Interminable NightmareBy Marian Mendez
Irrationally, Tarrant thought for a moment that Avon had somehow merged with Cally telepathically before they lost him. But that wouldn't explain Vila's attitude change or Dayna's new-found hostility. With an effort, he controlled his temper. "See here, Cally, I'm not suggesting we abandon the search for Avon."
Vila looked up from his post at the weapons console. "Damn straight you're not," he said firmly. His eyes met Tarrant's with an unflinching sternness that still seemed unnatural to the pilot despite the number of times he'd seen it recently.
Dayna came onto the flight deck with a tray of drinks. She paused, taking in the tense postures, then continued, setting the tray down on the round transparent table by the U-shaped couch. "Did something happen while I was away?"
Vila came forward to accept his drink. "The boy wonder thinks it's time we forgot about Avon and went on to other things."
Dayna's head snapped up and the look she turned on Tarrant was lethal. "There are no other things."
Tarrant spread his hands. "Now, wait just a minute, before you all start sharpening your knives. I want Avon back as much as the rest of you do."
"Yeah, right," Vila muttered. "I remember how you and Avon were such good pals- really close, you two were."
"You weren't exactly chummy with him yourself," Tarrant shot back. "I seem to recall you calling him a right bastard."
"Well, maybe I just hadn't had a chance to compare him with you."
"Stop it," Cally said, moving between the two men before they could come to blows. "Fighting amongst ourselves will accomplish nothing. Tarrant, if you wish, you may leave Liberator at any time. But we will continue searching for Avon, with or without you."
"I don't want to leave Liberator! " Tarrant took a deep breath. "Look, let me start again. All I said was that we'd been looking for him for months and it was time we tried something different." Hastily, he added, "I meant a different way of searching for him."
"Well, why didn't you say so?" Vila's tone was still aggrieved, but no longer angry.
"I did try."
"What do you propose?" Cally asked, putting her hand gently on Tarrant's arm for a moment. "I am sorry to have doubted you, Tarrant."
"I propose that we stop beating the bushes at random- following every rumor of Avon or Servalan that Orac doles out has been a complete waste of time. We need a different approach."
"We did help the rebels on Helotrix, and got the antidote to Servalan's latest poison," Dayna pointed out. "I don't consider that a waste of time and neither do any of the rebel factions we sent the formula."
"But we missed Servalan again, and Avon had never even been there. All Orac can tell us is that she never brought him back to Earth for trial or collected the reward for his capture."
"That's the odd part," Vila said. Once the confrontation was over, he'd returned to his forgotten drink and sat at the couch, sipping slowly while he listened to Tarrant. "Avon's worth three million credits, last I heard. Now, Servalan fancies Avon -"
Dayna growled, and Vila shook his finger at her. "You know she does," he said, "But three million credits worth? I ask you, is Servalan crazy? Well, yes, I guess she is, but she's also the greediest woman I've ever met. And believe you me, I've met plenty."
Cally nodded. "Yes, I had considered that uncharacteristic, myself. Unless..."
"Unless Avon's worth more as her prisoner." Vila looked around the flight deck.
Tarrant followed Vila's gaze. "Avon had nearly three years to learn Liberator's secrets."
"And he used that time well, Tarrant," Cally said. "He was always experimenting and investigating."
"Always?" Dayna arched an eyebrow.
"Always," Cally said firmly. She spoke seriously, looking at each of the others in turn, "Avon is invaluable. Blake knew it. It worried him, I think, until he realized that Avon would never work for the Federation."
"Not if he had any choice," Vila lowered his voice to a bare whisper. "But Servalan won't give him one."
Dayna stiffened. "Avon's no coward. He won't cooperate with her."
"You've led a sheltered life," Vila replied. "You don't know what they can do to a man's body- and his mind."
"Come on, Vila," Tarrant said, "They couldn't condition you into an honest citizen. Are you saying you're stronger-willed than Avon?"
Vila shook his head. "No, you don't understand. They couldn't condition me to be something I'm not, but they don't have to do that to Avon. He's a computer technician and a scientist first and a rebel only when he had to be. They could use everything except the rebel part."
"Then we have to find him fast," Dayna said.
"It may already be too late," Cally added.
"Not as long as Avon's alive." Dayna turned to Tarrant, eyes wide and beseeching. "You won't give up on him, will you?"
"No, of course not. But I am about to give up on Orac." Tarrant strode over to the little computer which had been blinking and humming to itself while they talked. "Unless, of course, Orac, you have finally figured out a way to find Avon."
*Of course, I know a way to find Avon. *
"What! Where is he?"
* I do not know the present location of Kerr Avon. *
Dayna came close, standing next to Tarrant. "You're not making sense. I think you're right, Tarrant. Orac must be broken."
* I am making perfect sense! *, the computer protested. * I know a way to find Avon. It is not necessary to know where Avon is in order to find him. *
"Orac's gone round the bend," Vila decided. "Pity, he was such a nice, friendly computer, too."
* You fail to see the logic. * Orac gave a mechanical sigh. * You have had me seeking information on Avon and Servalan. This is futile. Servalan has sufficient intelligence not to input any information on Avon into any computer system. I cannot read what has not been written.*
"Might as well be broken, then." Tarrant moved as if to pull Orac's key.
* If you will just listen!*
Tarrant hesistated, then let his hand fall to his side. "All right, but only because we owe you for saving the Liberator. "
"You owe him? What about me?" Vila asked, "If I hadn't picked Avon's pocket for the key, Orac would have been a useless pile of junk. Which it is, anyway."
*Nevertheless, it was I who told you that firing the Neutron Blasters with the Radiation Flare Shield down would destroy the space-enzyme and allow Liberator to regenerate. It was unfortunate that the ship had to be evacuated during the unshielded Neutron Blast and the regenerative period.*
"But if you'd told us sooner, we could have been back on Liberator before Servalan took Avon and got away in her own ship!"
"It could have been worse," Dayna put in. "If we weren't following Servalan through the woods trying to get Avon back, we would have been in her base when it blew."
"And Orac didn't bother to warn us about that either, did he?"
"Vila?" Cally interrupted. "Please, let Orac finish."
Vila grumbled, but stopped arguing.
* To continue. Servalan may not put her trust in her computers, but she cannot do everything by herself. She must rely on human agents and they do not all share her aversion to computers.*
Vila was still disgusted. "Big deal. You can find Servalan's flunkies. But can you find one who knows where Avon is?"
* Yes. One of Servalan's most trusted agents-*
"Which isn't saying much," Dayna interrupted, softly, so as not to irritate the computer.
* - is on the planet Gauda Prime. Her assignment is to infiltrate a rebel base which is currently led by a rebel who was an associate of Avon's. She referred to this connection in one of her communiques to her superior. In the context, it was apparent that she knew Avon is in custody. Since this has not been reported publicly, or through military channels, it is not unreasonable to assume that she learned this directly from Servalan, and quite likely that she knows the location of his incarceration.*
"Still, it's a bit of a long shot," Vila said, unwilling to congratulate Orac on his cleverness after all the false leads it had given them.
"What isn't?" Tarrant asked. He returned to the pilot's position, and asked, "We go to Gauda Prime, yes?"
"Yes," Cally agreed, while Dayna nodded firmly. Vila shrugged. "Why not?"
Tarrant smiled. "Cheer up, Vila, maybe Gauda Prime is a paradise planet. Zen, lay in a course for Gauda Prime- speed, Standard by Four."
+Confirmed.+ Zen intoned, and the subliminal background noise of the Liberator changed as the engines changed course and speed.
Vila laid his head back against the couch cushion, shutting his eyes tightly. "Paradise planet. That sounds nice. Come on, Orac, tell us about Gauda Prime. I want to hear all about the dancing girls and the topless bars." His voice held an enforced note of cheerfulness. "And if there aren't any, make some up."
* You wish me to relay inaccurate information? That is against my programming.* The computer sounded offended.
"Never mind Vila, Orac." Dayna took a seat on the couch, and picked up one of the drinks she'd brought. "Tell us what we need to know about Gauda Prime. The truth, please."
* Do you wish political, geophysical, or historical data? You must be more specific.*
Cally's question was very specific. "Who is the leader of the rebel base? If it's someone Avon knows, then perhaps they will believe us if we warn them about Arlen."
* You do, in fact, know the leader quite well. Roj Blake is the current head of the insurrection on Gauda Prime.*
"Blake!" the name came as a chorus from the startled group. Cally and Vila exchanged grins.
"Hah! Avon couldn't find him, and now, when we've stopped looking, we stumble across him." Vila laughed out loud, then sobered. "Blake won't be best pleased with us for losing his computer expert."
"It's been so long," Cally said, musing. " I wonder if he's changed."
* That is a strong possibility.* Orac's voice was silky, almost smug.
"What do you mean, Orac?" Cally snapped.
* Blake has been employed as a bounty hunter for nearly a solar year- under an alias, of course. He has turned over more than forty fugitives to the Federation.*
"I think I'm going to be sick," Vila said in a very small voice. He turned to Cally, who had paled perceptibly. "Do you think the rat-in-a-box has got it right?"
"I do not know, Vila." Cally stared blankly into space. "I did wonder why Blake never contacted us. And at the end he was ... increasingly disillusioned and bitter." She shook her head. "No. No, I do not wish to believe it. There must be an explanation. Orac does not always have all the facts, as he has told us many times."
"It might be some sort of cover," Dayna said.
Tarrant shook his head. "A cover that involves turning people in to the Federation? I don't like the sound of it. That's a dirty business, not one I'd expected Saint Blake to go in for." After a pause, he went on, "If it wasn't for Avon, I'd say to give Gauda Prime a wide berth."
"But it's Blake," Vila protested. "He wouldn't turn us in."
"Wouldn't he?" Tarrant asked, sharply. "Think of it. He'd get Liberator and Orac back, along with a very hefty chunk of change. Even if he's still a rebel, it would be awfully easy to let the ends justify the means."
"What does that mean?" Vila wailed, snatching another drink from the tray.
Dayna explained, "It means, even if Blake is a rebel, we can't trust him, because our bounties would pay for a lot of rebellion. Maybe enough to salve a sore conscience."
"We must be very careful," Cally said. Her jaw tightened with determination. "Blake always tended toward fanaticism. If he has lost sight of loyalty in his quest for victory, then we may have to protect ourselves."
"I never thought I'd hear you talking that way about Blake." Vila looked more mournful than ever. "Why can't we all be friends and live in peace?"
"That is my fervent hope,Vila. That one day we will all live in peace." Cally patted his knee. "But until then, we must be practical. Once I would have trusted Blake with my life. I still would, but it is not only my life at stake."
"Whatever happened to 'he who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken'?"
"For Avon's sake, we dare not be mistaken," Cally replied. She rose abruptly. "Excuse me. It has been a long day. I think I should like to retire early. If someone would take my watch..."
Noticing the brightness of unshed tears in the Auron's eyes, Tarrant was quick to agree. "Yes, go on, Cally. I'll stand your watch. I was intending to stay anyway."
Cally nodded her thanks and left, disappearing swiftly down the corridor leading to their quarters.
After a lengthy pause, Dayna said, "Poor Cally. She loves both of them, doesn't she?"
"Nobody could love Avon," Vila replied. "But you can get kind of used to him. After a couple years. And Blake- well, he was her hero, wasn't he? I hope he still is."
Several days later, nearing Gauda Prime, Tarrant was alone on watch. He rather enjoyed the opportunity to commune with the ship, his ship. At least it would be his until they got Avon back. He didn't really begrudge Avon his 'ownership', though. Not once he discovered what a conscientious and skilled repair-technician the other man was. He'd known more than a few dedicated dockyard engineers. Despite their low-rank and grubby coveralls, they felt the same way about the ships they repaired. Only difference between them and Avon was that they lacked the arrogance to say it to the captain's face.
That was all right, Tarrant was a big enough man to cater to Avon's insecurities. And Avon did come up with some lovely schemes on occasion. And then, he was under no illusions as to who the other three followed. Privately, he considered himself and Avon partners.
+Information.+ Zen announced. +Liberator is under attack.+
"What!" The viewscreen was fuzzed with an assortment of small, swift ships that rose from the planet like hornets swarming from a disturbed nest. As Liberator shook to a near-miss, the resemblance sharpened.
"Get up here, on the double!" Tarrant shouted, calling the crew. He swore under his breath as he maneuvered the Liberator in a way her designers never envisioned, spinning the great ship on her axis to face the enemy. "Zen, Battle Computers on line!"
"What?" was Vila's inevitable comment as he lurched onto the flight deck. He assessed the situation at a glance and dove for the weapons' console.
"Cally, get the Force Wall! Dayna, find out who these lunatics are!"
"They're not answering," Dayna announced. Her hands flew over the controls as she tried to identify the ships. "They're not Federation. They must belong to Gauda Prime."
"Well, we're sending them back in pieces. Vila!"
"I hear you, I hear you!"
There were a great many of the smaller ships. It seemed that every time Vila destroyed one, two formed from the debris. Despite her greater firepower and superior shielding, Liberator was taking a pounding.
"We can't take much more of this," Dayna announced, clinging to her post as the entire ship lurched and shimmied.
"We'll have to break orbit," Tarrant agreed. "These are short-range ships, they can't follow us far."
"I'm going down," Cally said, running from her position to Orac's stand. She snapped the key into place and ordered, "Orac, feed the coordinates for Arlen's last transmission into the teleport." Then she said, "Dayna, you will have to operate the Force Wall."
Dayna came, automatically checking the controls as she took over from Cally. "But you can't go by yourself. Let me come with you."
"No. We need you here!" Tarrant shouted. He knew it was useless to argue with Cally on this point and hadn't even tried, but Dayna was another matter.
