stronger than a living man. You cannot coerce me, because I am always linked with the whole of Jabberwocky, who can raise any blocks in my mind that should be needed." He folded his arms across his chest as he settled in the farthest corner of the room. "If you wish, you may converse with me. It will be entertaining, to say the least."

She glowered at him and refused to gratify him with speech.

When they withdrew to the flight deck, Blake checked to see who had chosen to assist in the gestalt. Soolin was present, of course, grimly determined, no trace of hope visible on her face, although she practically vibrated with tension. She also avoided looking at Bennan, who had taken a seat at the farthest edge of the left forward couch as if to disassociate him from the procedure.

Jenna sat between Gan and Hugh across from Bennan on the other couch. In front of the pilot position, a row of chairs had been placed, and Carlan occupied the central one, her hands in loose restraints. She didn't try to break free and had not tried the entire time she had been in captivity, certainly not after she had been brought face to face with Soolin. Blake wondered if she experienced subliminal recognition. If so, that might aid them.

Tarrant had taken the pilot's seat, and Dayna the weapons position. She would enter the gestalt through Orac, but only lightly, thus serving as a control. Orac would oust her from gestalt if it went wrong, and she could physically separate the others if need be.

Avon sat reluctantly at Carlan's side and studied Soolin, who hovered, still on her feet. "Soolin, instinct tells me that you would be both a problem and a solution in the gestalt."

coming in, Avon. You can't stop me."

It was true he couldn't if Jabberwocky allowed it. Blake said nothing and urged Jabberwocky to avoid comment, receiving a wordless agreement from the ship.

"No," Avon said. "But if, in the gestalt, I urge you to withdraw, it is for your sister's benefit, and I will expect you to obey."

She glowered at him, but finally nodded.

"Then, Cally, if you would sit on Carlan's other side," Avon gestured Cally in that direction. "Blake, beside me. Vila, beside Cally."

"High-handed, isn't he?" Perren asked. He dragged one of the end chairs around in front of Carlan. "I'll sit here," he announced. "Hugh, you beside me. Avon?" He tried to arch one eyebrow in question but both of them lifted.

Avon nodded with a quick, almost humorous glance at Blake. Your crew is so obedient, Blake, he telepathed.

crew? And here you have always claimed they were yours.

Avon lifted one eyebrow, an overt display of one-upmanship over Perren, but also a response to Blake's challenge, as if he understood it for the tension breaker Blake had been intended. "Does anyone else wish to instruct me on how best to perform a healing?" he inquired with a wry smile.

"Of course not, Avon." Jabberwocky deliberately sounded smug and confident. "However, I am entirely capable of telling you how to manage a gestalt, and will, if need be. Hugh, I think it might be best if you remained outside as control, and also to deal with any problems that might emerge. Perren, you will need to take part. You have sound instincts, if often voiced colloquially. You and Cally will be Avon's main back-up. Blake and Vila, as part of the gestalt, your task will be to offer strength. Soolin, my instruction to you is to remain in gestalt and do not act independently. If you do, and if it is not deemed beneficially, I shall oust you from gestalt. Jenna, you shall serve as a stabilizing factor, and of course Del will be present in link as he always is. Deeta Tarrant, you are not to link, nor you, Kyl, and you only remain present in case it goes very wrong and I should need physical assistance. I will maintain a light link with Essilon and Darsan, which will break at certain warning signs I have devised with them." He paused, then before Avon could object to the string of directions, Jabberwocky added, "Gan, you may join or not, as you choose."

"I'll join, then," Gan agreed. "Maybe I can help."

Avon opened his mouth to refute the possibility, then closed it. He studied Gan, and finally said, "It is entirely possible common sense, so lacking in a number of those present, would be beneficial."

"Why, thank you, Avon." Only Gan could respond with those words without a shred of sarcasm. Blake saw Avon recognize it, acknowledge it, and move on.

"Anything else?" he said pointedly to Jabberwocky.

"One final thing. Bennan must also be present in the gestalt."

"What!" Avon leaped to his feet.

"I must," Bennan argued, rising. "I understand more than any of you, even you, Avon, what the mutoid will endure when her memories return. If nothing else, she knows who I am, or rather, who I was. I understand the gestalt is a total union, and that the rest of you know each other well, whilst I only know Avon and Perren from the initial link and the rest of you with an acquaintance of less than a day and through brief link-mode. But I will be there, and you can draw on me for anything you need."

"He's right, Avon," Blake said.

"This is a healing, not a convention," Avon muttered. He shot a glare at Bennan, another at Blake, and the last one at Jabberwocky. "I am doing this under protest."

"And what else is new?" Perren asked sweetly.

"Another word from you--" Avon began, then he shrugged off the annoyance and took his seat without further protest. When he spoke, it was to Carlan. "We now intend to reverse the blockage of your memories."

"The past is an encumbrance."

"So it is," Avon agreed. "Yet it is best to face life with all possible ammunition at one's hand, the better to defend oneself. Do you concur with that reasoning?"

The mutoid hesitated, then inclined her head. "That is logical."

Avon gripped her hand, and she struggled to yank it free, but at the last minute stilled. "It is illogical to struggle when I would only be subdued," she said.

"Carlan," Avon said. "That is your name. Do not tell me that memories are not necessary. Repetition will not serve you. I intend to link with you, and the rest of us will do so as well. You will not be harmed."

The mutoid stared at him with a level and impassive gaze. "I do not fear you. Fear is a hindrance."

"Indeed." Avon offered his other hand to Blake, his mouth twisting in what Blake recognized as unhappy anticipation, although his face remained impassive.

One by one, those lined up gripped hands, although it would not be necessary to maintain the grip once gestalt had been established. Avon and Cally would continue because of the healing process, but the others need not. Soolin clasped her sister's forearms and Perren did the same, his hands closing over Soolin's.

Avon closed his eyes. Blake didn't, but as they entered basic link-mode, he stopped focussing visibly and concentrated on the inner bond that they had forged since the beginning. In spite of Avon's resistance to the process and his fear of a repeat of the previous event, he never hesitated. Once he began, his unwelcome healing instincts took over.

As everyone linked, oral communication ceased, for there was no need. Blake sensed them all, his crew, his friends, their thoughts converging in dedicated purpose. Jabberwocky's urging for gestalt flowed through the link, gentle and reassuring, and they united, one after another, casting their lot into the greater whole. Then, with Avon surging forward, stabbing into the darkness around Carlan like an arrow, they soared after him, strong with common purpose. Even Soolin sank into the bond, although her need to surge ahead and save her sister was one of the prods that drove them on. Avon caught it and eased it, and the rest of them, one with him in the link, offered reassurance.

Then Blake/the gestalt saw the dreamscape.

