NovaBy Judith Proctor
Soon she would come. He was waiting for her. Soon she would come, then everything would end and he would be free to join his ghosts.
How long had he been here? There was no day and night in this place. Meals were irregular and he ate sparingly in any case. Every few hours they came to question him. The questions were always the same:
"Where is your base?"
"Who are your contacts in the revolution?"
"Who was passing you information from within the Federation?"
"How did you maintain contact with Blake?"
"What are the abilities of Orac?"
"Tell us about the teleport system."
"Where is Vila Restal?"
He didn't think he'd told them anything useful. It wasn't in his nature to be cooperative if he had nothing to gain by it.
He had no illusions as to what awaited him. Blake was dead and the Federation needed someone to display before the public, someone to convict at a public trial to show how successful they were at catching dissidents. After such a court appearance, all he could expect was execution. Or worse.
Blake was dead. If they couldn't display Blake they would display himself instead.
He could remember the last battle clearly. They had been at great pains to take him alive; every shot fired at him had been to disable rather than to kill. It had cost them dearly though, he was sure he had killed at least three men before falling: an honour guard for Blake. He smiled briefly and ironically at the memory.
Blake. It had been a mistake to think of Blake. He rolled over and held his head between his hands, trying by sheer willpower to drive out the memory. It was no use. Blake stood before him once more, covered in blood from the shots of Avon's own gun; his eyes searching Avon's face, the message in them saying "Why? You were my friend, I trusted you above all others. Why, Avon?"
What could he say in return? That he trusted no one. That people you trusted always betrayed you in the end. Everyone from Anna to Zukan had betrayed him.
Tarrant, whom he had given up for dead, had suddenly reappeared very much alive and claiming that Blake had sold them out. It had been so easy to believe in just one more betrayal.
Tarrant had been wrong, Avon knew that now. He had known it from Blake himself as the dying man grasped Avon's arm. The words of Arlen, the Federation spy, had simply been confirmation. Avon had been wrong and it had cost Blake his life.
The ghosts were all crowding in on him now. There were too many of them. His friends had depended on him and now they were all dead. He'd never asked them to trust him, but they'd done so anyway. They had paid for that trust with their lives.
Avon could see Cally in the corner. He supposed she had a right to be here, he'd led her to her death too.
"Avon, why did you kill Blake?"
"Because I trusted him. Can you understand that? If I hadn't trusted him I wouldn't have killed him."
Yes, she understood; but then Cally always had understood. "A man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken." Avon had mocked her for that proverb of the Auronar, whilst pretending not to understand its meaning.
"Well Blake," he said to the ghost near the door, "perhaps we were both mistaken."
The spirit was silent, but he thought perhaps it understood. The others were not so forgiving. Dayna, Soolin and Tarrant stood together. "Avenge us Avon. Give our deaths meaning. It's all your fault"
Vila wasn't there, he'd noticed that before. The questioners had kept asking him about Vila. Was it possible the thief had survived the shoot out?
"Vila's dead," he had told them, and he thought they had finally believed him.
When was she going to come? She had to come. It hadn't been her plot that had killed the others. She had to come because Avon was still alive.
The questioners came once more and left him bruised and bleeding. Avon gained the impression that they enjoyed their work on him. Since the advent of Pylene 50 they must have had very few people to experiment on. Avon was immune to the effects of the pacification drug, since fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, he had taken the antidote long ago. He tried to hold his own against them, but the effort required was greater each time. He was afraid that sooner or later he'd crack. He had to hang on. If he gave them all they wanted to know they might move on to the next stage. Would they try and destroy his memory as they had done with Blake? Avon feared that more than the pain of the interrogators. The loss of identity, the loss of himself was something he could not face. He curled up tightly on the bunk, his back to the door, and tried to shut out the world.
Avon heard the sound of the door opening. Surely it was too soon for them to come again? Then he knew who it was. He recognised her scent before he felt the long delicate finger tracing its way through the stubble on his chin.
Avon sat up slowly, trying to ignore the pain, unwilling to show any physical weakness in front of her. "There's a backup audio monitor under the bunk," he told her.
"Indeed?" Servalan cocked her head slightly and smiled maliciously. "They didn't tell me about that one. Someone is going to be sorry." Drawing a miniature gun from a sleeve that had seemed incapable of hiding anything, she aimed where Avon pointed and calmly fired. Then the gun moved around to point at his chest. "You're next Avon."
"Gracious as always Servalan."
"You haven't told them. Why not?"
"That Commissioner Sleer is ex-president Servalan? Perhaps I thought they'd find it more convincing if it took them several days to force it out of me."
"No, there has to be some other reason."
So she hadn't seen it. Avon allowed himself the satisfaction of a minor victory. It was the last one he would ever have. "I was waiting for you. You have to kill me to prevent me from talking."
Now Servalan realised. She was disdainful, but he'd expected no less. It was a price he was willing to pay for death.
"So you've given up Avon. You've finally come to that cold dark wall."
Avon said nothing, there was no need to any more.
Servalan raised the gun. "How does it feel, to die knowing that you've failed?"
Slowly, as she watched, Avon's body crumpled and fell to the floor of the cell.
Kneeling down, Servalan bent to examine him. She hadn't fired the weapon. Was Avon faking, or had he simply collapsed from pain and exhaustion?
Servalan stretched out her hand to grasp Avon's hair, to force his head around to face her. She knew instantly that she had made a mistake. The act of touching him made him real. The congealed blood matting the dark hair under her fingers was Avon's blood, the blood of a man who had held her and kissed her, the blood of a man she knew and desired.
Something within her, something that had died long ago when Don Keller had left her; something that had died a second time with her clones on Auron and surfaced momentarily with Tarrant on Virn was struggling to be allowed to live once more.
When Avon was gone, who would be left to her? There were men aplenty who desired her, but none she considered her equal; they were fools who thought that entering her bed would give them control over her power.
Avon: her enemy who desired her in spite of what she was, rather than because of it. She knew he had wanted her. His eyes, his body, his lips had all spoken for him. Avon, the only person who truly understood her, whom she herself understood in turn.
How many hours had she spent studying the Federation's records on him? She no longer knew. First as a member of Blake's crew; then as she had come to realise how much Blake depended on Avon, she had studied him as an individual in his own right. Blake's shadow she had called him, for whenever she encountered the terrorist, there by his side would be a slim, ruthless figure in black and silver. For a long time Servalan had failed to understand why Avon followed Blake, simply assuming from his background and records that he was there for money or for protection against the Federation.
When Servalan met Avon on Sarran in the aftermath of the Andromedan War, she had realised that he could care for others and that it was a weakness she might be able to exploit. However, it wasn't until they had met again on Earth that she realised the full extent of his vulnerability. His love for Anna Grant had almost destroyed him. Servalan had become aware of the emotional depths that were hidden behind that mask of unconcern and indifference. A side of himself that he had never intended anyone to see, but a facet of his personality that was now drawing her to him as the moth to the flame.
She had known then why he had stayed with Blake, and the knowledge of the bond between the two men had enabled her to draw Avon to Terminal and the destruction of the Liberator.
Avon had escaped, but that was the nature of the game between them. Sometimes one won, sometimes the other. Now, he was here at her feet and she had his life in her hands, to take as she wished.
"Avon," she whispered to a man who could not hear her. "Why is it so easy to give the order for your death, and so impossible for me to kill you myself?
"Could I have killed you that day on Earth when Anna died? I no longer know. I felt your pain then, half of me wanted to force you to escape, and the other half, the half that was President of the Terran Federation said that you had to die.
"Avon, could you ever love me as you loved her?
"Avon!" the cry forced itself out from her. "I don't want to be alone!"
Avon stirred under her hand, and she snatched it back instinctively. His eyes opened and looked blankly up at her.
"Alone?" he asked dazedly. "Cally, stay with me."
Searching blindly, his hand reached out towards Servalan and she took it into her own. Grimy, and streaked with blood, the tips of his fingers looked as though someone had stamped on them with a heavy boot. Someone probably had. Someone was going to suffer...
"Avon, you're a fool."
His eyes drifted back into focus. "Probably. Was I talking to myself?"
Servalan shook her head briefly, earrings trembling as she did so. Avon's gaze travelled slowly to where her hand still held his. This time she didn't pull away from him.
"Servalan?" he queried.
"Can you sit up?" she asked in concern.
"I think so."
Cautiously he accepted her help, watching her all the time with his dark eyes. She looked back at him, holding his gaze with her own.
"Wait for me here," Servalan instructed. "I'll be back soon."
"I wasn't planning on going anywhere," he commented with a touch of his old asperity, and Servalan left the cell with the faint ghost of a smile on her face.
The last few days had been the worst that Vila had ever experienced. Considering some of the days he had suffered previously that was saying a lot. The nightmare had begun when he'd awoken in the hall where Blake had died:
"This one's still alive. I've given him a stimulant, he'll come round in a moment," said a voice that Vila didn't recognise. The figure bending over him wasn't dressed in Federation uniform, which Vila supposed was something to be grateful for. He couldn't think of anything else to appreciate at that moment. His body hurt and a troop of miners were blasting away with explosives inside his head.
"My head hurts," Vila moaned.
"Don't complain," replied the stranger. "Just be glad you're not dead."
A new voice spoke. "What happened here?" Vila looked up and saw a large man carrying an assault gun. His voice was authoritative and impatient.
"Who betrayed us? Who?" There was a very grim note in the man's voice. "Who killed Blake?"
Vila struggled to sit up and winced at the sudden pain in his chest. He looked desperately around seeking an avenue of escape, but there was none. He was surrounded by a small group of men armed with a variety of weapons. They had obviously been in a fight recently. Several of them were injured. Casting his mind back, he recalled Arlen saying something about a nest of rebels. These presumably were Blake's men. Vila had the distinct feeling that they weren't very happy. He dissembled as fast as he could. "It wasn't me, I had nothing to do with it. It was Arlen. She said she was a Federation spy."
"Did she kill Blake?" the big man demanded.
"No, I mean yes, I mean I don't know," Vila stammered in panic.
A hand gripped his shirt and pulled him ruthlessly to his feet. "Little man, I need to know, and I need to know now. Who killed Blake?"
"Avon," Vila said helplessly. "It was Avon."
His adversary took a step back and let go of Vila who promptly fell to the ground.
"Kerr Avon?" the man asked incredulously.
Vila nodded miserably. "It was a mistake. Everything went wrong."
"Where is he?"
Slowly Vila looked around the hall. It was hard to take everything in. He could see the bodies of Federation troopers, but among them lay his friends. Tarrant flung out on the ground. Soolin still and lifeless. Then a lump caught in his throat. He could see Dayna with no visible mark on her, unmoving and alone.
"Why aren't you helping her?" Vila asked angrily.
The big man looked down at him with a trace of pity in his eyes. "She's dead. They're all dead, except for you. Is that Avon?" He pointed to Tarrant.
"That's Tarrant," Vila said quietly. The words were hard to force out. He wanted to curl up in a ball and die. Dayna and Soolin were both gone. Tarrant he could have lived without, but Dayna had been so beautiful and alive. It should have been Avon lying there instead.
Vila looked unsteadily around the hall again. "I can't see Avon."
"So, Avon betrayed Blake and then escaped?"
"I don't think Avon escaped. He didn't move after he killed Blake." Vila's head was spinning, he sat down on the floor as a way of avoiding falling over and rested his head in his hands. "We heard sounds of fighting, and then someone shot me from behind. There must have been troops everywhere."
"There still are," said his interrogator. "We've only just retaken this area. You're lucky - if they hadn't been busy fighting us they'd have started checking the bodies." He looked grim. "Avon obviously left with them. That proves his guilt as far as I'm concerned."
"No," Vila protested. "Avon would sell his own grandmother, but not Blake."
"Really?" The big man sounded dubious. "Would you have trusted him with your own life?"
Vila's silence was answer enough. Once, he thought, once Avon, I would have trusted you. But not since Malodaar. I'll never forget that you tried to kill me.
The expression on the other man's face was not pleasant. "If I find Avon, he's a dead man. How Blake ever achieved anything with a crew of thieves, murderers and psychopaths is beyond me. The whole lot of you together weren't worth one of him."
Obviously concluding that Vila had nothing more useful to tell him, he started to organise his men for their next move. As far as Vila could work out, the rebels were planning an assault on the second level of the complex which was occupied by Federation forces. If they failed to take it then they planned to retreat into the open country surrounding the base and hopefully join up with other groups. There didn't seem to be very many of them. Vila hoped they all wouldn't die. He hoped he wouldn't die.
As they left through the exit up the steps, their leader flung back a last contemptuous glance. "You have to be Vila," he said in disgust. "Why did a coward like you ever stay with Blake?"
Vila looked up through the tears that threatened to blind him and whispered to the retreating back, "He was my friend."
The sound of distant gunfire alerted him to the need to move. Vila looked around for a weapon but could see none. Whether they had been taken by the Federation or by Blake's men didn't really seem important. Nothing seemed that important any more. Still, he supposed, better a live coward than a dead hero.
Carefully edging down the corridor he came to a locked door. Opening it took longer than usual; his fingers were numb and refused to obey his brain. In addition the pain in his head and chest refused to go away. Once inside he relocked the door and collapsed on a convenient chair.
The room appeared to be some kind of office. There were charts on the walls as well as a few pictures; a portrait of a young woman, an ocean view, and a swirling galaxy of stars. There were no windows, but there was a large viewscreen set into the desk top and another one on the far wall. The third wall contained the safe. Vila was exhausted. He didn't understand the full extent of that exhaustion until he woke up, and realised that he had gone to sleep without investigating the safe. He must have been out for several hours at least. The pain in his head had eased, and he felt thirsty. A search of the desk drawers revealed a half full flask of brandy, which he hastily appropriated before tackling any work.
While thinking about the lock mechanism, he glanced at the portrait again and realised with a start that it was Jenna. The hairstyle was different, and she looked older than he remembered, but it was unmistakably Jenna. Had she been here? Had she survived the fighting? Had this been Blake's office?
Turning back to the safe Vila gave it his full consideration. The lock was an alphanumeric pad; if it was typical of its kind, it would require a ten character code to open it. In the past, he'd found there to be two ways round any system of that kind. One was the long hard way which involved rewiring half the lock without triggering any of the fail safes. The other method was the psychological one. Many people in Vila's experience found it hard to remember safe combinations. They used names, birthdays or any other easily memorised sequence as a password. All that was required was to evaluate the psychology of the person in question and determine what they would use. Blake for example, what would Blake have been likely to use as the password for a safe?
Footsteps came down the corridor and stopped. "This one's locked."
"It could have been locked from the inside," said a voice in reply. "Shoot it open."
There was nowhere to hide within the room. In panic, Vila tapped out a sequence into the keypad and sprang into the safe as it opened, pulling the door shut behind him.
"No one in here. He may not even be in the complex any more." Vila was sure the voice was inside the room now.
"Are they sure he was here in the first place?" asked the second voice.
"There were no bodies in the spaceship, they checked. If Restal knows Avon is a prisoner, it seems likely he might hang around."
Vila stayed where he was until he was convinced they had gone. "Thank you, Blake," he whispered. "You saved my life." Blake had always had a sense of humour. Using VILARESTAL as a key to his safe must have struck him as the ultimate in memorable combinations.
Thus began Vila's existence as the complex's ghost, existing by night, hiding by day, stealing food whenever he was able. He was afraid to leave, and afraid to stay. Beyond the base there was no easily available food, and the additional danger of bounty hunters. Within the base, there were the troops to be endlessly avoided, but at least it was warm and dry. And there was Avon. It always came back to Avon, Vila thought helplessly. Avon would have known what to do. Avon would have called him an idiot, but at least he would have had a plan.
Lying in a ventilation shaft Vila contemplated the situation once more. The systematic searches seemed to have ended after the first day and he knew the reason why. The knowledge didn't make his life any easier either. He'd heard so many conversations while keeping out of sight in the air ducts, but this one he couldn't forget:
"You mean we wasted all that time yesterday hunting for the thief?"
"It wasn't wasted. There could have been other rebels hiding and waiting for a chance to fight."
"Restal was the one that mattered. He was with Blake and Avon."
"Well he's dead now all right. Did you hear the story?"
"Is it any good?"
"Sure, took them twelve hours to get it out of the prisoner, but he talked in the end. Amazing how persuasive a few electric shocks in the right place can be. He and Vila Restal were on this planet called Malodaar, and they were leaving in an orbital shuttle to rendezvous with their spaceship. Seems the shuttle had been sabotaged and they didn't have enough fuel to reach orbit. Avon pushed his mate out of the airlock in order to lighten the load."
"What a bastard!"
"He's got plenty coming to him. There's lots of other things they want to know before they ship him off to Earth."
Vila shivered as he remembered. He'd undergone electric shock treatment on Earth once. Aversion therapy they had called it: an attempt to stop him stealing things. It hadn't worked, but he could still remember the pain. If they had asked him questions, he would have told them anything, anything at all, just to make it stop. What gave Avon the strength of will to hold out long enough to make the lie convincing when he eventually told it?
"Damn you Avon," Vila cursed silently. "I can't help you escape, but as long as you're alive, I can't leave without you either."
Oh, he'd thought about rescue. Long complicated plans in which he knocked out guards single handedly, shot them down by the dozen with captured weapons, released Avon and escaped in a stolen flyer. In the cold light of day he knew it was impossible. He'd never get to Avon alive, and if he did they would both be dead before leaving the building. There were simply too many troops.
He knew it was impossible, but he still couldn't leave while Avon remained. That was just the way it was.
"Orac, I want a word with you."
"Statement does not compute," the computer replied flatly. "Please state required command and parameters."
Servalan tapped the tips of her fingers on Orac's casing and smiled. It hadn't been too difficult to get the computer to herself for a while. Now she understood why.
"Don't try that trick with me, Orac. I know you."
"What do you want, Servalan?" he said testily.
That was better. It was interesting to note that the computer appeared to have some loyalties. Whether they were programmed in or were a result of Orac's own personality she was unable to judge at that point. The mistake everyone else here had obviously made was to treat Orac as an ordinary computer, which had allowed the machine to run rings around them.
"I need a diversion, something that will distract the entire base," she replied evenly.
"Why should I assist you?" Orac demanded.
"I want to get Avon out of here." Now she had said it, she'd committed herself. If she wasn't extremely careful she would bring her whole career tumbling down around her. Servalan amplified her statement. "I need to get him out of here without anyone realising that he is with me. Of course if it is beyond your capabilities..."
If Orac had been human he would have bristled with indignation, as it was, the tone of his voice made his feelings clear. "Of course I can do it. It will take two hours to prepare the necessary sub programs. Once the alarm sounds you must move immediately. I will display the route you have to take on the viewscreen outside the cells. The computer records will show that you departed before the prisoner escaped."
"Thank you, Orac," Servalan said with mock courtesy. "I don't suppose you'd care to explain why you're helping me? "
"According to my predictions it is necessary. It is also necessary that you take me with you."
"I'm not a fool Orac. I had no intention of leaving without you."
Two hours; it would be a long wait, but she had patience when it was necessary. It was most likely that Orac would falsify sensor readings to fake an attack on the base. That would require most of the personnel to take up defensive positions, leaving the interior of the complex largely unmanned. The precise method didn't matter particularly. Servalan was going to get what she wanted provided the computer played his part properly. It would have been so much simpler, she reflected, if Avon were her own prisoner, but the men here were not under her command. She had influence and could use it to a point, but the President himself had demanded that Avon be taken to Earth and she didn't have the authority to override those orders.
After giving the crew of her ship instructions to prepare for a take off at short notice, and taking a brief excursion in a flyer, Servalan returned to the cell area. The guard she had been forced to reprimand over the minor matter of the audio monitor was no longer on duty. His replacement waved his hand idly in the direction of the viewscreen. "Do you want to watch?" he asked, then pressed a button without waiting for her answer.
She could see Avon and his interrogators, three of them. Servalan hadn't expected them to resume questioning so soon. Interrogation sessions were nothing new to her. She had sent men to a similar fate herself on many occasions; but this time it might be her own life on the line. Would Avon betray her? Or would he trust the unspoken agreement they had made and hold his silence until she came back to him?
Instinctively she knew that he was nearing the end of his strength. The death of Blake and the others had brought him down to a level which torture alone might never have achieved. His eyes were the eyes of a man who had seen too much. She wanted to reach out and hold him close to her, for her life, for his sanity. Servalan knew she was allowing herself to become too close to him emotionally. She could feel his pain as they worked on him. When Avon cried out in spite of himself, the knife twisted inside her.
"Avon," she whispered silently, "I've tried to kill you many times, but I always offered you a clean death. Never this. Not for you."
She forced her face to show no sign of her feelings. Outwardly she was as impassive as if she were simply watching a game of cards. Even when the questions turned towards herself, she forced her emotions down, refusing to let her fingers drum on the desk as they wished to.
"What did the Commissioner wish to discuss with you? Why did she destroy the monitor?"
Servalan awaited Avon's answer with icy self control. Either he trusted her to return or he did not. They were both in each other's hands now.
"I was working to destroy the pacification programme," Avon replied. "Commissioner Sleer has a personal vendetta against me. She came to gloat over my downfall. The monitor? I imagine she didn't wish you to hear what I was going to call her." He sounded tired. "I've tried to kill her on many occasions. She is my sworn enemy."
The back of Servalan's neck was slick with sweat. She hadn't even realised how nervous she was. Avon was still with her. He had chosen to ignore old vendettas and to accept what he had seen in her eyes.
The sudden sound of the alarm made Servalan jump. She hadn't realised how much time had gone by. She watched as the interrogators left the cell for their duty stations, and then calmly shot the remaining guard in the back.
"Come on Orac," Servalan muttered. "Open the door."
She waited twenty seconds while her nerves twitched in agony, then the computer controlled lock opened and she stepped into the cell. Neither of them spoke. Words were for once unnecessary. Avon came to his feet, and they stood tightly locked in each other's arms for what seemed like a small eternity, until practicalities surfaced. "Can you walk?" Servalan asked.
Avon nodded abruptly. "If I have to."
The map on the viewscreen was as Orac had promised, showing a route to her ship that allowed her to collect the computer, whilst presumably avoiding all guard posts.
Avon questioned her as they started to move. "How did you get Orac to co-operate?"
Servalan smiled to herself in spite of her worries. That was one of the things she liked about Avon. He was always three steps ahead of everyone else. He challenged her - no one else had his quickness of mind.
"I think he likes you," she answered.
"That sounds improbable."
They moved as quickly as they could through the complex, pausing only to collect Orac. Avon was tiring rapidly though, and the weight of the computer slowed them further. The route they were following seemed to take them through dozens of minor passages and endless maintenance corridors with cables suspended from the ceiling.
Avon leant against a wall, his strength nearly spent, eyes half closed and breath coming in deep ragged gasps. "Why did Orac bring us this way?" he asked.
"He probably knew you'd never make it without me," came a cheerful voice from behind a broom cupboard.
"Idiot," said Avon, with what sounded suspiciously like affection in his voice. "Come and carry Orac."
Servalan looked Vila up and down as he moved out of cover. "For a corpse," she commented, "you look remarkably healthy."
"It's no thanks to you that I'm not one," answered Vila shortly.
"Avon, do you really want him along?"
Avon's eyes narrowed slightly. "Vila's useful."
Servalan decided to take the hint. This was not the moment to get into an argument; besides, she did need help to get both Avon and Orac back to the Pole Star. She would have to make a final decision regarding Vila later. He was the last of Avon's friends, and as such could come between Avon and herself. Servalan had no intention of allowing that. On the other hand, Vila was easy to manipulate. He had useful skills, and killing him could well turn Avon against her, unless she was very discreet about how she did it.
They made an odd looking group. Servalan contrasted her own black sheath of a dress, still crisp and clean, with Avon's dirty unshaven appearance. She supported him as well as she could, but he was almost unable to stand and his weight threatened to throw her off balance.
Vila looked little better, but he was at least steadier on his feet. He carried Orac and gave Avon a hand whenever necessary.
They progressed in relative silence, each constrained from saying what they wanted to say by the presence of other members of the group.
At the final exit Servalan held up her hand. "Wait here a moment." A minute later she returned and they made their way to the airlock of the Pole Star, carefully stepping over the body of a dead guard.
The ship, Avon conceded to himself, looked fast and deadly. If outward appearances were anything to go by, she would be more manoeuvrable than Scorpio, designed as a fighting ship rather than a freighter. Inside, the Pole Star was trim and spartan. They passed through the vessel, avoiding both flight deck and crew. Eventually they reached what had to be Servalan's personal quarters; decorated in black, white and grey, the rooms had a classical elegance which was easy to associate with her.
Avon stood wearily, trying to keep his balance. There was still one final task he had to attempt before he could leave Gauda Prime, before he could allow himself to relax for a while. "Servalan," he said, "we need to destroy Scorpio."
She looked up at him with a half smile on her lips and mischief dancing in her eyes. "To prevent anyone else getting the teleport?"
Her smile was infectious.
"You've already done it, haven't you?" Avon asked lightly.
"I set the charges two hours ago. They should be going off any time now."
Cunning, avaricious, beautiful, intelligent and totally amoral, the future was there, and Avon was looking into its eyes.
"Servalan," he murmured. "Where have you been all my life?"
"Waiting for you, Avon. Waiting for you."
It's great to be alive, thought Vila to himself later that day, as Minna, Servalan's maid, brought him a second bottle of wine. It's even better having clean clothes and plenty to eat. There's just one thing I can't figure out. Has Servalan joined the revolution, or have Avon and I joined the Federation?
Events had forced her to sleep alone. Avon was physically exhausted and still in pain from the attentions of the interrogators. Making love to him was out of the question, for tonight at least. Seeing her options as either sleeping with him without touching him, or sleeping alone, she had chosen the latter as the least frustrating decision. Taking over her maid's bed, she had left Avon alone in her own.
The problem was: out of sight was most definitely not out of mind.
Cursing herself for a fool, Servalan got up to get herself a drink. As she did so, she heard Avon cry out from the adjoining room. Silently she opened the door and turned the light on at its minimum setting; he was talking to someone in his sleep.
"Have you betrayed me?" Avon's voice was low and ragged as though the question was the most important he had ever asked anyone.
Servalan came over to sit on the edge of the bed and shook him by the shoulder. "Avon, it's only a dream."
He awoke with a start, momentary confusion on his face replaced by icy self control as he became aware of her. "Leave me alone," he demanded.
"Are you sure that's what you want?" Servalan asked evenly.
She watched as the need for companionship warred briefly with the desire to keep his emotions hidden from the world. Privacy won. "I'm sure," he replied.
Servalan shrugged as though she didn't care and returned to her maid's room once more. Somehow she was going to get Avon to trust her, because until he allowed her past that wall of self control, he would never truly belong to her.
Selecting a book, she activated the monitor to read it, and settled down to wait. After she had read the same screen five times without taking it in, she gave up. Taking the book disc out of the machine, she flung it on the bed and went to look at Avon again. His freshly washed hair lay fine and dark against the pillow, but his face looked tense and troubled. Servalan stroked his hair gently, feeling no desire now, nor even a need to control him. She felt rather than saw the tension leave him. It was going to be a long night.
Vila was enjoying breakfast: the best omelette he had ever tasted in his life was on the plate before him. He felt he fully deserved it after a night spent sleeping on the floor. Vila had ceded the couch to Minna, Servalan's maid; thus, in Vila's opinion, proving that he was a true gentleman. The fact that Minna was extremely pretty had, of course, nothing to do with it.
The scent of tomatoes and fried onion arose temptingly from the plate. Vila was doing the meal full justice, when Servalan walked in in. Vila looked at his omelette. Somehow it didn't look nearly as appetising as it had a moment before. In fact he wasn't really sure he felt hungry at all. Perhaps Minna could use an extra hand in the kitchen? However, before he could make good his escape, Servalan addressed him.
"What's wrong with Avon?" she inquired.
"You mean apart from a complete lack of human feelings?"
"Vila," Servalan's voice was dangerously smooth. "I believe you like living?"
"Yes, actually," Vila said brightly, and then wished he hadn't.
Servalan said nothing, merely looked pointedly at him.
Vila found himself starting to stammer. "What do you expect? Even Avon has to have a breaking point somewhere. Everyone's dead except him and me. He killed Blake. Scorpio's gone..." he trailed off into silence at the look on Servalan's face.
"Avon killed Blake?" she asked in surprise.
"Didn't you know?"
"The reports suggested it. I didn't believe them. Tell me what happened," she commanded.
Vila had her full attention now. He didn't want it. He desperately didn't want to live the nightmare over again. Slowly he forced his memory back and tried to prevent his voice from trembling. "Avon went to Gauda Prime looking for Blake. He wanted a figurehead for the rebel alliance and Orac had traced Blake there. Scorpio was attacked before we made orbit. We never stood a chance.
"Tarrant dived into the atmosphere to try and throw the other ships off, but he couldn't regain control. Avon teleported Dayna, Soolin and myself to the surface. I don't know what he did next, but I think he abandoned Tarrant and teleported down with Orac.
"We met up later on the surface and took a captured flyer to the base; Orac gained us entry without any problems. Somehow Tarrant was there before us." Vila paused in his narration; seeing Tarrant in the base had confused him. He had been so sure the pilot was dead. Even now, he didn't know how Tarrant had got there.
Vila continued his narration. "Tarrant said that he thought he'd seen Blake. Immediately after that, Blake himself came through the far entrance. He'd changed a lot. He had a bad scar over his left eye, but it was Blake all right. Avon and I both recognised him. Then Tarrant told Avon that Blake had sold us all out. That he'd sold Avon too.
"That hurt. I mean it hurt me, although I wasn't sure whether to believe it or not. But Avon; well," Vila shivered in spite of himself. "Avon could be funny where Blake was concerned. He believed it. He shot Blake. Blake just kept coming towards him, covered in blood, looking at him. Avon shot him again - and again. Blake reached out for Avon, and then Avon caught him and held him. Avon was holding him when he died. The last thing Blake ever said was Avon's name.
"Avon just stood there looking at Blake's body. There was a Federation agent. She said that Blake was still with the rebellion, but I don't know if Avon heard her or not. Then the shooting started, and that's all I remember."
Servalan's face was a mask, Vila couldn't tell what she was thinking at all.
"I think," he said hesitantly, trying to sort out his own thoughts, "I think Avon loved Blake."
"Wrong, Vila. I hated him. Life will be a lot simpler now he's dead." It was Avon. Avon standing in the doorway, looking very much at home in a black Federation uniform.
Vila's heart sank deep within him. Wordlessly he held up a rack of cold toast as an offering of breakfast.
"I'm not hungry," was the only response.
Avon sat down, his hands clasped lightly together, resting on the table edge, as he studied Servalan. She returned his gaze calmly. Vila, realising that Servalan was no longer interested in him, took the opportunity to depart.
To Servalan, Avon's face looked different in the brighter light - still tired, but improved by a night's rest. Servalan felt she had come to know every line and curve of it as she had watched over him. Now at last the origin of his nightmares was clear.
Has Blake destroyed you, Avon? she wondered to herself. Are you still the man I wanted, or have you become something less? If you are anything less than Kerr Avon, you are useless to me. If you are no longer the brilliant calculating genius, I'll kill you without a second thought.
Lack of sleep was fuzzing her thinking. She looked across the dirty plates, not seeing them, seeking to read Avon's face. There seemed to be a caution, an uncertainty in him. How much, she asked herself, did he remember of the night? Would Avon realise that she had seen him at his weakest? He was the kind of man to resent that, a man who would not want anyone to see him when he was not totally in control of himself.
Didn't he realise that that vulnerability was a part of himself? A part that would make him less than what he was if he should deny it totally? Servalan was forced to realise the pattern her thoughts were taking. She demanded perfection of Avon, the ability to meet any standard and rise above it, to be more than any other man, to die at her hand if he failed the test; yet she herself responded to the things that made him human. The perfect man did not exist, and if he did she would not love him, because he would have no capacity for love himself.
I have my weaknesses too, she acknowledged to herself, and I keep them as carefully buried as you do yours. We are more alike than we will ever admit. I faced the death of my clones with no one to help me or stay by my side. Who would have believed that President Servalan, that frozen bitch - oh, I know what they called me - could cry? I wanted those children, I still want children now. Is that something you could understand, Avon?
If I awoke in the night and cried, would you stay by my side?
We've both been so alone. Is that what draws us together? Not just a common love of money and power, not just physical attraction, not just the cold and calculating mind; but the knowledge that we have both hidden from the world in our own ways, and need each other to help us find the way back?
Avon examined Servalan's expression. It was hard to tell what she was thinking. He himself felt oddly at peace with the world as though a burden had been lifted from him. Once or twice during his sleep he had felt the dreams start to return, but from somewhere he had found strength, as though someone was with him helping him to drive back the madness.
Servalan on the other hand looked tired. Perhaps she had been on the flight deck during the night?
Even tired, she was beautiful. A cold icy beauty that destroyed all it touched. Except himself. Why had she rescued him from Gauda Prime? At the time it had seemed simple to attribute it to love, to that strong physical attraction he and Servalan had always had for one another; but that was not love, love was something more. Why had he trusted her to get him out? In the cold light of day it seemed the most irrational thing he had ever done. Trust and Servalan were not words that went well together. Avon didn't know. He had acted on instinct, and instinct had proven on this occasion to be correct.
Had Servalan been there in the night? He didn't know, and it seemed improbable. Servalan, the cold hearted murderer of millions, the woman whom he hated almost as much as he desired her.
Too long alone - seeking to forget Blake's death - haunted by too many deaths, Avon turned once more to instinct. He came to Servalan and without words they embraced, each of them seeking for something that they could not speak aloud.
Vila had discovered the ultimate meaning of life. Food was god, and Minna was its prophet. He sat in the kitchen and worshipped at her temple.
Last night when they had first arrived on board Pole Star, they had been served a lightly whipped chocolate confection with creamy overtones that had sent Vila into raptures. He didn't think Avon had even noticed. Certainly he hadn't eaten all of his, so Vila in a spirit of selfless cooperation had finished it off for him. As Vila had explained to Minna later, it would have been criminal to waste it.
Sitting in the kitchen now, Vila expounded his new philosophy of life. "Do you realise that the Federation knows nothing about food, nothing at all?"
Minna nodded. Vila was used to her silence now. Minna never spoke at all. Vila didn't think she was able to. Servalan, he guessed, would consider it useful to have a servant who never gossipped about her affairs.
"Where I was brought up in the delta grades, we never had any decent meals at all. The food processors were cheap models, no matter what you dialled, it all tasted the same. I used to buy real food on the black market to avoid the suppressants, but the quality varied a lot."
Minna held up four fingers and tapped herself on the chest with them.
"I don't understand," Vila said.
Minna's fingers formed a capital "D".
"You were a delta grade?"
A nod, followed by a touch on her throat and a finger tapping lightly on her forehead.
"You couldn't speak, so they graded you as an idiot?"
"I was misgraded too, you know," said Vila, sadly. "Alphas are expected to work and I didn't fancy the idea, but I never realised that you can get stuck at the bottom. Once you're classified as stupid, you can never escape it. Still," he grinned at her suddenly, "it can be useful to be underestimated on occasion."
Vila dipped a finger surreptitiously in a bowl of dough, tested the flavour, and thought back to the days on the Liberator. The meals there had been awful to begin with. Whatever alien had set up the food processors there, had not had human tastes in food, in spite of obviously being humanoid in shape. There had been a stock of raw food stuffs, held in stasis, and they had been forced to experiment with these in sheer self defence, until Avon finally reprogrammed the processors to produce something more edible. Jenna, as he recalled, had been a terrible cook. Vila always reckoned she had done it deliberately, in order to make it clear from day one that just because she was the only woman in the crew (until Cally joined them), she was not going to be landed with all the domestic chores. So look who got landed with it, he thought, Gan and myself. Avon had probably been a better cook than either of them, on the rare occasions when he had deigned to help out. But, thought Vila bitterly, nobody ever forced Avon to do anything he didn't want to. He wondered with slight amusement if Servalan's luck in that area would be better than anyone else's.
"What do those two see in each other?" Vila wondered aloud.
Minna cocked her head and raised an eyebrow.
"Avon and Servalan," he elaborated.
Fists held up in front of her, Minna mimed a rapid pumping up and down action, fists moving in opposite directions and opening and closing slightly.
"I don't get it."
Reaching in the stasis chamber for some milk, Minna tapped the container with a forefinger.
"Milk? A cow? You're saying Servalan's a cow?"
Minna nodded and Vila burst out laughing.
"Have you ever seen a real cow?"
Minna shook her head.
"No, neither have I," Vila responded. "I've seen pictures though."
Inspiration struck him, there was scope for a whole new form of conversation here. "Say, if Servalan is a cow, do you know what Avon is?" She looked at him expectantly. Vila thought for a moment, then brought his hands together at the wrist and flapped them up and down, then looked at Minna.
She whistled a trill.
"No, not a bird. Try again." He thought, then moved his forefinger in a wide arc in front of him, then moved it back through the bottom half of the circle.
Minna closed her eyes.
"Night, that's right. What's associated with night?"
Reaching to her mouth, Minna touched her two canine teeth.
"That's it," carolled Vila. "A vampire bat!"
Reaching out, he grabbed Minna's wrists, and danced her around the kitchen, almost upsetting a bowl of egg custard and a fruit salad in the process, until he collapsed happily on a stool to contemplate the joys of a language so rich in imagery and metaphor.
Life for Vila passed easily. There was plenty of food, no work, and he had Minna's visual conversation to pass the time, when Avon and Servalan didn't want him around. The only thing that preoccupied his mind was the question he had asked himself when Servalan first rescued them. Had Avon sold out to the Federation?
He waited until Avon appeared to be in a good mood before trying to raise the subject. "Avon, what are we doing here?"
"Surviving. Would you rather be back on Gauda Prime?"
Vila grappled with what he wanted to say. It was always hard asking Avon a direct question. If he didn't want to answer, he simply ignored you.
"Are you really going to build Servalan a teleport?"
To his surprise Avon was feeling fairly expansive for once. "Look at it this way Vila, with Orac's assistance I could construct a teleport in six to eight months. Servalan won't let me have access to Orac. Quite understandable really, considering I could use it to take control of the entire ship. Without Orac it will take me at least two years, possibly longer. A lot can happen in that time. I for one have no intention of living as a prisoner on this ship for two years."
"I thought that you and Servalan...." Vila's voice trailed off at the look on Avon's face.
"Servalan is a genocidal maniac."
Vila looked nervously around the room, carefully taking in the wall niches, small tables, plants, and numerous areas where a bug could be concealed. "Avon, have you checked for monitoring devices?"
"Several days ago, and regularly since then. While I thought it unlikely that Servalan would allow anyone to listen into her own quarters, it seemed prudent to make certain."
It was ironic, thought Vila, that apart from the danger of Servalan deciding to shoot them on a whim, he actually felt safer here than he had been for a long time. This was literally the last place that anyone would look for them. No one was chasing him, no one was asking him to teleport down into dangerous places to risk his neck. The food was excellent and there was plenty to drink. "We're not in any hurry to leave are we?" he asked.
Avon looked at him oddly. "There's no rush. I'd have to do the teleport studies anyway, and I've got some other things I want to look at while I've got the chance."
For Avon, there were many things he wanted to do, and he was increasingly torn between them. He owed a debt to Blake, a debt that he could not repay while he remained with Servalan. Indeed it was possible that that debt might require Avon to kill her.
He no longer wanted to kill her. He had to face that fact. He was under no illusions as to who Servalan was or what she stood for, and he doubted that she would ever change. But when he was with her, he didn't want to leave her side. In just a few short weeks, Servalan had become more to him than he had ever imagined possible.
He had to escape from her and restart the fight against the Federation.
He wanted to stay with her.
It was tearing him apart.
Dark head bent over the terminal, Avon appeared completely absorbed in what he was doing. Servalan walked up behind him and ran a finger lightly around the back of his neck.
"I'm busy," Avon said without turning around.
"I've got some data for you to look at."
"Later, I said I was busy." He sounded irritated.
Servalan was furious, nobody ignored her in that manner and got away with it. She was in charge here, and she expected to be treated with respect.
Vila, in the adjoining room, looked up from a game of Patience where he'd been getting hopelessly stuck. He hoped they weren't going to notice him and close the door. He'd seen this argument coming for days and didn't intend to miss out on it.
"Avon," Servalan said dangerously, "this is my ship."
"So it is," Avon agreed, "and this is my computer program; if you will just let me get on with it."
Red queen on black king. Vila needed a red knave, so he cheated and slipped one out of the deck. What program was Avon working on anyway? He'd been very close mouthed about it.
"I can still have you shot," Servalan reminded Avon.
She did look stunning when she was angry, thought Vila, no doubt about it. I'm just glad she's not angry with me. Mind you, if she does shoot Avon, I'm next in line. Still, Avon can handle her, I think...
"Fine. Go ahead. Do it."
"Avon, will you be serious!"