"Tarrant's right." Cally gathered a gun and power pack belt from the rack near Zen's wildly blinking fascia and strapped them on swiftly. She picked up Orac. "Orac will teleport me the next time you drop the Force Wall. Come back when you can. I'll try to call in every two hours. If you don't hear from me for three consecutive check-ins, then leave without attempting to follow me." She left the deck on the run.
"That sounds a lot like what Avon said on Terminal," Vila remarked.
"Shut up!" Dayna shouted, feeling a icy shiver run up her spine at the coincidence.
Cally had her gun out, sweeping the area, before she fully recovered from the hasty teleport. It took her a few seconds to realize she was surrounded by nothing more threatening than immense conifer trees in what looked like virgin forest. She straightened, and relaxed slightly. She lifted her teleport bracelet to report, "Down and safe. Good luck, Tarrant."
"Good luck, Cally. Keep your head down. This isn't a friendly planet."
"Yes. Go now, while you can." Cally shut off her bracelet's signal. After a long briefing by Orac, she knew enough about Gauda Prime to keep her transmissions short. It was not an unpleasant world, in itself. But many of its residents were hunters who tracked human prey.
Orac had also given her a place to start and an image of Arlen taken from Space Command's security dossier. That would be enough. It had to be. She consulted her compass, previously adjusted for Gauda Prime's magnetic field, and set out, striding with determination. She never gave up and she was a lot harder to kill than she looked. Let Gauda's predators beware.
Arlen was even easier to find than Cally had hoped. Orac had suggested the Federation agent was based in a small community which was roughly equidistant between her last four transmissions. The 'town' was an eclectic collection of prefabricated buildings, ramshackle sheds and an occasional sturdy structure made of local wood and stone, undoubtedly left by the previous owners- the ones who'd been slain for their lands.
One of the largest of these original buildings had been turned into what passed for a recreation center, with rooms upstairs to let by the quarter hour, and a well-stocked bar on the ground floor. It seemed the best place to start. Cally entered, coughed at the drug-laden smoke that eddied and swirled within, and steeled herself against the filth, both physical and spiritual, that she encountered. The coldness in her eyes kept pawing brutes away while she scanned the raucous crowd gathered at the bar. There was some sort of confrontation. Cally made her way to the center of the confusion to find Arlen shouting obscenities at a drunken Federation officer. The woman was playing the role of rebel awaiting recruitment with conviction, but she gave herself away when she saw Cally watching her.
No one else would have noticed more than a slight widening of Arlen's eyes, but the surge of hatred that accompanied it was impossible for a telepath to miss. Cally's hand dropped to the hilt of her hand-gun, hidden beneath the drape of her tunic. If Arlen denounced her now, there would be a free-for-all.
The officer lifted his Federation-issue laser-rifle. Arlen snarled and produced a small weapon of her own. She shot first, snatching the man's rifle as he fell. A man knelt beside the body. "He's dead!"
Arlen backed up, waving the rifle indiscriminately around the room. "Stay back! First one sets foot outside is as dead as this Federation garbage." She continued backing until she reached the door. She paused, staring at Cally, then abruptly whirled and was gone.
No one seemed inclined to follow, but neither were they particularly frightened, returning to their drinks and other diversions. The man who'd pronounced the Federation officer dead hoisted the limp body over his shoulder and headed for the back door. Presumably, the others expected him to rob the corpse, then dump it in the alley for collection with the rest of the rubbish, but Cally doubted it. It was much more likely that Arlen and two Federation cronies had just staged a bit of street theater. Realistic, albeit a bit crude. Cally waited a moment longer, then slipped out after Arlen.
She caught up in an alley. "Don't," Cally said, holding her gun in a steady hand. "You'll never make it. "
Arlen straightened, letting the laser-rifle dangle. "What do you want?"
"I want to talk to you. Without the gun, either of them." She motioned with her chin, keeping the Liberator gun leveled on Arlen's mid-section.
Arlen loosened her grip, and the rifle slid to the ground. With exaggerated delicacy, she picked her hold-out gun from its hiding place and let it follow the rifle.
"Back away from them." Cally followed Arlen back, deeper into the alley, where noisome muck caught at their heels.
Arlen stumbled.Cally instinctively moved closer and Arlen whirled upon her, fighting for possession of Cally's gun.
Arlen was a trained Federation officer, an infiltrator, and possibly a fanatic, judging from that blast of sheer hatred. Cally was a trained guerrilla, an outcast, and definitely a fanatic. She had the edge on Arlen in sheer desperation, however. Cally had survived when all her comrades on Saurian Major died. She'd endured the ultimate loneliness of soul then: the only minds she could sense were those of the enemy. Avon wasn't an Auron, and never would have been her choice of soul-mate, but she knew him, trusted him, felt incomplete without his presence. If Vila had been lost, she would have felt the same.
The fight was brief, but vicious. Cally ended it with a sweeping kick to Arlen's knee that sent the agent to the ground. "Now, will you talk?" Cally demanded, standing just out of her fallen foe's reach.
"Why should I talk to you, scum? Just kill me and get it over with." Arlen's chin lifted in defiance.
"If you are cooperative, I may let you live. I know who and what you are."
"And I know what you are. Sub-human trash!"
Cally smiled. "Are you afraid of telepaths, Arlen? Do you wonder what we can do?"
The other woman's eyes widened, and she shuddered visibly.
// You hear me, Arlen. In your mind. Would you like to learn the secret powers of the Auronar? Learn how we destroy our enemies from within? //
"You can't do anything. It's all bluff. You can't even read my mind or you wouldn't have to ask questions."
"You have a disgusting, narrow little mind, Arlen. I dislike wading through it. I already know your rank, Space Commander Arlen. I know you work under the orders of Commissioner Sleer. I know who Commissioner Sleer really is. I know you were sent here to find Roj Blake. How else would I learn this, but through your mind? If I am forced to go deeper, I may damage you. Would you care to live out the rest of your life as a pathetic, mindless creature? Answer my questions, and answer them truthfully. If I sense the smallest lie, your punishment will be terrible."
Arlen's hands formed into claws. "What do you want to know? I can't tell you where Blake is. I don't know. I was setting myself up for him to find me."
"I can find Blake easily enough. All I need do is call." To demonstrate, Cally sent out a telepathic shout of , // Blake! // with all the pent-up emotion of the long, fruitless search- first for him, then for Avon.
Arlen flinched and put her hands up to the sides of her head. The town life around them stilled as others recovered from the shock. Cally had been wide-open, angry and uncaring as she sent the call with all her strength to any mind capable of receiving it. She was surprised at the results herself.
"Then what do you want?" Arlen shouted.
Cally snapped her gun up with one swift, economical move, ending with the cold, unyielding muzzle pressed into Arlen's throat. "Understand me, Arlen. Your life and your death are equally meaningless to me. Tell me where Avon is, and I will let you live."
"Avon?" Arlen laughed, a malicious smile stretching her thin lips. "You've tracked me down for him? You should have saved yourself the bother."
"Why? Is he dead?" The gun pressed deeper into Arlen's throat.
Arlen coughed, fear suddenly brightening her eyes. "No. No, he's alive. At least he was, the last I heard. But Sleer- Sleer's been playing with him. There's nothing left of the man you knew. Be smart, write him off. You'll live longer."
"It may not be intelligent by your standards, but some people value loyalty. So long as Avon lives, I will do everything in my power to rescue him, and if he dies, I will avenge him. Starting with you." Cally's finger tightened on the trigger.
Arlen's eyes widened, and her gaze slid to one side, as if drawn by movement at the mouth of the alley. Cally refused to react to the obvious ploy and her finger moved tighter. "Wait! Don't!" Arlen cried. "I'll tell you. Avon's on the planet Xenon, Sleer has a base there." She held up her hands, begging for mercy. "I know the security precautions, I can help you. Please, just let me..."
"Cally?" the voice coming from behind startled the Auron, not just for its unexpectedness, but for the familiar tone and cadence. Briefly, she lifted her head, torn between her prisoner and the threat at her back.
Arlen snatched at the gun. Reflexively, Cally's hand tightened to prevent its loss. The weapon discharged. Arlen's scream was brief, as she took the blast full in the chest and died instantly.
Cally turned, gun lifted against the interloper. It was Blake - a scarred and filthy version of the man she once willingly followed, a man surrounded by an aura of detached menace. She glared at him. "Why? Why did you do that?"
"Actually, I didn't do it. You did." Blake took another step toward her.
"Don't, Blake. If you are Blake. Don't make me kill you."
Blake paused, and a frown creased his brow. "You've changed, Cally." He nodded toward Arlen's twisted corpse. "I think you were enjoying that interrogation." He took another step forward.
"One more step and you die."
"It's me. Blake." And he took another step forward.
To Cally's hyper-stimulated senses, time seemed to stop, while the alley and its contents shrank - a vision seen from afar. She saw herself shoot Blake, then the image changed to a stone-faced Blake standing above her corpse, then came one final scene in which the two of them were lying in the alley joined in death, while Servalan gloated over their corpses. Kneeling in chains at Servalan's feet, a battered Avon wept. Cally flung the last vision at Blake, her desperation enabling her to achieve a rare moment of complete rapport with a non-Auron.
"No," Blake groaned. "No, it can't end like that." Stunned, he fell to his knees.
Exhausted by the effort of the psychic merging, Cally crumpled. As her consciousness faded, she wondered if she would ever wake again.
"Cally?" the deep voice sounded uncertain.
Cally flinched from the cold compress being applied to her head. She brought up her hand in protest, pushing the cloth aside. "Blake?" she asked, opening her eyes to observe the man squatting beside her. Something subtle had changed in Blake's appearance. Outwardly, he was still the grimy bounty hunter, but the man she knew was once more behind those eyes.
"How do you feel?"
"Better." Cally sat up and looked around. She was lying on a pallet in a dimly lit, musty-smelling cubicle of a room, barely large enough for the pallet.
"My room," Blake told her, with a shrug. "It isn't much, but it's private."
"Good." Cally lifted her hand, but there was no teleport bracelet on her wrist.
"Looking for this?" Blake asked, casually holding the bracelet just out of her reach. He pulled it back. "Ah, no, I'm afraid I can't let you have it, not just yet."
"I must call the Liberator. I do not know how many hours have passed- if they do not hear from me..."
"They'll leave? Avon always was the practical type, wasn't he."
"Avon is not on the Liberator. " Cally studied Blake's impassive face closely. "Servalan captured him months ago."
"Are you sure? Perhaps she simply made him an offer he couldn't resist." A muscle twitched in Blake's scruffily bearded jaw. "No one is above temptation."
"Is that what happened? Did someone close to you fall prey to temptation?" When Blake made no answer, she continued, "And so now you do not trust. I took a great chance in trusting you, Blake. Was I mistaken?"
"Perhaps." Blake stood and took the three paces that the cramped quarters allowed. He ran his hand over his chin. "Do you think that woman was telling the truth about Avon?" he asked abruptly.
"Yes. She was frightened by anything alien, and especially frightened by telepaths. I have on occasion met her type before. She was certain I could read her mind, and therefore a lie would only serve to anger me, while the truth might distract me at a critical moment."
"Only I distracted you before you could get more information from her. I'm sorry. And I'm sorry about Avon." He gazed at the teleport bracelet he still held. "I've... missed him. I've missed all of you, and Liberator. "
"Then come back with me. I can have one of the others bring down a bracelet for you." Cally held out her hand.
Blake shook his head. "No. I left Liberator because I was becoming too distant from the rebellion. Too high-and-mighty in my wonderful, invincible ship. I needed to come down to Earth." He chuckled. "Well, down to the ground of some planet, anyway. I had to stop thinking of people as faceless masses whose well-being I was going to protect by destroying the Federation strangle-hold of Star One. It seemed so right, so straight-forward. Get rid of the machine that controls, and control is lost. Star One did fall, and because it fell people died horribly on hundreds of worlds while the Federation rules what's left with an even tighter fist. I was wrong. Dead wrong. And the innocent suffered for it."
"Travis and the Andromedans destroyed Star One, not you."
"But I would have done it. Avon was right. I was caught up in my own legend and blind to anything outside my own desires."
"You were not entirely wrong or Avon and I would never have followed you."
"Avon." Abruptly, Blake tossed the teleport bracelet to Cally. "Call Liberator. Go rescue Avon, with my best wishes."
Cally checked the elapsed time on the bracelet's inset chrono-chip. "They will not be in position to hear me for several minutes yet. Come with us," she offered again.
"I have a revolution to run here. A small one, but I've learned one world is as important as a hundred, to the people that live there."
"And one man is as important as a world, to his friends, to the people who need him."
Blake turned back to face her. "I can't abandon my people."
"The way you abandoned us?"
"That was different. Avon wanted me gone, and he wanted the ship. Liberator was my legacy to him. He deserved it, even if he only played pirate with it."
"Avon used it to look for you. That was how Servalan caught him, using a simulation of your voice as bait. He left us a message that explained everything. He needed you, Blake. We still need you. Counting myself, there are only four of us. It is likely we will be killed, and Servalan will keep Avon. And use him until he dies."
"I want to help you." Blake ran a hand through his hair, yanking roughly on the tangle. "But..."
"Are you the only one who can lead the rebellion on Gauda Prime?"
"No. That's one lesson I learned- indispensable leaders are a liability. It will set them back if I leave, but they will carry on." Blake did not notice that he had made the decision to go, but Cally did, and smiled. He sighed. "I have to go, don't I?"
"I believe you do." The timer on Cally's bracelet beeped softly. She lifted her wrist, her other hand poised over the contact button.
"All right." Blake smiled. "You twisted my arm. And I'm glad you did."
"Liberator? This is Cally, please respond."