He had seen his own, with barren trees and withered landscape, arid and sere, when he had needed healing after Witt had cast him from the link-bond with Jabberwocky, and desolation had eaten at his heart until Avon warmed it with the strength of his own fire. This time, there was no landscape at all, only a uniform darkness from which vague shapes bunched, like savage animals waiting to spring. That they were formless made them more intimidating, but Avon never hesitated. He negotiated a path between them, hands outstretched to fend them off with his bare palms. Odd, when, in the real world, Blake could still feel the crushing grip of his fingers.

As one, they worked their way through the maze of danger that lurked in every direction like vultures waiting for their prey to die. The gestalt shivered at the image, then cast it aside, for they were stronger than shadows.

Venturing deeper into the dreamscape gave them the first trace of real light, a cold green glow that spoke of long-dead things, adding a corpselike miasma to the air. Vila's elaborate shiver ran through the gestalt, but the thief did not withdraw. Blake let himself 'enjoy' the reaction, then put it aside.

Avon pointed behind him. For an instant, he was separate, and his warning, "Soolin," must have been enough to restrain her. She had little experience in gestalt, for they did not practice it regularly, but she must be devastated at the dreamscape. She halted reluctantly.

Satisfied, Avon turned himself over to the healing mode and forged into the heart of the nauseating green glow. As they advanced, each of them offering his own particular strength to the gestalt, yet subsidiary to Avon, whose instincts guided them, features sprang into being around them that sent an appalled gasp from more than one member. Decaying bodies lay strewn about, some dismembered, others untouched with blank eyes glowing with the green light as they stared lifelessly toward the unseen sky. The ground beneath their feet, which Blake had first assumed to be a rocky path, suddenly revealed itself to be laid with skulls, some buried except for their crowns, others face-up, verdant light oozing from the hollow staring eye sockets.

Another shudder from Vila was nearly erased by a stronger one from Soolin. She shivered, moaning softly.

Avon stretched out his hand and caught hers. Blake could not tell what he did, but it gave strength to Soolin, and she squared her shoulders.

They entered a valley, a deep hollow, surrounded with a wall of skulls at least three metres high. Avon led the gestalt through the gate, pausing just within. No tower rose here, instead a little hut that looked like something from a primitive world or from the ancient past in the old calendar, sat dead centre, the path of skulls leading directly to its door.

"She is there." The voice, surprisingly, was not Avon's, but Bennan's. "She's in deeper than I was, Avon."

"So I see. All of you follow my lead." He went to the hut on reluctant feet, always at attention, but on the way, he paused to gather wood, and the others, needing no instruction, did the same. When they reached the clearing before the hut, Avon gestured and the group built a huge fire, stacking the branches neatly as if they had spent weeks learning how. When it was finished, Avon held out his hand toward it and said, "Fire," and a fierce blaze exploded into being.

"It will chill you," Avon warned, gesturing them off.

Bennan approached it, as if he understood, and put out his hands to it. "Not entirely," he said.

"You it will not chill, for you have been in a place like this and understand it. But stand back, for the programming will soon emerge."

The gestalt clung tighter as they bunched together, physically close, mentally one. If not for that unit, Blake would gladly have fled. A sideways glance at Vila proved he would have done the same.

Then motion at the corner of his eye alerted him to the danger. Out of the ground, out of the eyes of half-buried skulls, crept long smoky, eel-like strands, twisting menacingly as they drifted toward the gestalt.

Avon nodded, satisfied, and gestured with both hands toward the nearest one. Fire zipped to him from the blaze and rebounded to sear the strand into nothingness.

Many more followed it, from all directions, narrowing in on the gestalt.

"Sear them," Avon urged, briefly separate, then one with them as the gestalt enabled them to practice his tactic. There was almost a joy in the action as they called fire to them and destroyed the strands, charring them into dust that scattered on the chill wind. Memory blockers, Blake knew, that sucked the heart and life from people and sealed them in empty vaults with nothing to comfort them. So Avon had defeated the last blockages to Blake's memories when they had been stranded on the surface of Malodaar.

As the air sizzled with the force of dying memory blockers, a strange exultation grew in the group, even in Avon, as more and more of the strands died, charred out of existence. In gestalt, they formed a circle, facing outward, and rid the ghastly valley of every one of them. When no more approached, Avon honed his senses and stalked in a circle around the enclosed hut, apart from the rest of them yet not. When he inclined his head, the skulls sank into the ground and in their place, grass sprouted. Nothing as hopeful as flowers, but the grass served its purpose.

Vila's surprise rang through the group before he dove wholeheartedly into the gestalt.

The fire blazed fiercely, never consuming the wood they had stacked into place, and instead of a bitter cold, it warmed them with exactly the right degree of comfort.

Beyond it, light glowed in the windows of the hut.

"Call her, Soolin," Avon instructed. "Call her now."

"Carlan!" Soolin did not lose the gestalt linkage or she would have been cast from the dreamscape, but she drifted to the fore, her urgent motivation sending purpose through the gestalt. "Carlan. Come out."

Mentally, Avon dragged everyone away from the door, steering them to one side or another, and pulled Bennan beside him. The former mutoid sent his understanding through the link, the memory of his own emergence vivid to the entire gestalt, then he went to the door and opened it, stepping neatly aside.

Out drifted a glowing, golden form, roughly person-shaped, hovering a few centimetres above the ground. It studied them from the glow, not yet fully real, yet aware of them.

"Do not come closer," Avon said, and Blake wasn't sure if he meant the rest of them or Carlan. Then he did something that astonished Blake. With Soolin on one side of him and Bennan on the other, he raised a near-transparent shield that glowed in the dancing firelight, tossed it from hand to hand until it thinned into a sheet of translucent glitter, and instead of using it to block Carlan's essence and shield himself from a repeat of his experience with Bennan, he draped it around her, tightened it with both hands and mind, and pressed it against her heart.

It merged into the gold, then shield and gold died together in a shower of sparks to reveal Carlan, hovering, limp and shattered, blinking at them doubtfully. The mutoid garb vanished, revealing, in the dreamscape, a girl who looked both younger than Soolin and perhaps a hundred years older, eyes huge and vulnerable and filled with pain. In place of her mutoid attire, she wore a simple shift. Her feet were bare, and somehow, she appeared more an object of pity and sympathy than a soulless killer.

She raised her eyes and singled out Avon as the architect of the process, not yet quite aware of her sister. "What have you done?" she whispered.

"I have given you yourself," Avon replied in a voice that sounded impassive and unconcerned on the surface, but that flowed with the understanding that went with healing under his facade. "This is the point where you may wish to strike me for it, but I suggest that, instead, you greet your sister."

"Sister?" Carlan's lips formed the word as if she had almost forgotten how to speak and must relearn it. Then she saw Soolin, and her eyes widened. Here in the dreamscape, the image of her last known and remembered self superimposed itself over the woman she now was, a woman who looked very much like Soolin, only wearier and full of pain and despair, although in the very depths of her eyes, fledgling hope trembled.

