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Dreams

By Marian Mendez
I am emptied of all my dreams:
I only hear Earth turning, only see
Ether's long bankless streams,
And only know I should drown if
You laid not your hand on me.

The child awoke, screaming. He huddled in the corner of his bed, covers bunched tightly around himself.

His bedroom door opened. Silhouetted against the brightness of the outer chamber was a huge, black giant.

"Well, you've done it again." The giant's hand moved, striking the light control beside the door. With the illumination raised, the fearsome giant transformed into a man of average height with sleep rumpled hair, wearing a haphazardly tied robe over his silken pajamas. Voice and expression alike were weary and irritated. He softened in the face of the child's wide-eyed terror. "It's all right, son. It was only a bad dream." He settled on the edge of the bed and drew the trembling body, blankets and all, into his arms. The screams ebbed, mutating into wild sobbing, then, as the frail body tired, into wet snufflings. Pipestem arms freed themselves from the tangled bedding to latch onto the man's neck. He sighed and stroked the silk soft hair of the head pressed so tightly against his chest. Once more, hot childish tears melted his stern resolve not to pamper the child.

He loved both his sons, but he found himself at a loss to understand his youngest. The boy was spoiled, true, but there was more to it than that. The child possessed the delicate wild beauty of a fawn. That, combined with his extraordinary intellectual potential, guaranteed him preferential treatment. Naturally, he tried to use this to his advantage, and he did have reason to angle for affection.

Holding the unhappy child, the man thought of his wife. She had married him for his wealth and status. He had been so blinded by her bright blonde hair and fathomless brown eyes- eyes that were mirrored in the too serious face of his youngest son- that he had not seen her flaws. She was never unkind to the boys, she simply had no interest in them. He knew her better now, but he remained hopelessly in love and would do almost anything to keep her. He regretted that the children had to share the cost. Not only had their mother no time for them, she insisted that he play politics;traveling and attending social affairs when he wasn't involved in clandestine maneuverings to increase the family's influence. Which left the boys in the care of various competent, indifferent, nurses and nannies. It was no wonder the little one had nightmares of abandonment.

"What was it this time?" he asked gently, once the child had calmed enough

to hear him. The boy stiffened and shook his head, refusing to answer. "Was it the one where your mother and I leave you?" The gasping indraw of breath and near-strangulation grip on his neck was reply enough. "We're not going to leave you, you know that. I love you, son. Don't you believe me?" He felt a faint nod against his chest. "We'll go to the therapist in the morning. He'll show you that there's nothing to worry about, no reason to fear." The child was beginning to relax, exhausted by his crying. He laid the boy back in his bed, tucking the covers snugly around him, for comfort. "Go to sleep, Kerr. Everything will be all right."

Avon woke. He lay flat on his back, analyzing the situation before he would allow himself to move, or open his eyes to reality. That old dream again. Odd, how I see it from my father's point of view. I can't actually remember being that boy- our younger selves are more alien to us than those who are born on distant worlds. He shifted gears mentally, slipping away from the painful recollection of one such alien. My father was wrong. The therapist couldn't make everything all right. He could only teach me to dissect my dreams, searching for subconscious symbolism. Which might be useful for your average `bit of undigested potato' nightmares. But not for the recurring, detailed horrors I call nightmares for lack of a suitably graphic term. Most especially not for the dream where my parents writhing bodies were flung, flaming, from an exploding air-car.

My father's quest to please my mother had inconvenienced certain high officials, who expressed their resentment quite freely. Servalan was hardly unique in her climb to power by way of a pyramid of corpses. Ah, that reminded him why he didn't want to reveal that he was awake. His body was refreshed, but he was too sick at heart to deal with Servalan. A needle-prick in his arm took away his choice. Whatever drug he had been given made his heart pound and muscles spasm against his restraints. Difficult to pretend he slept through that. Avon opened his eyes, to find Servalan leaning over him, a triumphant smile on her blood-red lips.

"Well, Sleeping Beauty arises." When Avon let that sally pass unremarked, the woman continued, "You don't seem surprised to see me this time either, Avon. Did you know that I came to rescue you from your folly?" She toyed with his chest hair while awaiting his reply. When he maintained a stony silence, she said, "Really, Avon, this childish sulking is unnecessary. Now that Blake and your crew are dead, there's no reason why we can't be allies- more than allies, Avon," she purred, watching his eyes closely. "You never were a rebel, Avon, never truly my enemy. Now that you've come to your senses and disposed of Blake for me, I am prepared to reward you, handsomely."

Avon blinked and swallowed, mustering his strength. "I'm not playing any more. Now, go away and let me be."

"Avon, how rude. But, as you wish. Just tell me where Orac is and I'll see that you aren't disturbed." She smiled, mocking, raking her gaze over the nude form secured to the table before her. His years on the run had left their mark, but Servalan liked what she saw, scars and all. He appeared broken, unable to resist. So much the better. While she was prepared to use stringent interrogation proce- dures, she would rather he gave her Orac without a fight. Of course, she might be bored by a spiritless Avon, but he would remain useful, professionally, if not personally. After all, he had the opportunity and the ability to learn Liberator's secrets. No, Servalan would not waste this prize.

"Disturbed?" Avon's voice remained flat. Servalan was irked; a man bound and helpless, totally in your power, should not sound indifferent. "How can you disturb a dead man?" He closed his eyes again.

Dimly Avon heard Servalan cursing him. Superfluous- he was as damned a soul as ever fried on Hell's hottest griddle. He didn't care to listen any longer. There was that trick Cally had taught him...

Servalan turned angrily on the white-tuniced doctor hovering in the background. "What have you given him? I told you I wanted him cooperative. How can he cooperate when you've put him to sleep?"

"But he shouldn't be..." The man came forward and checked the instruments monitoring Avon's motionless body. "I gave him a stimulant, Commissioner." He frowned. "It's not possible that the drug could cause this."

"Oh, Avon, still playing games?" Servalan cruelly tweaked the skin of Avon's inner arm with her sharp nails. She was frustrated by his lack of response. "Look at me, damn you!"

"Please, Commissioner." The doctor had the temerity to touch her sleeve. "I don't think..."

"That's right, you don't," she snapped. "I don't care what it takes, I want him awake, now!"

Avon receded further away from the sound of Servalan's voice. Noisy woman. Always nagging, always demanding, just like my Anna...

Anna shook Avon awake. "Love, you're dreaming again."

"What?" It took Avon a moment to sort his scattered wits into order. He ran a hand through his hair, then pinched the bridge of his nose, forcing the incipient headache back where it belonged. "Sorry, Anna. I did warn you that I'm a restless sleeper. On the occasions when I'm not insomniac."

"I don't mind, Avon, but it sounded like something you'd rather be awakened from. You were shouting."

"Was I?" Avon responded vaguely, hoping that Anna would let the matter drop.

"Yes." She brushed Avon's hands away when he attempted to distract her with their favorite past-time. "No, Avon, I know when you're trying to hide something. You can't fool me. This dream means something to you- the name you shouted, `Blake', who is Blake?"

Avon sighed. "Nothing, nobody. I never met the man."

"I thought I heard the name on the viscasts. Wasn't he some sort of political agitator?"

