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By Jean Graham
Cygnus Alpha's repressive grey sky threatened rain. In the seventeen weeks they'd spent here, Vila could not remember a time when the planet's dull sun had shone. _Oh, give me a nice comfy dome and an artificial atmosphere any day!_

"I'm going," he announced, and groaning, dumped an armload of foul-smelling _timbrel_ weed into the wooden cart. Gan used a crude metal rake to pack the bundle into a corner.

"Going where?" the bigger man asked incuriously, and shuffled more timbrel around the cart bed to look busy. "You know well enough there's nowhere to run."

"That's what _they_ say. And you lot are just doped enough to believe it." The thief cast a nervous glance at their robed guardians. The hooded figures, armed with long knives, stood posted at intervals around the field overseeing the handful of prisoners assigned the task of harvesting the pungent weeds. Vila scratched at his own homespun clothing and bent to toss another bundle into the cart. "I can't take this kind of living," he complained. "I have a weak back. I've always been allergic to work. And they haven't built a prison yet could hold Vila Restal. You'll see."

"You think living elsewhere on this planet would be any less work?" Gan's bulk made the flimsy vehicle creak as he moved within it. "Take my word for it, Vila. You'd never get past the outer perimeter."

"Wrong again my friend." Vila leaned over to feign rearranging Gan's bundles, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the weed's musty odor. "If Avon can do it, so can I."

"Avon!" The large man made a derisive, guttural sound. "Whatever's left of him is probably strung from one of Vargas' crosses, rotting out there as a warning to other 'unbelievers.' You want to end up like that?"

Vila grimaced as the muscles in his back complained. "Anything's better than this," he grumbled. "And I don't believe it anyway, about Avon I mean. They'd never have caught him."

"I wouldn't bet on that. The Federation did."

Squatting to gather up another bundle, Vila pretended to refasten the binding. "He always said he could adapt. Maybe that's just what he's doing, somewhere out there. And so could we."

"You're dreaming." Gan leaned on his makeshift rake long enough to cast the thief a jaundiced look. "I dunno why you keep on about Avon. I mean, if he were as smart as he thought he was, he'd never have broken Dainer's neck back on the London, would he? Leylan could have had him executed then, only I think he knew Cygnus Alpha would do the job for him. And it has."

_But we all of us owed him for getting rid of Dainer,_ Vila thought fiercely. _And Blake, for spacing Raiker, even if he didn't come back for us afterward. At least life got a little easier on the London without those two brutes around._

The bell for midday meal tolled, and the thief gratefully sank to the ground to tear into his food sack with its meager ration of dried meat and bread. In the wagon, Gan did much the same, though he went through the motions of praying beforehand. Vila hadn't yet found the courage to ask whether his friend's acceptance of their captors' 'religion' was sincerity or sham -- he hoped it was the latter, but Vargas' drugs had affected all the new arrivals this way. All, that is, except prisoner Restal, who'd been blessed from birth with a stubborn metabolism that resisted many of the standard compliance 'medications.'

"You know what's really ironic," Vila said around a mouthful of nearly-unchewable bread. "They were all three in close custody that day -- Blake, Jenna and Avon -- for fiddling the ship's computer during our revolt, you remember? Well if Avon hadn't killed Dainer when they came for him and got himself packed off to the infirmary for his trouble, they'd have probably sent him over to salvage that big bloody derelict along with the other two. He'd have got clean away, same as they did."

Gan chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "It still rankles you, does it? That Blake got away?"

_Only that he never came back,_ Vila thought, but aloud he said, "No, not really. But I'll bet it nettles the hell out of Avon."

His companion shrugged. "You dream too much, Vila. Avon's dead, and Blake's not coming back."

_The Gan I knew before would never have said that! And Blake wouldn't have given in so easily, either._ "Miserable ingrates," Vila sniffed. "If I'd got away in a ship like that, I'd have come back for the rest of you."

"Oh yes, of course you would."

At the other man's dubious tone, Vila drew himself up indignantly. "I would!"

Gan did not look convinced, so he let the matter drop. "Well, anyway," he said, frowning when a drop of rain splashed onto his hand and was soon joined by several of its fellows, "I'm going."

Having finished his meal, Gan went doggedly back to packing the bundles of weed before the resume-work bell had even rung. "All right," he said over his shoulder, and then paused before he added, "Maybe I'll just go with you."

Vila grinned. _Now that,_ he mused, _is the Gan I remember. There's a life outside this hell somewhere. And you found it, didn't you Avon? That and maybe, just maybe, a way off the planet? That's why I have to find you, Avon, because I want a piece of that action -- before it's too late!_

* * *

"They could all be dead by now, you know." Jenna Stannis faced Blake down across Liberator's piloting console, her green eyes coldly determined.

The object of her cynicism merely tilted his head, a grudging admission that her words might be only too true. "All I know for certain is that _I_ must be certain," he said cryptically. "I... we... need a crew." He turned his back to her then, and strode around the console to address the ship's computer. "Zen, status of pursuit flotilla?"

+Liberator is free of pursuit within immediate sensor range,+ the deep voice responded.

"You mean to say we've finally lost them?" Jenna couldn't contain an exclamation of disbelief. Her vernacular was apparently lost on Zen, but it brought an affectionate grin to Blake's face -- a smile he hadn't used in many weeks.