Avon blocked Soolin's rush to her with an outthrust arm, and spoke to Carlan. "Your path is not easy, but you now have choice and memory. You have a sister who has fought for your freedom. You need not stand alone. You even have an offer of a home, which shall be yours to decide, and here is someone else you know." He gestured at Bennan. "He, too is free, and will aid you at need." Then he beckoned Soolin forward, and she lunged at Carlan and enveloped her in a fierce hug.

Abetted by the gestalt, Cally telepathed wordless reassurances, and Jabberwocky added his strength and caring to the woman, and even the faint and distant touch of Essilon and Darsan welcomed her to the real world.

Carlan buried her face in Soolin's shoulder and wept as if her heart had broken, no, as if it had already been broken and that there might possibly be healing in tears. All around them, the environment changed, the wall of skulls sinking into the earth and new grass springing to life where it had stood. Brightness touched the sky. Avon's fire roared, as blazing as a beacon, warming them all, even Carlan.

The flight deck came around them, and at Jabberwocky's urging, they dropped from gestalt, one by one, breathless and exhausted, then from link-mode, anyone who had a physical contact loosing his grip, except for Soolin. Blake stayed in simple linkage, and so did Vila and Tarrant, but Avon and Cally left it, their expressions suggesting telepathy. Even that ceased, and Blake looked past Avon to see Soolin hugging her sister as if she would never let go.

Bennan circled the row of chairs, took Soolin by the shoulders, and detached her. Then he took Carlan's hands and squeezed them. "I experienced it, too, so I understand how shaken you are," he said. "It will not be easy, but you are fortunate. I have no kin to welcome me, only a missing brother who may be dead, but you do."

Carlan blinked at him, her eyes hollow, but her mouth twisted. "I do not know what I am," she whispered.

"What you are doesn't matter," Bennan said. "What matters is who you are, and you are Carlan. You now have all the time in the world to learn to be free."

"To learn what being Carlan means?" The corners of her mouth quivered as she essayed a faint smile. "Soolin? Is it possible?"

"Possible?" Blake smiled. "I think, with Jabberwocky, anything is possible."

"I...remember Jabberwocky. He was...kind." She looked around the group, then she went to Avon and offered her hands to him. After a fractional hesitation, he took them, but his face remained impassive, for her to interpret as she would. "I'm not sure how you did that," she said. "I remember being a mutoid, all those endless days and years. But now I remember more." She shivered. "There are things I would have been glad to forget, but that's the coward's way. We all have memories like that." She broke off and chuckled, a painful sound as if she were learning how to do it for the first time. "You as much as any."

When Avon regarded her in growing alarm, as if an unexploded device had fallen into his path, she patted his arm. "I am glad you understood," she said. "It was hard to come out. It was safe in there."

"Safe, but empty," he told her, and sent impartial scowls around the flight deck to warn them not to speak. "You will find much to annoy you, much to hurt you, in the real world. But, as Blake would no doubt say, there will be rewards. I leave it to him or one of our incurable optimists to explain them, for optimism is not my way. This is Perren, and this is Hugh. I turn you over to them." He shook his head. "No. It is no one's place to turn you over to anyone. But you might benefit from talking to them."

Perren gave Avon a surreptitious thumbs-up then he put his arm around Carlan's shoulders. "I'm Perren."

"I remember you from...from whatever that link was."

"And this is our doctor, Hugh Tiver. He will wish to examine you to make certain you are stable."

"And the serum?" she asked doubtfully.

"Our scientists are seeking a way to reverse the process," Hugh told her. "Come with me to the medical unit. Soolin, you come, too. I think it would help your sister to have you there."

Soolin nodded. "I'll come." She glanced over her shoulder at Avon but said nothing. Blake suspected she had thanked him through the link, because Avon inclined his head. Then, together, the sisters left the flight deck with Hugh and Perren.

"Well done, Avon," Blake said.

Avon offered him a sour smile, then massaged his temples. "Vila, you will be delighted, but I suggest a round of adrenalin and soma for all of us. Healing in gestalt is not for the untried. Jabberwocky, is the prisoner still secure?"

"She is. Thorm says she is very angry. He reminded her that she was now considered a traitor by her own people, and told her about the vast price that's been placed on her head following Orac's manipulation. If she tries to return to Space Command, she will likely be shot on sight, or at the least, imprisoned. I like that."

"Excellent." Avon whisked the first glass of adrenalin and soma from Vila's hands and swallowed it himself, ignoring Vila's startled outrage. "It is my hope no additional healing will be needed in the immediate future. If the rest of you can bear to part with me, I am going to my cabin."

He stalked across the flight deck without looking back, and only paused when Blake said, "Avon. Thank you." Kyl raced after him. Blake smiled when Avon slowed his steps to wait for his son.

Vila hastily swallowed his adrenalin and soma before anyone else could grab it away. He programmed another glass and offered it to Bennan. "There you go. You look like you need it. Do you want to go to the medical unit?"

"I might," Bennan said, and took a sip. "So this is what you enjoy, Vila. I begin to appreciate your taste. Yes, I'll go. If nothing else, I think I took the recovery somewhat better than Carlan did, and I might be able to help." He hesitated to see if anyone meant to accompany him. If Avon had been here, he might have insisted, but Blake had seen enough of Bennan in the gestalt to understand he meant them no harm.

"Ask Hugh to give you something for your headache," he called as the former mutoid headed for the door.

"That went well," Jabberwocky said brightly when he had gone. "Deeta, I would suggest you hold off offering her a place on Darsan for at least a fortnight, or maybe longer. Hugh and Perren will know when. It will be harder for her than it was for Bennan, I think. She won't be capable of making important decisions until she finds her feet."

"I think so, too. We still have all the mods to complete, so I can wait. It might not be the best choice for her, but it will give her an option."

Gan accepted a glass of adrenalin and soma from Vila. "That was interesting," he said. "I would never have thought it of Avon."

"Never underestimate Avon," Vila said with a bright smile. "He'll astonish you every single time. But don't tell him I said so."

"I'm not sure about the rest of you," Tarrant said, "But I think we should return Servalan to the cellblock and get some rest. It feels like years since morning."

Blake hadn't heard anything he agreed with so much in ages.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Tarrant asked Jabberwocky to make sleeping arrangements for Bennan and Carlan, but the latter planned to bunk with Soolin. Since the ship had grown crowded, Hugh took Bennan into his cabin for the night. It was too soon to consider sending him to Darsan.

Contact with Avalon arranged the transfer of Servalan to headquarters where she was installed in a cell with every security feature available, into which Orac linked, under protest. If she even attempted escape, Orac would notify the base computers and Jabberwocky, who would awaken the crew. After that, those who wanted a meal ate, and those who didn't slept. Thorm forwent his normal downtime cycle to protect the ship, in full linkage with the greater whole. Outside the ship, techs travelled about the base, the market, and the port with monitors to test for any recurrence of the biotoxin, but all their tests proved clear. When Tarrant finally went to bed, Jabberwocky reassured him of that just before he fell asleep.