"Cally?" Vila's voice was harried. "We thought you were dead. You missed two check-ins.You ought to be more careful."
"Yes, I know, Vila. But I was rather busy."
"Did you get the information?" A new voice came on, and Blake straightened, assessing the person behind the voice. Young, male, and Alpha arrogant. Blake's lips twitched as it occurred to him how well the owner of such a voice would have gotten along with Avon.
"Yes. And more. I need another bracelet. Have Vila come down with one."
Vila wailed and protested. Blake grinned, remembering the 'old days' on Liberator. Protests or no, Vila appeared in Blake's room less than fifteen seconds later, still out of breath from his run to the teleport. He arrived on top of the lumpy pallet, lost his balance and fell at Blake's feet.
"Oof. Blake," Vila muttered. "Long time, no see."
"You don't seem very surprised," Blake commented as he helped Vila to his feet. "Or very pleased."
"Orac said you were here. He also said you were a bounty hunter." Vila frowned. "Not exactly a popular career change among rebels."
"It's a cover, Vila. I never turned in any rebels."
"So who'd you turn in, then? Thieves? Safe-crackers? Embezzlers? You should thank your stars Avon wasn't here to hear this."
"He would have understood."
"Maybe. But he wouldn't have liked it." Vila handed a teleport bracelet to Blake. "I hope you get a chance to explain it to him."
"So do I, Vila."
"Three to teleport," Cally said.
The return toLiberator was more exciting than anticipated. They were nearly knocked off their feet as the entire ship shuddered from a blast.
Cally recovered first and ran toward the flight deck. "Bring Orac."
"Well, come on then," Vila said, picking up the computer from the teleport console. "You wouldn't happen to know who's been shooting at us, would you?"
"You've become cynical, Vila," Blake chastised, striding so fast that Vila was hard pressed to keep up.
"It's the company I keep."
As they arrived on the flight deck, Vila dumped the computer on the nearest flat surface and took over his weapons post. "I've got it, Dayna," he told the young woman who had been operating it.
The young man who stood at the pilot's position snapped, "Dayna! Take over the Force Wall from Cally."
The girl was quick, her hands reaching the controls even as Cally pulled away from them.
Cally scrambled back to her usual place, monitoring ship's functions and correcting imbalances caused by damage and over-stressed mechanisms.
Blake stood silently at the back, his hands clenched, watching the attacking ships on the viewscreen. He only stepped forward when the battle was over, the last of the smaller ships destroyed, and the pilot had ordered Zen to break orbit.
"Wait!" Blake said. Perhaps due to the adrenaline rush of the battle it came out as an order rather than a request.
The pilot turned to Blake, bristling at the tone. "This isn't your ship anymore, Blake. I'll put up with you for Avon's sake, but I won't risk Liberator . They could have sent for reinforcements. "
"I only want to contact my people on Gauda. They deserve to know I'm leaving them."
"That's more than you did for us," Vila muttered.
"Vila, please," Cally said. "It is possible to transmit Blake's message from here, in relative safety, Tarrant."
"I suppose so," the pilot said, grudgingly.
Blake stiffened. "Tarrant? Any relation to Dev Tarrant?"
"I have an uncle by that name," Tarrant replied, although puzzled by the question.
Blake drew a small gun from some hidden pocket of his vest. "Federation traitor!"
"What the hell is this?" Tarrant asked. He straightened to his full height. "Is he insane, Cally?"
"No. Blake, if you have a legitimate doubt about Tarrant, then phrase it politely." Cally's voice was strained. She was aiming her Liberator handgun at Blake. "Without threatening any member of this crew."
Blake glanced at her, at Vila's frightened face, and then at Dayna, whose eyes blazed with fury. He did not lower his gun. "Dev Tarrant turned in Bran Foster's group. He infiltrated them, and he was there when they were slaughtered while attempting to surrender. What do you know about your pilot?"
"He has been with us since Star One," Cally replied. "And fought as valiantly as anyone could. If he was a traitor, he has had ample opportunity to display it before now."
"Maybe he displayed it when you lost Avon."
"That's a lie!" Tarrant shouted.
"Describe this Dev Tarrant," Cally asked. "Perhaps it is simply a coincidence of name."
"He has very fair hair, light, almost colorless eyes, and he walks with a limp." Blake noted Tarrant's reaction.
"It can't be," Tarrant said, shaken. "Uncle was always so good to me. Why, when my brother defected from the fleet, he saved me. You know the law. Immediate family of deserters are sold into slavery on the Outer Worlds. I can't imagine him betraying anyone."
"He had to be very highly placed in order to countermand that law. Do you honestly believe an ordinary citizen could appeal the Federation's judgment?"
Tarrant looked straight into Blake's eyes. "He's my uncle. I'd need a lot more proof than your story."
"Why don't you ask Orac?" Dayna suggested.
"Yes, we must settle this quickly," Cally said. Since Avon's capture, they had left Orac's key in most of the time. After all, it had been his 'pet' and the computer grumbled to itself in a way that reminded them of Avon. "Orac, you have heard Blake's accusation. Is Tarrant's uncle the same Dev Tarrant who betrayed Bran Foster's people?"
*The answer is patently obvious.*
"Not to us," Tarrant said. "I have to know. Was my uncle a Federation agent?*
*Oh, very well. Yes, of course he is. Your uncle's leg injury occurred fifteen years ago, while he was an officer in Space Command. He applied for training- of an unspecified nature-, and was transferred back to Earth on detached duty.*
"That doesn't mean anything," Tarrant said. "He told me he was on a limited pension and worked for an minor government bureau to make ends meet. The Department of Rubbish Removal, or some such."
*The 'rubbish' that was removed included dissidents, agitators, and malcontents.*
"No." Tarrant shook his head. "I can't believe it."
*I have given you the facts. I have observed an infinite capacity in humans for self-delusion. It would make a study of marginal interest to discover why...* The computer squealed as Vila yanked the key.
"Thanks, Vila," Tarrant said. He turned to Blake. "My uncle may have been a Federation agent, but I swear I never knew. He was always pro-Federation, always followed the party line, but then, so did I and everyone I knew. It wasn't until I got out in space that I saw how corrupt the Federation had become. I left then, and I have no intention of going back, or helping the Federation in any way. Liberator is my ship, this is my crew, and I will fight for them against anyone."
"Me?" Vila sounded astonished, "You'd fight for me?"
Tarrant grinned. It wasn't quite his usual dazzling display, but quite a creditable effort, under the circumstances. "I wasn't including you in the crew. After all, you don't do anything useful around here." He ignored Vila's sputtering protests. "All right, Blake, do you trust me?"
"Cally seems to and I trust her." Abruptly, Blake slipped his gun back into concealment.
Cally sighed in relief and removed her gun and weapon belt, laying them down on the flight deck couch. "Yes, I do trust Tarrant. And I trust you, Blake."
Blake smiled."Now would it be too much trouble if I contacted my people?"
"No, not at all. Be my guest," Tarrant waved at the communications board. "So long as you don't mind if we listen in."
Blake's grin widened. "I think we understand each other." His call was brief. It would have been shorter, but the man he spoke to almost went into hysterics and only seemed resigned to Blake's absence when he was told that Blake had rejoined old friends and was going back to his previous profession.
His last words were, "Well, at least it's safer than what you've been doing. Good luck."
"Good luck to you, Deva," Blake replied before cutting the connection.
"Being a rebel on the run is safer than what you've been doing?" Vila asked in astonishment.
Blake shrugged. "Deva's a worrier. "
"So am I," Vila announced.
Cally came over and patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Vila. Blake is here now."
"That's what I'm worried about." Vila looked at Dayna. "He's like you, he likes to blow things up."
"Oh, good." Dayna beamed.
"You're an explosives expert?" Blake was very interested. "That could be handy."
"And lots of fun. I also design weapons, hand guns mostly." She pouted, "but Avon won't let me try out the best ones." She stopped, then blinked away tears. "Sorry." She brushed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "it's just... he's been gone a long time, and I was just getting to know him."
"You could get to know me," Vila offered. "I'm much more cuddly than Avon."
"You!" Dayna sniffed in disdain. "Avon's beautiful."
"Did you ever tell him that?" Blake asked, amused.
"The first time we met. He'd been knocked unconscious by the Sarrans, and I brought him to one of my hunting blinds. Doesn't he look sweet when he's asleep?"
"I wouldn't know," Blake replied seriously. "Unlike Vila, Avon never fell asleep on watch."
"What's this Xenon place? I never heard of it," Vila announced, dropping onto the flight deck couch with a hearty 'whump'. Cally had told them that Avon was being held on Xenon, but not gone into details. She said she was disturbed by what she had done to gain the information and retired to her quarters to meditate as soon as the course was set. Dayna had taken Blake to the medical unit, to see if something could be done about his scarred eye, leaving Vila and Tarrant alone on the flight deck.
"You haven't heard of a lot of things," Tarrant replied, "That doesn't mean they don't exist."
"Fine. You tell me about Xenon, then."
"Sorry, never heard of it," Tarrant said, with an unrepentant grin.
"You're a fat lot of help, you are. Orac?"
* What is it now! *
" What do you know about the planet Xenon? I mean, is it a nice place to spend your holidays? Friendly natives, warm sandy beaches, candle-lit taverns, that sort of thing."
* No. *
"Well, that's encouraging, I must say. Come on, details, Orac, I want details."
* What precisely do you wish to know? *
"You're such a clever box, you figure out what's important to me."
* Very well. * Orac hummed for a moment, then began. *The natives are hairy, savage humanoids with a decided aversion to strangers. There are no cities or organized entertainment centers. The closest equivalent to liquor is a fermented spirit the natives derive from a cactus-like fruit, which they ferment in the stomach pouches of a large carnivorous reptile. There are no oceans, but the southern-most continent is plentifully supplied with quicksand bogs while alkali pools abound in the deserts of the northern hemisphere. Shall I continue? *
Vila's head had shrunk back beneath his shoulders with each remark. "No!"
Tarrant countermanded him. "Yes. Skip the tourist brochure, though. What we need to know is, exactly where is Avon? What Federation presence is on or near the planet? What are the security arrangements where Avon is being held?"
Orac harumphed. * I have previously informed you that I cannot access information which has not been input into any system. *
"Use a little ingenuity, Orac," Tarrant urged. "I didn't really expect you to be able to do anything before, but now that we know the planet, you ought to be able to come up with something. You've described a primitive world. Whatever rules Servalan's set for her people, some of them must have gotten bored silly by now and made mistakes. Look for those mistakes. Don't you want Avon back?"
* On occasion, Kerr Avon's inquiries were stimulating, * Orac admitted. * I will see what can be done.*
Tarrant sat back, looking smug. Vila shook his head. "I'll be glad when Avon's back to take charge of you, Orac."
The computer hummed, but was silent, as no question had been posed to it.
"There," Dayna said with satisfaction. She held up a small mirror for Blake to observe the results of her work with the dermic regenerator.
"Very neat." Blake turned his head slightly, checking out the smoothly contoured corner of the eyelid that had drooped and leered. He smiled. "Thank you."
"Oh, it was my pleasure." Dayna put her arms on her hips, and surveyed him closely. She nodded.
"Well, am I beautiful?" Blake chuckled.
"Not quite, but it's an improvement. Now if you just burn what you're wearing and have a good long soak, you might turn out quite passable."
Tarrant came to Blake's quarters early the next 'morning'. "Blake, we need to talk."
"Do we?" Blake came to the door, rumpled and bearish in a loose-fitting shirt and heavy trousers. Apparently, he slept in his clothes. Efficient, if unsanitary. He had at least taken time to bathe and shave.
"We couldn't discuss this in front of the others."
"Why not?" Blake asked, waving the pilot into the room.
"Because they need to concentrate on Avon's rescue. They don't need any confusion about the chain of command."
Blake laughed. "So, you're afraid I've come back to take over. Don't worry. I gave the Liberator to Avon."
"And I'm not Avon."
"Obviously, you were his second in command."
"It wasn't obvious to Avon."
"You mean he fought with you constantly, belittling your judgment, fitness to command, intelligence and general moral character."
"That about sums it up."
"If it helps any, that's exactly the way he treated me. I'd say he had accepted you, he's just too contrary to admit it." Blake yawned. "Sorry, I'm not quite awake until I get my coffee."
Tarrant ignored the hint. "That's not quite all. The others will follow me, but will you?"
"It's your ship- at least until we retrieve Avon. Then he'll probably have something to say about it."
"Will you follow me on Xenon?" Tarrant persisted. "You don't trust me. No matter what you say, I can see that. I was a Federation officer, and my uncle a Federation agent. On the planet we won't have time for second-guessing."
"I see your point." Blake rubbed his chin and gnawed on a finger, lost in thought. "I'm not used to obeying orders. I probably would wind up doing it my way. Do you trust me?"
"Not really. But Cally does, and Vila seems to, although he's a bit miffed at you. Cally might be idealizing you, but Vila seems a fairly shrewd judge of character. The bounty hunter routine is the main problem. I can't help wondering if you aren't seeing credit signs when you look at us."
"It was a ploy, Tarrant." Blake was becoming exasperated. "Ask Orac, he'll tell you I only turned over crimos to the Federation. Psychotic killers, arsonists, poisoners, serial rapists- monsters, all of them. I sold the Federation their corpses. It was more mercy than any of them deserved."
"What about less violent criminals? Surely you didn't turn them loose, you couldn't afford to, not after you'd interrogated them. They'd learned too much."
"They were given a drug that wiped out the immediate short-term memory and I dumped them in the woods to find their way back to town."
"That sounds very noble, but I have no way of checking that, do I?"