"High time, wouldn't you say?" he queried gently, and then, "Zen, plot a course for the Federation penal planet Cygnus Alpha."

Jenna's eyes snapped at him. "I still say it's suicidal, going there. You don't owe that lot anything, and besides, it's exactly what the Federation will expect you to do."

Blake took a seat on the flight couch, unconsciously gnawing an index finger. "Maybe," he said. "And maybe not."

Zen derailed Jenna's intended retort. +Course laid in,+ it reported obediently.

Blake nodded. "Execute. Standard by seven."


"You could be giving it all up," Jenna tried again. "And for what? I could take you to any number of planets where you could assemble a crew."

"Of freetraders?"

She gave him a sultry look, as though his inflection had somehow constituted an affront, or worse, a challenge. "You'd have a problem with that, would you?"

Denial glinted in Blake's eyes. "Only in that they'd be an unknown quantity. We'd have no guarantee they'd possess Vila's ability with locks, for example, or Arco's talent for weaponry systems, or Avon's genius with computers. Would we?"

She stabbed at lighted switches on the console, confirming Zen's course. "Life doesn't come with guarantees," she sniped. "Or hadn't you noticed?"

His answer dismissed further argument. "So I've been told," he said. "But I didn't believe it then, either."

* * *

_"An intelligent man can adapt."_

When he'd said it to Blake aboard the London, Kerr Avon had believed it with all his being, believed it because he'd no other choice -- he knew of no other way to survive the living hell of a prison ship, or a penal planet. Since then, he'd had cause to doubt his confidence. An Alpha's Earth-dome upbringing did little to prepare one for adapt-and-survive procedures in an open atmosphere, even under the best of conditions. And Cygnus Alpha could hardly be said to offer the best of anything.

The makeshift cloth bag rattled as he shifted its weight on his shoulders, finally easing it to the ground as he paused for a minute's breath. Gazing up the hillside at his home of the past fifteen weeks, he allowed himself a brief, sardonic smile. As castles went, it was less than impressive -- a crumbling ruin left by some unknown previous inhabitant, designed in a mockery of architecture similar to that of Vargas' temple, though this one was larger and in worse repair. Vila had once quite accurately described the style as 'early maniac.' On occasion, albeit rare occasion, Vila displayed something remarkably akin to incisive intelligence.

Surrounding Avon at the base of the citadel's crag, the ruins of what had once been a city stretched for better than a square mile. He had no idea who the one-time inhabitants had been, though he'd been grateful to discover they had at least possessed computer-age technology. It wasn't difficult to speculate, however, that they'd differed with Federation expansionism and paid the ultimate price for their noncompliance. Discernible from the citadel's height, the yawning missile crater into which most of the city had collapsed lent a certain morbid credence to his theory.

Sighing, Avon hefted the bag and went back to his task amid the rubble of a one-time foodstore. The radiation-sealed packets joined the rest of today's profitable haul in the sack: one miniature andyne power generator, five cracked but serviceable dynamon crystals, numerous useable computer components -- and two lead-protected cases of decontaminant drugs. This last was by far the most valuable of his finds to date. He had no means of measuring just how high the residual radiation level stood -- but these drugs would mean freedom from the tainted supply he'd stolen from Vargas' temple. Freedom from the mind-numbing paranoia the mad priest's additives had inflicted on his fellow exiles.

He wondered idly how Vargas was supplied with the drug. Surely not from these ruins -- he and his encephalitic followers considered the city 'cursed,' as well they might. Yet the medicine, as well as other stray odds and ends about the priest's fanatical little community (their shoes, for example) did not add up to the homespun anti-technology they claimed to embrace. The answer was only too apparent. Obviously, the Federation shipped more than prisoners to this place. Which in turn meant that Vargas' decontaminant was in all likelihood laced with suppressants and tranquilizers as well as the paranoia-inducing compliance compound. Small wonder he'd had difficulty concentrating on his tasks within the castle...

It was a pity, he reflected grimly as he gathered the last of the food packets and prepared to head back up the hill, that Vargas' sleep chamber had been vacant the night he'd affected his escape. There had been no time to track the night-prowling high priest. But Avon would have taken immense and unreserved pleasure in sliding a quiet knife between the obese fanatic's third and fourth ribs.

It would have been a summary and well-deserved execution.

_"There's a punishment scale for infractions, which starts with long periods of confinement in your launch seat, and ends with the Commander's right to order execution."_

The echo of Subcommander Raiker's words shadowed him up the hillside, along with his own, spoken not long after.

"We had once chance -- you wasted it. There won't be a next time."

"In which case you can die content," Jenna's hard voice had said behind him, and when he had echoed the final word, querrulous, she'd added bitingly, "Knowing that you were right."

Small consolation that would be.

And when they came for him, he had no doubt that his death was indeed their intention. The bloodlust was manifest on Dainer's bearded face; Raiker wore it as a smirk behind the casual threat of his pararifle. He was going to enjoy this.

"You. On your feet."

Avon's restraints retracted as Raiker snapped out the command, and Dainer's gun directed him out of the flight chair with a sharp, jerking movement. "You heard him. Move!"