"It was just a dream, Anna. A man can't be held accountable for his dreams, can he?" The dream had been bad enough, visions of himself performing incredibly foolish and dangerous feats at the behest of a large, curly-headed nuisance who had inexplicably become his responsibility. But to explain his dreams to Anna, expose himself as a freak- no, he refused to do that. Anna wasn't the motherly sort, to cosset a man's weaknesses. Far more likely she'd turn from him in disgust and return to her normal, sane, though unexciting, counselor husband. What Avon had with Anna was too precarious, too precious, to risk. He rolled over, turning his back on Anna and her questions. "I'm going back to sleep, Anna. To hell with Blake, whoever he is."

Anna was silent, but Avon sensed the stifled curiosity in the slender body lying next to him.

Avon woke. Servalan's doctors were doing something unpleasant to his body at the time and he debated returning to the dreams, but Anna hurt worse. No instrument of torture could cut as sharply as her betrayal. Still, the pain was unwelcome. He opened his eyes and said, "Stop that." He was mildly intrigued when they obeyed, enough so that he kept his eyes opened when Servalan approached him again. She had changed into a different outlandish costume, so he assumed that his dream had taken longer than the few minutes it had seemed.

"Avon." Servalan had dropped her mockery, her large eyes full of sympathy.

Crocodile tears, Avon thought.

"Avon, I don't want to hurt you. Tell me where Orac is and the pain will stop."

"You can't stop my pain. Unless, of course, you kill me. That might work."

Servalan waved the torturers aside and stepped closer to him. "Listen to me, Avon. No one is going to kill you. I will not allow that, but you can be made to suffer a great deal without dying. Give me Orac and spare yourself."

"Orac dreams, too, you know," Avon's remark seemed pointless. "He must be as tired of it as I am. I wonder if Orac wants to die?"

Servalan was alarmed. This was not going according to plan.

Avon closed his eyes. "Poor Orac. I should have taught him how to die. It's such a simple human talent..."

Avon woke, fear pounding in his throat, thundering painfully in his chest. "Gan," he whispered. He sat up, unwound the tangled silver sheets and twisted on the narrow surface to dangle his legs over the side of his bed. He hadn't had such a vivid dream in months. Ever since joining Blake on this idiotic crusade, the dreams had settled down to their usual level, mostly disconcerting glimpses of danger and distorted images of the people he was now forced to live among. People who were getting altogether too close for his comfort. He liked Gan. The man was a level- headed source of undemonstrative strength, and common sense, a quality sadly lacking in his other companions. Avon clung to one thought, his dreams didn't always come true. It seemed unlikely that a mountain would fall on the man in space.

"Avon?"

Avon grimaced. The gentle voice over the intercom was an insistent reminder of his imperiled privacy. Not that Cally would intrude where she was not wanted, but he could not stop himself from broadcasting his distress to her in his dreams.

"Yes, Cally," he replied.

"May I come in?"

Avon sighed. She would go away if he asked, but then she'd spend the next day watching him; pitying him. It was better to get it over with now. "Yes, Cally."

She didn't give him time to change his mind. The Auron was in his room and at his side before he could rouse himself to fetch his robe. As they were in a remote, sparsely inhabited region of space where emergency calls to the flight deck were unlikely, he had allowed himself the luxury of sleeping nude. It didn't affect Cally, she'd patched him up more than once and maintained a physician's detached interest in his physique, or so she said. Well, it bothered Avon. He drew up the covers around himself and gave her a sour look. "I've disturbed you again, Cally. Please, accept my apologies. I wish I could assure you that it won't happen again, but..."

"Avon, don't be ridiculous. You act as if you had made an impolite noise at a dinner party. This is serious." Cally sat on the bed beside Avon, deliberately entering his personal space to take his hand. "You're still shaking, Avon. These dreams are more than the after-effects of life in the drug-suppressed domes on Earth; more than a response to fighting in a war you claim to despise. What is it, Avon?"

Avon shook his head, not denying her, denying his dreams and the importance he placed on them. "I've always dreamed, Cally."

"What of it? Everyone dreams, Avon."

"Do everyone else's nightmares come true? Does everyone else wake up knowing how their friends are going to die? Not when, not where, not anything that might help to avoid it, just the scenes of the dying, over and over? Does that haunt your nights, Cally?" Avon hadn't intended to say so much, but once released the words acquired an unstoppable momentum, pouring out in flood.

"Avon." Cally dropped his hand and placed her hands on either side of his face, gently urging him to meet her eyes. "I don't have that gift."

"Gift? Curse, you mean."

"True foreseeing can be either a curse or a gift, Avon, depending on the use you make of this knowledge."

"You still don't understand, Cally. I never see the good that lies in the future. Only the pain, Cally, ever and only the pain."

"Let me help, Avon."

"How? Can you teach me how not to dream? Or to have nothing more than the pleasant fantasies that Vila relates around the breakfast table? I would like to fill my nights with harmless nonsense."

"I can't do that, Avon. I can only teach you how to live with it, how not to let it overwhelm you and eat at your soul."

"I don't believe I have a soul," was Avon's automatic response.

"Then share mine."

Cally's understanding and support helped more than the Auron techniques for emotional control and ways to turn aside the mind from unbearable subjects.He grew adept at the latter, but, without her acceptance, Avon would surely have left when Gan died, crushed under a mountain of rubble.

Despite his better judgment, Avon had come to care for Cally, and Vila, too. If he left them to Blake's tender mercies, how long would they survive? He doubted that running away would stop the dreams; at least, as long as he stayed he could attempt to counter the dreams.

Then he dreamed of Cally, under the mountain beside Gan.

Avon woke. He was still under restraints, but this time he was lying on a comfortable bed. He was still connected to assorted machines by tubes and wires, but none of the machines were inflicting pain on him. His body ached, but it was the dull sort of ache that arose from inactivity, too long spent in the horizontal, inert and unmoving. As if in response to his thought, his left leg displayed its resentment of its confinement by spasmodic contractions, muscles knotted into hard lumps.

At Avon's involuntary gasp of pain, a pretty young woman rose from a chair set beside a rank of monitoring equipment. She smiled at him and pressed a button on the wall. "Commissioner, he's awake," she said.

Avon had no need to ask which commissioner. Changed though the outward appearance might be, he recognized this dream. The young woman released the straps from his afflicted leg and began kneading the taut muscles with skilled, strong fingers, driving away the pain. She continued to smile at him, and spoke soothingly. She had a sweet voice and clever hands; Avon decided there was no hurry to flee back into his dreams, yet. He'd discerned the pattern- he was going to relive his life until he reached the present, at which point he sincerely hoped he would be permitted to die. Since he had never had any prophetic dreams of any event beyond this point, it seemed a reasonable hope.

"Avon."

He could have turned his head at Servalan's voice, but he preferred to watch the woman massaging his leg. She was an enemy, too, but she was easing his pain. Whatever her motive, that was something rare enough for him to appreciate.

"Avon, look at me, please."