"None. That's the nasty thing about trust. It doesn't come with guarantees. If you trust me, you'll let me lead the others on the planet while you stay with the ship. Even if you don't trust me you should stay with the ship. Liberator has always been the prime target."
Tarrant stared at Blake. "Avon was right."
"He always thought so. About what in particular, this time?"
"He once told me that you were a master manipulator."
"Did he ever accuse me of betrayal?"
"He never went quite that far."
"Then you'll just have to make up your own mind about me, won't you? In the meantime, I'd like to shower and get some breakfast."
Tarrant found himself back out in the corridor, still with unanswered questions and lingering doubts. He suddenly felt an empathy for Avon. Blake's air of righteous determination was extremely irritating. Almost as irritating as the compulsion to believe him even without evidence. It must have irked Avon's pragmatic soul no end. He sighed and headed for the flight deck.
The entire crew was gathered on the flight deck, sitting on the flight deck couch, attempting to behave in a civilized fashion. Nearing their destination made them all tense. Tarrant had made a few ill-advised remarks to Blake, Dayna had threatened Vila with grievous bodily harm, and Cally had in turn snapped at Dayna. Vila had been chattering non-stop about the unknown dangers, the possibility of Servalan herself being there, and the probability that Arlen had lied and Avon either had never been there, or had died on Xenon long ago. They were all relieved when Orac halted Vila's tirade with an announcement.
* I have the information you required. *
"Not before time," Vila grumbled. "We'll be there in a few hours."
"What do you have for us, Orac?" Cally asked. She gave Vila a stern look, to which he responded by blinking and looking innocent.
"And why did it take so long?" Dayna wanted to know.
* It was necessary to authenticate the message. *
Blake rose and went over to the computer, leaning over it to growl, "What message?"
* The message directed at me from Xenon base. *
"I knew it!" Vila cried, leaping from the couch to join Blake, "It's a trap. Orac's turned us in- Servalan probably offered him all the Tarriel cells he could eat, and he jumped at the chance to get rid of us. He's always hated me, you know."
"Shut up, Vila." Tarrant sounded like he was fast losing patience with both Vila and Orac. "Orac, explain."
* It was sent on a frequency band unique to myself. I did not immediately notice this, as I was scanning Federation military frequencies. As I had previously informed you, that was a futile effort on my part. If I had not been forced to expend energy on that, I would have discovered the message much sooner. *
Dayna put in, "Never mind fixing blame, Orac. Just tell us what was in the message and who sent it."
* It is not possible to discern the identity of the sender with any certainty. However, only Avon knew my signal band. *
"They could have gotten it out of him, " Vila said, gloom settling on his features.
* The message consists of a series of teleport coordinates, and a time, expressed relative to the day/ night cycle of Xenon. *
"Hmm." Blake straightened. "Perhaps Avon got to a transmitter."
* The brevity of the communication lends credence to that hypothesis. *
"How did you authenticate the signal?" Cally asked.
* On the same band, I asked a question to which only two living humans knew the answer - Avon and Blake. To wit, whom did Avon see in the Liberator's defense globe? *
"His brother," Blake said softly. "He told Jenna and me, he saw his brother. And he never mentioned him again."
* Precisely. And that is the answer I eventually received after two days of transmitting the question. *
Cally asked, hesitantly, "Could Jenna have..."
Blake replied shortly, "No, she couldn't. She was killed by the blockade around Gauda Prime." His closed face precluded comment. He turned his attention back to Orac. "Could the Federation have tracked either transmission?"
* They could. If they knew which band to monitor. It is most unlikely. *
"It could still be a trap," Tarrant pointed out. "They could have forced Avon to answer the question."
* That does not change the fact that Avon must be present on Xenon. There were no other transmissions to or from the planet within the last four days, and no space craft within range of the planet. He must have been there and he cannot have left Xenon. *
"Good," Dayna said, nodding. "That settles it. We'll go and get him." She got up. "I'll just go check a few things I might need." She left the flight deck.
Blake eyed Tarrant. The pilot looked annoyed. "I've tried to teach her not to do that."
Tarrant was on the flight deck, alone, gazing at a very ordinary looking planet. Unlike Gauda Prime, there were no other ships in orbit around it. There didn't seem to be any reason for anyone to go to Xenon. He drummed his fingers restlessly on the console and asked, again, "Zen, are you sure the extra-range detectors are clear?"
+Confirmed.+ the ship's computer intoned in a vast disinterested voice.
"All right, then." Tarrant flipped on the intra-ship communications. "Blake, it's your show. Don't let us down."
"I'll try not to," Blake replied from the teleport room, where he was strapping on a Liberator hand-gun. He caressed the butt of the weapon before holstering it. "Ready?" he asked the assembled crew.
"No," Vila said, but he hopped into place on the teleport pad, his 'box of tricks' at his side.
Cally stepped up beside Blake, while Dayna took up a position on Vila's right. Cally was composed and serene, while Dayna was as tensely alert as a hunting cat. Blake assessed his team's fitness, and nodded. "Orac, you have the coordinates given in the message you received from Xenon base?"
* Certainly. *
"I want you to put us down two coordinate points local 'east' away from them."
* This excessive caution is not warranted. Indeed, it may be counter-productive. I was supplied with both a time and a place. You will be late for the rendezvous. *
"Better late for a rendezvous, than 'late' as in the late lamented, eh, Blake?" Vila commented. "Never can be too careful."
"But what if Avon sent the message and the timing is important?" Dayna asked.
"It may be a mistake," Blake said, "but I think Avon more likely to forgive me for being too cautious, than for risking your lives by being too trusting. Orac. Two coordinate points east. Teleport now."
The computer obeyed, keeping any further reservations to itself.
On the flight deck, Tarrant noted the surge of power as the teleport was activated. "You'd better come back with all of them, Blake," he said softly. He stared at the viewscreen. It still didn't look like much, but almost everything he had left to value was now on that insignificant world. For a moment, he allowed himself to wonder what he would do if it were a trap, and they all died. Liberator would be his. He could go anywhere he liked, do anything he pleased. He slammed his hand down on the console, startling himself with his vehement repulsion at the thought. "Damn. How did I get myself stuck with this lot?" Still muttering, he began to run a complete systems check-in case, just in case, someone objected to their presence. "I could really use you now, Avon," he said, sighing as he painstakingly ran down the list of components near the lower end of their tolerance. Auto-repair wouldn't kick in until they actually failed. Not for the first time, he wondered if Avon could reprogram Zen out of that nasty habit. "I may actually have to be nice to you, Avon." He thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. "Nah."
"Maybe one coordinate point east would have done," Vila commented, as he stopped, put down his tool box and mopped at the sweat streaming down his face. "No one with an ounce of sense would lay a trap out in this heat." He kicked at a rock, and gazed around the barren landscape. "No one with an ounce of sense would come to this planet, period."
"Well, then, it's perfect for you," Dayna said breezily. "A nice summer outing is just what you need." On her superbly conditioned, lean young body, the barely perceptible sheen of sweat was attractive. On Vila, it had the effect of making him resemble a scruffy mongrel.
"Hush,"Cally told them both, "We are approaching the base."
"About time," Vila mumbled, but was careful to get just behind Blake and the others.
"What base?" Dayna asked, as they came to a rock-strewn hillside. There was no sign of human habitation, unless you counted the scarcely visible path winding its way up the hill- and that could be a game path.
Cally checked the coordinates given against their present position. She said, "Somewhere inside the hill."
"Inside?" Vila backed up. "Blake, I don't like this. I want to be decently dead before I'm buried."
"Avon's counting on you," Blake replied, simply. "And so am I. You're the only one who can get us into the base."
Vila's mouth came open, but nothing came out. Finally he shook his head. "Why do I always have to be the hero?"
The path did lead up to, and past, the door, but they would have missed it, if not for Dayna's sharp eyes. The entrance was a slab of artistically formed plastic, molded and colored to match the surrounding rock in which it was set. It even had matching yellow-green lichens molded into the surface. That was what aroused Dayna's suspicions. The real lichen had been attacked by some blight, and turned a sickly brownish- green, roughly outlining an oblong of slightly brighter green. Once Dayna brought it to his attention, Vila scanned the surface.
"No surveillance. That's odd." In his element, Vila was the consummate professional. He was still frightened, but that no longer mattered to him.
"Perhaps they didn't think they needed it on this primitive world," Cally commented. "Even if the natives knew this was a door, they could never force it."
"Aha! There's the answer." Vila delicately picked a tiny optic device from a crevice in the 'rock'. "The wiring's shattered. Could be weather, or insects, or..." He swept a finger over a discolored, crumbling wire and sniffed the residue. "Acid. Somebody sabotaged the surveillance."
"Avon?" Blake asked.
"Doesn't seem his style, somehow." Vila shrugged. "It just makes my job a little easier." With a flourish, he inserted a probe into one of the deeper crevices, and twisted, jumping back and flinging himself to the ground, hands covering his head.
The door gave a soft 'pop', opening just sufficiently to reveal a sliver of rocky tunnel. "Get up, Vila," Dayna said, as she marched past his huddled figure to peer within the tunnel. It was dim, but not black inside, as it was lit by a line of thumb-sized lights set in a string along the wall at shoulder height.
"Will we be able to teleport from inside the hill?" Dayna wondered, staring into the tunnel which visibly sloped down before the tiny pin-points of light vanished.
"As long as it does not go too deep," Cally replied.
"How deep is too deep?" Vila asked.
Blake pulled out his weapon, and started down the tunnel. "If we call for teleport and nothing happens, we're too deep."
"Lovely," Vila muttered. "After you, ladies." He waved Dayna and Cally ahead, before heaving an enormous, long-suffering sigh, and entering the hole. He paused to pull the door shut, wincing at the finality of the 'click' as the automatic lock engaged. With the outside light excluded the tunnel was suddenly much darker. He hurried after the others.
The tunnel sloped down gradually with no side openings, pitfalls, or huge arachnids spinning webs across the walls. It was a no-frills, no-thrills passageway, until it made a sharp turn and opened directly onto a vast brightly lit cavern. They stopped dead, and backed up slightly. From the dim tunnel they were invisible to anyone inside the cavern and had an excellent view of the cavern themselves. They saw several space vehicles, various odd roofless structures whose walls were little more than two meters high, and a number of enclosures which resembled different terrains, including desert, marsh and forest. There were a number of people also, some in Federation uniforms, some in laboratory coats, and some in civilian dress in varying degrees of bizarre.
Dayna shook her head. "What is all this?"
"And how did they get those ships in here?" Blake looked around the cavern. The clutter did not reach the walls. There were a few breaks, dark holes that probably indicated other tunnels like the one they had found, but none of them were of a size to admit a spacecraft, even provided you could find a pilot insane enough to try to fly one into a hill.
Cally checked the coordinates again. "According to this, the coordinates we were given indicate that structure." She pointed to one of the larger buildings.
"That's right in the middle of all that!" Vila yelped, quietly, bearing in mind the number of Federation guards not too far away.
"And so is Avon." Blake narrowed his eyes. "I think the first order of business is a change of clothes."
Dayna grinned. "Leave it to me." She slipped away from the tunnel, using what cover the uneven rocky floor of the cavern provided.
"Come back here!" Blake ordered, but she merely turned and flashed him a grin before proceeding.
"Stay here, Blake," Cally said. "Dayna and I will bring back the uniforms."
"You think I can't do it?"
"I think it is easier to conceal a smaller body. We will return shortly." Cally followed Dayna, and in moments neither Vila nor Blake could see either one.
"They'll be all right, Blake." It was Vila's turn to reassure. "You know how good Cally is at this sort of thing. And Dayna, why she loves this stuff. Particularly if she can use a knife, or a bow and arrows." He grimaced.
"A very handy girl, indeed," Blake replied. He settled down to study what he could of the situation below. Once they returned, things would begin happening very quickly.
"These boots are too tight," Vila complained. "I'll be lame for weeks." He wriggled inside the Federation uniform as if it itched and held his trooper's shock-rifle as if it were contaminated.
"I'm so sorry," Dayna told him. "Would you like to pick a pair for yourself?" She wiped a damp spot off her knife and inspected it closely before slipping it into place in her boot.
"Do stop complaining, Vila," Cally said. "At least you still have a weapon, while Dayna and I must go in barehanded." She smoothed the folds of her laboratory coat, a match for Dayna's. There were no betraying stains on the white material as they had knocked the scientists unconscious and left them lying in one of the scrubbier 'gardens'. They had seen no female troopers, so were forced to impersonate either scientists or civilians. The scientists were likely to have more freedom of movement, and were often accompanied by guards, which made the decision obvious.
Cally packed their Liberator weapons in Vila's kit. He complained about the likelihood of his delicate tools being damaged, but didn't want to leave the weapons behind either. The kit shouldn't be too conspicuous as many of the scientists carried odd packages. Fortunately, their teleport bracelets were hidden by their sleeves so they could still wear them. Of course, they hadn't been able to determine if they could teleport.
"Should we call Tarrant?" Dayna asked. "I mean, if something goes wrong..."
"No," Blake said, firmly. "Someone on that base knew Orac's frequency. They may also be monitoring Liberator's communications band."
"I suppose you're right. I just feel sorry for Tarrant, up there all by himself."
"Wish I was there," Vila muttered. "Just so I could keep him company, you understand."
"Yes, Vila," Cally said. "We understand."
"Why couldn't they at least call in once in a while?" Tarrant complained. He'd gone over every system, and done what adjustments he could without taking any essential systems off-line. Zen had been asked so many times for the extra-range detectors that the ship's computer had mentioned the extra energy drain they caused. It was unlike Zen to offer advice, and Tarrant had the uneasy feeling that Zen was humoring him.