He debated refusing to comply -- let them kill him here, in front of the fool who had caused this mess to begin with -- but before he could complete the thought, a beefy hand grabbed the collar of his tunic and hauled him from the chair, nearly choking him. Dainer snarled something in his face, and incredibly, he heard Blake shouting some sort of protest behind him. Once a fool...

"You won't be so cocky an hour from now." Dainer twisted the collar still tighter, forcing Avon to gasp for air. "Alpha bastard..."

He reacted without thinking -- there was nothing but the desperate need to breathe and the desire, almost as great, to wipe that damnably smug expression from Dainer's face. He brought one knee to bear against the larger man's groin and shoved with all the leverage he could manage. With a muffled grunt, the man released him and Avon drew in a strangled breath before the butt of Raiker's gun slammed into his side, sending him reeling. He tried to grab the flight chair for support, to regain his feet, but Raiker had him by the hair, yanking him backward so that he fell face-up at the Subcommander's feet. The rifle barrel was shoved into his throat then, hard enough to cut off his wind once again, and Raiker's hellishly cherubic face loomed above it, leering.

"So you want it right here and now, do you? Stupid son of a bitch--"

"No, wait." That was Dainer, still breathing hard and unabashedly rubbing at his wounded manhood. Blake was still squeaking something-or-other in the background, something none of them heard. "Let me do it," Dainer panted, belatedly adding a hopeful, "sir."

Raiker's laugh held all the warmth of a death rattle. "All right. I'll not deprive you of the pleasure." The rifle barrel pressed itself savagely into Avon's throat and then abruptly was gone, replaced by Dainer's hands at his collar once again. Avon forced his muscles to remain limp as he was hauled up off the deck, and Dainer interpreted the lack of resistance as he'd been meant to do -- until Avon's own hands flew up to strike him a double-fisted blow across the face. Dainer fell away, plunging toward the flight chair. There was a loud, sickening _snap_ as his head struck the metal arm, then an oddly prolonged silence that lasted until the body had settled heavily and with finality to the deck.

The wild rage in Raiker's ice-pale eyes was the last thing Avon remembered of that day's events aboard the London.

* * *

Halfway to the citadel, Avon's free hand strayed unconsciously to his neck and shoulder. He still bore scars from Raiker's rifle stock, from the beating that would have ended his life there and then, had Blake's cries not attracted attention at last, and brought Leylan to the scene. In retrospect, he was not altogether certain he could thank either man for the 'rescue.' But he'd smiled to himself with a different sort of gratitude when from the infirmary bed, he'd overheard the medics say that Blake and Stannis had escaped -- killing Subcommander Raiker in the process.

The castle loomed nearer, already in shadow as Cygnus' anemic sun fell westward behind it. Avon reached the east wall and stood beneath the security camera -- another salvage from the city below.

"Arachne," he said distinctly, "read voiceprint, entry east door." The computer's response was slow -- so slow that Avon's gun was in hand by the time the door at last rumbled open. He'd come across the weapon and a meager supply of projectile ammunition only three days before; it had not left his side since.

#East door, open,# Arachne's halting feminine tones reported.

Avon did not move. "Why the delay?" he demanded.

Again, hesitation. Avon scowled. Piecemeal the computer system may be, but he had assembled every last component circuit of it with precision and painstaking care, and it had all been functioning perfectly this morning. "Well?" he addressed the security camera's pickup. "Answer the question!"

Arachne hummed in mock agitation. #There is an intrusion,# it finally replied. #South door... breached.#

That brought Avon to attention, the gun instantly alert in his hand. He had expected this sooner or later, but would have preferred later, when more of his security systems would be in and the project would be nearer to completion. As it was, the news merely angered him on a personal level. Prison planet or not, his self-imposed exile and this particular piece of Cygnus Alpha were his and his alone, and he intended to brook no interference in his plans.

"Where is the intruder?" he asked, allowing the heavy bag to slide from his shoulder. With his foot, he pushed it inside the door for retrieving later on.

#Unknown,# the speaker above him finally rasped. #There is...# Static crackled. #...incurred systems damage.#

"Close the east door, Arachne."

#East door closing,# it answered at once. Well, at least that function had not been impaired. The thin metal sheeting rattled back across the opening; Avon made a mental note to replace it with heavier material if the project took much longer to complete.

Weapon first, he then left the doorway and made his way around the exterior to the south wall. The entrance there was indeed open -- battered into submission by virtue of a very large rock, from the look of it. Similar projectiles had been used to smash the overhead camera, and the intruder, obviously no technophile, had continued to wreak devastation once inside. Broken light fixtures and wall plating littered the entry corridor.

Avon felt a chill, and immediately dismissed it as the damp of Cygnus' approaching night. He ventured warily through the ruined door and into the devastated corridor, pausing only when he reached a junction that branched into three. The castle's weird blend of ancient stone and high-tech gadgetry gave its halls an oddly sinister aspect, a feeling Avon shrugged off as ludicrous -- the tainted drugs had taken their toll on him, and he would be relieved to be free of them. At least he, apparently unlike his visitor, had not suffered with the side effect of technophobia.


He started at the sudden intrusion of Arachne's hesitant voice.

"Yes?" He wondered what their visitor would make of this, hearing as he would the computer's disembodied half of their conversation.