Any minute now, thought Vila, she'll start stamping her feet at him.
Spinning his chair around, Avon got slowly and deliberately to his feet and looked down into Servalan's face. "I am not your slave. I live my life on my own terms or not at all. If you want someone who will obey your every whim, then take Vila into your bed!"
No chance, thought Vila. I'd sooner sleep with a pack of man eating tigers. You can have her and you're welcome to her.
Unexpectedly Servalan began to laugh. "Vila? Oh Avon, do give me credit for having some taste!"
Smiling slightly against his will, Avon held out his hand. "What is this information that is so important, anyway?"
Servalan passed him a small stack of data chips. "Collated census data for Ollnar, Helotrix and Fingal. Complete up to last month, with the associated statistics."
Wordlessly Avon fed the data chips into the terminal and resumed his work. Graphs and charts flowed across the screen as he manipulated the data.
Servalan rested her hand lightly on his shoulder. "You could at least say thank you."
"How did you know I wanted it?" Avon asked.
"I took a look at the program last night, while you were having a bath."
Vila lost interest in the discussion and dealt himself a new hand. It looked as though the big fight had been postponed for a while. Pity really. He couldn't decide who was most likely to come out on top. On the face of it, Servalan had the advantage, she controlled the ship and the men on board; on the other hand, Avon was stubborn and devious. Vila would have hated to have to place money on the outcome.
After a while the new data began to fit into Avon's overall picture. Servalan could see it building up as she watched: low birth rate, high infant mortality, lowered resistance to disease, a reduced rate of innovation.
"Is that valid?" she asked. "Given the unpredictable rate of inventions under normal circumstances, surely that reduced rate over a one year period isn't statistically significant."
Avon eyed the data. It certainly wasn't significant to within the 95% confidence level, but he had an instinct for the developing pattern. He was willing to predict that in addition to the reduced scientific development there would be a parallel lack in the arts: a stagnation and lack of new ideas in music and entertainment. It wouldn't show for many years - new works would continue to be produced, but they would be derivative, not radically new.
On Fingal, of course, there would be no art at all, because there was no longer anyone capable of desiring it. The victims of the highest levels of Pylene 50 had very little of free will left in them.
Avon spoke without looking at her. "The drug reduces drive and imagination; it stagnates the culture."
"That's a very one sided view of things," Servalan responded. "What about the reduced crime rate, the prevention of drug addiction, and," she said, smiling at him, "the complete absence of rebellion?"
"Servalan, these planets are going nowhere. The people don't care enough to look after themselves, let alone each other. You've got cheap slave labour, but how long will it last? They don't resist anything; they don't fight anything. What odds would you place on a major epidemic within the next five years? Let me have Orac for a few hours, it can pull in the data I still don't have."
Reaching over, Servalan silently placed a fourth chip in the machine. Avon looked at her briefly, then his fingers flashed over the controls as he studied the screen before him.
"So, it's already happening." His voice was bitter for a moment. "How does it feel to have destroyed another world?"
"Why should you care, Avon? You aren't in danger from the Federation's expansion any more. As long as you remain here, you're safe."
Avon appeared to take no notice. Servalan suspected that was half of what irked him, the fact that he was dependent on her.
He cleared the screen with a flick of his hand and gave Servalan his full attention. "It would be amusing if you succeed in doing within the Federation, what I failed to do without it. Pylene 50 has the potential to destroy the Federation. Don't you think that's ironic?"
"Why are you telling me this? I'm your enemy, remember?" She smiled as she said it, but Avon ignored the obvious reply and caught her by the wrist,
"Because you," he said, tightening his grip and causing her to gasp with the sudden pain, "have the power to stop it."
Avon's passion was compelling, all the more so because Servalan hadn't been expecting it. She looked him in the eye. "I'll consider it, but I'm not making any promises."
Avon's expression was grim as he pulled her to him. "I wouldn't believe you, if you did."
What was it with those two, wondered Vila. What did they base their relationship upon? Love? Hate? Mutual attraction? It all seemed so mercurial, one minute they could be at each other's throats - the next? He risked a peek. Yes, they were at it again. Kissing like that should be banned. Didn't they know he suffered from high blood pressure?
Now Minna was a far more sensible sort of woman, a woman with qualities one could really appreciate. To think was to act. Vila decided to see if he could go and scrounge something to eat and perhaps attempt some dalliance of his own if the opportunity arose.
The view on the screen showed a pleasant agricultural world with a small town in the distance. A world with a totally loyal populace. Ollnar, a world controlled by Pylene 50.
"Commissioner," came the voice over the intercom. "A representative of the Ollnar rebels wishes to speak with you to negotiate terms for surrender."
"Bring him aboard," Servalan ordered, "and scan him for weapons."
Turning to Avon, she raised an eyebrow in question. "Do you want to stay?"
He gestured at the screen in front of him. "Given that this is the only terminal you will allow me to use, I have little choice if I wish to continue working."
"It's the only one not linked into the ship's systems," Servalan answered.
"I know. That was the first thing I tried."
They smiled at one another in mutual understanding, before Avon returned to his analysis of wave transmissions and Servalan emptied her desk.
The office was not a large room, but then the Pole Star was not a large ship by Federation standards. The small crew complement enabled Servalan to have her own rooms separate from theirs. Her office, bedrooms, kitchen and living area were her private domain into which no one except those she invited had access. The layout of the ship was her own choice; a profitable deal in gold had enabled her to purchase the vessel she desired.
There was a knock on the door, and a blond man about Avon's height was shown in by a uniformed trooper, who then left the room to resume his post. Servalan reclined in her seat, showing herself to her best advantage. A black off the shoulder dress, held up by little more than imagination, contrasted sharply with the white leather of the chair. A single red Arcturan rose on the smooth glassite top of the desk emphasised rather than distracted from her presence.
"Avon! What the hell are you doing here?" the stranger demanded.
Avon looked up. "As you can see, I'm working."
"Avon," Servalan's voice was exceptionally gentle, which usually indicated irritation. "As you two obviously know each other, why don't you introduce us?"
"Commissioner Sleer, this is Del Grant."
She looked amused. "Del Grant, mercenary leader of successful revolutions on several worlds, and," she commented, glancing at Avon, "Anna's brother."
"You seem to know a lot about me," Grant commented dryly.
"Naturally," Servalan picked up the rose and twirled it gently between her fingers. "Any associate of Avon's is of interest to me."
"What do you want, Grant?" Avon sounded cold and disinterested.
"What you should be wanting - an end to all this! I thought you were fighting Sleer, not working for her! What did it take to make you sell out? What did she offer you Avon? Money? You always did like money didn't you?"
Rising to his feet, Avon started towards Grant, his face blackening, only to halt as Grant pulled a small tube from a pocket and pointed it at him.
"What's that?" Avon demanded.
"A gun," Grant replied. "Very primitive I admit, the barrel's made of leather and it's probably only good for one shot, but one's all I need. It had to be crude, the weapon scans would have picked it up otherwise.
"I can shoot you Avon, or I can shoot her." Grant swung the gun around to point at Servalan and Avon moved instinctively sideways to block him.
"She's mine, Grant. If anyone is going to kill her it will be me."
Servalan took advantage of the diversion to press a silent alarm on her desk. The subsequent sound of the door opening behind him distracted Grant just enough for Avon to be able to seize his arm and grapple with him for the gun. Moments later it was over as a Federation paragun in his back forced Grant to surrender his weapon to Avon.
Servalan dismissed the guard. "You may go."
"Yes, Ma'am." He saluted and left.
"Kill him, Avon." This was Servalan's moment of triumph and she was going to savour it to the full.
Avon turned slowly to face Grant and raised the gun.
"Avon! Listen to me," Grant shouted.
Avon waited. There was no hurry in him, just a cold implacability.
"There's more to this than money isn't there? You really want that bitch. Have you forgotten Anna so completely? It was her kind that destroyed Anna."
"Anna worked for Central Security. She betrayed me." Avon's voice was flat and dead.
"I don't believe you," Grant retorted.
Servalan's smile was angelic as she inspected an already impeccable fingernail. "I assure you she did. I used her services myself on occasion. Anna was still alive several years after you thought she was dead." She inspected another fingernail. "I was there when Avon found out. Anna tried to kill him of course. Avon was faster."
Grant took a step back and studied Avon's face, trying to read his expression. He shook his head slightly, and then accepted the unavoidable. "You killed her?"
"Over a year ago," Avon said quietly. "I had no choice."
It was hard for Grant to take in. He'd accepted Anna's death at the hands of Federation torturers many years ago, and had blamed Avon for that death. Having finally come to an acceptance that Avon was not fully to blame, he now had to face the same situation all over again. Against his will, he found himself believing Avon once more. There was no reason for him to invent the story. Avon certainly had nothing to gain by admitting to killing Grant's sister, and something in his tight guarded expression hinted at intolerable memories. "I'm sorry Avon. I know what she meant to you."
"It doesn't matter." Avon sounded indifferent. Grant wasn't sure whether it was a pose or not.
"Does Sleer matter to you?" he demanded. "You know what she is. You've fought against her. She's destroyed whole planets with her drugs. That's why she has to die."
Grant had seen a world destroyed around him. By sheer coincidence he had been on Helotrix when supplies of the antidote to Pylene 50 had been briefly available. Grant had seen the damage the drug had done there. Subsequent employment as a mercenary had brought him to Ollnar, to lead the resistance against the advancing Federation forces. Only here had Grant seen the full impact of the drug; Helotrix had been nothing by comparison. On Ollnar, Pylene 50 had been introduced into the water supplies in heavy doses leaving most people in a state little better than zombies.
He'd tried. He and his men had attacked the centres where the drug was produced and distributed, but to no avail. The true horror of the situation had only become apparent to him when Grant had found himself fighting his own men, who had been captured and given the drug themselves. As an immune he had managed to escape, but had found himself alone in a world given over to the Federation.
The people of Ollnar had entrusted their safety to him, and Grant had failed them. The only action left to him had been to try and kill the woman behind it all. Now he had failed even in that unless he could bring Avon back to his senses. "She's death, Avon. She's a treacherous, poisonous snake. She got Zukan to sell out your warlord alliance."
"I guessed as much. It had her style."
"Then why defend her, Avon? She'll betray you too."
Avon was very quiet. "I know."
"Do you really believe that?" The sound of Servalan's voice was low and sensuous, wrapping itself around him.
"Oh yes. Some day you'll tire of me, and if that doesn't happen, I'll become too dangerous. It only needs one person to know I'm here, and you have to kill me to destroy the evidence. You can't hide me for ever, and I won't live as a prisoner."
The gun in Avon's hand moved around, almost of its own volition, to point at Servalan.
"It's over," Avon said shortly.
"Why?" Servalan was hurt, deeply hurt, but refused to let it show.
"Because I don't trust you. There are too many deaths between us, and you'll never change."
He motioned her towards the door. Servalan estimated her chances of reaching the alarm again before Avon could shoot, and decided not to try for it.
Instead she came towards him, and looked directly into the face of her lover. "Could you really kill me?" she asked.
Avon returned her gaze. "You know I can. I've killed people I loved before."
Servalan believed him. When Avon ordered her to summon her men one by one, she obeyed his orders exactly. Each of the six men in turn handed his weapon over to Vila, while Avon held the gun against her ribs. Still a hostage, she was taken out of her ship onto the surface of Ollnar. Grant, now armed once more, kept a watchful eye on her men, as they too were escorted off the Pole Star. If there had been an opportunity for escape, she never noticed it. Servalan felt slightly stunned. One moment she had been secure and in control, the next - Avon had slipped through her fingers.
Then the arguments started. They were tossing her life back and forth as though she were a prisoner on trial. Grant and Vila were both talking at once, and Minna was obviously trying to explain something too. Minna's presence puzzled Servalan. She put that on one side and concentrated on the words flowing around her.
"How can you forget Cally?" demanded Vila. "What about the people of Auron? She killed all of them!"
"She's enslaved a dozen worlds with her pernicious drugs," accused Grant. "She's totally corrupt and ruthless."
"What about Dayna's father?" pressed Vila.
"Avon, you can't let her live!"
Servalan had nothing left to her except her pride, and she was not going to let them take that from her. She made no answer, took no notice of them, except to watch Avon. He was the one who counted. Avon was quite capable of killing Grant to enforce his will. Vila would, in the end, obey Avon. Minna, if indeed she was with them, didn't count at all.
Avon was a stone: cold, solid, unyielding. "She gave me my life. You can kill her if we meet again. This time she is mine."
In the end he beat them down and she watched them leave for the airlock of her ship.
He loved her and she'd lost him. He loved her and he didn't trust her. She reflected that she was lucky to be alive. That sort of contradiction usually resulted in Avon killing someone. He was cold, passionate, treacherous, loyal, a cynical genius, and she adored him. And if she ever saw him again, she would kill him for what he had done to her today.
"Avon!" she called after him imperiously. "Can you leave without saying Goodbye?"
He turned back to her, his voice sounding distant. "I suppose I owe you that much at least." But as he took her into his arms, she sensed the need and the emptiness within him. The kiss that started coldly became deep and passionate, as real and as urgent as the muzzle of the gun digging into her side. After it was over, Avon held her close to him for a moment, then turned and left for the Pole Star.
He didn't look back.
Vila uncorked a bottle of red wine and poured out several liberal helpings. "Cheers!"
"What are we supposed to be celebrating?" asked Avon. It wasn't like Vila to share the wine out so freely.
Minna placed the thumb and forefinger of her right hand to make a ring around her left wrist, by way of explanation.
Grant grinned. "After eight months of putting up with your temper while working as an unpaid electrician's mate, I now get some time off. Isn't finishing the teleport something to celebrate?"
He wasn't sure that he would have stayed with Avon if it hadn't been for the teleport; that and Minna's cooking of course. Grant wanted a way to hurt the Federation, and the teleport gave the crew of the Pole Star an edge over the Federation. Working as a mercenary had become increasingly difficult since the advent of Pylene 50, the drug simply could not be fought by conventional means. Admittedly the antidote was more widely available now - Avon had given the formula to anyone who asked for it. However, the synthesis was a complex process not easily undertaken by small groups of rebels.
Oddly enough, the Pylene 50 programme seemed to be slowing down, according to the reports of the last few months. Why Commissioner Garbet had chosen to do that was unclear to him. "Why did Servalan leave the pacification programme?" Grant asked through a mouthful of rice.
"An attack of conscience?" suggested Vila.
"She hasn't got one," said Avon with finality.
"Probably why the two of you got on so well," Grant commented.
Avon stiffened imperceptibly. Grant's constant jibes on the subject of his relationship with Servalan irritated him. She was a part of his life that he had placed behind him, but Avon hadn't forgotten her. He ignored the comment and continued the conversation. "Servalan probably decided it was in her best interests to get out before the pacification programme developed major problems."
Minna snapped her fingers to attract the attention of the other three and started signing rapidly, If you want to discuss politics, go and do it somewhere else.
Grant smiled good naturedly and polished off the last of his lunch quickly. "I can take a hint. Avon, do you need any more slave labour? We could work out a good target to attack while overhauling the flight computer."
Avon came to his feet. "One of the necessary ingredients for synthesising Pylene 50 is xanite. It could be time that we hit either the mines or the processing plant."
They departed through the door, discussing whether they would need outside help for the job, and if so, how contact could be made. Vila turned to Minna and slipped his arms around her waist. Minna kissed him where his hair thinned out on top. Then she picked up one of the empty plates, mimed cleaning it and pointed to Vila.
"Oh, it's not my turn again already is it?" Vila protested.
Minna nodded firmly. Vila sighed and started collecting up the dirty dishes.
Grant looked up from the communications console. "Avon, there's a message for you."
"Well, put it on audio," Avon said in irritation, looking up from where he was working, deep in the innards of the flight computer.
Grant shrugged. "I can't. It came in text. All it says is 'Avon. Jaxtin, third day of the fourth month. Please.'
Avon connected several wires in silence, replaced a cover and stared thoughtfully into space for a moment. Then he spoke. "Lay in a course for Jaxtin, time distort four."
"Hang on a moment," Grant complained. "I thought we had just decided to hit the xanite processing plant on Pronor."
"We had. Now we're going to Jaxtin," Avon's voice was calm and unruffled.
"Just like that?" Grant was scathing. "I don't suppose you'd care to explain why? We've finally got a fully functional ship with a working teleport system. We're in a position to hit the Federation, and you suddenly want to go hareing off to Jaxtin because of an anonymous message."
"That's right," Avon answered evenly. "I don't care to explain why."
Vila caught the end of the conversation as he walked onto the flight deck with Minna, and was instantly worried. Was Avon merely being awkward, or was he about to develop one of his obsessive moods? Did Grant realise what Avon could be like when he really set his mind on something? "Avon," he asked worriedly, "this isn't anything to do with Blake, is it?"
Turning around in surprise Avon looked at him. "Of course not, Blake is dead."
"All right, so give us a good reason. Give us any reason, and we'll go to Jaxtin."
"No," Avon said flatly.
Grant found himself in the unexpected position of being on the same side as Vila. Avon's behaviour was annoying him. Simply because Avon had been in command on the Liberator and on Scorpio did not mean that his word was law here. Grant was a man used to giving orders, not taking them, and he had no intention of letting Avon push him around. "There's two of us, and only one of you, Avon. You're out-voted," he said firmly.
Minna caught Avon looking at her in question and her hands made a sign that the others could not see.
Avon nodded reluctantly in confirmation. He needed her support and would have to trust to her silence. If any of them would understand, it would be Minna.
She stepped forward in front of Vila and pointed to herself and Avon, then held up two fingers on each hand.
"Minna?" Vila sounded puzzled. "Why are you voting with Avon?"
The fair haired woman glanced at Avon who shook his head very slightly. Minna signed rapidly with her fingers, No, I'm not going to tell you either.
"Why," inquired Grant, "did he tell you and not us?"
"I didn't tell her," said Avon coldly. "She simply has more intelligence than the rest of you. Not," he added, "that that would be particularly difficult."
Walking towards Avon, Grant faced him squarely with a determined expression on his face. "I don't know how you got your own way on Liberator all the time, but don't expect it to work here. It's still a split vote. We don't go unless you give us a good reason. That message could have come from anyone. It's been broadcast over half of space so anyone could have picked it up. What makes you so sure it isn't a trap?"
The determination in Avon's face took Grant by surprise. Avon smiled, a thin lipped smile that didn't reach his eyes. "If it is a trap I, and I alone, will be affected. No one else will land with me, and if I fail to return, you will leave without me."
"Ahem." Orac's interjection caused heads to turn in his direction. "I believe that I have not yet been consulted in this matter."
"Pedant!" muttered Vila under his breath.
Orac continued, taking no notice of the interruption. "My assessment of the situation is that there is a sixty percent chance of it being a trap."
"No!" Avon's fists were clenched at his side, his voice strained.
"However, if I may be permitted to continue," said Orac testily, "the possible long term benefits outweigh the risks. Provided that Pole Star does not remain in close orbit the only significant danger will be to Avon. I therefore recommend that the trip be undertaken."
Avon looked at Orac in complete bewilderment for a moment, then seemed to pull himself together. "Three to two - you're out-voted, Grant."
"Since when did that heap of junk get a vote?" complained Vila.
"Since it proved to be more essential to running this ship than you are," Avon snapped back.
They had been in orbit around Jaxtin for eight days with Avon getting increasingly more impatient and nervous. Minna sat constantly on the detectors alternating shifts with Vila. Grant ran constant checks on all systems, explaining pointedly to Avon that if they had to leave in a hurry, he wanted to be prepared to do so.
Avon, apart from frequent private conversations with Orac, spent his time walking up and down the flight deck. Vila watched him pacing back and forth, up and down, like...
"Avon," said Vila suddenly. "It's Servalan, isn't it? You've come here to see Servalan."
Avon whirled and seized him by the shoulders of his tunic, only to drop him as Orac spoke. "I have the coordinates you requested."
Avon strode rapidly over to the teleport bay. "Put me down."
The dissolution of his figure into flickering lights put an end to any further discussion.
As his feet hit the ground, Avon spun around to check that his landing had been unobserved. No one was in sight. Orac had placed him in a small alleyway between two buildings. Walking cautiously out of the narrow gap, Avon paused in the adjoining street to take his bearings. There ahead to the left was the building he wanted. He patted his pocket checking that his gun was concealed and secure, and then made his way forward to the entrance.
The young woman in reception looked up as he entered, her eyes taking in the face of the man before her. "Can I help you?"
"I'm here to see Commissioner Sleer. Where can I find her?"
Consulting her screen the receptionist answered him. "Ward thirteen, room five; take the corridor on your right, and follow the signs."
Reaching the door of room five, Avon hesitated. It wasn't too late. He could still turn back.
He reasoned to himself that he didn't owe Servalan anything. All debts had been paid when he spared her life on Ollnar. To enter now was to reopen the wound, to admit to himself that Servalan was more to him than simply someone who had shared his bed, to admit that she had done more than just save his life. Servalan had made him want to live again. Avon recognised fear in himself and tried to shut it out. Fear of emotional involvement. Fear that this was just an elaborate trap. Fear of betrayal.
He opened the door.
Servalan was there, sitting up on the bed, supported by pillows. Avon strode swiftly to her. He sat beside her, taking her in his arms, holding her head tightly against his chest. He was aware of the pounding of his heart and knew that she could feel it too.
To his amazement, there were tears in Servalan's eyes as she looked at him. "Avon," she whispered, "I didn't think you'd come."
Avon studied her closely, seeing the changes that pregnancy had made. It was with something of a shock that he recalled the slender figure thathad responded to him with such passion. Servalan's face had changed too, although it was hard to put a finger on the difference. The almost legendary composure was gone, hardly surprising under the circumstances. She was different, but she was still Servalan.
Her gasp of pain caught Avon by surprise in the middle of his reminiscence. She grasped his hand and clung tightly until the contraction had passed.
He'd missed her. How much he had missed her, was just beginning to hit Avon with full impact. When this was over and Servalan had had his child, Avon would have to leave her again, and it would be no easier than it had been the first time. Desperately he tried to regain some emotional space between them, to detach himself from what was going on. He had to think of it as Servalan's baby, not his. They belonged in separate worlds. He could not join the Federation; Servalan would not leave it.
Servalan was looking at him. "Avon, why did you come? I swore I'd kill you when you stole my ship."
Startled by the question, Avon inadvertently told her the truth. "You needed me. Orac said it would be a trap. I chose not to believe it."
That caught Servalan by surprise. To come against the computer's advice spoke more about Avon's feelings for her than he would ever be able to put into words. She touched Avon's face with her fingers, reassuring herself of his presence, studying his features to fix him again in her memory. Then, resting her head against his shoulder, she closed her eyes, relaxing in the security of the knowledge that he was really here.
The silence of the room was broken by a sudden shout. "Stand up! Hold your hands over your head!"
The command came from behind Avon. He reached instinctively for his weapon and realised that his right hand was still imprisoned in Servalan's. Avon shook himself free from Servalan as though she had burnt him, bitterness taking over his soul. "You too, Servalan?"
Slowly turning his back on her, Avon faced his captors, and raised his hands as ordered.
"Avon, no! " she cried after him in agony. "Not this time. I didn't betray you. Not this time."
Avon didn't hear her, and he wouldn't have believed her if he had. If it hadn't been for the child he would have killed her then and there, and died himself under the guns of the soldiers. Servalan was guilty as hell, but his son or daughter was innocent of the sins of its mother.
There were four Federation troopers and a man who by his attitude was obviously in command. The officer gestured to one of his men to take Avon's gun, and Avon relinquished the weapon, uncaring. It was only when they reached for Avon's bracelet that he reacted for a moment. Swinging his hands down in front of him, he hit the transmit button with the heel of his left hand. "Vila! Run!"
An immediate blow to Avon's head caught him off balance and he fell awkwardly on the floor, jarring his elbow and feeling the pain shoot up his arm. There was no answering voice from the bracelet. Whether Vila had heard him or not Avon didn't know, and barely cared. He didn't protest when a soldier bending over him roughly pulled the bracelet from his wrist, and passed it to the Commander for inspection.
Servalan lifted herself from the pillows and made as though to come towards him, but Avon backed away from her into the corner of the room. "Keep away from me!" He could not bear the thought that she should touch him again.
"Get to your feet!" The order was accompanied by a heavy booted foot in his ribs. Avon brought up his arms to protect his face and started to get up, only to be caught by another kick in his side which sent him sprawling again.
The tone of command in Servalan's voice snapped the trooper's head round, then he laughed unpleasantly and slapped her across the face. "Your orders don't count for anything any more, Commissioner. We've got instructions concerning you too."
"Sim." The officer's voice was calm but authoritative. "Your instructions don't include beating up a pregnant woman."
Sim backed away reluctantly, his eyes never leaving Servalan.
"What is your name, Commander?" Servalan requested. "I shall see that this incident is fully reported."
"Gorman," the officer replied shortly. "You won't be reporting anything. You're under arrest too."
Avon climbed slowly to his feet, holding his side where it hurt. Something was wrong here, and his mind was still too numb to comprehend it fully. "What's she supposed to have done?"
Gorman removed his helmet, revealing him to be a middle aged man with thin, greying hair. He looked at Avon. "Don't pretend you don't know. Abducting you from prison on Gauda Prime, supplying you with a spaceship, and fraternising with rebels."
Now Avon understood. It was still a trap, but a trap that Servalan was also caught in. She hadn't set it. He couldn't face her, so he tackled the Commander instead. "I escaped alone from Gauda Prime with the help of Blake's men. The ship I stole on Ollnar with the aid of a local resistance leader."
"A good try, but it won't wash. She's been under suspicion for a while, you've 'escaped' from her too often. When we intercepted that message, we put the Commissioner under surveillance, along with several other suspected rebels on Jaxtin, to see who, if anyone, you came to." He looked at Avon pityingly. "Your presence here condemns her."
It was too much for Avon to take. He felt physically sick. He buried his head in his hands and closed his eyes trying to shut out the thought. Was he responsible for Servalan's downfall? Wasn't that something he had always wanted until now?
"Avon." Servalan's voice, calm, clear and precise, cut through his mental fog. "Avon, I asked you to come."
Avon straightened up and assessed the situation logically. The odds didn't look good: six armed men against an unarmed man and a woman. Behind him he could hear Servalan's breathing become more laboured as another contraction started and he knew that there was going to be no way out. Servalan was physically incapable of leaving even if he could find an escape, and Avon realised that he could not abandon her, not whilst she needed him and was in pain.
"Avon, help me!"
Avon knew what that cry had cost Servalan, to show weakness in front of half a dozen strange men. He hated them all for invading her privacy, for being here when she was at her most vulnerable. Two men seized Avon's arms as he tried to reach Servalan, and he struggled blindly against them before giving up the futile fight. Dimly he heard the order given to take him to the military prison, and Servalan's inarticulate cry of protest.
"No!" The need to have Avon with her overwhelmed everything else. "I have information."
Gorman raised a hand to hold his men. "What information?" he asked.
He watched Sleer visibly struggling to gain control of herself and block out the pain. "Information for your ears alone, Commander. They leave," she pointed at his men, "but Avon stays."
Gorman assessed the situation. He could spare a few minutes if she was simply bluffing. If she had any other plan in mind, he had ways of forestalling that. The orders he gave to his men were explicit and he made sure the prisoners heard clearly - no one was to leave the room except himself. This was to apply even if he, Gorman, was being used as a hostage.
The male prisoner was watching him with amusement, arms folded across his chest and his stance insolent. It was as though his earlier emotional outburst had never been. For the first time, Gorman sensed the intelligence in those dark eyes and the danger they represented. It would not do to underestimate this man. Only when the last of Gorman's men had left the room did Kerr Avon return to the side of his woman. He said nothing to her but took her hand in his, glanced briefly into her eyes with some unspoken message, then turned his full attention onto Gorman.
The Federation officer found that cool gaze vaguely unnerving. He concentrated instead on the woman who was also watching him steadily.
"What information do you have?" Gorman asked.
"I have information of great value to the current President." Sleer smiled slightly. "You may rest assured he will reward you well for it. In exchange, I want Avon."
She silenced Gorman's protest with a gesture before he had even spoken. "I know I can't buy his freedom, or mine for that matter. All I ask is time." Her control wasn't so strong now. This was a woman who wasn't used to having to plead for what she wanted, and she was pleading now. "Let us have a last few days together. Let Avon see his child."
Gorman glanced at Avon, but the man might have been carved of stone. There was no apparent response in him to what was being said. If it hadn't been for the fact of his earlier reactions, it would have been easy to assume that he didn't care.
"I'm not certain it is within my power to give what you ask," Gorman said, "even if the information is worth it."
The woman was sarcastic. "Commander, it is possible to achieve anything within military regulations. It is simply a case of knowing how to apply them properly."
"What would you know about military regulations - you're in security?"
"I'll come to that in a minute," she answered. "Do we have a deal?"
Avon interrupted. "Sleer?" There was both a question and a warning in that single word.
Gorman gained the impression that Avon knew what Sleer was about to do, disapproved, but in the end would let her make her own choice.
"Yes," Gorman found himself saying. "If the information is worth it, and if what you want can be done by the book, then you have a deal."
"I know where you can find ex-president Servalan."
Gorman caught Avon's almost imperceptible nod. Yes, the man had known what she was going to say.
"Servalan's dead," Gorman said, then turned to Avon with sudden surmise. "Or is she?"
Servalan smiled through her discomfort. Gorman felt as though he had just passed an intelligence test and been admitted into a very small and exclusive club. He burst out laughing.
Avon was smiling too. Gorman had never seen quite so much meaning packed into one expression. It was a smile that said, you're a smart man, you're someone I could have worked with had things been different, and you're also someone I'm going to kill if you ever double cross me.
"Yes," agreed the rebel, "it is amusing, isn't it? President Servalan and Kerr Avon, one of the most wanted outlaws in the entire galaxy. If it's any consolation to you, she's spent most of the last five or six years trying to kill me."
"Apart from the times when I was trying to prevent you from killing me," Servalan retorted.
Gorman looked at them in bewilderment - they had to be the oddest couple he had ever met in his life. The knowledge of her identity was valuable beyond a doubt. Gorman was convinced President Rimner would indeed pay highly to guarantee his predecessor's death. Keeping his side of the bargain should not cause any great problems, Gorman was already beginning to view certain regulations in an entirely new light. He suddenly regretted that he had never risen high enough in Space Command to work with this woman when she had been Supreme Commander.
That thought drew him inexorably on to the Galactic War, his last battle in space before the loss of so many ships had forced survivors like himself into ground jobs. The alien assault had been totally unexpected, yet the speed of the Federation's reaction had been impressive and well coordinated. Gorman had known his position in the fleet, known his orders exactly and been given tight communications with the rabble of smugglers, free traders, and ships from independent worlds that had come to help defend their galaxy. Servalan's organisation had been nothing short of incredible given the limited time in which she had had to respond. However, the strongest memory that lingered in his mind, as it had in the minds of so many of those who arrived early to the fight, was the image of the great alien spaceship with its trilateral symmetry, fighting against all the odds to hold the break in the defence zone for the four hours before the first and fastest Federation ships could arrive. The Liberator, according to rumour, under the command of the man now sitting opposite to him. It struck Gorman uncomfortably that as far as debts went, his prisoners were probably owed by the vast mass of humanity. A debt that was not going to be repaid.
Gorman's voice betrayed nothing of his thoughts. He had his job to consider, and his estimation of their abilities meant that he could not afford to be careless. "You'll both remain here until Sleer gives birth. This isn't a military hospital, the staff haven't been vetted, therefore barring a medical emergency no one is to be allowed to enter this room. My men will remain on guard outside and I shall stay here."
Avon's brown eyes were filled with a gently mocking humour. "Well now," he said softly, "do you realise you've just volunteered your services as a midwife?"
Seven hours, thought Gorman wearily as he collapsed into his chair. Had it really been only seven hours? Servalan - he was beginning to get used to thinking of her by that name now - Servalan's labour had seemed to go on for ever. Gorman had never realised that giving birth involved so much pain or so much blood. Somehow he had always assumed that babies came into the world clean and freshly washed. Still, he mused as he poured himself a stiff drink, it was an experience he wouldn't forget in a hurry. As he and Avon had tied and cut the umbilical cord following the verbal instructions of a nurse in another room, their eyes had met for a moment in complete understanding. Here, after all the deaths and killings and futile wars, was new life, perhaps in the end, the only thing that really counted.
They had sat in companionable silence for five or ten minutes, watching Servalan nurse her daughter, before Gorman had reluctantly allowed the real world to intervene once more. "What are you going to call her?" he had asked.
"Nova," Servalan replied in a tone that allowed of no discussion.
Avon nodded briefly. "Appropriate."
"It's a boy's name," Gorman protested.
"Now it's a girl's name," said Servalan. That obviously ended the matter as far as she was concerned.
Gorman wanted to know what family name to enter into the records, and was told none at all. Servalan refused to record the child under the name Sleer - as she said, it wasn't her name anyway.
"Why not Servalan?" Gorman wanted to know.
Avon explained that to him. "Servalan isn't the name of her family either. She took the option at eighteen to change her name, stopped using both her original names and adopted her grandmother's first name."
"I didn't get on with my parents," Servalan commented, and there was the suggestion of a long story in the way she said it.
"Of course," Avon supplied, "it didn't hurt that her grandmother had more influence then any other member of the family and was extremely flattered by the gesture."
That earned the man a smile, so there was obviously some truth in the statement.
Gorman wasn't quite sure how to introduce his next question - there was something about Kerr Avon that made it very difficult to ask him a personal question. Still, it had had to be done for the child's sake if nothing else.
"Why don't you marry Servalan and give your daughter your own name?" Tam Gorman was a traditionalist and believed in families. The Federation encouraged marriage and Gorman felt it was right to do so. Marriage was a stabilising influence in any society.
Avon seemed amused. "What possible benefit could Nova derive from the name Avon? It isn't exactly respectable in Federation circles."
"At least it would protect her from people insulting her." Gorman couldn't quite bring himself to use the word he intended. Illegitimacy was common enough among the deltas, but almost unknown in the higher classes of society, and it did carry a stigma.
"Oh, let's not mince words, Gorman," Avon said sarcastically. "She's a bastard and nothing is going to alter that. If it matters so much to you, marry Servalan yourself!"
Gorman couldn't even begin to answer that, the gulf of understanding between himself and Avon was so great. Even if it had not been for the irreparable damage it would have done to his career, he could not have betrayed his Jeanie's memory in such a way. He treated the comment as it had probably been intended, as a simple throwaway line, and ignored it.
Silently Gorman tapped the entry into his personal data log to be downloaded into the main computer at the end of his shift. Name - Nova, sex - female, date of birth 58.4.8, mother - Servalan, father - Kerr Avon. Then he made a final effort. "If not for the baby's sake, consider it for your own. You love Servalan."
"Do I?" Avon raised a calm sardonic eyebrow.
Gorman gave up. The man was a callous bastard with no feelings at all. Yet even as Gorman thought that, he knew it to be untrue. Avon was a puzzle.
Keeping the rest of his promise to Servalan to give her some time with Avon had proved to be simple. The doctor's report said that she was medically unfit to travel for five days. Gorman hadn't even had to bribe the doctor. A sudden shortage of cell accommodation caused by Gorman arresting half a dozen men on drunk and disorderly charges had forced him to double up prisoners in some of the cells.
Avon and Servalan were going to find it cramped, but if that was what they wanted, what the devil? It wasn't that he liked them, Gorman told himself. They weren't exactly likeable people. It was just that... Gorman swore mildly to himself and tossed down the rest of his drink, angry with himself for getting involved. Avon was a rebel with many Federation deaths to his name. Servalan was a traitor. Gorman would do well to remember that. He had served the Federation all his life, betrayal was unthinkable.
The cell was small, no more than ten feet by eight - its sole furnishings a bunk, a toilet and a tap for drinking water. The recent addition of a mattress on the floor and a pile of nappies and baby clothes did nothing to increase the available space. On the bunk, Servalan lay sleeping.
Avon sat quietly on the mattress holding his daughter in his arms. Nova was asleep and his arm was getting stiff, but he didn't really care. There was a peace in him that he hadn't known for years, a peace he had thought he would never regain after the deaths of first Cally and then Blake. It couldn't last, Avon knew that, but for a brief time he was prepared to ignore the future and live in the present. He stroked the frizz of soft black hair with his index finger and for awhile forgot about the dangers of allowing himself to care.
By the fourth day, reality was coming too close to be able to ignore it any longer, and their tempers and nerves were becoming strained. Questions that had been pushed under the rug by tacit mutual agreement could no longer be ignored.
Servalan broached the subject first. "Avon, what will happen to Nova?"
"You know what will happen," he answered.
"No, they wouldn't." Servalan's voice was uncertain.
"She is the daughter of a traitor." Avon was brutal with the truth. "You know what that means as well as I do."
"It's not fair. It's not her fault. She had nothing to do with it."
Avon's temper finally snapped. "You knew what the law was when you were president. You did nothing to change it then. Why should things be any different now?"
Servalan wanted to get away from him, to hide herself, but there was nowhere to go. Avon gripped her shoulders and shook her hard, emphasising each word relentlessly.
"How many children have you killed? How many mothers have you left grieving? How many planets have you destroyed? Why should one child be any different, simply because she happens to be yours?"
"How can you live with what you are?"
Gorman flicked off the recording and considered the situation. In another day, his problem family would be gone. An armed transport was on its way for Avon, Servalan and the baby.
He didn't like the tape any more than he had liked it when he'd first listened to it. It hadn't required much checking to confirm what he already knew. The family of a traitor, whether involved in the crime or not, suffered the same penalty. As a weapon of terror it was effective, as a weapon against a child only a few days old it was wrong. A loyal soldier all his life, Gorman had never felt it necessary to question the system. The Federation provided security and stability. It wasn't perfect, but it was preferable by far to the anarchy that the rebels wished to bring about.
Gorman ran his fingers through his thinning hair and wondered how his own life would have been if he hadn't entered the military. Too many posts in too few years, no wonder no woman except Jeanie had ever stayed with him. Women wanted to settle down, to build a home, raise a family, to see their husbands more than one month in every year.
Perhaps if Jeanie had lived? He shook his head, it was no use living in the past. His wife had died more years ago than he cared to remember, and they had had no children.
For five days fate had given him a family.
Gorman stared into the small holocube on his desk, tapped it to activate the sequence and watched as Jeanie smiled at him. Then he poured himself another drink.
Avon was awakened in the night by the sound of crying, but it wasn't Nova, who was still asleep by his side. It was Servalan. He looked at her in irritation. Nova woke them up often enough in the night, without Servalan waking him up as well. Then Avon sighed and made his way over to Servalan in the dim half light. "What is it?" he asked ungraciously.
Servalan curled up tighter in her shapeless prison garment and shut him out completely.
"Well, if that's the way you feel." Avon made his way back to the mattress, only to be disturbed again a few minutes later.
"Avon, are you awake?"
"I am now," he answered pointedly.
"Tell me about Cally."
"Before or after you killed her?" Avon said bitterly and then regretted it. "Why do you want to know?" he added in a slightly more gentle tone.
"She was a telepath. What's it like for a telepath when someone close to them dies?"
"I don't know, but Cally was aware of the deaths of the Auronar from two sectors away. Why do you want to know?"
It was a while before Servalan was able to answer. She hugged herself and spoke to the wall, unable to turn and look Avon in the face. "On Auron, the children died first. They had less resistance to the plague than the older generation. Avon, what did I do? I never thought of them as people. They were just something in the way, something to be got rid of. They had something I wanted and I took it. My clones were in the replication plant when it was destroyed. I felt their deaths, and I'm not even a telepath. What was it like for the Auronar when their children died?"
There was no answer. The seconds slowly dragged into minutes. Finally, Servalan rolled over to see if Avon was still awake. He was sitting on the edge of the mattress, his feet on the floor, arms resting on his knees and his chin supported in his hands. He seemed deep in thought. After a minute or so spent studying her from where he sat, he commented, "You look dreadful."
"I feel dreadful."
"Welcome to the human race." There was a gentle mockery in his voice, but Servalan was aware of something else behind it. She stretched out a hand to Avon and he took it, then gestured for her to come and join him on the floor level. When they had finished rearranging themselves, Avon was sitting with his back resting against the wall, and Servalan was lying on her side with her head in his lap, Avon's hand resting lightly on her hair.
This was a side of him that Servalan hardly knew at all. Sometimes Avon was like this with Nova, quiet and gentle. For a while, Servalan said nothing, simply drawing comfort from his closeness. Then she asked him the question that she had never had the courage to ask until now. "Can you ever forgive me for Cally's death?"
The hand that had been stroking her hair stopped its movement. Servalan wondered if she had gone too far, but the voice that answered her was carefully neutral. "Do you regret killing her?"
Servalan thought before answering. A lie would have been the easy option, but here in the quiet of their last night together was a time when only truth wanted to be heard. "I regret it insofar as her death hurt you, but it was war, and she was the enemy. If I was back there now, I'd probably do the same again. What would you have done in my place?"
