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Not Quite Friends

By Irish and Cami

Tarrant sometimes thought Avon was deliberately trying to drive him mad. On the other hand, he usually believed that it was Avon who was insane. Today, for instance. It wasn't bad enough the man had been prowling the ship like a ghost for several days, during which he had clearly not slept and probably had not eaten; he had kept Orac so busy with whatever obsession had him now that it categorically refused to answer Tarrant's questions about the destination he had in mind.

Tarrant ran both hands through his hair and sank into the couch at the front of the flight deck. Damn, damn, damn! If they didn't get replacement crystals for the flare shield pretty soon, they'd be sitting targets the next time the Federation caught up with them. With the flare shield that protected them from radiation backlash operating at such diminished capacity, they could kill themselves with their own weapons, even if the enemy never hit them.

On a properly run ship, he thought, glaring at nothing in particular, someone would have been keeping track of parts for all essential systems and they wouldn't be in this potentially deadly situation. This wasn't the first time, either. That debacle on Keezarn still made Tarrant shudder every time he thought of it. He wondered whether his misjudgment there was what had turned the rest of the crew against him. Well, perhaps he had been too hard on Vila, but it wasn't easy getting used to a civilian crew. Even a mercenary vessel had a clear chain of command and assigned duties for each member, and no one who wanted to stay aboard would have questioned the need for the deal Tarrant had made. Thought he had made.

Now, that was a large part of the problem, Tarrant thought--chain of command. He fervently wished Avon would make up his mind and either lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. Tarrant didn't /need to command the Liberator, but someone must. Sooner or later, this sort of disorganization would get them all killed. Tarrant would have to speak to Avon today.

Dreading the confrontation, Tarrant put it off by placing the ship on automatics and going to the Rest Room for a cup of coffee.

Vila was there, a circumstance Tarrant would have been willing to ignore, except the man insisted on conversation, saying, "I know that look, Tarrant."

Tarrant sighed and got his coffee. "Congratulations, Vila. Excuse me."

"Leave him alone."

Annoyed out of all proportion, the pilot said, "Are you presuming to tell me what to do, Vila?"

Vila seemed uncharacteristically unintimidated. He shrugged. "Just don't say I didn't warn you when he takes your head off at the shoulders for interrupting his concentration."

"Why are you assuming that I'm about to interrupt 'him' at all?" Tarrant wanted very badly to hit something. Preferably Vila. Even better, Avon. "And it drives me to distraction that everyone says 'him' with a capital 'H' whenever they mean Avon."

Vila, still looking at Tarrant with that strangely penetrating stare, said in a peculiar tone of voice, "It was a very near thing, that last argument you had. I wouldn't underestimate Avon if I were you."

"Is that possible?" Tarrant said, and immediately regretted it.

He hadn't noticed Cally in the room. She looked thunderous. Her voice, however, came out in perfectly civil tones. She said, "I'd say it was more than likely. Isn't it time to grow up, Tarrant?"

Nowthat made him angry.

Vila, of all people, said, "Stop!" Tarrant stared at him. Vila rubbed his face, shook his head, and said at a slightly lower volume, "We're all tired. Let's not talk to each other right now."

Tarrant scowled and stepped closer to the smaller man. "There you go again, trying to tell me what to do. I don't take it from Avon, and I certainly won't take it from you!"

Cally had somehow interposed herself between Tarrant and Vila. How did she do that? She was visibly restraining her own temper, but she said softly, "Please, Tarrant. For one moment, listen to me. If you appreciate nothing else, you should be reminded that, whatever your opinion of Avon, he was here first. In addition," she said, raising her voice slightly when he was about to interrupt her, "I wish to warn you that he is never unarmed. Never. Just because you don't see a gun, do not assume you are safe."

Astounded, Tarrant stepped back. He said at last, "You are telling me that...man--goes about the ship armed all the time? Against whom? Us?"

Cally shook her head. "The point is, you could easily push a confrontation past the point of no return if you don't keep that in mind."

"You think he'd kill me, just because I disagreed with him? Is he mad?"

Cally sighed and her shoulders slumped. "You are not hearing me. As usual. Just bear it in mind, Tarrant. It would be a pity to get yourself killed simply because you refused to take the time to understand someone who doesn't fit in the box you've assigned him."

Tarrant turned quickly and walked away from Cally because he wanted to shake her. He knew her well enough to know he'd have to fight her if he tried it. Facing away from both of them, Tarrant said, "Look. I know I'm an outsider here. But you always act as if I'm deliberately being stupid." Having regained control, he looked at them, something in his chest aching because, once again, the original crew was lined up against him. "I fail to see why I should have to be the one who makes all the allowances? Shouldn't he make some effort as well?"

Vila snorted. "You're still alive, aren't you? I'd call that an effort on his part that he might not have made if he didn't think you were a damned good pilot."

Tarrant sank into a chair and shook his head, looking up at them. "I don't understand."

Cally said, "That's a beginning." She sat down across the small table from him, obviously no longer angry. She said, "This all started just now because Vila thought you were about to interrupt whatever Avon's working on that's driving him so hard. You've done it before and seen how he acts. Do you really want to go through that again?"

Tarrant shook his head. Gods, now he was getting a headache. He said, "Of course not. But we need some more crystals for the flare shield systems, and who knows how long it might be before Avon's finished playing genius? What good is it to us if we're all dead?" His anger threatened to rise again. "Besides, I refuse to tiptoe around Avon as if I were an errant child and he the offended, unpredictable, abusive parent!"

Cally sighed again. "Back to the point, please. If you think this matter has become critical, leave a message at his station. He'll look at it when he stands his next watch. He will understand how important it is. That way, neither of you has to try the other's nerve, or whatever this stupid game--sorry, I don't mean that. I'm a little tired myself."

Tarrant exited the room quickly before he could lose his temper yet again. Why, he wondered, did he spend half his time furious aboard this ship? She was the best ship he'd ever flown, and he'd rather lose his left arm than give her up, but, gods, he was going to get old before his time if he were angry every other minute. If only the man would talk to him. Tarrant was certain that if Avon would accept him, so would the others. And worst of all, Tarrant had no idea what he'd done that was so unforgivable that Avon found it necessary to interdict every attempt Tarrant made to join the team.

Striking the keys unnecessarily hard, Tarrant created the message Cally had suggested and routed it to Avon's station. Having done that, he buried himself in a study he was making of the power consumption ratios under battle conditions. Maybe Avon had the right idea about one thing. Work took your mind off other matters.

"Tarrant."

Something about the tone of voice caught his attention. It wasn't Avon's usual snarl. He had not realized the man was on the flight deck. He said, "Avon."

With a fleeting smile, the meaning of which escaped Tarrant utterly, Avon said, "My watch."

Really? Tarrant hadn't realized he'd been so engrossed in his work. He nodded, stood up from his station and decided he was hungry and tired. Without realizing he was going to do it, Tarrant suddenly found himself moving to stand beside Avon, who was already reading one of his screens and ignoring Tarrant, as usual. With real curiosity, Tarrant asked, "Is it true, Avon, that you go about the ship armed?"

The impact of the dark stare that hit him nearly triggered Tarrant's natural aggression, but he really wanted to know why. He withstood the look and just barely stopped himself from altering his stance to one that would have signaled a readiness to fight. Finally, Avon looked down at his screens again, and said quietly, "It is true."

"Why?" Tarrant was very careful of his tone. It conveyed, he was certain, only the honest curiosity he felt.

The man's hands paused and he went very still, seeming not even to breathe for a long moment. At last, he said in that same soft tone of voice, "I have never been without a weapon by choice since I was eight years old. I am not comfortable without one."

Eight years old! The man's personal force wall slammed into place almost visibly then, and Tarrant knew he'd got all the information he was going to get. With a last, long glance at Avon, Tarrant left the flight deck. Eight years old?

He nearly mentioned the conversation to Dayna, who was the only one in the Rest Room when he went to fix his meal, but remembered in time that Dayna Mellanby had cut her milk teeth on weapons, and wouldn't think it in the least odd. With a strange, hollow feeling, he found himself missing Deeta, of whom he had not thought for some time. At least Deeta would have listened to him talk. Offered some theories. Helped Tarrant remind himself he was alive just by reacting to his presence. Sometimes, Tarrant thought, staring at his food without appetite, this was the loneliest place in the universe.

Dayna, who had sat down opposite Tarrant, interrupted his reverie, saying, "What's wrong, Tarrant? Are you all right?"

Tarrant forced a smile. "Just tired, I think. We ought to consider a stop for R&R soon."

"R and R?" she echoed.

"Rest and recreation. We've all been under a lot of pressure for far too long. We need a rest stop. At least I do."

Dayna grinned. "Sounds good to me. Any ideas where we could go that we'd be safe enough for that sort of thing?"

Tarrant shrugged. "I'm sure Orac could come up with something if we could get its attention."

Dayna's grin disappeared. "Yes. I've noticed Avon's kept the little monster busy lately. He looks exhausted."

Tarrant scowled, realizing the twinge of jealousy he felt that Dayna remarked on Avon's fatigue. That he felt such a thing was embarrassing, especially in light of Cally's earlier advice to grow up. Did he really seem immature to these people, or were they simply envious of his youth? Of course, Tarrant went well out of his way to avoid ever appearing to be tired, even if he was on the edge of collapse, and being so much younger than Avon, he could more frequently get away with it. I'm thinking about him again, he caught himself. Dammit!

Dayna said, "Oh, no. You're not--"

Instantly enraged, Tarrant glared at the girl and said, "No, I am not!" He left his food where it was and walked out of the room before he could get into another fruitless argument, this time with someone who really ought to know better, not being one of the original Seven herself. Tarrant kept walking, as he sometimes did for hours, just walking the ship, listening to her, getting the feel of her, until it calmed him, as invariably happened. By the time he'd worn off the adrenaline, he was once more in a small observation room high above where they usually went, with direct, uncorrected vision of the peculiar space through which Liberator moved at high speeds. With all light apparently compressed into a ring about the belly of the ship, it seemed as though she wore a necklace of stars and flew through absolute nothingness. Tarrant sank into the comfortable chair he'd moved in here and put up his feet. Definitely time for some R&R, he thought. I've completely lost my perspective.

Tarrant loved this odd view of the universe. He liked it better than the "corrected" view Zen would give on the main screen, because it was what the ship herself experienced. He found it relaxing. Indeed, before he'd realized how tired he was, he'd fallen asleep.

Multiple disturbances bombarded Tarrant's rest.

Deafening noise. Intense jarring. A brightness of light that turned the inside of his eyelids a scalding red.

He jerked awake, rolling off the chair, running almost before his feet touched the deck. Liberator was under attack.

It took him approximately two minutes to reach the flight deck. They felt like the most helpless two minutes of his life. The ship was being battered from all sides and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.

"Where have you been?" Avon demanded, sensing Tarrant's arrival though his concentration was so intent on his station that he couldn't actually have seen it.

Tarrant ignored the question in favor of action. He flicked the override switch, taking the ship under manual control.

"Neutron blasters are clear," Zen announced.

"Avon, you can't!" Vila cried. "If you fire the blasters, we'll get toasted."

"We have no choice. Dayna, fire."

A neutron bolt erupted from the portside blaster, grazing across one of the attackers but not causing discernible damage. Radiation backlash bathed the ship. With the flare shields operating at only forty percent capacity, sub-atomic particles penetrated the hull, contaminating everything they contacted.

"We have medicine," Cally said, apparently to soothe Vila's fears.

The sensors showed three small ships darting at Liberator with the speed and fury of angry bees. They soared in close, loosed a charge, then seesawed out again. Their speed and agility made them difficult targets. Tarrant marveled that his shipmates had managed to come close to hitting one of them.

Tarrant spent precious minutes quietly observing the spacecraft as they weaved and twisted a menacing path of destruction. It was left to Avon and Cally to protect the ship, activating sections of the force wall as required. Finally, Tarrant detected that one of their adversaries was using an alternating repetitive pattern in his attack approach. It was an error in judgment that he intended to use to his advantage.

Meanwhile, Liberator continued to take a beating. A freak charge ricocheted off the force wall and slammed into an unprotected area. A sound like distant thunder rumbled through the ship.

"Damage to energy bank four," Cally reported, her voice calm and steady. "I'm diverting life support to bank two."

"Dayna, prepare to fire," Tarrant ordered. "Don't worry about getting a fix. I'll point us in the right direction." He watched the enemy ship come closer, anticipating each of its twists and turns. When it was one hundred spacials out he began a countdown. "Four, three, two, one," Tarrant nudged Liberator sharply to the right, "fire."

Tarrant breathed a shaky sigh of relief when the blast found its target. The odds were turning slightly more manageable. "Do we have any idea who these people are?" he asked.

Avon spared a quick glance his way. "Zen is unable to identify them. They aren't Federation."

"I knew that. I wish they were. I'd know what to expect from space command trained pilots."

"There were reports about hijacking in this quadrant," Cally recalled. "I think we've found the pirates who are responsible for those incidents."

"It's more like they found us," Vila said. "They came out of nowhere. Before I knew it, we were under attack."

"And still are," Dayna sighed. "Do something, Tarrant."

"I'm trying." Tarrant rolled the ship to avoid an advancing plasma bolt. Leveling off after the maneuver, he spotted one of the intruders about to cross their flight path. "Lock on target," he hurriedly directed. "Fire." The enemy ship neatly slithered out of the way, wagging its wings with seeming audacity as it prepared another attack run.

The two unidentified spacecraft, in what appeared to be a well-rehearsed move, hurtled at them from opposite sides. Tarrant heavy-handed the controls, wrenching Liberator into an evasive maneuver that rattled his bones and spawned cries of dismay from Vila and Dayna. However, Liberator was a big target, and the ship rocked as it took a glancing blow in the keel.

"Damn!" He banked and spiraled, and managed to shake free of the attackers for what he hoped to be a few minutes' respite.

Actually, it was only fifty-five seconds.

"Tar-rant," Vila called. The thief ducked instinctively as an incoming charge filled the main screen.

Avon slammed the forward force wall into place. It absorbed the brunt of the blow in an explosion of white. Tarrant shut his eyes against the painful glare while Liberator trembled as if caught in a solar quake.

"This is getting annoying," Dayna murmured as the vibrations faded.

"Dangerously annoying," Avon confirmed. "Zen, plot an escape path."

Even before the computer responded, Tarrant knew what its answer would be. "Speeds required for an escape course are unattainable at the present time."

"Does that mean what I think it does?" Vila asked.

"Yes," Dayna answered. "We stay and fight."

Try as he might, Tarrant couldn't find any weaknesses to exploit in the two remaining pilots. They relentlessly continued their assault, forcing Liberator on the constant defensive. Mentally calculating power consumption, Tarrant wondered how much longer they could hold them off.

Cally's voice drifted down from her corner position, confirming his worry. "Energy levels are critical."

Tarrant stared grimly at the blips on the scanners and decided to pour everything into one concentrated assault. The plan was not without risks. If it failed, they wouldn't have enough power left to roll over and play dead.

"Vila, I want a continuous charge directed at that one," Tarrant punched up a projection of the more reckless of the two ships, "when it comes within range."

"Why? I'll never hit it without a monumental piece of luck. With the flare from the neutron charges disrupting the scanners, I won't even know where it is half the time. I'll be wasting energy, not to mention increasing the internal radiation level."

"Just do it; I don't have time to explain. Dayna, be ready. I'm hoping it will stray your way."

The ploy worked. Though Vila's charges weren't on target, the steady bombardment eventually sent the enemy pilot reeling nervously away from the barrage. It was an incautious, straight line of flight that allowed Dayna to get a fix on it. Without hesitation, she fired.

The spacecraft was rather close when it burst into an orange ball of fire. Liberator buffeted wildly as debris and shock waves crashed into it. The lights on the flight deck flickered, then went out. At the same instant, the main screen and their individual consoles turned black, plunging them into complete darkness.

"Zen," Avon said, "close down all unoccupied areas of the ship and divert that power to the flight deck." It took the computer a few seconds to comply with the request. In that time, their remaining opponent had decided to flee.

"Should we chase it?" Cally asked.

Avon checked the power reserves before answering. "No. The energy banks are seriously depleted. We need to let them recharge. Zen, return to preset course, standard by two. I'll want a full damage report. Route it to my station."

"Confirmed."

Tarrant released the now dormant controls and slumped back in his seat. Though exhausted and sticky with sweat, a mild euphoria washed through him. It had been a perilous encounter, but teamwork had gotten them out of it. They had performed smoothly and efficiently, with little hint of the strife and disharmony that often sent his blood boiling.

If only it could be like that all the time.