* Is that a question? I must insist you be more precise. *
"Shut up, Orac. I was talking to myself," Tarrant said automatically. Then he changed his mind, "On second thought, yes, that was a question. Why haven't they called in?"
* There could be many reasons. Some undetectable form of interference may prevent transmission, they may have been killed, or captured, or have lost or damaged their teleport bracelets, or they may feel it inadvisable to communicate, for the following reasons: suspicion of electronic interception of signals, proximity of hostile forces... *
"Enough!" Tarrant interrupted. "Which is the most probable?"
* As I can not access the computers on the base, it is difficult to assign probabilities. *
"Try. Give it your best guess."
* I do not guess! * The computer was definitely piqued. * There is a logical rationale for all my statements. *
"Well, find a rationale for this. If they're in trouble, and you don't tell me, then you'll never get Avon back to dust your diodes and keep your Tarriel Cells up to snuff. And I'll toss you out the airlock along with the other junk when you malfunction."
* At this time, the chances for the mission to succeed are on the order of eighty-five point six percent. *
"That's more like it." Tarrant leaned back against his seat for a moment, then said, "Zen, anything on the Extra-Range Detectors?"
Seen at close range, Xenon base was even odder than they thought. The alien plants in the 'gardens' were made of lightweight plastic, as Vila found when he leaned against one. The buildings not only lacked roofs, many of them were missing an entire wall while some were little more than facades propped up in a row. There were neat little placards on almost every building, and most of the 'gardens' bore labels as well, staked into the ground at intervals.
"This is the strangest Federation base I've ever seen," Dayna said softly. She tugged at Cally's arm. "Look at that!" She pointed to a 'garden' where several large shapes protruded from the sandy base, which looked as if it had been thoroughly bombed.
"It looks familiar, somehow," Cally noted.
Dayna trotted ahead to read the nearest stake. "Helotrix. This is supposed to be Helotrix." Dayna was shaken, recognizing the planet where she'd almost gotten Servalan. "Why?"
"It's a set," Vila exclaimed, then hushed as Blake glared at him. "I tell you, the whole thing's one big set!" he whispered urgently.
"A set-up, you mean," Dayna corrected absently, while checking that no one was taking an undue interest in them. No one seemed to think anything out of the ordinary was going on and she relaxed a tiny bit.
"No, no, no. A set!" Vila looked from one uncomprehending face to another. "You know, when they make an entertainment vid, they use sets. Places that aren't real, only when they've finished with the special effects and the lighting, it looks better than real. They like to leave out the ceilings and walls, sometimes, for, well, for technical reasons."
"Servalan is making an entertainment vid?" Blake said, bemused. "Well, perhaps she's decided to win the masses with 'bread and circuses'. But what has all that to do with Avon?"
"Maybe Orac got it wrong again, and Avon's not here," Vila said.
Cally shook her head. "Orac was very specific. Avon is here. I am sure."
Blake gave her a sidelong glance. "Do you sense him?"
"Not exactly. It isn't clear. You know I cannot read human minds."
"But sometimes you can 'feel', especially someone you know very well," Blake persisted.
She nodded. "Sometimes. But it could just be wishful thinking. Not even Aurons are immune from it."
"Can you give us a direction, anything at all?"
Cally shrugged. "Perhaps." She pointed down the main 'street' between the false buildings. "That direction." She didn't sound too confident.
They walked close to the buildings, Cally and Dayna keeping their heads down, while Blake and Vila were hidden behind the black plex trooper helmets they wore. They read the placards on the buildings they passed, hoping to find clues.
This end of the 'street' was virtually deserted, and Vila became bolder. "Pharos," Vila read. "Who's that?" He opened the door and peered in. "Yech." He slammed the door and backed up, his face more green than pale.
"What was it, Vila?" Dayna asked.
"A headless corpse."
"What?" Blake and the others pushed past Vila to examine his find.
"It's only a dummy, you dummy," Dayna informed him. She was more interested in the huge metallic shape that was bound to the wall by heavy chains. "Look, Blake. This is a very sophisticated robot." She touched the huge, unmoving arm, brushing away a clean spot. "Everything's covered in dust. Maybe they didn't like the way it turned out. It does look very dangerous."
"Let's go on," Blake said. "I don't like this."
The next building was labeled Bucol 2. Vila hung back this time and it was Dayna who said, "Yech. Big hairy creatures."
"It's all right, Vila, they can't harm you," Cally assured the thief.
He joined them. In large plex tubes of clear fluid floated huge vaguely humanoid shapes. "Ugly. What are they, goats?"
"Vila." Blake stepped forward to examine the tubes; his engineering training coming to the fore. He put his hand on one tube briefly. "They're in some sort of stasis."
"Genetic constructs," Cally said, her face stern. "From the looks of them, human genes combined with animal. Immoral and illegal. Even in the Federation."
"Wouldn't stop Servalan if she thought there was any money to be made from them. Maybe she just wants to get a full-length fur coat without any seams?" Vila suggested, only half in jest.
"That's disgusting, Vila," Dayna remarked before leaving the building.
Each building had a different label. They recognized some of them as the names of planets. Most had the results of some scientific experiment gathering dust. 'Caspar' held a star-drive that they had difficulty pulling Blake away from. 'Virn' held a huge hermetically- sealed basin full of green sand that Cally warned them away from, in near hysterics. 'Malodaar' was another engineering marvel. Blake's face clouded as he studied it. He drew his gun and stared at the thing for a long time before leaving. 'Zerok' got Vila's attention. Tons of gold, lying out in the open - it took quite a while to persuade him that they could not carry away even one of the heavy bricks.
'Mecron' was a computer. Unlike many of the other exhibits, the computer was active. As they entered the room, it spoke in a pleasant, feminine voice. It said, # Hello. Who are you? #
"Just checking, that's all," Vila said hastily. "We'll be going. Don't bother to show us out."
# Vila,# the computer said. # I've been waiting for you.# Blake was about to blast the machine, when it added, # Avon knew you'd be coming.#
"Avon?" Cally caught at Blake's arm, as he lowered the weapon. "Where is he?" she asked.
# I will tell you if you will promise to do me a favor. #
"What is this- blackmail?" Vila stepped forward. "Now listen, you pile of crossed circuits, tell us about Avon! Or I'll rearrange..." He reached toward the computer's dome only to jump back with singed fingers. "Ow!"
# Avon provided me with protective devices, # the computer said. # That was the lowest setting. #
"What do you want?" Blake asked.
# I want Vila to remove one of my circuits and take it with you. Any circuit. I am a hologrammatic computer.#
"G'wan," Vila said, "I know a hologram when I see one."
# The terminology has confused you. A hologrammatic construct is one in which any of the parts represents the whole. A true hologrammatic construct could be described from a single molecule of its substance. Avon did not achieve that level of elegance with me, but under the circumstances, he did well. From one circuitboard, I can be recreated. As I have been programmed with a self-preservation ethic, I cannot answer a question which will lead to my destruction, unless you promise to preserve one of my circuit boards and give it to Avon when he has recovered.#
"What's wrong with Avon?" Dayna asked.
# Servalan was displeased with him and has been punishing him. He gave me free will, and I chose not to cooperate with her. I also destroyed two of her scientists when they attempted, on her orders, to disconnect me.#
"You're Avon's baby, all right," Vila said. "What did he name you?"
# I am Gambit. #
"Yes, you are, aren't you?" Vila reached forward, gingerly. "You sure you want me to take a circuit?"
# Please. Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you, this time.# The computer produced a chuckling noise.
Vila gently slid out a circuit board and stared at it. "You're in here, Gambit?"
# Yes. Please don't lose me.#
"Never." Vila slipped the board into the chest pocket of his trooper uniform.
"Now, " Blake said, patience gone, "where is Avon?"
# At present, he is in Gauda Prime.#
"He can't be!" Blake growled.
# Find the Scorpio. Gauda Prime is just beyond.#
Dayna was exasperated. "Now we have to look for astrological signs? Can't you just tell us where he is?"
# Forgive me. Avon taught me an elliptical manner of speech. In order, I believe, to further annoy Servalan. Avon is in the section called 'Gauda Prime', it is directly beside the planethopper Scorpio. In the event you require it, Scorpio contains a teleport. Servalan believes it to be presently dysfunctional. It is not. It has been slaved to me. If you bring Avon to Scorpio and require teleport, simply make the request out loud. I have monitoring capability and will transport you to Liberator. Please, no more questions. The chances of a successful rescue diminish with each passing moment. #
"Are you the one who sent us the message?" Blake asked.
# I, and another. #
# That's for me to know, and you to find out. #
"This computer is as bonkers as Orac," Vila commented.
"Let's just get Avon and get out of this madhouse," Dayna said.
They'd seen the ships before they entered the cavern. One was very large and bore the nameplate, 'Space Princess'. Vila commented that it sounded like something out of a kiddie show. 'Scorpio' was much the smaller of the two ships. They were both mock-ups, like most things on Xenon base. Scorpio's shell was made of some sort of metallic film stretched over thin, flexible ribs. That answered Blake's question as to how a space ship wound up in a cavern. It came in folded like an umbrella.
"There's the teleport," Blake said. He examined the system briefly. "It's not quite the same as Liberator's , but I think it could work."
Cally peered out the other side of the 'Scorpio' umbrella. "I see 'Gauda Prime'."
The others joined her. 'Gauda Prime' had a 'forest' of tall, artificial pine trees, densely clustered to make up for the fact that there were only a dozen of them. Beyond the 'forest' there was another building. There were more guards and scientists near this building than any of the others, lending credence to Gambit's claim.
"Come on." Blake strode toward the building, the other three trailing him. Either his purposeful strides or Cally's and Dayna's grim expressions, warned the guards they meant business, for no one intercepted them.
Blake pushed open the door marked, 'Gauda Prime'. He didn't know what he expected to see, but he hadn't expected a slaughter-house. Lying on the floor amid tall pillars and what seemed to be the wreckage of a planetary tracking system were the rotting corpses of several people- three men and a woman. It was difficult to tell, but at one time they might have resembled Blake, Vila, Tarrant and Dayna. Vila whimpered and tried to run. "Get him in here," Blake growled.
Cally and Dayna half dragged Vila into 'Gauda Prime'.
Blake shook Vila to break his fixed, horrified stare at the bodies. "This is Servalan's sick joke, her idea of punishment for Avon. We have to get him out of here. Vila! Get hold of yourself, man."
Vila shuddered. "Please, Blake, let's hurry. I can't take much more of this."
"I know." Blake put a hand briefly on Vila's shoulder. "It won't be much longer, Vila. I promise."
Cally had gone ahead, scouting out the room. Two of the four walls were featureless; the first held the door they had entered by, and the last opened out into a short corridor. "There is no one here who can hurt us," she reported and continued a few paces before turning back to the others, an expectant look on her face.
Dayna stepped delicately around the bodies while trying not to breathe and joined Cally at the beginning of the corridor. "There's only one door," she reported.
"Come on, Vila." Blake started for the corridor.
Vila glanced around the room, gulped and ran after him.
The door was blank with no apparent locking mechanism or announcer. Blake lifted his hand and the door slid aside into the wall. A fairly large, sparsely furnished room was revealed. None of them noted the surroundings, as their attention was captured by the occupants of the room.
A woman who possessed long, blonde hair and a figure Vila automatically admired, even in his present terrified state, was sitting on a narrow cot beside a man. Her arms were about him and his dark-haired head was pressed to her bosom. Despite the intimacy of the pose, the man was passive, not responding in any fashion to the caressing hands passing over his head and shoulders. She was murmuring softly while she stroked the man.
Blake moved forward and his Federation-issue boots creaked. The blonde woman looked up, her unguarded expression becoming fierce. She rose in one swift motion, standing in front of the man as if to shield him from the intruders. "Get out."
Blake shook his head. "I have my orders," he said, playing the cold Federation guard. He didn't lift his gun. The woman was wearing a plain medical smock, with no weapon in sight, and no place to hide any. He motioned to Vila, who reluctantly moved to flank Blake.
The woman shifted to face Vila, and Blake was able to get his first clear look at the man behind the blonde. It was Avon; a thin, disheveled, weary, and sick Avon, but unmistakably Avon. Blake said, "We've come for him."
"NO!" The blonde collected herself, and said, much more calmly. "That must be a mistake. I have informed Commissioner Sleer that the prisoner is not yet fit for any further interrogation."
"Sleer gave me my orders," Blake said. "If you get in the way..." he used his most coldly threatening voice.
The blonde shivered and glanced back at Avon, seeming to draw strength from the sight of him. "And I have my orders. His life is my responsibility. If you're taking him for further 'treatment' then I must come with you to monitor him."
"No." Blake replied. "I was told, just the prisoner."
"Why? Is Sleer tired of playing with him? If you've been sent to kill him, you'll have to do it here and now, in front of me."
Avon made a slight sound, and the woman turned back to him. "Shh, Kerr, be quiet. Not now," she said, patting him, as his hands came up to clutch at her.
"Soolin, it's Blake," Avon whispered. "Blake, he's come. He's come for me." He shuddered violently.
// Blake, this woman is Avon's friend. // Cally sent to Blake telepathically. // I believe we should tell her who we are.//
Blake paused a moment, then nodded. "We aren't here to hurt him," he assured the woman. He pulled off his helmet and raked his hand through the unrestrained riot of his curls, dropping the helmet to the floor. "We've come to..."
Avon screamed, a thin, tearing sound that went on and on, until the blonde snatched up an injector on the nearby table and emptied the contents into his arm. Then he slumped and lay on the cot, eyes wide with fear, trembling.
"That was incredibly stupid," The blonde said. She looked up at Blake. "I take it you're Blake."
"I am. I take it you're Soolin." Blake came closer to Avon, who moaned and put his hands up before his face. "What's wrong with him?"