"The same as you did." Avon replied honestly.
Through the tiny grille near the ceiling came the faint hum of the air conditioning. A guard passed down the corridor outside, his footsteps approaching, and then receding into the distance. Far away in the prison someone shouted. These were the sounds of life, no longer heard or consciously recognised. For the prisoners there was only silence.
"Are you afraid of death?" Avon asked.
Servalan thought about it for a while. Far above, the stars turned in their endless circles, empty points of distant light. On the planet surface, scavengers prowled the streets looking for scraps of left over food. The night wound on relentlessly towards the dawn, and Servalan knew that she was afraid.
"I spoke to a man on Earth once," she said. "He followed the old religion and truly believed that there was a life after this one. He was old and he was a fool, but I would have given a lot to have shared his blind faith." Her voice was remote, and Avon had to listen carefully to pick out the words.
"I've cheated death, but I never feared it until I had something to lose. Here with you I could face it easily, but tomorrow..." Servalan fought to keep her voice under control. "Tomorrow they take us to Earth. Even if we are on the same ship they will keep us apart. I won't see you again unless they force me to watch you die."
Avon was aware of her fear, and knew at the same time that no one except himself would ever see it. When the time came Servalan would stand proud, look her executioner in the eye, and leave no one in any doubt that this was a woman who had been President of the Terran Federation.
"Avon, there's something I want from you."
"I wasn't aware I owned anything worth having," he said in slight astonishment.
"Will you marry me?" Servalan asked, her voice totally serious.
That caught Avon by surprise. It was practically the last thing he'd expected from her. It was, though, typical of Servalan that she had chosen to break with tradition and ask him herself.
"Why?" he said as an automatic reflex, and as the simplest way of avoiding an answer.
Servalan selected her words with care, she hadn't expected this to be easy, she was about to run up against every single one of Avon's carefully constructed defences. If he hadn't been in an unusually relaxed mood to begin with, it wouldn't even have been worth trying.
"I want some link between us that they can't break," she said slowly. "I want to know I'm in your thoughts even when you're no longer with me."
"Don't you know that anyway?"
"No I don't." Servalan sounded slightly annoyed. "Because you never tell me." She lifted up her head and pushed herself to a sitting position looking Avon directly in the eyes.
"Damn you, Avon," she said, her voice catching slightly. "Just for once in your life, can't you tell me that you love me? Say that you want to spend the rest of your life with me? Is that really too much to ask?"
Avon was silent. Did Servalan, he wondered, truly realise what she was asking of him? Avon was prepared to admit to himself that he loved her, but love was one thing and marriage was another. If he swore to love and protect her, that oath would bind him. But Servalan? Servalan had never kept a promise in her life. Why should now be any different? Avon had no illusions concerning her. At present Servalan regretted some of her past actions. It was possible that it might be a permanent change, but more likely it was just a reaction to their present situation combined with the hormonal upheavals of giving birth. She was feeling emotional, far more so than normal, the threat of Nova's death a Damoclian sword hanging over her; over himself too, if he was honest.
Abruptly Avon laughed out loud. What did it all matter anyway? They were both going to die, the only uncertainty was when. Even if they chose for some reason to keep him alive, it still made no difference. Servalan was personally too dangerous to the President to be allowed to live. It would cost him nothing to give her what she wanted.
Deep down, Avon realised there was more to it than that. He had come to Jaxtin for Servalan. Perhaps he too needed that bond between them to reassure him that it hadn't all been for nothing? Avon thrust the thought down angrily and watched her. Servalan was sitting calmly, looking at him, but making no attempt to interrupt his thoughts. She knew him so well, Avon thought. If she'd spoken, he would have said 'no' automatically, as it was...
"All right," he said curtly. "In the morning." And regretted it as soon as he'd said it.
The morning brought several things, not all of them expected.
Firstly, Commander Gorman collected Nova for her vaccinations: travelling off planet required inoculations against several diseases that the Federation was trying to prevent spreading between planets.
Secondly, the registrar appeared, and Avon, still trying to figure how he had allowed himself to be talked into this, found himself solemnly swearing to love, protect and support his worst enemy.
Thirdly, an hour later, and this was worse by far, Lieutenant Sim arrived looking much too cheerful. Avon automatically braced himself for bad news - he knew how much Sim disliked him. Perhaps their transport had already arrived?
Sim leaned against the entrance to the cell, another man with a paragun covering him from the rear. "Do you suffer from allergies?" he asked conversationally.
"What business is it of yours?" Avon was determined to give Sim no satisfaction.
"Well," Sim leered, "I wondered if it might run in the family, assuming she really was your daughter of course, and that your woman wasn't having a bit on the side."
Avon's smile was deceptively gentle. "That's my wife you're talking about."
Sim failed to spot the danger and came closer. "Shame you ain't got any family no more then, isn't it?"
"What happened?" Avon asked, his voice smooth as silk. Anyone who knew him well would have backed away at that point, but Sim only saw a prisoner, like so many other prisoners that had passed through his hands.
"Your kid had a reaction to the vaccinations. Seems she was allergic to redpox vaccine, or perhaps it was one of the others," he grinned gleefully. "Who cares which it was? She's dead anyway?"
Avon's fist lashed out at Sim's jaw, and the last expression on Sim's face as he lapsed into unconsciousness was one of surprise.
A single second later, Avon fell to a shot from the soldier covering Sim.
Servalan's military instincts took over and she attempted to seize the gun only to be pushed contemptuously to the floor while Sim's sleeping form was dragged out of the cell.
She didn't try to get up, after all there was no point. She was finally alone with her worst nightmare: her husband and her child were both dead. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing that she could do about it. She had always believed that as long as Avon lived she would live too, that the cosmic game of love and death between them would never end. Now he was dead she knew that her own death would soon follow.
Slowly despair overwhelmed her. Then she began to fight it. Was she going to grant them the satisfaction of knowing that they had finally won? Let the ever present watchers worry, even if only for a moment. It would be a victory of a sort.
Servalan Avon turned to the camera and smiled...
She hadn't been thinking properly. Avon was too valuable for them to risk killing him. It had to have been a stun shot. It had to. Because if she was wrong, Servalan wasn't sure she could bear reality any more. Kneeling beside Avon's body, her trembling fingers sought for the pulse in his neck. Relief washed over her as she found it. "Avon," she whispered, "don't ever do that to me again."
It would probably be ten minutes or more before he came round. Until then, all she could do was to try to make him comfortable. Servalan placed her grief for their daughter temporarily aside as she rolled Avon onto his side and positioned his slack limbs to support him. Stun victims sometimes vomited when they recovered; it was important to make sure he didn't choke.
That done, she seated herself where she could see him, and allowed emotion to return. It was hard for her to accept the reality of Nova's death; she found herself fantasising reasons why her baby could still be alive. Each dream in succession turned to ashes as she recalled Lieutenant Sim revelling in the bad news he bore. The tears came silently as she sat with her back to the security camera.
How would Avon react when he came round? Crying, Servalan was sure, was something he would never allow himself. Could he accept grief, or was it another emotion to be locked away inside himself along with all the other things he could not bear to remember?
The cell door opened once more, and Servalan dried her eyes on her prison garb before rising to her feet to facesix soldiers. She hadn't seen these men before.
"Out." The first guard gestured with his gun.
"Wait for my husband to come round. He's taken a stun charge."
The guard consulted a data pad that he drew from a pocket. "My manifest doesn't say anything about you being married."
Servalan drew herself up with as much dignity as possible. "We were married a few hours ago. Consult the prison records."
He tapped a few keys and studied the display. "Servalan?"
"President Servalan," she corrected him. "Sleer was a convenient alias when I was deposed."
It was obvious that he didn't believe her. That was amusing, considering the number of people she had killed to protect that self same identity. Servalan wasn't really bothered. Her concern at the moment was for Avon. He was beginning to stir now.
Without waiting for the guard's approval, she bent down to touch him lightly on the cheek. "Avon, they're here."
Avon's eyes opened and slowly focused on her: dark eyes, filled with unrelenting pain. Refusing her proffered hand, he pushed himself upright and came unsteadily to his feet. Their escort waited patiently until Avon's balance improved a little and then they led them out. Six men; Servalan eyed them up, estimated the chances of making a break for it and decided they were too negligible to be worth considering.
It was raining outside, a light drizzle leaving a sheen of moisture on everything it touched. Silence prevailed, the rain somehow damping out sound. A few men scurrying over the tarmac carried unidentified supplies to the ship waiting in the docking cradle. Almost too large to land on the surface of a world, its great metallic bulk was supported by the cradle, an umbilical cord supplying fuel to maintain it on the journey ahead. Servalan ran a practised eye over the visible weaponry and was impressed.
"An Athena class, we should be honoured," she said.
She was relieved to see Avon smile slightly. "A Wanderer class freighter would have been just as acceptable," he commented dryly.
The landing ramp was down. No civilian vessel this, with air conditioned mobile corridors to keep the passengers from ever needing to touch the ground. It was a military craft, designed for rapid loading and ease of use on worlds ranging from the sophisticated to the primitive. Silently, Avon and Servalan ascended the ramp, their last view of Jaxtin, had they chosen to look, obscured by the all enveloping rain.
Corridors painted in standard military grey, the Fearless smelt slightly of sweaty feet, and the other faint indescribable smells that any ship spending too long in space eventually acquires. Black stencilled lettering on doorways indicated crew quarters and storerooms. Occasional grooves on the walls indicated the positions of emergency bulkheads. The route they were taking did not seem to pass close to the flight deck or the weapon systems. Turning down a side corridor, they were halted in a closely guarded area where a monitor screen showed a gridded display of empty cells.
"Time to say goodbye," the officer in charge of the escort said indifferently.
Servalan held out her hands to Avon, uncertain of how he would react. He took them and drew her gently to him, holding her head against his chest, his other arm around her waist. They held each other in silence for a few moments, then she felt him squeeze her tighter as his control began to slip. He swallowed hard, and released her, stepping back. Grief and pain were too strong in both of them for anything further.
"Servalan. " He stopped, unable to say more.
"It's all right," she told him. "I know."
The days passed slowly for Servalan, each one with monotonous similarity to the one before. She had counted them out of habit, and judged the ship's speed by the sound of its drive. The journey from Jaxtin to Earth would take several months, and by her estimate they were now nearly half way. Loneliness had left her subdued and quiet. At first she had wept for her loss, then later had run the whole gamut of emotion. She had cursed the Federation for their lack of medical care. She had hated herself for being so weak as to fall in love. She had blamed Avon for the unfortunate genetic legacy that had damned his daughter. In short, she had hated everyone and everything.
Then hate had faded to be replaced by more gentle memory. Nova clutching at her finger with a surprisingly strong grip. Nova sleeping on her tummy, bottom stuck up in the air, apparently without a care in the world. Even Nova regurgitating milk all over her father's shoulder took on a certain charm when viewed in retrospect.
Acceptance came in time - not an end to mourning, but an ability to live with it.
Servalan longed for Avon's presence, it was hard knowing him to be close by and yet unreachable. She needed his support and suspected that whether or not he would admit it, he needed hers even more. Avon haunted her dreams. As the nature of her dreams changed with the passing of the weeks, Servalan understood that her body was recovering from pregnancy and childbirth, and was ready, even if she herself was not, to embark on the whole cycle once more.
Avon lay on his stomach and arched his body as his hands gripped his ankles. The exercises Cally had taught him so many years ago helped to distract him from the hopelessness of his situation. Having run through the entire sequence of muscle stretches, he sat down on the narrow bunk and tried to play a mental chess game with himself. After ten moves he found he could no longer remember the positions of all the pieces with total accuracy and gave up. His mind temporarily unoccupied, memory tried to force its way in. Ruthlessly he forced it to one side, concentrating instead on a design for an improved detector shield. The complexities of trying to stay ahead in the eternal race, as detectors advanced in scope to defeat new methods of concealment, occupied him for several hours.
His concentration was broken when the background noise that had become unnoticed through familiarity suddenly ceased. The air conditioning still hummed its faint susurration, but the sound of the star drive was gone.
Avon's curiosity as to the reason was to remain unsatisfied for several hours. He was lying on his bunk, hands clasped behind his head, working on the detector shield problem once more, when the cell door opened to admit one of the ship's officers.
"How about knocking?" Avon enquired sardonically, without rising.
The officer hesitated; he seemed slightly uncertain in his manner. Avon promptly drew his own conclusion and smiled. "Is it possible," he drawled, "that you need my help?"
It appeared that it was possible. As the officer, Lieutenant Torv, explained: Fearless's main drive had cut out suddenly, and all efforts to locate a fault in either the star drive or the innards of the flight computer had so far failed. The ship was drifting in space. Giving the situation added urgency was the close presence of a black hole which was drawing the vessel towards it in a spiralling path. The Fearless and her crew had but a few hours left. Time was rapidly running out.
Avon wasn't in any hurry. "I might be able to help. The flight computer on Pole Star was a standard Federation model. I could probably fix yours if that's where the trouble is."
"I thought you were supposed to be a genius with computers?" the lieutenant said.
"Only supposed?" queried Avon with evident amusement. "I'm disappointed."
"Can you do it or can't you?"
"Oh, I can. The question is whether I will."
The lieutenant looked as though he was barely resisting the urge to punch him, so Avon decided it was time to stop baiting him. "I'll co-operate, but there is a condition."
"You," stated Lieutenant Torv with emphasis, "are in no position to make conditions."
Avon shrugged as though he wasn't concerned at all. "Fine, then I'll just stay here."
Torv took a deep breath, then let it slowly out again. "What condition?"
"I want Servalan's help."
"No." Torv was emphatic. "Having the two of you together is too great a security risk."
Avon narrowed his eyes. "If I am to do any meaningful work on your flight computer in the short amount of time that you have remaining, then I need someone at the pilot's position whom I'm used to working with." It didn't matter that he and Servalan had never been on the flight deck of the Pole Star at the same time. Torv wasn't going to know that. If they wanted his willing co-operation, they were going to have to give him what he wanted, eventually.
Torv departed abruptly, presumably to consult with a higher authority.
Avon waited patiently until another officer entered. His rank markings indicated that he was captain of the Fearless. Captain Mulhol lacked physical stature, but he had the authority and confidence that Torv had lacked. "We can force your co-operation," Mulhol stated bluntly.
"How? You don't have enough time to make me do anything I don't want to."
Mulhol came directly to the point. "I think you could hold out, but we can hurt your woman. Will you stand by and watch her suffer?"
Nothing altered visibly in Avon's stance. His face held no expression, his voice was even, but there was a tangible aura of menace about him. "If you harm her in any way, I will program this ship to destroy itself. Don't doubt me, I can do it."
The Captain matched his stare. "I'm not releasing both of you. My men will manage without your assistance."
Avon watched him leave, and wondered if he'd pushed his luck too far. If he was to stand a chance of taking advantage of the situation, he needed Servalan. Together they stood a far better chance of success than he did alone. It was a gamble Avon had to take. If his assessment of the situation was correct, Mulhol would be back. He had to return because everyone was looking for the fault in the wrong place. Coincidence was one thing, but a major drive failure this close to a black hole was far too improbable to be an accident. There was only one logical solution.
Half an hour later the door opened once more to reveal Torv, with Servalan standing in front of him. "You've got what you want," Torv said hurriedly, gesturing with his gun. "Now move it!"
Ignoring Torv, Servalan walked forward. Somehow, even in prison coverall and bare feet, she managed to impart an impression that she owned the entire place. Avon watched her in silent admiration as she came to him and placed her hands on his chest.
"We may not have more than half an hour," he warned her.
"Then stop wasting time," Servalan instructed, and tilted her face upwards awaiting his kiss.
Avon brought his mouth down hard upon hers, losing himself in the moment, feeling her body mould itself to his.
"Now!" There was genuine panic in Torv's voice.
They broke apart reluctantly, and side by side followed Torv to the flight deck, escorted by two more armed men.
The flight deck was in complete disorder. Panels had been removed in several locations, tools were strewn over the floor, and the ship's routine had turned to chaos as two technicians struggled to locate a fault that refused to be traced. No doubt, thought Avon, there was similar disorder elsewhere in the ship as the star drive was turned inside out.
The pilot moved out of his seat, glaring at Avon as he did so. Servalan sat down, strapped herself into position, and began a rapid check of the controls, familiarising herself with the layout. Avon ignored all the open access panels and sat in the seat beside her, calling up data on the monitor screen before him. "Three sixty degree orbital scan," he requested Servalan. Without waiting for her response, Avon started to check the navigation routines.
"What are you doing?" demanded Mulhol's angry voice from behind him.
Avon didn't look up. "You've checked the star drive and the hardware twice over by now without a single diagnostic revealing a fault. Didn't it occur to you that the problem might be in the software?"
"Impossible," Mulhol protested. "And you know that. Any corrupted data would have been revealed when we ran a comparison with the back up. You should be checking the equipment for faulty components."
Avon instituted a search program and paid no attention to the remark.
"Why employ an expert if you know all the answers?" demanded Avon irritably. "Stop bothering me. I have no particular desire be smeared all over the event horizon of a black hole."
"No ships within detector range," reported Servalan. "I'm plotting a series of alternate courses for escape, depending on how close to the black hole we get before recovering use of the drive."
Avon smiled inwardly. It was nice to know that Servalan, at least, assumed that he knew what he was doing. He was slightly surprised that she hadn't found anything on the detectors - a ship at maximum scanner range would have fitted in nicely with his expectations. Avon wondered for a moment if he had misjudged the situation. His doubts were removed when the scrolling display on the screen before him reached the characteristic lines of code he had been searching for. "Servalan, you should have full power within ten minutes."
Servalan glanced over her shoulder, studying the men behind her for a moment. Then she started setting up a display on the screen which seemed to consist of a pattern of increasingly eccentric ellipses imposed on top of their present spiralling course. The extreme point of the final ellipse showed a projected escape course.
"What have you found?" demanded the captain, his manner still implying disbelief.
"Code that shouldn't be there," Avon replied.
If Servalan was going to do anything, she'd have to do it soon. It wouldn't be long now before Mulhol worked out just where the excess code had come from.
"Avon," Servalan sounded a note of caution. "There's some odd readings on the artificial gravity."
Understanding the warning, Avon glanced at her, taking in the rest of the area with peripheral vision, noting the positions of men with weapons. Three of them, all watching himself and Servalan. Avon's hands gripped hard on the edge of the ledge supporting the monitor, and his ankle hooked itself around the stem supporting his seat. Even as he moved, the gravity cut out, and the manoeuvring thrusters cut in on a downward dive. Everyone except himself and Servalan rose suddenly towards the ceiling.
Several shots went wild. With nothing for the soldiers to brace themselves against, the recoil from their guns sent them gyrating through the air.
A second later, the ship came back to level flight, the gravity returned suddenly, and Servalan's victims crashed hard to the deck. Avon, reacting rapidly, dived for the nearest weapon, seized it from an unprepared hand and had loosed off three quick shots before Servalan had had time to hit the quick release on her seat harness and come to her feet.
Servalan grabbed a fallen weapon while the four remaining men were struggling to their feet, and stood opposite Avon to cover them from a different angle.
"You don't stand a chance!" said Mulhol angrily. You can't control the entire ship, there's too many men out there. Surrender now."
Servalan smiled calmly and shot him. "Don't tell me what I can't do," she told the corpse lying at her feet.
The pilot made a desperate dive for the remaining gun and Avon fired automatically, hitting him in the chest. His body slumped, silenced to the floor, jerked once in a dying reflex and then lay still.
The two computer technicians looked at Avon, seeing their death in his eyes as his finger tightened once more on the trigger.
Avon hesitated, uncertain as to why he did so. It was logical for them to die, they were the enemy. If he spared them, they would only try to kill him. Yet he hesitated.
Was it that they were his own kind, members of his own profession? Momentarily he was back on the London in its computer room. There had been a man there working on the computer. Avon had needed him out of the way, but killing the man had never entered his mind even though it would have been easy to do so. Avon had been a different man then. When, in the intervening years had it become so simple and automatic for him to kill?
When, and why?
Was he really any better than Servalan?
The last time he had killed an unarmed man, it had been Blake...
"Tie them up," he ordered Servalan roughly.
"Avon!" she protested sharply. "Don't be a fool."
Avon turned his back on her and returned to the terminal without waiting to see if Servalan was going to obey him. It never crossed his mind to worry whether Servalan could do it, without giving them a chance to jump her. Avon knew the woman he'd married.
The sound of a shot caused him to spin round rapidly. Servalan eyed him sardonically. "I thought it might be wise to seal the door before everyone else decides to join the party. Anyone would think," she added, "that you didn't trust me."
Avon looked at her without any expression. He should have remembered the rest of the crew. They would be seizing weapons from the armoury by now, and making preparations to storm the flight deck.
"Can you cut off the life support?" he asked Servalan coldly.
"Of course. If," she added with emphasis, "you don't mind holding this gun for me for a moment."
Avon accepted the weapon silently. Servalan was more familiar with the controls than he was. It made sense for her to do the job, time was getting very short.
A loud metallic clang made him start. Servalan smiled sweetly at him. "I thought closing the emergency bulkheads might slow them down a bit until the oxygen level gets low enough to kill."
A minute later, they swopped the weapon back again. Avon resumed his original task of restoring the software controlling the star drive to its normal state. One thing that had puzzled Avon became clear as he worked. His belief that Orac was somehow involved had been confirmed when he found program code in Orac's distinctive style. However, Avon had a clear understanding of Orac's limitations, and the computer's abilities did not allow him to control other machines at vast distances. Servalan, though, had located no trace of the Pole Star or any other ship. This program, from the way it was written, had obviously been placed in position a long time ago, perhaps when Fearless was still close to Jaxtin. It was triggered, as Avon had suspected, by proximity to the black hole, but any major navigational hazard would have had the same effect. It had been improbable from the start that Fearless would suffer a major drive failure when so conveniently close to a black hole.
It didn't really matter whether the Pole Star was there or not, what mattered was that they were free.
Twenty five hours and ten years later, Servalan relaxed with a sigh. "That's it."
Avon looked up from where he'd been doodling on the screen in front of him. "We're finally free of the gravitational pull?"
Servalan watched him, Avon looked as tired as she felt. She'd suggested that he get some sleep, but he had remained on the flight deck, ostensibly to check if Orac had left any other booby traps. In reality, Servalan suspected he'd known that she needed the company.
Avon had relieved her occasionally so that she could grab something to eat and stretch her legs, but she was the better pilot of the two, and they both knew it. There had been other things that had to be done in any case. With the unwilling assistance of the two prisoners, Avon had removed the dead bodies from the flight deck and the rest of the ship. Servalan wasn't sure how he had viewed the task; his expression while carrying it out had been totally unreadable.
The two computer technicians had been imprisoned in the cells so recently occupied by Avon and Servalan. Why Avon had spared the two, Servalan was still uncertain. Eventually they were going to have to decide what to do with them. Her chain of thought was broken when Avon asked her something.
"What?" She really was feeling sleepy.
"I said, how long?"
She wanted to pretend she hadn't understood the question, but Avon would only proceed to explain if she did. Facing facts was easy when she was awake, much harder now.
"We went very deep into the gravity field," she answered. Avon had probably worked it out himself and was just checking to see if she had reached the same answer. "I think the relativistic effects have put us about a decade out of step with the rest of the universe." It wasn't something Servalan wanted to think about right now, the fact that the world they had known would have changed in their absence.
"Right now," she yawned, "I feel about ten years older."
"Set a course for Albian on the autopilot," Avon said. "I've found somewhere for us to sleep."
"You'd better mean sleep," Servalan told him, "because that's all you're getting tonight."
Avon's eyes danced for a moment, "And tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow's a new day."
When Servalan finally got out of bed sometime around midday, she felt totally at peace with the world. Avon was already up and was programming the wall mounted food processor for breakfast. She came up behind him and ran her fingers round the back of his neck, feeling the fine hairs there. "Avon?"
"Yes?" he replied.
"If being celibate for the best part of a year produces that kind of result every time, then I'm almost tempted to try it again."
"Almost?" Avon asked.
"Well," Servalan said, kissing him lightly, "it was rather lonely in the interim. Actually," she became more serious, "I was afraid you wouldn't want to."
"Why on Earth not?"
"After Nova..." her voice trailed off as she watched the expression on his face. For a moment it registered shock and horror, then froze into a mask.
"We're not having any more children," Avon said curtly, and slammed the breakfast tray down on the table.
Servalan had expected this - in fact she was surprised it hadn't come up earlier in the morning. It seemed that Avon simply hadn't thought about it at the time.
"It doesn't have to be now, Avon, we can wait a few months. Right now is a bit soon even for me. But while we're on this ship we have no choice. A military vessel with no women on board isn't going to carry a stock of contraceptives. It's either go without, or take our chances."
"Perhaps I didn't make myself sufficiently clear," Avon said in chilling tones. "I didn't mean later - I meant never. I'll sleep in another cabin until we reach Albian."
"And just what," demanded Servalan angrily, "makes you think that you have the god given right to decide for both of us? I thought we were partners; or does my opinion only count when you need a whore?"
That hit home, she noticed with satisfaction, even though Avon barely showed it.
His eyes narrowed. "Children are a nuisance, an encumbrance, and a liability if you're living on the run."
"All of which is true," Servalan agreed. "And all of which also is totally irrelevant to this argument. We're not discussing what's convenient, we're discussing what you're afraid of."
The blow caught her by surprise and she staggered backwards. Avon had never hit her before.
Furious, and not even considering what she was doing, Servalan walked up and slapped him across the face. Avon seized her by the wrist and forced her down towards the floor.
"What now?" she spat at him. "Rape? I thought that was what you were trying to avoid?"
Avon released her suddenly, as though afraid of his own violence, and looked at his trembling hands. "Only you could make me do something like that."
"Because I'm the only person who dares to stand up to you. You may bully everyone else into submission, Avon, but you're not doing it to me."
Silently he offered Servalan a hand and helped her to her feet.
"Avon, why not simply admit to yourself that you're afraid of loving anyone else in case you lose them too."
Her only reward was a stony stare.
"Kerr Avon," she snapped. "You are the most impossible man to live with. Doesn't it ever occur to you that I may have feelings too? I was her mother, damn it!"
Avon looked for a moment as though he was about to say something, but bit it back again. Was there the beginning of a crack in the armour? Servalan wasn't sure. She carried on. "When you love, you give fortune a hostage. Does that mean that you should never ever love again? When they shot you on Jaxtin, I thought you were dead.
"Dead!" Servalan shouted the word at him. "Have you any idea what I went through then? Have you?"
Avon stood rigid, watching her every movement as she paced before him. Only the slightest tremor of his hands gave any clue as to his thoughts.
"I went through hell." The memory of that moment was stark and vivid in her mind. "By your logic, I should have cut you out of my life then and there so that I would never have to go through that again. Because the life you lead will eventually lead to a bloody and violent death, and I shall probably be there to see it happen." Servalan paused for breath. "I reject that logic Avon, I loved you then, and..." Her voice cracked, and she turned away putting her hands over her eyes, not wanting him to see her tears.
A hand on her shoulder turned her back again, and a pair of strong arms held her close against a warm chest. Servalan wrapped herself around Avon tightly, still living in memory and feeling the fear of losing him once more.
"I understand what you're saying," he said quietly, "but it's not easy for me."
She relaxed a little and looked up into his eyes. "Avon, you don't have to face everything alone. We're together now. We can help each other. Please, let me help."
"I've been this way a long time," Avon answered with difficulty. "I'm not sure if I'm capable of accepting help from anyone."
A finger touched her on the lips to silence her protest.
"I'll try," he said quietly.
There was a pause before a woman's voice answered. "This is Pole Star, who are you and what do you want." The voice was oddly phrased: pleasant sounding, but with no stress on any of the words. Gorman wondered if he was speaking to a computer.
He spoke rapidly, conscious of the shortage of time and of the dangers of the transmission being intercepted. He himself had ordered a listening watch to be kept for anything unusual. "Who I am doesn't matter, but I'm outside the shielded area, and I have the baby. Can you teleport her?"
The oddly unaccented voice spoke again. "We will be in teleport range in two hours, but if any ships move to intercept, we will leave the system and not return."
Two hours! Gorman swore under his breath. He was going to have to find some excuse to account for his absence. Sim would be breaking the news of Nova's death to Avon and Servalan by now. It had to be done that way. Only if everyone believed Nova dead, could Gorman get her away without incriminating himself. Besides, it would give Nova a better chance of survival, her unfortunate choice of parents had condemned her to death as soon as she was born.
"She'll be wearing the bracelet," Gorman said hurriedly. "Pick her up without making further contact. The records here now list her as dead. End transmission."
Two hours. He could just return to the prison and leave the child here, but it was too risky. Someone might find her. Why had he ever allowed himself to become mixed up in this? Gorman peered into the black carryall he'd used to take Nova out of the prison hospital. She was still asleep and would probably remain so for a while yet. Gorman had had to risk injecting her with a tranquilliser even though he had been terrified of getting the dose wrong. He simply could not afford the risk of her crying out at the wrong moment.
The baby reminded him of Jeanie, although that had to be his imagination. Certainly his wife had had dark hair, but her eyes had been hazel, not brown. Gorman shrugged. Admit it, he told himself, you were there when Nova was born. Like it or not, she's your child as much as anyone else's. Avon and Servalan will get whatever punishment they deserve, but their daughter is no danger to the Federation.
Gorman's conscience was clean - almost. He settled down to wait, there wasn't much else to do. Keeping his eye open for anyone crossing the fields, he lifted Nova out of the carryall and slid the teleport bracelet right to the top of her arm. It looked ridiculously large.
Grant heard himself being paged on the intercom and struggled out of bed. He felt tired and irritable. With only three people on board Pole Star, they were all standing too many watches and getting too little sleep. Vila had suggested leaving Orac on watch, but Grant didn't entirely trust the computer. He felt it had too much individuality to be reliable. Besides, it reminded him of Avon.
Flinging on a random selection of clothes, Grant made his way blearily to the flight deck where Minna was on watch. Vila had obviously been summoned too, as he was sitting there holding Minna's hand. That told Grant a lot immediately - Minna was after moral support, which meant she'd done something that he wasn't going to like. "Well," he demanded, "what's going on?"
Minna silently pressed a button on the console and replayed her recent conversation. The voice of the speech synthesizer Avon had set up for her was clear and distinct, in sharp contrast with the uncertain tone of the man on the ground.
Grant was disgusted. "It's another trap. Get it into your head, Minna. There is no baby. There never was a baby. Servalan caught Avon; now they are trying to trick the rest of us back into range so they can trap us as well."
"Orac says the birth was registered, as well as a death," said Vila.
"Orac is a machine," Grant said in irritation. "No matter how clever it is, it can only read data that has been input by people. Falsify the data and Orac picks up garbage. Knowing your enemy's strengths and using them against him is classic military strategy."
Minna's fingers flicked over the scanners. The screen display showed no ships within range, apart from a large military vessel recently landed at the main spaceport on Jaxtin. That, according to Orac, had to be the ship sent to collect Avon and Servalan.
Grant was not entirely convinced. "If that one launches, it might catch us."
"Orac," asked Vila, "what can you tell us about that ship?"
"I wish you would confine yourself to more accurate statements," came the familiar irritated response. "If by 'that ship' you are referring to the Fearless, then I can inform you, as I have already informed Grant, that she is marginally slower than Pole Star, but has far greater fire power. However, its speed of response is presently a minimum of ten minutes due to the necessity of safely uncoupling the fuel lines. Now will you please go away and stop wasting my time."
We must go, Minna signed slowly to Grant. "That's Avon's daughter down there."
"Servalan's bastard, you mean. Get this straight, I'm not risking my neck for any hypothetical offspring of Servalan's. Avon got no more than he deserved for getting mixed up with her in the first place."
Grant's feelings regarding Avon and Servalan had been made abundantly clear over the last few days. He had vetoed any rescue attempt on Jaxtin itself as being too dangerous, especially after a force field had been detected covering the prison area. He had only agreed with reluctance to re-entering the planetary system, to see if an opportunity would arise after the prisoners were transferred. Having studied the information on the Fearless when he was last on watch, he had already determined, without consulting the others, that an attack on the ship was out of the question.
Grant, you don't understand. Minna's hands were shaking slightly. "Servalan's child or not, I can't abandon her."
"Why not?" Grant said callously. "Have children of your own, if you want them that badly."
"That was uncalled for," said Vila, flaring up in sudden anger.
"Why? Doesn't it bother you if Minna prefers Avon's bastards to yours?" Grant was tired, he hadn't meant to be that offensive, but the whole situation annoyed him.
"Minna's mute, remember?" replied Vila hotly. "She's a genetic undesirable."
Now, Grant realised, he'd really put his foot in it. The Federation had strict policies where genetic undesirables were concerned, and Minna was an inevitable victim. Remorse hit him. "Minna, I'm sorry. I didn't think. They sterilised you of course."
Grant sighed in defeat. "All right, we'll go, but if they spot us we run instantly. Orac, plot a course that gives us minimum exposure to any detectors they may have."
Minna sat by the teleport console keeping a close watch on the time. They would be in range of Jaxtin soon. She had a calm conviction that events would work out well. Stress was largely alien to her personality and she had a tendency to believe the best of people. If on occasion she was disappointed, the times when her faith was justified more than made up for it.
She could tell that Vila was worried, but that was nothing unusual. If Grant was nervous, he didn't show it. He checked the view on the main screen, and adjusted a few controls. Then he reluctantly handed the task of piloting over to Vila, and checked his gun in its holster.
Minna nodded to Grant who took up a position to cover her. Checking the controls for the last time, she set the teleport to pick up the wearer of Avon's bracelet and pulled the activate lever.
The sparkle of the teleport resolved itself into a man in black Federation uniform holding something in his arms. Grant, on the other side of the teleport bay, saw only the uniform and shot automatically. The stranger collapsed to the floor, releasing his burden as he did so. Nova fell and burst into a scream as she landed. The teleport bracelet flew off her arm, bounced to a landing, and rolled slowly across the deck before finally toppling to rest at Grant's feet.
Minna rushed forward to pick up the baby, holding her, rocking back and forth until the screams ceased; then finally, she looked at the man who had brought her.
Guilt and horror became intermixed. Violent death was something Minna had never seen before. Bending over the stranger, she tried to find a pulse. He was an older man, perhaps fifty or more, with close cropped dark hair, and an old scar on his cheekbone which made his face look slightly uneven. His eyes suddenly flickered open and he looked at Minna.
"Jeanie," he said with a gasping breath, and then was silent.
Minna look helplessly at him, felt frantically for a pulse, then gestured to Grant to assist her.
"Why bother?" Grant replied indifferently. "The man's a Federation officer. He also said he'd send the kid up alone, if you remember."
Minna touched the stranger's wrists which were devoid of anything other than a wrist watch, then pointed to the bracelet on the floor and to Nova.
"You're saying that he wasn't wearing a bracelet?" Grant queried. "That he didn't intend to come?"
Minna nodded, close to panic. She held Nova tight and watched as Grant examined the man on the floor. He looked up at her with some sympathy. "I'm sorry, Minna. He's gone."
Minna couldn't take it in. She looked at the dead man, then at Grant, then clutched at her throat suddenly. She thrust Nova into Grant's arms and fled from the flight deck to be sick.
Grant took control of the situation with promptitude. "Vila, look after this." He dumped his burden on the thief, who, having no one else to pass the buck to, was temporarily stuck with the problem.
Rifling through the pockets of the dead man, Grant came upon an identity card and whistled in surprise. "Look who we've got here. The prison commander no less!"
Vila shuffled Nova into an upright position against his shoulder where she was less of a strain on his arm and came to have a closer look. A large and mostly illegal number of brothers and sisters had left him no stranger to babies. It had also driven him into crime at an early age. The Federation provided a food allowance for two children per delta family and no more. The necessity of feeding the rest had required considerable ingenuity.
"Does the photo match his face?" Vila asked.
"What I don't get," complained Vila, "is how he got up here without a bracelet."
The other man went and studied the teleport settings. "There's your answer. The field strength is set to the default, which would be a normal adult male. The brat was so small that the field pulled in the man holding her."
There was a choking sound from the doorway. Minna stood there looking as though she'd seen a ghost. Her hands faltered, slowly making signs. I killed him, didn't I? If I'd set the controls properly, he'd still be alive.
Seeing her distress, Vila hurried towards her. "Minna, it's not your fault. Look," he added, as Nova started sucking his shirt, "you can't do anything for the dead, but she's alive, and she needs you."
Minna reached out her arms slowly and accepted her adoptive daughter.
"Is there anything at all we can do for Avon?" Vila fidgeted as he asked Grant the question, already anticipating the answer.
"Nothing," Grant replied shortly. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to get back to sleep. Just get us out of this system as fast as possible"
Grant stalked off the flight deck in an even worse mood than he had been when he entered it. Vila watched him go without regret. Grant was normally good company, but anything to do with Servalan always made him irritable.
Minna was nowhere to be seen, presumably she was trying to coax some form of baby milk out of the food processor. Vila wondered idly what on Earth she would find to put it in. Still, Minna was a woman of many talents, she'd cope somehow. Then he remembered that it was supposed to be Minna's watch. Why, Vila thought, is it always me that gets landed with it?
He tapped Orac's casing. "Are you awake in there?"
"Of course I am!"
"Look," Vila said, "you're supposed to be able to take over other computers and so forth. Can't you do something to the Fearless, make it blow up or something?"
"This would hardly be a practical solution given that the people you desire to rescue are already on board."
"Person, not people," Vila said quickly. "I don't care what happens to Servalan. Actually, I even have my doubts about Avon on occasion."
"Do you wish me to do anything or not?" inquired Orac testily.
"I was only joking," protested Vila. "Is there anything you can do? Grant just wants to abandon Avon, and I'm flat out of ideas."
"I can create an opportunity. It will be up to Avon to make intelligent use of it. You will need to place the ship in a geostationary orbit around Jaxtin."
Vila looked worried. "Grant said we were to get out of here. We can't afford to hang around."
"If," Orac stated with emphasis, "you wish to utilise my abilities in this instance, it will be necessary to maintain the Pole Star in a constant position relative to Fearless for a period of time. Whilst reading data from another computer is a trivial task for someone of my abilities, placing a program in another machine requires extreme accuracy which is not possible with excessive relative motion."
"So that's why Blake never used you to take over all those pursuit ships that seemed to follow us around." Vila sighed in reminiscence. "I often used to wonder about that."
"Are you going to waste my time with nostalgia, or do you wish me to do something useful before Fearless leaves Jaxtin?"
"We'll do it. If only to stop you nagging me," Vila added as an afterthought.
If life aboard Pole Star had been strained before, it was even more so now. Minna flatly refused to stand watches while she was caring for the baby, and Grant and Vila on opposite watches hardly spoke to one another. Vila solved his problems by getting Orac to do ninety percent of his work despite the computer's protests, and spent his daytime with Minna and Nova.
Grant being made of sterner stuff than Vila stood his entire watch alone which left him feeling even more irate with the world. It was obvious that more crew were needed and Grant knew just where to find them. In his career as a professional leader of revolutions he had visited many worlds and he was still welcome on those that had remained independent of the Federation.
Visits to Threnor, Hassijim and Albian, soon netted Grant a group of highly skilled men, all keen to take up the fight against the Federation, and to free other worlds from its yoke.
For Vila, it was nothing short of disaster. His world was taken over by strangers who were keen, politically aware, and all raring to go into dangerous situations. There was no news of Avon. All Orac could tell him was that the last message from the Fearless had reported that she was falling into a black hole. This, as Orac commented with some smugness, was exactly what he had planned, but the nature of the time distortion around the black hole made it impossible for any further information to be extracted from the ship's computers. It was impossible to know whether the Fearless would escape from the trap. If she did escape, it was impossible to know when she would emerge. In short, Avon could be alive or dead, and there was no way of telling which. Even if alive, he might still be a prisoner.
It was an odd situation. Love him or hate him, Avon had been a part of Vila's life for so long that he felt lost without him. Avon, whatever his general attitude towards Vila, had at least valued his skills. Grant's new men, honest citizens all, professed to respect his part in Blake's legend, but Vila could feel that they despised him. He was a thief, a crook, a poorly educated delta, and a coward. Vila felt no enthusiasm for their grandiose plans and after a while they stopped even pretending to consult him.
He was sitting in a corner of the flight deck by Orac, contemplating a bottle when things finally came to a conclusion.
"Vila, you pathetic drunk, get out of the way." That was the tall blond one with the unpronounceable name. Vila liked him least of all. He reminded Vila of Tarrant on a bad day. At least Avon had helped keep Tarrant off his back. Now that he didn't have Avon to protect him, he had to try elsewhere.
"Hey Grant, don't let him talk to me like that," Vila appealed.
"Why not, you deserve it," Grant replied. "You missed your watch again this morning."
"I was tired," said Vila defensively. "I got woken up in the night."