Servalan saying please? And in a gentle, concerned tone of voice? The novelty made Avon forget his attractive masseuse. He obeyed Servalan, shifting his head slightly to do so. She was dressed in white, flowing white, simple and unadorned as an angel's robe. His eyes tracked slowly up to her face. "You look tired, Commissioner." Considering Servalan's habit of eliminating those who learned her previous identity, it was pure gallantry on his part not to speak her name in front of the masseuse. He preferred to think of it as a small act of control over his environment, probably the last he'd ever have.

"I've been worried about you, Avon. My physicians tell me you're quite ill. They think you need help, Avon. I want you to get well. I don't enjoy seeing you suffer this way."

"Is there some other way in which you would prefer me to suffer?" As long as the torture was to be delayed, Avon was willing to listen to her. Of course, it was all lies, but she said them so beautifully, with such conviction and art.

Servalan smiled. "That's my Avon. No, dear, I don't want you to suffer in any way. On the contrary. Nurse," she said, turning to the woman who was about to redo the strap across Avon's leg, "Release him. I'm sure he will be more comfortable without those restraints. And they aren't necessary, are they, Avon?"

"Not to me." Avon made no attempt to move after the last band was undone. There was no place to go and nothing he wished to do. He looked at Servalan. Once, he recalled, he would have wanted to kill her with his bare hands. That desire was now no more than an academic notation.

Amusing, really, to be totally in her power and yet totally safe. There was literally nothing she could do to harm him. If he wished he had an infallible bolt-hole waiting just behind his eyelids. The next part would be dreary, though. The Blake-less, Cally -less years had been tedious the first time, when they still possessed some novelty value.

"Don't go to sleep on me, Avon," Servalan's voice went sharp with alarm when he yawned and stretched slightly. "You've slept for five days already. You can't possibly still be tired."

"Can't I? I have a weariness so great that I believe it will only be cured by an endless rest. Fortunately, that is readily available."

"I forbid it!"

Avon laughed inwardly, enjoying Servalan's frustration. "I never swore to obey you, Commissioner. Quite the contrary." He blinked and yawned again. It had been diverting, baiting Servalan, but he really ought to get back to the serious business of dreaming. He was determined to finish this life and find peace. This time he would not run from the pain until it was over.

Servalan turned aside from the sleeping man, holding her temper barely in check. She left the nurse to monitor Avon while she returned to her office to brood and scheme.

Simply marvelous! All those highly-reputed, learned doctors she'd had consulting on Avon's case had advised her that he was suffering from `severe reality shear', whatever that bogus bit of mumbo-jumbo was supposed to mean. They swore up and down that he wasn't catatonic, was in fact perfectly capable of answering her questions.

They recommended she halt the physical persuasion, which, she had to admit, was singularly ineffective on a man who slept as soundly as Avon. She'd had him dosed with anti-depressants and his body healed. She even selected a nurse matched to Avon's deepest desires, according to those same doctors' study of Avon's psych- files and history.

All to this result- Avon deigns, after five tediously long days on this primitive hell-hole of a world, to awaken just long enough to infuriate her - not that she disagreed with the doctors. She'd deduced the reason for Avon's care in addressing her. He felt mildly protective of the nurse, but his response also told her that while he might be mad, he had not suddenly become stupid. The wits might be warped, but they were still sharp.

Let Avon sense that he was being manipulated and she'd have lost the little progress that had been made. He always had a fierce resentment of manipulation. It was apparently the aspect of his relationship with Blake which had irritated him the most. Blake...

Servalan activated a monitor, tapping the glass with her fingernails while she toyed with an idea. In time, Avon might become sufficiently attached to the nurse for her to worm Orac's location from him. But Servalan hadn't got this far by waiting for might-bes. Not when she had better material to hand.

Avon woke. Alarmed, he checked the Liberator's status and the chronometer. He'd only slept for some ten minutes, but disaster could have struck in far less. He relaxed when he found that everything was under control. Still on schedule and course. His mind was drawn back to the dream, vivid as day despite its brevity. Damn Blake. He couldn't shut his eyes without the man leaping out at him, begging for his help.

Help? That was a laugh. He was having enough difficulty handling the crew and running a hopeless revolution, without aiding an overgrown naive child. Maybe, though, if this message wasn't a trap, he might get some help for himself. All that time he'd been supporting Blake, he hadn't realized that he'd been leaning on him as well. A healthy dose of Blake's simple- minded certainty would settle his nerves.

He'd gladly give Blake the pleasure of cutting Tarrant down to size. He was damn tired of being leader; father figure to Dayna, guardian to Vila, commanding officer to Tarrant and Cally... well, Cally was the one bright spot in this dismal picture. She didn't expect him to be anything other than Avon. He would have liked being something more to her, but he didn't dare. She was in his dreams too often. He'd warned her about the mountain, but she refused to be influenced by his dream. She was not willing to give up her fight against the Federation and he seemed stuck with it himself. Well, he'd rescue Blake and get this mysterious something which was supposed to make them all wealthy. He didn't object to wealth, but, knowing Blake, most of the profits would be siphoned off to fuel the revolution.

He settled back onto the flight deck couch. He was determined not to sleep, only to rest his eyes a moment, but it had been nearly thirty hours since his last semi-successful struggle with insomnia.

Avon woke. He was back on watch again; this time squatting in trampled slush and congealed mud in a bitterly cold wilderness. There was a brushfire in an improvised rockpit before him. He fed the thin flames from the brittle shrubbery piled at his side. It wasn't much of a blaze; taking little of the chill from him, but it did provide sufficient illumination for him to study his dormant companions. Orac was dark and silent, with an improvised probe lying in the damaged micro-circuitry attesting to Avon's repair attempts. His human companions were, for a change, refreshingly silent as well, sleeping huddled together on the bare ground. Vila and Dayna looked well enough. Tarrant appeared a bit ragged around the edges, which Avon hoped would subdue the young man's excessive enthusiasm for action- for a time, at least. Where was Cally?

Oh, Cally. He remembered now. His dream had caught up to Cally, and Liberator, too.

Cally was gone. Beyond the grief which he refused to acknowledge was a selfish fear for his sanity. It had been hard enough without Blake- but no Cally for him either? He shivered and reflexively tossed more twigs onto the fire, even though no physical combustion could melt the ice presently forming around his heart. He'd killed Cally, and Liberator in the bargain, while hunting Blake. Blake didn't give a damn about any of them or he'd have contacted them. In all these months, was he supposed to believe that an engineer had never found any communications device capable of contacting Zen or Orac?

Avon curled up, clutching his weapon to his chest. Blake had abandoned them, gone to play hero on a broader stage with a more appreciative audience. He hadn't even the courtesy to say good-bye. Well, who needed Blake, anyway? Once they got off this botched experiment of a world Avon would run the revolution his own way. He arranged his limbs as comfortably as possible. None of his dreams had showed his crew being dismembered by links, so he felt safe enough to rest. He was quite sure that whatever sent his nightmare wouldn't have overlooked such a bloody scenario- it was only the rare pleasant times that came as a surprise to Avon.

*****

Avon woke. He recognized Scorpio's flight deck and wondered where they were headed. He shifted, trying for an unobtrusive glimpse at the navigation console. Vila looked back at him with a cold, unfriendly gaze, then resumed watch on his monitor panel. The thief's sullenness brought Avon up to date. That and the general air of defeat in Scorpio's much recycled air.