In the morning, energy restored, he found Avon and Vila before him on the flight deck. Kyl had been sent to his foster home for the night and had not returned, and a quick question to Jabberwocky proved that most of the rest of the crew were still sleeping.

//Carlan slept poorly, but Soolin sat with her. Hugh offered her a potion to relax her in the middle of the night, and both women are still asleep. We should not disturb them. Bennan, too, was restless, but slept without artificial aids. He is in the rest room, where he has had his serum and is now trying some light food. Hugh is with him. Everyone else is still sleeping.//

//And Servalan?//

//She remains in her cell. The guards report she has threatened and offered blandishments, but they are wary and watching her.//

The exchange was so quick that it was over before Avon glanced up from one of the tools he often played with under the guise of designing better equipment. "Ah, our dauntless pilot."

"Only you could make stating the obvious objectionable," Tarrant countered.

"Well, now, I don't think you're quite right. Vila excels at it."

"Here now, why are you getting at me? I was just sitting here minding my own business."

"No, you were minding mine." Avon didn't sound particularly annoyed. "Orac has monitored Servalan. She has tried to talk the guards into releasing her, at least until Orac showed her a viscast announcing her 'defection' with a warning that she is now at the top of the Federation's most wanted list, surpassing myself and Blake."

"Avon's nose is out of joint," Vila muttered just loudly enough for Avon to hear him.

"She is wanted for theft of the Mark-70 mindship, although it is referred to only as an experimental ship, and for disaffecting and going over to the resistance," Jabberwocky announced. "I've had Orac checking what he could about the Supreme Commander's response. Arpel is not happy. I think he might offer to trade some captured rebels for her."

"Do you imagine he believes she defected and took the ship with her?" Avon asked.

Jabberwocky's fascia blinked. "I doubt it, although Orac can't read his mind, only his computers. If she returned, he could only use her as an undercover agent."

"Much as Servalan used Travis before I killed him."

"You're bloodthirsty this morning," Tarrant challenged, although he rather relished the tone of Avon's voice. He was used to Avon like this. Witnessing the healing side of him in gestalt had been...uncomfortable.

"I am always bloodthirsty where Servalan is concerned. Perhaps I am taking lessons from Dayna."

As if her name had summoned her, Dayna entered the flight deck. "Lessons from me, Avon?"

"On wanting Servalan dead," Vila explained brightly.

"He's not the only one," Dayna said. She programmed herself a cup of rast. Tarrant grinned at her in welcome, and smiled to see her sipping the Auron drink with pleasure. Most of the time, he utterly forgot she was an android. "What are we going to do with her? I'm sure Avalon won't let us kill her."

"No, because she wants to make a political statement and no matter how 'legitimately' she arranges a trial and conviction, killing her might make us look bad, and she is concerned with her image. Someone should remind her we are fighting a war, not holding a tea party."

"It's more than that, Avon."

Excellent, here was Blake. Tarrant relaxed in his seat and prepared for fireworks.

"In what way?" Avon challenged. A stranger might have believed Avon hostile, but Tarrant suspected the tech was enjoying himself, and Jabberwocky sent an amused flicker of agreement through their bond.

"In that if we descend to the Federation's level, we become no better than they are. Obsession with the enemy turns us into the enemy. I learned that lesson after what I intended to do at Star One. No matter how fair a trial we hold, it would be a mark against us, as long as we are not considered a legitimate opposition government. I would rather make a mark against the Federation, and that is why I plan to tell Avalon I think it better to offer Servalan to Supreme Commander Arpel."

"That is insane, Blake. Arpel will not kill her. He will use her against us."

"Arpel may be the supreme commander, but he does answer to public opinion, Avon, and must also defer to the President of the Federation. He may not be given the chance to do anything but execute her publicly. He may even be glad of it, for he is certain to understand she means to oust him one day. Short of execution, he may be forced to incarcerate her, possibly send her to Cygnus Alpha. I rather relish the thought of that."

Avon's mouth quirked faintly. "So do I, but I do not believe it, nor do I believe we could relax were she convicted and sentenced there. We escaped. So would she. Arpel is no fool. Servalan has sometimes benefited him, but her intent was always to benefit herself. She is working to unseat him, and if he does not realize it, then he is a bigger fool than you at your very worst."

"No, how could he be that?" Blake's eyes twinkled, undaunted by the implied insult. "As long as she remains on this base, she is a danger to every man, woman and child on Ryalon. There may be other undercover agents here. Witt was highly trusted until his treachery was revealed. He has turned against her now, but who is to say she couldn't find a way to trigger hidden programming, if not in Witt, in another undercover Federation agent. We shall not be safe whilst she remains here."

"We shall not remain safe whilst she lives, Blake."

Blake sighed. "I know that, Avon, but I can't kill her. If I do that, I bring myself to her level. I say we let Arpel deal with her. None of you really think he has rebel leanings, but I suspect he desires to stabilize the Federation."

"Hardly in our favour," Vila objected. "He'd stabilize it right up to and including our executions, and I've got this aversion to death."

"You and every other person in existence," Tarrant countered. "What about the other mutoids?"

"They can go with her," Blake replied. "We have seen the difficulty in reversing the mutoid process. Orac has been able to learn the former identity of two of them, and both were crimos. They are safer as mutoids. As for the other two, Orac has been unable to unearth their records. If we knew they had been rebels, we might keep them and reverse their process eventually."

Avon raised a hand in protest. "Blake, the process is a severe drain on the ship. I am not saying I will never reverse another mutoid, but I would prefer to do it when the odds are it will gain us an advantage. And I would also prefer to wait to learn if there is a way to reverse the mutoids' digestive processes, so that there will no longer be a need of serum. As yet, the scientists have not resolved that element."

"That is not to say they won't," Blake reminded him. "I'm meeting with Avalon and the council, with representatives of the other two mindships, and with several other of our ships' captains later this morning. The decision will be made then."

"I still think we should kill her," Dayna muttered.

Blake went to her. "I know you do. But we have to look at the larger picture. We're far closer to winning the war than we have ever been. Killing her might be a setback; certainly the Federation would use it to their political advantage."

"Oh, yes," Vila muttered. "We execute their most-wanted criminal and they use it against us. Has Orac arranged that everybody knows she's most-wanted? If it's just on their secret list, that might affect public opinion if she is executed."

"Rather clever, Vila. Blake?"

"The news of her treachery has spread throughout the Federation. It is known that Sleer is Servalan, so she is doubly wanted. It's to our advantage to turn her in."

"I will never trust her," Avon said flatly. "Only an utter fool would do so. Releasing her will lead to trouble, I guarantee it."