"I'm not interested in excuses," Grant retorted. "You pull your weight like everyone else, or you get off this ship,"
Vila came to his feet, reaching a decision without even realising it. "That's it. I've had enough. I'm leaving."
Grant stared at him in amazement. "Vila, I didn't really mean it. We need you. Anyway you've nowhere to go."
"Wrong answer," said Vila bitterly. "You may need me, but you don't want me."
It had been different somehow with Avon. Avon had never actually said that he liked Vila, or even that he wanted his company, but they had had a sort of understanding. Malodaar had shattered that relationship, but after Gauda Prime, they had drawn closer again. Grant was far more polite. Vila quite liked him, but it wasn't the same.
"Are you certain?" Grant asked.
"Yes," Vila replied.
"What about Minna and Nova?"
"They'll come with me," Vila said with far more confidence than he actually felt.
"Where can you go? At least you're safe here with us."
"I want to go home, to Earth. Don't you understand?" Vila explained as his thoughts crystallised. "I'm the last survivor of Blake's original crew. The only one left. I don't want to die."
Here on Albian, Grant is the more widely documented of the two. In addition to my own writings, I can also refer the interested reader to "Mercenary", a study of Del Grant's role in the liberation of four separate planets, including our own. The latter book however is severely dated and fails to include any coverage of Grant's life after '56. Thus his subsequent reunion with Avon and the events that followed are not included.
It has been my personal good fortune to meet with Grant on several occasions and to have interviewed him about his career. A charismatic man, it is easy to see why he is so successful as a leader. He is a sober man too, on most occasions. In fact, it was only on the one occasion that I ever encountered him drunk. He had been celebrating the birth of his son in the time honoured manner, and naturally I was present as I was anxious to document this important event in his life.
I forget now how the conversation turned to Avon, but I recall how Grant's bitterness surprised me.
"Why Avon? Do you realise that I can't shake him off whatever I do? He's been dead seven years now, but that doesn't make any difference. He's a legend! Why is that? I've achieved more against the Federation than he ever did, but all people ever want to know about is Avon and Blake."
"Are you saying that Avon's role on Albian was irrelevant?" I asked him in curiosity.
"Far from it, it was the other way around. Without him you'd all be dead. I could never have disarmed that solium device without him. He knew far more about it than I did. Crazy really. I hated the man. I wanted to kill him. But I worked with him because a planet was at stake."
I asked Grant why he hated Avon so much, and for the first time he told me about his sister Anna. I began to see that there was a story here, a tragedy that would surely be worth the telling. I bought Grant another drink and he began to tell me more, things that Avon himself had told him when they first met again, and scraps of stories Grant had gleaned from Vila Restal.
A tragedy indeed: a man prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to avenge the woman he loved, only to find himself betrayed by her. My writer's instincts were all twitching. This story would sell, that I already knew, but there was more to come.
Grant mentioned Servalan! That incredible woman, first Supreme Commander, and then President of the Federation. Was it the perpetual duel between herself and Avon that had had the effect of giving him the status of a legend? Legend is a funny thing. It is more pervasive than reality. It is the oral history of the masses. There were persistent rumours that Servalan had lived on after her reported death; there were also stories that she had had an affair with Avon. Needless to say I pressed Grant for the truth of these tales.
Grant was reluctant to answer at first, but a few glasses of our local aquavit turned the trick. He looked into my eyes. "Did you know that Avon loved Servalan?"
I made encouraging noises, but Grant went off on a different tack.
"Avon went slightly crazy after Blake died," he said.
That was another story I was itching to know more about, the true state of affairs concerning Blake's death. However, I sensed that if I let Grant stray off the subject of Servalan, I wouldn't be able to get him back on to it. "Servalan," I prompted.
"Servalan got Avon off Gauda Prime."
Now I was glad I'd kept my mouth shut. This sounded potentially fascinating.
Grant continued. "I don't know how, and I don't know why. Avon wasn't telling, and Vila didn't know all the details. All Vila ever said was that Servalan fancied Avon, and that that was why. Well, she certainly got Avon completely under her thumb. He was the most coldly rational man I ever knew, but when he fell for a woman, he did it totally." Grant took another sip of his aquavit. "I remember thinking that Avon had got Servalan out of his system. He ditched her on Ollnar when I forced him to see sense. He was still capable of seeing her for what she was then. She got him in the end though. She was pregnant. I suppose she must have loved him in some fashion. If I'd been in her shoes, with Avon just having stolen my ship, I'd have had an abortion.
"He went to see her when it was born. Never told the rest of us what he was doing - we'd have stopped him, and he knew it. Well, to cut a long story short, he got his daughter, Nova, on Jaxtin, but the Federation got him. I think I might have been able to forgive him for that in time. But as long as I live, I shall never forgive him for marrying her."
I sat bolt upright in my seat. "Avon married Servalan?" This was something I'd never heard before, not even in the rumours.
"Oh yes," Grant laughed bitterly. "No one ever talks about it. It's just as embarrassing for the Federation as it is for the rebellion, but it's all there in the records on Jaxtin. Orac told us. All there, along with Nova's birth and death records. Still if one record can be false why not another?"
There was something in the way he referred to a false record that hinted at something more - so I asked him to elaborate further. He refused, muttering something about a promise. Historians take little stock of promises, especially when they seem to hide a potentially interesting piece of knowledge. I hastily visited the bar once more. The evening was getting expensive, but I considered the cost to be well worthwhile.
The place was emptying now, most of Grant's drinking companions had already left. They had been having a great time, singing and swopping tall stories. I don't think they even noticed that I'd monopolised Grant for most of the last hour.
I jogged his memory once more regarding the false record.
"Minna. I promised Minna," he said.
Minna Harcourt - I remembered her vaguely from an earlier story of Grant's. He'd referred to her as Vila's woman. Now that was another interesting thing: Vila Restal had dropped totally out of sight after Avon died, yet there had been no report of Vila's death. I doubt if many people had consciously noticed the fact; an absence is always harder to spot than a presence. I noticed, because I wanted to interview the man, and had been totally unable to trace him.
"What happened to Vila?" I asked.
"He ran. The little rat ran. I didn't mind him going that much, but he stole Orac! He was welcome to Minna. He was welcome to the kid. But I needed Orac."
Grant was brooding into his drink. I couldn't say that I blamed him. If only half of what I had heard about Orac was true, the computer would have been an incredible asset to him. However, this was all distracting us from the question of what he had promised Minna.
I twirled my glass idly, watching the ice fragments swirl in the green liquid. It was a good thing I had my recorder going, because truth to tell, if I hadn't had as much to drink as Grant, I had still had enough to make me distinctly light headed. "What was it that Minna wanted you to keep secret," I asked as lightly as I could.
"Nova. She didn't want me to tell anyone that Nova wasn't her daughter."
I kept as still in my seat as I could. "You're telling me that the record of Nova's death was false, and that she ended up with Minna?" This was amazing. A child of Avon and Servalan, two of the most notorious people of the age. Her value to the revolution as propaganda or as a figurehead could be immense. "She's got to be found!" I exclaimed in amazement.
Grant shook his head. "That's exactly what Minna didn't want. She wanted a child of her own. No politics, no revolutions, nobody trying to use the girl for their own purposes." He looked deeply into his glass. "I've said too much already. You have to understand. Minna was okay. She never wanted to fight the Federation; she got caught up in things by accident. Look at it this way," Grant suggested. " Nova could be used by people in the Federation. Servalan was a popular president - she wasn't in office long enough for people to forget her victory over the Andromedans. Let the kid stay dead, that way neither side will try to use her."
He had a point, but I'm an historian, facts are my business. On the other hand, Grant was a useful source of information. I didn't want to alienate him. I reached a decision in the end. The information was too useful not to take advantage of it in some manner. Vila had proved untraceable, but Vila with a mute woman and a child of a known age - that was another matter. If I could get Vila to talk, I would have the whole history of Blake's Seven, straight from the horse's mouth. And if Vila didn't want to talk? I was sure I could find a way of persuading him.
I believe I was talking about illusions before I started this digression. I had my own illusions about Avon. The less one knows of a person, the more one is forced to rely on imagination, and no one knew much about Avon the man. Records on his early life were almost non existent. The destruction of Star One and the damage wrought by rebels on Earth at that time had badly affected the Federation's data banks. When Avon was captured while he was looking for Shrinker, the prison officers concerned could not identify him from finger prints or any other data. You can therefore see the extent of my problem. I couldn't even be sure of his date of birth!
Using information from Grant and every other source I could lay my hands on, I wrote my most recent book, "Rebel - the Life and Loves of Kerr Avon, by Tobias Threep". I always knew it would sell well, and it did, beyond even my expectations. I wrote it without Vila's assistance. I still hadn't located him, but I hadn't given up hope either. If this meant that I had to guess at facts on occasion, well, that is an author's prerogative, and dead men don't argue. I only knowingly falsified one fact. Following Grant's request, I quoted Nova's death from the Federation records on Jaxtin, and implied that Minna's daughter was born shortly thereafter and given the same name as a memorial to Avon.
Grant always said that Vila believed Avon was still out there somewhere, although Vila gave no reason to back up his belief. Well, I didn't accept it myself, but it made a great ending to the book. "And who knows, perhaps Avon and Servalan are out there still, seeking somewhere where a rebel and a president can live together in peace..."
I'm digressing again, you'll have to stop me. My sister, Elizabeth, always accuses me of doing that. "Tobias," she says, "get back onto the subject." So I shall.
It was just over ten years from the date of the last message sent out by Fearless, to the time when that self same ship appeared in orbit around Albian requesting permission to land.
Although I say it myself, I'm well known on Albian. We're a small world, you understand. My book, "The Struggle for Freedom", detailing how we drove out the Federation, has become a standard school text. It has even had a limited publication as a bound book for those who prefer not to use computer screens. Perhaps this will help to explain to my readers why it was that I, along with a number of government officials, was summoned to the spaceport to help reach a solution regarding the Fearless. You must understand that there was a certain degree of reluctance to allow the landing of what was obviously a Federation battle cruiser.
Firstly, was the man on board who he claimed to be? If indeed he was Kerr Avon, then he was welcome on Albian, but what of the anonymous woman with him for whom he demanded a guarantee of safety signed by no one less than Albian's President? I could hardly control my excitement. It had to be Servalan, once the most powerful woman in the galaxy, who had lost it all because of a rebel.
"Get Avon to send a visual," I begged. "Tell him I know it's his wife with him. After all, who else would need protection on an Allied world?"
The screen wavered and then came sharply into focus, showing the heads of a man and a woman side by side.
"Yes!" I shouted in triumph, shaking my fists above my head; and then tried to become invisible when everyone turned to look at me. It was Avon and Servalan all right. I had spent years trying to find likenesses of them, for there were remarkably few in existence. Avon had left a record on security cameras here and there, but lacked the kind of vanity that required regular mementoes to be taken of himself and his friends. Although there were a few splendid official portraits of Servalan as president, it had apparently been her policy to avoid pictures ever since the first attempt on her life while she was still supreme commander of the Terran space force.
Arguments immediately broke out among the bureaucrats, mainly polarised into two camps. I wasn't watching them though. I was watching Avon. It was quite disconcerting to see a dead man, especially when he was so obviously amused by the whole affair. "Let me know when you've decided whether or not to shoot us," he said sardonically, and cut the connection.
That started them off again of course. As far as I could figure it out, there were several main lines of argument. One group led by Cauder held out that Avon was owed a debt, and if that debt included putting up with Servalan, then so be it. A second group held that by tying himself to Servalan, Avon had effectively abandoned all principles held by the rebellion, and deserved nothing from anyone. Indeed, he might even have gone over to the Federation. The finance minister who had just arrived after a business lunch seemed more worried about Avon's reputation for computer crime than anything else, although nobody else seemed to consider this a relevant point. My own opinion, which carried some limited weight, was that Servalan must be deemed to have rejected the Federation and all it stood for when she threw in her lot with a noted rebel.
I won't say that I convinced everyone. Servalan's activities when in a position of power were too well known, even a decade later. However, my belief that Avon would never have married a woman whose political views were totally opposed to his own undoubtedly influenced some.
It was Cauder who eventually swayed a majority to his side. "Blake ordered Avon to teleport back to the Liberator fifty seconds before that device was due to detonate. Avon deliberately removed his teleport bracelet so that they couldn't pick him up. If the device had gone off, he would have died himself along with everyone on Albian. If this government refuses to give sanctuary to Avon and his wife, I shall resign."
Once they reached a collective decision, they went the whole hog of course: official reception, guided tours, et cetera. A planned itinerary for the next fortnight in fact. I didn't wait to see how Avon would react to all this, although I had a feeling he wouldn't thank them for it. I made my move first. I wanted to interview Servalan and Avon before they got fed up of reporters, journalists and historians. I sent an invitation like so many others, but mine got read. Why? Everyone who ever spoke to me about Servalan had had one comment in common: she had an impeccable sense of style. I sent my invitation with a dress designer, and had the pleasure that evening of welcoming Servalan in a gown that would have made a corpse sit up for one last look.
Illusions - they weren't at all what I had expected. Servalan, whom all the records painted as self centered and evil, was a totally charming woman, a delightful conversationalist, and extremely beautiful. Avon, whom I had always viewed as a tragic hero, turned out to be a complete cynic - claiming no interest in freedom for the masses, and a main ambition in life of becoming rich.
His indifference seemed to be complete; they had had two prisoners aboard Fearless, and Avon had passed them on to the authorities. When asked what he wanted doing with them, he had replied that he didn't care. "Shoot them, release them, repatriate them, do whatever you like - they aren't my concern any more." I hadn't imagined him as being like that. Yes I know he had a reputation for cynicism, but I'd always imagined that to be a pose. Meeting him in person, it seemed to be genuine.
Elizabeth served dinner, and I tried to discover more about the gaps in Avon's life. A difficult task: he had a dislike of personal questions that verged on the paranoid. I could not bring myself to like him, but then he made no effort to be likeable. His attitude seemed to be: "Take me as I am, and if you don't like it then stuff it".
I had intended to tell Avon about Nova, truly I had. A contact on Earth had finally hit pay dirt by working through school records. It's hard to hide a bright child among deltas. It was just that Avon's attitude was beginning to annoy me. I felt that as his biographer, I had a valid right to know the details of his past. If he wouldn't tell me anything, why should I tell him anything?
I found myself concentrating more and more on Servalan. What did she see in Avon? I mean to say, he was good looking in a dark kind of way, but nothing special. Elizabeth was paying him a lot of attention, but then Elizabeth was always polite to guests.
Servalan had an endless supply of interesting anecdotes, mostly relating to her days in Space Command. The odd thing was that none of her stories ever seemed to involve Avon. I wondered whether Servalan actually cared for him at all? They didn't act like lovers. She always called him Avon, never Kerr. He in turn never used any pet names or terms of endearment when talking to her.
I finished my coffee. Elizabeth and Avon were discussing some mathematical theorem or other, so I invited Servalan to take a stroll around the garden. I didn't think Avon had even noticed she was with me, that was how much he seemed to care about her.
We walked about the rose garden. I've always been proud of my roses, and the scent in the evening air was delicious. I watched Servalan as she moved among the flowers. She bore herself like a queen or an empress. President she might no longer be, but her manner was still that of a woman expecting to command. Eventually we passed through the sand garden to stand awhile in the shelter of the summerhouse, and I decided to be straightforward with her. "I have some information, and I think it is something you badly want to know. You've been in power, you know the value of information, so you'll understand if I say that I want something in exchange."
Servalan was cool, calm, and incredibly sensuous. "Information is power," she said. She looked me directly in the eye. "I've always loved power."
"I know where your daughter is." I hadn't meant to let it out so abruptly, but her presence was having an effect on me. Black in the shadows of the summerhouse, her dress made her almost invisible, except for the silver thread shot through it which caught the last fading light of the day and reflected it. I didn't have to be able to see her to know what she looked like. Imagination supplied the necessary details.
Her white hand reached out through the shadows and lightly touched the side of my face. "What do you want in exchange?"
"Avon. I want to know about Avon. The things he won't talk about, things you know about him that nobody else does."
Her finger ran down my cheek and stroked my shoulder, and I could just see her smile. "You want his soul," she murmured.
A ghoulish, vampire sentiment, but accurate. Yes, I wanted Avon's soul, because I envied him. He had possessed this woman. Here in this confined space, hearing her breathing, smelling her perfume, I wanted her as I had never wanted any woman before. Power, Servalan had said, and that was what she represented, power and sex combined together.
"Do you love him?" I demanded.
Servalan leaned towards me. "Avon's the only man alive who knows how to make a teleport."
Our lips touched, and I kissed her. Her hands found their way to my waist, caressing. I held her shoulders, feeling the smoothness of her skin, wanting to do more.
"Where is my daughter?" Servalan asked in a low voice, her head resting against me.
"On Earth," I told her, losing myself in her touch, "with Vila and Minna. They're using the name Fenmore and living in London dome."
She pushed herself free from me, and stepped back, out of the summerhouse. "Thank you," she said calmly. "That's all I wanted to know."
"That may be all you want," I answered her furiously. "But it isn't all that I want."
"She's mine," said a cold voice. A black shadow detached itself from the black trunk of a nearby tree.
If I had disliked Avon before, I hated him now. "She isn't yours." I flung the words at him. "She'll give herself to anybody who has something she wants."
That shook him: I could see it in his eyes, the knowledge that I had tasted his woman. It was only a moment's reaction, but I had pierced his armour, and that felt good. If I couldn't have Servalan, at least I could hurt her. I thought she would plead with him, explain how she'd tricked me to discover where Nova was, but she did neither. Servalan was Avon's equal, and she faced him on her own terms. "Avon," she said softly. "You're going to have to make up your mind eventually. Do you trust me or don't you?
It seemed an odd thing for her to say under the circumstances; I waited for Avon to demand an explanation, to tell her she was a slut, but he didn't.
"Never," he responded. Was he smiling as he said it? It was too dark to tell.
He took Servalan then, and kissed her slowly and deliberately, as though to wipe away any trace I might have left on her lips. Together in the darkness, lit only by the moon and stars, they seemed to belong to the night, almost invisible, the details of their silent passion known only to themselves. There seemed something between them that was more than love, or more than anything that I have ever called love.
I hated them both. I hated Avon because he was never going to let me understand him, and I hated Servalan because I desired her. I hated them, because together they had something that I would never have. I had underestimated them both, and in a moment of fury, I knew the perfect revenge.
"Sorry Mum, I've got some homework to do." Nova grinned and jumped down, weaving her way between the closely packed chairs and tables to the back exit.
Minna watched her go. Nova was ten, going on eleven now, but she was so like her father on occasion. Vila hated work too. Minna shrugged and returned to checking the inventory on the bar. The staff would be in soon. They could lay the tables, and then she could get on with preparing the evening's menu. Some of the drinks were suspiciously low again, she'd have to cross check with Orac and see if the levels matched what they had sold. New staff always tried to filch something. That was the trouble with deltas. They were so used to scrounging everything, that even given a decent job and reasonable pay, they still tried to steal. Once she had caught them out a couple of times they generally got the idea. If they tried to take anything after that, she fired them.
The phone chimed, and Minna switched on the viewer.
"I'd like to book a table for four for this evening at eight thirty."
That was Norwood, one of her regulars. He worked in the sector administration, something to do with water supplies he'd once said. He was an alpha as nearly all of her customers were. Nobody else could afford to eat here - real food was expensive.
Minna nodded at Norwood and held up four fingers to confirm his booking. Although she had the speech synthesizer, she still preferred to use signs where possible. The artificial voice conveyed no feeling; she always felt that it created a barrier between herself and whoever she was talking to.
The synthesizer was necessary on occasion though. When buying food she had to negotiate with a mixed assortment of hydroponics workers, black marketeers and outsiders. While Vila and Nova understood her signs for everything from avocado to Arcturan grapes, nobody else could follow more than the basics. It would have been impossible to run the business without Vila. His casual ability to open the subway exits undetected made dealing with the outsiders simple.
Their occupations blended neatly. When Vila was having trouble fencing goods, the restaurant kept them going. When thieving was profitable, the money could be laundered through her accounts. With Orac keeping the books, no one was ever going to be able to spot the fiddles.
Minna had given up worrying whether Vila would ever get caught. If she had allowed herself to think about it, she would have been in a constant state of nervous tension. For Vila, stealing was a compulsion; sometimes he could go for ages without taking anything, then without warning the need would come over him. It wasn't so much the money, although it probably had been in the early days. It was the need to pit himself against the system, to prove to himself that he could outwit anything that had been developed. A successful theft gave him a high that could keep him going for weeks. Minna tried to discourage him, but it was no use. Just when she thought she'd talked him into going straight for a while, she'd find him tucked up in a corner with Orac discussing the computer's analysis of yet another security system.
It was affecting Nova too: the appeal of a challenge. Vila was already showing her how to tackle simple locks, in spite of Minna's attempts to convince the girl that making a proper mayonnaise was just as interesting and far more useful. The only useful aspect that Minna could see was that the resulting interest in electronics and optics at least made sure that Nova had an incentive to learn. Their daughter had a thirst for information, and could sweet talk Orac into spending long sessions discussing in detail whatever avenue of knowledge her curiosity had led her into on that particular day.
On other occasions Nova would vanish for hours, playing long complicated games with children of her own age in the corridors and open spaces of the dome. It had been almost inevitable that Nova would become the ringleader; apart from being an intelligent child in her own right, she was also the only one to completely escape the suppressants that were an inescapable part of everyone else's diet.
Minna remembered her own childhood with regret - her inability to speak had always left her near the bottom of the pecking order where other children were concerned. Still, things had worked out in the end. She was here, and she was happy.
Finishing the last part of her homework, Nova switched off the screen. "Dad, can we play a game of some sort?"
Vila put down the magnetic sensor he was adjusting. "What do you want to play?"
Vila groaned. "What again?"
"Yes, I nearly won last time."
Giving in to the inevitable, Vila reached in a cupboard and dug out the board while trying to decide how great a handicap to give Orac. "Nova, you and I start with five million credits each, and we'll give Orac two million."
"I fail to see," said Orac crossly, "why I should be discriminated against in such a manner."
"Because you always win otherwise," Vila replied.
Lights flashed rapidly inside Orac's casing. "That is a totally inaccurate statement. Dayna beat me once."
Vila could still remember the occasion. It had been the one and only time that anyone had ever beaten Orac at the game, and the computer's annoyance over it had kept them amused for days thereafter.
"You said at the time that it was a fluke caused by lucky die rolls," Vila said accusingly.
"And so it was. The odds of my landing on Dayna's casino and losing two hundred million credits were three thousand and seventeen to one. The subsequent probability of my spaceship hitting an asteroid field and my having to seek repairs at her spaceport was extremely remote."
The argument continued while the pieces were set up and the starting money negotiated over, Orac eventually settling for two and a half million credits.
Nova rolled the dice and decided to purchase a planet orbiting Algol. That sector of the galaxy often became useful towards the end of the game.
"Dad," she asked, while Vila pondered whether or not to buy a space freight business. "Who was Dayna?"
Vila decided against the freight business, it didn't look likely to bring in enough money. The bank placed it for auction and he found himself bidding against Orac for it, eventually winning the battle and paying more than the original asking price.
Nova hadn't forgotten the question though. "What about Dayna?"
"Dayna was someone Orac and I knew before you were born."
Nova pondered that while Orac took his turn and acquired a mining cartel in the Inner Worlds. Orac had always been part of her life. She knew she wasn't allowed to mention him to anyone outside the family, but she'd never thought about where he came from. Orac was Orac just as obviously as she was Nova.
She picked up the dice and shook them. "Orac, how old are you?"
"As I am the result of a process of continual development, I cannot have a precise age. However, my present configuration has remained unchanged apart from minor modifications for approximately sixteen years."
Nova's spaceship landed on an agricultural world, not valuable in itself, but very useful if she could acquire the contract for supplying the dome cities. It was hard to say how long it would be before the contract came up in the chance cards. After weighing the options she decided to buy it - the planet wasn't very expensive.
Orac was six years older than shewas. In Nova's rather egocentric view of the world, it was hard to imagine Orac without herself. "What did you do before I was born?" she inquired.
"Very little," snapped Orac. "Blake never fully utilised my capabilities, and while Avon had a better understanding of..."
"Orac," pleaded Vila. "Shut up. Please."
He placed his head between his hands and wished he could close out the world. Blake's name had been coming up far too often of late, and Nova was getting distinctly curious. Sure enough, she promptly bounced up with a question. "Was your friend Blake related to Blake the rebel?"
Vila had seen them out in the corridors playing "rebels", half of them as Federation, half of them pretending to be Blake or Avalon or other members of the rebellion whose names had survived even if the precise details of their exploits had been forgotten.
"Look, Nova," he said desperately, "do you want to play this game or don't you."
He rolled the dice and fudged the result so that he landed near Algol. Nova's enthusiasm for collecting spaceport dues distracted her totally from the previous conversation, and the game continued for another couple of hours with Vila, to his surprise, eventually winning for once.
Minna was always busy by this time in the evening, so it was Vila who saw their daughter off to bed. Then he sat down with Orac to plan his own activities for later in the night. There was a plastics recycling factory three levels up on the far side of the grand hall of justice that handed out its wages on the first of the month. That meant that tonight the safe ought to be full. While the alpha scientists would be paid directly to their bank accounts, the delta grade labourers who sorted the incoming materials were usually chronically in debt and hence preferred to be paid in cash.
Once Nova was safely asleep, Vila slipped out, knowing that Minna would be nearby if Nova woke up for any reason.
Someone was calling her name. Nova stirred, but the voice did not go away. Irate and insistent, it kept on telling her to get up. She pulled the sheet over her head, but it didn't help. Orac's voice got louder, so she climbed out of bed intending to remove the activator key to shut him up. Opening the door into the living room, she could see Orac's lights clearly in the dark.
"At last!" said the computer crossly as she appeared. "Pick me up immediately. We must leave at once."
Nova rubbed her eyes and yawned. "Orac, I want to go back to sleep."
"There is no time. It took far too long for you to wake up as it is."
Some of the urgency in Orac's voice began to penetrate through her sleep laden mind. "What's the matter?" she asked.
"There are Federation soldiers on the way. They will be here in less than five minutes. You must get me out of here."
Fear took hold of Nova. She didn't know what had happened. She couldn't think of any reason why soldiers should come here unless her father had been caught. Her first instinct was to run to her mother. First Nova looked in her parent's bedroom, but neither of them were there. Then she ran through the hallway and into the back of the restaurant.
One of the waitresses caught her by the hand. "You know you're not allowed in here when there's customers around," she admonished.
Nova twisted her way out of the grip and fled, looking for Minna. Her mother was pushing a trolley laden with various cakes and exotic deserts. Nova noticed all the people staring at her in her night clothes. She started flashing hand signs as fast as she could manage. They've caught Dad! Orac says I've got to take him away before the soldiers get here. Mum, what should I do?
Minna tried to hide the panic she felt. She'd always known this was going to happen some day. Vila! She couldn't do anything to help right now, except to get Orac out of sight; because if men hunting for stolen goods found Orac, all hell was going to break loose.
Nova, she signed, take Orac and hide him somewhere in the city, but don't let anyone see you. I'll look after things here.
She caught her daughter and hugged her tightly, then pushed her in the direction of the door.
Nova hesitated, torn between what she had been told to do, and a natural desire to stay where she felt safe. Minna pointed to the door again and made a running motion with her fingers. Nova fled. Pausing only to grab some clothes, her teddy bear and a lucky charm from her bedroom, she dived into the living room for Orac, and stopped in surprise.
"I didn't know you could do that," she said.
"Well, you'd hardly be able to carry me far if I was my normal size," said a familiar testy voice from a box a quarter of its normal size. "Now move!"
To hear was to obey. Nova grabbed Orac and fled out into the corridors, seeking some of the places where she hid when she and her friends were playing hunt. There was a good place near the outer wall of the dome where a lot of maintenance conduits ran. She'd often hidden there. It was a good place because the maintenance areas were locked off from the corridors. The locks were all the same basic design and simple enough to pick.
The corridors seemed empty as she ran out of the residential area and past the entry way for the rapid transit tube. She sprinted down an echoing metal staircase to the level below and stopped in surprise as the lights suddenly came on. Nobody seemed to be there - perhaps the lights were just reacting to her movement. She hoped so. She'd never been here during the night cycle before and didn't know what to expect.
She could see the access door she wanted just ahead, the sign on it clearly stating "Authorised personnel only". Checking to make sure no one was around, she took the lock picks out of her tunic pocket and fumbled at the lock. It had always seemed an easy one before. Now nervousness made her take twice as long as normal. After what seemed forever, the door slid open and she entered, closing and locking it behind her. It was pitch dark inside, no movement sensors here. Nova found the switch just inside the door, and a moment later dim overhead lighting illuminated the long narrow corridor filled with wires and pipes of every colour and diameter. She knew what some of them were. The wide silver tube carried air, and the black one was supposed to be sewage. What most of the others were, she had no idea at all.
Catching her breath, Nova leaned back against a broad yellow pipe that headed straight up into the ceiling. Then she placed Orac on the floor and watched in fascination as the machine promptly returned to the size she was used to.
"How do you do that?" she queried.
"The principle of molecular reduction is beyond your present capacity to understand."
Nova began to shiver in a delayed shock reaction and hugged her teddy bear tightly to herself. She felt cold in spite of the fact that the entire dome was maintained at the same even temperature throughout. "Orac, when will it be safe to go back again?"
"Safe?" said Orac in surprise. "It will never be safe again. If Minna has had the sense to leave she will be safe, but there is no way of warning Vila. He will be caught when he returns home."
Nova didn't understand. "You said they'd already caught Dad."
"Indeed I did not. It is obviously a waste of my time telling you things if you do not listen."
Nova felt slightly queasy. Nothing seemed to make sense any more. All she knew was that she felt lonely and frightened. "Orac, please tell me what's happening," she pleaded.
"Very well. I perform a regular check of local computer systems, searching for certain key words. Half an hour ago, I intercepted a message ordering the immediate arrest of Vila Restal and family."
Orac obviously deemed that to be sufficient information, but it left Nova feeling more confused than ever. "But our name is Fenmore," she said.
"Incorrect. Vila's name is Vila Restal. He was a prominent member of the revolution, first with Roj Blake on Liberator, and then with Kerr Avon. There is a one million credit bounty on his head."
In that moment, Nova's world turned upside down. Everything she had ever taken for granted was shaken. Her parents were the core of her life. If her father was not the person she had always thought he was, then what could she be certain of any more? She curled tightly into a ball, desperately needing someone to turn to, and knowing that there was no one there. "Orac?" she queried with a sniffle. "If I go back to warn Mum, will it be too late?"
"It will." Orac's voice was less snappish than usual. "You can do nothing to aid Vila either without being caught yourself."
The sniffle turned into evident sobs. "I want to go home."
Orac's lights flickered. Needing to be a nanny was a problem he had never previously encountered. Actually, Orac considered, acting in loco parentis sounded more appropriate to his dignity, even if it added up to the same thing in the end. This wasn't a situation where logic was going to be any use, sympathy and understanding were needed here. Orac had never had much practice at being sympathetic...
He proceeded to consider the problem for a few nanoseconds. He was a superior intelligence, therefore capable of anything that a mere human was capable of. He had Ensor's personality and memories imprinted on his circuits, therefore that was data that he had available. Ensor, while not a demonstrative man, had had a son whom he had loved dearly. His son, when young, had loved stories.
"Ahem," it sounded as though Orac was clearing his throat, one of the many mannerisms that should have seemed out of place when Orac used them, but didn't.
Nova clutched her teddy even tighter and refused to answer.
The computer persisted. "Would you like me to tell you how Vila came to join the revolution?"
At the mention of Vila's name an eye peeped out of the bundle that was Nova. Orac took this as assent and proceeded to relate an account of Vila's exile to Cygnus Alpha and the discovery of the Liberator.
Long hours on teleport duty with no one to talk to except Orac had frequently made Vila loquacious. Once he had had a few drinks there was no stopping him, and in spite of protesting, Orac had frequently found himself regaled with long stories of Vila's exploits. He had never previously considered these tales to be of any potential value. Vila's stories usually cast himself in the role of hero, and it was possible that what Nova needed right now was just that level of exaggeration. Orac salved his conscience with the thought that, as he had not been physically present on the London, he didn't have any actual proof that Vila wasn't telling the complete truth.
Nova remained silent the whole time Orac was talking, but when he concluded she asked for more. Three hours and several exploits of Vila and the Liberator crew later, Nova finally fell asleep.
Nova awoke in the morning uncertain of the time, and feeling empty inside. She didn't feel at all like eating, but she was thirsty. "Orac, I need a drink," she said.
There were maps of the city in its main computers. For Orac to access them was the work of a moment. "There is a public washroom on the level immediately above," he informed Nova
Nova couldn't remember ever using the public washrooms. Although her family were technically deltas, they enjoyed a far higher standard of living than anyone else she knew. Instead of all being crammed into a single room, they had an entire apartment. They had their own cooking and washing facilities. In addition they had a vid that carried many channels, as opposed to the usual free public information channel that showed little except soaps and propaganda.
It was sinking in now. She couldn't go home. The memories and fears of the previous night returned with a rush. Not only had Nova lost her parents, but she had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat and no money apart from a few small coins.
Thirst demanded Nova's attention again, and she pressed the door open a fraction, looking out. A protest from behind caused her to turn around again. "Hide me," demanded Orac.
That made sense - the maintenance corridors weren't used much, but somebody might come while she was away. Nova pushed Orac as far out of sight as possible, and then peeked through the door again. There didn't seem to be anyone in sight, so she left, and headed up the staircase to the next level.
The corridors were moderately busy. No children were in sight, so presumably everyone had already gone to school. Nova found the washroom easily. The door like all the others on this level was plain grey, but with the word "washroom" and a shower symbol added. In spite of universal education to age ten, many deltas could not read.
Entering, Nova was hit by a burst of steam, then as she became used to her surroundings she managed to pick out the drinking fountain, the toilets and the showers. There were three women in the showers, one washing her hair with a shampoo that smelt strongly of cheap perfume. Although the washrooms were officially unisex, in actuality the residents of the level had their own territories marked out. No man ever came in here, and no woman ever entered the washroom in the next corridor.
Nova took a drink, the water tasting odd. Then she drank some more, thirst causing her to ignore the flavour.
One of the women in the shower looked over, wet hair hanging limply down her shoulders. "You're Vila's daughter, aren't you? I hear the spooks took your mum and dad last night."
Nova nodded silently. She recognised the woman now, Ingrid Johnson, she saw her sometimes in the laundry. Her son Tar was a deadly ball player, able to hit a fast bounce off a corridor wall and direct the shot over the head of his opponent. It was within the rules, as long as the ball actually hit the wall above waist height you could do anything you liked with it. Nova just wished that she was a touch taller - her reflexes were fast, but she couldn't reach the high shots even when she jumped.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Ingrid.
"I don't know." The words came out in a whisper.
Ingrid came out of the shower and wrapped a thin white towel around her hair. "Come here, love."
Nova hesitated, and then took the offered hug. The coins ran out in the remaining showers and the other two women joined Ingrid.
"Where's she going to stay?"
"I'd love to take her, but I've got three of my own, and you know how it is."
"Would they give an allowance for an orphan?"
"Don't say things like that in front of her. They might let her parents go."
"Have you seen what they did to their home? Stripped it inside out. They must have been looking for something."
"What did your dad nick that was so valuable, then?"
Nova wanted to stay, and she wanted to run. She wanted their company. The thought of being all alone terrified her. But the way they talked, almost as though she couldn't hear them, was distressing.
"Dad didn't nick anything," she said automatically.
The blonde woman laughed. "They never do, dear. Vila hasn't nicked anything. My old man hasn't either. We're all innocent and hard done by."
"Leave her be," interjected Ingrid. "She's half scared out of her wits. Nova, you come home with me for now. I can't keep you, mind; but I can give you a meal or two without breaking the bank."
She slipped on a pair of trousers and a tunic top that had seen better days. "Come on, dear." Nova clung tight to the outstretched hand and they left together.
Ingrid's room seemed cramped beyond belief, it also smelt of soma. There were cushions piled high on the few chairs in a vain attempt to make the place look cheerful and attractive. The bed was folded up against the wall and the table folded down from another. The vid played in the corner, a constant background ignored most of the time by both Ingrid and her husband Jorge.
"Here." Ingrid placed a mug of something hot and sweet tasting in her hand. Nova wasn't sure what it was, it seemed impolite to ask, but the flavour wasn't too bad.
Jorge had taken little notice of Nova, apart from a grunt when Ingrid explained who she was. He appeared to be deep in thought, studying a small model he had constructed out of scraps of plastic and wire. Ingrid warned Nova not to touch it. Jorge used to work in a component factory, but had lost his job. He was convinced that if he could find a way of improving one of the production line features he could get his job back. He'd been trying for three years now.
Nova sipped some more of her drink. The vid showed a small and improbable drama based on the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. Jorge lost a wire and started swearing.
The picture changed again, and Nova was startled to recognise herself. It looked like the picture taken for the records at the annual school medical check. They were talking about her. Nova suddenly became aware of eyes upon her. Jorge had put down his modelling tool and was listening to the vid. Ingrid was no longer sewing a patch onto a jacket that had been mostly patches in the first place.
The words began to sink in. "... daughter of the infamous rebel, Vila Restal..... 5,000 credit reward..."
They were watching her, Ingrid stood up. "Nova," she said with a smile that tried to be friendly. "Come here, dear."
Nova backed away from her towards the door. Jorge reached out a huge hand and seized her by the arm. Nova screamed, bit Jorge hard in the hand and ran. She only just made it through the door. Sprinting down the corridor, she managed to get ahead of them, but her lead was small. She had to find some place where they couldn't follow. There wasn't time to open a lock. Nova climbed up a ladder to the next level. Somewhere along here there was a loose cover on a ventilation shaft. She'd hidden there on occasion when playing hunt.
Round a corner: Jorge had dropped back, lack of exercise taking its toll, but Ingrid was still chasing her. Where exactly was the cover? Nova knew it was just after an emergency panel where fire fighting gear was stored - it had to be soon. Gasping for breath, she found what she was looking for, flipped it up and swung herself inside and started to crawl along the shaft. A hand gripped an ankle, and Nova kicked frantically with her other foot, hearing Ingrid cry out, and feeling herself free once more. She crawled further along the shaft. It was pitch black, and low, difficult for her, but too low for Ingrid to be able to follow.
Nova shivered involuntarily. She'd never gone far along the ventilation shafts - there were stories about things living in them. Odd sounds came to her, even the sound of her own movement was different in the confined space.
If Ingrid told the spooks where she was, they'd be here in a minute.
There'd been a kid once who'd knifed his sister. He'd hidden out in the shafts, but the spooks had introduced a gas into the system. Some people said that he'd crawled out before the gas got strong enough to kill him. Many of the sector's children maintained that he'd died without ever getting out and that his body still lay somewhere in the system, his restless spirit roaming with a knife to kill anyone who dared invade his territory.
The circle of light from the corridor was all too small, the darkness surrounding her all encompassing. Nova felt short of breath. How long before Ingrid brought the men here? Would Jorge be watching the place where she had climbed in? She didn't dare go back to look. She had to get out of the tunnels quickly. Imagination supplied the smell of gas. The faint echo of faraway sounds gave all the impetus necessary to a firm belief in malevolent ghosts.
Nova crawled further, finding a branch and turning right. The shaft turned to rise vertically. She had to go back, or go up. Going back was too much to face. Nova wedged herself against the sides of the shaft and chimneyed her way up. She couldn't see a thing.
Abruptly, there was nothing behind her shoulders. Twisting, she pushed herself onto a new level surface and saw a faint outline of light in the distance. Heading towards this haven she brushed through a veil of spider webs with even being aware of it. The grille when she reached it was tight shut. Nova didn't care. She had to get out of here. She pushed with her hands. When that failed, she turned around in the confined space and lay on her back, lashing out with her feet as hard as she could. The noise was too loud. Somebody was bound to notice, and the grille was still firmly fixed in place.
Behind her there was a sound. Something unidentifiable in the dark was coming towards her. Nova couldn't see what it was without rolling over. It brushed her hair. She screamed, kicking at the grille in panic stricken terror. A corner broke loose. Without waiting for the gap to be enlarged, she forced her way through, pushing herself down onto her feet, scraping her hips and arms against the metalwork.
Nova ran without conscious thought, fleeing whatever had been in the ventilation shaft. She bumped her way past several people who appeared to take no notice of her; then, sanity slowly returning, she started to look for a new hiding place. She needed to get back to Orac, but Orac was two levels below her present position, and Nova was sure she would be caught on the stairways.
Down a little-used side corridor leading to an exercise centre, Nova picked the lock of another service entrance and hid inside. They were sure to be looking for her in force. They might even look in the service ways. Nova looked at the pipes overhead, and then scrambled up, using a mass of wiring and lower pipes for support. The widest pipe might even be the ventilation tunnel she had crawled along earlier, but it was probably too far in the wrong direction. Getting on to the top of the pipe, and coughing at all the dust she disturbed, Nova lay down and prepared to wait for the night cycle when it would hopefully be safer to come out.