Two names came to him, Zukan and Malodaar. They spoke volumes about his rapidly failing faculties. Once, he would have known better than to trust a proven megalomaniac, before his mental degeneration had proceeded to this point. He'd been trying to convince himself that he didn't need Blake. Still trying to avoid playing out that last, worst, dream - the one with Blake lying dead and bloody at his feet.

So he'd allowed Zukan to destroy his petty refuge, his ridiculous alliance, and the feeble vestige of faith that his crew had in him. They only remained because they'd acquired too many enemies to survive separately. Tarrant wasn't up to passing judgment on him at present- the loss of Zeeona was still a fresh wound that bled away much of his emotional energy, but why did the others say nothing? Couldn't they tell that he was unable to take care of himself, let alone them? It might have been, Avon admitted, that they did know the truth. They'd learned from him the art of ignoring unpleasant facts, to plod onward to the next attempt at making everything all right.

But this would be the final attempt. Avon had done everything he could to fight it, but he had come at the last to accept his destiny. It was regrettable that the others were entangled in his web of fate, but, like Blake and him, their deaths were linked. No point in struggling any longer, that simply made it worse. When Zeeona died, Avon had understood. She saw an unacceptable life ahead, filled with remorse for her father's murders,and rejected that life, ending it cleanly. Avon should have gone in her stead, but that was not the way his dream ended. Play the game according to the rules, without cheating. That would be dishonorable.

Dishonor. Avon stared bleakly at the back of Vila's head. Malodaar had been the most dishonorable thing he'd ever done, the most blatant proof that he'd reached the end of his rope. How could he have accepted Orac's advice to sacrifice Vila to save himself? Why couldn't he think rationally? If he had asked Orac what was different about the shuttle from the previous trip, when it made orbit without difficulty, then the computer might have directed him to Egrorian's trap. There were dozens of ways, now that he had time to think, to have saved them both without ever threatening Vila, without ever alienating his trusting fool.

Now he led his crew on their ultimate journey. Piecing together the dream fragments, it seemed at least a quick ending for all of them.

He could grant them one last mercy. He'd let them think that they still had a chance. That Blake, the miracle worker, could take their tattered lives and reweave them into bold successful warriors, or in Vila's case, a whining, successful thief. It was a comforting thought. He would have liked to believe it himself, that he was going to return loyally to Blake's revolution with these poor deluded fools who insisted on following Avon, to no profit, even against the highly-developed self- preservation instincts of Vila and Soolin. He closed his eyes. They'd reach Gauda Prime soon enough, and then he could rest all he needed- forever.

Avon woke. He was encircled by black garbed, helmeted men as anonymous as ants. He was standing over Blake, staring down at the still face. Avon's crew was already down. Blake was dead, by Avon's own hand. The game was finished. He smiled in relief- one last move and he could turn out the lights and go to sleep. Without, he fervently wished, dreaming.

He lifted his weapon.

Avon woke. Blake sat beside his bed- Blake of the scarred and stony face. Blake was clean this time and dressed in a slightly more civilized outfit; plain black leather, unmarred by blood.

"Avon?" Blake's voice was the same, deep and vibrant with an underlying burr that had always put Avon in mind of a bear's sleepy growl- warning, to those who would listen, of the danger lurking behind his placid exterior. "Are you awake this time?"

"This time?" Avon didn't understand the question, didn't really care. He was pleased to have company, even Blake's. Just so long as the man didn't start dying on him again. Avon didn't want to go through that again.

"Yes. You seem to keep going in and out on me, Avon." Blake reached forward to take Avon's unresisting right hand in his own warm clasp. "If you're planning to stay awake a while, we might have a chance to talk. Rationally, this time."

"We have never had a rational talk before, why should we break with tradition?" Avon decided to sit up. Conversation with Blake always became a debate in which Avon needed all the tricks of dominance and eloquence he possessed. Lying flat on his back wasn't one of them. Blake helped him up and unplugged Avon from the machines that had been keeping him under constant watch. Avon studied Blake's face during this, ignoring the brisk, ungentle, removal of his encumbrances. Avon noted idly that he was clothed for the first time in this dream; it wasn't the style or color he would have chosen, but he let it pass. Blake was here. That fact made everything thing else recede into unimportance.

"Blake." Avon savored the name, he'd not expected ever to say it again. "You do know that this is all your fault, don't you?"

"What?" Blake stiffened, his voice deepening at the affront. "As I recall it, I was walking, unarmed, toward an old acquaintance of mine when he decided to let a little daylight through me. How is that my fault?"

"Well, now, in the first place, you told Tarrant that you had betrayed us, and in the second place, you refused to answer a simple question, and in the third place-" Avon's voice broke at this point, and he paused to swallow. "In the third place, I was sick and exhausted. A blind man could have seen that. You've still got one good eye, haven't you?" Avon looked up at Blake.

"Only you, Avon, would try to make a man feel guilty for being in the way when you vented your bad mood with a projectile rifle. You haven't even asked how I am or about your friends," Blake accused him.

Avon was puzzled. "Why should I ask such pointless questions, Blake? We're all dead, which means we are all perfectly safe." He sighed, and went on, bothered by Blake's suddenly distressed expression. He said, trying to appease Blake, "It was good of you to stop in for a visit. I imagine that you're rather busy, conferring with the rebel leaders who've gone before you. Doubtless, the others are too angry with me to come, but I expect Vila will be along soon. He never could hold a grudge," Avon made no attempt to hide the affection in his voice.

"Avon." Blake grasped the other's shoulders and shook him. "Avon, you're not dead. I'm not dead- although you came damn near killing me. I don't know about the others, but I don't anticipate the arrival of the ghost of an alcoholic thief, bringing you a box of chocolates." He shook harder, his fingers making deep indentations in Avon's arms. "We're prisoners, Avon, and I need your help to get us out of this mess that you've gotten us into."

Avon tilted his head and said, petulantly, "Oh, now, this isn't fair. I played revolution for you while we were alive. I think it's my turn to choose the game. I would also appreciate it if you would let go of me, my arms are beginning to hurt."

"Damn it, man, dead men don't feel pain. Doesn't that prove you're alive?" Blake was becoming livid. No matter what he said or did, Avon continued to look at him mildly, with that same smug half-smile.

"I don't know what dead men feel, Blake. I've never been dead before. It has some advantages over life. For instance, if you don't stop shaking me, I can simply go back to sleep and try a different dream- hopefully, not one involving fighting, I've had quite enough of that."
"No, Avon." Blake released the slighter man. "Don't go back to sleep. I've got to talk to you."

"All right." Avon rubbed at his bruised arms. "So long as you mind your manners."

"Look around you, Avon. This doesn't look like heaven, does it? Or hell, if you think that's reserved for revolutionaries." Blake waved an expansive arm, encompassing the monitors and bare white walls of the chamber.

"No, actually it looks like the Liberator's flight deck, except for some reason the entrances have been sealed." He shrugged. "No matter. Once I get the knack of being dead, I'll discover how to open them. The couch here isn't as comfortable as my own bed. I'd like to get back to my quarters to see if they've changed."