#We have completed project phase beta-four.# Static scratched across the last of that, and Arachne seemed to stutter briefly. #Projected range is now zero to one-point-one-three miles. With minor circuit repair, we may implement test-one.#

So the damage was minor now, was it? He would have to see that it did not become anything more. "I'll be there shortly," he told the pickup without looking up. "Are you still unable to locate our 'guest'? Answer yes or no; he's probably listening."

#No,# the wall answered succinctly.

"Stand by, then."

One of the three branching corridors presented the intruder's unmistakable trail. More smashed paneling, more shattered lights. Avon toyed with the gun, and the ghost of a smile curled his mouth.

"Well now," he muttered aloud. "It could be that we've approached the problem from entirely the wrong angle."

#Clarify?# Arachne queried.

"Nothing," he said shortly, but the smile had widened to an anticipatory grin. Phobias, drug-induced or not, might as well be turned to his advantage, given the proper application of technology -- and just a touch of imagination.

Holstering his weapon, Avon turned away from the ruined corridor and headed eagerly down another passageway. He had a new avenue of research to explore...

* * *

Sleep had been out of the question. Vila lay awake, listening to the raucous snoring of his fellow prisoners and to the drone of the insects outside the dormitory's unpaned windows. The rucksack holding his pilfered food and drug supply nestled secretly between his back and the wall, hidden by the coarse blanket. They were both waiting for the right moment.

Damp air streamed in the window, making him shiver. Two beds away, he could just make out the shadowy mountain that was Gan, and he wondered if the big man had fallen asleep. Vila hoped not. Having to wake him might prove disruptive, and disruptions were the last thing he needed tonight.


The shriek sent Vila bolt upright amid the grunts and queries of awakened men throughout the room. It had come from outside...

"Demon!!" The hoarse scream was closer now. "In the citadel! A demon!"

There was an overall scramble to the door, which Vila joined once he'd secured the bundle under his clothing. He fell in beside Gan as they crowded out the door, mumbling imprecations all the while at this unscheduled interruption in his plans. The bigger man didn't hear him, preoccupied as he was with trying to see over the crowd to spot the source of the disturbance.

"It's Gavin," someone else said, and Vila tried to crane his neck to see.

"What on Earth...?" Gan breathed.

The thief shot him a disgusted look. "That's just the trouble," he complained. "It isn't."

The throng finally thinned enough to allow him to see, and Vila squinted toward the center of the ring they had formed, at the figure struggling there with two robed sentries. It was Gavin all right -- one of the twenty-three prisoners from the London, though in his current state he was difficult to recognize. Disheveled and wild-eyed, he threw off the priests' hands and screamed again, babbling something about the citadel. "Out of nowhere!" he sobbed. "The demon appeared and brought fire and smoke, and a curse upon us!"

"Oh-oh." Gan's utterance distracted Vila's attention; the thief turned to see the mob parting to allow Vargas' entrance. The bearded, corpulent high priest stopped short of the blithering Gavin, his glare so fierce that both acolytes backed away.

_"You_ are the one cursed," he bellowed, and the intimidated crowd fell silent at once. Obviously pleased with the audience response, Vargas bent and with one beefy hand, lifted the quaking Gavin by the front of his dirty tunic, shouting the next words into his face. "The citadel and all that surrounds it are Anathema. You knew this!"

"I seek forgiveness!" Gavin's wail earned him a rough shove back onto the spongy Cygnus earth, where he promptly prostrated himself and began burbling mindless litanies at Vargas' feet. "Only from his hand comes life..."

Vila felt ill. How could this possibly be the same man with whom he'd shared bunk space aboard the London? Come to think of it, more and more of his former shipmates -- even Gan -- had begun to talk and think of late like these crazy priests. Scowling, Vila felt the stolen supplies weighing heavily in the pouch beneath his tunic. The drug had to be the reason. Like so many other 'medications' to which he'd been subjected in the past, it had less than full effect on Vila. Something to do with an unusually slow metabolism, or so the CF-1 medics had theorized. Fortunately, he'd been able to break into the computer center before his final escape and obliterate that little item from his record...

Clutching the pouch protectively, Vila backed away from the crowd, which remained clustered round the weeping Gavin. Gan moved with him, a silent shadow until they were past the barracks. Only when his friend kept going did the bigger man whisper an objection.

"What are you doing?"

"Only what I said I would. I'm going."


"Well of course now!" All this stage-whispering was making Vila edgy. "You know a better time? All the sentries are back there, listening to Gavin ramble on like an idiot. None of 'em expects us to just walk away. They count on that."

Gan cast dubious glances backward. "They'll come after us," he mumbled.

The smaller man's lip curled. "Not where I'm going."


The inky shadows of the treeline swallowed them, but Vila kept on. "I know where it is," he said half to himself. "I've seen it from the east slopes plenty of times."

Gan stopped abruptly, and even in the poor light, the thief could see that his face had paled. "Not the citadel. You just heard Gavin say--"

"You don't have to come along!" Vila snapped, and walked on. He disliked handing Gan such a dilemma, but in the end of it there was no other way. The old Gan would never have believed all that superstitious claptrap; this one was afraid only because he'd been conditioned to be. The thief had his own apprehensions, but

sorcerers and curses did not enter into them. In fact, he had a sneaking suspicion that the citadel's demon-in-question walked on two very human legs and at least occasionally answered to the name of Kerr Avon.