"Where would we be if we weren't in trouble, Avon?" Tarrant asked. "We wouldn't recognize ourselves if we were safe."

"Some of us apparently thrive on it," Avon said pointedly. "Do as you will, Blake."

"It isn't my choice; it's the council's decision. I am not the leader of the resistance."

"No, but you're its figurehead," Avon pointed out. "A rather frightening thought."

"What's a frightening thought?" Hugh asked as he entered with Bennan, who looked like he had secured enough rest to be more at ease.

"Blake as the symbol of freedom," Vila chirped.

"It's not a frightening thought to me," Bennan said. "When I was a mutoid, I knew of Blake. We all did. Blake was 'the enemy', to be instantly captured or if capture was impossible, slain. I'm glad none of that programming lingers in my mind. And it doesn't. Jabberwocky checked and so did Darsan. Jabberwocky said he couldn't heal programming, but he knew how to recognize it now."

Avon nodded to confirm it. "Fortunate. I need at least a week before I will even listen to importuning to perform another healing."

"But you're so good at it, Avon," Blake purred.

Avon rolled his eyes in Blake's direction. "Far better than you are at manipulation, my fearless leader. I suspect the word 'obvious' was designed for you."

Bennan chuckled. "I'm beginning to appreciate you, Avon," he said. "Oh, I'm glad of the healing; naturally. Anyone would be. I'll always be thankful for that. But I can see that learning to appreciate you is like learning to appreciate fine wine. Well worth the end result."

Vila howled with laughter. "Avon like fine wine? I'd have said he's more like adrenalin and soma."

"Since that would appear to be your favourite potion, Vila--" Avon began.

Vila shifted his feet. "Here now, I didn't mean it like that."

"When do you meet with Avalon, Blake?" Jabberwocky intervened.

"In an hour. Bennan, would you accompany me? I'd like them to meet you and see what we've accomplished. There's no easy, across-the-board process to restore mutoids, but the knowledge it is possible will eventually need to be revealed."

"And I'd like to find some of my old contacts," Bennan agreed. "Orac can suss them out and make sure they're not secretly Federation or programmed. If any of them are in a good position to aid us, they will."

"Orac is already checking that," Jabberwocky announced. "We won't disturb him now; he'll only be snippy if we do, and grouch at us in his usual way. Bennan, I'll send to you in link-mode when we learn anything. It will be good to have some undercover contacts. It will be fun."

Avon groaned. "And when Jabberwocky speaks of fun, beware."

Bennan chuckled. He behaved far more naturally today. At that thought, Jabberwocky explained to Tarrant, //He is in light linkage with Darsan, and Deeta is there, too. They are getting on remarkably well together. I think he will be a fine ship's commander.//

The thought must have reached all of them, because Avon shook his head. "Wonderful. A brain-burned pilot, a former mutoid commander, a defecting mindship. Cally's Auron friend will have his work cut out for him when he arrives."

"The way we do, having you here, Avon?" Blake asked.

Avon arched one eyebrow as superciliously as possible. "Then we shall need to find them a computer expert," he said, "one who will be able to restrain them, although I have learned through bitter experience that it is impossible to restrain the great Roj Blake."

"Kyl's already waiting to volunteer. He'll be seventeen before long," Vila reminded him.

Avon glowered. "My son will not serve aboard that ship."

"I wouldn't be surprised if he's already talked to Deeta about it. Don't forget, old man, that when he's seventeen, he can do what he wants," Vila countered.

"That," said Avon, "is exactly what I am afraid of."

 

                                                                               *****

 

"Hugh, I need your help."

Tiver halted dead in the middle of the marketplace to find Soolin facing him, and at the distress in her face, he took her hands in his. That she let him, here in a public place, told him how upset she was. "What's wrong?" He asked. "Is it Carlan?"

She nodded. A glance around proved no one was in earshot, or even paying them any heed. "She learned it was Horper who killed our family. Worse, she went with him voluntarily. She was seventeen, and believed she was in love with him. She didn't even know what had happened to the rest of the family until I told her last night. When she heard, she cursed and said she was better off a mutoid, and could it be reversed?" She quivered, more open pain on her face than Hugh had ever seen. "I don't know what to tell her. I could get revenge, and did, but it almost destroyed me. You understand that. How can I help my sister?"

"I'd say Avon, but he's going on Jabberwocky to escort the ship returning Servalan part of the way to the rendezvous, and this is a bad time for him. I can't see him voluntarily doing another healing until he's had time for his own healing to settle in. I don't think he'd have dared to release Carlan's memories if the rest of us hadn't assisted, and that's such a major concession, letting him see him that way. I think we need Perren. He and I can talk to her together and separately, whichever works best. You trust Perren, don't you?"

She smiled so faintly it almost didn't show. "Yes. I may want to strangle him half the time, but I do trust him."

"The thing is, Carlan was barely older than Kyl when it happened. Young girls are romantic by nature. She didn't realize what he was; she didn't understand. It wasn't her fault. "

"She doesn't care whose fault it was. She cares that she slept with the man who arranged for her family to be murdered and believed for a whole year that she loved him."

Hugh's heart sank into his belly. "Soolin, she'll always carry that with her. It might make her hard, but it might also make her strong and understanding. If she's anything like you, then she has strength and character. Right now, she's vulnerable, shattered, but with luck, she will put herself together. It will depend on a lot of things. Bennan will help eventually because he understands the mutoid conversion process and that part of what she's been through. We already saw how he could deal with her. They think they're coming close to physically reversing the serum need. Once that is removed, she will still need to face the bionic modifications, but they will be an advantage. She can use weapons and can defend herself and fight. Like you, she has skills she can sell. Maybe, like you, she'll learn she can throw in her lot to a cause and use her skills for the greater good. She'll have more reason to believe in it than most."

"You sound like Blake." Soolin heaved a deep breath. Then her lips curled in a tremulous smile. "Should we talk to Perren, then? And do you want me there when you talk to Carlan?"

"I don't think we will at first, but later, I think it would help. Let's find Perren. He's over at Darsan, probably working on Deeta's brain burn and helping Bennan while he pesters and teases everyone in sight. Where's Carlan?"

"In my base quarters. I didn't want to leave her very long but I told her that...that you and I are together, and I said I needed to talk to you. She likes you, and told me to go. I left her with the computer, to learn what's been going on since she was...converted, and to try on the new clothes I bought her." She hesitated then said in a small voice, "She...used to love pretty clothes."

Hugh put his arm around her shoulders. "And she will again, one day. She's got you to live for, and she needs to find herself. I think Bennan might be a big help there. He understands more than most."

"I think she trusts him, too, at least as far as she has it in herself to trust. All right. Let's go."

They fell into step side by side, and Hugh smiled at the blonde woman at his side. She had come a long way from the woman who fiercely proclaimed she gave no loyalty but only sold her skills. They had to help Carlan, to make sure Soolin didn't revert.