Blake stared at Avon, finally letting it sink in that Avon wasn't pretending; wasn't trying to trick him or their captors. He was moved that Avon had chosen to recreate their life on Liberator . Was that the best time in this lonely man's life- when he had companions -friends- however reluctant Avon was to admit that description? All the anger and accusation Blake had nurtured within his gut while healing from Avon's projectiles withered, seared into ash by compassion and pity for his old friend. He gathered Avon into his arms. "Oh, Avon, I am sorry. I never should have stayed away. You needed me as much as I finally realized I needed you."

Muffled against Blake's broad chest came Avon's reply, "Better late than never. However, I don't like you this much, Blake."

Blake let Avon go, unwillingly. "I know it isn't fair to ask of you now, Avon, but I do need your help."

"Oh, all right. One last round of revolution, Blake. Since you asked nicely." Avon looked past Blake's shoulder and grinned.

Blake turned. There was nothing behind him. "I wish you wouldn't do that, Avon."

"Do what?" Avon asked innocently. His smile broadened. "Set up the board, Vila. I'll join you in a moment. Blake wants to talk over old times."

"Avon, Vila isn't here," Blake said quietly.

"You mean you don't see him, and Gan and Cally?" Avon shook his head, then patted Blake reassuringly on the shoulder. "You're too single-minded, Blake. Why don't you forget this revolution nonsense and relax. You can join us in a game of Galactic Monopoly. I'll even help you cheat, if you like."
"I don't like."

"Oh, morals again. All right, we'll abide by the rules, but it won't be as much fun."

"Avon." Blake ran his fingers through his dense curls and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "Please, Avon. I have a promise from a certain party that if you answer one question, you'll be given proper care. I don't trust her, but it's possible. Avon, where is Orac?"

"He's right over there, Blake, in his usual place."

Blake groaned. Avon was pointing at the flat, bare, surface of one of the monitors.

When Blake didn't move, Avon frowned. "What's the matter? Let's go join the others."

"You go ahead, Avon. I have to talk to some people first."

"As you like." Avon wandered away, smiling at his imaginary friends.

Blake shook his head and turned to the intercom on the wall. "Let me out of here," he said quietly, "I need to talk to the Commissioner."

"Did you have a pleasant reunion, Blake?" Servalan inquired sweetly. "This time I made sure he was unarmed, so you wouldn't be interrupted in mid-sentence."

"Very thoughtful of you." Blake stood, flanked by three armed guards, eying the sleek woman with undisguised anger. "You've broken Avon. Doesn't that please you? Pity about Orac though; Avon thinks a game of Galactic Monopoly with his friends is more important. At least the poor bastard is happy."

"Well, I'm not and if I don't get Orac, the condition is going to be widespread."

"What? Avon's insanity?"

"No, unhappiness. I don't seem able to reach Avon, but he will talk to you. He even appears willing to please you. You work on that. Find a way to get Orac's location from him. I can't promise you much, but I swear that Avon will be given the best of care. He's no threat to me so I can afford to be generous with him. I may even get him a presidential pardon."

"Yes, madame president," Blake said. "Once Orac gets you the presidency."

"Your fate need not be so bleak, either. There are any number of worlds where your talent for leadership could make you a king. Of course, it would have to be a world without space flight capability, but life might still be sweet on such a world."

" `Sleer', the best I expect from you is a swift death, and that only because I might embarrass you with your past indiscretions before you can consolidate your position."

"You do have a valid point. On the other hand, I can certainly assure you and Avon lingering deaths if I don't get Orac. Then there is Avon's crew to consider."
"Avon's crew?" Blake's shaggy head came up. "Some of them survived?"
"They all did." Servalan activated a monitor. The screen showed a row of cots and a sanitary cubicle partly shielded from the rest of the room by a stub of wall. There were also four grubby rebels. Servalan had not turned on the sound, but Blake could tell that the black girl was arguing with Tarrant. A blonde woman leaned against the wall, watching the squabble without comment. Vila was there too, sitting on a cot, fashioning some sort of tool from a thin metal strip which had possibly once been an eating utensil.

"Ah, they're at it again." Servalan explained to Blake, "I kept them alive, as I did you. My guards only stunned them, so they didn't require nearly as much effort to patch up as you did - after your encounter with our temperamental mutual friend. I thought they might come in handy, as leverage. Avon occasionally shows a protective streak where his people are concerned.

"They have been amusing. Dayna, there, has a very short temper, I'm afraid. Somehow, she's decided that Tarrant is to blame for Avon killing you. She's partly right, I suppose."

Blake glowered at her. "What about my people?"

"I couldn't see Avon being moved by their plight." Servalan shut off the monitor. "They were rebels, Blake," she said sharply. "They died, what do you think happened to them."
Blake moved forward, then stopped; the hard muzzle of a blaster was pressed against his spine. The Federation trooper holding the weapon was not wearing his face shield, but he was still as expressionless as any mutoid. No, not quite- there was a faint glint in the cold eyes that told Blake he would enjoy shooting his prisoner.

"You've killed my people. You're going to kill me. You can't imagine that I believe you'd spare Avon or his people. What could possibly make me want to cooperate with you?"

"Hope, Blake. As long as you're alive, you'll continue to hope that you can escape. You won't, of course, but you'll go on hoping right up to the last second. You can't help it, it's a bad habit you've developed."

Blake clenched his fists. "Don't count too heavily on it, `Sleer'."

"Oh, but I do, Blake," Servalan purred. "I'm counting on you to rack your brains to discover a method of reaching Avon. And I'm counting on you to find it quite soon. Your forces on Gauda Prime are becoming a nuisance. If it appears that they might retake this base, I will cut my losses and leave. I've lived without Orac this long, I can survive without him in the future, but you won't be able to say the same."

"If my people are doing well enough to worry you, then I'm satisfied. I'm sorry about Avon and his crew, but I can't justify handing that kind of power over to you for our handful of lives."

"Very bold, very dramatic, Blake. But I have a higher scale of retribution in mind. If I don't get Orac, then no one gets Orac. I'll see this sorry planet turned into a cinder, along with all the woods-crawling trash who infest it, and all your rebels, and any innocent bystanders there may happen to be. Not too many innocents left on this world, but there will be some, surely. There always are."

Blake never doubted her for an instant. And she was right about his bad habit. As long as he drew breath, he'd be planning ways and means to escape. "Very well. Give me Avon's crew and we'll convince him to tell us where Orac is."

"Give you a pilot, a lock-breaker, an assassin and a weapons designer who has sworn a personal vendetta against me? Certainly Blake, and would you like anything else? Perhaps a dozen combat lasers and a few kilos of high explosive? Don't be absurd, Blake. It's out of the question." Servalan seated herself in the over-sized leather chair behind the desk she'd appropriated from the previous head of the base.

"You said it yourself; you kept them because they might be of use with Avon. They've been with him more recently than I have. Vila, in particular, must know Avon as well as anyone ever could. Either of the women may have a relationship with him- I don't know, do you? If all else fails, Tarrant could probably aggravate Avon into coming back to the real world long enough to take a punch at him. He seems that sort of young man."

"You have a certain amount of logic on your side. Very well, they will be briefed on our `bargain' and they will join you in Avon's quarters. You will all be under constant guard, make no mistake about that. One wrong move..."

