Not to KnowBy Harriet Bazley
...In the confusion as the gate closes, they evade Bayban the Berserker and escape from the underground complex together. Vila teleports back to the Liberator alone in an attempt to persuade Avon to take Kerril, now marooned on the surface of the deserted planet, on board the ship...
The teleport area of the Liberator could feel decidedly cramped at times, particularly when the other four members of the crew were all crowded between the console and the teleport bay, gazing at you incredulously. In fact, Vila admitted to himself, miserably, Avon alone was quite capable of making the flight deck itself close in on you, without any aid from the others, when he chose to deploy that particular scathing Alpha-to-Grade-4-Ignorant glare. For a moment he wished he'd just quietly mislaid his bracelet and stayed down there on the surface with Kerril while the Liberator sailed away without them. They could have been farmers; lived out peaceful lives in the wholesome fresh air -
What, live like Norl's people in shacks and rags? his mind jeered back at him. With Bayban running around down there out for your blood? Kerril didn't manage to lose him for good, you know, when she got you out of that space terminal place - just shook him off our tail for a few hours if we're lucky. Come on, Vila, anything has to be better than a life like that. Even facing down Avon. Kerril's counting on you, remember? He clung to the sheer proud novelty of that thought and somehow found the courage to meet Avon's eyes.
"You told her what?" Avon demanded dangerously.
"I told her she could come with us," Vila repeated. "Actually, I told her we were short of crew and you'd be glad to have her, but I can see that was wrong for a start." And he still couldn't see why that should be such a stupid idea - Kerril was a crack shot and she'd been in and out of spaceships all her life...
Tarrant glared at him. "Look, Vila, we've just been risking our lives fighting off Bayban the Berserker and his merry men all on your account - now you want to bring back one of them onto the ship?"
All on his account? That was rich, coming from Tarrant. "Who put me down on the planet to start off with?" Vila flared up suddenly. "Who arranged to trade me in for a box of crystals with a bomb in it? Whose idea was this whole Bayban business in the first place? Come to think of it, Tarrant, if it weren't for you I'd never even have met Kerril, so this is all your fault, and the least you can do is keep quiet while I talk to Avon!"
Tarrant stared at him as if Vila had suddenly turned and bitten him, and even Avon looked taken aback. For a moment, Vila sensed victory within his grasp -
"Look, I said I was sorry -" Tarrant began.
"I agree with Vila," Cally put in unexpectedly. Her eyes met Vila's briefly, and he read compassion there. "You have caused enough trouble today, Tarrant -"
"Don't the rest of us get any say in this?" Dayna interrupted. "We'll all have to -"
"If you have all quite finished," Avon said softly, his eyes cold. The soft click as he laid down his teleport bracelet was quite audible in the silence that followed.
"Vila, Tarrant has a point. Given that Bayban is about as trustworthy as a thirst-crazed Tarsian tree-devil, what makes you so certain we can rely on Kerril?"
Vila glanced from Avon to Tarrant and back, sweating. "I don't know what Bayban's been doing and I don't know who Tarrant's been fighting, but whatever it was, Kerril wasn't involved. She's been with me for hours, and she hasn't been shooting anyone - except, well -" He faltered. "- she did shoot one of Bayban's lot, but that doesn't count, does it -"
"So she shoots people on her own side," Avon observed, smiling. "Do carry on, Vila."
Vila's hands were clenched and he found himself looking round from one face to another as if he were in a trap. Dayna - impatient; Tarrant - furious; Avon - smiling slightly; Cally - frowning. Everything was going wrong. A wave of panic rose in the back of his throat, and he gritted his teeth against it, drawing on reserves of courage he'd never known he had. Whatever happened, he wasn't going to let himself be separated from Kerril. He fixed his eyes on Cally, drawing a deep breath.
"I told Kerril she'd be welcome. All right, you can make a liar out of me if you want, I'm used to it, I don't care. But the gate's closed and everyone's gone, she's alone down there and Bayban's still on the loose somewhere. I promised her she could stay with me and I'm not leaving her on this hell-hole of a planet. You can trust her because I say so, and if that's not enough for you, Avon -" his eyes were still clinging to Cally's - "you can just put me down there with her, and go off, and abandon both of us, and I hope you rot in hell!" He glanced up at Avon at last, still trembling with the force of his outburst.
"Hardly an original sentiment." Avon was no longer smiling.
Cally made a movement of protest, and Vila saw her gaze dwell on Avon for a moment.
"Since when has that ever been a good reason for anything?" Avon snapped, swinging round to glare at her.
Cally drew an angry breath, then paused, glancing round at Vila.
"Oh, don't mind us!" Tarrant was flushed and furious. He'd always resented Cally's quiet influence over Avon. "Go on. Let's all hear it."
Avon shot an icy look at him, and turned, touching Cally's arm. "Come on, Cally."
Vila watched the two of them leave. He was twisting the teleport bracelet nervously on his arm. Cally could do a lot of impossible things, but he wasn't sure that getting Avon to change his mind counted among them...
//I believe you, Vila. It will be all right.//
"It's Avon you've got to convince, not me," he muttered. His lively imagination was painting him pictures of Bayban stalking an impatient, careless Kerril, a laughing Bayban dragging the laser cannon and aiming it from hilltop to hilltop, Kerril wandering back into the base and being ambushed by a vengeful Bayban. "Hurry up, Cally!"