If Hugh could do anything to prevent that, he would do it with every fibre of his being.

 

                                                                               *****

 

"Tell me about Sula," Bennan asked.

Avon stiffened. The former mutoid had followed him into the computer crawlways where he had retreated to seek a period of solitude. Bad enough he'd been forced into so many healings in one day, enduring the prying into his mind, even in gestalt. He had endured it because he must, but a chance to avoid everyone in a place where he could be alone had been welcome. The last person he wished to see was someone who had known Anna, even if he knew the matter must be addressed, so that it could be put behind them forever. "And if I said no?" He asked.

Bennan sat cross-legged before him, blocking the exit. Perhaps mutoids were trained to be devious. Avon could force him to withdraw, but he would only delay the inevitable. "Then I'd let it go, at least for now, but it's between us and we should resolve it."

"She is dead, and better for us both."

"Yes, but not without pain. Was she truly a Central Security agent?"

"Bartolomew. That was her cover name. Her true name was--"

"Anna Grant. She told me that. She claimed she dared not use it because her brother was a resister."

She had used it with Avon. She had even introduced him to Del, but he kept that silent.

"She was married to Councillor Chesku, but said she'd only married him to make herself safe; that as his consort, she would not fall under suspicion, and his rank would protect her."

"She was always adept at lying," Avon replied. He did not want this conversation, but short of physically ejecting a man who was bionically enhanced, he could not see a way to avoid it. That Jabberwocky would all too likely intervene if he backed off he chose not to contemplate. "It is possible she was seeing both of us at the same time."

Bennan nodded. "There'd be times when she couldn't be with me, and at least three of them I knew she wasn't with Chesku. I didn't realize she had betrayed me, not until the trial. Then I was told I'd been run by an agent. There was no one else it could be but Sula. They only used the cover name Bartolomew, and she did not appear at the trial. An audio recording with a disguised voice was offered in evidence, and it had all the dates and times correct. I realized later that it had to be her; no one else could have known all those details. But by then they were ready to convert me. I wish I'd had the chance you had, to kill her."

"No," said Avon in a voice like ice. "You do not. Do you imagine she ever let me go?"

"I don't imagine she loved either one of us," Bennan snapped.

Avon glared at him, then he said softly, "I believe she did--yet it didn't matter to her in the end. Only the job mattered. She loved power and security far more than any one individual. She meant to overthrow Servalan--not as a member of the resistance but in a quest for personal power--when I killed her."

"You still care for her."

"No." Avon spoke fiercely. He had long-since eradicated the feelings that went with her memories. There was Cally now, and Blake, and Blake had never let Avon go, either. There was even the crew who had plunged into gestalt with him. Anna did not bear remembering. "My advice to you is to sink yourself wholly into becoming a member of Darsan's crew and find ways to avoid remembering her."

"Is that what you did?"

Avon frowned and spoke words that would generally come only in healing. "If you cling to a false memory, it will not be Anna who suffers. Hate her, if you must, but even that is a tribute to her, a claim that she affected you so strongly that you will never be free of her."

"I owe her nothing," Bennan snapped.

"No more do I." It did not stop her from appearing in Avon's nightmares from time to time, remembering the dream that had always been false. "I will not discuss her with you again."

"Probably wise," Bennan agreed. "I wonder how many others she ran."

"I choose not to know. It...comforts me that there will be no more." He averted his eyes.

I was only ever Anna Grant with you. It wasn't all lies. I let you go, my love.

Was that only one more lie, Anna? He gritted his teeth. Had she told Bennan the same thing?

Bennan nodded, almost as if he understood. "That's all I wanted to know," he said, and left without another word.

I let you go... I let you go...

he thought, looking after the departing Bennan, I let you go...my love.

 

                                                                               *****

 

The plan to trade Servalan to Supreme Commander Arpel for several captured rebels gained support throughout the council, with one or two abstainers, and a few vocal opponents, who insisted she would find a way to recoup her lost ground and become more dangerous than ever. Only Orac's reports that determination to capture her had spread throughout Space Command restrained them. Servalan would receive no welcome home, especially since it had now become generally known that Sleer was Servalan. Not only had she engaged in a number of failed schemes against the resistance, she had lost two experimental ships to them. Obviously, part of a plan to supply the resistance with enough strength to topple the Federation, or so Orac's clever messages had implied. Servalan must be gnashing her teeth.

Blake had offered to make the exchange himself, but Avon and Avalon between them had convinced him his plan was unwise. They dared not risk a mindship in a meeting with the Supreme Commander, who would surely bring along at least one flotilla as back-up for the rendezvous. It was believed he would treat with them fairly, but several skeptics, Avon included, believed he would snatch any mindship that he could. Instead, volunteers were called for, and Jabberwocky's son Dorn was first in line, but Avalon decided not to use him since he could be used against Jabberwocky. Blake's clone, Rojers, volunteered, but his now-superficial likeness to Blake could be used against him. In the end, a rebel pilot named Spartow accepted the task. He had worked mostly in the Outer Worlds, wasn't known to Servalan, and claimed that he had no family, so if it turned into a suicide run, he would leave no one behind. His crew volunteered universally, so Servalan and the two former crimo mutoids were sent off to be exchanged for several high-ranking resistance prisoners.

"No doubt they will return to us programmed," Avon muttered as Jabberwocky, whose escort duty had ended, began the return flight. "When Cally's Auron friend arrives, we must determine if he possesses healer ability. I would gladly turn that task over to someone else."

"He might," Cally said. "I have not seen him since before I went to Saurian Major, and only learned recently that he had survived, being offworld when Servalan destroyed the people of Auron."

isn't programmed," Vila muttered with a sidelong glance at Cally.

"He was one of the earliest arrivals on Kaarn, and has worked closely with Franton since then. She would have recognized programming, since she is an Auron healer. In a true Auron bond-link, it is impossible to keep secrets."

Avon did not visibly relax--perhaps he was thinking of his own bond-links with Cally and wondering how truly she knew him--but he took a few paces around the flight deck. Blake smiled to himself. He knew Avon that deeply, and had even before the first healing, although neither man could acknowledge the intensity of the bond between them until Jabberwocky. Cally shared such a bond with Avon, too, and was content in it. How much Jabberwocky had changed them all. When he remembered some of the events on Liberator, he knew the bond had existed between them there, tenuous and unvoiced, ready to shatter at a heartbeat. This Avon would never accuse Blake of wallowing in blood up to his armpits, and this Blake would never tell Jenna that Avon might run. They knew better.

"That should prove interesting for the crew of Darsan," Jenna said idly, without a trace of alarm on her face. But then, Cally's Auron friend would not be a member of Jabberwocky's crew. Or perhaps, link-mode and gestalt had taken away all fear of such awareness, and the need to fear it. Even on Liberator, Jenna had claimed after her link with Zen that it had been wonderful to be fully known.