"Yes, yes, I know." Blake turned to face his escorts. "Back to Bedlam, gentlemen."

Avon was pleased to see Blake, but he didn't let it interfere with his game. He waved Blake to silence, then made his move. He grinned. "Now, land on Space City, Vila. The rent will bankrupt you." He inclined his head toward Blake and patted the surface of the bed beside him. "Come, Blake. Sit and watch the game. At the rate Vila's going, he'll be out of it soon. Then you can probably talk him into a game of cards."

"Avon, are Cally and Gan and Vila all here with us?" Blake asked carefully.

"Yes, of course... oh, I forgot, you can't see them." Avon gave Blake an exasperated look. "You should make an effort to get over this, Blake. You're hurting Cally's feelings. She thinks that if you cared about them, you'd be able to see them."

"I did care about them- I mean I do care, Avon. Do me a favor, Avon?"

"Yes, yes," Avon answered Blake shortly, distracted by a move on the part of his invisible opponents. "Anything you like, Blake."

"Watch Vila very closely, Avon."

Avon cocked his head at Blake quizzically. "I always watch Vila very closely when we play, Blake. He practices unusual methods of cheating. I find it educational."

"Closer than that. Don't let him out of your sight for an instant," Blake insisted.

"All right." Avon complied, staring at the empty space before him fixedly. "This is going to make it rather difficult to move my man, however."

"Just for a minute, Avon." Blake crossed his fingers. If he could introduce one dissonant note in Avon's fantasy world, he relied on Avon's implacable logic to pick up on that note and build on it.

The door announcer buzzed. Blake's guards left his side to check the new arrival. Avon didn't notice. He'd been doing a superb job of ignoring the guards. He didn't react to the door announcer either, intently staring into space as per Blake's request. Nor did he seem to see Scorpio's crew file in, accompanied by a squad of Federation troopers. "Well?" he inquired after several minutes had passed, "How much longer shall I stare at Vila's less than prepossessing physiognomy?"

"Stare at my what?"

Avon whirled, shocked by Vila's voice coming from an entirely different quarter of the room than the one he'd been watching. He gaped at Vila a moment, then turned to Blake. "I admit it, Blake, that was one of Vila's best tricks yet. How did you get from here," he asked, pointing at the area before him, "to there, Vila?" He grinned at the thief.

"Avon?" Vila asked weakly. He was unprepared for a smiling, relaxed Avon sitting happily beside his former murder victim, spouting nonsense about tricks. Bad enough that Avon was acting like a loony. Now that Avon had gotten up and was walking toward Vila, Blake was standing behind Avon making weird hand gestures and pointing at Avon. Charades? What does it mean when you rotate one finger in circles by the side of your head and then point at another person? Oh. That's what Blake means. Vila wouldn't say this was entirely a surprise. He'd often wondered if Avon had all his hatches buttoned down tight enough. This was an awkward time for Avon to jump off the deep end, though. When Avon seemed about to walk through one of the guards the thief expected to be picking up bits of crazy computer expert, but the trooper slid out of the way faster than a pick-pocket in a payday crowd.

"It was very good, Vila." Avon reached Vila's side and smiled at him. "Quite distracting, but you still won't win."

"Win?" Vila was at a loss. Avon was not only off his trolley, he had obviously been talking to Vila before Vila got here. He wondered if he'd said anything he oughtn't.

"Avon thinks he has you beaten at Galactic Monopoly," Blake informed the confused thief. Blake sighed. He should have known that Avon would see Vila's sudden appearance as a spectacular magic trick. It had, after all, been one of Vila's hobbies.

"Oh, well," Vila said, "I suppose there's not much point in going on with the game then." He sincerely hoped somebody would be able to make sense out of this situation- he certainly couldn't. The bright side was that Avon was unarmed- but, then, as they were surrounded by Federation guards, the bad side was that Avon was unarmed. Even crazy, Avon had always tried to protect Vila. Except that once, and seeing how Avon was now, Vila hadn't the heart to hold that against him.

Avon cocked his head, and turned, noticing Dayna for the first time. He smiled at her, too.

"Hello, Avon, how are you feeling?" Dayna was a warrior. She refused to allow herself to be frightened by a harmless madman. Especially when the madman was Avon. But it hurt, to see him like this.

"Fine, Dayna. I'm pleased you could join me. I was a bit worried that you and Soolin might not be coming. After all, I don't know how these things are decided. I'm even glad to see you, Tarrant. The Liberator can use a first-class pilot." Avon had managed to reconcile all of them with his imaginary world.

Tarrant was as startled by the compliment as he was by the casual assumption that the Liberator , after being reduced to a floating cloud of space dust, required a pilot. "I... yes, Avon." Dayna's hard nudge to his ribs, which were still tender, woke the pilot out of his daze. "I'm glad to see you too."

The door announcer buzzed again and one of the guards admitted Servalan and her escort. She was wearing a frothy black gown composed of equal parts glitter and fluff. She strode up to Avon in her customary imperious fashion.

Dayna smirked when Avon, on his way to greet Soolin, blindly brushed aside the erstwhile Supreme Commander. Servalan smoothed the feathers on her gown, but they weren't the only ones ruffled. The black glare she gave Avon was totally wasted on him. He saw neither her nor her troopers, who scattered to avoid him as though they had been ordered not to disturb Avon.

Soolin noted this and took advantage of it, guiding Avon unobtrusively toward the guards as she chatted with him. "Avon," she said, "I was wondering where you left Orac." Soolin would rather have bitten her tongue than wonder any such thing, but as Servalan was here it was necessary to stick to the official script. At least until she could maneuver close enough to get a weapon. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her compatriots responding to her unspoken, half-formed, plan. Tarrant and Dayna, with slight nods and significant glances, had divided up the troops between themselves and were now silently browbeating Vila into joining them. Blake appeared eager to help; swifter on the uptake than she would have guessed from Avon's uncomplimentary descriptions.

Ah, Vila had given in; that particular slump of his shoulders was the `I'm helpless, don't mind me' that he used to disguise the fact that he was anything but helpless. Now, with all of them agreed, she could use a distraction.

"Orac is over there, on the table. Why does everyone ask where it is when they can plainly see it?" Avon complained.

"Oh, I wasn't asking where Orac is now. I meant, where did you hide it on Gauda Prime? I bet Vila that the Federation never found it."

Avon dazzled her with his grin. "Never. They wouldn't have gotten along with him anyway. As you're curious, Soolin, I'll tell you. Orac was..."

At this point, Soolin's maneuverings had Avon facing the main body of troopers. In forcing them to avoid him as they paced, she'd clumped them together. She planned to shove Avon into their midst, counting on their orders and the natural reluctance of the sane to touch a madman to prevent them from killing him. In the confusion, she intended to get a weapon and fry a batch of these bastards. If they shot Avon, well, he might be better off at that.

Only Avon had stopped cooperating. He was frozen, resisting her arm linked in his as she tugged at him. "Jenna?" He stared at the shortest trooper. "You shouldn't be here, Jenna. I didn't dream you."

Damn. Soolin might as well be attached to an anchor. Not only had the lunatic stopped, he'd clamped his hand on her arm, preventing her from moving either. She debated using her free arm to knock Avon unconscious. But the guards would then take care of Soolin and she did really want to get at least one of them first.