When Vila pressed on, Gan eventually unglued his feet and came stumbling after, panting at the extra exertion. "Why?" he wondered aloud. "Why there? We could go anywhere else, anywhere else at all."

"Not where they wouldn't follow, we couldn't. Besides, you don't really buy all that mystical-supernatural twaddle, do you?"

"I dunno," Gan hedged, meaning of course that he did. "I haven't any better explanation. Have you?"

"Yes. That's Vargas' drug talking, my thick-witted friend. And you're--" Vila paused, turned and listened for something he couldn't be certain had been there. Shaking his head, he plunged on into the dark, refusing to think about what else of a totally non-supernatural sort might be lurking out here. He placed the need to escape Vargas foremost in his mind and kept it there -- but couldn't quite repress a nervous shudder.

Gan noticed.

"Got to admit I'm surprised at you, Vila," he said. "I always thought you were anything _but_ the adventurous sort."

"Hmph." The thief squinted into the dark and forced his feet to keep moving forward. "It's not supposed to be an adventure," he averred, and his legs began moving faster to the rhythm of his words. "Just a nice, simple, straight-forward, no-bother, no-frills, no-snags and no hang-ups-thank-you-very-much escape. That's all!"


Gan's monosyllabic response was their last exchange for many miles.

* * *

Jenna Stannis waited impatiently behind the teleport console while Blake adjusted his weapon belt and bracelet for the umpteenth time. She had long ago concluded that to argue with him was futile, but never one to hold her tongue, Jenna saw no reason to begin doing so now.

"I still say you'll be wasting your time down there. You don't really suppose they'll let you single-handedly empty the prison, do you?"

He laughed, a faintly condescending, deep-throated chuckle. "It's a colony, Jenna, not a security prison."

"It doesn't matter," she argued. "You could be walking to your own execution for all you know. Your own fellow convicts might kill you as easily as look at you. Why put yourself in that kind of danger?"

He shrugged, as though nothing she had said made any difference. "I need a crew," he repeated, "and there are some down there that I came to think of as friends."

Jenna scoffed openly at that. "With friends like Avon, you'll never need enemies."

"You never had much use for Avon, is that it?"

_No, but at least I understood his motivations._ "Not much," she said aloud. "I think you might have learned something from him, though."

"Oh?" The simple query held both doubt and patronization, but Jenna pounced on the opening it provided just the same.

"Something about trust," she lectured. "For instance, how do you know I won't just take this ship and leave you down there?"

Blake had an annoyingly avuncular smile. "Because I do know something about trust," he said, "and I trust you."

She'd seen that glint in his eye before. On Earth, it had no doubt worked in tandem with the smile to charm his idealistic followers into doing his bidding. Jenna, however, had been immune to charm for some time -- a freetrader learned to avoid its pitfalls early on, or forfeit a lucrative career.

So Blake trusted her, did he? She dissolved his too-smug confidence with the cold, candid truth -- in two words. "You shouldn't."

His eyes widened, genuinely surprised.

She heaped salt into the wound then. "And not Avon or Vila or any of the rest of them either. Because that kind of trust will get you killed. Believe me. I know."

Sobering, he turned his back on her and moved silently into the teleport bay. When he faced her again, his expression defied her to argue any further.

"Put me down, Jenna."

She locked gazes with him for a moment longer, defiance meeting an equal force of obstinance. Then she threw the teleport switches in rapid sequence and watched him vanish in the wavering distortion field.

"Avon always said you were a fool," she told the empty bay. "In a way, it's a pity he's probably dead. He may never know how right he was."

* * *

Nested within the Citadel's manic labyrinth of corridors, three levels from the ground entrance and protected by the sturdiest of double-metal doors and walls, Arachne hummed with the artificial life of her multiple control systems. Any literate observer might at once have seen the arcane resemblance between Arachne and her mythical namesake: the mad tangle of reclaimed and rewired circuitry spread outward in eight directions from the central core, each offshoot devoted to its own vital function. The four 'legs' stretching northward controlled voice simulation, security cameras, magno locks and lighting, respectively. The conglomeration's southern appendages were devoted to the project's four primary functions. They were labeled, in Avon's exacting shorthand, DIREC, DEMAT, TRANSIT and RE-INT.

The project's creator labored at the moment beneath DEMAT's primary console, struggling to place one of the newly-salvaged dynamon crystals. With its focusing power, he should be able to extend the range by at least--

#A suitable vessel has entered planetary orbit,# Arachne announced.

Avon's probe thumped to the floor and rolled away, instantly forgotten. By the time he had extricated himself and reached the computer's central banks, Arachne had repeated her terse proclamation.

"I heard you," he told it curtly. "Specifications."

#Entering initial orbit at six thousand, four-hundred spacials; decreasing incrementally. Volume: forty-one thousand cubic meters. Mass: eighty-six-thousand--#

"That cannot be correct," he interrupted. "No ship could possibly be that large."

#Recalibrating,# Arachne said flatly. She paused only a heartbeat before announcing, #The data is accurate. Furthermore, in-depth scans have detected verified teleport activity.#

"What?" Avon spun on the vocoder as though the computer had physically attacked him.