Cally tapped a series of figures into the portable med scanner, then rested back on the flight couch while it interpreted the data. Dayna and Vila sat nearby. The youngest member of the crew was already complaining of a headache and fatigue, the early signs of radiation poisoning. Cally wasn't feeling well herself, but was determined to complete her medical duties before giving in to her weakness. The diagnostic computer had suggested several possible treatments to ease their symptoms, but so far only Vila had availed himself of one, a medicinal dose of adrenaline and soma.

"I've found out how they managed to sneak up on us," Tarrant announced from his station. "They were riding in the gravitational field of an asteroid that passed close by. There was no way our scanners could have detected them."

Vila waved his glass around to celebrate his vindication. "I said it wasn't my fault. I would have spotted them if there had been anything to spot."

"No one accused you of anything," Dayna reminded him.

"Not out loud," Vila said, darting glances at his two male shipmates. He reached for the pitcher of green liquid on the table. "Have some of this, ladies. You'll feel better."

Cally shook her head. "Maybe later." The instrument in her hand pinged to announce completion of its task. She scrolled out the report slowly.

"Will we live?" Vila asked, trying to read over her shoulder.

"Yes. The massive doses of decontaminant that I gave everyone will eventually cure the radiation sickness, but we are not going to be in the best shape for the next week or two. And until the autorepairs clean the ship we'll be constantly exposed to more rads. That will require follow-up treatment."

Avon looked up from where he was rewiring a burnt out communication relay. "Do we have a sufficient supply of medicine on board?"

"Just. We'll need to restock as soon as possible."

"Especially if we aren't going to replace the flare shield crystals," Tarrant muttered.

Cally held her breath, afraid that the young man was going to lecture Avon, putting blame for their troubles on his shoulders. But he didn't say anything else, returning his attention to something on his console.

"You had me worried, Avon," Vila admitted, "when you decided to use the blasters. I should have remembered your well-honed self-preservation instincts." He flapped his arms, almost spilling his drink. "You can usually count on being safe when you're with Avon. He's a genius, he is."

Dayna snatched the tumbler from his hand and drained the final mouthful. "I think you've had enough," she said.

"You didn't have to take mine," Vila mourned as he set about pouring four servings, then refilled the glass in Dayna's hand. "There's plenty to go around."

"Drink it," Cally urged when Dayna hesitated. "I'm sure we could all use some." To stress the point, she selected a glass for herself. "Avon. Tarrant."

"There is work to be done," Avon answered. Tarrant waved off the offer with a flick of his hand.

With a shrug of mild disapproval, Cally resumed her study of the medical report. An inconsistency caught her attention. "Tarrant," she said, tilting her head to face him, "you registered a higher level of radiation than the rest of us."

"I'm not surprised," he said without looking up. "I was in the observation compartment when they first attacked. There wouldn't have been much protection up there."

"So that's why it took you so long to get to the flight deck," Dayna said.

Vila propped his feet on the table and closed his eyes. "I don't know why anyone would want to go up there. It makes me dizzy." His head lolled to one side. "I'm dizzy now."

"None of us is in the best of health," Cally said. "And it's going to get worse before it gets better. I think we should consider finding a safe planet and taking turns off the ship. It would lessen our exposure to additional radiation and allow us all recuperation time that we badly need."

"There's too much to do," Tarrant argued. "There are areas of the ship that will repair more quickly with human assistance."

Dayna's eyes widened. "But you said we needed R&R," she reminded him.

"That was before."

"We also have to locate replacement crystals for the flare shields," Avon added his voice of dissent.

Cally knew how Vila would have voted, if he hadn't fallen asleep. Not that a majority would sway Avon. Outright confrontation seldom worked with him. It would be best to let the matter rest for twenty-four hours. By then, even Avon wouldn't be able to deny the debilitating effects of the radiation. And if, in the meantime, she located a suitably safe planet that also was a source for the crystals they needed, he would be hard pressed to forbid a trip there.

Finishing her drink, Cally stood up. "Tarrant, when you come off duty, I'll want to give you an additional dose of decontaminant." The young man, intent on his console, nodded. Cally wondered whether he would remember. If not, she'd have to track him down. He was going to be very sick, very soon.

Just now, however, she had to get some rest, or she'd pass out on the couch beside Vila. That the image made her smile caused Cally to wonder if she might be even sicker than she thought. The humans aboard always told her she had no sense of humor. But then the humans were frequently wrong about Cally.

#

Avon became painfully aware that he had worked nearly through Vila's watch when the probe he held slipped off the contact plate and fused the entire circuit, ruining the probe and burning his fingers. He stared at the mess, pulled out the circuit and dumped it and the probe into the starboard disposal unit. He went to the small medical kit kept on the flight deck and sprayed his blistered fingers with a regen foam. The foam disappeared on contact, immediately stopped the pain and began healing, but now that Avon's concentration had been broken, he realized that his entire body was aching. Even before the battle he had been tired. Now he felt ill as well.

Avon sat down on the forward couch, unceremoniously dumping Vila's legs off the seat. The thief merely stopped snoring for a moment, rolled himself into a tight ball, and started up again. Avon looked at the glass of adrenaline and soma which had been left for him. If he drank that, he'd sleep for twelve hours. His eyes were trying to close now. Pushing himself to his feet, he paced the perimeter of the deck. There was still a great deal of work to be done, and Avon would have to do far too much of it himself.

Returning to his station, he scrolled through the damage report once more, mentally kicking himself for not realizing days ago that the flare shield assembly needed new crystals. Or that they had no spares on hand. If he hadn't been so utterly immersed in learning the identity of Anna's murderer, he might have been aware of the need well before the battle. What else was he missing? What else had Blake and Jenna used to do that now fell on his shoulders?

Remembering that Jenna had kept a maintenance log, Avon instructed Zen to prepare a complete regular maintenance schedule based on his former shipmate's references thereto in the log, cross-referencing Zen's own protocols regarding the matter. Zen advised him that Tarrant had already prepared such a schedule. Avon called it up at his station, scrolled through it, and nodded his satisfaction. Having a space command trained pilot aboard had its advantages, he supposed. However much Tarrant grated on Avon's nerves, he did know his job. It was hardly the boy's fault that he wasn't Blake.

Catching himself thinking that, Avon shot out of his chair, steadied himself against the console when the first attack of dizziness caught him, and cursed under his breath. Was that it? Was he deliberately punishing Tarrant for not being Blake? It wasn't as if he was unaware of Tarrant's attempts to mold the crew into an effective fighting unit. It wasn't even that he didn't think that was a good idea. He simply could not give Tarrant his head in the matter. Indeed, he found himself almost constitutionally incapable of passing up any opportunity to undercut his relationships with the others. As if the others belong to me, he wondered, and not to Tarrant? Avon hated being out of control of himself more than he hated being manipulated, and Tarrant somehow pushed him closer to his limit than anyone he'd ever met except Roj Blake. His survival instinct was warning him that he had better deal with this conflict before it cost him his head.

Just then Dayna arrived, a little less spring in her step than usual, and Avon hastily pulled himself together, rubbing his eyes with tender fingers, and promised himself he'd think about it later. He nodded formally to Dayna's acknowledgment of taking the watch, and clasped his hands behind him, forcing his spine to straighten as he walked off the flight deck. He hoped he could make it to his cabin before sleep overtook him.

#

Vila was shamelessly eavesdropping on Cally's conversation with Avon. He had leaned into the room far enough to see that Avon's head and shoulders were buried in the cowling of a damaged control subsystem that had been hit during the battle. Once hull integrity had been restored, Zen had gone on to other critical matters, so Avon was hurrying things along by manual repair wherever he felt it would do the most good.

Cally finished reciting the facts about Shastri Station, which she suggested as a place where they could both find flare shield crystals and take shore leave. The Station sounded a little dangerous to Vila, what with it being frequented by pirates and other sorts of outlaws. Probably bounty hunters, he thought. Still, she said there was a thriving dock area for those who wanted to indulge their baser appetites, as well as a more respectable city on the planet's surface, with theatres, museums, universities and upscale shopping areas.

Vila doubted he'd get beyond the docks of the orbital station. He nearly fell off his feet leaning sideways to hear Avon's answer. Then he nearly fell anyway, when Avon simply agreed and told her to set course for Shastri Station.

Stunned, Vila was still standing there when Cally left the control room. She jumped a little on seeing him, which, he thought, just went to show you that Cally wasn't feeling well either, or she'd have sensed that he was there. Her lips compressed to a thin line, but rather than snapping at him, she said, "How are you keeping, Vila?"

"He said yes," Vila blurted. "Didn't even argue."

With a crooked smile that was almost a grin, Cally said, "Of course he did. Avon is not an unreasonable man."

Vila made shushing motions, realizing he was in danger of being discovered and drafted for work. Too late. From inside the room, Avon's dry tones rasped, "Get in here, Vila. If you're well enough to eavesdrop, you're well enough to help."

Reluctantly, Vila made his way into the cramped room. Immediately, Avon said, "Get me a Brunner probe. I think it's in the third drawer to the left of the doorway." The probe was there, and Vila slapped it into Avon's waiting palm, wondering why the hand looked so pink. Irritated at having been caught, he decided to get some of his own back.

Casually, he asked, "So, what do you think of Tarrant? Think he's going to work out as our permanent pilot?"

After a moment, Avon said, "I think of Tarrant only when I must. This isn't working. Do you see the Heisenberg probe out there?"

Vila looked around, noticing for the first time the untidy heap of parts and tools. This really wasn't like Avon. Even in the middle of a battle he'd been known to put something away rather than leave it out, though if questioned he would say it was only to prevent it from hitting him on the head if the inertial dampers failed. Retrieving the Heisenberg probe, Vila considered handing Avon the wrong tool. Then he realized that in light of the nature of the Heisenberg, handing Avon the wrong one could really hurt the man. With a mental shrug he was too sick to make, Vila slapped the probe into the waiting hand. Without thinking about it, he started separating burned circuitry, stacking spares and lining up tools. Still, he thought, if I irritate him enough, he'll send me away. Brightly, he said, "That was some fancy flying yesterday, eh? Whatever else you say about him, the kid can fly this thing."

In a dangerously silken tone, Avon said, "Tell me, Vila, what is your opinion of our erstwhile ex-space command, ex-mercenary pilot?"

Before he could consider the answer, Vila said, "He's a bully and a snob. Well, so are you. A snob, not a bully. But he's a hell of a pilot."

Avon actually emerged from the cowling for his next comment. "Now tell me why everyone wants to talk about Tarrant today. I should like to go one full hour without thinking about the irritating child."

Distracted, Vila asked, "Was Cally talking about Tarrant? He's pretty sick, I think. His room's next to mine, and he didn't rest well."

"Be precise, Vila." This came in a flat, I'm-not-kidding-now, just-tell-me-the-facts tone, that Vila knew quite well.

He shrugged. "Well, he was--uh, retching all night. And when he did sleep, he kept waking up with nightmares. You're lucky your quarters are so far down the corridor. Like to give me heart failure."

Staring into the middle distance, Avon pondered that, unconsciously twirling a laser probe in that strangely pink hand. Finally, he focused on Vila again. "Thank you for cleaning up. Now go away, please, and let me work."

Avon didn't have to tell him twice. Rising too quickly, Vila nearly overbalanced, and found himself nose-to-nose with Avon, who was steadying him on his feet. "Go lie down. If I find you unconscious in a corridor, I shall leave you there, I promise."

Vila flushed slightly and muttered, "Don't worry, you won't find me." He resolved to stay clear of Avon until the latter was over his radiation sickness. Clearly, Avon ill was even worse than Avon well.

Tarrant studied his reflection, wishing he had some eyedrops. As bad as he felt, he'd be damned if he'd let on to the others. He'd take his medication and do his job. Except for those reddened eyes, he supposed he was as ready as he could be. He smoothed his tunic down and straightened his shoulders.

A brisk walk to the flight deck normally cleared early morning cobwebs from his brain. This time it only served to make him feel more tired.

Dayna was the only one in the room. She lounged on the couch, lightly fingering a musical instrument that she'd found in one of the storage holds.

"I'd say good morning," she said, "but it isn't."

Tarrant managed a small smile. "You'll feel better soon," he assured her. "Do you want to lie down? I could take over the watch."

"Thanks, but I can cope. It's not that strenuous. Avon prepared a list of chores, if anyone felt up to work."

"On his console?" Tarrant asked, stepping to check before Dayna replied.

"No. There's a printout...somewhere."

Tarrant only half heard her, staring hard at the chart on Avon's monitor. It was part of the maintenance schedule he'd prepared. What in the hell was it doing here? Was Avon spying on him?

"Here it is." Dayna's voice was accompanied by the rustling of paper.

Frowning, Tarrant cleared Avon's screen, then marched down to collect the printout from Dayna. After a quick scan of the list, he determined that the dispensers in the Rest Room required immediate attention. The delivery tubes needed flushed out a second time before they could be used to transfer the uncontaminated food and water from the shielded storage area.

But before he did that....

"Do you know where Avon is?" he asked.

She pondered the question a moment before answering. "Not really. He's immersed in repair work, and apparently not in a very good mood. Vila wandered by a little while ago, mumbling something about hiding from Avon until we reached Shastri Station."

"Shastri Station?"

"You haven't heard? We're going there for rest, and to get those crystals that you've been going on about. Cally made the course change hours ago."

"I think I'd better talk to Avon," Tarrant decided. "You never said where he was."

Dayna sighed deeply. "Not this again. Leave him alone. Put your energies to use elsewhere."

"Never mind." Tarrant crumpled the computer printout into a ball and threw it at her. "I'll find him myself."

Tarrant stalked through the corridors, anger burning a sharp path up his spine. Naturally, he was the last to know of their plans. He was only the pilot, not someone who need be consulted or informed. No one had considered that he might have personal knowledge about Shastri Station.

Or was it that they didn't trust anything he had to say anyway, after Keezarn?

And why did Avon have Tarrant's report displayed on his monitor?

The two of them had to learn to communicate, even if it killed them. Moving to confront Avon, Tarrant wouldn't have placed a bet against that fatal possibility. A Targan warg strangler's den was probably safer than a cornered Avon.

From the work list, Tarrant had two or three good ideas concerning Avon's whereabouts. He found him on his second try.

Avon was seated on the control room floor beside the exposed innards of one of the subsystems. His eyes were closed hollows; his skin pale and clammy.

Concern for a member of his crew took precedence over Tarrant's irritation. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

Avon's eyes popped open, a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment flitting across his face. "That's a stupid question, even for you." With obvious effort, he struggled to his feet.

Tarrant didn't miss that Avon kept his hand on the wall for support. Nor that the flesh of that hand had the unnatural flush of a recent burn.

"Maybe you should take a break," he said.

"The only break I need is one from you. If you came here simply to aggravate me, you have succeeded. Now get out. I have work to do."

"You can't do it very efficiently dead on your feet," Tarrant persisted. He stared pointedly at Avon's injured hand. "Exhaustion can lead to accidents."

Avon reached into a drawer and pulled free a laser cutter. He waved it menacingly in the air. "Then you will probably want to leave before I turn this on."

Tarrant backed out of the room, upset with Avon, more upset with himself. He'd handled that badly. A good leader would have been able to convince Avon to rest. He'd failed at that, and hadn't even touched on the purpose of his visit, discussing the harsher aspects of Shastri Station.

Inexplicably, Tarrant felt a sudden urge to cry. It was ridiculous. He hadn't cried since he was a small child, when Deeta had unintentionally broken one of his toys. He hadn't even thought about crying since that first, lonely night at Space Academy.

It was because he was ill, he decided. He'd detour to the med unit and get something for his nausea before he set to work. If he didn't start keeping something down, he'd end up dehydrated on top of everything else.

Cally stood at the top of the stairs, watching the exchange between Dayna and Vila.

"I'm not hungry," Dayna said, shooing Vila away.

"But you have to eat to keep your strength up," he insisted. "I know."

"How do you know?"

"We had a touch of excess radiation a couple of times before, and we didn't have any decontaminant drugs that first time. Blake found some, though. I thought I could trust Blake to manage that. Most of the time you could trust Blake, except for two or three times when you couldn't." He met her eyes, smiling. "Now what's your answer?"

Dayna laughed. "Vila, I've forgotten the question."

"Do you want to have lunch with me?"

"I think it is a good idea," Cally said, taking the steps very carefully. She was almost certain that Vila's babbling had been deliberate, an effort to cheer Dayna, and she approved.

"I will then," Dayna said, her eyes momentarily twinkling to their old brightness, "if you join us, Cally. I need a chaperon."