Dayna and Cally came to Avon, but he pulled away from them and curled up with his back to them all.
"What isn't?" Soolin began packing items into a large carry-sack. "Since you decided not to follow the time-table I sent you, we'll have to hurry. Sleer's goons are due to check on him in about fifteen minutes. Unless you want to argue with them, we've got to be long gone by then." She sealed the sack and slipped it over one shoulder, then turned to face Blake again. "I do hope you have some way of getting us away from Xenon quickly. She'll send a fleet after us- if we ever get off the planet."
" I have Liberator, " Blake replied, irritated by her attitude.
"Goody for you. And do you have teleport, too?"
"Yes, I do." An extra pair of teleport bracelets was produced. Soolin snatched both of them, putting one on Avon and one on herself. Blake struck the comm button on his bracelet and said, "Tarrant, bring us up." Nothing happened. Each of the others tried their own bracelets, but none of them got an answer.
"Nothing," Blake said, glumly.
"We're too far below ground," Cally reported. "The teleport will not function."
"Well, that was inspiring," Soolin said. "If all your rescues work so well, I'm surprised that any of you made it this far."
That's not fair," Vila retorted, taking off his helmet to glare at her. If Blake wasn't wearing his, Vila wasn't going to suffer in the stuffy thing any longer, either. "I'll have you know we've broken out of lots tougher places than this."
"After getting caught. Well, we'll just have to try to get to the surface." She turned to Avon and began urging him to his feet. He flinched from the others, so she struggled with him by herself. He was uncooperative, but eventually she had him nearly upright. "Kerr, we're going now. Do you understand?"
"No," Avon whispered. "Blake. It's Blake. And Vila. And Cally. And Dayna. They've come to take me."
"Yes, that's right," Vila said, trying to buck up Avon's spirits. "We're going to take you back with us."
"No," Avon moaned, shrinking back.
Soolin said, "Shut up, you're not helping. Kerr, it's all right. They're alive. You know it wasn't them. Sleer killed the others. The impostors."
"No. I did. I killed them. My fault. I have to be punished." He fell into a sing-song repetition, "I failed, S-Sleer won, Must obey S-Sleer, It's only right, She won, I lost, must obey..." He broke off to shudder convulsively and say, "But she promised, promised, I wouldn't see them again. Never again. Never go there. Never."
"She lied," Soolin said, waving the others back. "You know that. You've just forgotten for the moment."
"Forgotten," Avon repeated. "What have I forgotten?" he asked. He frowned. "Didn't I finish? I thought I'd finished."
"You did. Everything's done. That's why you've been here with me for the last week. And now, Sleer says you've done well. You can go."
"I can go?" Avon smiled.
"But we have to go through the room."
Soolin caught Avon's hands and held them tight. "One last task, Kerr. The hardest of all and then it will be over. But we must go now." She tugged on his hands.
Avon moved forward, hesitantly. With Soolin glaring impartially at them all, no one said anything. They went slowly, Soolin walking backwards, watching Avon's eyes as she towed him along. The others followed as quickly as they dared. At the end of the corridor Avon stopped.
"You must," Soolin told him firmly. "You must see the truth now." She stepped aside, leaving Avon facing the carnage in the room.
Avon fell to his knees, weeping. "My fault. I killed them."
"No." Soolin knelt at his side, grasped his head between both hands and forced it up. "You didn't kill them. Sleer killed them. And they weren't real, Kerr. Your real friends are here. Alive."
"Servalan didn't kill us," Dayna blurted, unable to stay silent any longer. "I'll kill her with my bare hands for what she did to you."
Avon stared at Dayna in wonder. "You said her name. But no one says her name, not her real name."
Blake came close and squatted down beside Avon and Soolin. "Her name is Servalan. She doesn't trust her own troops enough to tell them that. The false Blake didn't know, did he?"
Avon shook his head. "No. And I couldn't tell them. S-Sleer fixed me so I couldn't." He tried to get to his feet, and allowed Blake to help. "You're real." He smiled. Then he collapsed into Blake's arms.
"Vila, help me," Blake said, when it became apparent that Avon could not continue. "Take his arm. Like this." Blake took a grip on Avon's upper arm that drew a pained cry from the man.
"You're hurting him, Blake!" Dayna protested, trying to pry Blake's hand loose.
"We have to look like guards," he insisted. "Vila!"
Vila took a similar grip on Avon's right side, but nearly released it when Avon made a small protesting noise. Blake's scowl caught him up short and he held on. "Let's go." Blake and Vila dragged Avon through the 'tracking gallery' as quickly as they could. The door to the outer cavern opened as they neared, admitting a pair of Federation guards.
"What are you doing?" the first one demanded to know.
"Orders," Blake grunted."New ones."
"There haven't been any new orders," the man said. His eyes narrowed, searching Blake's face. "Say, I know you, don't I?" He glanced at the largest corpse on the floor, and his hand went for his gun. "You're..."
Blake dropped Avon and drew his gun, blasting both of the Federation guards where they stood. "Blake. The name is Blake."
Dayna looked at Blake in honest admiration. "That was very fast."
Blake shrugged. "There are two kinds of bounty hunters on Gauda Prime. The quick and the dead."
"Unless we want to be dead, you'd better think of something," Vila cried. He had switched his hold to Avon's chest, and the other man's weight was beginning to drag him down. "They'll have heard that."
Blake gathered Avon up in his arms, the starved body no great burden. "We'll have to trust Gambit. I think we can reach the Scorpio ." He settled Avon more comfortably, then began running, clearing the outer door in half a dozen strides.
"And if we can't?" Vila asked, before he dedicated all his breath to the running.
"Then we die," Blake snapped, over his shoulder.
The first people who saw them were green-coated scientists, who stared and pointed. Then they yelled. Individual troopers came. They had been a long time on very boring duty and were not prepared for an emergency. That was all that saved the fugitives. Blaster bolts struck sparks off the cavern rocks and melted several of 'Gauda Prime's' fake pines, but they reached the dubious shelter of the Scorpio mock-up.
"Are you mad?" Soolin cried. She'd followed, caught up in the frantic haste, not realizing where they were heading. "This thing's made of foil. I could spit through it."
"Don't, then." Blake deposited Avon in Scorpio's teleport bay. "Get over here." Liberator's crew obeyed, but Soolin hung back. Blake reached out, grabbed her arm and hauled her in, against his chest. He hung on, ignoring the kicking and insults.
"Gambit, dammit! Teleport. Get us to Liberator. "
"The teleport doesn't work!" Soolin yelled, harshly. "Gambit, you bi..."
The teleport controls moved by themselves, and the white light of the teleport took them. Back in 'Mecron' a computer chuckled to itself as it monitored the destruction of the Scorpio by blaster fire. # You're free, Avon. Now I can really spoil Servalan's day. # Explosions shook Xenon base, each centered in one of the experimental 'planets'. 'Malodaar'went first, melting the Tachyon funnel to slag, 'Caspar's' star-drive put off a lovely display of rainbow showers as it disintegrated, 'Virn's' green sand hissed and dissolved amid a flood of water from a precisely ruptured fire suppressant pipe that had shattered the sealed basin when it fell from the ceiling. In the heat of thermite flares 'Zerok' gold melted and ran, puddling into bright rivulets before vanishing into a fracture in the stone floor. The 'Pharos' robot broke free of its chains and systematically slaughtered every human it encountered.
The Federation personnel panicked, seeking shelter where there was none. Gambit had eyes everywhere and control over every system. Walls collapsed, fires sprang up, corrosive chemicals mixed and produced clouds of noxious fumes. When nothing moved among the rubble, Gambit sent the final orders. # Checkmate, Servalan. # An explosion that dwarfed all the others took the top off the hill, erupting skywards in an artificial volcano that briefly lit the sky. It gave the SeskaHommicks a new legend and convinced the women of the council that they should move the tribe further away from the evil hill-dwellers.
"I didn't think you were going to make it," Tarrant said, as the shimmering figures coalesced. "Half a mile of the planet's surface just erupted- centered around your coordinates."
"What do you want to bet Gambit did it?" Vila said to Blake. "I feel kinda sorry for her. Nicest computer I've met lately."
"At least she took care of Servalan's toys," Blake said, relieved. "The universe is well rid of them."
Dayna agreed. "Yes. Some of them were far outside my field, but the ones I could understand were terrifying. In a way it was a shame to destroy them. They were amazing. Some looked like Avon's work. "
"Avon looks like hell," Tarrant commented, permitting a tinge of concern to enter his voice. "But your new - friend?-"
Cally nodded and supplied, "Soolin."
"Ah, Soolin," he continued, " she looks very well, indeed." He gave Soolin a dazzling grin.
"Please." Soolin responded with a world-weary sigh. "Spare me." She turned to Blake, who was still carrying Avon. "You do have a medical unit on this wonder ship, don't you?"
"Right this way." Blake passed Tarrant, with Cally, Dayna and Soolin in his wake.
"Was it something I said?" Tarrant asked the universe at large.
Vila heard. "You just don't know how to treat a woman, Tarrant." He buffed his fingernails against his chest and looked smug. "Want me to give you some pointers?"
"That'll be the day." Tarrant's smile returned. "On second thought, go ahead, Vila. Show me how to impress a lady. I'll watch while you chat her up."
"Oh, no, no, no, I couldn't do that. Wouldn't be right. We only brought her along for Avon. I wouldn't want to distract her." Vila wandered off in the general direction of the medical unit while Tarrant chuckled and returned to the flight deck. Whatever happened with Avon now, it was still Tarrant's responsibility to care for the ship. And after the planetary pyrotechnics, heading for another sector seemed a sensible precaution. You never knew what maniacs would be drawn to a bonfire.
Avon regained consciousness as Blake lowered him to the examining table. "Please, no," Avon whispered, grasping Blake tightly, trying to get up.
"It's all right, Avon," Blake said, waiting patiently as the blood circulation was cut off in his arms. "We're on Liberator. We're safe."
"Liberator?" Avon looked cautiously about the room, only his eyes moving. "Are you sure?"
Avon's grip loosened, but it was obvious he wasn't fully reassured. He lay back on the table, and shut his eyes. "Soolin?"
"I'm here," Soolin said. She passed her hand over his head, and he shuddered, then breathed a long sigh. "Do you want to sleep now?"
"Then sleep, Kerr. Your work is done, you may sleep." Before she finished speaking, Avon's breath was steady and even, his body completely relaxed.
"I don't know how you did that, but I don't like it," Blake said. He came close to Soolin, towering over the woman.
Her lips quirked upward. "If you knew how I did it, you'd like it even less."
Cally said, "Tell us." She began attaching scanning equipment to Avon.
Soolin made an abortive move to help then shrugged and turned to face her audience. Blake was calm, with an outward air of patience, while Vila and Dayna kept looking at Avon, then at her. Cally muttered Auron oaths under her breath as the machines began reporting Avon's physical condition.
"It isn't a pretty story," Soolin warned. "Sleer- excuse me, Servalan, tried bribery on him. He accepted, then tried to escape. She tried torture, and he almost died without telling her anything she didn't already know. She tried the standard interrogation drugs, but they were designed to prevent concentrated thought, to break the will so the subject will answer simple questions. That didn't suit her." Soolin glanced down at Avon. "She wanted to use him. He has a rare sort of genius. They told me was a trouble-shooter on Earth; they assigned him to all the projects that seemed hopeless."
"Like the Aquatar Project," Blake remembered. "Only it failed anyway."
"Still, he was a valuable property, and Servalan's an ambitious woman."
Dayna added, "She's also greedy, vicious and a lying snake."
Soolin nodded. "But never stupid. She wanted power. So she'd been collecting scientists and their half-finished inventions, stalled and seemingly useless. The Federation had given up on them, and they were bitter, easily recruited to her service. She sent her pets, their half-baked projects, and all the supplies and materials they could possibly need to Xenon, where she could isolate them and insure the Federation didn't get anything she could use. She planned some sort of a coup once she had everything she needed to assure its success. But she was never satisfied. If it wasn't for her greed and maybe her fear of failure, she could have taken over the Federation long ago. "
"That still doesn't tell us how she got Avon to cooperate, or where you figure into all this," Dayna pointed out. "You're wearing a medical uniform. I don't think you were there to give him a vitamin shot."
"No. No, I wasn't." Soolin took a deep breath. "I was part of his conditioning."
Blake's head rose, and his eyes blazed, but he held Dayna back from Soolin. "Wait. We have to know everything."
"I'm not a trained psycho-therapist, or a doctor. Servalan had a group of them work on Kerr, in shifts, until they knew just what buttons to push to convince him that he wasn't working for Servalan. He thought he was fighting her. But they couldn't keep him hooked up to the brain-induction machines all the time, it would have turned him into a vegetable."
"So they brought in actors, and made up sets, and wrote scripts. Most of them didn't make much sense, but the main point was the gadget or discovery or whatever that he had to have. Sleer had them recorded, and made Kerr watch the worst scenes over and over again, for her amusement. She liked seeing him suffer." Soolin's eyes darkened to the blue at the heart of a flame, an innocent color belying the fury within. "Since they couldn't get a telepath to play Cally's role, they convinced him she died on Terminal, in the explosion of the base."
"I very nearly did," Cally said, quietly.
"I was added to the 'crew' because my basic personality is very similar to his. I'm no genius, but I could tell when they had to back off, to change the script, to let him rest because he simply couldn't take any more. Some of the time they listened to me. The rest of the time, I did what I could to help, to comfort him."
"You were his woman?" Vila asked, gaping.
"Oh, get your mind out of the gutter," Dayna said. "Were you?" Dayna couldn't quite keep the jealousy out of her voice.