It had been a quiet flight, and for once, only the original crew of the Liberator, plus Tarrant, had come on the flight. Soolin had remained on Ryalon because her sister was finding the adjustment far harder than Bennan had, and needed her. For the same reason, Perren and Hugh had stayed. Edge and Tanz continued their work on Darsan's modifications, and Dayna had joined them to go over the weapons system on the Mark-70 and to determine if any of the upgrades since the Mark-60 would benefit Jabberwocky. Bennan had moved to Darsan, where he was settling in quite well, and Avon did not miss him. Of course Thorm was present, but he often stayed so completely in the background that, at times, Blake nearly forgot his quiet presence. He was more inclined to interact individually with members of the crew than in a group.

It was peaceful on the flight deck. The return run to Ryalon should present them with no difficulties since they travelled far from Federation space lanes, and the peaceful voyage might give Avon a chance to erase all thoughts of the healing of Bennan from his mind. At times since that incident, he would stiffen and withdraw, but not as often as Blake had feared, and less so since the removal of both Bennan and Carlan. Cally, too, appeared at ease, looking forward to the arrival of her old friend. She sat beside Vila on the forward couch, watching the thief trying to tease Orac. Orac was clearly winning, and everyone but Vila knew it.

Finally realizing he was outgunned, Vila abandoned his project without regret, sprawled comfortably on the couch and stretched his legs in front of him, just in time to nearly trip Avon, who threw him a haughty look and stepped over them to pluck free Orac's key. "Enough, Vila," he said over the sound of Orac winding down. "You are trying Orac's albeit limited patience, and my own."

"I already stopped. If you weren't thinking lofty thoughts, you would have noticed. And your patience is even more limited than Orac's." He grinned. "This is nice, isn't it? The original crew of the Liberator well, all but Zen, plus a couple. Blake, has anyone decided who's transferring to the other ships yet?"

"None of us here," Blake reassured him since he suspected Vila was worried about it. "Edge, Tanz, and Perren will rotate between the ships, for their mindship background, and go on any missions that might call for their particular skills. We'll keep Hugh, who is already looking for medical personnel for the other ships. If Soolin wishes to go with Carlan to Darsan, that is her choice, assuming Carlan decides that is what she wants, once Perren says she's ready. I got the impression it might be several months before anyone would want to risk her on missions, and I think Soolin will stay on base with her during that time. Even if Carlan doesn't join a mindship crew, she intends to be a part of the resistance, and there might be people better qualified to serve on Darsan. In that case, Soolin would stay with us. Essilon's fairly well crewed, but it's possible Dayna might go there, or stay here; she's welcome either place. She's our weapons' system expert, of course, and might float from ship to ship like the techs. We haven't fully decided." He caught Avon's eye. "I hate to say this, but Kyl has officially put in his name to work computers for Darsan, and both Darsan and Deeta are willing."

Avon favoured the entire crew with a glare that Blake suspected was intended to cover his dismay. "He is too young."

"In several months he won't be. It would be his choice, Avon, and in spite of his youth, he's one of the best computer men in the resistance."

"Must be hereditary," Vila muttered.

Avon put on one of his smug looks. "Undoubtedly."

"Avon, if it is his choice, he must do it," Cally urged. "He has already completed his regular schooling, and he could teach his specialty classes, and does teach several of them. He's reckless, of course, but that's because he's young, and Deeta can restrain him; I doubt he will find it difficult. Kyl admires him. I suspect Deeta would be very good at it."

"He would," Tarrant agreed with a flash of teeth. "He always knew how to restrain me. Kyl likes Bennan, too. I've seen them talking together a number of times."

"I like Bennan," Jabberwocky put in. "Now that we've learned one of his old friends is an active resistance agent working out of Space Command, Orac plans to make contact once we've studied all the implications."

Avon halted his pacing and stared at the ship's fascia. "And release the knowledge that mutoids can retrieve their memories across the galaxy?"

"Not yet," Blake said. "We decided to hold that information; there may be a more expedient time to reveal it. There might be leaks already, though, as there are certain to be a few Federation agents on Ryalon. Bennan's friend will not reveal it; if he does, we will realize he is programmed, and act accordingly. The knowledge will certainly cause upsets throughout the Federation."

"As always, Roj Blake, master of understatement."

Blake smiled. "Jabberwocky, what word from the base?" The advantage of possessing more than one mindship was that any mindship could link with another, no matter the distance. Avon claimed that had been built into Jabberwocky from the beginning, and Jabberwocky had confirmed it, since the long-range Federation plan was to design a fleet of mindships. Which meant that there might be other Mark-70s undergoing trials as far from resistance space as possible. They would deal with that when it happened, and Orac was already researching the possibility.

"Avalon reports that the physical conversion process to remove the serum need should be ready for testing within a week," Jabberwocky replied. "Bennan has volunteered to undergo the process as soon as it is deemed safe. And there is additional news that I think will make him very happy. His brother, Frayn, has been located. He's actually a member of the resistance under another name." Jabberwocky chuckled. "Avalon's delegation to Auron found him there; he's been running cargo for them out of one of our remote bases. He and Cally's friend will arrive together in three days. Bennan is ecstatic."

"No doubt Bennan will wish him to join Darsan," Jenna said. "It's a bigger ship than Jabberwocky; they'll require a larger crew."

"The other news is that Perren and Hugh have been working with Carlan and they are beginning to make progress. They feel she will not be ready for the responsibility of serving on a mindship for several months at best, but they do believe she may choose to go where Bennan goes, once they can certify her fit."

"Quite a family business," said Tarrant with a broad grin. "Relatives everywhere."

"Just so long as none of Vila's relatives appear," Avon said with a quirk of a smile. "I'm not entirely certain the resistance could endure more than one Restal."

"What about more than one Avon?" Vila challenged.

"As you can see, the resistance not only endures more than one Avon but benefits from it." Avon didn't look resigned to his son's plan to sign on as soon as he was old enough, but he would endure it, and likely be immensely proud of Kyl.

As for Blake, he had a fine daughter, at home on Ryalon, and suspected that one day, he and Avon would be related by marriage. Smiling to himself, he imagined Avon's reaction.

The flotilla of pursuit ships appeared as if from nowhere, five of them, altering course to swoop in on Jabberwocky just as the alarm sounded through the ship.

"Where the hell did they come from?" Tarrant cried as the alarm sounded. "Jabberwocky?"

"They were hiding behind that rogue planet." Jabberwocky highlighted it on the main viewscreen. "I reported it as soon as they emerged. I can detect a relay planted there. It's possible Arpel may have stationed various flotillas along routes to and from Ryalon in case we or one of the other mindships should pass this way, and if so, we'll watch for such traps in future. Link and we'll take them out." He sounded excited about it, and Blake knew Jabberwocky could in general handle five ships, unless they had unusual weapons. Blake was glad he didn't proclaim it would be fun. Avon would surely erupt at such a claim.