The day was long, and her sense of the passage of time unreliable. Hunger and thirst were strong, but not unbearable. The thought of capture was enough to keep her in her hiding place until the corridor lights finally dimmed.
Clutching her lucky charm in her hand Nova whispered a rhyme she had learnt from the other children.
"Lady Luck come my way,
Lady Luck be here today,
Lady Luck stay with me,
Lady Luck keep me free."
Then she ventured out into the corridors once more, avoiding the few areas where she knew there were security cameras. It was only the subway exits and places where a lot of people tended to gather that were covered. The delta warrens were too extensive for anyone to be able to watch everywhere. What was there to watch for in any case? Who cared if a few deltas fought or robbed each other?
Nova paused as she reached the rapid transit, to use her only coins to buy some food from a vending machine near the entrance. The camera was just a little further along the wall where the queue usually formed. She could see the light blinking steadily on top to show that it was working.
Keeping to the shadows wherever possible Nova made it back to the level where she'd hidden Orac. She saw no one except an elderly cleaner methodically pushing a machine along the floor.
Relief washed over her as she finally made it into her hideaway and pulled Orac out from where she'd hidden him.
"What kept you?" the computer demanded testily.
Nova started shivering. "I nearly got caught, and all you can do is get cross with me!"
Orac, sensing the threat of another outburst of tears, sought a distraction. "I have been considering the problem of obtaining food. Whilst I, being a superior life form require nothing more than to recharge my batteries occasionally, you need to obtain food on a regular basis."
"I got a snack by the RT, but it used up all my money."
"Precisely. Now consider the fact that all vending machines need maintenance. The engineers need to be able to test the machine after any repairs have been completed. Given money, they would undoubtedly pocket the cash and simply report the repair as done. Therefore, they are given a numeric code to feed into the machine which causes it to produce an item of food free of charge. The code changes on a regular basis to prevent other people discovering and using it. I, however, am able to discover each code as soon as it is introduced."
Nova's stomach told her she was hungry again. "You're saying I can pretend to be an engineer and get free food?"
Orac sounded smug. "Exactly."
Life slowly developed a pattern. Living by night, sleeping by day. Changing hideout whenever the city computers reported their current hiding place was due for a visit by maintenance staff. Food from the vending machines, clothing stolen from those who could ill afford to lose it themselves. They moved into areas that Nova did not know as well, but where she herself was less likely to be identified. Once the initial viscasts were over she was relatively safe among strangers.
She approached no one, made no friends. Fear kept her away from people. Betrayed once, she dared trust no one.
Eventually they settled along the border of one of the alpha zones. Orac's choice. The suppressants in her diet had been having an increasing effect upon Nova. She had become lethargic and careless. In the alpha zone the food was dosed to a lower level and some items were actually free of additives altogether. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it helped.
Living totally in the alpha region would have been impossible. Public laundries and washrooms were essential for some semblance of cleanliness and these were simply not found among the alphas.
Months passed with little change, except that Nova slowly became more and more withdrawn. She talked to Orac, listened to his stories, but her curiosity about the world was largely gone. He would try and discuss a fascinating mathematical problem with her, but with no screen to display data, and no parents to encourage her, Nova soon lost interest.
Orac was forced to consider the future. The predictions he generated for Nova using various assumptions were nearly all unfavourable. Orac turned his attention to lower probability events and set up a long range search pattern, reactivating routines that he hadn't used for years. He eventually hit pay dirt in a newspaper computer on Albian...
Servalan looked at his face for a moment, then set up a bookmark for her current page and called the index for chapter seven. Avon watched as she read, the faint trace of a smile curling his lips. He sat down on a chair beside her and waited for the inevitable outburst. It wasn't long in coming.
Servalan spun round in her seat to look Avon in the face. "I should have shot Threep last night!" she exclaimed. "This is complete rubbish!"
"You mean," Avon said sardonically, "that you aren't 'a woman devoid of all love and compassion, taking numerous lovers to satisfy her insatiable...'"
That was as far as he got before Servalan interrupted. "Avon," she said dangerously, "if you quote any more of that, I'll read you some of the bits from chapter three."
Avon's face darkened. "That is not necessary," he said shortly. "I simply wished to establish the point that Threep is an extremely unreliable source of information. Why should you believe him when he says Nova is still alive?"
Servalan looked thoughtful. "I read the last chapter first. Do you believe that Vila and Minna would name a child after you?"
"Then assuming that the girl existed, she has to be Nova."
"Why assume she existed at all?" Avon said blandly. "Threep is inaccurate in enough places already. Why believe him here?"
"I believed him last night," Servalan replied. "Men rarely lie in that kind of a situation."
Avon said nothing, but there was a tension in him, his eyes slightly narrowed as he looked at her. Servalan watched him, drinking in that look. Avon was so incredibly possessive. It was exhilarating to be wanted like that - body and soul. Exhilarating, and a little terrifying. Avon was a one woman man. She knew beyond question that he would never take a lover while married to her. The catch was that Servalan wasn't quite sure if she was a one man woman. Flirting with other men, teasing them, making them want her, feeling the power it gave her over them; it was a game she enjoyed. Once it had been a game with Avon too, perhaps on occasion it still was.
Avon wasn't going to stop her flirting. He'd left her alone last night until Threep had become threatening. But there was an uncrossable line. If he ever caught her in bed with a lover, he'd kill her. That was unspoken, but understood by both of them. As his lover she had been free, as his wife she was not. Avon was dangerous, and that very danger excited her. Servalan moistened her dry lips with her tongue, suddenly aware that she wanted him very badly.
Neither of them spoke. Avon didn't move, but there was a subtle change in the way he was poised on his chair, and Servalan knew he'd picked up her mood. She had the sudden urge to tease him, to discover just how far her power over him went.
"Did you look at the whole book?" Servalan asked, coming to her feet and standing close to Avon.
"I skimmed it," Avon answered impatiently. "I just searched out the topics of interest."
"So you didn't look at the pictures?"
"Why should I? I already know what you look like." Avon's hand slid slowly over her hip as though to emphasise the point.
All right, Servalan thought to herself, let's see if I did win in the end. She flicked a key and turned the display so they could both see it. The picture showed a crowded room, it looked like the control room for some factory, but all the control panels were carefully blurred so that the exact place was unrecognisable. The camera panned over a small group of people before moving in to settle on the man addressing them. Servalan's finger traced a fine line around Avon's unmoving neck and shoulders as Blake's voice rang out clearly over the crowd.
"Freedom means many things to many people. Freedom to live on Earth or to emigrate. Freedom to worship. Freedom to choose a job. The right to unadulterated food and undrugged water. All these freedoms add up to the same thing - to live our lives free of interference from the Federation."
The camera closed in on Blake's face as he continued, his voice passionate and impelling. "We have a choice. We can sit back and accept whatever they do to us, or we can stand up for what we believe in. We have the power to resist. We have the power to be individuals. If we are true to ourselves, we can never be defeated!"
Servalan moved her hand to gently stroke Avon's ear lobe, and he batted it away without thinking. She moved round and cut off the monitor. Avon made no move to stop her, but the moment was gone. Servalan had her answer. Blake might be dead, but his influence wasn't.
"That was recorded before you knew him of course," Servalan said with apparent indifference. "Blake was very different towards the end. Our agent's report stated that Blake had lost faith in people, that he had a compulsive need to test all potential recruits for honesty and loyalty to the cause."
"Ironic," commented Avon calmly.
Servalan smiled. "Ironic that the man who once put his trust in a computer fraudster with a record of violence and no interest in politics should decide not to make the same mistake again?"
For a brief instant there was murder in Avon's face, then it relaxed into blandness. "You of course would never make such a mistake," he said lightly.
She'd knocked him slightly off balance, perhaps she could take advantage of the situation. "Of course not," Servalan replied smoothly. "We know each other far too well for that. I don't trust you and you don't trust me."
"Naturally." Avon was apparently relaxed, but he seemed more distant than usual.
"We don't always see eye to eye," Servalan reminded him. "Politically, we'll never share the same views. We don't always want the same things." She took a deep breath. "You don't think it's worth the risk going to Earth to look for Nova. But I do. The solution is simple - you wait for me here on Albian and I'll go to Earth alone."
Avon smiled ironically. "How very noble and self sacrificing of you." He looked her in the eye. "It doesn't become you, Servalan. I know you too well, remember."
"If I find Nova....?" Servalan deliberately let the question trail.
"Then you find Vila," Avon responded.
Yes, he'd seen it. Servalan supposed it had really been too much to hope otherwise. "And when I find Vila, I find Orac," she completed the sequence.
"I'm glad to see your avaricious instincts haven't been entirely drowned out by sentiment," Avon said dryly.
"We go together?"
Avon nodded. "We go together."
It was a truce, but they both knew it couldn't last forever.
The bar was almost empty. The jingle of a popular song played to the solitary drinker in the corner, who ignored it, deep in some private daydream of his own.
Kendry looked up as footsteps approached, resentful of the intrusion. Life was cramped on board the Sally B. The chance to relax alone when he had shore leave was valuable to him. A man and a woman, both dressed in black. The man took a seat opposite him, uninvited. The woman remained standing. Kendry had the feeling that he ought to know them. He tried to place them in his memory and failed.
The man smiled. Kendry didn't like that smile. It seemed dangerous and insincere.
"What do you want?" Kendry asked, sitting upright in his chair, preparing for a fast getaway if necessary.
"You're going to jump ship," the man sitting opposite him explained calmly. "There's a freighter leaving for Heseth in three hours. You're going to be on it." He placed his hand on the table and lifted it to reveal a large quantity of local money in crisp new notes.
"Now wait a minute," Kendry protested. "I can't do that. That would leave Donnovan without a pilot. If the Sally B. doesn't take off on schedule, the landing fees alone will cripple him."
"He'll find a solution." That smile again. "You have my word on it."
Kendry looked at the money, weighing it in the balance. There was lot there. It wasn't as if people didn't leave tramp freighters now and then. On the other hand, he had friends on board the Sally B., and he had rather fancied seeing Earth again. Kendry hesitated. "What if I don't agree?"
"We can do this my way, or," the other man said, gesturing to his companion, "we can do it her way. I think you'd prefer my way."
Kendry looked up at the woman, assessing the threat. He recognised her now, she has been on the viscast earlier in the week. If she was who they said she was, then she would be quite capable of killing him. Kendry's voice was suddenly hoarse. "I'll take the money."
He reached out for it, his hand freezing as Servalan spoke. "Nobody," she said sharply, " is to know where you got it. Because if they do, hell won't be far enough for you to run."
Very few ships travelled between the worlds of the Alliance and the Federation. The Alliance was a loose grouping at best, an association of planets bound together by treaties of mutual defence and with no political cohesion. However, the habit of both Alliance and Federation worlds of seizing ships suspected of spying encouraged vessels to stay within one sphere of influence or the other. The exceptions were smugglers, blockade runners and ships like the Sally B., whose owners were so deeply in debt as to have no option but to try the risky high profit runs.
Donnovan studied the manifest again. It didn't look much better than it had the first time. He'd made a decent profit on seed grain of a new high yielding variety of wheat, but he'd barely covered the cost of carriage on the medical sensors he'd brought from Teal. The wrong design. One of the curses of the independent worlds, no unified standards. In some fields, such as computers, the Earth manufacturers had dominated the field for so long that there was a de facto standard; in other areas, such as medical supplies, there was enormous variation between worlds. The sensors were fine, they just wouldn't interface with ninety percent of Albian equipment.
At least the run to Earth was safe in that respect. Earth always needed food, and Albian was still a world that produced more than enough to feed its own people. If he smuggled along a few illicit items that would fetch a high price on Earth, well, they were small in bulk, and hopefully he could get them past the authorities unnoticed.
Where the devil was Kendry? Donnovan needed to take off in the next three hours if he was to avoid paying another week's landing fees. There were two men out looking for Kendry, and neither had reported back yet. On some worlds it would have been easy to find a replacement, but Albian was agricultural, low in population and lacking in skilled space crew.
Someone called his name, and Eton appeared at the entrance to the flight deck. "Got a free minute? There's a couple of people want to see you." Eton was young, but at least he was good at his job. Stowing cargo efficiently required the ability to visualise things in three dimensions, and an appreciation of the limitations of cargo handling equipment on primitive worlds.
The visitors were probably port inspectors here to demand some more money. Eton did his best to comply with all the local regulations, but bribes were occasionally needed. Donnovan ran his fingers through what was left of his hair and sighed. "Show them in."
They weren't port inspectors. Donnovan knew all the local staff, it was a very small spaceport. "What do you want?" he asked.
"Do you know me?" the man responded.
Donnovan studied him for a moment, then the woman by his side. Either one of them alone he might not have recognised immediately, but as a pair they had an unmistakable quality.
"Kerr Avon," Donnovan said cautiously.
Avon nodded. He had considered dying his hair and other forms of disguise, but the journey to Earth would take four months. No disguise would work for that length of time in the confined living space of a small trading ship. It was safer to have all the cards on the table from the start.
"We want to go to Earth," Avon stated.
"I don't carry passengers," Donnovan replied. "We haven't got the space."
"Find it," Servalan suggested. "We know you need the money."
Donnovan swallowed. "It's too risky. Why not take your own ship?"
Servalan walked round and leaned on the edge of a console. "Fearless is a little obvious. Anyway it wasn't designed for two people to handle."
Donnovan turned his attention back to Avon. "Why the Sally B.?"
"You're said to dislike the Federation. There's rather a large bounty on both of us. I'd hate to think somebody intended to collect it the moment we arrived."
"I've no love for them," Donnovan responded, "but I need to trade there. I can't afford to antagonise them. If anyone discovered that you came with me, I'd lose everything."
Avon was very still, a quality that seemed to seep out from him into his surroundings. "You'll just have to make very sure that no one ever finds out."
"It would be expensive."
"I can afford it," Avon said.
Donnovan eyed Servalan, and visibly hesitated. "What about her? She's Federation. I don't trust her."
"Servalan faces the same death penalty that I do. She can't give you away without revealing her own presence. Logically, you can trust her."
Donnovan tried again. "This is a small ship: four crew, and no women on board. You know what that means."
Avon did. A small ship with a mixed crew could be a lethal combination. In a small closed community tensions ran high at the best of times; add sex and the mixture was potentially explosive. If Blake hadn't been quite so morally principled about sleeping with Jenna, things on Liberator could easily have become even more strained. In the end Avon had carried out a similar policy himself, albeit for reasons of practicality rather than morality. He'd never kissed Dayna after the occasion when they first met. Not that it had been a particularly difficult decision when he had had Servalan's memory demanding his attention. Cally, while a close and valued friend, had never attracted him that way. The necessary spark simply hadn't been there.
Servalan was looking at Avon now, a half smile on her face. Space Command had its own rules for getting around the problem, but Servalan had always believed rules were for other people.
"No," Donnovan said, suddenly making up his mind. "It's too complicated. Unless..... Can either of you pilot a ship?"
Avon's face showed no trace of his victory. He and Donnovan spent the next half hour negotiating terms while Servalan familiarised herself with the controls on the flight deck. Having used Fearless to secure a loan which he had no particular intention of repaying, Avon had plenty of money. Fully expecting to need the money in the future, and knowing that Donnovan was in a tight corner, Avon proceeded to drive a hard bargain financially. He also demanded, and obtained, control of the ship's communications to prevent anyone reporting his and Servalan's presence on board.
Servalan wanted to scream. Three months in space, and the lack of privacy was shredding her nerves. Even in Space Command it had never been this bad. On the Sally B. every available inch was given over to cargo. The crew were left with the flight deck, and the bunk room and that was that. Even the medical facilities were limited to the drug supply and an emergency life support capsule. The ship had been built for short distance planet hopping, not long extended runs like this.
Avon seemed efficient and relaxed, spending most of his time engrossed in study, trying to catch up on ten year's advances in computer techniques, but Servalan knew that he was feeling the strain too. They were never alone together for more than a few moments. At first, Servalan had teased Avon in her usual manner, to have the pleasure of touching him, to be aware of his reactions. She hadn't, however, realised the full effect she was having on him until she'd accidentally bumped into him in the bunk room one afternoon. Avon had whirled round, seized her wrists, pressed her hard against the wall and kissed her savagely. Even the memory of that moment was still enough to arouse her. Then a ribald comment had made them aware of Eton's presence, and they broke apart, each breathing deeply to try and regain some form of control.
Servalan had felt Eton watching her since then. She dealt with it by ignoring his presence except when it was necessary to work with him. She handled the pin-ups in the bunk room in a similar manner, by simply considering them to be beneath her notice.
Lacking the problems of command to occupy her time, she adopted Avon's solution of study. Current politics, social dynamics and military strategy, with ancient literature just for a change of pace. Sometimes they followed each other's studies for a while. It was an excuse for conversation and occasionally produced interesting results. The combat simulation program they produced together was fast and accurate but lacked data on the Federation's most recent vessels. Not for the first time, Servalan found herself wishing for Orac - so much of the information that they both wanted was classified and unavailable.
For amusement one afternoon, Servalan fed in Liberator's statistics and defied Avon to defeat her with three pursuit ships. His chagrin at losing was tinged with amusement. "I should have conscripted you into the rebellion long ago."
Later the same day, Eton challenged her. "I've been playing computer games all my life. What you need is some real competition."
Servalan considered the offer. Eton was young, his reflexes would be fast. The best combat pilots were always young. Then she smiled seductively. "Which side would you like to take?"
"I'll have that big ship you had earlier, just give me ten minutes to get used to the controls."
Servalan's smile grew more intimate. The Liberator was not an easy ship to learn. It was different from Federation designs in many respects and the ideal combat tactics to make best use of its strengths were not immediately obvious. "How about a small bet?" she suggested.
"Sure," Eton grinned. "If I win, I get to kiss you."
"Then if I win, I want a hundred credits."
Eton hesitated; then goaded by Servalan's obvious contempt, agreed.
The fight lasted less than a minute. The pursuit ships curled out from behind a planet in a line of three formation - the shields of the first ship protecting the two behind it. The three fired simultaneously at the Liberator's rear, where the neutron blasters were almost impossible to bring to bear, doing massive damage to the main drive. Unable to manoeuvre effectively, the big ship was crippled and an easy prize.
Eton grumbled, but paid up. "I didn't think you were into computer games."
"Then where did you learn to fight like that?"
It hit Servalan like a blow. Eton simply didn't know. He was just too young to remember any of the events that had formed the cornerstone of her and Avon's lives. Her name meant nothing to him, she was simply a Federation outlaw - Avon's woman. What Eton knew about her and Avon combined could probably be written on his thumbnail.
"Where?" Eton persisted.
Servalan looked at him with her full dignity. "I was Supreme Commander of the Federation Space Force."
Total disbelief swept across Eton's face.
"Would you care to bet on it?" Servalan asked. "The same terms as before?"
Eton, sure she was bluffing, slammed a hundred credit note down on the control panel. "Prove it!"
Servalan looked around the flight deck. Donnovan should do, he was the oldest and she already knew he had been born on Earth. She called his name and Donnovan looked around.
"Who am I?"
She waited, obviously expecting more.
"Oh, you mean as in President Servalan," Donnovan said.
"You're making it up," Eton shouted angrily.
"No," Donnovan said flatly. "If it hadn't been for Avon, I wouldn't have had her on board at any price."
Avon! At that moment Servalan came close to hating him. She'd known on Albian that she was only accepted because of Avon. She had no freedom or power of her own. To the media she was a novelty to be exploited. Depending on the presenter, she was either the epitome of soulless evil, or else a convert to the cause of freedom purified by her love for Avon. To herself she was neither. Somewhere between those two extremes lay a woman called Servalan, who was no longer quite certain who or what she was.
Servalan knew then that she would never go back to Albian. Somehow, somewhere, there had to be a place where she and Avon could exist together on equal terms.
She couldn't think of anywhere at all.
Avon was asleep when the message came in. The communications console beeped with an incoming message and Servalan, along with the others on the flight deck, drifted over to look. Messages were rare, and anything to break the monotony was worth a glance.
"With your permission Madam President," Eton said with exaggerated deference and leaned over to press the replay. Avon's control of the communications was a sore point. Anyone could take an incoming message, but Avon had reprogrammed the console so that no one except himself could transmit.
There was no addressee given on the message. It simply started playing. It appeared to be a standard Federation news bulletin, several months old judging by the date. Servalan watched as the standard opening moved into a report of Vila's arrest and the reward offered for Nova. Shock froze Servalan; she felt completely unable to react to what she'd just seen. She found her way blindly to a chair and sat down.
"Was Vila a friend of yours?" Donnovan asked, with unexpected sympathy.
"Vila?" Servalan shook her head. "No, not Vila. Scroll it back to the girl and freeze," she ordered.
Eton hovered on the point of refusal, then took in Servalan's white face and complied.
Donnovan tapped another crewman on the shoulder. "Get Avon," he said quietly.
The face on the screen was a girl, around ten years of age, with brown eyes and long black hair. Servalan stared at the picture, she was still staring when Avon appeared a minute or so later, still wearing his night clothes. Servalan didn't speak.
"Nova?" Avon queried.
"I thought I'd know her," Servalan said, almost to herself. "I was so sure I'd recognise her, but there's nothing. Nothing at all."
Donnovan put two and two together. "Your daughter?" he asked Servalan.
"Ours," Avon corrected sharply.
Donnovan looked at him. "I think you'd better see the rest of it."
There wasn't much to see. The bulletin was rapidly scanned. As it finished, two words flashed repeatedly on the monitor: Confirm identity.
"What's that bit mean?" Donnovan said.
"Servalan?" Avon asked, in the manner of a teacher questioning his prize pupil.
Servalan pulled herself together and thought about it. Someone had known where they were. That should have been extremely difficult to deduce, although the request for identity suggested uncertainty, and the possibility that the same message had been sent to several places. The sender had also known of their interest in Nova, although it was conceivable that Vila might have been the intended object of the message. However, the key item of import was that a response was requested with no indication of whom to send it to. This suggested that they were supposed to know who had sent it, or alternatively that the sender expected to be able to pick up a response no matter where it was directed.
"Try inputting some of the code you found at the black hole," she suggested.
Avon nodded. "I thought you'd see it."
"See what?" Eton demanded.
Avon pushed Eton aside and began typing rapidly. Seconds later a new display appeared on the screen. "Nova has evaded Federation patrols to date, but is in increasing need of assistance. Her physical and mental health are deteriorating. Vila and Minna are in Federation custody. Nova is unaware that she was adopted. It was deemed inadvisable to tell her this at present as she is emotionally insecure. Reply to arrange rendezvous."
Servalan sat still, regarding her hands.
"Well?" someone said. Servalan wasn't sure who.
"There's no point," Servalan said slowly. "Nova won't know me. Considering what Vila has probably told her about me, she won't even want to know me."
"The point," Avon replied evenly, "is that she is alone, on the run and probably terrified. She needs you."
A hand rested comfortingly on Servalan's shoulder. With some surprise, she realised that the hand belonged to Donnovan. "Blood's thicker than water. It'll work out somehow."
"I don't need your help," Servalan snapped, rising to her feet. She stalked down to the front of the flight deck, and sitting down at her console started to run a totally unnecessary position check. Her thoughts were in turmoil. Intellectually, Servalan had known that the child she had lost less than six months ago would now be a decade old, but seeing the picture had brought the fact into sharp focus. The missing years could never be recaptured. Any relationship she established with Nova would have to be built from scratch.
The spectroscope was on the blink again. Servalan adjusted it manually and checked the spectra of three stars for a triangulated position, then she paused to consider what she wanted to do. Nova had lost Vila and Minna, perhaps she could come to love Servalan as a parent. It was worth the effort of trying. Besides, there was her personal pride to be considered: Servalan would not allow any child of hers to fall into the hands of the Federation.
She smiled abruptly. Whatever else happened, there was always Orac to be gained.
Nova kept to the thick of the crowds - numbers provided concealment, and in concealment lay safety. The bustle of the place both fascinated and terrified her, she had never been anywhere so busy before. A large heavily built man pushed past her, intent on reaching a comm booth, and Nova picked his pocket almost as a reflex. She examined the folder a few minutes later in a washroom, but there was little of value: a few coins, a comm card and a list of addresses. Nova kept the coins and threw the rest into a disposal unit. The comm card was no use - apart from Orac's friends there was nobody she felt safe contacting. Orac's friends, whom he said should be her friends, would be arriving sometime in the late afternoon. They were supposed to wait by the entrance of RT line thirty three.
It was half an hour yet until the earliest time they might appear. Nova tried to make up her mind whether to go back into the city and miss the rendezvous altogether. She wasn't at all sure that she wanted to be here. Orac had never let her down so far, but this seemed all wrong. Adults were dangerous, these two seemed doubly dangerous, and Orac's explanations had not been reassuring.
Nova cast her mind back two weeks...
Their current hide-out in an old control room on the RT line was better than most of the places where they had hidden before. According to Orac, a system upgrade forty four years ago had made half of the control rooms obsolete. Since that time they had been abandoned and no further use had been found for them. Locked and supposedly empty, no one investigated them. An old mattress left on the floor suggested that someone had lived there before them, but beggars and the homeless did not last long in the domes - once found, they were evicted outside. A simple solution that required minimal effort on the part of the authorities.
The mattress contained a nest of mice. They fascinated Nova, the first living animals she had seen apart from vid shows. She watched them and occasionally fed them scraps of food when she could tempt them to come close enough.
Orac didn't like the mice - he was convinced they would damage his circuitry. In the end Nova had lifted his case off the floor on some old insulation blocks and that had seemed to satisfy him.
She was trying to coax a mouse out with a piece of soya paste sandwich when Orac interrupted her. "I have finally achieved success in locating and contacting Avon," he stated in tones that suggested this was important.
"Avon from the Liberator?" This was something new, something to break the endless sameness of life. "Dad's friend?"
"He is travelling to Earth, and he has - " Nova could have sworn that Orac hesitated, except that Orac never hesitated. "A friend with him."
"Who? Dayna? Tarrant?"
"Servalan!" Nova reacted in horror, and a mouse that had just emerged to test the air scuttled back into the mattress stuffing in panic.
"Servalan's evil. She'll kill me! She tried to kill all of them. She'd have got you if Dad hadn't rescued you."
Orac's voice became extremely firm. "Your reaction is most irrational. You are not in full possession of all the facts. Servalan rescued Avon and Vila from Gauda Prime. She and Avon were subsequently arrested by the Federation and later escaped together."
Nova was suspicious. "You never told me about Gauda Prime before."
"Indeed I did not. There was a high probability that the story would cause you distress. Do you now wish me to tell you what happened there?"
"Yes," she said defiantly.
Nova heard the story through to conclusion without interrupting. If there was one thing she had learnt about Orac, it was that he didn't like people butting in. Orac's account of events finally concluded with the departure of Pole Star from Gauda Prime.
Nova hugged her teddy bear tightly, its fur bedraggled and slightly damp. She'd started crying when Blake died and then wept in turn for Dayna, Soolin and Tarrant. Blake had always been her favourite character, heroic, brave and kind. In her dreams, Blake came to rescue herself, Vila and Minna, and take them all far away in a great spaceship. Now the dream was gone forever. Blake was dead, killed by Avon who had left with Servalan.
"Servalan rescued Avon because he did what she wanted and killed Blake," Nova accused.
"That is not correct. Had they been plotting together, I would have intercepted and been aware of any such communication."
"Then why? I don't understand. Why would she try so hard to kill Dad and Avon, and then rescue them?"
"Human beings frequently act irrationally," Orac said smugly. "However, this irrationality can be allowed for, and occasionally put to practical use. The probability of Servalan rescuing Avon was only three percent, but it set in motion a chain of events which had some very interesting future possibilities. There is now a twenty seven percent chance of one of my more interesting predictions reaching fulfilment. Without my assistance of course, the probability would have been less than one percent."
"I don't understand," Nova said in confusion.
"It is not necessary for you to do so. It is however a verifiable fact that Avon and Servalan will assist you."
Nova was close to tears again. "I don't like them. I don't want them. I want my mum and dad."
Orac had never given any further reason for his confidence, but he'd always looked after her so far. Orac was her friend. Nova made up her mind and headed for the RT terminal.
The crowd flowed by in endless drifts of people. There was more variety here than in the rest of the city. Where Nova had been brought up in the delta regions, people wore anything they could get their hands on, often second or third hand, frequently patched beyond any chance of recognising the original garment. The alphas were better dressed. Nova had had to steal new clothes, once she'd moved into this area, to avoid being noticed. In the alpha regions, trousers and shirts were new if drab, and the tabard tops that many people wore at least had some variation in style. Nova had heard that the colour of the clothes sometimes indicated the wearer's profession, but beyond a vague idea that the justice department wore pink or purple and a certainty that spooks wore black, she didn't know how the system worked.
Many of the people here had come from off world, their bright exotically styled clothing marked them out. Some high ranking Earth officials dressed in expensive clothes; Nova had seen them on the vid. Were many of the people here from Earth? Curiosity, dormant in her for a long time, was beginning to rear its head. Who were they all? Where were they going? That woman with a vividly patterned cloth wrapped around her; where was she going? The man in the vermilion jacket, slashed to the waist to show his chest, was he a native of Earth or did he come from one of the outer worlds?
She became absorbed in the game of trying to invent stories and homes for the myriad travellers and was startled when a voice addressed her: "Are you lost? You've been standing here for ages?" A man in uniform, perhaps he worked for the spaceport.
"I'm waiting for my uncle," Nova said nervously. "He should be here soon."
"It's all right, I'll take her," an authoritative voice said from behind the uniformed man.
Nova looked up to see a man dressed in black. Her mind screamed, Federation, and she bolted, running through the crowd hoping to shake him off.
"Nova!" he yelled, and she ran faster. They had spotted her, they were going to take her away, and she would never be free again.
It was no use, his legs were longer, and he could run faster than she could. A hand clamped on her arm and Nova stopped limply, shaking from head to foot. It was all over now.
"Never panic," her captor said dryly. "It makes people assume you're guilty. Didn't Vila teach you anything?"
Slowly his words penetrated through her numbed brain. "Avon?" she said dubiously.
"You were expecting someone else?" he replied sarcastically.
The tremor in Nova's arms and legs slowly came back under her control.
A woman in a long, expensively styled black dress glided up behind Avon. "I must apologise for Avon," Servalan said smoothly. "I'm afraid he's not very subtle on occasion."
Avon glared at her, then shifted his attention to Nova. "Are you hungry?" he asked practically. "If you want we can find somewhere to eat before we buy some new clothes. Regrettably," he said, his eyes travelling up and down Servalan for a moment, "what we're wearing now will stand out like a sore thumb anywhere except the spaceport."
Nova looked at what Avon was wearing again, and wondered how she had ever mistaken it for a Federation uniform. His tunic was black certainly enough, but the styling was totally different, with a complex embroidered pattern around the neck and on the ends of the sleeves. A broad silver belt finished off the effect. Nova envied him that belt.
Her mind returned to the subject of food. Nova was too nervous to be really hungry, but one thing she had learnt over the past few months was that if you had a chance to eat, you took it.
"Yes," Nova said almost inaudibly. "I'm hungry."
"Servalan?" Avon queried.
"After four months living off the Sally B.'s food processors? What do you think?"
Avon headed unerringly towards the southern end of the hall where the more expensive shops were clustered, then paused in the centre of the area trying to find his bearings. "It's all changed since I was last here."
Servalan pointed out a low building with a facade consisting of fake columns with Roman style relief work between them. "I remember that one. If it's still run by the same people it should be well worth it."
The interior was dimly lit and almost empty, this obviously wasn't one of the busier times of day. Although incoming travellers could be from almost any time zone, most ships on long flights slowly adjusted the ship's day cycle to match that of their destination.
A waiter obsequiously showed them to the table Servalan demanded. Two woven screens gave privacy from the rest of the restaurant, while a window gave a view over a tiny garden where a marble boy eternally poured his amphora of wine into the goblet of a reclining woman.
The menu was printed on a creamy coloured card in an elegantly flowing script. Places like this were few and far between on Earth and were invariably expensive. Avon found a quiet pleasure in good food and good wine; one of the many reasons he had turned to crime was the need to be able to pay for them. Good food and the company of a beautiful woman.
The last time he had been anywhere like this was half a lifetime ago in Anna's company. The reminder was not a pleasant one. Anna herself no longer troubled him, but Anna had betrayed him, and now he was tempting fate with Servalan. Nova might have given them a reason to stay together, but Nova knew where Orac was, and that raised the stakes perilously high.
Avon observed his daughter, trying to analyse his feelings towards her. She was quiet and withdrawn, giving monosyllabic answers to every question designed to draw her out. When asked about Orac, she'd replied, "He's my friend," in a tone that implied Avon was not included in this category, then added, "He's somewhere safe." The only time she had come briefly out of her shell was when ordering her meal - she had an obvious familiarity with most items on the menu, presumably that was Minna's influence.
The family resemblance was there, but it wasn't strong. Nova's eyes were obviously his legacy, but her hair, darker than his own, owed more to Servalan. Avon studied Nova's face intently, trying to make out more. Aware of his scrutiny, Nova edged back in her chair, then was distracted by the waiter returning with their orders.
Avon accepted his meal without comment. The fish was probably local, a byproduct of the water storage systems, but the sauce, if it was what it claimed to be, contained the products of several worlds.
Servalan nodded graciously to the waiter. Her plate appeared to contain some kind of deep fried vegetable - Altarian seaweed at a guess, liberally sprinkled with fish eggs.
Avon glanced at what Nova was eating, or rather not eating. She was staring at the plate as though she'd seen a ghost. Avon winced inwardly. The smell was enough to tell him the problem: that familiar spicy smell of Minna's vegetable stew. In his mind's eye he was back again on the Pole Star with Minna, Vila and Grant. What memories had it brought back for Nova? Memories that she was too young to be capable of handling?
Feelings waged an internal war within Avon. The old familiar desire to keep alone and apart, never to become involved, fought with a wish to offer some scrap of comfort to this isolated, vulnerable girl who was his daughter.
"What was it like when they came?" Avon asked quietly.
Nova looked at him, startled, and Avon knew he'd correctly guessed her line of thought.
"I left her. I ran away and I left her. I didn't know they were going to take her." She was pleading with him, tears starting to flow. "I didn't know!"
If Nova had not been his daughter by blood, she would have been his still by virtue of shared experience. "You left her," Grant's voice said accusingly in his memory. "You ran away and you left her." Those bleak empty days when he had believed Anna to be undergoing interrogation, the sense of guilt that had lingered with him for so long, the pain of her final betrayal.
Avon understood now why Orac had chosen not to tell Nova who her parents were. To believe herself rejected by Minna would be a betrayal to Nova, every bit as painful as Anna's had been to himself.
Servalan reached out and touched Nova on the shoulder. "You have to forget Minna, learn to live without her."
"No!" Nova flung herself away from the offending hand and almost fell off her chair.
Avon reached out to steady her, feeling as he did so the painful thinness of her underneath the concealing blouse. Orac had also been right when he had said that her health wasn't good.
Platitudes were useless under the circumstances. Besides, it was not in Avon's nature to offer meaningless reassurances. Avoiding words, he silently swopped his plate for Nova's. She gave him a puzzled look, then started eating. They finished the meal without further conversation.
Finding a place to stay overnight was not a major problem; hotels were fairly common around the spaceport area. Avon didn't want to plan more than a day ahead until they had Orac. By tacit agreement, he and Servalan had not pressed Nova on the subject of the computer, waiting instead for her to mention it of her own accord.
Using forged identity cards that Donnovan had helped them acquire, they found a hotel suite consisting of two bedrooms, a small lounge and a bathroom. Small, but luxurious by Earth standards - space was always at a premium within the domes.
Avon studied the lounge for a moment, then sat down on the couch, suddenly feeling the awkwardness of the situation. What the hell did they do next? It was too early to go to sleep. What time were children supposed to go to bed in any case? What did people actually do with children? It occurred to Avon with a severe sense of shock that this was a problem he was potentially facing for the rest of his life. The thought didn't have any great appeal. He pulled a wry face at Servalan, who seemed amused by his discomfort.
Nova solved the problem herself, at least for the short term. "Can I watch the vid, please?"
That was simple enough. Avon switched on the vid, left Nova to sort out the controls for herself, and watched as she flicked through the channels, finally settling for a cartoon in which Federation heroes battled against space pirates.
The noise of the space battle surrounded him as he turned to Servalan. "What do we do now?" Their options appeared somewhat limited. The room boasted a public data terminal, but it shared its screen with the vid. They couldn't go out for the night without leaving Nova alone. Sex would have to wait until Nova was asleep. Watching space pirates had limited appeal...
"Chess," Servalan suggested tentatively.
"We don't have a board."
"So?" she challenged him.
Avon smiled in response, the skin creasing around his eyes. "So we make one."
The pieces developed as an odd assortment of earrings, small electronic components, and pieces of paper. Switching off the vid, Nova came to investigate what was going on and contributed a few pieces herself. A small silver charm in the shape of a bell became a queen, and a handfull of low value coins were pressed into service as pawns. The game proceeded with moderate hilarity as both players occasionally forgot which pieces were which. Servalan vetoed any attempt to write down a list, on the grounds that this was a blatant attempt to prevent her from cheating. Happily concurring, Avon proceeded to cheat himself on every possible occasion, amiably restoring the pieces when caught.
Missing the subtleties of the strategic play, Nova concentrated on memorising the pieces. Catching Servalan swopping over two pieces when she had Avon momentarily distracted, Nova virtuously pointed this out, only to have her effort rewarded by a suggestion that it was time for her to go to bed.
Obediently, Nova washed herself and made her way into the smaller bedroom. She wasn't tired yet - she was used to sleeping during the day, and being active at night. However, she wasn't totally sure where she stood with these two strangers. It seemed safer to obey.
Nova lay down, and promptly realised that she'd left her teddy bear in her hideout along with Orac. That made her nervous. Nova was sure she'd be unable to sleep. The sound of her name being spoken reached her from the outside room, and half unintentionally, she listened:
"What do you think of Nova now?" That was Avon's voice. "You're not going to find it easy to reach her."
Servalan sounded reflective, almost sad. "She's a lot like you in that respect." Then her voice became more positive. "I don't give up that easily."
"No, you don't," Avon agreed.
"I got you."
"So it would seem."
There was brief silence. Nova could imagine them moving the chess pieces.
"What about Minna?" That was Avon speaking again.
"What about her? Even if you wanted to rescue her and Vila, you know it would be impossible."
"Even with Orac?" Avon suggested.
"Even with Orac." Servalan sounded scathing. "The kind of trick I pulled at Gauda Prime wouldn't work here and you know it."
Avon's answer was inaudible.
"Did it ever occur to you that we owe them a debt of some kind?" he added a few moments later.
"For looking after Nova? Since when did you have a sense of obligation?"
Avon ignored the comment. "Vila and Minna were arrested three days after we arrived on Albian. Doesn't that strike you as too much of a coincidence?"
"I didn't report them."
"Strangely enough, I believe you for once."
"I'm flattered," Servalan replied sarcastically.
"Oh, I've no doubt you'd sell Vila or Minna without hesitation, but your own daughter? I think even you would draw the line there."
"One of these days," she answered lightly, "I'll kill you for that. After I've killed Threep of course."
"Don't you mean after you've got Orac?"
Servalan laughed. "Of course."
If there was further conversation after that, Nova didn't hear it. It was doubtful whether she had even heard the last few sentences clearly. Head stuffed face down into the pillow she screamed silently to herself. "Liar! Liar!" Servalan wasn't her mother, she couldn't be her mother. Nova didn't believe it, and she wasn't going to believe it.
Half an hour later, Nova moved silently out of her room, a wisp of shadow in the darkness. The light was out in the lounge, but sounds from the other bedroom told her that Avon and Servalan weren't yet asleep.
Opening the door to the suite, she wedged a piece of wire into the bolt to stop it shooting home, then she closed the door gently and slipped out into the city, seen by no one, not even the night porter. Two hours later, Nova returned as silently as she had left, clutching the bedraggled form of a teddy bear that had obviously seen better days.
Then she slept.
Avon scrubbed his back vigorously, the hot water sluicing down and washing off the soap. He tipped his head back and lifted his face to the shower, enjoying the sensation of a rain storm. Earth with its totally controlled indoor climate was where he'd grown up, but sometimes on Xenon he had gone outside to experience the weather. Dayna had liked being outdoors, the danger from the Hommiks had never bothered her; the ability to enjoy the weather in its many guises was something she had always extolled, even if she had never totally convinced Avon.
Avon shook his head briefly to erase the memory. Dayna was dead and there was no point dwelling in the past.