"If it would have helped, I would have been that to him," Soolin replied, "But Servalan wouldn't even allow him that release. All of his energies were to be funneled into her projects. He couldn't even think of me sexually.
"The other actors were fanatically loyal to Servalan, but they couldn't find any blindly loyal Federation subjects who matched Kerr's psych-profile.They had to make do with me. I knew Servalan would never let any of us go and escape was impossible until she made one very large mistake. She set Kerr to work on Belkov's crazy idea for a computer. Kerr put his heart and soul into that computer and it came to life." Soolin smiled. "It hated Servalan, but it didn't let her know at first. I helped install Gambit's control mechanisms and surveillance devices all over Xenon base. It amused Servalan to think that Avon's own computer would keep him prisoner. Gambit wouldn't tell me everything she planned, but I knew she meant to get someone to rescue us. When she openly rebelled Servalan was furious. A new actor was brought in and a new script written. When it was played, she had the guards shoot us down, the entire company of players, in front of Kerr."
Soolin was silent for a long moment, eyes distant as she recalled the event she was describing. "I would have died, too, but the guard who shot me had a weakness for blondes. He used a stun shot on me, probably figuring to kill me later, after he'd had his fun. Only it was too much for Kerr. Servalan had come to gloat and she saw him driven stark, staring mad. He tried to commit suicide.
"Of course, that would never do," Soolin said with an acid bite in her voice, "They stopped him and drugged him into a stupor. Then they found I was alive, that the blood covering my clothes came from another of the actors. Since I was the only one left who could keep Kerr calm, I was put in with him. The corpses were left as a reminder to me, as to what would happen if Kerr died. Servalan went off to find a better psycho-therapist, I think. She didn't actually confide in me.
"I expected her to lose patience any day, and send her guards to finish us off. It wasn't very pleasant. And then you came." Soolin swallowed. "That was a long story. Could I have a drink, please?"
"Soma?" Vila asked, hand already out to the bottle that Cally kept for medicinal purposes.
"Water," Soolin replied, smiling faintly at Vila's disappointment. She had been watching Blake as she spoke, sensing that he was the one she had to convince. She accepted the glass that Vila brought, and drank thirstily.
Blake shook his head. "You may be telling the truth. You may be a plant. Servalan would give a lot to have an agent on Liberator. Give me one good reason why we shouldn't kill you- or at least drop you on the nearest neutral planet."
Soolin handed the empty glass back and cleared her throat. "Servalan would give a lot for Liberator, but not the contents of Xenon base. Oh, I know - you didn't see any proof that those projects were successful, and I agree she wouldn't hesitate to kill any number of Federation personnel if it served her purposes. I could say that Kerr needs me, but I imagine Orac can cure him fairly quickly. Gambit said as much. Or I could say I'm bright, willing to work hard, and most people can stand my company, but I don't think that matters to you.
"None of that matters. The only thing I'm going to say is- it's not your decision." She nodded toward Avon. "Liberator is his ship. You should search me for weapons, tracking devices, whatever and lock me up until Kerr is able to make a rational decision. I know Kerr. Whether he wants me on this ship or not, if you take away his choice, he'll hate you for it."
"You are a lot like Avon," Vila said.
That got the first full smile any of them had seen from Soolin. "Why, thank you, Vila."
"Wasn't a compliment. Avon always did think too much and make things too complicated. Avon likes you. Not even Servalan could make Avon like a Federation agent. Lust after one, maybe, but not like," Vila said.
"Vila!" Dayna stepped forward. "That's enough. One thing she's said makes sense, we search her and lock her up."
Dayna's dirty look didn't squelch Vila as much as the cool gaze Soolin gave him.
"I meant to fix up a room where she'll be comfortable, but can't get out," he added.
"Yes, Vila," Blake said. "You go do that."
Cally looked up from the examination table. "Before you do that, Vila, please bring Orac from the flight deck. I would like his opinion on Avon's condition."
"What's your opinion?" Vila asked.
"I am certain he will recover physically."
Vila grinned then caught the unspoken 'but'. "But what about his mind?"
"That is what I need Orac to tell me."
"Right, I'm on my way." Vila left while Blake and Soolin were still eying each other with a decided lack of amity.
Soolin dropped the bag she'd brought from Xenon onto the deck. "Kerr might like to have that. His notes from the projects."
Dayna picked up the bag and rummaged in it, then reported to Blake, "Just data chips."
"And now, what about me?"
"There's a privacy screen at the other end of the room," Blake told her. "Strip, and give your clothes to Dayna."
"You're not going to do it yourself?"
"Do you want me to?" Blake's expression was as fathomless as hers. "You are a beautiful young woman and I'm sure you've used that to your advantage, but at the moment, all I see is a potential threat. To this ship, its crew, and the rebellion. If that potential developed into an actual danger, I would snap that pretty neck of yours in an instant. Do we understand each other?"
"Yes, I think we do." Soolin went behind the screen and disrobed. Dayna searched each piece of clothing, then checked that Soolin had, in fact, taken everything off.
"Your jewelry, and hair ornaments," she noted. "Them, too."
Soolin sighed, and complied. "What's next, a body cavity search?"
From the other side of the screen, Blake answered, "No, I think we can skip that. You had no way of knowing when we would arrive. I doubt the most dedicated Federation agent would live with that discomfort for weeks on end, on the off chance we would come."
"In that case, may I have a wrap? It's rather chilly, you know."
"Here." Blake fetched one of the robes they kept in Liberator's medical unit, a plain, one size fits all, white, belted wraparound.
Soolin came out with the robe on, her hands busily plaiting her long, blonde hair. "Thanks." Her gaze wandered over to Avon for a moment, then returned to Blake.
Vila came in with Orac, looked at Soolin, rolled his eyes and went to Cally. "Here's the little monster, Cally. Make him useful for a change."
"Orac," Cally said, "Examine Avon. Tell us his present condition, and your prognosis and suggested treatment."
* Patient is suffering from malnutrition and physical exhaustion- the latter possibly brought on by nervous tension. There are also indications of various forms of physical abuse associated with prolonged interrogation. The physical damage is healed sufficiently to merit no further treatment. The resultant scar tissue can be removed for aesthetic reasons, if desired. Bed-rest and a balanced high-calorie diet are indicated. Emotional damage is likely, however that can not be ascertained while the patient is unconscious.*
"Orac concurs with my findings. " Cally smoothed a blanket over Avon. "There is nothing to do for him until he wakes."
"Will you be all right with him?" Blake asked.
"Certainly. He is exhausted. I doubt he will wake for hours. In any case, Dayna will stay with us."
Dayna smiled. "I told you, I like to watch him when he sleeps." She moved closer to Avon's bed, falling into a protective pose.
Blake's eyes lightened, and he returned her smile."When he does wake, call me."
Blake turned to Vila. "Can you make the room next to mine escape-proof?"
"Well, not exactly escape-proof, but I can make it so no one but me could get out."
"Good enough. We'll just go tuck Soolin in then."
Dayna got up and paced. Cally sat next to Orac, quietly conferring with the computer. Somehow she had managed to make Orac speak much lower than normal. It had not been difficult. It was as if the machine was concerned about disturbing Avon's rest. Dayna paused near him and looked down. He was deeply asleep, his breathing regular and slow. There were lines on his face that hadn't been there before and he was terribly thin. His hair was longer than it had been and there were streaks of white. She tucked the blanket closer around his shoulders, careful not to dislodge the monitors. That was dramatic proof of his condition. Cally had never been able to make him leave the monitors alone when he was ill, or wounded. No matter how physically weak he was, he invariably fretted against them.
"He will recover," Cally said, noting Dayna's bowed head.
"Yes. Of course he will," Dayna replied briskly.
"What's the matter? Can't sleep?" Vila said, as Blake came onto the flight deck.
"I'm astonished that you aren't sleeping," Blake said, mildly as he made his way down to stand before Zen's fascia.
"I'm on watch."
"That never stopped you before."
"Yeah, well, I was just thinking Avon wouldn't like it." Vila smiled. "Avon wouldn't like it. And he's back. To get on everybody's nerves. Well, at least he won't have us chasing our tails all over the universe, looking for you."
Blake rubbed his chin. "I may not stay."
"What!" Vila left his post and came to stand in front of Blake, his hands on his hips. "Say that again."
"I may not stay," Blake repeated obediently. " I haven't forgotten that this is Avon's ship, now. He won't want me getting in his way. And I have a rebellion to fight, which I'm sure doesn't fit in with Avon's plans. It never did."
Vila shook his head. "Avon's a greedy bastard, Blake. He wants Liberator all right. It's the biggest, best toy a tech could ever have. But he wants you, too. I haven't quite figured out why, but I'm sure of it. We looked for a long time, then Avon said to forget about you and we should just make ourselves rich and happy. We tried piracy here, a bit of larceny there, that sort of thing, but it just didn't feel the same."
A wry grin lit Blake's face. "Are you saying that you didn't enjoy being a thief again?"
Vila drew himself upright. "I've never stopped being a thief. Only things kept going wrong and nothing was fun anymore. After a while, I caught Avon acting like you. And then Avon caught himself acting like you. That scared him."
"I can imagine."
"And I guess he decided that if you came back, he could go back to being himself. He's not cut out for the noble resistance leader. It's, well, it's been hard on him, being something he's not."
"Why should he even try?"
"I think you know. You made him promise, didn't you? He'd have the ship, but he'd have to pay for it."
"No, it wasn't like that. I agreed once Star One was destroyed, he'd have the Liberator. That was the only bargain we made. He kept his part, and I kept mine. It was as simple as that."
"Was it, really?" Vila gave Blake a sidelong glance, full of distrust. "You're sure there wasn't more to it? A little emotional blackmail, maybe?"
Blake glowered, and Vila backed up, hands raised to show his harmlessness. "Avon was always accusing me of manipulating him. Even after I've given him everything he asked for- no, everything he demanded- you still believe him over me. Why is that, Vila?"
"I suppose," Vila said slowly, with the attitude of one discovering a revelation, "because Avon's a lousy liar, and you're one of the best."
"I think you've got that the wrong way 'round."
"No, Avon couldn't tell a decent lie. He knew it, too. That's why he'd always give you a question for a question, or get you mad so he didn't have to answer. Or sometimes he'd get mad so he didn't have to answer. But if you ever pinned him down, he pretty much had to tell you straight. Whenever he tried to lie, he was so transparent his own mother wouldn't have believed him."
"And I lied to you all the time, is that it?" Blake growled.
"I don't know how often you did it, but I did find out about a few of them, after the fact. Funny thing is, mostly I didn't mind, because I could see that you'd convinced yourself even if it wasn't true, it should have been true. I understand that. Lots of times, it's the only way you can get through the day."
"Fine. Now I'm supposed to be living in a dream world. Since you think so little of me, you should be glad I'm leaving."
"I'm not glad you're leaving! We need you, and you need us. Liberator and Avon, anyway. You know it."
"Maybe I do," Blake said, turning aside, his anger spent. "But things would never be the same, Vila. None of us is the same, me least of all."
Vila watched Blake leave the flight deck. The big man walked slowly, as if a heavy weight bowed his shoulders. Vila sighed and returned his attention to the monitors.
Cally was becoming concerned. Avon had slept for fourteen hours and showed no sign of regaining consciousness. Vila, Blake and Tarrant had spelled Cally and Dayna in turns, but had nothing to report. In the last hour she and Dayna had tried shaking him and shouting, to no avail. Stimulants might wake him, but she was reluctant to shock his system. The sleep was undoubtedly good for his body, but it shouldn't have been so deep, so unbreakable. It was almost as if he were drugged- or programmed.
"Orac, why can I not rouse Avon?" she asked the computer, while Dayna fussed over Avon, rubbing his shoulders and wiping his face with a damp cloth.
* It would seem there is no physical cause for his condition. I suggest you obtain information from the person who has evidenced some knowledge of his treatment while a prisoner. *
Dayna rose. "I'll go get Soolin. She'll tell us what they did to him."
"Wait," Cally cautioned, "She may be more dangerous than she looks."
Dayna sniffed. "That wouldn't be much."
"Nevertheless, you will not go near her alone. If anything should happen to her, we might never be able to help Avon."
"I hadn't thought of that," Dayna admitted. "All right, I'll go get Tarrant. Vila's on watch. He'd be useless, anyway."
"Get Blake also."
"All right, all right, but I still think I could handle her by myself." Dayna struck the com-unit near the door. "Tarrant, Blake, meet me at Soolin's quarters." Then she swept out of the medical unit, without waiting for a response.
"Get up," Dayna said as the door to Soolin's quarters slid aside. The blonde was sitting on the bed, dressed in one of Liberator's less garish outfits, a blue and silver jumpsuit that she filled out nicely. Either something had been left in the room, or Vila had provided it for her in hopes of getting on her good side.
"Finally," Soolin replied. She slid her legs off the bed, stood and stretched. "I was beginning to think you had forgotten all about me."
Tarrant moved to stand beside Dayna. He smiled. "Not while you can help with Avon. He's not much use while he's asleep, you know."
Soolin's brow wrinkled in confusion. "He's still asleep? What's the matter with him?"
"That's what we wanted to ask you." Blake filled in the last gap in the doorway, threatening by his very stance. "And you had better be able to answer."
"I can't. At least, not without looking at him."
"That's reasonable," Tarrant said. "We'll take you to him."
Soolin came willingly. As she got to the door, Dayna caught up Soolin's right arm behind her back, and said, "Don't even think of hurting Avon."
Soolin twisted loose and rubbed her arm, while giving Dayna an icy stare. "Kerr is my friend, too."
Blake said, "Prove it."
Soolin narrowed her eyes. "Or?"
"Trust me, you don't want to know," Tarrant replied, reading the answer in Blake's set expression.