Cally thought briefly of refusing. There was so much work to be done. But Vila was right; they needed nourishment.

"Cally?"

"I'll come," she said, wishing she hadn't bothered to descend the flight stairs. "Zen, take over the watch. Contact us in the Rest Room if anything requires attention."

"Confirmed."

Dayna fell into step beside Cally. "How long was it before you felt better last time?"

"I wasn't exposed to the radiation the first time. It was Avon, Vila, and...some of the others. The second time, I was exposed for a much shorter duration than the others."

"I was ill for weeks," Vila said from behind them. "Not that anyone believed me. Blake put me back to work as soon as the med computer gave the okay. What does it know? It wasn't designed to treat humans. Cally, do you think I could have some adrenaline and soma with lunch?"

"I don't know," she teased. "It was that untrustworthy medical computer that prescribed the treatment."

"We have to give it a chance," Vila hurried out. "It is the only doctor on board."

"Then we'd best stop by medical and pick some up."

That errand accomplished, they continued on to the Rest Room. Cally was crossing its threshold when she remembered, "We won't be able to use the dispensers here."

"Yes, you will," Tarrant's voice called from the far corner. "I've just finished with the wash." He consulted a small counter in his hand. "The radiation level is well within safe limits, even considering the effects of cumulative exposure."

"Thank you, Tarrant," Cally said. "I don't think any of us were up to a trip to the inner holds to get food."

"Well...you're welcome." He averted his eyes, turning his attention to recoiling a length of hose.

"My treat, Dayna," Vila said, giving Tarrant a wide berth as he walked to the selector buttons. "What will it be?"

"I don't know," she sighed. "Nothing appeals to me."

"Then it will be chef's surprise." Vila's fingers tripped across a series of keys. "For two."

Dayna giggled and sat at the dining table. Cally settled tiredly beside her, barely resisting the urge to lower her head onto the flat surface. She thought she must have nodded off for a moment because in the blink of an eye Vila was placing two plates on the table.

"What would you like, Cally?" he asked.

"Nothing right now."

Vila placed his hands on his hips and assumed a stern pose. "If you don't eat, I'm going to have to spoon feed you."

"All right, but I'll get it myself." She decided on simple broth, and quickly keyed in a request. "Avon's the one who probably needs feeding. He often forgets to eat in the best of times."

"Remind him later," Vila said, "after I'm finished." He faced Dayna as Cally returned to the table. "Did anyone ever tell you about our trip to Varga Minor? That was one time Avon didn't forget to eat. Blake sent the two of us to contact a local resistance leader. We were to meet in a high-class restaurant. Well, the man was late. Hours late. In the meantime, Avon..."

Vila launched into a tale that Cally guessed would be equal parts truth and exaggeration. She didn't have the energy to listen. It took all of her strength to sip the broth and hold her thumping head erect.

She almost fell asleep sitting up again, but a clattering snapped her to full awareness.

"Careful with those tools," Vila was warning Tarrant, "or Avon will ship you to Cygnus Alpha."

"It's not damaged." The pilot placed the last one back in the carry case and stood.

He might have swayed slightly before gaining his balance. Cally wasn't sure. She didn't entirely trust her exhaustion-blurred eyes. But it reminded her to ask, "Tarrant, have you been following the medication schedule I laid out?"

"Yes." He started for the door.

"How are you...?" Tarrant disappeared from sight before she could finish her question.

"Oh." Cally rubbed at her temples, the room suddenly swirling about her.

"Are you going to faint?" Vila squeaked while scrambling out of his chair.

"No. But I do need to rest. There's so much to do."

"There's no rush," Dayna said. "Vila, help her to her cabin."

"I will."

Cally felt his supporting arms go about her, gently urging her to her feet. "I should be running daily scans on everyone."

"We're all adults," Vila said. "We don't need you clucking over us. An adrenaline and soma is all I need to set me to rights. Did I tell you about that first time when we were sick from radiation? It was when you and Blake were on Aristo. I was all set to...."

A whirring noise penetrated Avon's sleep, continuing insistently until he could no longer ignore it. Eyes still closed, he groped with his right hand to extinguish the wake alarm.

He dragged his body through its morning ritual. He showered, shaved, and dressed mechanically while his mind reviewed the information he had on Shastri. His first priority was securing the crystals. He would manage that himself while the others recuperated. Not that they could let down their guards. No place was entirely safe, and he intended to caution them to that effect.

Despite his languid pace, he was still the first member of the crew to reach the flight deck. Cally arrived ten minutes later, shortly after he had completed a routine exchange with Zen on the status of the ship.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Better for having slept. I think you were wise to turn the watch over to Zen. The side effects are even more debilitating than I had imagined. We are going to need the opportunity to relax on Shastri."

"This trip isn't entirely recreational," he reminded her.

"I hope that doesn't mean work," Vila said, thumping down the stairs, Dayna behind him. Vila's hair was mussed and he was fastening the buttons on his shirt. "I'm not up to work."

"You never are," Dayna teased. Then her face grew serious, "But I'll have to admit that I agree with you this time. I still feel drained."

Cally gave her a quick visual inspection. "After Avon's meeting, we'll go to medical and I'll run a scan."

"I don't feel that badly," the young girl said. "About the same as yesterday."

"Better to be safe." Cally's eyes roamed over Avon and Vila. "How are you both?"

"Don't ask," Vila moaned. "I'd rather not think about it."

"I'm fine." Avon tapped impatiently at his console. "Where is Tarrant? Has anyone seen him?" The women shook their heads.

"He was in his cabin earlier," Vila said. "But I haven't heard anything from there recently."

"Did he know about the meeting?" Cally asked.

"I routed the message to his console as I did with the rest of you."

"I never saw that," Dayna admitted. "I wouldn't have known if Cally hadn't told me."

Sure enough, when Avon checked the pilot position, the green message light was still blinking. "If only he were half as efficient as he pretends," he noted with irritation.

"I'll call him." Cally reached for the intraship communicator controls.

"Try," Avon said, "but he won't hear you if he's in his room. I haven't finished replacing the damaged relays. The ones that serve the sleep wing are still inoperational."

There was no response to Cally's summons. Avon sighed tiredly, resigned to making the long jaunt to Tarrant's cabin himself.

Cally started to stand. "I could..."

"No. I'll fetch him."

"Don't be too rough on him," Vila said, then squirmed slightly when three sets of surprised eyes were directed his way. "Well...you know...murdering our one and only pilot might not be a good idea."

With Vila's admonition still on his mind, Avon rapped lightly at Tarrant's door. "Tarrant," he called, "are you in there?" When there was no answer, he pulled his fist back to sharpen his knock, but instead found his palm going to the entry plate. To his surprise, the door slid open. He would have expected it to be locked to anyone except the room's occupant. His certainly was.

Tarrant was sprawled prone on the bed, fully clothed, including his boots. Tiptoeing closer, Avon judged him to be deeply asleep. There was a basin that contained a small puddle of sour-smelling liquid resting on a table next to the bunk.

Avon felt his uncertain stomach balk at the smell, but he forced his feet to the table anyway and plucked a wrinkled computer printout from its surface. It was the list of repair jobs that he had prepared. Several of them were crossed out. Others had checks beside them.

He guessed the marks indicated which jobs were completed and which ones Tarrant intended to tackle next. Though Avon, in general, approved of the pilot's choices, he cringed when he saw that a computer project--correction, a critical computer project--was one of the items checked. He pictured Tarrant pawing over the fragile helix core interface which linked Zen to the battle computers and went cold. He wasn't allowing untrained hands anywhere near that delicate circuitry. It was just as well that Avon was ordering everyone off the ship when they reached Shastri.

Tarrant shuddered in his sleep, reminding Avon of where he was. He quietly padded from the room. His briefing on their plans might actually go more smoothly without Tarrant's irksome presence. He'd let the young man rest and fill him in later.

#

Dayna felt better already. The prospect of shopping in a civilized city, something she had literally never done before, revived her appreciably. And she was going to stay in a very nice hotel and soak in a bubble bath--she wasn't sure what that was, but it sounded enchanting. She was also looking forward to a visit to the local museum of armaments, which Zen said was fairly well known in this sector for its collection of antique edged weapons. Making sure she had a few days' supply of medication tucked into her kit, she left her quarters and started toward the teleport section. This was almost worth getting sick for, she thought, humming under her breath, her long stride carrying her quickly along the corridor.

Hearing raised voices, she slowed her walk. They were at it again. Damn, why was everything so difficult? Why couldn't Tarrant just do what Avon told him to do for a change? She slowed to a halt between Vila and Cally, who were watching the argument through geometric-shaped perforations in the decorative divider between the teleport area and this corridor. Sotto voce, she asked, "What's the matter now?"

Almost gleefully, Vila piped, "Tarrant's royally pi--uh, angry because he wasn't consulted about either the location or the plan to retrieve the crystals. And Avon can't decide whether he thinks it's funny or mutiny."

Cally quelled him with a look. "This isn't amusing, Vila. It's dangerous. To all of us."

She started around him, but he put a hand on her arm, and suddenly serious, said, "Let me, Cally. If they both get mad at me, they can stop being mad at each other and save face at the same time."

Cally sighed heavily and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I'd like to take a stunner in there and ship them both down unconscious."

Dayna laughed, which gave them all away. Tarrant's voice vibrated with rage. "Do come join the fun, won't you? You'll get a better view of the proceedings from in here."

The three of them trailed into the teleport chamber, taking up positions according to their natures, Dayna thought, seating herself behind the console and regarding both men with frank curiosity. Cally approached and stood between the two as if to keep them from a physical confrontation, her expression a mixture of chagrin and weariness. Vila remained just inside the doorway, his kit bag held protectively before his chest. When neither man spoke right away, Cally prompted, "Well? Don't let us stop your tantrum. You did invite us to witness it."

Dayna grinned. Vila seemed to grow smaller. Avon affected amusement. Tarrant exploded. "Did none of you consider that I might have been here before? I had a destination in mind where we could have retrieved the crystals and rested up in safety. The station is a very bad place to be! The ratio of bounty hunters to other inhabitants is probably two to one. And that's not even mentioning the pirates."

Avon said quietly, "You're welcome to teleport to the planet with the others, Tarrant, where you'll be safe."

There was a moment of crackling silence, after which Tarrant said in a deadly voice Dayna had never heard from him before, "I am coming with you."

"No."

Tarrant clenched the muscles in his jaw. Dayna rested her chin in her hand. This was fascinating. Apparently striving to be the voice of reason, the pilot said, "Then I'll stay here. It'll be faster if someone manually operates the teleport when you get in trouble."

Dayna sat up straight. No longer amused, Avon clasped his hands together behind his back, his spine rigid, eyes gone dark and hooded. "That might be difficult. Orac is shutting down life support in less than half an hour. It may not have occurred to you, Tarrant, but the very air you are breathing is radioactive." Dayna glanced toward Vila and saw his expected gulp. She thought he turned a little green. Avon continued, "It will be at least forty-eight hours before the ship regenerates sufficient breathable air to sustain life." He smiled. "I suppose you could stay here in a space suit."

Cally must have said something sharp to Avon telepathically then, because he suddenly gave her a startled look. She glared at him, then turned to Tarrant. "Shastri Station was my idea, Tarrant, not Avon's. In any case, we're here, and we can't afford to stay aboard long enough to go somewhere else. You were not awakened for the briefing because, whether you admit it or not, you took more rads than the rest of us. You needed to sleep. You especially needed to sleep more than you needed to argue with everyone!"

She stalked over to the teleport console, punched in a set of coordinates, fetched a bracelet and marched back to the bay. "Dayna, put me down. I've had enough of this for one day."

Dayna rather enjoyed that, and the look of confusion that flickered in Tarrant's blue eyes. It was followed by what the girl thought might be a flash of pain, immediately masked behind a mulish expression of stubborn determination. Once Cally had disappeared, Tarrant drew himself to his full height and suddenly changed tactics. "Avon, it is my professional opinion that you ought to have someone guard your back. Since you seem determined to proceed, I offer my services in that capacity."

Quickly, Dayna looked at the older man. Tarrant obviously expected another scathing comment, probably something about Tarrant's fitness to guard anything. Instead, Avon relaxed, strolled across to the rack and tossed a bracelet to Tarrant. "Very well, I accept your offer. Are you ready to teleport?"

With an ironic bow, Tarrant indicated that he was, indeed, ready. Avon recited teleport coordinates to Dayna, who entered them carefully. Standing apart as far as they could in the bay and still teleport at the same time, the men disappeared.

Dayna finally allowed herself to laugh again. "I'm glad I'm not going with them. Well, Vila, do you know where you want to go?"

The thief scurried over to fetch his own teleport bracelet, then crossed to the console and put in his chosen coordinates. "I'm going some place I'm sure I won't run into those two. Bounty hunters would be better!"

When Vila had gone, Dayna entered her own coordinates, retrieved her bag and bracelet and said, "Orac, put me down." The machine's only response was to activate the teleport.

Tarrant pushed himself to match Avon's pace along the concourse toward a section where mercenaries and shippers tended to gather to do business. The young man suspected his companion had taken a stimulant of some kind, because he showed no signs of the bothersome weakness Tarrant was fighting. Somehow, the tech had obviously found out where to go. Tarrant wondered whether he'd already arranged a meeting, or intended to play it by ear. He'd be damned if he'd ask. And they still had to talk about Avon getting into Tarrant's private working files. Just now, however, Tarrant had to concentrate on keeping them both alive.

This area was not the worst part of the Station, but neither was it safe. They'd hardly moved a hundred meters when the pilot realized the crowd was parting for them as if Avon had a force wall in advance of his steps. Well, they were both armed, but so was everyone else. Tarrant glanced sideways at Avon without turning his head and had to smile. No wonder. Dressed in unrelieved black and wearing his coldest visage, Avon would give any normal person pause. These people, as attuned to danger as the Liberator crew, could recognize trouble when it walked toward them with no apparent intention of stepping aside. Now, so long as they didn't run into someone who had to prove he owned the middle of the concourse....

Avon turned left so suddenly Tarrant nearly lost him, and disappeared between two stalls full of what were doubtless stolen computer parts. Cursing under his breath, he rushed to catch up. By the time he reached Avon's side, the man was already in conversation with an unsavory looking person who badly needed a bath and a shave. The merchant glanced at Tarrant, gestured with a smelly cheroot in his grubby fingers and asked, "Who's this, then? Your keeper?"

Apparently unmoved, Avon drawled, "This is a man you don't want to cross, Relk. The first time I met him, he was engaged in efficiently exterminating a Federation death squad. Now do you want to trade insults with us, or do business?" Tarrant masked his astonishment and assumed his most threatening stance at Avon's shoulder, his hand on his weapon.

Gap-toothed, Relk smiled and scratched his pot belly. "No offense meant, young 'un. Business it is. Care to conduct it over drinks?"

"I do not."

The fellow sighed. "Well, I don't have the crystals here is the problem, y'see."

Tarrant grinned at him. "Do you have them at all?"

"Oh, I got 'em. Finest on the station. How do ye want to do this?"

Avon tilted his head, studying the man as if he were an insect. "I want you to bring the crystals here. Now. I will pay you on delivery." Opening his hand, he displayed a gold chain accented with a half dozen glittering firestones. "We conduct business. Now. Or no deal." He smiled brilliantly. "You'll forgive me if I'd rather not give you time to make some...other...arrangements."

The man's rheumy grey eyes blinked twice. Again the gap-toothed grin. "I like a man knows what he wants and gets right to it. I'll be back inside fifteen minutes. Will that do?"

Avon uttered tonelessly, "In sixteen minutes, I will be gone."

The trader disappeared behind a stack of boxed computer parts. Tarrant turned in a circle, trying to find whomever was watching them. Someone was; he could feel it. Quietly, Avon said, "Look up."

Tarrant did, and saw movement at an overhead air vent. Direct line of fire. "I really do not like this, Avon."

"I don't intend to stand here waiting for Relk. I put a locator on him. Come on." Flashing a glimpse of a palm-sized screen toward Tarrant, Avon set off in the direction their new acquaintance had taken. Irritated, Tarrant followed. He really hated it when Avon didn't tell him things. Things he had a right to know, damn the man. "How do you know he's not leading us into a trap?"

Avon flashed a feral grin. "I don't."

Tarrant had seen him like this before. Whenever they were in real danger, Avon almost seemed in his element. He rode the adrenaline as if he'd invented it, Tarrant thought, and revised upwards his estimation of how dangerous Avon might be. Concentrate, he scolded himself. You'll be just as dead as he is if you allow yourself to be distracted and it really is a trap.