The short trooper spun and shot the two guards who had come in with Servalan.

Soolin hadn't thought that insanity was contagious. Trust Avon to come up with a new type. Contagious, hell, it was virulent. The other troopers in Shorty's squad took out Blake's guards. Now Shorty was removing his helmet, revealing long blonde hair. Soolin had the decided impression that all of Servalan's personal troops were attractive, young men. This trooper was attractive enough, but in no danger of being mistaken for a man.

"Jenna." Blake came forward, the relief in his voice reassuring Soolin, slightly. She wasn't too sure of Blake yet, despite Vila's stories and Avon's obvious devotion. Obvious to her, at any rate. Avon was still clinging to her arm, watching Blake and Jenna with wide-eyed confusion. "Jenna, these are your men?" Blake asked, indicating the victorious troopers.

"Your men, actually." Jenna hugged Blake briefly, then pulled away to glare at Servalan. "She ordered all the captured rebels slaughtered and I see what she's done to Avon. This time can I just kill her and be done with it?"

"No." Blake shook his head. "No, I'm not talking mercy, Jenna, just being practical. One squad isn't enough to fight our way out of here, but if we use her, we can simply walk out."

Servalan said, "Oh, really?", but the blaster pressed into her side by a `trooper' silenced any further comment.

"Very well, Blake." Jenna frowned at Servalan. "I suppose we can always kill her later."

"You know," Vila said, "this room could be monitored. Just in case someone happens to wander by and see the party, shouldn't we be going?"

"Vila's right." Blake turned to Avon and Soolin. "There's no time to test loyalties now," he spoke to Soolin, seeing that Avon was in a daze. "We go out together and argue later."

"Yes." Soolin got a firm grip on Avon's arms and shook him. "Avon, we're going for a walk. Be quiet and do as you're told or I'll have Tarrant knock you out and carry you."

The shock tactics worked; Avon straightened and released Soolin's arm. He didn't speak, but his expression was no longer that of a cheerful madman. While it wasn't quite that of a cynical scientist, the change was still encouraging. It hinted that his isolation from reality was not complete.

"Watch him, Vila," Blake said, assigning the thief under protest to the duty he'd have done anyway. Blake faced Servalan. "Avon is taking you to Orac and you don't want his concentration spoiled by any interruptions. That's what you'll tell anyone who asks."

"And why should I do that?" Servalan remarked, ignoring the armed men surrounding her.

Dayna came close and stared into Servalan's eyes. "You aren't a stupid woman, Servalan. Evil, yes, but not stupid. I'd be quite happy to take you apart here and now. You only live as long as you are useful to us."

Servalan sensed the general agreement with that statement. This was not the time for negotiations. She capitulated, ungraciously.

Jenna hid her hair under her helmet again and dropped the face mask back in place. She adjusted an unobtrusive black metal disk against her throat and said, "Let's go," in a suddenly masculine voice.

Servalan's guards were accustomed to their leader's fits of temper, and to staying out of her way during these frequent attacks. The woman's expression told most of the troopers whom the escapees encountered that they had better find duties elsewhere. Those whose duty it was to inquire about movements accepted the story without reservations. Sleer was in charge and her will was paramount. It was never healthy to question the Commissioner.

Out in the open, the group fell into standard formation, Servalan in the lead and the `prisoners' bunched in the center of the armed men. Servalan was hawk-alert, eyes constantly assessing her chances, which had been nil so far. Approaching their goal, a large troop-air-carrier, she tensed. Since the night a small band of rebels had managed to evade the patrols to sabotage several of the vehicles, the landing field had tightened security. None of the guards on duty now could have forgotten the price paid by their former colleagues. Given the slightest disturbance...

Avon hadn't liked being marched away from Liberator. He resented being pushed down corridors by Vila and Dayna. He was upset that Cally and Gan had not been invited along. It had seemed too much bother to protest, however. Eventually, this `walk' of Soolin's would be over and he firmly intended to return home, to Liberator, at the earliest opportunity.

He liked living in Earth's domed cities. He didn't share Blake's fascination with the outdoor life and he was going back to his civilized, insular, secure haven aboard Liberator as soon as this was over. They didn't fool him, this was all Blake's idea. He was trying to lure Avon into playing his silly adventure games again. He'd start out with a simple walk and lead up to bombs and battles. Him and Jenna... but Jenna really ought not to be here. He didn't want to think about Jenna, she made his head ache.

There! Just as he suspected. Jenna was leading them to a large air-carrier. So much for the simple walk. First an air-carrier, then a shuttle, then another rattle-trap space ship full of battle-worshipping rebels. No! Avon was not going to go with Blake and Jenna this time. He yelled and tore himself loose from Vila. The thief hadn't been holding on too tightly, and was paying more attention to the real troopers nearby than to Avon, who'd been extremely docile. Up to now.

Vila landed on his backside in the dirt, while Avon struggled to get away from Blake and Tarrant. He was putting up a good fight, unhindered by his opponents' handicap- they didn't want to hurt him.

Jenna's guards stopped to watch the wrestling match, unsure whether or not to intercede. Servalan seized her opportunity. They were just out of view of the nearest guards; those stationed at the troop carrier. A shout and she would have the rebel scum surrounded by her loyal troops. She drew a deep breath, opened her mouth... and Dayna employed a crude weapon on her- a clenched fist. The ex-Supreme Commander's elegantly gowned form hit the dusty ground near Vila. She would have a large bruise on her jaw when she awoke. If she awoke.

Dayna rubbed her knuckles, cheerfully. "I enjoyed that." She knelt beside Servalan and put her hands around the fallen woman's throat, thumbs aligned toward the delicate chin, and prepared to administer a hundred and eighty- degree twist.

"No." Jenna nudged Dayna with a boot tip. The counterfeit man's voice held a definite note of regret. "Her troops are coming."

With great reluctance, Dayna let Jenna's guards take Servalan;the men lifting the unconscious woman from the ground. Blake and Tarrant had subdued Avon in much the same fashion, but with less enthusiasm. Avon was groggy, but on his feet, hanging between the two rebels.

"What's going on here?" The guard who'd run up was attempting not to panic. His men, at his heels, were even more jumpy.

Jenna pointed to Avon. "This prisoner had a fit and knocked the Commissioner down. Take her back to the base for treatment."

The guard lowered his weapon and ordered two of his men to carry the Commissioner. He said, "The Commissioner will be taken care of. Will you require extra guards for your prisoners while you wait for her to recover?"
"No. My orders were specific. I cannot wait to carry out my mission. Avon is to lead us to a vital piece of equipment that must not be allowed to fall into the rebels' hands. We will take the troop carrier and leave immediately."

"If you only need Avon to guide you, why are you taking the other prisoners?" The man was definitely suspicious.

Jenna gestured for him to follow her a short distance away from the others. Then she said, in a low voice, "Many things happen in the woods that need not enter the records. Officially, the prisoners will be shot while attempting to escape. The Commissioner has a personal dislike for these particular rebels."

The man nodded. "Be careful. They can be dangerous when cornered, like rats."
"I'll bear that in mind," was Jenna's cold reply.