#Teleport activity confirmed,# the feminine voice insisted.

Outrage welled in Avon's eyes. "You were not authorized to utilize this project for independent tests!"

Arachne hummed for a moment, deciphering his accusation. #Activity,# she said at last, -did not involve this unit.#

Avon glared. "Explain," he demanded.

#Teleportation beam originated aboard the orbiting vessel and terminated at planetary surface coordinates nine-seven mark five-one--# Avon cut it off. "How many teleported?"


"How many remaining aboard the vessel?"


Avon's head tilted as he considered the unfolding possibilities. "Well now," he drawled. "Perhaps Christmas has come early this year after all."

Arachne beeped in electronic consternation. #Christmas?# it queried. #Reference, archaic, old Earth calendar. Terran religious festival originating in--#

"Cancel." Avon thumped the panel impatiently. "Analyze power source of detected teleportation energy."

#Power source is indeterminate,# it replied immediately. #Probable focusing agent is the substance acquatar.#

"Acqua--?" Avon stopped mid-word, unable to make sense of any of this. "But the Federation abandoned acquatar as a focusing agent. It is too unstable. Recheck the analysis and confirm."

#Data is corroborated. The vessel is not of Federation origin.#

Avon's eyes widened. "No," he said thoughtfully. "It wouldn't be. They have nothing of that mass or capability. Report status on operations five and seven. Is our range sufficient to put me aboard?"

#Negative. Current directional capability and transit range require a minimum proximity of three thousand spacials.#

So near and yet so far... Scowling, Avon fingered the dynamon-jeweled 'brooch' that adorned the left shoulder of his cape. On the workbench behind him, three assembled prototypes lay amid a tangle of scavenged electronic parts. The 'brooch' had seemed the best approach in the end. His salvaged clothing, midnight blue and black, was otherwise lacking decoration -- but he kept a fifth jeweled disk in his pocket for good measure. When it came to leaving Cygnus Alpha behind forever, he intended taking no chances.

#Vessel has descended to four thousand, five-hundred spacials. Orbital decrease continuing.#

Better and better. "Good," he said aloud. "Keep me apprized. I wish to know the moment it is within range."

If it came into range. If it didn't, the alternative would be less pleasant, though tenable. He would have to find the individual this pirate teleport had deposited on the planet -- and engage in a little piracy of his own.

#Sector one reports intruder alert,# Arachne said calmly. #Breech of southeast door.#

"It never rains..." Avon muttered. At the computer's start of a baffled query, he snapped, "Never mind. Give me visual."

#Camera thirteen, on screen.#

The picture that fluttered onto the small screen revealed two 'visitors' this time, both already inside the citadel's stronghold. Avon's grim smile returned when he recognized both timid figures venturing into his southeast corridors.

"Gan and Vila," he said to himself. Well, at least there had been no need for lock-smashing this time. Vila would never be so heavy-handed.

#Orbiting vessel has reached 4400 spacials. Trajectory would indicate ultimate stabilization at 2300.#

"I'm glad to hear it. The moment it is feasible to do so, you will put me aboard." The gun re-materialized from beneath Avon's cloak. "In the meantime, we will further test the short-range functions. Run program FAUST, co-ordinates one-one-seven-one."

Arachne bleeped once, softly. #Program running.#

"Activate." Gun in one hand, dynamon brooch framed by the other, Avon's form quietly dissolved into shimmering component atoms and vanished from Arachne's lair.

The sprawling computer beeped to itself once again and smugly reported, #Phase one of program FAUST completed. Commencing remat at one-one-seven-one.#

* * *

"I tell you we can't leave!" Arco's stubbled face confronted Blake across the neck-high barricade of the dormitory window. "We'll die if we do."

"You haven't listened to a thing I've said," Blake snarled, irritated at the man's pig-headedness. "My ship has the most advance medical facility anywhere in the known worlds. You don't need this Vargas person's drugs!"

"So you say!" Arco sniffed, turning away from the window. "We don't want to go, Blake. Why don't you just leave us alone?!

"Wait!" Blake gripped the window's gritty ledge, his knuckles white with ill-concealed fury. "Where is Avon? Vila? Gan? Let me talk to Vila!" He felt confident that the thief, if no one else, would want to go with him. The prison hadn't been built that could hold Vila Restal, or so he'd always boasted.

"Yer wastin' yer time, I tell ya," Arco drawled. "They ain't here, none of 'em. Gone off to that cursed place, accordin' to rumors hereabouts. Probably all dead by now, the lot of 'em. They say 's'what happens to them as tries sorcery and--"

"What cursed place?" Blake cut him off, desperate to make sense of the tirade. "Tell me where it is!"

Squinting at him, Arco sniffed again and shuffled back to lean on the window sill, his voice falling to a conspiratorial whisper. "A'right, then." He coughed with a wet, infectious rattle. "I'll tell you. But listen, friend. Don't ever say you wasn't warned..."

* * *

As grand entrances went, this one far exceeded FAUST's maiden run. The 'sorcerer' melted slowly into being amidst an appropriately noisy display of smoke and laser-generated lightning. All told, it would rival any Alpha-dome light show back on Earth, and Avon was more than a little proud of it. Granted the special effects were peripheral to the project, but when it came to protecting his hard-won privacy, he'd resolved to give no quarter.