They were in the warren of service corridors that ran behind the shops along the port side of the station concourse. A man could get lost here and not find his way out for days, Tarrant knew. There were stories about people who starved to death in here, confused by the many levels and directions. There were also cul-de-sacs and dead-ends. Tarrant liked this less with every step. It couldn't be far now, he thought, if Relk had really meant to return within the time specified, even if he'd been planning to bring help. Tarrant stifled a sneeze. Dust. What did that mean? This was an unfrequented passageway?

Avon stopped suddenly and Tarrant nearly ran him down. A hand up for silence, Avon strained toward the corner, listening. Tarrant couldn't quite make out what the muttered voices were saying. Softly, Avon breathed, "Damn." He glanced at Tarrant. "Get out. Now." Then he pulled his gun and charged around the corner, firing.

What the hell? Tarrant drew his own weapon, rolled to the center of the corridor and, for a nearly fatal moment, froze. Avon had killed Relk outright, and the ragged figure lying across him seemed to be just about done for. Avon was rifling a box in the corner, probably looking for the nonexistent crystals. Behind him, emerging from an air vent was a man Tarrant knew. "Avon! Behind you!" he shouted, and fired.

The man tumbled to the deck wounded, and immediately started crawling toward his fallen plasma gun. Avon whirled as Tarrant shouted and before the pilot could cross the few meters toward them, he'd put one knee in the middle of the man's back, holstered his blaster and yanked the man's head up by its greasy yellow hair.

"Wexel," Tarrant spat.

Avon purred, "You know this person, Tarrant?"

"I thought he was dead."

"Oh, he is," Avon smiled. He flexed his wrist and a knife appeared in his hand as if teleported. He laid the edge almost gently against Wexel's throat.

"No, Avon." Tarrant hardly recognized his own voice. "This bastard is mine."

Avon rose, somehow made the knife disappear and drew his blaster even as Tarrant approached and kicked Wexel hard enough to turn him on his back. Tarrant saw the man's hand twitch as if to grab for his ankle, and snarled, "Please do, Wexel. Shorten your miserable existence that much more."

The man's narrow green eyes sparked hatred and he cursed fluently in several languages. Tarrant said calmly, "Helen died, Wexel. Badly, because you left us stranded. You know how I felt about Helen."

The man spewed something particularly vile about Helen and Tarrant fired. He waited to feel something like--what? Relief? He raised his eyes and met Avon's. Something about the way the man was looking at him struck Tarrant on a raw nerve and he hissed, "So much for your grand plan."

Avon's face went blank again, his eyes unreadable. He might have been a machine for all the color in his voice when he said, "If you are trying to get me to kill you, all you have to do is ask."

Tarrant, wondering why he hurt so, grinned deliberately. "I'll bear it in mind. Now, shall we obtain the crystals?"

"How do you suggest we do that?"

"Follow me," he said, and walked away.

#

Cally stared at the curtains fluttering in the gentle breeze without actually seeing them or the lush gardens beyond the open double doors. After arriving at her chosen destination exhausted, she had found that she was too tense to sleep.

The discord on Liberator gnawed at her nerve centers to the point where she was seriously considering quitting the ship. It would be a painful separation, if she were to leave the people who had grown almost as close as family, but she'd prefer that to watching Avon or Tarrant kill the other. There seemed to be no way to get beyond their Alpha-male rivalry, which was probably exacerbated by the fact that the two men were so much alike.

If they had found Blake... But they hadn't, and the possibility of locating him or Jenna grew more remote every day. It was a large galaxy.

Briefly, her memory strayed to Auron and her clone sister Zelda. She wished she could be with her, even while knowing that they each had different life paths to follow.

It would be like that with her Liberator shipmates. She'd miss them, think of them often, but it was better to part before internal strife tore them asunder.

On that thought, she realized that she had made her decision, and a calming peace settled over her. With a sad smile creasing her lips, she reached for the teleport bracelet on the nightstand and activated the link to Orac.

"What is it?" the computer snapped.

"Orac, it is Cally. I'd like you to prepare a list of known rebel groups for me. Include a summary of their activities, an evaluation of their leaders, and any information that you deem pertinent."

"Pertinent to what? I cannot read your mind."

"Pertinent to whether you think I could find a place in their organization."

There was an uncomputer-like pause before Orac asked, "Does this project have priority over my supervision of repairs on Liberator?"

"I would like it when I return to the ship," she answered, knowing very well that Orac could work on more than one task at a time. "I prefer to depart as soon as possible."

#

The entertainment section of Shastri Station that Vila had chosen to be a home away from home wasn't proving as amusing as he'd imagined. There were bars, restaurants, dancing houses, and pleasure establishments galore, but the people mingling within their confines were a rough, dirty, dangerous-looking lot.

After sampling a half dozen "night" spots, Vila still hadn't found one in which he felt comfortable...or safe. A man couldn't get jolly drunk if he had to worry about his back. Resigned to a less adventuresome vacation planetside, Vila sought out an isolated alley and called Orac for teleport.

"Really, with these constant interruptions, it is almost impossible to get anything done."

"Don't give me a hard time," Vila countered. "I don't like this any better than you do. Besides, this is the first time I've contacted you since I left. Have you heard from the others? Did Avon get the crystals?"

"I have no information on the crystals. I have recently finished a conversation with Cally."

"With Cally," Vila repeated. He'd had a nagging worry about the Auron since her hasty departure. "Is she all right?"

"All right is a relative term that requires defined parameters before an assessment can be made. However, in my best judgment, Cally is not all right. She has requested information on rebel groups with the intention of departing Liberator."

"She what!" Vila yelled before he remembered where he was and the need for cautious quiet. "Orac, that's terrible. What am I going to do?"

"Is that a serious question?"

"No, of course it isn't, you ignorant block of plastic. Stand by while I think."

Cally was ill, Vila reasoned, or she would never have considered this crazy idea. But what if she left before she recognized her mistake? Someone had to talk sense into her. With a mental groan, he realized he'd have to be that someone.

Not alone. He couldn't do it alone. "Orac, are you sure that Avon hasn't obtained the crystals yet?"

"As I have stated, I have no information relating to that subject. Repeating the question will not produce a different answer. If you..."

"Never mind," Vila wailed. He didn't dare interrupt Avon in what might be the middle of delicate negotiations. "Do you know where Dayna is?"

"She teleported to the planet shortly after you left."

"Do you know where she teleported?"

"Of course I do."

"Then send me there, to the same coordinates."

"Very well."

#

Dayna scooped up a handful of moist bubbles with one hand and reached for the glass of champagne with her other. "Bubbles, bubbles," she crooned. "So many pretty bubbles."

Slightly drunk, she almost put the filmy soap globes to her lips instead of the fluted glass. She caught herself just in time. "Oh my," she said, recognizing her impaired condition at the same moment that a chime tinkled through the air.

"Who can that be?" she wondered, identifying the sound as the transmission system that served the high-rise luxury hotel. She wasn't expecting a call. "Only one way to find out," she decided dreamily, and picked up the communicator that rested beside the sunken tub.

Slowed by her inebriated state, an impatient, familiar voice squawked from the machine before she could set her mouth to forming words. "Dayna, are you there? Answer me. It's Vila, and I need help."

"Call Cally. Call Avon. Call Tarrant. I'm busy."

"Dayna? What's the matter?"

"I'm indulging." She hiccuped. "What about you?"

"You're drunk," the voice accused.

"Just a little."

"This is all I need. Really all I need. I'm on an in-house communicator. I have your room number. I'll be there in two minutes."

Dayna observed her state of nakedness. "Make that five," she said, not attempting to mask discontent from her voice. "And this better be important."

#

Avon, shivering on the edge of a crash as the stimulant he'd taken earlier began to wear thin, followed the boy's stiff back. He knew he'd over-reacted and it was embarrassing. The young man's face had clearly shown his pain, and he'd resented Avon's witnessing it. Avon could understand that. Resolving not to get into a fatal argument with his only pilot, Avon eyed the unsavory lot that swirled around them as Tarrant forged ahead, past the market-type stalls, up a liftshaft and finally into a small office which bore only a number on the door. Inside was a rat-faced person of indeterminate gender, which bolted to its feet and screeched, "Tarrant!"

To Avon's astonishment, Tarrant failed to kill the thing when it launched itself at him and wrapped its arms around him. Instead, the boy suffered the assault for a few moments, then set the creature on its feet and turned slightly toward Avon without really looking at him. "This is Kerr Avon. Avon, meet Ferret. We worked together before--before Wexel."

Ferret stared with nearly colorless eyes at Avon, then offered a long-fingered hand, which Avon ignored. It gulped, and said, "So, it's true. You are running with Blake's people." Then, as if the thought just occurred, it squeaked, "He's here, Tarrant. I saw him earlier this week, with a trader named--"

"Relk," Tarrant finished. "He's dead."

Ferret shivered, then grinned, which, impossibly, made it even uglier. "Thanks, Tarrant. What can I do for you?"

"We need a gross of good quality flare shield crystals for the Liberator. We'll give you a fair price."

Ferret breathed, "The Liberator." The ugly little creature's eyes were full of sudden wonder, and Avon turned abruptly away to study something on the wall, which turned out to be an amazingly pornographic picture. He folded his arms and settled for staring at the deck. Leaving the negotiations to Tarrant, Avon concentrated on staying on his feet, reluctant to take another stimulant. There was a window which looked out over the concourse and Avon wandered across the room to stand there and watch the colorful throng below. It reminded him of a Delta dome, he thought; especially the smells. He suddenly wondered where Vila was, then just as suddenly reminded himself he couldn't care less. He glanced at his chronometer. God, still forty-six hours until he could lie down in his own bunk to sleep.

"Right," Tarrant said, in a tone that caught Avon's attention. "That's a deal, then." He turned toward Avon as Ferret disappeared through a rear door. "He's going to get them now. We'll take them to a planetside hotel until we can return to the ship." Ironically, he added, "If that meets with your approval, of course."

Avon's temper flared. Oozing arrogance, he said, "I believe that will be adequate."

Tarrant shifted slightly to face him head on. "You'd recognize adequate," he sneered, "since that appears to be your level of competence."

The window ledge was inches behind him. Avon leaned onto it to disguise the sag in his posture. "I could only wish," he said evenly, "that you knew your own limitations as well as you presume to know mine." He aimed a finger at Tarrant's breast. "Don't you ever even breathe near the helix core interface."

"How did you...?" Tarrant's momentary puzzlement gave way to fury. "The battle computers should have received priority attention. You weren't doing anything. I could have...."

"...corrupted the system so completely that even the original inventor would not have been able to piece it together. Don't touch the computer."

"You know, I really have had just about enough of you, Avon."

"And I you, boy." The withering scorn in his voice hit visibly home, and Avon put his hand on the butt of his weapon. "If you think you are fast enough, try it," he offered.

Tarrant seemed to entertain the idea, then folded his arms. "No. I'll not give you the satisfaction. Get someone else to kill you, you bastard."

Avon felt the blood drain from his head. He straightened, took three steps to invade Tarrant's personal space and grated, "I want you off my ship, Tarrant. I am tired of your adolescent posturing, your attempts to assume command, your underactive intellect and your overactive mouth."

The young man paled, but didn't move. There was a flash of something Avon found far too familiar in the blue eyes, but the boy covered it swiftly and inclined his head in a regal nod. "As Cally recently reminded me, you were there first. I trust you will permit me to complete this transaction before taking my leave. I should hate to think of the others dying because you couldn't manage to obtain proper crystals."

A vibrant silence filled the tiny office until Ferret returned with a box on a hoverpad trailing behind him. He broke it open and gestured for them to inspect the goods. Avon shouldered past Tarrant and carefully lifted a crystal from its felt-lined cavity. He carried it to the window, not liking the yellowish light in the room and held it up to inspect the clarity. Not bad.

Deciding he wanted a look at a crystal or two from the lowest layer of the box, he turned back toward the hoverpad just as the world exploded around them. Behind Avon the window blew in. He hit the floor rolling, gun in hand, seeking a target. For a wild moment, he thought Tarrant had tried to shoot him in the back. Then he saw the young man's expression of surprise as he pivoted toward the broken window turn to one of utter incredulity as he saw Avon aiming a blaster at him. Avon swept the boy's feet out from under him just as Ferret fired the ugly clipgun he'd produced from his desk. Part of Avon's mind realized the broken window had been intended to distract them from Ferret so he could get the drop on them even as the rest of him was rolling to his feet and firing at the ugly little man who'd betrayed them as he darted out the door. Scanning the room, he waited a heartstopping moment for a further attack, then wondered why Tarrant wasn't shouting at him for knocking him down. He took the time to close the door before peering out over the sill to seek the accomplice. No one appeared to be interested in this particular window. Only then did Avon turn to Tarrant. No wonder he was silent. He'd been shot. Wonderful.

Kneeling beside him, Avon felt for and found a pulse at the carotid artery. He pulled the hoverpad over near Tarrant and kept a hand on it while he keyed his bracelet. "Orac, I need teleport for Tarrant and myself to...the secondary coordinates I gave you." There was a pause while nothing happened save for more blood draining from the ugly wound high in Tarrant's back. "Orac! Respond at once!"

"It does require a finite amount of time, Avon, to change teleport coordinates. Teleporting now."

Once the shambles of an office disappeared around them to be replaced by a bright, broad roadway lined with blue-leaved trees, Avon keyed the communicator again. "Orac, get me a groundcar at this location. Tarrant has been shot."

The computer whined its irritation. "Oh, very well. Will that be all the services you require at this time?"

Avon grinned. He responded to Orac, "That will do. Time of arrival of groundcar, please?" Kneeling to press his handkerchief over the wound, he then tore a strip off the hem of his favorite tunic to hold it in place.

"You should see it momentarily. Now if you are quite finished interrupting me, I have work to do here."

"Thank you, Orac." Indeed, an empty car arrived within three minutes. Avon was glad there had been no traffic, having little desire to come to the attention of whatever authorities might be in charge of this thoroughfare.

After some furious thought while the vehicle followed Avon's instructions to take them to the Radzen Hotel, Avon shrugged out of his jacket and put it on Tarrant. It looked rather odd, a plain black jacket over Tarrant's brown vest and cream-colored shirt, but he had to hide the wound until they were in the hotel room. Reluctantly, he put both their guns into the carryall that Tarrant had slung over his shoulder. He only hoped the injured man would stay unconscious a bit longer.

When the valet opened the car door, Avon gasped desperately, "Help me, my nephew is ill. I need to get him into a bed and give him his medication immediately."

The startled valet rushed into the hotel and returned with the concierge and a hoverchair no doubt kept on hand for elderly and invalid guests. The concierge offered to get an ambulance or a doctor, but Avon insisted the boy would be all right as soon as he was put in bed and given his usual medicine. The lavish amount of money he handed out insured that his wishes were followed, including the prompt delivery of the box of crystals to their suite.

By the time he'd had certain supplies delivered from the in-house pharmacy, dressed the blaster wound and administered Tarrant's dose of decontaminant along with a broad-spectrum antibiotic Avon carried to every new world he visited, the older man was ready to collapse. He sat in a chair beside the bed, where a still unconscious Tarrant was breathing too shallowly and much too rapidly, and put his face in his hands. He'd made himself take his own medicine, but that was all he could manage before sleep dragged him under.

#

"Vila," Dayna shook his shoulder. "Wake up. It's morning. Hopefully, Cally will have had a good night's sleep and be in a mood to listen to us."

"Morning...." Vila sniffled and coughed, then pulled the blanket closer about his body.

Dayna tried to prod him along. "I'll order breakfast while you shower." She reached for the communicator. "I'd think you'd be anxious to get up after a night on that short sofa."

"I can sleep anywhere."

"We want to catch Cally before she heads out for the day. She might have plans. I thought I'd be shopping this morning and visiting the museum in the afternoon."

Vila creaked to his feet and stretched. "I thought I'd be sleeping...and not alone."

"O-o-oh," Dayna purred. "Did you really? Do you suppose Avon...?"

"I wouldn't even think about it if I were you." Scooping up his kit bag on the way, he moved toward the bath. "Are you sure Cally is at that inn?"

"She has to be. It's the only civilized place anywhere near her teleport coordinates. And it sounds like the type of place that she'd enjoy."

"I suppose. Well, I'll be quick." Vila paused on the threshold and called over his shoulder, "Get me a large breakfast. I think my appetite is finally returning. And don't forget to ask about arranging some type of private transport. We can't walk there, you know."

"I know. And don't you forget your medicine."