Snubbed, the guard gave up his attempt at small talk and cleared the way for Jenna to take the troop carrier. He even called the base to leave a message for Servalan that he had expedited her mission.

As they boarded, Dayna whispered to Tarrant, "I hope he remembered to sign his name to that note. I wouldn't want Servalan to wonder who to thank."

"Dayna, I hope he remembered to refuel this thing."

Safely clear of the base, with no pursuit indicated, Jenna doffed the Federation helmet, shaking her hair free with a sigh. The timbre of that sigh reminded her to remove her voice modulator. "Blake, this is as far as my plans went. Frankly, I didn't think we'd make it to this point. What do we do next?"

Blake smiled at her. The pilot returned the grin, then turned her attention back to the controls. It wasn't the Liberator, but, at the moment, this air-going truck was her baby. Pride compelled her to keep the lumbering craft flying smoothly.

"First, we'll have to get Orac." Blake glanced back, down a narrow corridor to the main cabin, behind the cramped cockpit. "That is, if Avon agrees. He never was too cooperative, even at the best of times. Then we'll have to get off Gauda Prime. I've a fast ship hidden, Jenna."

"News to me."

"I hoped to offer it to you, improved. I was counting on Avon to share some of Scorpio's secrets with me." He sighed. "What a mess. First, Scorpio is lost in the blockade, then the whole reunion turns sour. I needed Avon, Jenna, and I may have lost him for good. And I can't help feeling that it was my fault."

"Don't go guilt- ridden on me, now," Jenna said. "I need you, Blake, and so does Avon and his people and what remains of the rebellion. You can't afford self-pity. We haven't time to indulge you."

"You're right, I know. I should be optimistic. I have Avon back and we've all escaped from Servalan's clutches. We're alive and free and I'll find some way to glue Avon back together again."

"Don't give up on Avon, just yet. He's made up his mind to be crazy to spite Servalan, I'd bet on it."

Blake chuckled. "That does sound like him. Thanks, Jenna."

"All part of the service. Now, go back and talk to Avon. Decide what we're going to do, and Blake?"

"Yes?" The big man looked back from the corridor, hand braced on the wall beside him.

"Find out where the hell we're going, please?"
"Right."

Tarrant was eying his fellow passengers uneasily. His mind told him there were allies, rebels, under those black uniforms, but his gut didn't listen to reason. His leader wasn't much moral support, either. Avon sat between Tarrant and Vila, a peculiar expression on his face. Normally, Tarrant would have classified it as Avon working on a thorny problem, but Avon wasn't normal at the moment. Tarrant wouldn't go so far as to say he liked Avon, but he'd come to respect the man for his courage and intellect. He regretted the role he'd played, however unwittingly, in Avon's collapse.

Vila was nattering on beside Avon in a non-stop monologue, the sort of inanities that used to make Avon smile, or at least look less grim. He didn't know what else to do for his friend and he had to do something. The others recognized the motive behind the annoyance and kept their silence.

Soolin and Dayna sat together behind Avon, instinctively shielding the wounded member of their pack from outsiders. Jenna's men had taken off their helmets and tried to be friendly with the two women, to little success. They had lived too long with the universe against them to easily accept the courtesy of strangers.

The group was unstable, balanced around the one man who was apparently oblivious to the tension. Avon sat stock-still, a faint line of concentration creasing his brow.

Blake approached, his eyes fixed on Avon. Tarrant got up, moving one seat over to allow Blake to sit beside his friend. Vila stopped chattering and held his breath.

"Avon?" Blake laid his hand on the computer expert's shoulder. He thought he felt muscle tense under his touch, but that could have been his imagination, or perhaps Avon might be responding on a instinctual level. "Avon, I need to talk with you."

The still face twitched. Slowly, Avon turned until he was facing Blake. There was a pause while Avon stared at Blake, his dark eyes more confused than Blake had ever seen them.

"Blake? That was Jenna, wasn't it?" Avon asked softly.

"Yes. She's flying the carrier, now." Blake's heart leapt. This slow, halting speech was music to his ears. The carefree tones of the blithe madman were gone; Avon was trying to come back to them, to him. Blake could see the man's struggle to understand, to impose rationality on his world.

"She's not dead, is she?" The question was so softly put that Blake had to strain to hear it.

"No, Avon," Blake hastened to assure him, "Jenna's alive." He frowned at Tarrant when the young man opened his mouth, willing him to keep quiet, not to confuse Avon with the lie Blake had told him, not to shatter the fragile link Blake was forging. For once, Tarrant swallowed his pride and kept his mouth shut. "Jenna's alive," Blake repeated. "And I'm alive, and Tarrant and Vila and Dayna and Soolin. All alive."

Avon broke his locked stare at Blake to sweep his gaze over the other passengers, over his crew. He looked back at Blake. "And am I alive?" he asked quietly.

"Oh, yes, Avon, you are most definitely alive." Blake ached with the need to touch, to reassure Avon and himself of the very real, incontrovertible fact of their continued existence. But that was his need, Avon had to be sure in his own mind first, had to be convinced by whatever inner logic he still relied upon. First, you have to believe in yourself, then you can believe in others.

Avon closed his eyes. He sat for a few seconds, silent, then sighed. "I shall not go back to the Liberator to finish the game with Cally and Gan," he said flatly.

"No." Blake shared Avon's grief, and judged the time right to touch. He took Avon's hand. "But you can join me in my game, if you like."

Avon's eyes opened, suspiciously bright. He made no move to pull his hand loose. Instead he tightened his grip. "Oh, no," he said wearily, "not that dreary revolution business again. And I suppose you want me to hand over Orac as well?"

Blake drew back, but halted when the pressure on his trapped hand increased. "Yes," he replied simply.

Avon cocked his head to one side. "Well, now, all you had to do was ask." He let go of Blake, stood and ran his fingers through his hair and tugged his clothing into order. Belatedly, he noticed the drab medical smock and baggy trousers he wore. He frowned at them, then straightened. "I'll give Jenna the coordinates. Orac is hidden fairly close to your base, Blake. I presume that is where we were held?"

"Yes. I imagine it amused Servalan," Blake said ruefully.

Avon gave him a sharp-toothed wolf's grin, pure predator. "Perhaps one day we will be able to share the joke with her."

"Er, Avon?" Vila piped up. It had been hard work for him to allow Blake the floor, and now he couldn't stand it any longer. He had to have a bit of sane conversation with Avon himself. Avon stared at him with his patented, `Hurry up you idiot' look and Vila said the first thing that popped into his mind. "One thing puzzles me, Avon..."

"Only one thing?" Avon muttered, "I am impressed."

Vila smiled and continued, finding it easier now, somehow, "I was wondering how you recognized Jenna back there. I mean she was wearing one of those black zombie suits; covers up everything, face an' all, even your own mother'd not know you in that get-up."

Avon grinned. "I am an observant man, Vila. There are other discriminating features besides faces, you know." He turned to enter the cockpit. "I have always considered Jenna worthy of a man of discrimination."

Behind him, Vila yelped, "Blake! You aren't going to let him get away with that!"

Blake said, "What can I do, Vila? Jenna would probably consider that a compliment. Besides, for once I agree with him."


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Marian Mendez

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