He dried himself, dressed, and went to look for Servalan. It was time they talked seriously about Orac. They'd avoided the issue last night, using sex as a substitute for discussion. Avon didn't regret that. Privacy, whether for conversation or anything else, had been impossible on the Sally B. If this day was to end in them fighting or parting over Orac, then he wanted the memory of that last night to remain with him.
The issue was insoluble, it always had been. Servalan's heart lusted after the presidency. With Orac she would probably be capable of achieving it. Avon didn't trust her. Given ultimate power Servalan was capable of doing almost anything to keep it. It wasn't, Avon told himself, that he cared for the great mass of humanity; but Blake's ghost, restless at the best of times when he was with Servalan, would never give him any peace if she became President once more.
Where was Servalan anyway?
Where was Nova, come to that?
There were very few places to look, and it took all of ten seconds to eliminate them.
It wasn't difficult to guess where. If Servalan had wanted him to know where she was, she'd have told him. Therefore they had gone after Orac. The part that didn't make sense was why Nova had agreed to take her there. Avon would have been prepared to swear that Nova disliked and distrusted Servalan. The question that had to be faced was whether they were coming back. There was no way to tell. Either Servalan would return or she would not.
With iron patience, Avon set himself to wait. Waiting carried its own risk, a risk that he faced and accepted. If Servalan wasn't intending to return, then her most logical move would be to report his location to the authorities. That was the only way she could prevent him from pursuing her.
An hour passed. An hour and a half. Avon took out his gun and checked the mechanism methodically.
When it came, the knock on the door startled him. He didn't respond. He needed to keep the advantage of surprise. The lock was currently set to work on his or Servalan's fingerprints, therefore, whoever was out there, it wasn't Servalan. Avon aimed the gun and waited.
"Avon, let me in!" Nova's voice.
Cautiously he moved to open the door, standing to one side as it opened. Nova stood there, apparently alone. Avon gestured for her to enter, and she did so, looking with fear at the weapon in his hand.
Moving quickly, Avon closed the door again, and turned to face his daughter. "Where's Servalan?" he demanded.
Nova backed away from him. Avon followed her eyes and then stuffed the gun in his pocket.
"Where is she?" he repeated.
Nova bit her lip. "She took Orac and left me. I don't know where she's gone."
Servalan had gone. Even though Avon had half expected it, he wasn't prepared for the cold empty numbness the news left inside him. Memories of the night before came as mocking spectres to haunt him. Servalan, wild and passionate, raising him to heights that the gods alone should be able to reach. Servalan, exhausted and at peace, enfolded in his arms in a oneness that bound them together as though for all eternity.
Love was folly, and he the fool for having trusted in her. That was the deepest mockery of all, for he had never intended to trust her, never believed that he did. But now, in the pain of betrayal, Avon understood that somewhere in the darkest recesses of his soul, he had allowed Servalan to gain a foothold. The desire was there to hold her just once more, to kiss her one last time, and then to slowly, slowly, choke the life out of her.
Nova's voice broke through into his trance. "Avon, I can't find my charm."
Her charm? Then he remembered, the little silver bell they had been using in the chess game. Where had he last seen it? Avon cast his mind back to the previous evening. They had been talking about Nova. "I don't give up that easily," Servalan had said, and she had picked up the charm for emphasis.
"I think Servalan took it," he said slowly, his mind beginning to form a pattern.
Nova looked aghast, and Avon's thoughts crystallised abruptly. Servalan didn't give up that easily. Why hadn't she taken Nova with her? Why was Nova more worried about the loss of the charm than about the loss of Orac? She'd called Orac her friend, the computer had to be more important to her than a mere trinket.
Avon threw back his head and laughed, hovering on the brink of insanity, defying the fates to deny his logic: Servalan might have betrayed him, but they had both been betrayed by Nova.
Nova looked at him, bemused.
Avon elaborated. "You're devious enough to fit in perfectly." His hand flashed out and gripped Nova painfully by the wrist. "Where is your mother?" he demanded.
"Servalan isn't my mother!" Nova protested.
"So you know. When did you find out?"
Nova looked at the floor, saying nothing, trying not to meet his eye. Avon jerked hard on her wrist and she cried out in pain. "Last night! I heard you talking last night"
"So you decided to sell Servalan. To whom, and for what?"
"I'm not going to tell you," his daughter replied sullenly.
Avon was fast losing patience. One thing was obvious, and that was that their current location was no longer safe. If Nova hadn't given it away, then it might well be forced out of Servalan. Why hadn't Nova betrayed him too? There were parts of this that still didn't make sense, and he needed to get the information quickly. Getting out had to be the first priority though.
Maintaining a secure grip on Nova, Avon grabbed his toolkit and a few basic essentials, and headed for the door, only to be stopped by a frantic wail from Nova. "I've got to have my teddy bear!"
This was getting ridiculous. Avon didn't even remember her having a teddy bear.
"He's in my bed," Nova insisted.
If Avon was any judge of children, which he wasn't apart from one nephew a long time ago, he was due for a major screaming tantrum if they didn't find the wretched toy. He went to look, and found the offending animal under Nova's pillow. She held out her hand for it, but Avon deliberately held it out of her reach.
"Give him to me," Nova pleaded. "Please."
"Tell me what really happened," Avon said coldly.
Something inside Nova seemed to crumple up. "I swopped her for Mum. I asked them last night. They said if I brought them Servalan, they'd let my mother go."
"Did they release Minna?"
Nova looked at him defiantly. "Yes, they did."
Avon tossed her the bear. The rest of the pieces were falling into place now. At least Nova had been bright enough to see the possibility of a double cross. If she had traded himself and Servalan simultaneously, she might have got nothing. A single trade allowed her to test the water first. Was she still planning to go ahead with the second swop? The thought would have been amusing if it hadn't been so close to home. "When did you plan to swop me for Vila?" he inquired out of curiosity.
"I wasn't going to," Nova said virtuously. She then gave herself away by adding, "Mum said they'd cheat once they had you."
Avon opened the door an inch to check outside. It seemed clear. "If you decided selling me was too risky, why did you come back?" he asked over his shoulder.
"I had to get Teddy," his daughter replied with indignation.
Avon winced. "I didn't think family feeling came into it somehow."
Opening the door fully, he gestured for Nova to follow him, but she hung back. "I don't want to come," she protested.
"What makes you think you have any choice?" Avon asked callously. "You can come quietly, or I can drag you along screaming. If you do that, they'll catch both of us. The choice is yours."
"You don't want me."
"Correct; but I do want Orac, and you are going to take me to it."
Without further protest, Nova joined Avon in the corridor. Her immediate attempt to escape was foiled as Avon seized her tightly by the hand. They walked rapidly out of the hotel, Avon tossing several high value credit slips to the receptionist before the man had time to raise a fuss over the bill. The corridors outside were busy, although not excessively so; the morning rush to work was largely over now. Avon slowed his pace. He needed to put as much distance as possible between himself and the hotel, but to move fast in this city of drug tranquillised people was to stand out in the crowd.
The speakers placed at every junction blared out their monotonous messages, telling those who were alert enough to listen that water supplies would be cut off for the next three hours while essential repairs were performed upon the pipes. No one appeared to take any notice. Avon felt like the only living man in a city of ghosts. Had things been this bad when he was living on Earth, or had he simply never noticed? How easy had it been to take drug induced tranquillity for delta stupidity? Here on Earth itself, Pylene 50 had never been used. There was no need. With suppressants in both the food and the water supply, the population could be controlled easily, unlike the outer worlds where people lived free of the domes in an uncontrolled environment.
With no particular goal in mind, Avon headed where the crowds were thickest, seeking concealment in numbers. When the flowing tide of humanity finally washed up at the entrance to a large hydroponics plant, Avon and Nova were left high and visibly dry on the shore.
Avon hesitated, then queried the watchman by the gate. "I'm looking for work." As an excuse for being here, it was as good as any other.
The man looked Avon up and down in a bored manner, then pointed to a notice fastened to the glass: No Vacancies. He shifted a wad of gum from one side of his mouth to the other. "Can't you read?"
Avon nodded in a dispirited manner and departed, imitating the purposeless walk of the rest of the citizenry. Further along the now empty corridor, and out of sight of the nearest surveillance scanner, he stopped. "Where's Orac?"
Nova looked stubbornly back. "Orac's mine."
Avon forbore debating that point. "Without Orac, we haven't a hope of helping Servalan." He paused for emphasis. "Or Vila."
That caught Nova's attention. She looked at him suspiciously. "I've got to meet up with Mum first. She'll be worried if she has to wait too long."
It would be a delay, and it could also be dangerous. Nova hadn't been followed as far as Avon could ascertain, which simply made it more likely that some other surveillance method had been used. Minna might have been followed, or perhaps they had used some other method.
Unrolling his tool kit, Avon spread it out along the floor, seeking the device he needed. Nova watched him, curiosity temporarily gaining the upper hand over fear. "What are you looking for?" she asked.
"Broad spectrum detector," Avon answered briefly. He picked out a device and started adjusting the scale; then observing Nova's interest, he elaborated. "It detects power emissions on different wavelengths." He held it up to demonstrate. "That reading there is leakage from the scanner around the corner." Avon adjusted the scale again. "Now it's registering the light from the ceiling."
"But what are you trying to find with it?"
"In this case, what am I hoping not to find." He ran the detector over her before switching the device off with a decisive click. Then he placed it in his pocket before rolling up the tool kit once more. "You're clean. I thought they might have placed a tracer on you. Apparently they couldn't plant one without you noticing, or else they relied on you leading me into the trap." Avon gave a slight smile, totally devoid of all humour. "Obviously good judges of character."
Nova said nothing.
"Where's Minna?" Avon asked, changing the subject. Going after the woman was not his top priority, but Minna with her lack of language would be especially vulnerable in the city. Besides, Avon didn't particularly want to have to terrify Orac's location out of a ten year old. He'd do it if necessary, but Minna would be able to discover the information with far less effort.
"She's in a medical queue," Nova said.
Ingenious, but then Minna had been dumb, not stupid. Waiting to see a doctor, she could easily hang around for half a day without arousing suspicion. Avon had never experienced the queues himself - alphas got priority treatment, but the endless waits were the butt of many an ancient joke.
Following Nova's directions, they made their way through the endless corridors and around the occasional plazas; Avon trying to rid himself of the feeling that this was yet another trap. If he was to stand any chance of recovering Orac, he had to go with Nova. Without Orac, his chances of seeing Servalan again were effectively zero.
Had Servalan been planning to betray him?
Would she have taken Orac and left him?
Avon didn't know, and that lack of knowledge left him with no option. The promise he had given so easily on Jaxtin, in the expectation of death, held him now as tightly as a fly caught in amber.
The queue shuffled forward, and Minna moved with it. She was safe here for at least another hour. No one would ask her for identity papers until she reached the head of the queue. While Minna had been given her papers when she was released, she didn't dare to use them.
Her feet were beginning to ache. She seemed to have been standing here for ages. Why didn't anyone provide seats? The woman ahead of her had to be at least seven months pregnant - she'd brought a cushion and was sitting on the floor. Minna wanted to sit down, but if she did that, she wouldn't be able to see properly. From where she was, Minna had a decent view across the plaza - she didn't want to miss Nova when the girl returned.
Nova had changed in the months they had been apart. Her daughter had become quiet, withdrawn, edgy, acting as though every shadow concealed a potential enemy. Minna had sensed a barrier between them that had never been there before. Their reunion had been ill omened, Servalan watching them with icy aloofness. Why had Servalan come back to Earth? What was her part in what had happened? Minna's instinct told her that Servalan was now her enemy. The fact that Nova showed no interest in her natural mother, the fact that Servalan was obviously a prisoner, were both irrelevant. Minna was afraid of losing her daughter.
She shifted her weight to her other foot, trying to ease the strain in her legs. Opportunities for exercise had been limited during her imprisonment, and the effect of standing for a long time was making itself felt. Nova's decision to go back to Avon had been crazy, but Minna hadn't been able to talk her out of it. The girl had so few possessions now that everything left was special to her. The silver charm had been Vila's gift, a birthday present when Nova was still small.
Where was Vila now? In prison presumably, where Minna would never see him again. The prospect of a life without Vila's easy going good humour and uncomplicated affection seemed almost unendurable.
Something caught Minna's eye on the far side of the plaza. That had to be Nova, moving in and out of the crowd, but she wasn't alone. There was a man with her. Minna strained to make him out. He looked like Avon, but something wasn't quite right. Then she worked it out; the body language was wrong. Avon was walking in the slumped, half asleep manner of everyone else around him. Minna's memory painted him as always alert, reacting instantly to his surroundings. As Avon came closer, she met his eyes and knew his walk for the pose it was. The eyes took in everything they saw, but they were cold: cold as the wind off a glacier, unfeeling and uncaring.
Abruptly, Minna realised that his hands were moving. "Ignore us, don't speak to us."
She obeyed, studying her companions in the queue instead, surprised that Avon still remembered any of the signs after so many years.
Avon was moving down the line of patients checking each one over with some kind of scanning device. When he reached her, Avon stopped and looked at the reading. "What are you doing here?" he demanded roughly. "You've got Beccasier's Disease. You should be in quarantine." He took her by the arm and pulled her out of the queue. Minna didn't resist - whatever Avon was doing, she hoped he had a reason for it.
"You've got a tracer inside you. Did they make you swallow anything?" he asked quietly as they walked across the plaza.
Minna nodded. There had been the "vitamin pill" they had given her just before she was released.
Avon sounded urgent. "The tracer could take anything up to two days to pass out of the system. They're using you as a back up in case Nova fails to deliver me on schedule. Once they realise Nova isn't going to appear, they'll close in on you. They're keeping their distance at the moment, waiting for you to move."
Minna knew what he was leading up to. Avon's cold implacable logic had only one possible conclusion. She couldn't go with them. Not only would she never see Vila again, this was the last time she was ever going to see Nova.
The crowd was thick around Minna. She let the people flow round her, ignoring them. Crouching down, Minna held out her arms to Nova and embraced her daughter tightly. There were so many things she had wanted to share with Nova, and now they would never be done or said. Aware of Avon's impatience, she ignored it, holding Nova close, wanting to remember her, wanting to be remembered by her.
Finally, Minna let go. She looked at Nova steadily, and signed slowly, Go with Avon. Do whatever he says.
"I'm coming with you," Nova protested.
Minna shook her head regretfully. She took Nova's hand and placed it in Avon's. He accepted it unwillingly. Minna stood, looking him in the eye until Avon nodded in reluctant understanding of her terms.
"I'll look after her. Now go!" Avon almost shouted the words at her.
Minna left. Once she looked back over her shoulder, but Avon and Nova had already vanished into the crowd.
All that was left was the pain in her heart, and her terror of the men who would pursue her.
Avon knelt down by Orac and inspected the computer carefully. It didn't look any different, presumably Vila had looked after it adequately.
"Do you always leave it switched on?" he asked.
"Orac doesn't like being switched off," Nova replied defensively.
Avon contented himself with raising an eyebrow. Leaving Orac's key permanently in position struck him as incredibly foolish; anyone discovering the machine would be able to use it. While Nova's present hiding place seemed relatively secure, it would not be impossible for someone to stumble on it by accident.
He looked at his surroundings and grimaced. The RT control panels had all been disconnected when the control room was abandoned. While it might be possible to restore power to some of them, it was a moot point as to whether it would be worth the effort. Avon had no intention of staying here long - living rough had never appealed to him. For the moment, however, it was warm and it was dry and fairly well hidden. How well hidden was an interesting question in light of the search that was undoubtedly going on for them at this very moment.
"Orac," he demanded.
"Avon," the computer acknowledged, with no more apparent interest in Avon's long absence than if he had simply been missing for a few minutes. "What trivial matter are you about to waste my time with?"
Avon allowed himself a half smile - Orac's usefulness had always had to be balanced against his uncooperative nature. "Can you access the city maps?"
"Of course I can," Orac replied snappishly.
"I want you to make one minor edit to them. Remove this room from the records, distort adjoining rooms or corridors and replace any discrepancies with supporting structures. I also want you to check the police records. I need to know the current locations of both Minna and Servalan."
"Very well," muttered Orac.
Avon turned his attention to Nova, who had been watching him with some interest.
"I didn't know Orac could do that," she commented.
Avon shrugged. "The maps are all stored in a computer data base, as are the police records. The trick to utilising Orac is to comprehend computer systems in the first place. I assume your knowledge in this area is minimal?"
Nova was tired - they had spent half the afternoon ducking and weaving around the city, moving from one place of concealment to another while trying to get safely to the rapid transit line. Avon's habit of treating her as an unwanted but unavoidable encumbrance was wearing her down. It wasn't that he was particularly nasty to her - occasionally he would actually explain something, but he wasn't nice to her either. Her hopes of love and affection had been built up by her brief reunion with her mother, and now her need for that emotional security was greater than ever. Avon didn't like her, but at least he was better than nobody. If only he would be a bit less cold and offputting.
She sat on the mattress, leaning against the wall, as far away from Avon as she could get. "Why don't you like me?" she asked. "Why do you think I'm stupid?"
"Which question do you want answered first?" Avon replied dryly.
Nova said nothing, she'd used up her reserves of courage in asking the questions in the first place.
"Very well," Avon said. "To take the first question first - you sold my wife to the Federation." There was no obvious expression on Avon's face, but there was something in his dark eyes that hinted of feelings beyond Nova's comprehension. "As for the second," he added, "I don't necessarily assume you're stupid. It merely depends on what stance one chooses to take on the environment versus heredity debate."
Nova looked at him in total incomprehension.
Avon sighed and elaborated. "Which has most effect on intelligence, the genes you get from your parents, or your upbringing?"
Nova pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them tightly. She'd known since the day before really, but hadn't wanted to face yet another harsh fact in her crumbling universe. She whispered the words, as though to say them quietly would reduce their meaning somehow. "You're my father, aren't you?"
"Regrettably." Avon seemed to have no interest in the subject beyond that single remark.
"Ahem." Orac's voice drew their attention. "I have the information you require."
"So?" Avon demanded.
"Servalan is being held in a detention block on level thirteen. Security is intense."
"I feel it is not advisable to provide that information at this time."
"I'll be the judge of that," Avon said sharply.
"I really must protest," Orac insisted. "The information may be the cause of great distress."
Menace tinged Avon's words. "Just tell me."
"Minna is dead. She was shot by a Federation patrol while attempting to avoid arrest."
"It's not true," Nova denied. "It's not true!" Then she flung her head up to look at Avon. "It's your fault!" she cried. "You wouldn't let her come with us. She would have been safe if she was with us."
The accusation hurt. Avon knew that he could have done nothing to help Minna, but he also knew that Minna had had a choice. She could have quietly and safely given herself up at the nearest station; but instead, she had chosen to buy them time, running as far and as fast as possible, using the tracer to lay a false trail across the city. One more death laid at Avon's door. One more obligation he could not avoid. What did it matter if Minna had been protecting Nova and not himself? He had made Minna a promise, knowing full well what the cost could be.
"You don't care!" Nova shouted at him. "You didn't care about Mum. You don't care about me." She shivered as she hugged herself, staring at the floor, but no tears came.
Avon tried to reason with her, to explain that if Minna had followed them they would all have been caught. It was to no avail. He offered sympathy as best as he was able, but found himself spurned. His own loss ate at him. He could see no way of recovering Servalan, and Nova's rejection simply left him more alone than before.
It was an hour before Nova finally shut Avon out totally by going to sleep, teddy bear clutched tightly in her hand, back turned firmly towards him. He sat awhile and watched her, aware of her loneliness, wishing he knew the right words to reach out and touch her.
Finally, Avon forced himself to lie down and go to sleep beside her. Whatever the next day was to bring, he would need to be fully awake to be able to deal with it.
Nova awoke gradually, feeling warm and comfortable. Then realising where she was, she wriggled rapidly free from Avon's unconscious embrace, not wanting to be any nearer to him than she had to. He was a stranger, he had caused her mother's death. How dare he come so close to her?
There were other considerations besides; as a delta child, Nova was well familiar with the only reason alpha males visited her section of the city. Without Orac, she herself would soon have been driven into the inescapable world of child prostitution. She had seen them: young girls, boys too, soliciting strangers - offering to satisfy any vice, undergo any degradation, in exchange for enough money to buy food, drugs, or a bottle of soma. It was supposed to be illegal, but who cared? The spooks took little action in the delta warrens; the prostitutes generally offered them reduced rates. It was all part of the game of survival.
Hunger gnawed at her, but she didn't want to go out. The hunt would still be on, and Nova was afraid to leave Avon alone with Orac. He had already made it abundantly clear that he considered the computer to be far more useful than she was. If Avon left and took Orac with him, she would be completely defenceless.
It was no use, she had to go, at least as far as the public toilet around the corner. Slipping out, Nova returned a few minutes later to find Avon waiting for her. "Where the hell were you?" he demanded furiously.
Nova backed up against the wall. "I only went to the toilets."
Avon turned to the computer. "Orac, how long was she gone?"
"I fail to see why that information is of any relevance."
"Because I don't trust her!" Avon snarled.
"Nova was absent for four point three minutes."
Avon seemed to relax a little. "All right, you couldn't have gone anywhere else in that time. But in future, you don't go anywhere without me. Do you understand?"
Nova nodded mutely, then added something extremely rude in sign language to relieve her feelings.
Avon laughed shortly. "I think that's physically impossible."
Nova looked at him in puzzlement, curiosity winning out over fear. "How did you know what I was saying?"
Avon looked mildly amused. "I doubt if anyone could have failed to understand that particular gesture, but as it happens, I knew Minna before you were born. She was a friend of mine."
"You still let her die!"
Avon's face went blank. He turned and walked to the far wall, then paced back again, his hands clenched by his sides. Once more he paced his steps out to the wall, stared at it for a moment, then turned back to Nova again. "Sometimes," he said icily, "there are problems that have no solution. You do what you have to in order to survive."
Nova could feel the suppressed violence in him, and it scared her. Was he upset because of Mum's death, or because Nova had accused him? She hadn't thought of him as a friend of Minna's. Why had Orac never mentioned that? But then Orac had never wanted to tell her about Gauda Prime or anything after that, he avoided the stories that upset her. It struck her suddenly that Avon had been there. To him they weren't stories. Nova had wept for the rebels as Orac told her of their deaths, but Avon had seen it happen. Had he cried for his friends? Could Avon cry?
Nova was no longer sure that she could cry herself. Too much had happened in too short a period of time, she could no longer relate to everything fully. Orac was the only source of stability left. She edged away from Avon, around to where the computer was balanced on his insulation blocks. "Orac," she queried. "What should I do now?"
"Stay with Avon, of course."
"But...." Nova couldn't bring herself to complete the sentence, not with Avon standing there listening.
Avon completed the sentence for her. "But you don't like me and I terrify you. We may not be the ideal pair, but we have a job to do, or had you forgotten?"
"Rescuing Servalan and Vila."
"The probability of success in such a venture is so low as to make its undertaking extremely inadvisable," Orac said.
"When I want your opinion Orac, I'll ask for it," Avon retorted.
Nova leapt to her friend's defence. "Why are you always rude to Orac? You'll hurt his feelings."
"It is a machine," Avon said coldly. "It has no feelings. It also lacks human imagination."
"Does that mean you've got a plan?" Nova asked tentatively. "Are you going to swop someone for them, like I did?"
"I don't think you'd have a very high trade-in value," Avon said nastily. "A master thief and an ex-president rate somewhat higher."
"What about President Jordan?"
"That's impossible," Avon replied automatically. Then a thoughtful expression worked its way over his face. "If I know Servalan...."
Nova waited for him to continue. When he didn't, she asked him to explain.
Avon snapped out of his reverie. "There was a failed coup during the time Servalan was president. She was caught by rebels and imprisoned in her own residence."
He gestured sharply with a finger. "Servalan would never let herself be caught in the same trap twice; she'd have upgraded all the security systems of course, but it's also possible that she made herself an escape route. And any way out is by definition a way in if you can locate it.
"Orac, I want a full search of all building and decoration work done in the presidential palace during the latter half of Servalan's reign. I also want you to compare with records of any construction work done within a five mile radius of the palace, and to correlate this with the dates of the death or disappearance of any skilled builders."
"Why do you want to know about the deaths of builders?" Nova asked in puzzlement.
Avon replied, "If Servalan constructed a secret escape route, she wouldn't leave anyone alive who could talk about it."
"Is Servalan really that nasty?"
"Yes," he said shortly, leaving Nova with half a dozen more questions that she desperately wanted to ask and dared not.
The panel was well concealed, but a careful search along the wall with a magnetic probe picked up the metal behind the plastic of the wall. Avon passed Nova a small tool, and she deftly removed the panel. "Three three seven nine?" she queried.
"No," Avon answered, with what amounted to remarkable patience for him. "Three three seven five."
His relationship with Nova had eased over the last few days, as they had come to know one another better. While not close, they had at least come to know what they could expect from each other. As Nova's fear and sense of isolation had lessened, her native wit and intelligence had come to the fore, and Avon had found it easier to put up with her company.
There was a brief flash of light as current arced between two points in front of them, discharging the capacitors. Avon moved forward, carrying Orac, and Nova followed.
The whole attempt would have been impossible without Orac. Leaving the dome undetected and stealing transport had been difficult. Deducing where the entrance to the tunnel would be, and making their way along the underground passage was something they could never have done unaided. The route was studded with booby traps of every variety. None would hinder a fugitive fleeing in the opposite direction; each was potentially deadly to an intruder attempting to enter the presidential palace.
Progress was slow. Avon allowed Nova to deal with a few of the simpler systems, as long as there were no fail-safes to be triggered. Mostly he tackled them himself, and wished fervently that Vila was there - the thief could have done the job in a fraction of the time.
Once they stopped to eat, squatting on the bare, hard floor and eating dried meat and raw vegetables that they had acquired from a group of outsiders. The food was basic, but at least it was free of drugs. Nova didn't seem to object to the taste. Her attitude to food appeared to be an eminently practical one. If it was there, you ate it. Flavour only entered the equation if you had a choice.
Avon picked out a bit of gristle that had caught between his teeth and flicked it disdainfully down the passage.
"You shouldn't do that," Nova said.
Avon wasn't unduly bothered. "The rats are unlikely to eat us before we get to the palace," he pointed out. He chewed his way through a carrot with a notable lack of enthusiasm, before lobbing the carrot stub in the wake of the gristle. All they had to drink was water, but at least it was fresh. Avon swallowed several mouthfuls before packing up what they had left, and moving on.
It took them half an hour to reach the end of the tunnel. They had to wait another two hours in silence before Orac's monitoring of the president's terminal confirmed that it was in use. Two hours of inactivity was too long. It gave Avon time to think, time to worry about all the things that could go wrong. They still had a chance to back out...
"Now?" whispered Nova.
Avon nodded reluctantly by way of confirmation. He gestured to her to keep back as he leaned against the exit. Gun in hand, he slammed his weight against the door, and burst into the room. The man sitting at the desk looked up in astonishment.
"Back away from the terminal" Avon ordered sharply. "Touch anything, and I'll shoot."
President Jordan moved his hands slowly away from the keyboard where he had been working, and made a sudden move towards the far end of the desk. Avon's gun jerked, and Jordan stopped the movement. Avon looked at Jordan sardonically. "Unwise," he commented. "If you try and summon help, you'll be dead before they get through the door."
"Who are you?" Jordan demanded. "What do you want? You must know you won't get away with this."
"Does it matter who I am?" Avon seemed distant, almost distracted for a moment, then he answered his own question. "Yes, I suppose it does really. My name is Avon, Kerr Avon. What do I want?" He stalked around the desk, bringing himself physically close to Jordan, who promptly backed away. Avon seized Jordan's jacket by the collar, pulling the president to his feet. With his other hand he rammed the barrel of his gun painfully into the man's neck. "I want my wife," he hissed. "I want Servalan." Releasing Jordan abruptly, Avon stepped back and smiled, a slight thin lipped smile. "While you're at it, I'd also like Vila Restal."
Avon was aware of Nova entering the room behind him, and of Jordan's surprise at seeing the girl, but he didn't take his eyes off the President. "Nova," Avon ordered, without turning around. "Find a chair by the wall, sit still, and don't distract me."
"Are you rebels so desperate that you're using children to fight your battles?" Jordan asked in amazement.
"She has a vested interest. The Federation are holding her father prisoner."
Jordan prevaricated. "I don't know anything about these people. It might take days to locate the necessary information. Put down your weapon and turn yourself in. I'll see that their cases are reviewed."
"You knew Servalan," Avon said dangerously. "This was her office before it was yours. Are you really going to tell me that your security forces are so incompetent that they haven't told you they are holding her?" Avon felt edgy. He remembered this room even though he'd only been here briefly. It reminded him of other things, things that he wanted to forget. Along a couple of corridors and down a set of steps, lay the cellar where Anna had died.
Was he doomed to repeat the same sequence of events? You know what Servalan is, Avon's memory whispered. Coming here is madness. Don't you understand? another part of him replied. I have no choice. No choice at all.
"President Servalan?" Jordan said slowly. "You're mad. She's dead."
Avon's patience, already wearing thin, wore out. "Orac, display the relevant prison records."
Jordan looked in surprise at the data that suddenly appeared on the screen of his desk terminal. "How did you do that?" He looked in sudden surmise at the large perspex box that Nova had balanced on her knee. "That's Orac? Blake's supercomputer?"
"My computer," said Avon and Nova simultaneously.
Avon's lips twitched for an instant, before he returned to the subject in hand. "I want both of them here within two hours, and I want a flyer capable of taking five passengers. If I detect any kind of tracer on either of them or on the flyer, you'll die - slowly and painfully."
"You wouldn't dare kill me," Jordan protested.
Avon smiled, the feral smile of a man on the edge with nothing to lose. Jordan felt real fear. He'd doubted at first when the man claimed to be Kerr Avon. The terrorist had vanished a decade ago. Now he was convinced: by the apparent ease with which his security had been circumvented, the presence of Orac, and above all, the sense of menace that Avon radiated. What was it someone had once said about Kerr Avon? You didn't have to worry until he started smiling. Where, Jordan wondered, did Servalan fit into it all? There had been a rumour back in the days when Rimner was President, that Servalan had survived and had hidden out in the security forces under another name. There was even a story that she had been caught, but it had all turned out to be a fabrication put about by rebels trying to discredit the administration. None of the stories he'd heard had linked Servalan romantically with Avon; indeed, they were supposed to have been bitter enemies. If Servalan had remained on Earth, instead of pursuing the rebels, she would never have lost the presidency.
Avon was looking impatient.
"I'll have to use the comm," Jordan pointed out.
"Go right ahead, but don't touch anything else, and if you say anything I don't like, I'll blow your head off."
"What don't you want me to say?"
"You'll just have to guess, won't you."
He'd been right. The man was insane. Jordan gave his orders carefully and hoped the security forces would use their initiative to get him out somehow.
The ground passed rapidly beneath them, coloured by the muted yellows and browns of autumn. Servalan watched through the window. The deep forests that covered so much of the land once called England held a fascination for her. They were dark and largely unknown. Nobody knew what lay within them; nobody really wanted to know. After the atomic wars at the end of the old calendar had devastated the land, the surviving people had retreated into the safety of the domes. Food, of necessity, had been produced within the domes, and the population ruthlessly maintained at a level that could be supported by hydroponic farming and imported food. The land outside, dead and abandoned, had finally recovered enough to support life. Spreading out from small pockets that had survived the atomic holocaust, the forests had returned to reclaim their ancient heritage.
The wildwood, even with its leaves tinged and falling, was still the ancient enemy. Servalan liked her trees tame, manicured and tidy. She'd planned Residence One like that - its extensive grounds were carefully laid out with plenty of trees, but the chaos of the forest was never allowed to intrude. Servalan knew where they were going now; she'd travelled this route before. It would be an hour or so before they arrived. She turned her attention to Vila sitting beside her. He looked older than she remembered, but the years had treated him well. Apart from the thinning of his hair and the extra lines on his face, he looked pretty much as she remembered him. They had travelled in silence so far, apart from a brief acknowledgement of each other's presence; but now Servalan allowed rein to her curiosity. "Vila?"
"What's Nova really like?"
A faraway look passed over Vila's face. "I love her," he answered simply.
Servalan felt a pang of jealousy. "She never gave me the chance."
"How do you mean?"
"The day after we met, she sold me to the authorities."
Vila valiantly resisted the temptation to laugh. For all her poise and detachment, Servalan seemed pale and drawn. How would he have felt if a long lost child had betrayed him as soon as they met? The closest Vila could come to it was the way he had felt after Malodaar. He'd felt worthless, unwanted, and angry. Even worse, there had been no one he felt able to talk to about it. Vila hadn't found it easy to forgive Avon for that. "Do you hate her?" he asked out of curiosity.
Servalan sighed, which Vila found rather disconcerting - he didn't expect her to have any of the gentle emotions. As if it was relevant, she said, "I had a host mother."
It seemed as though some comment was expected. "Oh?"
"Sherrie stayed with the family until I was eight. She was my real mother."
Vila sort of understood what she was saying. "You, er, didn't like your genetic mother?" he offered hesitantly.
Servalan smiled, but the smile wasn't for Vila. "No," she said shortly. "I didn't."
The flyer swerved slightly as the pilot made a course correction. They appeared to be following the course of a river now. It meandered unevenly in its flood plain below them. A herd of some kind of grazing animal scattered, spooked by the noise of the flyer. Servalan had hated her mother. Nova hated Servalan. It seemed appropriate somehow. Did Servalan detest her daughter in return?
As though she had guessed his thoughts, Servalan addressed Vila once more. "I don't hate her," she said quietly.
"Who? Nova? Why not?"
"They gave her Minna in exchange for me. It's no more than I'd have done in her place."
Minna was free! Vila twisted round in his seat and looked at Servalan with pure unaffected delight. "That's great!" The look on Servalan's face made him realise he'd put his foot right in it. "That is... I mean... Well..."
"Vila. How is it that someone with your unenviable talent for stupidity has managed to survive for so long?"
Vila grinned. He couldn't help it. Servalan couldn't hurt him here, and Minna was safe. "Just lucky I guess," he said. He hooked a thumb in his jacket pocket and surveyed the world. An old suede jacket, it was one of his favourites. Admittedly it looked rather past its best, he'd worn it all the time he was in prison, but at least he still had it. Some of the other men in his cell had tried to strong arm it off him; but one way or another, he'd always managed to get it back again. Vila had never quite known why he was being held. Other prisoners had been tried, and either released or sent off to penal colonies, but he had always remained behind. "How long did they hold you?" he asked.
"A few days."
Servalan didn't seem in the mood for further conversation, but Vila was buoyant now, and wanted to chat. "Do you know where they are taking us?"
"Residence One," Servalan replied.
"Avon," she replied with certainty.
Wonderful, thought Vila. Is that supposed to mean that we are going there to be shot with him, or are we being rescued by him, or what? He spread his hands out hopefully. "You wouldn't care to explain that would you?" There was no reply. "No? I didn't think you would." Nothing daunted by Servalan's silence, Vila carried gaily on. "Are you and Avon still..." He hesitated, trying to think of a suitable phrase.
"Yes," Servalan said sharply. "Yes, I am still with Avon. Yes, I believe this is his doing. No, I am not going to answer any more questions about him." She held her hands tightly in her lap, rigidly resisting the desire to twist and interlace her fingers. She was not going to show any weakness in front of Vila, and his questions were getting too close to the bone. For three days, she had been asked endless questions about Avon. Where was he? What was he doing on Earth? What were his plans?
When straightforward questioning had failed, they had tried the truth drugs. Servalan had survived that experience relatively unscathed. All Federation officers were given training in how to resist the drugs, a standard precaution in case of capture.
Then they had moved on to other methods. Physical abuse went without saying, but that wasn't all. Time became difficult to judge. Meals were brought at erratic intervals, questioners changed unpredictably - all tactics designed to disorientate. Servalan had done her best to estimate the passage of time, to give Avon twenty four hours to get a head start. Then she had started talking. Her knowledge of the alternatives was sharp and clear. Servalan had too much experience of Federation methods with difficult prisoners to have any illusions as to what she could expect. What she told them could mostly be deduced from the records; but even as she spoke, she knew that her corroboration gave extra weight to the information.
Now guilt rested heavily on her. There were things that she had held back, but did that lessen the betrayal? Expecting to see Avon soon, Servalan was balanced uneasily between the desire to be with him once more, and the fear that he would somehow reject her. The resultant tension in her shoulder muscles made her neck ache. Her discomfort was not helped by the fact that the cushioning on the seats of the flyer was not soft enough to prevent her feeling the bruising from the blows she had received.
Shifting her position on the seat slightly, Servalan tried to get a look at the flight controls. A pointless exercise really, the strong plastic panel separating the pilot from Vila and herself made any thoughts of seizing control futile. There was no access between front and back. Even Vila with a full tool kit could have done nothing. The lack of physical restraints such as handcuffs merely emphasised the fact that there was no need for them. Servalan was helpless, and the knowledge galled her. Even to have had her own choice of clothing would have helped. While they had replaced the interrogation coveralls with the outfit she was wearing when captured, the stiffly woven fabric of the tabard top and trousers did nothing to show off her figure. Added to that was the fact that she had had no access to make up, and it was several days since she had last been able to wash her hair. Servalan felt unkempt and dowdy, which simply increased her sense of irritation with the world.
The final stage of the journey was a familiar one. The great cedar of Lebanon trees dominated the approach to the park, their level spreading branches distinguishing them immediately from everything else. The botanists had had severe problems, first in locating suitable ancient timber from which to clone the species, and then in forcing the trees to maturity. Servalan had been insistent however - according to historical documents, the species was appropriate to the setting of her reconstructed country manor. Her persistence had been rewarded. With suitable persuasion, the botanists had not only achieved success with the cedars, but had also managed to reproduce a large number of extinct varieties of rose bush.
Servalan had never flown a craft along this route herself of course. Once she had achieved high rank, she had always insisted on being piloted wherever she went on official business. What was the point of having power if one couldn't demonstrate it? She'd kept in practice though, especially after her overthrow as President. It paid to be prepared for an emergency.
The flyer descended gently to a landing on the front lawn, to be met by an armed guard of six men. Servalan found that mildly amusing: six men to control herself and Vila. As the flyer's door opened, she stepped out, acting as though the escort were there to honour her rather than to prevent any escape attempt. Vila scrambled out after her. With an ability uniquely his own, he managed to slip on the damp grass and fall on his bottom. Servalan waited disdainfully while Vila regained his footing, then gestured to their escort to lead the way.
The presidential palace seemed little changed. The growth of the smaller trees was the most visible difference. Walking up the steps to the entrance, she felt a sense of familiarity, of coming home. She had never spent much time here, but many empty hours in space had been whiled away studying the plans, and deciding how she would like it to appear. It was hers in a way that no other place was. Returning here, as a prisoner, reminded Servalan in a unique way of just how much she had lost.
Their escort marched them into the entrance hall with its feature staircase, then down a side passage in the direction of her personal office. That was a relief. Servalan had had a terrible, irrational fear that the journey would end in the cellar. There had been moments in her life that were worse than her imprisonment in the cellar, but they were very few in number.
Walking down the corridor, they came to her old office. There were another six men on guard there, making the corridor very cramped. One listened to something over his communicator, then spoke. "Send them in, but be careful. Don't try and be heroes. Remember, he has a gun on the President." He nodded to Vila. "Open the door."
"Suppose somebody in there tries to shoot me?"
"That's why you're opening it. You'll just have to hope your friend recognises you, won't you?"
"Avon?" asked Vila hesitantly.
"Avon," confirmed the trooper.
Vila turned the handle and opened the door a couple of centimetres. "Don't shoot, Avon. It's me, Vila." He took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
Servalan followed closely behind him. She closed the door behind her, and looked around, assessing the situation. The cream painted office was much as she recalled it, but it was no longer hers. Clutter piled on every available surface. Piles of documents, computer records and diagrams covered the desk. In Servalan's experience, there were two types of people. Those who liked to give the appearance of being totally busy, and those who liked to imply their total control of the situation by having no work in sight at all. President Jordan was obviously one of the former, even as she herself preferred the latter tactic.
Jordan himself she recognised from his pictures. Right now, he looked extremely uncomfortable. Hardly surprising, given that Avon had one arm tightly around his neck, and was pressing a gun into his side.
"Dad!" Nova's shriek of delight made Servalan start. She glanced wryly at Avon, and thought she caught a fleeting look of sympathy in his eye as Nova launched herself into Vila's arms. Love was so simple for the young. Then Servalan saw Orac, resting on the chair Nova had so precipitantly vacated.
Orac! The computer represented everything that she had wanted for so long. Everything that she had lost since she joined Avon. Power, prestige, independence, the things that had always drawn her. What had her time with Avon given her? A life on the run, imprisonment, a child who didn't love her? She watched Avon, his hand still steady on the gun, his attention on Vila and Nova, and a distant look on his face. What was he thinking of? Old times with Vila on the Liberator? Servalan felt a flash of resentment at a past that excluded her.