#

Avon was on his feet before his eyes opened, ready for battle. Blinking about, he saw Tarrant tossing restlessly in the bed, and remembered. He glanced at his chronometer. Still thirty-six hours before they could return to the ship to use the surgical unit. Stifling a groan, Avon bent over the boy to check his condition. He had a fever, but the wound showed no sign of infection as yet. Probably just the natural side effect of a blaster injury. He changed the dressing, then eased Tarrant to his back once more and applied another patch of decontaminant over the antecubital vein. He was grateful no one at the pharmacy had questioned his request for decontaminant patches. Which reminded him, they'd have to re-supply the ship with decontaminant drugs before they left the planet.

Lowering himself into the chair once more, Avon wondered where he was going to find the strength to take the shower he rather desperately needed. Briefly, he considered calling one of the others to help him with Tarrant. No. Each of them was ill and needed to rest as much as Avon did. And they'd only drive him mad insisting on a physician. Avon was fairly certain Tarrant could survive another day and a half without taking such a risk. In spite of the radiation sickness, the pilot was a strong and healthy man. The wound was not in a vital area and the blood loss had not been dangerous. Of course, if he didn't wake up soon, he'd need intravenous treatment, in which case the risk would have to be taken.

Avon's eyes were closing again when he heard Tarrant mutter something. Without thinking about it, Avon said, "Relax, Tarrant. You're safe now. Just rest."

When the boy moaned, Avon abruptly realized he was probably in considerable pain, and applied another patch to his arm, this one containing a painkiller that was, according to the packaging, not supposed to affect blood pressure. The computer tech was nearly asleep when he heard, "Avon?"

Forcing his eyes open, he stared at Tarrant. The too-bright blue eyes were regarding him with an expression he could not read. "I'm here," he soothed. "Try to sleep."

"Where are we?"

"That planetside hotel you mentioned. Now shut up and rest." He was sure Tarrant said something else, but he was already sliding down into a comfortable darkness.

"Avon," Tarrant tried once again to get his shipmate's attention, but wasn't surprised when his hoarse whisper failed to gain a response. Avon's body was slumped in the relaxed lines of sleep. Tarrant wished the other man had answered one or two more questions before succumbing to exhaustion.

Left to his own devices, Tarrant struggled up on his elbows. The movement made him aware of a throbbing in his back. It jarred his memory. Something had thudded into him at the same moment that Avon had knocked him down. With some surprise he realized that he'd been shot, and not by Avon. That only left Ferret.

"Damn him," Tarrant muttered and found that his anger gave him a little strength. Before that slipped away, he rolled his body off the bed and staggered to his feet.

The box, presumably with the crystals still inside, rested on a nearby clothes chest. That was one worry taken care of. Now where were their guns? Tarrant scanned the room, saw clumpings of gauze, tape, and other medical supplies strewn messily about. Nothing else, except his pack. More lurching than walking, he made his way to it. Inside, his hand closed over the familiar round handle of a Liberator gun. Two worries down. He thought maybe he could just manage the last pressing problem, a trip to the bath to use the facilities and get a drink, before he collapsed.

#

"Cally," Vila pleaded from where he sat cross-legged on the floor beside the open doors, "please reconsider."

Perched on the side of the bed with her hands folded in her lap, Cally's expression was torn as she replied, "I appreciate your concern, but I really think it is for the best."

"Will you tell us why?" Dayna asked softly.

While Cally thought about answering, Vila looked about the modest room that so matched his shipmate's personality. It was small and neat, with a narrow bed and one chair. A spray of fresh flowers on a stand was the room's only decoration.

"I don't think I can," Cally finally said. "It wouldn't be fair."

Vila snorted. "That means it's about Avon and Tarrant. Ignore them, they're like a couple of rutting schoolboys. You can't take their spats seriously."

"Life on board Liberator has become...unpleasant." Immediately, Cally blushed and amended, "I'm sorry. I wasn't referring to either of you."

"Avon and Tarrant," Vila repeated, throwing his hands up in the air with disgust. "How about if we tie them up in their rooms and only let them out on alternate Federation holidays?"

Dayna giggled, then put her fingers to her mouth when she saw the anguish gleaming in Cally's eyes. "We need you," she said, stretching her hand to the Auron.

Cally touched it lightly and managed a small smile. "You are both making this very difficult. It wasn't meant to be this way. I intended to make the break quick and clean. Orac should not have interfered."

"I think that box of bolts wanted us to persuade you to stay," Vila said. "Avon and Blake fought, Cally. You put up with them."

"They respected each other."

"It shouldn't be you who has to leave," he went on. "We could...."

Don't. The mental bolt shot into Vila's mind, silencing him. There is enough divisiveness in the crew. I will not be responsible for more.

Vila made a face that mirrored his discontent. "At least promise to think about it."

"I will. Now I refuse to spend my vacation being gloomy and morbid. The food here is reportedly excellent. Would you join me for lunch before you return to the city?"

"Yes." Dayna's voice was quiet and sad.

Vila patted her knee and mouthed, "I'm not giving up."

#

Avon heard himself groan as the gray fog lifted from his mind. He was immediately aware of an assortment of small aches consistent with his uncomfortable sleeping position. As his eyes slitted open, he sent them to his chronometer and found that he'd slept for four more hours. He felt marginally better for the additional rest.

Lifting his head to check on Tarrant, he saw the boy staring back at him from haggard eyes in a gray-cast face. The injured man was sitting up, propped against the headboard, a gun cradled in his right hand.

Though the features weren't the same, for a second Tarrant reminded him of another youth, considerably younger but no less grim and determined. A boy waiting with a gun gripped in his small hand for an enemy who never returned.

The memory brought pain, and Avon's words poured out somewhat harsher than he intended. "What do you think you're doing?"

Tarrant replied with a question of his own, one that Avon had to strain to hear. "Did you kill Ferret?"

"No."

"Then I'm keeping watch, in case...."

"In case he comes after us," Avon finished. It was a measure of his ill health that he hadn't thought of that himself. There had been plenty of time for Ferret to catch a shuttle to the planet, if he'd guessed that was where they had gone. "Is that likely?"

"I messed up," Tarrant said, irritating Avon when he again didn't give a direct answer to a question. "Didn't think. I told him too much. The reward...for you, me, Liberator. He couldn't have resisted it."

Avon tried again. "Will he be able to find us?"

Tarrant moved as if to shrug but could only manage a faint twitch. "He has a network of contacts. And he's brighter than he looks or acts. Maybe. Probably. Unless he thinks we left on the ship."

"You should lie down," Avon said. He reached to help, but was motioned away.

"No. Moving hurts. It's better if I do it myself." Tarrant gingerly started to slither down.

"If you require more pain medi...." Avon cut off when he noticed that Tarrant's arm was bare. "Why did you remove the medpatches?"

Tarrant waited until he was flat to reply. "I thought one might be a sedative. I needed to stay awake."

"That was bright. If you aggravated the radiation sickness or end up infected, you have only yourself to blame." Avon rummaged through the bag of pharmaceuticals for fresh patches. He pressed them into place, warning, "Touch them and I'll break your fingers."

"Avon, why are you bothering? You brought me here, tended my wound. You had the crystals. Why didn't you leave me on the Station?"

Discomfited by Tarrant's blunt question, Avon directed his attention to tidying the room, intentionally putting his back to the boy at the same time. "It didn't seem practical to let you bleed to death. Go to sleep. You will be no help in your present condition should your old friend come calling."

To Avon's annoyance Tarrant was still wide awake five minutes later when he glanced his way again. However, it gave him the opportunity to pursue a matter that he'd neglected. "Have you had anything to drink or eat?"

"Some water, earlier."

"There's a menu about. What would you like?"

"Nothing. My stomach. I can barely tolerate water."

Avon shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Perhaps he should call Cally. He fingered his teleport bracelet for a full minute before resigning himself to serving as nurse. "Ice chips are good for a queasy stomach," he said. "Stay alert while I fetch some."

It was extremely difficult being confined in close quarters with Del Tarrant, especially an ill, half-helpless Tarrant. Avon ordered a light meal and forced himself to eat it, all the while aware of Tarrant's puzzled eyes regarding him.

When the food was consumed and the dirty dishes taken away there was nothing to occupy his attention. An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Finding it unnerving, Avon cleared his throat and said, "It is difficult for me to judge how you are feeling. Would you like me to call a doctor or do you think we can postpone further treatment until we're back on Liberator?"

"Back on Liberator?" Tarrant echoed, reminding Avon of their stupid, senseless quarrel.

Avon pretended that he didn't understand Tarrant's question. "It is still over thirty hours until Orac's earliest prediction of when the ship will be habitable. It might be longer. What is your decision?"

"You've seen the wound. What do you think?"

"I imagine it is damned uncomfortable," Avon said. "Vila would be screaming his lungs out."

"Yes, well," Tarrant's lips turned up in a small smile, "it can't be too serious if he'd have the energy to do that. I'll manage."

"Can you also manage to stay awake long enough for me to shower?"

"Yes." It came out a bit wistful and envious.

If it had been Vila, or possibly even Blake, Avon might have offered a sponge bath. It caught him by surprise that he could consider that. When had he grown so close to either man?

Tarrant was fumbling his way up. "I don't want to take any chances," he explained when Avon turned a disapproving eye on him. "Ferret is particularly dangerous when his greed is aroused."

Such a stupid, silly, stubborn child, Avon mused, as he hurried into the adjoining bath. But even as that thought flashed across his brain, a contrary notion came hard on its heels. Tarrant sometimes gave the impression of having never been a child.

"No," Avon spoke out loud to banish the image, because the boy he pictured wasn't a young Tarrant. It was himself.

#

Dayna dabbed at her lips then set the napkin aside. "That was yummy."

"You seem to be feeling better," Cally noted.

"I think so," the girl agreed. "Breathing air that isn't recycled, and relaxing, have done wonders. I don't think I'm ready to run a marathon, but I'm definitely more comfortable."

"Well, don't overdo," Cally cautioned. "Getting plenty of rest is probably what has helped the most."

Vila nodded. "I'm happy to take that advice. It's too bad a certain pair of bullheaded Alphas don't have half an ounce of common sense between them. They'd be much easier to live with if they didn't constantly work themselves into cranky exhaustion."

"It's more than that," Cally said, knowing exactly what Vila was trying to do.

"Maybe, but it's worse when they're tired. You have to admit that."

"It gets my vote." Dayna pushed back her chair and stretched out her long, shapely legs. "This place is so peaceful. I might stay here for the rest of my visit."

"Oh no, you're not," Cally protested. "You were enjoying all of your luxuries, the bubble bath and the jacuzzi. And you had shopping trips planned and a museum expedition. And Vila," she added before he could chime in, "I won't hear it of you either. There are no inebriants served here."

"But Cally...," Vila began, only to stop as her eyes grew stormy.

"I do want to visit the gardens before we start back," Dayna said. "They looked beautiful from your room."

They walked slowly along a cobbled path that was flanked with perfectly manicured flower beds. None of them recognized the exotic species, but they appreciated their beauty.

"On Auron there is nothing like this," Cally told them. "What flowers we have grow wild."

"That's how it was on Sarran. But I saw pictures of formal gardens in the booktapes in father's library. It's much more impressive in real life." Dayna ran ahead a couple of steps and bent to sniff one of the larger blossoms. "It has a lovely fragrance." She beckoned for them to come and savor it. Cally, then Vila obligingly inhaled the scent and gave it their approval.

As Cally straightened she felt a slight dizziness. "I'm feeling tired," she said. "I think I'm ready for a nap."

"Are you all right?" Vila asked. "Have you been taking your medicine?"

"Yes and yes, but I have found this illness to be more wearing than I expected. I think I was fatigued going into it."

"We'll walk you back," Dayna sighed. "I don't like to think that this will be my last chance to be with you."

"I know." Cally squeezed her arm. She was grateful that her friends didn't try anymore persuasions as they wended their way back to the inn. After a quick series of farewell hugs, she waved them on their way. They followed the path to the parking lot while she went inside to pick up her key at the lobby desk.

"There's someone waiting to see you," the clerk informed her.

"In my room?" Cally asked, thinking it must be Avon. If Dayna and Vila could track her, there was no doubt that he could as well.

"No, no. We wouldn't give out your key without your permission. There's a small communal parlor down that corridor." He pointed toward a side passage. "It's the last room on the left."

Her steps were slow. She was anxious to see that Avon was safe and to find out if he had located replacement crystals, but she wasn't eager to tell him of her decision. Her plans to make a quick break were not working out. Still, she wouldn't hold back the information to make it easier on herself. He had a right to know. Clearing as much emotion as possible from her mind, she turned in at the parlor.

The most generous way to describe the room's only occupant would be to say that he was different. If he hadn't been wearing clothes and standing erect, she might have mistaken him for a humanoid-shaped animal.

"Excuse me," she said, walking up to him, "but have you seen a dark-haired, serious-looking man? I expected to meet him here."

"Ah." The stranger's face appeared to brighten. "Would his name be Avon?" Cally couldn't hold back a flicker of surprise from her eyes. He saw it and continued, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, my dear. You aren't Jenna, so you must be Cally." The hand he darted out wasn't extended in greeting. It held a gun.

Cally inspected the figure in front of her with thoughts of disarming him in mind. Again he perceived what she thinking. "I wouldn't try anything if I were you. You see some of my associates should be in close contact with some of your associates by now. Vila Restal and the girl. You wouldn't want them to get hurt."

"Who? What?"

"All in good time, my dear. All in good time. I believe we should go to your room to gather your belongings." His nose twitched, making his resemblance to an animal more acute than ever. "I have new accommodations in mind for you."

With Vila and Dayna in jeopardy, Cally followed his instructions with seeming meekness. He took possession of her teleport bracelet, gun, and knife. Everything else went into her valise.

"A gentleman would offer to carry that for you," he said with an ugly smile, "but then I'm not a gentleman. That's young Captain Tarrant's style. He has a way with the ladies."

Cally registered that he spoke as if he knew Tarrant. Slowly she was learning quite a bit from her captor. For instance, he had some knowledge of Liberator's crew, but it did not appear to be up to date. "Where are we going?" she ventured to ask.

"To the parking area." He guided her out the patio doors and along a path that circumvented the more heavily trafficked walks near the Inn.

That gave Cally other valuable pieces of information. The man wasn't stupid nor was he inclined to rash action. He had obviously canvased the place before attempting the kidnapping.

There was a large van in the far corner of the lot. It was dim and muggy inside. Cally could just make out Vila and Dayna, bound and gagged, on the floor. Three very large men stood guard over them. Though they appeared far more menacing than her escort, she intuitively knew that he was the real threat.

Soon she was trussed and seated beside her friends.

"What next?" one of the men asked her weasely companion.

"We take our time. Now that we have hostages, the others won't be going anywhere. Tarrant is dangerous, and I suspect that his buddy Avon isn't someone you'd want to meet in a dark alley either. Blake and Jenna have equally impressive reputations. They're going to come to me on my terms at a place of my choosing."

"We'll be going back to the station then," the tallest of the trio guessed.

"You get a gold star, Pite. Well, gentlemen, I want Cowker up front with me to handle the navigating. You others may keep our visitors entertained."

Dayna. Vila. Cally telepathed while their captors were temporarily distracted sealing the door. Don't worry. We will be all right. As you can see, this man isn't nearly as smart or well-informed as he pretends. Obey them for now.

Out of a swirl of smoke, shapes began to form.

The largest sharpened to the image of a lovely woman with eyes the color of midnight. Her dark eyes glowed with emotion, conveying a mix of pain, affection, and pity. Tarrant was embarrassed by her pity. She was the one who was grievously hurt. He took her in his arms, as much to escape those eyes as to offer the only comfort available to him. At dawn, after a night of holding her close, her life fled with the light of the last morning star. He tried to cry out his distress. His lips moved, but no sound emerged from his throat. He tried again and again. Finally, a raw screeing burst forth. It was an unintelligible cry that split the air.

"Tarrant." Someone was calling his name. "Tarrant."

The nightmare ended with a gasp of despair. Disoriented, Tarrant didn't immediately remember where he was, but he recognized the man in black standing beside the bed.

"What's the matter?" Avon asked, leaning over him. "Are you in pain?"

Tarrant grabbed his shipmate's arm. Memories teased at him, but he wasn't sure they were real. "Did I kill him? Is Wexel dead?"

"You shot a man you called by that name. He was most definitely dead." Avon shook his arm free and put his fingers to Tarrant's wrist. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm not sure." He rubbed his eyes. "Tired. Did I sleep long?

"About six hours. I need to check your wound. Do you require assistance to turn over?"

"No."

Avon's hands were surprisingly gentle, peeling away the layer of bandage. "I have contacted Orac. Work is progressing on schedule. We should be back on the ship in approximately twenty-four hours."