His 'miraculous' appearance in the ground level antechamber elicited the desired reaction. He saw Gan fall back against the wall, quaking, his large square hands upraised to shield his eyes. But as the smoke thinned and Arachne damped the lighting for the next phase of his performance, Avon noted with annoyance that he was 'entertaining' only one spectator.

Where the hell was Vila?

"Please..." Gan's meek plea made a laughable contrast to the man's bulk. "We didn't mean anything by it. We'll go away again if you like..."

Avon glowered while a programmed gust from the wind vents rippled his midnight cloak. So Vargas' poisons had changed this one as well -- turned him from mere half-wit to mindless idiot. Would an equally gelid Vila be cowering somewhere just outside the door?

"Where," he said, and Arachne's pick-ups amplified his voice to a satisfyingly stentorian boom, "is your companion?"

"I... I don't..." Gan stammered, then changed tactics and repeated his earlier entreaty. "Please, we'll go, just give us a chance to--"

Violet light forked across the ceiling above Avon's head, sizzling Gan's plea into a pathetic whimper. The man curled sideways and tried frantically to blend into the unyielding stone wall.

"I asked you a question," Avon rumbled amid the program's arcing flashes and curling smoke. The best portion of the lightning display was yet to come -- Avon's last victim hadn't lasted long enough to appreciate it. And what a pity Vila was missing the show. Perhaps a repeat performance, when the thief had been located.

FAUST's electronic storm was about to reach its crashing crescendo: the thunder's shuddering vibrations surged through the flooring, throbbed in the walls. Avon raised his arms, draping the cloak to create an air of menace.

"You will tell me--" he began, but the command died in mid-sentence when flat white light suddenly flooded the chamber. The artificial wind expired with a whine. His programmed thunder and lightning sputtered to an anemic halt.

There was a moment of dead silence. Then someone applauded.

Avon wheeled, cape flaring, to find a grinning Vila Restal standing at the manual override control. Its once-locked panel dangled open beside him to expose newly-disconnected circuitry.

The applause ended when Avon turned, though the grin did not.

"That's really very good, you know," the Delta thief enthused. Avon's stolid glare tracked him back across the room to Gan, where Vila goaded the bigger man to his feet with a gentle kick. "Get up, you great whinging oaf -- Avon'll think you didn't like the show." Gan complied, but his eyes had lost none of their drug-induced terror.

Chagrined, Avon smacked the wayward cloak into place with a disgusted gesture. "What do you want, Vila?" he snapped.

"Oh, you know. All I've ever wanted, really. Wine, women, wealth -- never mind the songs. And the ranking's optional, of course."

Arachne interrupted the end of Vila's quip to report that the FAUST program had been aborted. #Orbital status,# she added, #is 3475 spacials.#

"Excellent," Avon said, aware of Vila's perplexed scrutiny and Gan's continuing awe. "Proceed as instructed, Arachne." His hand had once again unconsciously cupped the brooch; only belatedly did he realize that Vila held three of its twins in his hands, studying them intently. Avon took an angry step forward. "Give me those--"

The hands drew back, and inexplicably, the thief dropped one of his prizes into Gan's palm as though for safekeeping. "I never thought you were much the type for jewelry, Avon. Want to tell me what they are?"

"They... are none of your concern."

"Mm." Vila played the remaining two discs back and forth between magician's fingers. "What would you say to a deal then, eh?"

#3300 spacials,# said Arachne.

"I would say that you'd best do it quickly."

"In a rush?" Vila looked cagey. "Whoever that is coming in, 3000 spacials is a way off yet. They won't be here all that soon, surely."

Avon's eyes widened. "Sooner than you know."

#3200 spacials,# Arachne said at the exact same time. #Descension is accelerating. Project directional phase complete. Please prepare for demat sequence.#

Gan and Vila exchanged mystified glances, the latter muttering a half-hearted plea that they leave now and go back to the complex. Avon wished it to be so, but the thief wasn't budging.

#3100 spacials.#

The sorcerer thrust out a hand. "Give me the discs."

Vila's grin was as avaricious as his clenched fist. "It'll cost you two seats on that ship, friend."

With no time for further argument, Avon drew the gun from beneath his cloak. He'd intended to have it in hand when he arrived aboard the ship in any case; now it merely served to punctuate his request. Seeing Vila's confidence flag, he started forward to reclaim the brooches.

He never completed the step.

With a shriek, something rotund and dark-robed came charging through the door. Avon's gun swung to face it: in the same instant, Arachne calmly announced, #Demat and transit sequences initiating.#

Avon was aware of the enraged Vargas rushing at him, bellowing. But in the next moment, he felt a now-familiar light-headedness -- then the impact of something 'colliding' with the space his disassembling atoms had recently occupied. The intersection had no effect on his teleportation; his next conscious impression was that of a brightly-lit room with hexagonal entries, a deserted control console -- and the transit-stunned Gan and Vila gaping open-mouthed beside him.