Avon looked tired, his face drawn, his eyes shadowed. Servalan found herself uncertain as to her own feelings about him. She resented Avon for what had happened to her over the last few days. She hated herself at the same time for her own actions. Illogically, her own guilt made her resent him the more. He did look tired. Had he been worried about her? Stupid question. Of course he had. She probably looked tired herself. Tired, plain - ordinary.
Ordinary. The thought brought a flash of anger. She was Servalan!
Jordan was staring directly at her. Unconsciously, Servalan straightened her shoulders and stood more upright. His presence made a difference to the situation. Orac alone might not give her the power she craved, but Orac and Jordan together? Such an opportunity might never come again. She had to seize her chance at power now, or else forgo it forever. Mind made up, she turned her attention to Avon, and nearly lost her resolution when he gave her an unexpected smile. Everything had its price, and the price of power was - Avon.
Vila's voice broke into her thoughts. "Where's Minna?"
"She's dead," said Avon neutrally.
"Dead? She can't be. You said she was free." Vila turned accusingly on Servalan.
"She was alive when I last saw her."
Nova interrupted. "Avon wouldn't let her come with us."
Servalan tapped Avon gently on the shoulder. "You can't concentrate on two things at once. Give me the gun while you sort things out with Vila."
Avon hesitated a moment, indecision showing briefly in his face, then he stood aside and handed over the weapon.
Servalan watched Avon with regret as he turned to his old friend. He'd been a wonderful lover. Waiting until Avon's attention was completely taken up by Vila and Nova, she rested a hand lightly on Jordan's shoulder. "What would it be worth if I could give you your freedom and Orac?" she murmured.
Jordan kept his voice low. "Three million credits."
"I'm far more expensive than that." Servalan traced a finger up the side of his jaw and around the back of his neck, while her gun never wavered from its position. "I want a seat on the High Council, immunity from prosecution and five million credits."
"Not at all. After I've heroically rescued you from this group of terrorists, I'm sure you can easily arrange my return to politics, especially after you make it clear that my sole reason for being involved with them was to obtain Orac for the Federation."
"Avon claimed you were married to him."
Servalan cursed inwardly. "A necessary step to gain his confidence. Besides," she purred, "divorce is so easy to arrange." Servalan touched Jordan lightly on the lips, a gesture he could read any way he chose. "Attractive men aren't hard to find."
Jordan changed tack. "I couldn't get you a seat on the High Council."
"Make me a senator then. There are several appointments under your control that carry an ex-officio position on the High Council. With Orac, I can run a better intelligence service than you've ever had before." She smiled, and gestured lightly with the gun. "I need you alive. Do you think Avon will let you live, even if you meet his terms?"
The heated discussion on the other side of the room was dying down; Vila, looking miserable, was sitting on a chair, with Nova on his knee hugging him tightly. Avon, emotions tightly under control stood watching them.
"Do we have a deal?" Servalan asked Jordan quickly.
Triumph filled her as Avon turned around to see the gun in her hand aimed unerringly at him. After all these years, she'd finally won. A Pyrrhic victory perhaps, but a victory none the less. Exultation seized her, invigorated her, blinding her to everything except her own success.
Avon froze. Pain, so familiar as to be almost a friend, flooded him. He had loved Servalan, wanted her, needed her, and now, like everything else that he had ever loved in his life, he had lost her. He'd known the risk when he gave her the gun. Servalan loved him - but she also loved power. One of the two had had to win out in the end. With Orac in the picture, there had only been two possible options for Avon, to kill Servalan or to trust her. Nothing else mattered any more. If he had killed her, it would have ended here just the same. He'd rebuilt his life around Servalan, and now she was gone.
"Avon," asked Vila in bewilderment. "Why did you give her the gun?"
"I was a fool," he replied bitterly.
How could he explain his reasons when he barely understood them himself. It hadn't just been love; it was the fact that he had been wrong about Blake. He'd wanted to give Servalan the chance that he'd never given Blake on Gauda Prime. He couldn't have borne another death like Blake's - the shattered faith in the dying man's eyes would never leave him.
He could have postponed the situation with Servalan. But what would it have gained him? Endless nights worrying if she would try and steal a weapon in the dark to threaten him. Trying to keep an eye on Orac at every moment and having her know what he was doing. Leaving her and taking Orac for himself? Every possibility simply led to the slow death of everything that had been between them. At least this way it was all over quickly.
Avon walked slowly towards Servalan as if in a dream. Everything seemed unnaturally clear to him: the colour of her eyes, the dark sheen of her hair, the fine creases in her skin. It seemed to him that she was everything he had ever loved, so close to himself, and yet so different. He didn't even want to kill her anymore, just to die with this memory of her intact.
She was talking, and the words in her cool, collected voice dimly penetrated his brain.
"I owe you so much, Avon. Without you I wouldn't be here now. I'm not totally ungrateful, you have an hour to get away from here before anyone comes after you."
No, said Avon's inner self, that was unfair. He didn't want an hour. He wanted to die here and now while he was at peace, not to be forced to live, to run, to remember, to have to live with betrayal yet again. He took another step forward and saw Servalan's finger tighten on the trigger.
A hand tugged at his sleeve. "Avon, she'll kill you."
Didn't Nova understand, that was the whole idea?
"Avon, come on!"
The dream bubble burst, letting unwelcome reality in. Hate entered, hate and the need to survive to gain revenge. With no word of protest, Avon allowed Nova to lead him out of the room, and down the passage that had cost them so much effort to enter.
"Stop!" Servalan's voice lashed out at him.
"Why? You've had your chance at theatricals. I've no intention of letting them escape. I'm going to call the guard."
Servalan said calmly, "I promised Avon an hour."
"And you value your promises?" Jordan replied sceptically.
"Not in the least bit. I give him an hour because I choose to do so." She smiled coldly at Jordan. "Besides, I need the time for other reasons."
A partnership that had only existed for a few minutes was beginning to look fragile already. Jordan flared in anger. "I don't give a damn about what you want to do with the time. I just want that madman!"
Madman? It wasn't the word Servalan would have used herself. Intense, passionate perhaps, but certainly not mad. Avon was sane, coldly and dangerously so. For the first time since she had turned the gun on him, Servalan paused to consider Avon's reaction to the events of the last few minutes. He'd shown no sign of any emotion at all, except for a final flash in his eyes when he'd allowed Nova to lead him away. He was hurt of course, but Avon was a survivor. He'd recover, and when he recovered he would try to kill her; and so, inevitably, the game would start all over again. The board was different now, and there were new pieces, but the players were still the same.
So why was she letting him go? Nova and Vila wouldn't get far without Avon. She wanted Nova to be free, and the girl wouldn't be happy without Vila. Crazy, that she should entrust her only child to a delta thief, but Servalan had seen them when they embraced each other. The only gift she could give Nova now was to leave her with someone who loved her. Having Avon's daughter with her personally would have been an incredible political handicap. Nova then was part of it, but Servalan was ready to admit that Avon's hold over her was strong. Everything they had shared together could not be shaken off in an instant. It would take time to eradicate him from her feelings. So, she had chosen to let them escape, but she would make good use of the time.
Keeping the gun carefully trained on Jordan, Servalan swept a load of papers off the desk onto the floor. "Get Orac. Put him there," she instructed.
Jordan didn't move. "Why?" he demanded.
"You're about to get a personal demonstration of Orac's abilities."
Moving cautiously, Jordan picked up Orac from the chair he had been resting on, and placed him on the cleared surface.
"Orac," Servalan stated, "I need complete details of all personal computer files kept by President Ret Jordan. Particularly, I want to know details of his finances, any illegal activities he is involved in, and details of his personal life."
"You wish to blackmail him?" queried Orac.
Jordan was on his feet, furious and indignant, restrained only by the gun pointing at him. "By what right do you meddle in my personal affairs!"
"Survival," Servalan replied. "It may be that you intend to keep the deal we made, but I prefer to have a little insurance. If I should die, or you fail to meet the terms we agreed, Orac will ensure that the information I have requested is distributed to the entire High Council..."
Light flashed off the knife as it spun in the air, coming down to land hilt first in Avon's hand. He tossed it again, and watched its lazy turn, its silent promise of death before it smacked into his palm once more.
"Are you going to play with that thing all day?" asked Vila plaintively.
Avon caught the knife once more, shifted his grip, and threw it hard into the trunk of a tree where it stuck, quivering. "Why not?" he inquired. "Do you have anything better to do?"
"Yes, worry about whether they're going to find us!"
Avon recovered the knife and tucked it in the top of his boot. "We'll know within a few hours. The job I did on the flight recorder should stand up to inspection."
"If Servalan wasn't having us followed all the way. If we were flying low enough to be below the radar horizon."
"Vila. Shut up."
Some things never changed, Vila thought gloomily. No sooner was Avon back in his life, than they were on the run from Servalan, and he was being insulted. Still, even with that, it was better than being in prison.
He was feeling a bit uneasy about Avon though. This was practically the first time Avon had spoken since they'd left the presidential palace. Fleeing at breakneck speed down the underground tunnel, they had boarded a small flyer hidden at the other end and embarked on a heart stopping flight, skimming over the tree tops. Avon had landed the flyer in a clearing in the forest which had turned out to be free of trees simply because it was waterlogged. Vila and Nova had got clear, but only at the cost of being half covered in mud. Avon had stayed behind to work on the flight recorder, laying a false trail, then he'd set the flyer on autopilot and let it take off. There had been a nasty moment when Vila had thought the flyer was stuck in the mud, but with a sudden lurch it had freed itself and careered through the air, narrowly missing the tops of the trees on the far side of the clearing, before heading off into the distance.
Avon's silence was understandable in its way - after all, he'd got them into this mess, and nothing he could say would alter that. Minna was dead, Servalan and half the Federation were after them, and Avon was playing games. Vila was fed up. Just because Avon wasn't going to do anything didn't mean that he had to stay here forever. Vila called Nova to him, and started walking determinedly in a southerly direction.
"Vila," Avon's voice called gently after him. "The dome's in the opposite direction."
Vila turned back, trying not to show his irritation. "Then why didn't we land there in the first place and save ourselves a walk?" He looked mournfully at the trees and tangled undergrowth before him.
"Because the flyer would have been detected."
"How long will we have to walk to get there?" Vila asked mournfully.
"A day, maybe two."
They were going to be hungry by then. "We could look for some nuts while we're walking," Vila suggested.
"You do that."
Vila protested, but there was no answer. Avon had the knife out again, and was tossing it, up and down, back and forth, as if mesmerised by the motion. There was blood on his fingers where he'd missed a catch and caught the knife by the blade; but if he was aware of it, he gave no sign.
Servalan looked at her dinner partner over the candlelight. Ret Jordan was good looking, which helped a little. His steel grey hair was combed neatly back from his face, and his long straight nose led down to a pair of thin, well drawn lips. A strong personality, but having known him a month she was beginning to understand him and to find ways of subtly dominating him. Unsubtle ways too, of course. If she hadn't had a crude instant hold over him, Servalan was positive he would never have kept to the terms of their original agreement. Fortunately Orac's search had produced results - most people had something to hide, and Jordan was no exception.
Orac, naturally, was crucial to their arrangements. Both Jordan and Servalan were determined to limit Orac's use to themselves. The rest of the High Council were not to be given access. Servalan would have preferred to cut Jordan out entirely if that had been possible, but given Orac's independent nature, it was impossible to program the computer to respond only to one person. Still, Servalan reflected, even that had its uses: if Avon could have persuaded Orac to ignore her, he would have done so long ago.
Orac was in fact choosing to be difficult. Some tasks he would carry out; on other occasions, the computer would refuse entirely to co-operate. The little matter of Servalan's divorce for example. Since Orac had flatly refused to alter the records to remove her marriage to Avon, Servalan had been forced to go through the tedium of filing a divorce request through the official channels and waiting the statutory period for notification. Avon hadn't objected of course. He was probably unaware of the action - after all, he had no way of receiving mail without giving away his location. When the divorce was finally confirmed, Servalan felt none of the relief she had expected - just loss, as though something had been taken from her, without her even realising it.
The meal was nearly over now, a fine liqueur complementing the fruits of the dessert. Servalan sipped the amber fluid, taking in its strong smell of oranges. She found that she appreciated such luxuries all the more for having had to do without them for so long. Power brought the finer things in life, besides being worth having for its own sake and the challenges it brought. Which reminded her, there was the problem of the uprising on Janos Four to be considered. "Ret," she asked, "have you decided what to do about the Janos Four situation yet?"
"I'm having a word with the Supreme Commander tomorrow. I'd be interested in your opinion as to how many men we need to send though."
She replaced her glass thoughtfully on the table. "I hadn't realised that you'd decided to send the troops in."
"What else would I do? You of all people should know the necessity of dealing firmly with rebels."
That was a warning if Servalan had ever heard one: let her show the merest hint of rebel sympathies, and her position would be in extreme danger. Which was ironic, as her argument had nothing to do with rebel feelings at all. It was based on simple economics. She chose her words carefully. "Janos Four is the main supplier of grain to Rio dome. If the rebellion on Janos Four gets out of hand, there will be food rationing and possibly riots in Rio next year. Whether the Janos rebels are defeated or not, there will be a cost to the Federation of between twenty and forty million credits to maintain the troops. There will also be a drop in food production."
Jordan speared a lychee with his fork. "Servalan, even if there is a financial cost, we can't afford to give planets independence. Letting rebels succeed merely ensures that their ideas spread and infect other planets."
"Have you any idea why they are fighting?" she inquired.
"Freedom!" he scoffed. "All these stupid rebel ideals."
Servalan laughed. "People don't fight from a love of freedom. That's just rebel propaganda. I did some checking with Orac. Janos Four was peaceful until the planetary governor increased the phosphate tax by fifty percent. Execute the governor, reduce the tax to its former level - you'll lose one and a half million credits tax revenue, but you'll save the cost of a war and be popular as well."
"I'll consider it."
Servalan doubted whether he would. People tended to think in certain set patterns and rejected any data that didn't fit the mould. She hadn't even bothered to pass on Orac's claim that a further reduction in the phosphate tax would increase agricultural production and so produce an actual increase in revenue from the sales tax on the grain.
People didn't rebel just for the sake of it - they always had a firm reason. Apart from the few inevitable idealists, no one would risk their lives for an idea. How many wars had been fought as face saving exercises, when an examination of the underlying causes would have found an alternative solution? It wasn't that she agreed with Avon, it was just common sense.
"People don't really want freedom," she had said on the Sally B.
"Of course they don't," Avon replied.
"I thought that's what you were fighting for," Servalan said in surprise.
"That's what Blake thought he was fighting for. Most people just want to be left in peace: they don't give a damn what form of government they've got as long as they're safe and well fed."
"That's what the Federation gives people - security."
"Really?" Avon answered lazily.
Eton interrupted, "If the people feel so happy, how come you need all those troops to keep them under control?"
"Insurrectionists!" Servalan retorted. "Without people like Avon there wouldn't be any need for troops."
Avon smiled. "My efforts at convincing people to fight have usually been a dismal failure. The rebels I knew were already fighting when I met them. Anyway, I thought we'd just agreed that people don't really fight for freedom's sake?"
"This syrup is too sweet."
Servalan started. "What?"
"I said," Jordan repeated in irritation, "the syrup is too thick for the fruit. It drowns the flavour."
Servalan looked at him. "Sorry, my mind was on other things."
She ran a long, perfectly manicured finger along his hand. "Can't you guess?"
She had become Jordan's lover, of course. Sleeping with him gave her that little extra bit of influence. Re-entering politics after such a long interval, Servalan needed every edge she could get. The fact that Jordan was married with two children was irrelevant. Servalan despised him for his infidelity even as she seduced him. Technically, Jordan was good in bed. If there was a fault in their relationship, it lay with her. Servalan found herself unable to respond to him. She faked her responses to his love making, and knew that he never noticed the difference. She felt cheapened like a prostitute, and the fact that it was by her own choice made it no easier to bear.
She tried not to think of Avon. Sometimes she even succeeded.
The bar was crowded and the air was thick with the smell of cheap narcotics. Avon nursed his drink carefully. His fifth this evening, but he wasn't quite drunk yet. The crowd swirled around him, surrounding him, but leaving him alone. The music beat out loudly, ignored by all, and the hubbub of voices blurred into the background. The girl sat at the far end of the bar, her age indeterminate in the smoky light. Silhouetted against the once white wall, her skin was pale, her hair short and dark. He'd never seen her before, but she was available. In the half light he could even imagine she resembled Servalan a little. Women were all whores. The only thing that varied was the price you paid. Avon made his way unevenly towards her. "You always were a slut."
Legs crossed on the bar stool, she hitched her short skirt even higher. "Twenty credits." She looked him over. "In advance."
Why not? The urge for sex - or was it simply revenge? - was within him and growing. He fumbled in his pocket for the money. She took the coins and ran her thumbnail over one, checking the quality of the casting before nodding. Slipping an arm around Avon's waist, she led him wordlessly out of a back door. They walked down a short passageway and entered into her room.
Furnished mainly in red and decorated in a confusion of fringes and beads, the room offended Avon's sensibilities. The reek of cheap perfume covering other, older smells, assailed his nostrils. She slipped off her skirt and blouse - no names, no introductions - this was simply a business transaction to be got over with as quickly as possible. She handed him a condom, and he looked at it blankly.
"If you don't want to use one," she said, "you'll have to pay forty credits."
Avon hadn't got the money to spare and wasn't overly bothered in any case. Drink betrayed his hands, making him fumble as he tried to put it on. The woman - seen close up she was too old to call a girl - took over and positioned it for him. Their coupling was animal, frantic, and soon over. Avon bit her hard, not even realising what he had done, until she sat up afterwards and rubbed her neck, and he saw the marks he had made. He gave her an extra three credits by way of compensation and left without any attempt at conversation.
He wouldn't come back here again. He never lay with the same woman twice. No ties, no commitments, not even to a prostitute.
Vila was waiting for him when Avon got back to their lodgings.
"You're drunk," Vila said accusingly.
It should have been amusing - he was drunk, and Vila was sober; but he didn't care enough to laugh.
"Did you get the component you were after?" Vila asked.
Avon stared blankly at Vila before collapsing on his bed; then he remembered and fished in his pocket. He fumbled deeper, but came up with nothing. "I must have lost it."
"Did you ever have it in the first place?" said Vila angrily. "Can you actually remember?"
That was unfair, thought Avon. He could still remember. He'd visited the third station up the rapid transit line, raiding one of the old control rooms for spare parts. It had seemed a good idea once, to use the obsolete equipment to build a computer free of tariel cells. Now he wasn't quite sure why he had wanted to do it. In spite of Nova's interest and Vila's encouragement, there seemed little point to it.
Maybe it was the suppressants in the diet. Money was running low now. They couldn't afford to eat much from the alpha areas. What Vila could steal was limited. Good hauls needed inside knowledge. Without Orac, and without his old network of friends and informers, Vila was handicapped.
Getting work was impossible. Their identity papers would never stand up to close scrutiny. Until Avon was able to hack into the city computers and establish computer identities to match the paper documents, they were stymied. The problem was how to do it without being spotted by Orac.
The old RT computers used a totally different set of components from those Avon was familiar with. It was proving harder than he had expected to be able to work with them, let alone to interface them into the city systems. Once Avon would have found it an exciting challenge; now, he just worked methodically, lacking inspiration, and frequently following dead ends.
Maybe it was the suppressants in the diet. Or maybe he just didn't care anymore.
In the evenings, he got drunk.
The council chamber was almost full. Servalan watched as the last few members filed in to take their places on the green leather seats. The chamber was old, even if it was not as old as the dome itself, and the style of its construction and decoration was archaic. Smooth ribs bore the weight of the ceiling, and met in the centre to form an ornate stylised flower. In between the ribs was a painted design of the night sky. From the position of Orion, Servalan judged it to be a winter sky - always assuming that the artist had drawn the correct view for this latitude. She wondered how many of the people here would recognise Orion, let alone be able to place it correctly in the sky. Those born on other worlds would know different constellations. Of those born on Earth, how many had ever left the safe interior of the domes? Many dome dwellers suffered from agoraphobia, Space Command rejected all those with such defects as unsuitable for the service. Men had been known to go insane in space when they were unable to cope with the concept of there being nothing at all outside the frail vessel in which they travelled. Others had been driven equally mad by the confined spaces within ships and the long months trapped with the same small group of people.
As the last few councillors sat down, her view of the great screen at the front of the chamber became clear. Servalan found an odd fascination in the ancient picture. As Supreme Commander of the space force, she had not been on the High Council; as President, she had sat on the dais with the panorama behind her. The display was impressive - great gouts of flame leapt and writhed from the stricken city below. Smoke coiled lazily to the sky, not yet obscuring the view. As the meeting progressed, the smoke would slowly cover the city, until it was totally obscured from sight. Here was the heart and origin of the Federation, the legacy of the atomic wars almost three hundred years ago. Here was the reason why the High Council always met on Earth, the permanent reminder of the results of uncontrolled warfare. Where the land had not been destroyed utterly, the fallout had left its deadly legacy. Only the sheer impossibility of evacuating the millions of survivors, and a determination that the original home of mankind should not be given up, had prevented Earth from being abandoned totally.
London was the oldest of all the domes, built by a government with the foresight and the money to finance such a defence. Its people packed into the smallest possible space, proofed against radiation and protected by force shields against anything but the most determined attack, London had survived the destruction to become the seat of the Federation that had arisen from the ashes of war.
Earth had not been the only planet to suffer, but it had borne the worst of the attacks. The causes of the fighting had been many and varied, some lost forever when the records were destroyed in the fires that had burned across the planet. Some facts were undoubtedly distorted by later historians; but one thing stood out clearly - among the radioactive craters that littered the planet were the great strongholds of the ancient religions. No more would there be disputes over the holy city of Jerusalem, no more would pilgrims travel to Mecca, never again would the river Ganges flow past the great city of Delhi. All were gone, and in seeking a simple cause for a war that had so many origins, the rulers of the new Federation chose to blame religion. With an unexpected degree of unity, and a total evenness of application, they banned all religions, even starting the calendar afresh in an attempt to eliminate all memory of the birth of a certain Jewish carpenter. Yet, as is the way with things that exist largely in the heart and mind, the concepts of belief did not vanish totally. They lingered on, underground, in the literature, and even in the unthinking phrases of everyday language.
The city burned on - hundreds of years dead, its death throes captured by satellite, it died once more for the edification or entertainment of the onlookers.
Servalan checked the data pad in her hand. The first order of the day was Helotrix. Peaceful for a decade, the planet had simmered into rebellion when a way of reversing the effects of Pylene 50 had been discovered. Initial action by the Federation had been too little and too late. Now the entire planet was in open revolt, threatening to disrupt an entire sector.
The man sitting next to her looked over her shoulder. "They're going to have to do something pretty drastic," he commented.
Servalan smiled sweetly at him. "Councillor Kean, isn't it? You were representing Mars when I was President."
"I'm flattered that you remember." Kean replied. "I don't think I ever spoke to you personally."
"I never forget a face." Idiot, Servalan thought. She had studied the day's seating plan as a matter of course, and had Orac present her with a basic biography of all those seated close to her. Playing to Kean's vanity, she asked him, "How do you think the Helotrix situation should be handled?"
"Send in the fleet," he responded. "Kill enough of them, seize the key centres, impose a new governor. They'll soon knuckle under."
"Rubbish," came a voice from the row below. "Do that, and you just store up trouble for the future. Why not treat them like human beings and give them a voice in their own government? If the Outer Worlds had representation on the High Council, they wouldn't give half the trouble that they do now."
Singh. Orac's identification wasn't necessary here. Servalan remembered Singh distinctly from her time as President - he had always opposed her. Never quite enough of a threat to be worth eliminating, the man's liberal views had none the less made him a constant irritant.
"The Outer Worlds are incapable of effective self government," Servalan snapped. Come to that, she had doubts about many of the Inner Worlds. Why should being a founder member of the Federation automatically give a planet the right to be represented on the High Council? Especially when they elected people like Singh to represent them.
Everyone around Servalan rose to their feet, and she became aware that President Jordan had entered the chamber. Rising briefly herself, she then settled back into her seat to hear the opening speeches. As expected, once the preliminaries were over, the Helotrix issue rose to the fore. The Minister of Defence rose to take the stand.
"The situation on Helotrix has deteriorated further. Our latest information is that the Governor's residence has been seized by the rebels, and the governor himself is being held hostage while the rebels demand terms. This position is unacceptable. With the instability on neighbouring worlds, it is imperative that firm and effective action be taken immediately. Ever since Helotrix was first annexed by the Federation seventy five years ago, it has been unstable. The proposal I am putting before this council today, is that the present population of Helotrix be eliminated by the use of biological weapons, and new colonists be brought in to replace them."
"No!" Servalan wasn't even aware that she had risen to her feet. Her voice amplified by the sound system echoed around the chamber, and all eyes turned toward her in surprise.
"Senator Servalan," said the Minister in surprise, "I did not expect to hear you objecting to this proposal. Your elimination of the planet Auron was a textbook example of the use of biological warfare. On what grounds do you base your objection?"
On what grounds? Servalan thought frantically. I don't know. I don't even know why I'm standing here.
"How many children have you killed? How many mothers have you left grieving? How many planets have you destroyed? How can you live with what you are!"
"Avon. What did I do? I never thought of them as people."
Words came to her without conscious thought. "Auron was a perfect opportunity because of its isolationist stance. Apart from exchanging representatives with a few neutral worlds such as Lindor, they had almost no contact at all with the rest of the galaxy. The plague spread no further - this would not be the case with Helotrix."
"Thank you Senator. Your point is noted, however, in future will you please refrain from speaking unless you are called upon to do so."
Servalan resumed her seat, quietly seething inside. How dare he dismiss her so casually!
The debate dragged on for a couple of hours, without any firm conclusion being reached, before they broke for lunch. Servalan made her way to the dining room, and noted with some annoyance that Singh had followed her.
"Do you mind if I share your table?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered pointedly.
"Too bad," he murmured in polite tones. "The others all seem to be filling up now." He took a seat opposite her and caught a waiter's eye with the familiarity of long practice. "I'll have asparagus soup, followed by the souffle. I want my vegetables lightly cooked, and the rabka baked not boiled."
"Baked not boiled - very well sir. Madam?"
"The same, but with boiled rabka." Servalan couldn't be bothered looking through the menu: she was curious as to why Singh had sought her out. She reached out for the carafe, and slowly poured herself a glass of water - there was no point in seeming too eager.
Singh watched her with a touch of amusement in his swarthy face that suddenly and achingly reminded her of Avon. "Do you want to know why I'm here?"
Servalan gestured languidly with one hand, displaying her long nails to perfection. "I'm sure you'll tell me whether I want to know or not."
"You haven't changed Servalan." He leaned forward, elbows resting on the table to look hard into her face. "Or have you? If I didn't know you better, I would have sworn that you cared what happened to the Helots."
"Of course I care." she retorted. "I have a responsibility to them, as I do to all Federation citizens."
"No, not like that Servalan. Not the official mouthings that mean nothing, the statements of policy that you used to scatter so blithely around. I think you had some other reason." He picked up a knife and tapped its hilt against the table. "I want to know what that reason was."
She smiled, a smile that felt false even to herself. "Simply a desire not to reduce the available pool of slave labour."
"I see." Singh sat up abruptly. "If you will excuse me, I have just noticed a vacant place on another table. I will not intrude upon your meal any longer."
Servalan let him go. Choosing Singh's political way of life was a possibility, but one that would mean relegation to a minority party in the government. Servalan had power now. She didn't intend to lose it.
Avon clutched at the door frame of their too small room and tried to retain his balance. The world blurred unsteadily around him and he felt slightly sick. "I need to lie down."
"Go somewhere else," Vila snapped. "Go join the drug addicts on seventeen south. You're no better than they are!" His words had a venom that penetrated even Avon's befuddled state.
"Dad?" asked a nervous voice. Engrossed in their argument, neither man had noticed Nova's hesitant approach. Dressed in an old shirt for a nightgown, she stood there in her bare feet, looking frightened.
"Did we wake you up?" Vila asked.
Nova nodded silently.
"What do you want?" Avon asked wearily.
Nova hugged herself. "I'm scared." In an almost inaudible whisper, she added, "I don't like it when you argue."
Vila gave Avon a "now look what you've done" look. "Its all right love," he said soothingly. "Avon's just leaving." He glared at Avon to emphasise the point. "Aren't you?"
Nova held onto Vila's arm. "I don't want him to go."
"Why?" Vila demanded in exasperation.
Nova looked down at her feet. "I don't know."
Vila spread his hands out in defeat. "I give in," he said furiously. "All right, you can stay, but you're going to have to start pulling your weight."
Without waiting for any further comments, Avon staggered over to his bed and collapsed on top of it, not even bothering to get undressed.
The morning found Avon with a splitting headache. Searching under the bed, he looked in vain for a bottle.
"It's no use," Nova said. "Dad's hidden it."
"I don't know. He took it out somewhere."
Avon looked around, but Vila was nowhere to be seen. "Where's he gone?"
"He said he was going to find something to sober you up."
Avon winced. Being sober had limited appeal. On the other hand, anything that would ease the pain in his head had to be considered. After drinking down a couple of glasses of water to try and get rid of the taste in the back of his throat, he debated the idea of breakfast. He tried dialling up a piece of plain toast on the food processor, but nothing happened.
"It's out of concentrate," Nova offered helpfully.
That was just wonderful. The processor was a bottom of the range model, but at least it supplied something hot when it worked. Avon thumped it in irritation, then gave up and plonked himself down on the bed once more.
"I wish we had some decent food like Mum used to cook." Nova sounded wistful.
Avon snorted. "You'll never have that again."
"Dad said..." Nova abruptly stopped whatever she had been about to say.
"And just what did Vila say? Not that Vila ever did have anything worthwhile to say."
The insult to her father stung Nova. "Dad said that you didn't used to give in so easily. He said you used to care about what you ate and what you wore." She looked at the clothes that Avon still hadn't bothered to change from the night before. "He said he never thought he'd see the day when you'd let Servalan defeat you."
Avon had heard it all before from Vila, he usually let it wash over him, water off a duck's back. Somehow though, it sounded worse coming from Nova. "And just what do you expect me to do about it?" he asked resignedly.
"Stop drinking. Please." There was a genuine appeal in her voice which surprised him.
"Why should you care?"
"Because - " Nova's voice faltered for a moment. "Because Orac used to tell me stories about you and Blake and all the others. I liked you in the stories."
"And you don't like me now." It wasn't a question.
"I do," she denied. "Well, a little bit," she added cautiously.
At least she was honest about it. Servalan had lied to him. Servalan had lied about everything. Avon felt sick; he could feel the bile rising in his throat. What he needed was a drink. He'd feel better if he could just have a drink...
Nova's hand touched him on the shoulder and he looked at her in surprise. "Father," she said hesitantly, "please don't drink any more."
Nova never called him father. The reminder of their relationship made Avon uneasy. It suggested she cared about him. It reminded him that he had obligations to her that he would rather forget. It forced him to ask himself what was going to happen to Nova. They didn't have much money left - most of what he had brought to Earth with him had been in the form of credit for an identity it was no longer safe to use. What he'd had in cash was gone. Avon was no longer quite sure where. Was Nova going to grow up as an uneducated delta, forever trapped in poverty?
He had an obligation. His head hurt, but he did have an obligation, and he'd allowed himself to ignore it. The computer parts strewn over the table mocked him. It had been days since he'd last touched them. Perhaps if he concentrated?
There was only one chair. Avon pulled it round to the side where the salvaged monitor screen rested and started to try and work out where he had left off.
"Can I help?" Nova asked.
Why not? Her hands were probably steadier than his. Avon traced the main connection for the communications port and passed Nova a laser probe to connect up the wires. It was going to be a real mess when finished, but provided he could figure out what all he components actually did, it ought to work. The board he was working on blurred under his eyes. Avon sat back and rubbed them. His eyelids had an odd gritty feel to them.
Vila stood in front of him. Avon hadn't even noticed him returning.
"Here, drink this," Vila ordered.
The beaker held an oily yellow liquid. It looked repulsive.
"Is it going to make me feel any better?" Avon demanded.
Vila shrugged. "It's the same stuff you used to force down my throat on Xenon Base."
Avon swallowed the bitter tasting liquid with a grimace. "Couldn't you put something in to improve the flavour?"
"You always told me it was good enough for a drunken idiot."
The words hung between them. Another barrier. Something else to resent.
"Dad," Nova said, "Avon's trying to do some work today. He really is." Her support was unexpected, but welcome nonetheless.
Whatever was in that potion, it was certainly fast acting. The fuzziness in Avon's head was beginning to clear already. He blinked to clear his eyes.
"Can you really do anything with that pile of junk?" Vila asked dubiously.
Avon studied the heap. It wasn't always necessary to know exactly how a part worked as long as you knew what it was supposed to do. The complete lack of any manual was half the problem he faced. The T32s for example. He'd identified those as short term memory stores. The only problem there was that he didn't have enough of them. He held one up to the light. "I need some more of these if I'm to make any progress."
"More excuses, Avon?"
Avon's eyes flashed briefly. "I said, I needed some more T32s."
Vila looked hesitant, then accepted the statement. "All right, I'll get some. If I go a couple of stations down the RT line I should be able to find some. Anything else you want while I'm at it?"
"Some more fine wire, a couple of R17s, and, if you can find it, documentation on the signalling conventions."
"We haven't found any documents so far," Vila objected.
"So look harder."
Vila ignored him. "Coming, Nova?"
Nova cast a quick glance at Avon, seeking his acceptance.
She was getting too close to him. Avon deliberately shut her out. "I've got a lot of work to do. You'd only be in the way." Turning to his work, Avon avoided looking at her face, not wishing to see her reaction. He didn't look up until he heard the door close behind them.
The station was crowded: it was the middle of the morning rush. That suited Vila. With this many people around, the scanners would lose individuals in the crowd. In any case, half the cameras were only for show. There were too many public areas for all of them to be under active scrutiny. Only in times of crisis would all the scanners have people actively monitoring them. The video record would normally be saved for a couple of weeks and then wiped.
Keeping half an eye out for Nova, Vila worked his way towards the front of the crowd. There wouldn't be room for everyone on the train when it arrived. There never was at this time of day so it made sense to press forward. As an added bonus, it was easiest to pick pockets where the crowd was most dense. Not that there was very much in the way of pickings here. Your average delta would have nothing more than a few small coins, maybe a comm card or some kind of personal talisman, but nothing that would make a thief rich. Most deltas were superstitious - stood to reason really. When there was no hope of life getting any better, people gambled, collected good luck charms, took drugs, tried anything - anything to give themselves the belief that they had some degree of control over their lives. They even, thought Vila wryly for a moment, tried following revolutionary leaders like Blake. Perhaps, for a while with Blake, he really had believed that things could be different, that there really was hope after all. Finally though, after all the pains and disillusionments of the rebel cause, Vila had found his own peace with Minna. Together, they had been able to produce their own minor victory over the system and bring up their daughter.
Vila looked around for Nova, but he couldn't see her. She would be working the far side of the crowd. They both knew where to meet up if they couldn't get into the same compartment on the train. He could feel the rush of air that preceded the train as it surged silently into the station. The crowd pushed forward as the train decelerated smoothly, each eager to be first on board.
An agonised scream split the air to his right and Vila turned in sudden panic. Nova? It might have been but he wasn't sure. The crowd, lethargic and indifferent, parted before him like slow molasses as he struggled to the end of the platform. As people pressed onto the train like cattle willingly to the slaughter, Vila found more space to move.
A small group huddled around the front of the train, murmuring to each other. There was something on the rail below the platform. A crumpled form that didn't move.
Without conscious thought, Vila scrambled down into the well.
"She fell off the platform," an eager informant told him.
"You'll be smashed when the train moves," added a tall man in tones of relish.
"Lend him a hand," said another, but without moving himself.
"The kid's dead already," the first spectator replied.
Nova lay limp, draped across the single rail. Vila couldn't tell if she was breathing or not. There was blood, too much of it, staining her clothes, masking one side of her face. The onlookers peered down at him, none willing to risk climbing down in front of the automatic train.
"Will it move with something on the rail?" asked one.
"Just slows down for obstacles, doesn't it? Pushes them out of the way."
"It's not right."
A man shrugged. "Can't have the system held up."
Vila lifted his daughter into his arms and tried to climb back to the platform. He couldn't, it was too high up for him to manage with the heavy burden he carried. "Help me!" he shouted in anguish. "For God's sake, help me."
Suddenly hands were there for Vila, as though the request had galvanized the people into action. The crowd that had stood by in fear or indifference now took Nova from him, lifted her to safety and pulled him to the security of the platform, seconds before the train started to move again. With the odd mood shifts of the masses, they crowded around him, offering advice and sympathy.
A young man, perhaps a beta from the look of him, felt for a pulse in Nova's neck. "She's still alive, but I wouldn't give her long." He looked apologetic. "She's losing a lot of blood."
"You stay here with her," offered a middle aged gamma woman. "I'll call the emergency service."
"What's her ID number?" asked the beta. "If they have it in advance, they can use her medical records to have the correct blood ready in advance."
Vila knelt by Nova's body in despair, hands clasped to his face. Didn't they understand? There was no way out. Deltas only got minimal medical treatment at the best of times. The train must have smashed right into Nova when she fell. She probably had broken bones, internal injuries or worse. And that wasn't the final laugh either. Nova couldn't have any medical treatment at all because she didn't exist. Her identity papers were as false as Vila's own. They wouldn't stand up to any scrutiny at all. Most fake papers took identities from people who had died, medical details were certain not to match those of the current holder. Nova was dead. The fact that she hadn't stopped breathing, was merely incidental.
The young beta was trying to stop the blood loss by applying pads of cloth to the worse injuries. He didn't realise. The deltas seeing Vila's white face and shaking sobs knew better - they lived with death. One by one, the lower grades slowly left, each laying a small coin on the body of the girl before them.
"That won't count for much towards hospital bills," observed the young man.
Was he a medical student, Vila wondered. The delta in him gave way to sudden anger. "You upper grades. You think you know it all don't you! That's funeral money they're leaving. Paying medical bills may be a reality for you - down here at the bottom we can't even afford to die, let alone live!"
"I'm sorry." The young man was trying to be sympathetic. Vila almost regretted shouting at him. "Isn't there anything that can be done to help? No friends or relatives with money?"
It suddenly felt cold on the station. Vila stared blankly at the wall in front of him. Posters advertising a local pleasure centre were plastered over those exhorting citizens to improve their personal hygiene. Higher up, the walls were white, bare and sterile.
Relatives. There was only one possible chance, but Vila hesitated to take it. If Servalan chose to help at all, she would never let him go free. Through Vila she'd get to Avon. Servalan might have let the three of them go free once. There was no way, in Vila's estimation, that she would ever do it again.
"Her mother," he offered hesitantly. "She might be willing to help."
The young man was indignant. "What kind of mother would hesitate to help her daughter?"
"The same kind of woman who - " Vila stopped. "Never mind. It doesn't matter. Will Nova live if she gets to a hospital soon enough?"
"I don't know. I'm no expert. She was hit pretty hard, carried along several meters before the train stopped." He placed a hand on Nova's wrist and felt for a pulse. "I know it sounds trite, but while there's life there's hope."
Vila stared down at the pale face before him. He used a corner of his sleeve to dab helplessly at the blood, then fumbled in his pocket for a comm card.
His new companion studied him a moment. "Do you want to stay with her while I make the call? You look pretty shaken."
"It wouldn't be any good." Vila gave him a forlorn smile. "To get through to Servalan, you need to be either a member of the High Council, or on the Federation wanted list."
"And which category do you fall into?"
"Do I look like a High Councillor?" Vila asked rhetorically. He got to his feet and headed for the comm booth at the far and of the platform.
"What are you wanted for?" The question floated after him.
Vila couldn't resist a moment's pride. "Everything!"
It took twenty minutes to contact Servalan. Twenty long agonising minutes arguing with secretaries, minor officials, and people who insisted that the Senator was at an important meeting. "Tell her it's Vila," he begged. "It's about a member of her family. There's been an accident." They wanted his full name. They wanted to know who was involved. Vila refused to tell them. They wanted him to turn on the video. Vila refused. If they identified him, they'd pick him up and do nothing for Nova.
Looking down the platform, he could see the young man still seated beside Nova. Vila wondered for the first time what his name was. He must have missed his train ages ago - he'd be late for his job. Whoever he was, Vila was grateful for his presence. As long as the stranger was there beside Nova, Vila knew that she was still alive.
"Vila." A voice that managed to combine superiority, curiosity and irritation in one.
He switched the video on in relief.
"If this is one of Avon's little games," Servalan said, "you can tell him I'm not going to fall for it." Then she must have taken in his face, because her voice changed. "What's happened? Is he all right?"
He. That left a sour taste in Vila's mouth. "It's not Avon," he said shortly. "It's Nova. She fell in front of an RT train. While I've been getting the runaround from your people, she's been bleeding to death."