Tarrant smiled when he would have liked to sigh. "That's not so long then."

"Long enough. I believe we should consult a physician."

"Why?" Tarrant craned his neck but couldn't see the wound, nor was Avon's face revealing anything. "Does it look worse?"

"It appears the same, but there may be complications that are not visible to the naked eye. You were thrashing about rather violently when you slept. That's not a good sign."

Tarrant hesitated then confessed, "I was having a nightmare."

"About this Wexel person?"

"In a way."

"What did he do to earn your wrath?"

To avoid thinking about the fingers poking and pawing his back, Tarrant concentrated on the question.

"We ran a small smuggling operation. Myself. Helen. Ferret provided financial backing for a percentage of our profits. Wexel contracted for us to run a shipment of guns from Shastri to Corvayl. He said they were for a rebel group there. Turns out, he had stolen the guns, but knew he was under suspicion and didn't want to try to transport them off station himself. We landed at the designated coordinates. Wexel and a gang of thugs were waiting for us. By the time I realized the doublecross, Helen was seriously injured, and it was all I could do to keep them from killing us both. They took off with our ship. We were three long walking days from the nearest settlement."

Tarrant had already said more than he had intended, but Avon's uncharacteristic solicitude prompted him to continue, "Have you ever stood helplessly by and watched someone you care about die?"

"I've seen a lot of death." The older man threw a question back. "Did you love her?"

"We guarded each other's backs."

"I see," Avon said in a way that sent a chill trembling through Tarrant's body. He secured the fresh dressing in place and withdrew. "I'm finished."

Easing onto his back, Tarrant couldn't stop staring at the anguished expression on his companion's face. Perhaps because he was weak, drained, and beyond caring about the consequences, he found himself boldly blurting out, "Tell me about her, Avon."

"Who?"

"The woman I see in your eyes."

Avon coiled as if about to launch an attack then, just as quickly, his body went limp. "Her name was Anna," he recited in a monotone, his face going as blank and still as a stone. "She died because of me, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. But I can avenge her."

Tarrant wanted to tell him that revenge didn't bring consolation--that it only brought an ending--but Avon was already speaking again.

"I've been investigating Federation records in order to determine who was responsible for her death."

"Did you find out?"

"It was an interrogation specialist by the name of Shrinker."

Tarrant swallowed hard. He was familiar with the name. If Avon's Anna had died at Shrinker's hands, her death may have been more agonizing than Helen's. "I'm sorry."

"As he will be."

Bracing himself for a caustic response, Tarrant ventured another daring probe. "Did you want me to kill you, back in Ferret's office?"

Avon was left momentarily speechless by the query. When he did respond, his voice was gruff. "That was a very strange question. Why did you ask it?"

"I'm trying to understand you."

"I don't know whether to be flattered or frightened at that prospect." Avon's tone was nonchalant but his face was icy, forbidding further invasions of his privacy. "I will ascribe your peculiar mood to lightheadedness brought on by lack of nourishment. There are a few bland items on the menu. I will order one and you will eat it."

A refusal formed on Tarrant's lips, but he hushed it, knowing Avon was right. Not that he intended to acknowledge that fact. Plastering a resigned scowl to his face, he mocked, "Such a lovely bedside manner. I can't understand why you didn't pursue a career in medicine."

Avon chuckled softly in return. "Neither can I."

#

Dayna was fairly certain if they were left alone for a bit she could get free of the bindings on her wrists, even without Vila's help. Their captors had repeated the mistake men often made with her of assuming that she was helpless because she was smaller than they. She was furious at having been taken by surprise, and the calm expression in Cally's eyes did nothing to dispel her anger and anxiety. They had no teleport bracelets, no weapons, and no way out of this hole they were in.

All Dayna knew for sure was that they had been transferred up to the orbital station; there was no disguising the shuttle ride. Blindfolded, they had walked for what seemed like an hour, up and down stairs and liftshafts, so many turns right and left that she had no concept of where they might be. It didn't help her temper that they had not been given their antiradiation medicine and she was beginning to feel weak again. The others were starting to show signs of illness as well, and Dayna wondered if they could use that to their advantage.

She wished she were a telepath like Cally so they could discuss a plan of escape. She compulsively studied the blank walls for the hundredth time, the sink and toilet, the ceiling and floor, and the burly guard left to watch them, currently so bored he was falling asleep. She'd really like to make that a permanent condition.

The door opened and the head kidnapper arrived, one of their teleport bracelets in hand. He smiled, his yellow teeth seeming unnaturally pointed. "The time has come to contact Blake. Now, which of you is going to be sensible and assist me with this device?"

Dayna froze. Blake? This was the second time they had mentioned the missing rebel leader. She glanced at Cally, who did not seem surprised. Vila had been faced away from the door, so the man did not see his eyebrows climbing, eyes wide. When none of the prisoners moved or spoke, the man produced a knife. "Must we resort to crude methods of persuasion?"

Vila made a choking sound, and the large guard hauled him to his feet. "A volunteer, Ferret," he offered.

Cally sighed then and said, "That will not be necessary. I will make the contact for you."

Vila was dropped to the floor, where he made a grunt of genuine pain; Dayna thought his wrists might have been injured. The guard lifted Cally, and the one called Ferret stood very near her, holding the bracelet at eye level. "Tell me how to operate this."

"Hold down that button. You must let me speak first, or the ship will not acknowledge transmission."

Ferret nodded. "Security. I understand that. Very well, dear lady. Speak."

"Orac, this is Cally. Acknowledge."

"What is it now?"

Without missing a beat, Cally said, "There is someone here who wishes to speak with Blake. Our continued wellbeing depends upon it."

There was a mechanical whir while Orac considered that and Dayna held her breath. "Blake is out of contact at the moment. I can connect you with Avon, however. Will that be sufficient?"

Ferret shook his head. He said, "Jenna, then."

Cally said, "He wants to speak with Jenna."

Orac made an irritated noise, almost like a human being clucking his tongue. It droned, "Neither Jenna nor Blake is available. One must assume they are together. Instructions?"

Cally waited while Ferret made a noise very much like the one Orac had made. "Presumably, the two do not wish to be disturbed. Is that likely?"

Cally inclined her head. "They are...very close." Dayna was impressed with Cally's nerve. The Auron added, "Shall I contact Avon?"

Slowly, Ferret smiled, an expression that did nothing to allay Dayna's apprehension. "No. If Blake is unavailable, we might as well deal with Tarrant."

Cally shrugged a shoulder. "Orac, connect me with Tarrant."

"Oh, very well. One moment."

Ferret's smile faded when a voice presently issued from the communicator. "This is Avon. Cally, what the hell is going on?"

Ferret snarled, "I asked for Tarrant." He shook himself, visibly quelling his irritation, then continued in a threatening purr, "Do you remember me, Avon? You left without paying for the crystals. You shouldn't have done that. I've been forced to appropriate a few of your comrades in return. There are two very pretty ladies and one not-so-attractive gentleman here whose lives are in your hands. I want to talk to Tarrant."

"Then you should not have killed him."

Ferret giggled. "Dead, eh? I suppose you left the body in my office? I do want the bounty for him, you know."

After the hissing silence of the carrier wave, Avon's frigid voice said, "Get on with it. Tell me why I shouldn't just blow Shastri Station out of existence."

Dayna barely heard these latter exchanges, rocked by the information that Tarrant was dead. She caught sight of Cally's urgent eyes. The Auron shook her head slightly, and Dayna heard, Tarrant is alive.

Ferret was saying, "By all means, if you have no desire to recover your comrades. What will Blake think of that?"

There was a peculiar laugh that made the kidnapper stare. "I rather think he'd be annoyed. Very well, what do you want?"

Ferret named a sum equal to the Federation bounty for all of them, plus the Liberator. Dayna knew there was that much in the treasure room, but wondered whether Avon would part with it, even as a bluff. "I will explain the delivery procedure when you have the payment in your possession. When the credits are in my hands, I'll then tell you where to find your friends. Do you understand?"

"Yes. I must advise you, however, I need time to contact Blake. He's the only one with the key to the strong room. I believe I know where he is, but I'll need an hour."

"Not a moment longer, Avon, or this lovely lady will pay the consequences."

Sounding amused, Avon drawled, "Well now, we wouldn't want that, would we? Blake would be very unhappy. Avon out."

Ferret stared at the teleport bracelet. "Cold-hearted bastard, isn't he?"

Cally, her expression unreadable, said, "He has his moments."

Avon slumped into the chair when he'd finished the communication, feeling Tarrant's eyes on him. The boy asked, "Why did you tell him I was dead?"

Avon shrugged a shoulder and then wished he hadn't. Everything hurt. These rest and recreation stops were murder, he thought, and smiled. "Let him think I'm acting alone. You can be our little surprise." Avon doubted Tarrant was in any condition to help with the rescue, but he'd save that argument for later. He rubbed his eyes. "Any suggestions?"

Visibly startled, Tarrant's expression then hardened while he considered their options, the feverish blue eyes narrowed. Suddenly, Tarrant smiled that brilliant smile of his. "He won't settle for the payment. He'll want Liberator. How long before Orac restores life support?"

"Ah." Smiling, Avon said, "You have a devious mind, Tarrant."

"Thank you, I think."

Avon keyed the communicator. "Orac, have you determined where that transmission originated?"

"Of course I have. If you will consult the computer screen in your room, I will display the precise location from which Cally was speaking." Avon turned to the desk, positioned the screen so Tarrant could see it without leaving the bed, and studied the diagram Orac produced. Tarrant was about to make some comment about the folly of assuming all of them were being kept together when he saw the distracted look in Avon's eyes.

"What's wrong?"

After a moment, Avon shook his head, blinked, then regarded Tarrant. "I think it's Cally. She's trying to tell me something, and I'm not quite getting it all. Four men, I think, including Ferret. Can you hear her?"

Tarrant made a visible effort to concentrate. "Nothing," he said, grimacing. "I've never been able to receive Cally well."

Avon's eyes went distant again, and then he nodded. "Yes. Four all together, including your little friend. They're uninjured, except for Vila, who seems to have hurt his wrists somehow, though she doesn't think it's very serious. They are all in the room from which the transmission was made. They have not been given their antiradiation medicine and are beginning to feel the lack."

He returned to the schematic of the station. "Orac," he asked, "Can we use teleport to that section of the station?"

"I would not recommend it. That close to the plasma core, there could be degradation of signal."

Tarrant frowned, "Nothing's ever easy, is it?"

Avon didn't find it necessary to respond to that. He asked, "How close can we safely come to that location with no chance of degradation of the teleport function?"

Orac manufactured an icon of a star two levels up and toward the rim of the station to show the closest safe point. Avon said, "Very well. Thank you, Orac. I'll let you know when we're ready." He turned away from the screen. "Let's discuss the best way to do this, Tarrant."

Tarrant appeared unsettled, and it took Avon a moment to guess why. Tarrant wasn't used to being consulted for advice. At least not from Avon.

Collecting himself, the young man finally said, "It won't be easy to trick Ferret." He shifted slightly so that his left shoulder rather than his back rested against the headboard. It reminded Avon to check the time.

"You're due for another dose of pain medication," he said. "I'll get it."

"No." Tarrant shook his head and repeated, "No. I won't be much help half asleep."

Avon decided it was time to face facts. "You won't be coming with me. In your condition, you're a liability."

"But you said..."

"I wanted to avoid an argument. Be sensible, you can't possibly stay on your feet long enough to be of assistance. It is a lengthy jaunt from the outer rim to where Ferret is holding them."

Tarrant's face grew stubborn. "I could manage with the help of a stimulant."

"And kill yourself? The catalytic effects of the decontaminants and a stimulant could prove fatal."

"You're still alive." Avon opened his mouth to respond, but Tarrant cut him off. "Don't deny it. You took one before we left Liberator."

So close to the edge that he was actually rubbing his hand across the spring-loaded knife sheath hidden in his sleeve, Avon closed his eyes and drew a calming breath. That's right, he thought, with vicious self-mockery. Kill Tarrant because he wants to help. Very logical. Were he in Tarrant's place, he would be just as adamant about one person trying to handle this alone.

"Very well." He was just starting to enjoy Tarrant's astonished reaction to his abrupt capitulation when the teleport bracelet chimed.

Cally rested against the wall, confident that Avon had received her message. She shared the information with Vila and Dayna, who nodded that they understood. They were both visibly ill as Cally herself felt. She closed her eyes to conserve energy and sought a mental serenity that might allow her to sleep.

She was near to nodding off when Ferret and the man called Pite returned. "Sorry to disturb your nap, my dear, but I need your services again."

Bristling, Cally demanded, "Why should I cooperate with a murderer?"

"Fond of Tarrant, were you?" Carnivorous teeth flashed in a contemptuous sneer. "He was so pretty, I often thought of killing him. But I'm not one to terminate life indiscriminately. He was useful. You keep that in mind. Stay useful, stay alive."

Cally let her head droop in defeat. "What do you want?"

"Orac, that's some type of fancy computer?"

"Yes."

"Contact it. I want to know if it's located Blake yet, and I want to know where Avon is. Don't try anything slick, my dear. With three of you, I can spare one...even two. It might not be you I'd punish. It might be one of your friends."

Having no choice, Cally obeyed. There was, of course, no further information on Blake and Jenna. Ferret sighed with disappointment, then copied coordinates for Avon's last known position as Orac recited them. He handed the paper to Pite. "Check it out. You know what to do."

In the corner, Vila moaned. "Could we have some of our medicine?"

"For radiation sickness?" Ferret asked. To their looks of amazement, he responded, "That was easy to figure out. Your shipmates needed flare shield crystals, and neither of them were the picture of blooming health. And why were any of you still around after obtaining the crystals? You were doing a bit of recuperating. How many rads did you take?"

"What? You don't know that too?" Dayna jeered.

"So haughty," Ferret scoffed. "False pride will get you nowhere, my dear. We are measured by our success, not by our arrogance." He paced the room, his short legs waddling slightly. "Take me, for instance. Most people underestimate me. It gives me an advantage. After your friends slipped out of my trap, I thought they were probably gone for good, but I sent out feelers on all of you anyway. There were pictures of most of you on file, all except that young thing." He nodded to Dayna.

While Ferret rambled on, Cally attempted to send a warning to Avon, telling him that his location was compromised. It was difficult. Both the distraction of the whiny voice and her own fading strength worked against her. There was no sensation of contact.

"You were the one who was spotted." Ferret reached down and yanked Vila's hair. "Then you kindly led us to the others. I'm grateful."

"You won't be so grateful when Avon gets his hands on you," Dayna snarled.

"Very haughty," Ferret confirmed. "Not my type at all. I prefer women soft and cooperative like this dear lady." He sidled closer to Cally and ran a rough hand over cheek. She couldn't stop herself from jerking away.

"About the medicine," she said.

"After..." He cut off when the door opened. "Ah, Pite, did you find out anything?" The large man nodded and beckoned him closer. They drifted to the far corner, their whispered voices blending together to resemble an unintelligible rustling of leaves.

Again, Cally tried to focus on reaching Avon. Avon, she called, distraught because she was only managing a mental whisper. Avon, be wary. They know where you are. They know where you are. In desperation, she repeated the message several more times.

"Didn't you hear me?" Ferret yelled almost in her ear. "I said I wanted you to contact Avon again. Now."

"No, I didn't hear you. I'm sorry. I'm not well."

"Tell it to your friend Avon. He lied. The bastard lied. A man who would lie about one thing would probably lie about others. Call him."

Avon held the teleport bracelet to his lips. "Yes."

"Put Tarrant on," Ferret grated.

"This communicator does not reach the hereafter."

"Oh, I think my young friend is a good deal closer than that. Your nephew was still breathing when you arrived at the hotel. And corpses don't generally have much of an appetite. Or were all of those meals just for you?"

Tarrant motioned for Avon to give him the bracelet. "I'm here, Ferret."

"Good. I don't like your friend. He lies."

"I have a bad habit of choosing untrustworthy associates."

"I see you still have a sense of humor, Tarrant. Then I didn't hurt you badly. There wasn't much blood."

"Yet."

"Don't be temperish. We'll do business and no one else will be so much as scratched. That reminds me, your friends aren't feeling particularly well. Hold on while I move to another room so that they can rest."

Tarrant clenched his teeth and waited.

"Still there?"

"Yes."

"I'm very annoyed about the lie. I've decided to kill one of the hostages in retaliation." Ferret sounded positively gleeful.

"No! Ferret...please."

"I might give you one more chance, but only one. If you can produce the ransom immediately."