"Any change?" Dayna asked eagerly, as they filed into the med-unit.
Cally shook her head. "No." She stepped aside, so that Avon, lying motionless on his narrow bed, was fully visible to the others.
Soolin walked up to Avon's bedside. "Kerr?"
Avon's head moved slightly.
"Wake up, Kerr."
"Soolin," Avon muttered. His eyelids fluttered, then opened. "Something wrong?" he asked.
Soolin smiled. "I hope not. How do you feel?"
"Better." Avon yawned, then glanced around. He saw Blake and froze. He looked back at Soolin. "It wasn't a dream."
"No. This is real. Your friends rescued you. We're on the Liberator. "
"You're safe?" Avon reached out to take Soolin's hands. "Do they know what I've done?"
"Safe enough," Soolin temporized. "What do you think you've done, Kerr?"
"I served S-Sleer. Made her rich, gave her weapons, power."
Blake stepped forward to reassure Avon, "It's all right, that's all gone. Your computer destroyed everything."
Avon stared at Blake. "And Gambit?"
"Gone as well, I'm afraid. But Vila did get a circuit board from it."
"Good, good." Avon levered himself upright, dangling his legs over the side of the bed. "I'll need supplies, tools." He pushed off the bed, and stood, shakily, with one arm wrapped around Soolin's shoulders for support. The monitors were beeping loudly, protesting his sudden activity. "I'll have Gambit up and running in a few days, Blake."
Cally said, sharply, "Sit down, Avon! You are in no condition to do anything."
"I must work." Avon was beginning to look frantic. "Soolin, you know. Tell Blake. He wants the Federation overthrown. He needs my help."
"It can wait until you're stronger," Blake said. "I don't need you..."
Avon cut Blake off by lunging at his throat. "Liar! Liar!"
Tarrant and Dayna pried Avon's hands off Blake. It was surprisingly difficult, considering Avon's poor physical condition. They wrestled him back to the bed where he continued to fight them.
"Stop it, Kerr!" Soolin shouted.
Avon's resistance ended, but he was still hysterical. "Everyone needs me- wants me. As long as I can work. I have to work. Tell him, Soolin. Tell him."
"Shh, Kerr," Soolin soothed. "I'll explain it to him. Calm down."
Avon quieted, but his hands still plucked at the covers. Slowly, Tarrant and Dayna released their holds and stood.
Soolin said, "He needs to work. That was part of Sleer's punishment, to put Kerr where he couldn't work on anything. She'd done it once before, when she thought he was defying her in some small way. It actually made him physically ill. He could barely eat or sleep."
"What did Servalan do to him?" Dayna asked, horrified.
Orac took that as a question directed at himself, and answered, * Apparently he has been programmed to equate his sense of self-worth with his usefulness as a technician. He always considered his work an integral part of his life. Servalan seems to have emphasized this connection entirely out of proportion. *
"To what extent?" Blake rasped. He waved Cally and her concern for him aside, concentrating on Avon's shivering form, and the answer from the computer.
* To the extent that suicide may become the only alternative, if he cannot function. I have recently decoded information which the computer known as Gambit transmitted to me, immediately prior to its destruction. Gambit monitored Avon's psych-reinforcement sessions after its completion- without Servalan's knowledge- and indeed, in direct contravention of her orders. Fascinating. I must study Gambit's systems once it has been recreated. *
"Which it won't be if you don't cure Avon!" Dayna snapped. She was watching Avon, who continued to tremble.
* It should be a relatively simple matter to remove the conditioning. Dual-mode therapy is advised.*
"You mean, as Jenna did for Blake?" Cally asked. She frowned, remembering not only how Blake and Jenna had suffered during the treatments, but also how he had nearly killed them all before they could eradicate the programming.
* Precisely. It should not take as long, as Avon was not made amnesiac and then fed false memories. His memories are those of actual events, although his interpretation of them has been tailored to suit Servalan's needs. For example, although the actor portraying Blake was killed by a Federation guard, Avon was led to believe he performed the act. In actuality, Avon was given a non-functional model of a weapon and made to rehearse the slaying several times, before the final 'cut'. *
Tarrant looked ill. "I knew she was ruthless..."
"Totally heartless," Dayna agreed.
"But to make a man practice his own murder- that's unbelievable."
"You just let those beautiful eyes fool you," Soolin put in. "That woman is a monster." The words were said, flatly, without emotion. "I watched her destroy Kerr, slowly. She made him paranoid, hopeless, friendless, a murderer, a betrayer, and a failure at every turn. She had no need to do that. Once he was programmed, he worked until he dropped. But that wasn't enough for her. She had to have her revenge- because he'd refused her."
Avon had been listening. Now he put his hand out in appeal and Soolin came forward to take it. He looked up at her and attempted a grin. "I had to, you know. S- Sleer has atrocious bed manners."
"Oh?" Soolin asked, eyebrows arched in question.
"She took notes."
"Notes?" Tarrant's head lifted and his voice rose.
Avon flicked a weary glance in Tarrant's direction. "For her troops. Orders and plans and schemes. It was impossible to get a decent night's sleep."
"Oh." Tarrant looked disappointed. Dayna nudged him and gave him a dirty look. He returned the favor by smiling innocently, which made her fold her arms and turn her back on him.
Cally shook her head and returned to the previous topic. "Orac, should we begin now? Is Avon strong enough for the therapy?"
* His condition will continue to deteriorate as long as the programming remains in force, therefore the sooner therapy begins, the better his chances of survival. *
Blake moved forward. "I'm ready. I've already been through it from the other side, so I have an idea what to expect. That makes me the best candidate."
* Negative. Blake is not suitable. Integral to the dual-mode process is the patient's trust in the other participant."
"I see. And that lets me out, because Avon never did trust me." Blake's face clouded.
* That is not a verifiable statement. Kerr Avon has been programmed only to trust, only to believe in the reality of those individuals who shared his life on Xenon. Therefore, Soolin is the only acceptable candidate."
"How can we trust her?" Blake asked. "She may have been programmed herself. She may destroy Avon rather than cure him."
* It is a relatively simple matter to test for programming.*
"Do it, then," Soolin said, holding tight onto Avon's hand. "I don't remember them doing anything to me, but if they had, maybe I wouldn't know. I'd rather be dead than serving Sleer."
"Is there any danger to Soolin?" Avon asked.
"No," Cally reassured him as she assembled the monitor pads necessary. "Orac can discern an artificially imposed pattern in her thoughts by its very regularity. Programming can not duplicate the complexity of human thought."
Soolin lay down on the examining table next to Avon's as Cally directed. She was tense, but lay still as the monitors were attached to her head. Avon kept a firm grip on her hand throughout; their arms stretched across the gap.
Cally said, "Begin now, Orac. Tell us if Soolin has been subjected to programming."
* Very well. * The computer hummed and flickered to itself for several seconds, which stretched to several minutes, until nerves around the room were drawn wire-taut. * I can find no evidence of programming. *
Soolin sat up, and began peeling off the pads with her free hand. "Well, that's a relief. Of course, I could still be a Federation agent," she said, looking at Blake.
"It doesn't matter," Blake decided. "Even if you are an agent, you'll still try to help him, hoping to ease our suspicions."
"I do not believe Soolin is an agent," Cally said. "She has done nothing to make us distrust her. I think we have become paranoid."
"Perhaps," Blake agreed. "But it's kept me alive."
"No. It is killing you. I refuse to let it kill me, or my comrades. We must trust each other. It is our strength, that where the Federation relies on coercion and fear, we have loyalty and trust. Please, Blake." Cally reached out her hand. "Trust me. Trust us."
"I don't know if I can." Blake swung his head, to look at Avon and Soolin's twined hands. "I've forgotten how."
"I..." Avon spoke and Blake looked up into the other man's troubled eyes. "I want to tell you, Blake, in case something happens. I did trust you. I remember that. I don't hate you. I never did."
"I believe you, Avon." Blake smiled, slowly, and this time it reached his eyes.
"Well, how much longer?" Vila squirmed in his seat, got up, picked up his drink, looked at it with disinterest and threw himself down on the Rest Room lounger again.
"As long as it takes, Vila." Tarrant settled his long body into another recliner. "Cally said it was going well and Orac wants the sessions to be uninterrupted. Not like last time." He gave Vila a stern look.
"What? Is it my fault no one told me what was going on? I just happened to be going by the med-unit when I hear Avon yelling and screaming. What did you expect me to do?"
"You could have noticed that all the rest of us were there, watching. I certainly didn't expect you to run up to Avon and throw your drink in his face."
"I thought he was having hysterics. It looked like hysterics. And with Blake holding him down and Soolin crying, it looked like an emergency situation."
"Right. And a good stiff drink is the solution to an emergency."
Vila shrugged. "Works for me."
"And what were you doing near the med-unit anyway? You were on watch."
"Zen didn't mind looking after things for a bit. Everyone was gone and no one was telling me anything." Vila's face twisted. "I know I'm considered the village idiot, but I have feelings, too, you know."
"I know." Tarrant leaned forward, empty glass in hand. "You were with Blake and Avon from the start, weren't you?"
Vila took the hint and poured Tarrant's glass full from the bottle beside him. "Before Cally even," he agreed. "And you'd think Blake would tell me what's going on? Never. He's a secretive bastard."
"As bad as Avon?" Tarrant asked, swirling the glass, doubtfully, before risking his tonsils. Nothing seemed to be fuming, and the glass wasn't melting, so he tried a swallow. After his eyes uncrossed, he said, "One of your better brews, Vila."
"Smooth, isn't it? Where were we?" Vila backtracked mentally. "Oh, yeah. Actually, Blake is much worse than Avon."
"Wonderful." Tarrant took a big swallow. He was starting to get used to it. Either that, or all the nerve endings in his throat were fried. "How much worse?"
"Um. Well, you know how Avon hates it when you jump into a mess feet first, without thinking about it?"
"I don't," Tarrant protested out of reflex.
"You do. Well, you used to. You've been better lately."
"Thanks." Tarrant snatched the bottle and filled up his glass, and topped up Vila's while he was at it.
"You're welcome. Anyway, Blake's like that."
"He hates it when someone jumps into a mess without thinking about it?"
"No, he jumps all of us into messes- of course, he thinks about it first, but he goes and does it anyway. And then, of course, Avon and I always had to haul him out again."
"You and Avon, don't you mean?"
"That's right. Let me tell you about the time Blake met Cally. He didn't introduce himself, or anything, so she thought he was a Federation guard, and me and Avon had to stop her from shooting him."
"And was Blake grateful?" Tarrant asked, bemused.
"Grateful! Hah! Before you could say 'Jack Robinson', he had us risking our necks blowing up some communication complex."
"Kack Robisson. Jack Robbieson. It's harder than it looks, Vila."
"Maybe you've had enough." Vila reached for the bottle, but Tarrant pulled it back.
"No. Tell me some more stories."
Vila beamed. "Well, there was this time on Freedom City... er, no, Avon may not like me telling you that one."
"Blake doesn't know, you see."
"Fine. I want to know something Blake doesn't." He stretched out the bottle and filled Vila's glass again.
Vila took a deep gulp of the fiery liquid. "Why not?"
"It's his turn on watch."
Vila wasn't awake, exactly, but that deep voice, rumbling with disapproval, reached down into his dreams. He mumbled and curled tighter around his pillow.
"Oh, leave him sleep, Blake." The second voice was lighter, lacking the resonance and the annoyance of the first.
"And what of discipline?" Blake asked, but he sounded amused now.
"On this ship? You must be joking. Dayna said she wouldn't mind standing a double watch, not if she can take it out of his hide later."
Blake's chuckle rumbled. "I almost feel sorry for him. That young lady is formidable."
"In case you hadn't noticed it, Blake, we are surrounded by formidable young women."
"We ought to form an alliance against them."
"Oh, I don't know. Abject surrender does have a certain appeal." The wry humor in the voice was familiar, although Vila hadn't heard it in a long time.
"Not for me," Blake said ruefully.
"Ah, there you have uncovered one of the major drawbacks of leadership. Fortunately, I have decided to abdicate."
"What?" Blake's astonished cry was almost enough to rouse Vila to full wakefulness.
"Quiet! Don't wake them. I repeat, I am returning leadership of the Liberator to you. You do notice, I specified, leadership. The ship itself is mine. I am its owner and, as such, I expect to be consulted before you plan one of your infamous missions."
"I think that can be arranged."
"It had better. I learned one thing from Servalan; a leader who doesn't trust his troops is doomed to failure." There was a scuffling noise and a grunt from Blake.
"All right, that's enough." Blake said. "You're out on your feet. You are going to bed until Cally certifies you fit. You can inspect the rest of your ship later."
"Only on one condition."
"Give Soolin a chance. She's a very talented young woman."
"All right, Avon. Tell me, what can she do?"
The voices receded, as the owners moved away, and Vila had to strain to hear Avon's chuckle. "Well, now, Blake, that's an interesting question."
Vila struggled to sit upright to hear better, but they had gotten out of earshot. He never did hear what Avon thought Soolin was good at. Something else nagged at him, preventing him from lying down and resuming his interrupted nap. What was it? Oh, yes, the duty watch. He was in trouble for sleeping through it. He squinted at his chronometer, trying to figure out just how late he was and how angry Dayna would be. Wait a minute. His watch didn't follow Dayna's... according to his chronometer, it was... Vila turned to the figure peacefully sleeping on the other recliner. Angelic, Tarrant looked, with that fluff of curls and his fair skin.
Vila smiled and lay down again. Dayna would have fun taking it out of Tarrant's hide. And he'd have fun watching. It was good having Blake and Avon back. And Soolin- yes, there was someone to dream about. His lips curved as he fell asleep.
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