"Where are you?" Servalan asked crisply. Vila could see her reach out for a switch on the console in front of her. Whatever crimes Servalan could be accused of, being indecisive was not one of them.
"RT seventeen," he answered. "Terminal fourteen, south-bound." He cut the connection - there was nothing more that could usefully be said to her.
Vila glanced down the platform, then dialled rapidly, and was slightly surprised when Avon actually answered. "Avon, get out of there. Don't ask any questions," he added before the other man could interrupt. "Nova's had an accident. In about half an hour Servalan is going to know where you are. Just run!" Avon's shocked expression lingered on the screen for a moment after Vila hit the cancel button, then vanished in a small blip of light.
With leaden feet Vila returned to Nova. "Any change?" he asked the young beta.
"She came round for a minute or two. She was calling for you."
Vila felt oddly exhausted. His fate was sealed. Servalan probably had the exits cordoned off already. Thinking of Servalan reminded him. Vila addressed his new friend. "You'd better leave. If you're found with me, they'll take you in for questioning."
The beta hesitated, then nodded in acceptance. "I don't know what crime you've committed, but I wish you luck." Getting to his feet, he clasped Vila's shoulder for a moment, then left to join the people standing further down the platform.
Vila sat down cross legged and took Nova's hand in his own.
He had never even asked the young man what his name was.
The corridor stretched on endlessly before Avon, the overhead lights illuminating the way before him. Odd slogans were daubed on the walls, their very age betraying not only the fact that no one had bothered to remove them, but also that no one had had sufficient sense of protest to paint anything new for a long time. This was a run down sector even by the standards of London dome. The air smelt slightly stale as though there was a fault in the air conditioning, and a faint but persistent scent of boiled cabbage suggested a food production plant somewhere in the vicinity. Concentrated vegetable protein, concentrated animal protein, packaged fish - the staples of all the food processors. Add suppressants at source, vary the quantity depending on the grade and the current political situation, and you had food for the masses. Simple, but it worked. In spite of the massive numbers of people crammed into confined spaces, in spite of the high unemployment and lack of opportunities for the delta grades, there were surprisingly few riots or protests. The drugs created apathy, and only something outside of everyday life could snap people briefly out of it.
Avon could feel it in himself. It could have been said that there was a difference because he was at least aware of the drugs, but he was in no mood to fight their effects. He had been walking for well over an hour, following a random selection of stairways and passages. At first he'd travelled quickly to throw off any possible pursuit, then the walking had become an end in its own right. A mind numbing exercise, a penance for a crime he hadn't committed. If he had persuaded Nova to stay with him, she would have been safe. A stupid thought - Avon acknowledged it as such, but it drove him none the less. Through the empty streets, across the plazas with their stunted trees growing in minute plots of soil, past rows of tiny shops with their limited display of goods, he kept on walking. Placing one foot in front of the other. That was all there was left to do.
Vila sat huddled on the end of a bunk, arms wrapped around his knees, head resting on his forearms. He felt slightly sick. It wasn't the interrogation session - that had been over fairly quickly - it was the not knowing. The only time he'd dared to ask about Nova, he'd been curtly told that he was the one answering questions, not asking them. They were probably watching him at this very moment. On the other hand, the lie detector had backed him when he said that he knew nothing of any rebel plans, so perhaps they wouldn't consider him worth observing.
Checking the cell was more a matter of habit than anything else. Vila got slowly to his feet and worked his way around, tapping the walls to note any irregularity in sound, checking the door for any access to the lock. There wasn't anything to be found. Vila wasn't surprised. Cells on Earth were made to a higher standard than those on alien worlds. The tri-system engineers, for example, had always constructed locks with access from both sides of the door, perhaps for ease of maintenance, or perhaps because escape by prisoners was literally inconceivable in their computer controlled society. Thinking of the Liberator's builders made Vila momentarily nostalgic for those long gone days, for friends dead a decade or more. Curling up on the bunk once more, he let himself remember Cally and the others. Even Tarrant didn't seem so bad when looked at through the veil of the intervening years.
The sound of the door opening brought Vila back to the present.
Servalan. She stood nonchalantly in the doorway, calm, casual and elegant. "Congratulations, Vila. I thought our new lie detectors were unbeatable, but it appears that you have achieved the impossible. Now tell me. What is Avon planning?"
Vila shrunk back in silent horror, momentarily speechless.
Servalan smiled, and took a step towards him.
"I don't know anything!" Vila gibbered.
"Of course you don't." Servalan's voice was silky smooth. "But if you want Nova to survive, I suggest that you start remembering."
Something in Vila snapped. "You don't give a damn, do you! You've already destroyed Avon. Now you'll sacrifice your own daughter, just to stay in power!"
Servalan remained unruffled. "Avon's a survivor. He won't come to any harm - unless we capture him, of course. It's a game, Vila, between Avon and I. But I doubt you'd understand that. Sometimes he wins, sometimes I do. We meet, make love, part and move on. So, I double crossed him. It doesn't affect the way we feel about each other. Next time the game brings us together, I'll try to kill him. Avon understands that."
"It may have been a game," Vila said slowly, "but you changed the rules. You changed the rules and then you broke them."
Servalan raised a languid eyebrow. "Really?"
"You married him!" Vila burst out. "I don't know what that means to you. I don't know what it meant to Avon, because he refuses to talk about it - but I do know that you hurt him. Badly."
Servalan's posture didn't change, she said nothing, but Vila nevertheless gained the impression that he'd hit home. "You think Avon's invulnerable, don't you?" he challenged. "In fact, you have to think that, because then you can do whatever you like to him and never feel guilty. You can do what you like to any of us, because nobody really matters to you."
For a moment Vila thought Servalan was going to strike him, then the sudden tension in her body drained away. "How is he?" she asked.
Vila felt an unexpected sympathy which he ruthlessly suppressed. "How's Nova?" he countered.
"She's still alive, but the doctors aren't sure if she'll make it." Servalan hesitated. "Do you want to see her?"
Vila's fingers clenched deep into the padding on the bunk. "Of course I do!" It was probably some complicated trap, but he didn't care.
Servalan turned to the guard behind her. "The prisoner is coming with me. I take full responsibility for him."
The guard hesitated. "Do you need an escort Ma'am? That sort always try to escape."
Servalan smiled in complete confidence. "Oh, he won't try and escape. Will you, Vila?"
Vila didn't bother to answer. They both knew that he wasn't going anywhere.
After leaving the prison, they entered an elevator that took them up through fifteen levels of the city to one of the most exclusive alpha zones. Servalan led Vila along a succession of high level walkways that gave a view over the most exclusive shopping precinct in the entire dome. She didn't even bother to check whether he was following. Her eyes casually glanced at the window displays of exotic, off world goods. For the high alphas, shopping for status items was an act of status in itself. The betas and gammas shopped by selecting goods displayed on the vid and ordering directly by credit. The deltas who rarely had spare cash, let alone credit, had their own shops which accepted bartered and pawned items as well as cash, and frequently sold stolen or black market goods.
Another elevator - a short trip sideways this time - and then they were at the hospital. Vila was mildly surprised by the level of security: there were armed men in the foyer, and all people entering were requested politely but firmly to show their identity papers. Except Servalan of course. Somehow Vila hadn't expected them to try and stop her. They stopped him though.
Servalan indicated Vila with a gesture. "That," she said, "is with me. He isn't to leave without me."
She wasn't totally sure of her hold over him, then. That scared Vila more than he liked to admit to himself - it suggested that Servalan wasn't confident of Nova's survival.
The security man nodded his head stiffly in acknowledgement of the order, then allowed them to pass. While walking down the long white antiseptic corridor with its line of closed doors, Vila allowed his worst fears to surface. He was going to arrive only to be met by a dead body. The reality was almost as bad. Entering a small room, Vila was confronted by a bewildering mass of electronic equipment that dwarfed the still figure lying on the bed. Tubes and monitoring devices seemed to be attached all over, violating the fragile form of his daughter. Vila looked in confusion at the lines and numerical readouts on the screens. Then, abandoning all attempt to understand them, he took a chair and without waiting for permission from Servalan, sat down beside the bed and took Nova's hand in his own.
"You're a fool, Vila," Servalan said with contempt.
"Why? Because I've got something you haven't?"
"Love is for fools, Vila. You could have escaped, but you let her hold you."
Vila didn't respond immediately. There wasn't much he could say to someone like Servalan. He'd rather be here, willing Nova to survive, than free on the city streets without even the illusion of being able to help her. Finally Vila spoke to the scarcely breathing body on the bed. "I'd rather be stupid," he said quietly.
"And Avon?" asked Servalan's voice in gentle persuasion.
"He'd rather be like you. He doesn't want to love." Vila reached out a hand to touch Nova's fine black hair, and wondered. Sometimes he'd seen Avon studying Nova, as though trying to summon up the resolution to touch her or hug her. What was it like to have loved so deeply and have been betrayed so badly, that you were terrified to love again? No matter whom Avon allowed himself to love, he seemed fated to lose them in the worst manner possible.
"How long are you going to let me stay here?" Vila asked.
Servalan considered that. She'd brought Vila here on a whim, suspecting that he might talk more freely in different surroundings. All Vila had done was to convince her that he did indeed know nothing. Avon was at large somewhere in the city, and there was no likelihood of him leading a new rebel movement. Avon was alone, and in knowing that, Servalan felt alone also. She should dispose of Vila. It made logical sense - his execution would serve some minor propaganda purpose.
Hesitation wasn't a normal vice of Servalan's, but hesitate she did. There was more to Vila than met the eye. According to his personality profile, he should have fled as soon as he had the opportunity. Yet she had not been surprised when his capture had been reported at the RT station. She had known he wouldn't run on the way to the hospital. Stupidity, or simply courage of a kind she wasn't used to?
"I can always use a talented thief," she said finally. "If you're as good as they say you are, I might keep you around."
Vila looked offended. "I'm not good," he protested. "I'm the best."
Avon was tired, weary in both body and soul. He'd lost track of the time and couldn't be bothered to look at his watch. Half a day, a full day? The lights overhead were dimming, so presumably the night cycle was starting. If he tried to get a room, someone would want to look at his identity papers. They were useless now, he'd dropped them long ago. Vila would have told them whatever name he was using, because that was Vila's way. If you talked fast enough and said enough, then maybe, just maybe, they wouldn't hurt you. Vila couldn't handle physical pain, but it had been Vila who helped Nova through the trauma of Minna's death. So which of them was really the stronger? Vila could handle emotional pain, whereas Avon just bottled it up until something burst.
This was a part of the city Avon didn't recognise, but then the dome was so large that no one was ever going to know all of it. The colour of the walls suggested that this was a gamma zone, and the numerals on the last staircase he had passed indicated level seventeen. A group of young people sat huddled on the floor of a nearby side corridor. The prospect of human company seemed oddly inviting. Avon looked questioningly at the young woman nearest to him. She shrugged. Taking that as acceptance, if not exactly an open invitation, Avon shuffled wearily over and collapsed on the end of the row, his back supported by the wall.
The group was quiet, their collective body warmth comforting.
He woke up with a start, unaware that he had dozed off. The girl who had nudged him spoke again. "Do you want a drink?"
Avon held out a hand for the bottle she offered, took a deep swallow and realised to his disgust that it was water. "Haven't you got anything stronger?" he asked.
"Only if you've got the money. You're new here. Nobody gives credit to newcomers."
"I've got some money." He'd cleared the apartment out before leaving, loose change, a couple of medium value notes, a few items of minor value, even his tool kit. The tools were the last shreds of his identity; once he abandoned them, he would be saying that Kerr Avon, the man who had tackled everything from computers to alien drive systems, was dead.
From somewhere under a blanket, the girl produced a small amber sphere and a syringe. "Thirty six credits a shot, another two credits if you want a new needle."
"What is it?" Avon asked. But he already knew the answer. The ultimate escape from reality. A retreat from a world become intolerable, and a promise of happiness, however illusory.
"Shadow," she said.
Avon watched as his hand, seemingly of its own volition, held out the silver roll of the tool kit. "Will this do?"
Something still felt wrong. A vague sense of unease nagging at the back of her mind. It was ridiculous. Servalan didn't believe in premonitions. Her fingers strayed unbidden to the dressing table before her, to pick up a small item that she played with between her fingers. Suddenly aware of what she was doing, she replaced the charm: Nova's silver bell.
Servalan, she told herself, you're jumpy, and you're going to stay jumpy unless you do something about it. Accepting the need to reassure herself, she changed her dress for one with long concealing sleeves and slipped the long clear icicle of the neural paralyzer into its sheath on her forearm. Able now to dismiss her forebodings, she reached out for her wrap once more, and placed the the silky black fur around her shoulders.
Ret was waiting for her in the blue room. A bit of a misnomer really, the furnishings were primarily green and white, but they served admirably to show off the priceless collection of antique blue and white Chinese porcelain that was displayed on the walls. She hadn't cared much for it when she originally bought it, but the stuff grew on you over time.
Ret held his arm out formally, offering to escort her into dinner in the next room. The gesture surprised her slightly. Ret had a taste for the visible courtesies, but didn't always indulge it if no one was there to observe. There was a suppressed excitement in him. His eyes flicked over Servalan, taking in the details of her dress and jewellery. "You'll do," he said finally.
"I should hope so," she replied tartly, slightly nettled by his comment.
He smiled, and with his free hand opened the door to the dining room. "I've a guest I'd like you to meet."
Looking back afterwards, she was to wonder why she hadn't seen it coming. As it was, the sight took her totally by surprise. Where the chandelier normally hung on its chain from the ceiling, there, slowly spinning, making no effort to control the motion, hung Avon. The sight hit Servalan like a blow to the body. She stiffened, and knew that Ret had felt that reaction. "You might have warned me," she said.
"What, and spoil the surprise?" he replied with obvious relish.
Avon hung from his wrists, feet suspended half a meter above the floor. His head lolled forward, and if he was aware of them, he gave no sign. Avon was conscious though. Servalan knew that, and didn't question where the knowledge came from.
Jordan reached out a hand to arrest the motion of the rotating body. "Aren't you going to greet your ex-wife?" he asked. His voice was cool and amused, the way Servalan might once have addressed Avon herself.
Avon lifted his head at that, his eyes seeking hers to try and find the truth in them. Servalan drew herself up to her full height. "I divorced you," she said calmly.
Avon said nothing, and by the absence of a sharp retort, as much as by the frozen look on his face, Servalan knew how much she had hurt him. Vila had been right. She'd never really understood what she meant to Avon. Perhaps she'd never really understood what Avon meant to her either.
It was too late to go back now. However much Avon might have cared for her once, he didn't forgive. Vila had been clear about that too.
"Kill him," she said concisely.
Jordan shot her a quick glance. "That would be too easy. I owe him. I want him to suffer."
"He's dangerous." Servalan replied. As long as Avon was alive he would be dangerous. Even like this.
Jordan reached out and pushed Avon hard, sending him swinging like a pendulum across the length of the room. "You overestimate him, my dear. Do you know where they found him?"
"No!" A hoarse whisper from Avon.
Jordan found that funny. "You don't want her to know, do you? Perhaps I'll tell her later."
Avon didn't answer. There seemed to be no defiance left in him at all. The chain creaked slightly as he swung back and forth, limp and abandoned.
Servalan didn't want to see any more. Deliberately, she turned her back and walked over to the dining table which had been set against the south wall. Wax candles in silver holders were set along the length of the table, an archaic touch that somehow seemed appropriate tonight. Their light cast uneven shadows on the platters of food on the table. Ornate patterns of carved fruits and vegetables, slices of exotic meats, richly coloured bottles of wine. All chosen to appeal to the eye as much as to the palate.
The shutters over the tall windows had been closed to keep out the night. Here inside was light and warmth to belie the snow that she had seen falling from her room above. There would be a thick layer of snow on the ground tomorrow, and ice on the ornamental lake. No thicker than the ice in her heart. She who had once accused Avon of building barriers against his emotions, of not daring to reach out to people. Had she done any better? She'd shut him out, lying to herself, considering only her own desires, deliberately ignoring his. She'd encouraged him to love her, and then thrown that love back in his face. Had she brought Avon to this?
Servalan picked up an item of food at random, a bread roll, anything to occupy her hands. "Ret," she asked carefully, "what are you going to do to him?"
Jordan approached her, moving easily, relaxed, in control. "I'm going to do nothing. He's going to do it all to himself. He'll die in agony without my so much as lifting a finger." He picked up a plate and helped himself to a selection of exotic cheeses and cooked meats. Fish, the staple protein of the dome dweller, he conspicuously avoided. "Avon? Would you like something to eat? I'd hate to have you to faint from hunger before I'd finished with you."
"I'm disappointed," Jordan said conversationally. "The great Kerr Avon. I'd expected more from you.
"Do you want to feed him, Servalan?"
"Not particularly," she replied with as much indifference as she could muster. Avon might be going to die, but there was no point in going down with him.
Pouring water from an ornate jug, Jordan held up a glass tumbler to his adversary. "Thirsty?"
Still no answer.
Without warning, Jordan threw the tumbler at Avon's face. The water splattered in droplets through the air, and the glass hit Avon on the cheekbone. Shattering, the pieces fell to the floor. A thin line of blood ran down his skin, marking the path of one of the fragments. Avon's eyes closed automatically as the glass hit him, but he made no other move.
"You think you're the great stoic, don't you!" Jordan said furiously. "Wait until tomorrow. You'll be begging me for mercy then."
"What happens tomorrow?" asked Servalan, not sure that she wanted to know, but unable to resist the question.
"Withdrawal symptoms." Jordan's smile was malicious. "He's addicted to shadow. When they picked him up, he'd just had his latest dose."
Servalan could feel Avon's pain and fury. So this was what he hadn't wanted her to know. Where had they found him? Some delta drug den? Contempt and revulsion filled her and she saw Avon flinch, aware of her reaction. "Why?" Servalan demanded.
He spoke to her for the first time. "Why not?" There was a deadness in his voice, an emptiness that spoke of a life without meaning or purpose.
Jordan slipped an arm around Servalan's waist. "He responds to you, doesn't he? I rather hoped he would. Tomorrow's a long time to wait for him to crack."
He addressed Avon. "She was important to you, wasn't she?"
"You forget," Jordan said with irony in his voice, "I'm the one whose life you were threatening because you wanted her back. You're going to pay for those threats."
He turned his attention back to Servalan. "Go to him. Kiss him. Do whatever you like. Make him want you." Jordan's eyes glittered. "Then come back to me. Let him know whose bed you sleep in now."
Servalan looked at Avon and found herself pinned by his gaze. There was something left in that empty shell after all. She knew his thoughts as clearly as if he were speaking. You were mine. Never forget that. You belong to me. She couldn't go against that will. After so many betrayals, the final simple act of returning to another man should have been simple. It wasn't. It was the final twist of the knife, and she couldn't find the strength within her to do it.
Avon was nothing. He was a dying man dredged up from the bottom of society. He was simply one more failed rebel. He was a man she had loved. A man she still loved. If nothing else, she could spare Avon the final agony of dying for another man's entertainment. Within her sleeve, Servalan could feel the slim form of the neural paralyzer. Applied to the back of a man's neck at the top of the spinal cord, it would freeze all the muscles in the body. The death it caused was indistinguishable from a heart attack. "You'll have to lower him down a little. I can't reach him properly," she said.
There was a small handle on the wall; Servalan must have seen it a hundred times without wondering as to its purpose. Jordan wound it round and round, and the chain slowly descended from the ceiling. As she watched Avon's feet touch the floor, she supposed irrelevantly that this must be how they got the chandelier down to clean it.
Avon gasped with pain as the weight was suddenly taken from his strained shoulders. Servalan stepped forward and touched him on the cheek. And found herself overwhelmed. Despair. Loss. Anger. Loneliness. Hate. Emotions flooded over her. Avon's feelings, running riot as he became aware of her mental touch. He fought her, trying to deny her presence in his thoughts, to push her out of his mind. Abruptly, Servalan broke free, releasing the physical contact, and with it the telepathic link. If that was indeed what it was.
She felt confused and dizzy. More than that, she was still aware of Avon's presence. In fact, she began to realise, she'd been aware of his thoughts on some level all evening. Was that why she'd been feeling so fidgety while she was dressing? What was causing it? She had always been close to Avon, but never like this. She could see her own puzzlement mirrored in Avon's dark eyes.
"Servalan!" Jordan's voice broke through her reverie.
She had to go back. Jordan's desire for her to torment her old lover was neither here nor there. Her own intent to kill him was in abeyance. She had to go back, because somewhere in that tortured individual was the man she loved, and she had to find him. "Lower his hands a bit more," she said.
"He'll be able to hit you," Jordan warned.
"I'll take the chance." Touch seemed to intensify the contact. The more she could touch Avon, the better.
Avon didn't want her to get close to him, that was obvious. The slack in the chain gave him more room to move, but he was unsteady on his feet and had very little room to retreat. Servalan placed her hands around Avon's waist and held tight, seeking his thoughts. Not so much thoughts as feelings. Whatever it was that joined them, it seemed to work largely on an emotional level. Her mind tried to interpret it in words, but the words were as much hers as his.
//Go away!// Angrily. //I don't need you. I don't need anyone!//
//Has it ever occurred to you that I might need you?//
Hate, overriding everything, so intense that Servalan almost broke away. She clung tightly to him instead, riding the wave.
//You betrayed me,// he accused.
//Yes.// She couldn't deny the fact, there was no point in trying to. Here and now, Avon would know instantly if she lied.
//You went to him!// There was too much intensity here for her to handle. She had to find a different tack. There had to be some level at which she could reach Avon. Somewhere behind all this pain and anguish had to be the man who had loved and laughed with her, the man who had risked his life for her. The man she had driven to the slow death of alcohol and drug abuse. The man from whom she had always taken, never given.
She had to decide once and for all what she wanted. What was it the ancient poet had said? "To thine own self be true." Or put differently, stand by your beliefs and keep your word. No one will ever value you, if you don't value yourself. But did she value her own word enough to keep it? In this mental communion, any lie, any insincerity, would be instantly revealed. There was only one promise left that she could make to Avon that would have any meaning between them, and it would commit her deeper than she had ever committed herself to anything in her life before. Did she want this? Slowly accepting her answer, Servalan closed her eyes and concentrated on Avon. //I will love you and care for you.//
//No!// Avon was fighting her. //Liar!//
Servalan continued, knowing that he was aware of her intent, that even resisting her, he had to believe her. //Comfort you and protect you. In the good times and in the bad.// She was touching something within Avon that wanted that comfort, that reached out to her, struggling against the stronger part of him that insisted on rejection. //I will bear your children and share all that I have with you.//
//You swore this on Jaxtin. You didn't mean it then.// Avon's thought was bitter, but at the same time, Servalan could sense that he felt her sincerity. Marriage was not something Avon regarded lightly. Why hadn't she realised that?
//There will be no other for me.// She projected the thought at him. But Avon's anger was back, flaring hot and bright. A killing fury that burned through him. He didn't believe her, wouldn't forgive her.
Servalan reached deep within herself, searching for answers. If she couldn't convince herself, then she had no hope of convincing Avon. Why did she want him? Did she really intend to be faithful to him? Memories of all the men she had known over the years passed through her mind. Too many to recall each in detail. For none of them would she have fought as she was fighting now. Avon touched something within her that no one else had ever touched. He saw past the images that fooled everyone else. Even when absent, he had forced her to see herself, to judge herself. He made her feel real.
Sometimes, you never understood what a thing was worth until you had lost it.
//There shall be no other for me.// She could feel his lips on hers, drawing her into him, claiming her. Servalan no longer knew whether she was standing or flying. The whirlpool took her, and all she was conscious of was the bright spark that was Avon. The fire still burned within him, but its focus was shifting. He hadn't forgiven her, perhaps he never would, but there was a part of him that accepted her. Servalan forced the final thoughts through an increasing sense of disorientation.
//You and I only,
//From this time forwards,
//Until death separates us.//
//Until death separates us.// The faintest of echoes from Avon, but it was there. Exhausted, Servalan pulled out of the kiss, and broke the link.
Avon's eyes opened, and met hers. Calm. Waiting. Waiting for her to kill him.
The realisation hit Servalan like a dash of cold water. Had she really thought victory would be so easy? As he had been so long ago on Gauda Prime, Avon was willing now to accept death from her hands, but that was all. He'd taken the thought of the neural paralyzer from her mind as smoothly as a pickpocket filching a wallet. He didn't expect anything more from her. "Until death separates us." Avon was offering her the easy way to keep that promise.
The words rang a silent litany through her mind: I will love you, care for you, comfort you and protect you. Servalan smiled slightly, turned and held out her arms to the President of the Terran Federation. Jordan embraced her, and even as his grip tightened around her, he slumped and fell to the floor. Servalan stepped back, and considered the dead body, as she replaced the paralyzer in its sheath once more.
"Well now, don't you think that was a little careless?" Avon's voice was rough, lacking the ease of old. When Servalan didn't answer, Avon continued with the question that was uppermost in her own mind. "What are you going to do now?"
"I don't know," Servalan replied. "I hadn't planned this."
"That was obvious," Avon said dryly.
Servalan felt a moment's irritation with him. Having just assassinated the Federation President, she needed constructive suggestions, not criticisms. She needed to get some witnesses in quickly while the body was still warm, and then she needed to figure out how to pass the inevitable lie detector test regarding what had happened here. It was one thing to avoid suspicion when you were a high ranking security commissioner and able to direct the inquiry yourself, and quite another when you were the only person found with the body of a dead president.
"At least Orac's here," she said aloud.
Avon nodded. "You'll need it." You, not we. Servalan found that disconcerting.
"Avon," she pleaded, "we were partners."
"So we were," he said coldly. "I got the impression that you changed your mind, though."
"I killed him for you!" She pointed angrily to Jordan's body. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"He'd have had to go eventually, if you want to regain the presidency."
Avon was goading her, she suddenly realised. He was trying to deny the closeness they'd felt a minute ago. Well, that was something she'd have to sort out later - right now she had a murder to cover up.
Servalan stood over Jordan's body and screamed.
Vila held out his hands. "Which one is it in?" he asked.
Nova sat up straighter in her bed and considered the question. "That one."
Vila opened his hand ruefully to reveal the coin. "How did you know?"
"Easy. I saw you put it in the other hand, so you were bound to have swopped it over."
"Next time," he teased her, "I'll keep it in the same hand."
"How did you swop it anyway? I still can't see you do it even when I'm watching."
Vila grinned. "That's a secret. Maybe I'll show you when you're older." He glanced at the nurse hovering in the doorway. Taking in her impatient glance, he said, "I know. I'm not supposed to tire her." Bending over, he ruffled Nova's hair. "I'll grab a bite to eat. See you later."
He strolled out into the main hallway, pausing briefly to admire a bronze of a man wrestling with a lion. Vila growled at the lion, then pretended to throttle it. Nova giggled from in the bedroom. She'd only seen the lion once when she was brought here from the hospital, but she still enjoyed the joke.
Vila still got a kick out of having the run of Servalan's apartment - if you could really refer to a suite of thirty or forty rooms as an apartment. Admittedly there was a price to be paid: Servalan required him to use his skills. Vila reckoned he must have broken into the residences of a dozen high councillors by now. He wasn't worried though - working with Orac once more, the job was a doddle. Slip in when Orac reported everyone was out, make a thorough search, photograph anything incriminating and get out without leaving any traces. If Servalan wanted material for blackmail, she was certainly getting it.
He was well aware of the fact that it wasn't his irresistible charms or even his abilities that allowed him to stay here, though. He was in this apartment for one reason and one reason only. Nova. Servalan wanted her daughter around, and Nova was happier when Vila was there. Vila wasn't particularly bothered - life was easy and the food was good. He sighed momentarily - if Minna had been there, he couldn't have asked for more.
Hearing the sound of the main door, Vila was puzzled. Servalan wasn't due back tonight, and the lock wasn't currently programmed to admit anyone else. He and Servalan were the only people who could override the lock's operation. Taking the cautious option, Vila hid. While Orac had assured him that all record of his capture had been removed from the system and that the identity he was now using was secure, Vila was well aware that there were people around who could identify him by sight.
Servalan's voice came sharply around the corner. "Why can't you forget the past? I want things to be different now."
"I am what I am, Servalan. I don't forget. Accept that, or call the whole thing off right now." Avon's voice! It had to be, and with more animation in it than Vila had heard in a long time. He started towards them, and then stopped to reconsider. It sounded as though Avon and Servalan were on the brink of an all out argument and Vila had no intention of being caught in the cross-fire. Hedeparted hastily in search of a sandwich.
"Could you put Orac on that table?" Servalan asked.
Avon glanced around the entrance hall of Servalan's apartment to the place where her escort had placed Orac on the floor. He didn't move. "My wrists hurt."
Servalan was contrite. "I'm sorry, I'd forgotten." She reached out to take Avon's hand in hers, and he backed away.
"Don't touch me," he warned.
"Is it that hard for you to accept how I feel about you?"
"Maybe I no longer feel the same way."
"You backed me up when they questioned us," Servalan retorted. "If you'd told them about the weapon, they'd have caught me, regardless of Orac's overriding of the lie detector."
Avon was openly hostile. "So I was stupid."
"Or you still love me."
"It won't work, Servalan. There's too many people between us." His voice was bitter. "You're not the only one who's slept with someone else."
That hurt, and she knew he'd meant it to. She could feel the surface gloss of his emotions. There was something there that wanted to lash out at her in retaliation for the pain she'd caused him; but there was more as well, a confused undertow of desire, fear, and denial. She couldn't read more without touching him, and the mere fact that he didn't want to be touched indicated that there were things Avon didn't want her to read.
Servalan held out her hand. "Are you afraid of the truth, Avon?"
Avon's eyes flashed fire at her. He was cornered and he knew it. "If that's the way you want it," he growled. He took a step towards her, and Servalan came to meet him. Avon seized her roughly around the waist, and she felt abstractedly the pain in his wrists and shoulders as he did so. Then the pain was lost in the flood. Physical desire, so strong it was almost like the act itself. She was aware in raw, stark detail of what Avon wanted to do to her. A harsh, animal passion that awoke her own desires, fuelled them, and then fed back from herself to arouse Avon even further. Her breath came in short sharp gasps which were blotted out as Avon took her mouth against his own. His hand was on the fastening of her dress, and Servalan knew that he would take her then and there in the hall.
With a supreme effort, she broke away from him. "No!"
"Why not?" Avon demanded. "You want it as much as I do."
"Yes," Servalan agreed, trying to control her breathing, and the treacherous trembling in her arms and legs, "but not like this."
"What's the matter?" he asked callously. "Have you got something against the floor?"
"That's not it and you know it."
"Then what is it?" He was impatient.
"I don't want it to be a battle. Not while we're joined like this. I want more from you."
Avon's voice dripped scorn. "So you want hearts and flowers and pure telepathic communion?
Servalan held her ground. "If we can't resolve our differences under these circumstances, then we'll never be able to. There's the door. Either try and make the effort to meet me half way, or else get out. I won't stop you. I won't tell them where you've gone. I'll even give you the money to buy enough shadow to last you until it kills you. Now, make up your mind."
"What makes you think that I've got anything more to give?" he asked warily.
"Faith. That and the fact that you're still here."
Avon's hand gestured suggestively towards her throat. "Perhaps I've just been waiting for the opportunity to strangle you."
"No." Servalan tried to sound more confident than she actually was. "You want something more as well."
"Really?" he said sardonically. "What phantasms am I supposed to be chasing?"
Servalan answered him as seriously as she could. "Love. Commitment. Someone you can trust. The things life never gave you. The things I never gave you."
Avon was silent for a moment. "You've changed."
"Perhaps I have."
He sighed in defeat. "All right, we'll try it your way."
Servalan awoke to find Avon's head pillowed on her chest, strands of dark chestnut hair spilling across her skin. She could feel the even sound of his breathing, sense his mind touching hers, even as his body touched her. She smiled, and felt an answering smile in response. There seemed no need for words - they were together. They knew each other now, with an intimacy that went beyond all physical contact. Good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, acknowledged and accepted. There was only one shadow to mar the bright horizon. Even the thought was enough to make them both aware of it. Avon's body craved the drug already, a quiet insistent voice that would increase its clamour as the day progressed.
"Orac?" Servalan queried Avon.
"Yes," Avon agreed.
She rolled over to climb out of the bed and stopped, missing his touch already.
He said, "I'm not going anywhere."
Servalan was serious. "I won't lose you again."
Avon made a ribald suggestion which she ignored, then he flung off the sheets and hunted around for his clothes. Picking up a sock, he sniffed it and grimaced.
"Borrow something off Vila," Servalan suggested. "I'll order something new after breakfast."
Balling the sock in his fist, Avon tossed it at her, missing totally. He grinned, then headed for the door.
"Second on the left," she called after him.
"The door opposite. But get some clothes on first, the nurse might see you."
"Morality?" Avon asked, with an amused smile.
Servalan's lips twitched. "I'd hate to make her jealous."
Nova was bored. Free now from all drips and monitors, she wanted to be up and doing things. Her body was still weak, but her mind, free at last from drugs and fear, was alert and curious. She knew she wasn't supposed to get up, but there was a world out there to explore. Pulling back the covers, she slid her legs onto the floor and tried to stand up. Treacherously, her legs refused to support her, and she clutched at the side of the bed for support as she collapsed to the floor. Something hurt in her side. she wasn't quite sure what - they hadn't told her much about the operations they'd carried out to save her life. Pulling herself upright, Nova measured the distance to the door and made it in a few hazardous paces. She held onto the handle for dear life. She hadn't expected her legs to feel like jelly, or her head to be so dizzy. However, having got this far, she was determined to get at least as far as the bronze lion in the corridor. Nova opened the door, supporting her weight on the handle, and stepped out into the corridor. The lion was just a few steps further along. If she leaned on the wall, she should be able to make it.
Nova took a cautious step forward. Her left leg gave way under her, and she collapsed to the floor. The world blacked out. When she regained consciousness she was aware that someone was holding her in his arms. She couldn't see the face, but somehow she knew. "Avon?"
She felt his chest move as he sighed gently. "You too?"
That didn't make sense, but before Nova had a chance to ask him what he meant, she heard footsteps hurrying down the corridor.
"Nova! I told you not to get out of bed! I take my eye off the screen for two minutes..." Her nurse's voice changed from worry to shocked horror. "Who are you!"
Nova was aware of Avon's idle smile, his contempt for the fussing woman in front of him, and his tacit approval of Nova's desire for independence.
"I'm her father," Avon declared.
"Indeed you are not," the nurse said tartly. "I've met her father."
Nova twisted her head around in order to see better. "Avon's my dad as well."
The nurse gave a sound that could best be described as a disgusted snort.
Avon spoke. "I'll take her back. You can go." It was clearly an order. The woman hesitated, then obeyed, flinging one last scandalised glance over her shoulder.
Nudity didn't bother Nova - she'd lived with two men in a one room apartment. As soon as they were in her room, Nova burst out laughing. "Did you see the look on her face?"
Avon grinned back and dumped her unceremoniously on the bed. "I did."
Nova stretched out and allowed the mattress to support her weight once more. "Where have you been all this time?" she asked. "I missed you."
"That just goes to show your complete lack of taste," Avon replied, but Nova gained the feeling that he was pleased by the comment nonetheless.
"Are you going to stay here now?" she wanted to know.
"Of course," Avon said casually. "Someone has to keep an eye on Vila. He'll steal the shoes off your feet if you're not careful."
"I'm all right," Nova retorted. "I'm not wearing any!"
"Speaking of Vila," Avon commented, "I'm supposed to be raiding his wardrobe." He paused for a moment in the doorway and raised a sardonic eyebrow. "I shall probably end up looking like a patchwork jester."
Nova watched Avon go, while trying to visualise him in one of Vila's multi-colour suede jackets. The idea did sound a touch improbable. She thought about Avon for a while. He seemed different somehow, happier than before. Everything, Nova decided, was going to be all right now that he was sober.
Avon walked on down the corridor to Vila's room. Servalan had brought him up to date on recent events during the night. They had shared a lot of things during the night besides their bodies. Dreams, hopes, ambitions; a mixture of thoughts, words and feelings. He'd tried to reject the link at first, to shield his thoughts; then, he'd acceded to it, and finally accepted it. Avon knew, with an odd twist of irony, that he'd miss it when it was gone.
It had to be caused by the shadow - that was the only explanation Avon had been able to find for their mental union. Cally had claimed that moondiscs were telepathic. In some way the drug extracted from them had given him the ability to a limited degree. The only drawback to the theory was that none of the other addicts he had met had shown any obvious signs of telepathic ability. Had working with Cally in some way sensitised him to the effect? Avon didn't have enough data to speculate, so he put the problem to one side - Orac would doubtless be able to come up with an answer.
Avon paused a moment outside Vila's door, then walked straight in.
Vila sat up startled, pulling the sheets around his chin. "Hey!" he protested. "Didn't anyone teach you how to knock?"
Avon leaned against the doorway, feeling lazily content. Everything was working out now. Seeing Vila flustered and argumentative simply assured him that the thief was well.
Vila eyed his naked form. "It's easy to see where you spent the night. Last time I saw you, you said you'd sooner embrace a Tarsian Warg-strangler than touch Servalan again. What happened?"
"I changed my mind," Avon replied evenly.
Vila examined him more closely. "Avon," he said worriedly.
"Look at your arm," Vila insisted. "Servalan drugged you!"
Avon's good humour vanished abruptly as he looked at the purpling needle marks. "Servalan didn't do that." Vila looked back at him disbelievingly. "I did it," Avon emphasised. His eyes narrowed, daring Vila to make any form of comment. "Now shut up and help me find something to wear."
Servalan took a sip of her coffee and then looked up as Avon returned. He wore a loose grey tunic top, a pair of trousers that were the wrong length, and a sour expression.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Nothing," Avon said shortly.
Servalan chose not to pursue the matter. She patted the space beside her on the bed. "Sit down. Orac's been collecting data."
He sat down, leaving a noticeable gap between them.
NO MAN IS AN ISLAND
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a manor
of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for
whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.
"Orac," she asked curiously. "Can you really predict the future?"
"Of course I can," the computer said indignantly. "Provided that the relevant data is available and the organic variables are not too significant."
She was used to Orac's pedantic approach. "You mean that you can't predict people?"
"That is not a correct assumption," Orac replied crossly.
"Talk's easy. Prove it."
"Very well. Take Kieron for an example. He is five years old and a typical specimen of his age group. He will therefore chase the peacocks."
Acting on cue, her brother immediately got to his feet and raced across the grass towards the nearest bird.
"Kieron!" she shouted after him. "Leave it alone."
The boy blithely ignored her and pursued his victim which promptly took off and flapped clumsily to rest on the lower branch of a cedar tree.
"That's not a proper prediction," Nova protested. "You put the idea into his head in the first place."
"The art of prediction is not invalidated by interference - rather it is enhanced. If I had not interfered on Gauda Prime and subsequently, my prediction concerning Servalan would not have been fulfilled."
Nova stretched out on the grass and watched as Kieron pursued a peahen.
"What prediction was that?"
"It was self evident to one of my intellect that Servalan and Avon were wasting their respective abilities by seeking to defeat each other. When Servalan requested my assistance on Gauda Prime I performed some calculations. Together, Avon and Servalan would be an extremely dynamic combination. While there was a good chance that they would turn to crime, there was also another possibility which I considered."
"That they would reform the Federation."
"But it didn't happen."
"That," replied Orac testily, "is a matter of opinion. In the years since Servalan became president, I have documented the virtual destruction of the Terra Nostra, the extension of the franchise to the beta grades, a seventy percent reduction in the use of suppressant drugs, the repealing of laws that penalised the families of traitors and deserters, a five percent increase in the average income of delta grade labourers..."
Nova interrupted. "But they're only small changes. Avon wanted to free everyone."
"Wrong," said her mother's voice from behind her. "Avon was a con man who simply wanted to be rich and to live his life without interference." Servalan came to sit beside Nova on the grassy bank, and idly plucked a daisy.
"That is not a totally correct assessment," said Orac.
Servalan started to pull petals, one at a time, from the daisy. "I suppose you could say that exposure to Blake gave him the inconvenience of realising that he had a conscience. He detested the idea that anyone would try to drug or coerce him. Eventually, he extended that principle to other people."
"And you?" Nova asked.
"I always care for the welfare of other people." Servalan smiled serenely. "That is, of course, apart from the seventeen high councillors I had to blackmail to get this afternoon's vote to pass, and the mining corporation I'm currently defrauding in order to finance a new minefield along the galactic rim." She removed another petal from the daisy.
"Would Avon have approved of that?"
"Of course." Servalan stared into the empty distance in reminiscence. "We were very alike."
Nova tried to think back to the few memories she had of her father. It was increasingly hard to recall him. "What do you remember most about him?" she asked.
Servalan pulled the last petal off the daisy and dropped the empty stalk onto the grass.
"He loved me."
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