"I can. Avon lied about that as well. We have it here."

"Good," Ferret crowed. "He wanted that hour to find Blake and Jenna, didn't he? To set a trap."

Tarrant bit back his bewilderment and answered a quick, "Yes."

"I thought as much. You should have explained to him that I don't fool easily."

"I tried. He's stubborn, and almost as greedy as you are. He was reluctant to part with such a large fortune."

"Which is exactly why I wanted to negotiate with you in the first place. You have such noble principles." Abruptly, Ferret went from friendly to all business. "Here are my instructions. Follow them or you'll be minus a shipmate. You are to use that magic teleport of yours to get to the shuttle port precisely twenty minutes after I finish."

"We could teleport directly to the station," Tarrant cut in.

"No. I want to know exactly where you are. I'll arrange for transport to the station at docking bay 5. You'll receive further instructions in flight. Understand?"

"Docking bay five, twenty minutes," Tarrant repeated. The line immediately went dead. He turned to Avon. "I'll need that stimulant now."

"Tarrant, in your condition...." Avon sighed and reached into a small pack clipped to his belt. He pulled out a container of pills, shook out one green capsule, hesitated, then secured a second.

"Thank you." Tarrant accepted the medication and water to down it. He didn't entirely approve of Avon's taking one as well, but he was hardly in a position to criticize.

"Avon, I promised him the ransom. Can we get to the ship?"

"Not without spacesuits. We'll give him the crystals and the jewels as a downpayment." Avon proceeded to upend Tarrant's pack on a free corner of the bed. After everything had tumbled free, he pulled the hoverpad closer and began transferring the crystals.

Tarrant watched him for a minute, then asked, "Wouldn't it be easier to transport them on the hoverpad?"

"Too conspicuous," Avon responded. "We have enough trouble without attracting other vermin."

"You're right," Tarrant said. He eyed the mound that included his spare clothes and his kit. "I'll get dressed while you do that."

The stimulant hadn't kicked in and the pain med had worn thin. The last thing Tarrant wanted to do was move, but he didn't have much choice. Climbing awkwardly to his feet, he wobbled to the bath to try to make himself presentable. A confrontation with Ferret demanded that he look far more capable than he actually was. With that in mind, he managed a hasty wash and shave, and had just wriggled into a clean outfit when Avon announced it was time to leave.

Avon didn't appear any more fit or confident than Tarrant felt. It didn't bode well for the outcome of the affair.

#

Their guard had fallen asleep again, prompting Vila to dare a whispered question, "Cally, are you all right?"

Cally raised a very pale face from its perch on her knees. "I've been trying to contact Avon."

Vila knew by the distress reflected in her eyes that she hadn't been successful. "You don't have to worry about Avon," he said. "They won't catch him off guard."

"I hope not."

Dayna scooted closer and joined the hushed conversation. "How did you know about Tarrant, Cally?"

"Mainly from Avon's voice, but I also think I would have sensed it if Tarrant had died."

"Yes, you would have felt relieved," Vila quipped. His attempt to lighten the mood failed miserably. He wished he could retract his flip comment when Dayna bristled and Cally appeared to shrink into herself.

Oh, Vila, he heard her mental sigh.

"I'm sorry. I was joking," he hastily amended.

"We need to do something," Dayna resolved, seemingly unaware of the undercurrents that vibrated between her shipmates. "I won't sit here a helpless victim."

"We aren't in any immediate danger," Cally pointed out. "I'd rather wait and try to learn more."

"I could get free," Vila offered, "then loosen your ropes. We'd be prepared for an emergency."

"Or a chance to make mayhem," Dayna added. "Do it, Vila."

Unaware that he was making one of those odd shifts into professionalism that gave the lie to his usual facade, the thief moved soundlessly toward Dayna, casually looping his own ropes over one shoulder. He maintained a peripheral watch on the sleeping guard while he worked at the knots in her restraints. He whispered with approval, "You were almost out of these anyway. Now when I retie this, be sure you keep your hands twisted in opposite directions to make it look as if it's still tight." He moved her hands in the direction he intended, and she nodded her understanding.

He moved off toward Cally, maintaining his watch on the guard, rubbing his aching wrists, wondering why Dayna was watching him so closely. It startled him when Cally sent, You are in pain. It wasn't a question, so he guessed she could feel it when he was this close. In blissful ignorance of how uncharacteristic it was, he whispered, "Just a bit. When we get home, I'll put it right with a drop of soma." Abruptly remembering that Cally no longer considered Liberator home, he felt a wave of sadness. Was that what life was always going to be like? One painful loss after another?

His distraction made him careless, and he cursed himself silently when he heard the guard's heavy foot hit the floor just before the man snarled, "What the hell are you doing?" Automatically cringing, he managed to get his own ropes in place while he was still half-hidden behind Cally.

The Auron woman said sharply, "He was trying to help me. I'm sick. We are all sick. You should give us our medicine."

"Sure he was trying to help you. Out of here, you mean." Effortlessly, he lifted Vila and flung him toward the other end of the room. He managed to tuck and roll a bit, but still saw dark spots when he landed, and thought he might pass out. Not for the first time, he hoped Avon would kill this bunch in some particularly nasty fashion. "If you move again before you're told, it'll be the last move you make!"

Automatically, Vila widened his eyes. "Don't worry. I'm here for the duration. You'll have no trouble out of me." His only consolation was that he'd finished with Cally's ropes before the man caught him. Vila had met men like Ferret before. If anything went wrong, he knew they'd never see the ship again. Even if nothing went wrong, the odds were against them, as sick as they were. Come on, Avon, he thought resentfully. Time for one of your famous rescues.

#

Avon noted the fine sheen of perspiration on Tarrant's skin, enhancing the impression that he was in considerable pain. The shuttle ride was not the smoothest of Avon's experience, and definitely not recommended treatment for a man with a raw crater in his back. Since they'd finished formulating a rough plan for dealing with Ferret, Tarrant had sat with his hands clenched to the armrests so tightly that Avon expected to hear his knuckles crack from the strain.

Wordless, Avon fetched some cold water from the small ship's dispenser, which Tarrant accepted, equally mute. Avon sat down once more and closed his eyes, waiting, his mind turning the plan over and over, seeking flaws, considering contingencies. He was, to put it mildly, jolted, when Tarrant suddenly asked, "Tell me why you've been armed since you were eight years old, Avon. That's hardly normal for an Alpha who grew up on Earth."

Feeling the habitual reaction, the urge to strike out and close himself off--aggravated, he was well aware, by how ill and exhausted he was--Avon stood up and walked to the nearest viewport. He was so preoccupied with his internal conflict he could not have said whether the planet they were leaving was blue or green or rust. "I'm trying to understand you," echoed in his memory. The boy was making an attempt. And Tarrant needed something to distract him from his pain, since he was too damned stubborn to take the painkiller.

Still reluctant to reply, Avon acknowledged that a good deal of his problems with Tarrant were of his own making. The pilot, somehow, stirred the very disturbing memories Tarrant was asking him to unearth. Perhaps sharing those memories would remove one of the obstacles from their uneasy relationship. Without turning toward his shipmate, Avon began to speak. He kept his voice flat and without color.

Tarrant had decided Avon wasn't going to answer him when something changed in the way Avon was standing at the viewport, and he said, "When I was eight, I was exploring my father's study when I came across a locked cabinet. Once I got inside, I found guns. I knew what they were and, childlike, I wanted one to play with, so I kept it. My brother, Richard, found me with it and asked where I'd got it. I told him, of course, partly because I always told Richard everything, and partly because he promised to teach me to use the gun if I did."

Struck by the detachment with which Avon narrated the story, Tarrant could almost picture a young Avon delighted with the challenge of the locked cabinet, more delighted with the "toy" he found. Chilled because his mind leaped ahead, knowing only one reason the Avon family would have a locked cabinet full of guns, a treasonous offense, Tarrant was glad he could not see Avon's face.

The remote, colorless voice continued, "The next weekend, Richard kept his word. He taught me to use the gun, taking me to what I later realized was the Federation Security firing range to practice after he picked me up from school to spend the weekend with him, something he'd never done before."

Avon paced the length of the narrow aisle, then back, before continuing, and Tarrant felt a sudden urge to tell him to stop, that he was sorry he'd asked. Everything about the way the older man was moving, indeed, the mechanical method of delivery of the story, told Tarrant Avon never spoke of this because it hurt.

Softly, the tale went on. "I contracted some childhood illness and was sent home from school in the middle of the following week. Shortly after midnight, I heard my mother screaming. The sound was cut off by gunfire. I jumped out of bed, hid my sheets and blankets in the closet and climbed into an air vent with my pack from school, which contained my gun. I supposed they thought I was at school because they didn't make much of an effort to search for me in the house. A trooper came into my room. He took off his helmet. It was my brother, Richard. Without looking for me, he said, 'Our parents are dead, Kerr. They were rebels; traitors to the Federation. You're a hero now, for turning them in. But I can't save you if you're not at school in the morning. And get rid of the gun.' He left my room then, and I sat in that air vent until morning. I just managed to return to school by the time my first class started. I ditched the gun in a public disposal chute. I was honored for my loyalty to the Federation. Richard was promoted. As soon as I could, I bought my first knife. It was only a pocket knife, but I...needed something. I still do."

Tarrant drew a sharp breath, then groaned because it hurt his back. Avon turned toward him, and the younger man caught sight of the hell in his eyes before he perfected his mask. The pilot averted his gaze swiftly. "I'm all right," he muttered. "Just moved too quickly."

Avon returned to his seat next to Tarrant and closed his eyes, his arms folded defensively across his chest. After a moment, he said, "You will not tell this story. Ever."

"Of course not," Tarrant said. "If your parents were rebels, how did your brother survive the background check to get into Federation Security?"

"Richard was in Fed Security before our mother married my father. It was father who was foolish enough to believe in freedom for the masses."

Then, feeling he was risking his life, but somehow needing to know, Tarrant asked, "Is your brother still alive?"

Avon smiled slightly, and Tarrant shivered. "Oddly enough, while I was in secondary school, the computer on his personal flyer went out while he was over the sea. His body was never recovered."

The crackle of the communication system burst into the cabin causing Tarrant to flinch. It aggravated his pain and sent his drugged-heightened nerves into a convulsive panic. He was amazed to find a soothing hand on his arm, squeezing it gently. "It's all right," Avon said.

Stunned by Avon's gesture, Tarrant missed the first part of Ferret's instructions.

"...go up to the top level. Turn left. The passage will end at a large gray door with a red letter L on it. The door will be unlocked. Go inside to the middle of the room and wait. Oh, and place any weapons you have on the floor and keep your hands visible at all times."

The transmission cut off as suddenly as it had begun.

"How soon until we dock?" Tarrant asked.

"Ten minutes. I'd estimate that it will take us an additional thirty to forty minutes to reach the meeting place. It's marginally closer to the rim than the coordinates Orac reported."

"Then the others might not be there." Tarrant barely stifled a moan that was prompted as much by despair as by pain. "If I hadn't contacted Ferret, they wouldn't be in danger. What if we fail? What if I mess up again?"

"There is that risk." Avon's voice was pragmatic and cool, yet strangely soft and sympathetic at the same time. It went a long way toward bolstering Tarrant's spirits.

"I'll do my best," he whispered.

#

They were being moved again. Sick and blindfolded, Cally stumbled along, her arm gripped much too tightly by the malodorous Ferret. She promised herself that if he gave her the slightest opening she would make him regret he'd ever seen her. Every time her step faltered, he used it as an excuse to brush his hands across another part of her anatomy. For the moment, the only revenge she could manage was to make sure she was facing in his direction when her stomach rejected what little it contained. He backhanded her and she fell against a wall, only to be yanked upright again. Her skin crawled. The strongest barriers she could erect failed to keep out a sense of the creature's depravity. He was hardly human. The hardest part was remembering the trick Vila's hands had taught her about keeping her wrists twisted just so, to make the ropes appear to be tight. One moment's lapse, and their only advantage would be gone, and she knew that Ferret was aching for a chance to kill one of them. Indeed, she knew that Ferret had no intention of keeping any of them alive. He was anticipating a bloodbath with nearly sexual pleasure that made her retch once more. She was almost out on her feet, but the idea of that thing carrying her kept her moving.

She tried to distract herself by replaying in her mind the bits of conversation she'd heard between Ferret and Avon and Tarrant, trying to guess the best plan of attack when the opportunity finally presented itself. That it would come, she did not for a moment doubt. No enemy was perfectly vigilant.

When they were deposited roughly in a heap, she caught another flash of pain from Vila, and sent him a wordless encouragement. He managed to squeeze her hand before they were separated, and she felt again his deep sorrow that even if they survived this, she would be leaving them. An amazing person, Vila, she reflected, trying to ignore her body's demands for attention. He seemed to have a different personality to suit every occasion, only rarely revealing the man inside. For all his volatility, Cally thought Vila Restal was probably the sanest among them. No matter how bad things became, he always bounced back. She would miss him.

"They've left the shuttle," a voice with a mechanical ping penetrated Cally's meditation.

"And?" That was Ferret.

"You shouldn't have any trouble taking them. By the time they reach you, I'd be surprised if they had enough strength left to breathe."

"That's why I chose that particular route," Ferret snickered. "Thanks for your piloting services and your observations. You'll receive your payment tomorrow through the usual channels."

Hands grabbed at Cally and yanked the blindfold free. She blinked against the brightness as Ferret said, "It won't be long, my dear." He hauled her to her feet and threw her into a nearby chair.

"What about Druell and his bunch?" Pite asked.

Ferret tapped his fingers together, shaking his head. "Tell them we won't need them. Why share the profits when it appears that the four of us can handle the job ourselves."

Pite started for the door. "I'll take care of that."

"Hurry back," Ferret instructed. He smiled at Cally and sent his hand smoothing over her hair. "You are almost too lovely to kill," he said.

"I didn't think you intended to kill us," she countered, feigning innocence.

"Of course I don't," he responded too quickly. "That is, if your friends come through with the ransom."

"They will."

Cally was relieved when he paced away from her. After a quick, mental reassurance to Dayna and Vila, she studied their new surroundings. She wouldn't waste energy trying to contact Avon yet, but she would gather information. Let Ferret grow overconfident, expecting an easy victory. He really didn't know Avon. Nor did he apparently know about her telepathy. That along with the loosened ropes evened the odds considerably.

#

After two hours of absorption, the stimulant was peaking. Blood throbbed against Avon's temples and rocketed through his heart. He deliberately slowed his pace while keeping a close eye on Tarrant. In his weakened state, the chemical surge could send the young man into total collapse.

They had left the congested part of the station behind and were once more traveling in dimly lit, dingy corridors. The many side passageways and alcoves offered too many places for ambush. Avon stayed cautiously alert.

Ten minutes later, they came to a narrow, winding, metal staircase that climbed farther than the eye could see. "These must be the stairs," Avon said, peering up into the murky gloom with dismay. Reluctantly, he started up.

"Wait." He turned to see Tarrant, cheeks flushed, attempting to angle around him on the narrow stairway. "Let me go first. This might be a trap."

"Playing hero?" Avon asked, annoyed because he'd almost begun to find Tarrant tolerable.

"No." The blue eyes were serious behind an unnatural glittering. "Being practical. Right now, I'm the weak link. That makes me expendable."

"Go on then." Avon pressed back against the railing to allow Tarrant to pass.

It was an arduous climb, the pack growing heavier with each step. They were both leaning heavily on the railing as they neared the top. Reaching the uppermost landing, the already offensive stench of their environment grew close to unbearable. It spoke of garbage, decay, and excrement, and emanated from an unidentifiable mound in one, dark corner. Trying not to inhale and avoiding a close inspection of the foul object, Avon hurried Tarrant through the door into the outer corridor. It swung closed behind them, blocking the worst of the odor.

"What do you suppose that was?" Tarrant asked, gasping.

"I don't think I want to know. This way." Avon resumed the lead.

Cally, Vila, and Dayna sat in three identical straightback chairs against the wall. They were growing stiff, hands bound behind their backs and forbidden to move. One guard was at the door, while two others restlessly prowled the room as if expecting danger to materialize out of thin air. They could be worried about the teleport, Cally realized. Ferret stood close to a ceiling-to-floor window that overlooked a large, empty room.

A soft creaking filtered in through speakers recessed in the ceiling. "Ah, right on schedule," Ferret chortled, hopping up and down.

Cally determined that audio sensors were picking up sounds from the cavernous, warehouse-type room below them. The squeaking had been a door opening. Avon and Tarrant slipped inside, their boots clicking against the hard floor. They stopped in the middle of the room, eyes scanning their surroundings but taking no notice of the well-lit observation area, suggesting that it was shielded or otherwise disguised.