Everyone linked automatically, and while Vila hurried to the weapons position, he could have activated it from where he was. He shoved Orac's activator into place as he passed, and Avon bestowed a look upon him that was clearly approval, but only after Vila had passed him and wouldn't see it.

Jenna backed Tarrant since he was already in the pilot's seat, and everyone else fell into place, joining through the linkage, prepared to fight.

As battles go, it was one of their easier ones. From the way the ships dove and swooped, only two of the pilots possessed any skill that remotely approached Tarrant's or Jenna's. Orac reported the communication between ships proved the patrol had been on deep reconnaissance, that they hadn't been looking for Jabberwocky, after all, but that they were thrilled to find it. They chattered back and forth about the prize money they'd win for bringing in the mindship, just before Vila's blasts disabled one of them and sent it careening into a second, with a fiery explosion. After that, the communication became utterly military, and the remaining three ships settled down to battle with grim resolve.

Tarrant guided the ship on a circular course, sharing the impulse with Jenna in a slightly deeper link than usual link-mode, so it was that they flew the ship together. They had developed that skill so well as they had learned each other's gifts that they knew when one should surrender to the other for a particular manoeuver operating in a mini-pilot gestalt. Their joy at Jabberwocky's responses soared through the link, a huge exhilaration that caught the rest of them in their excitement. Even Avon, who seldom let himself go in such wild delight, was a part of it, deftly raising and lowering the force wall with perfect timing and an Avonesque flourish, so that the worst they received during the entire battle was a light shaking as one near miss impacted on the wall.

Vila yahooed as he blasted a third vessel, and Jenna scared away a fourth by diving directly at it. Panicked, it abandoned formation and fled toward Federation space at maximum speed.

The final vessel surrendered, sending a desperate signal that it was willing to concede the battle.

Interesting. Blake set Orac to work to question them; for all he knew, the ship was filled with enough explosives to blow Jabberwocky into the nearest star. Orac reported the surrender was sincere, and assisted by disabling the ship's weapons array. Further communication indicated the men had mutinied, locked the captain in a cell, and would like nothing better than to defect.

"And if you believe that, Blake, I suggest there is a slightly battered planet named Terminal that I would be glad to sell you cheap."

"If it's true, Avon, it gains us a pursuit ship and most of a crew. If it isn't true, it still gains us a pursuit ship and captives we can trade. If there are homing devices on board, what matter? Space Command knows exactly where Ryalon is."

"Be it upon your head, then," Avon replied. "Who will teleport over?"

"Would you go? Jenna and Thorm will come with you."

Avon nodded and armed himself.

Thorm took a weapon, and Jenna fell in with him as they departed for the teleport section. Vila snatched a clipgun and trailed them to operate the teleport, although Jabberwocky could have done it for them just as well.

"Be careful," Blake warned as they reached the door.

"Coming from you, that's good," Avon said and led the way out.

 

                                                                               *****

 

Avon looked around the flight deck, where he confronted two officers and two mutoids, none overtly armed. Running one of his scanners over them, Avon discovered no evidence of concealed weapons, and an even more careful scan of the mutoids indicated no implants such as the one in Carlan's tooth. He had been right to perfect the scanner before the mission, and would be pleased to tell Blake so.

"You wish to surrender?" Thorm asked. "Why?"

The older of the officers was no more than twenty-five, the younger probably cadet on his first mission. It was the boy who spoke. "We're defecting." He waved a hand at the mutoids. "There's a rumour going through the fleet that the Resistance can reverse mutoids. If that's true, then there's only one more lie the Federation has told us." He gestured to one of the mutoids. "That's Tenda. He's my cousin, or he was. Someone must have thought it was funny to put him on the same ship with me. He can't remember and doesn't understand, but I want him restored."

"The past is over," said mutoid Tenda in an utterly impassive voice.

Avon grimaced. He didn't know who to blame for this mess, but whoever it was, he would never forgive them.

"And you?" Thorm prompted the older officer.

"I was in love," he said. "Someone in her family was a resistor, and she was sent to a prison planet. That's not right. Major Gren wanted to capture your ship, but Tal and I didn't, and I could make the mutoids obey me. So we offer you a Mark-10 pursuit ship, hunter-killer class, in prime condition, two soldiers for your cause, and a chance to prove to the people of the Federation that mutoid conversion is one more lie."

//He speaks the truth; Orac confirms it,// said Jabberwocky in Avon's head.

//Wonderful,// Avon replied. More mutoids to convert. At least these two soldiers didn't realize Avon was the one who could reverse the conversion. He shuddered at the thought of Tal's reaction when he found out.

"Thorm, scan the ship thoroughly," Avon commanded. "Jenna, take these four and the prisoner to the ship, incarcerate the mutoids and Major Gren, and bring these two, in restraints, to the flight deck. Once we've verified there are no delayed explosives on board, we'll take the ship in tow." He raised his bracelet. "Blake, stand by in the teleport section armed. We have one prisoner, two mutoids who will need to be restrained, and two potential members of your cause."

"Confirmed," Blake agreed.

Avon telepathed, the word is out about mutoid conversion. A Federation spy on the base must have informed. I suggest you put Avalon to work discovering his or her identity. I told you in the beginning the entire process is madness. If Cally's healer can't aid in the process...

If he can't, then the rest of us will, Blake responded. He sounded faint, but that was only distance.

I may never forgive you for this.

You will, of course, Blake replied with an inner smile. And we'll master the process in such a way it doesn't always fall to you.

I will believe that when it happens, Avon replied as Thorm returned with the ship's commander secured and glowering. "Ready to teleport," he said into his bracelet, and they returned to Jabberwocky to face Blake and Vila, both armed and ready and Gan looming behind them, prepared to manhandle the prisoners into the cells.

"A simple milk run," Avon complained to Blake as they returned to the flight deck after securing the mutoids in one cell and the officer in the other. The two potential defectors they took to the flight deck, maintaining the restraints, to question them more thoroughly in front of Orac. "Just once, I'd relish a mission with no surprises, Blake. Sit there," he added to the two. "We'll have some questions for you."

"You'd be bored," Blake replied as the men obediently took their places, their eyes huge as they studied the flight deck. The cadet ogled Jabberwocky's fascia so overtly it was clear he knew very well he was aboard the mindship, if the ship-to-ship chatter during the early part of the battle hadn't already confirmed it.

Blake glanced at the cadet and his superior, then left them to Jenna and Thorm to guard. "It would disappoint you if you had nothing to complain about, wouldn't it, Avon?"

"Since that will never happen, we shall never know." That Blake spoke no less than the truth hardly mollified Avon, but he smiled vaguely in Blake's direction as he went to break the news to Orac that it was about to be put to work.

As the questioning began, Avon hoped Cally's friend would prove to be the greatest healer ever born.


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Sheila Paulson

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