Footsteps clattered toward them from the left corridor. Avon's gun moved to confront the threat, only to draw up when the footsteps halted and an armed Jenna Stannis faced him from atop a short flight of stairs. Her gun drew up as well, then the blonde head tilted to one side and incredibly, she smiled at them. A cold, ice-and-diamonds smile. And in the cool green eyes Avon saw a gleam of something kindred, something concrete and negotiable; something common to pirates and embezzlers alike.

He knew, in that moment, that he had won.

Avon and avarice were old friends.

* * *

A few yards into the citadel's southeast corridor, Blake started at the echo of a disembodied voice. #Demat and transit sequences initiating,# it said. The report was followed by a decidedly human shriek -- a low-throated howl of rage from somewhere ahead of him. Weapon drawn, he inched along the wall toward the sound, pausing again when the electronic voice sputtered briefly back to life to deliver the poignant but cryptic statement, #Good-bye, Kerr Avon.#

_Good-bye??_ Blake twisted to peer up at the wired speaker mounted in obvious afterthought to the stone and tile juncture of the ceiling. But his intent to question the voice died unspoken when a second shriek and the crash of breaking glass echoed from the corridor's end.

Blake ran.

A bulky, robed figure, bearded and wild-eyed, whirled to glare at him from the remains of an overturned table. Blake pointed the gun at him. "Don't move."

The man's hairy face split into a toothy grimace. "Well, well. So all the flock are not fled after all."

"Who are you?" Blake demanded, in instant doubt of the burly man's sanity. "Where are the others?"

The reply came with forceful, unrestrained arrogance. "I am your god, infidel. And your Sorcerer has been banished, back to the fiery hell from whence he came."

Arco had mentioned a high priest, a madman who ruled the tiny prison colony with a proverbial iron fist.

"You're Vargas," Blake breathed.

"I am your god," the priest repeated, advancing in spite of the gun. "And your god requires obedience. You will come back with me."

"I'm not going anywhere. And I told you to stand still."

Vargas halted, a moment of wary rationality invading his bulging eyes. His scrutiny fell on Blake's gun then, and he released a raspy, wheezing chortle. "Is that a weapon?"

"Come closer and find out."

The priest threw back his head and laughed, the imperiously unbridled laughter of the insane. Blake never saw the hand that swept from beneath the black robe, striking with incredible speed and strength to knock the gun away. Detached from its power pack, the weapon clattered uselessly across the flagstone floor. Blake tried to dive after it. His effort to roll away met a vicious kick from Vargas' enormous foot.

_The shoes,_ Blake thought inanely. _The shoes are wrong for a prison planet, wrong for a priest..._ When the heavy foot again lashed out at him, he grabbed it and pulled. Vargas flew backward with a strangled shout, buying Blake enough seconds to slap at the comm button on his teleport bracelet.

"Jenna! I need teleport _now,_ Jenna!"

He scrabbled across the floor to reach for the fallen gun, but Vargas had recovered his footing, and Blake found himself hauled up by the collar and twisted until he was face to face with the enraged priest. Vargas babbled nonsensical incantations at him, shaking him like a child's toy.

Where was Jenna? Why hadn't she answered?

"Only from his hand comes life!" the huge man was bellowing, and at every word, Blake's head met the rock wall with a painful _crack._ "Say it!"

The bearded features blurred, became for a moment the thin pale face of another man who had made that demand of him aboard the London. From somewhere, Blake summoned the strength to force a knee into the man's groin. When Vargas wheezed and backed away, releasing his collar, he aimed a kick at the same spot, connecting solidly through the folds of black robe. The priest roared and fell backward: it gave Blake the precious seconds necessary to drop and snatch up the gun.

_Jenna, where the devil are you???!_

He fumbled the gun's connection, finally slapping the power line into place with the heel of his hand. Vargas was coming at him, and this time the fury in those mad eyes was lethal. He had barely enough time to regain his own feet before the raging mountain slammed into him.

Sheer reflex depressed the gun's firing stud. Blake heard twin screams. A fiery agony blazed across his hands and chest, and the sickening odors of singed fabric and burnt flesh mingled. He saw death overtaking the madness in Vargas' eyes -- then a blinding whiteness obliterated everything, and Liberator's teleport bay swam into hazy existence around him. Jenna leaned over the console, her hand still gripping the toggles, and the spectre of a cloaked Avon held one hand poised over hers, as though to stop her. He withdrew it as Blake stumbled forward, dimly aware of two other familiar faces near the console. Gan and Vila...

"Jenna, what the hell is going on up here?"

She sat back, indifference etched across her features. "Not a lot," she said unhelpfully.

"We needed a way out," Vila offered.

"We didn't know it was you." That was Gan, sounding both shaken and apologetic.

"One thing _has_ changed, though." Jenna's eyes glittered coldly in the light from the console.

Above her, a flat voice said, "Yes," and Blake looked into a black, unflinching gaze that made his blood run chill. He felt giddy, half-conscious of the gun falling from burned hands to dangle at his hip.

"I don't understand," he murmured, though perhaps he did. Vargas' words drifted back to haunt him. _Your Sorcerer... gone back to the hell from whence he came._

"It's really very simple." Jenna turned her arctic gaze on Avon then, and waited.

They all waited while the Sorcerer's smile evolved into a coldly rapacious grin.

"This," he said, "is _my_ ship."  

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