In her eagerness to contact them, Cally almost gave herself away. As she mentally prepared to telepath, Cowker barked, "Why is she looking so happy?"

Ferret spun around and gave her a menacing glare. "They can't see you up here. And they can only hear us when I activate the microphone. Whenever that red light is on," he pointed to a bulb in the transmitting apparatus, "you are to be absolutely quiet. If you aren't, you'll all end up very dead."

"Why don't you go collect your blood ransom and get this over with," Vila said boldly, as if sensing that Cally wanted a diversion.

Thank you, she told him. Try to keep them distracted while I reach Avon and Tarrant.

"All in good time," Ferret said genially.

Vila glared at him. "I wouldn't smile if I were in your shoes. Avon...."

Cally closed her mind to the conversation and rushed out, Avon, Tarrant, do not react. You are being monitored. The four kidnappers, Vila, Dayna, and I are in an observation room some twenty feet above floor level. It is to your left, Avon.

Casually, Avon unbuckled his gunbelt, set it on the floor, then stood facing the correct wall. He patted his teleport bracelet and cocked his head.

Guessing at his question, Cally responded, We do not have our bracelets. Ferret has them. Be careful. He is....

"Shut up," Ferret yelled at Vila, destroying Cally's concentration. "I have business to conduct."

As he walked to the microphone, Cally sent a brief, No time for more now.

"You have forgotten something, Tarrant." Ferret's voice had a slight echo as it played back over the speakers. "Your weapons."

"Sorry," Tarrant said, and started to unfasten his gunbelt. "It's been a tiring trip."

"You brought the ransom."

Avon held up Tarrant's pack and turned in a full circle. "Right here. Come and get it."

"Bring our shipmates," Tarrant added.

"I make the rules," Ferret retorted. "And rule number one is all weapons on the floor."

"I don't have anything else," Tarrant called.

"Avon."

"Oh, I've a few odd toys." He removed a knife from his boot and a slim gun from his vest pocket.

"Just remember that your friends will pay for any treachery on your part," Ferret said. "I'll be with you in a moment."

Cowker and Pite went with Ferret, leaving the man whose name Cally had never learned to watch them. Considering that the ropes around their wrists were still loose, she thought they could easily manage the single guard.

She quickly telepathed that message to Avon alone. Ferret and two of his men are on their way. We have one guard. We can take him. If you want us to act, signal by rubbing your right shoulder with your left hand. We will count to three, then attack. I'll let the others know the plan. It took more energy to reach Tarrant, but she repeated the gist of the information for him, then for Dayna and Vila. She didn't want to risk a general transmission for fear that one of the enemy might pick it up.

Avon thanked the stars for Cally's telepathic abilities. Knowing that the three prisoners had a reasonable chance made their plan much less risky. From the way that Tarrant was sending out eye signals, Cally had relayed the message to him and he was also relieved.

During the remaining time as he waited for Ferret and company, Avon inspected his young companion. Tarrant appeared to have temporarily set his pain aside to concentrate on the upcoming confrontation, but it couldn't have been far from his mind because his movements were slow and conservative.

As if sensing Avon's thoughts, Tarrant said, "I'm all right, but let's not take too long."

"My sentiments exactly," Avon replied as a panel slid silently open in one of the walls. Ferret and two strangers strolled through the aperture.

"So good of you to come. I'm sorry that Blake and Jenna aren't with you, but I hope to make their acquaintance by and by."

"A rather foolish wish," Avon commented. "Neither Blake nor Jenna is fond of kidnappers."

"Just fond of each other." Ferret laughed in a manner that left Avon queasy. "Orac tells me that they are together."

"Indeed."

"I can't say I blame Blake. You have some beauties in the crew. I might be willing to lower my price if one of them were thrown in instead."

"You have quite an imagination," Avon drawled, "if you think that is even a remote possibility. Shall we get down to business."

"The pack please," Ferret said, directing one of his men to retrieve it from Avon. He opened it, eagerly pulled out the jewelry that rested on top, then frowned at the collection of crystals underneath. "You are short, Tarrant."

"You'll get the rest when our friends are free," Avon countered.

"That wasn't the deal."

"Ferret," Tarrant shrilled the word, prompting Avon to spin in a half turn to face him. The pilot was sweating heavily and trembling. It was effective for their plan, making him appear worried and nervous, but Avon knew the real cause and cursed silently. Tarrant was crashing, fast and furiously.

"There's plenty of treasure on the ship," Tarrant rattled out, following their prepared script. "More jewelry than you've ever seen. Precious metals. Currency from a dozen different systems. It's yours for the taking."

"It's a trap."

"N-no," Tarrant said in a half stutter. "The ship is empty. Ask Orac. Computers can't lie."

Ferret wavered, his nose twitching indecisively, then shrugged. "Oh, very well. I suppose I have time to check it out. After all, I don't want to part until I've met the illustrious Blake and Stannis. Contact Orac."

"Don't do it," Avon snarled on cue, baring his teeth in Tarrant's direction.

"Avon, we don't have a choice. Lives are more important." Tarrant put his bracelet to his lips. "Orac, are you there?"

"Of course I am here."

"Just a minute. I'll do the talking." Ferret pulled a teleport bracelet from his pocket and pressed the transmitter button. "Orac, when was the last time that you were in contact with anyone?"

"Though I do not know your name, I recognize your voice pattern. You were my last significant contact. You requested information which I provided to the best of my abilities. Later, I briefly spoke with Cally when she asked to be put through to Avon."

"A little test," Ferret said. "It pays to be cautious. I think we can proceed now." He spoke into the bracelet again. "Orac, what about Blake and Jenna?"

"There is still no word."

"Is there anyone on the ship?"

"If by anyone you are referring to flesh and blood sentients, the answer is no."

Ferret smiled at Tarrant. "I think I'm ready to see this treasure of yours. You'll take me," he glanced around, "and Cowker there. Pite, you guard Avon."

"All right, Ferret," Tarrant whispered. "I'll go with you."

Tarrant's accompanying them was definitely not part of the plan. The young man was swaying on his feet. It was obvious to Avon that he was beyond improvising at this point, which made him particularly vulnerable. Avon did the only thing possible. He lunged at Tarrant, knocking the taller man to the ground.

"I won't let you do it," he said. "Part of that treasure is mine." He grabbed Tarrant's left wrist and smashed it against the floor. Once. Twice. Until he heard a satisfying crunch. Then he planted a right fist to the boy's jaw. It wasn't a particularly hard blow, but it was enough under the circumstances.

When the men grabbed Avon's arms and pulled him up, he left a motionless Tarrant behind on the floor.

"I guess you'll have to be my guide," Ferret growled, leveling his gun at Avon's head. "You don't appear to care about your friends' safety, but I think you'll respond to a threat to your own well being."

"Put that way, how can I refuse. You need to place the bracelets on your wrists."

Ferret passed one to Cowker, and both men slid them on. "I believe we're ready," the ugly little man announced.

"So you are." Avon rolled his shoulders as if they ached, then signaled Cally. In the same motion, he brought the teleport bracelet to his mouth. "Teleport us to the ship. Now, Orac." On "now" he unfastened his bracelet. It slipped to the floor as the teleport effect caught the two kidnappers.

Before Pite could react, the knife flashed from Avon's sleeve. He drove it up under the large man's ribs. Pite gurgled then collapsed onto the floor.

We are safe, flashed into Avon's mind a moment later. He turned and smiled up toward where they must be, with a fleeting curiosity about the sort of field that so absolutely disguised that area as a blank wall.

Cally had warned Dayna and Vila to be ready for Avon's signal. Since the guard remaining with them was more interested in the proceedings in the room below than in prisoners he assumed to be securely tied and intimidated, she had her hands well free of the rope by the time she saw the signal. Counting mentally for all three of them, she allowed herself to move just before the others did.

Gliding across the room as quickly as she could, she jumped to the man's back, wrapped her legs around him to prevent being dislodged, and slipped the rope around his neck, using it as a garotte. There was some confusion in her mind as to what the others were doing, but she held grimly on while he pulled at her hair and tried to claw at her face before being reduced to attempting to free the rope from his neck. Her combat training kept her in place even when the man fell on her because Dayna and Vila attacked at the same time. She refused to let go until Vila reached over, took one of her straining hands and said quietly, "He's dead, Cally." She looked up at him, released her grip, then opened and closed her hands a few times after he'd helped her up, simultaneously sending the message to Avon that they were safe.

Dayna said, "Very impressive, Cally. Come on, let's go!"

Suddenly alarmed by a marked weakening in the sense of Tarrant's presence, the Auron pushed past Dayna, flung open the door and ran.

Avon recovered his weapons and knelt beside Tarrant, found the his pulse, checked the time, then put on and keyed his bracelet. "Orac! How much longer?"

"Nine hours, thirty-three minutes and--"

"Damn."

"Please repeat. If you insist on speaking while I am speaking, I will inevitably--"

"Cease to exist as a thinking entity unless you teleport Tarrant and myself to a medical facility. And I mean inside, where we can treat him at once. He hasn't time for us to argue with anyone." He looked up from Tarrant's pallid face in time to see Cally running toward them. "Hold, Orac," he said sharply. Then, to Cally, "Tarrant may be dying. Get his gun and come with me. We may have to convince someone to give us what we need for him."

The Auron found Tarrant's weapon, put it on and knelt beside the two men. She said quietly, "Avon, you are the only one with a working teleport bracelet."

He blinked at her, realizing how stupid his fatigue was making him. He snapped, "Orac! Is there enough living tissue in those bodies to teleport them back down?"

Orac simply did so, causing Dayna to gasp. "Suffocation is not a pretty way to die."

Vila asked, "Why are they in one piece? You said life support wouldn't be--"

Avon snarled, "Later! Ask Orac. Get the bracelets. Tarrant may not have much time." He ignored the startled looks he was getting from the others, bending to check Tarrant's wispy pulse again. Cally took the bracelets from what was left of Ferret and Cowker, put one on Tarrant and one on herself, then nodded at Avon. "All right, Orac. A medical center. Teleport now." He could hear Vila wail, "What about us?" as they dematerialized.

#

Tarrant had the idea that he shouldn't be this comfortable. Perhaps he was dead, he thought, not terribly worried about it. Only mildly curious, he opened his eyes and confirmed what the smell had told him. Hospital. Wincing, he muttered, "Why do they always have the lights so bright in these places?"

"Presumably so they can tell whether or not you are alive," came the answer from beside him. Tarrant turned his head and saw Cally, who was standing beside his bed looking as if she ought to be lying down herself, and Avon, who had spoken.

"You look like ten parsecs of hell, Avon."

Avon almost smiled. He cocked an eyebrow. "And you are obviously drunk on the painkiller. I won't ask how you feel."

Tarrant answered anyway. "Surprised to be alive. I take it we escaped."

Expecting Avon to take the opening for a sarcastic comment about stating the obvious, the pilot was surprised when Avon said, "And so did the others, no real thanks to either of us."

Cally put in, "Untrue. We were only able to overcome our guard because of your distraction." She swayed, and Avon caught her upper arms.

"Sit down, Cally. I'll get the others if you'll give me your bracelet. Vila is no doubt growing nervous, and Dayna impatient." Unresisting, Cally allowed herself to be guided to a chair. Tarrant thought she belonged in a bed instead, but he was feeling too lethargic to start anything like an argument with Cally.

When Avon had gone, he thought to ask, "How long until we can return to Liberator?"

Cally glanced at her chronometer. "Still seven hours or so. How did you get shot, Tarrant?"

"Stupidity," he said. "Avon saved my life. Twice. And the first time was not ten minutes after we almost killed each other. You were right, Cally. I made some assumptions about him that he's proved wrong."

She smiled slightly, rubbing her forearms as if they ached. "I learned long ago not to assume anything about Avon, but to observe his behavior rather than his words." The smile grew. "You should have seen him when we brought you in here. He marched a doctor out of his office at gunpoint to see to you."

About to drift off again, Tarrant murmured, "Maybe things are going to be all right..."

He thought he heard Cally say, "Perhaps they are."

"So," Vila said, "you're telling me it isn't true that people's bodies explode in a vacuum? That those two died of simple suffocation?"

"That is what I said, is it not?" Orac blipped with irritation. "Kindly disconnect my key. I am preparing Cally's list of rebel groups and do not wish to be disturbed."

Vila turned abruptly toward Cally, who was doing something at her station, pulled Orac's key, and went up to her. "Are you feeling better?"

She smiled at him, still a little wan, but her eyes weren't sick-looking now. "Much better, thank you Vila." Teasing, she asked, "Weren't you going to lock yourself in your cabin with a gallon of soma and adrenaline?"

"I can't. I wanted to tell you I don't think it's fair for you to decide to leave without telling Avon and Tarrant why." He put a hand on her arm. "Please, Cally."

"Vila, I'm sorry." Cally's voice was apologetic. "I'm not leaving."

"Not...? Does Dayna...?"

"Dayna knows. I meant to tell you. In the confusion and not feeling well, I...."

"That's all right," Vila quickly assured her. "But why is Orac still working on your project?"

"The list will be useful for other purposes." She started as if sensing something. I'd rather Avon and Tarrant not know, she quickly telepathed. They are just beginning-- She cut off as footsteps sounded from the corridor. First Avon, then Tarrant came into view.

"Ah, Vila," Avon said, striding onto the flight deck with more energy than the thief had seen in him for some time. "I'm glad you're feeling better. You can replace the flare shield crystals."

"Me? Why me? How do you know I'd do it right?"

"Because you did it right last time, didn't you?"

"Oh. Well, that was a long time ago. What about Tarrant?"

"What about Tarrant?" the young man asked, his mouth a little tight, his posture too stiff, but moving under his own power once more.

Vila held his breath, but Avon said smoothly, "I thought you might inspect the helix core interface. You will have realized that the parity could have been degraded by the radiation, and we ought to check it, so--"

Tarrant nodded, a little hesitance in his expression, but finished the sentence for Avon, "So Zen won't lose touch with the battle computers when we need them most. I know. You want me to do that?"

Avon punched a few keys at his station, calling up a diagram of the circuitry, motioning Tarrant to move closer. In a rather absent tone of voice, he said, "By the way, thank you for setting up that maintenance schedule. I ran across it when it finally occurred to me that Jenna and Blake used to do that sort of thing and I asked Zen to put one together." He pointed at the screen. "You know what that is?"

Tarrant nodded again. "The cascade core. It's the same on a pursuit ship, except for this part." He indicated the section he meant. "This has to be the interface with Zen."

Avon indicated satisfaction. "Yes. Orac can walk you through the diagnostics and repairs, if you're up to it."

Tarrant looked from the screen to Avon's face. He folded his arms. "You're not going to talk about it, are you, Avon?"

Still not looking at Tarrant, Avon said simply, "No, I am not."

Finally, Tarrant relented. "Very well. Still, I must thank you for saving my life, both times."

"Must you?"

Tarrant grinned and moved down the deck toward Orac. Vila, fascinated, glanced at Cally, who didn't seem surprised by this sudden amity between the two Alphas. Dayna, who had appeared in the doorway during the discussion between Tarrant and Avon, crossed the deck to stand beside Cally, and said aloud, but not too loudly, "Are we sure we've got back the same Avon and Tarrant that left the ship?"

Cally had to smile when Vila groaned and asked, "Did we want the same ones back?"

Avon finished inspecting Tarrant's repair work and gave a short nod of approval. Behind the boy's brashness, there was a mind that might nearly equal his bragging. It was disconcerting. It was so much easier to dismiss Tarrant as a Federation thug.

People kept creeping into his life. He wasn't sure he was ready for them. He was sure he didn't like it, but there seemed to be no way, short of killing everyone who tried, to prevent it happening. Checking his work list to keep from having to look up at Tarrant, who was still standing there waiting for some verbal approval of his work, Avon said, "I could not have done a better job myself. Thank you, Tarrant." There--that didn't hurt so much, did it? Still, he'd have to take care, or the boy would presume on a friendship Avon was not prepared to acknowledge. Deliberately, he added, "Now, if you will step out of my way, I have other work to see to."

"Not quite friends then, Avon?" Tarrant's tone was genial, but Avon heard a hint of darkness there--was he that lonely?

With a mental sigh of resignation, he looked up at Tarrant and manufactured a smile. "Perhaps not quite yet," he said. "Give it time."

The pilot grinned and said, "All the time you need." His back perhaps a little straighter, his step a trifle more light, Tarrant marched away. Behind him, Avon shook his head and, not for the first time, wondered how Blake had managed.

the end


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