Tarrant and Dayna both glared at him.
Avon paused, and leaned back against the side of the corridor. "Well, Cally?"
//He loves her,// Cally repeated. //He means it, Avon.// She had never seen Vila so much in earnest about anything. She was fond of him, but she had long since given up hope that Vila would ever amount to more than an irresponsible amusing scapegrace, like the story her own people had on Auron of the boy who had decided never to grow up. The hours he had spent on Keezarn seemed to have brought out a side to Vila that none of them - least of all, she suspected, Vila himself - had ever known existed.
Avon was looking at her coldly. "To my certain knowledge, Vila has fallen in love three times already this year. He does so with boring predictability on every rest planet. As far as he is concerned it appears to be an unavoidable reaction to a certain level of alcohol intake."
"Vila is not drunk," Cally pointed out patiently. Avon, who was one of the sharpest observers she had ever known, could be almost wilfully blind at times.
"Unusual but not unprecedented," Avon agreed. "He has, however, been subjected to extreme stress and fear, even by his standards. Apparently the side-effects are similar. I see no reason to suppose that the duration is likely to be any different.
"In any case," he forestalled her, "under the circumstances Vila's judgement is about as impartial as the evidence at a Federation court-martial. I have no intention of taking aboard this... this bounty-hunter... on the basis of thirty seconds' acquaintance and Vila's recommendation."
"Then you will lose Vila." Oh Avon, can you really not see that Vila has changed?
Avon looked more closely at her. "Vila is always full of wild talk."
"Have you ever known him ask to be sent into danger, Avon? Even in jest? He believes the woman to be in danger, and he still wishes to go to her. He knows the planet to be deserted and infertile, but he may choose to take his chances for survival there rather than desert her.
"Don't make Tarrant's mistake, Avon. Be careful not to push Vila too far."
Avon used a sharp movement of his shoulders to push himself upright, and took a step towards her. "What makes you think I would ever agree to leave Vila behind?"
Cally smiled, deliberately refusing to be intimidated. "If you refuse to accept Kerril, I shall teleport Vila back down onto the surface myself."
"You - would - dare -"
For a moment Cally was truly afraid. "Vila deserves a chance," she said steadily, her hands poised to defend herself. "I will fight you if I must." I think I could take you, Avon. It would not be easy, but I am prepared to try...
He must have read that determination in her eyes, for he let his hands fall. "For Vila?" He frowned, shaking his head slightly. "For Vila?"
"I imagine not many people have ever seen beneath the jokes and the clever fingers and loved the real Vila," Cally told him. "Perhaps one or two. Perhaps none, ever.
"I believe that for the first time in his life Vila has found something he cares for more than himself. For some people, that is easy. For some, it is very hard."
She took a deep breath, remembering something that Blake had told her, once long ago when she had flared out against Avon's vicious tongue and casual cruelty. "Don't ever let him guess that you know," Blake had warned her, looking slightly guilty. "I'm not sure he'd ever forgive either of us..." But Avon, of all people, had no right to do this to Vila.
"Do you remember Anna Grant, Avon?"
Avon's fingers bit into her arm; his eyes, after that first moment of blank shock, were bitter with a comprehension and knowledge of betrayal that tore at her. "If you dare to use Anna's name against me -" he began in a deadly monotone.
"Take Kerril on board. Judge her for yourself." Cally held him off, sickness churning in her belly. "Avon, I beg you to remember and understand and give them a chance!" She broke his hold sharply, her eyes pleading with him: for Anna's sake, at least give Kerril a hearing before you condemn her...
Avon stepped back, his face resuming its usual cold mask. "Very well. A chance," he said at last, gesturing her to precede him back to the teleport.
She could not bear the new wariness in his glance.
//Avon, I would never try to take the Liberator from you. I swear it.//
He glanced at her again. "Sometimes you remind me of Blake," he said tightly, and strode on.
Tarrant blocked the way, arms folded, as Cally paused on the threshold of the teleport area. "Listen. Avon -"
"Enough." Avon pushed past them both almost absently, and knocked Dayna's hand aside as she caught at his arm.
"Don't we get any say in this at all?" she demanded, scowling.
"No," Avon said coldly. "Now listen. Vila deserves better of us than this deserted planet. Therefore the woman comes with us, for the moment." He held up a hand to quell the uproar. "If Vila comes to his senses before we reach the next populated planet, we shall leave her there. If, on the other hand, Vila insists, they can leave together. You are, of course, all equally free to leave at any time."
"Present circumstances excepted, of course," Tarrant put in.
"Can't we go into all this later?" Vila was practically dancing on the spot. "I said I'd only be a minute, and Bayban's still down there -"
"Shut up, Vila. Dayna, give him a second bracelet and put him down. We've wasted enough time. Tarrant -" Avon's gaze seemed to pluck Tarrant reluctantly forward from the doorway - "I'll need you to help me in fitting those new crystals."
"Ready, Vila?" Dayna slid behind the controls as Vila, looking as if he were completely unable to believe what was happening, backed into the teleport's active zone with one bracelet around his wrist and a second one clutched in his other hand. He smiled back weakly at Cally.
"Just what did you say to Avon, anyway?" Tarrant asked her with a suspicious look, his eyes going from Cally's pale face to Avon's as Dayna operated the teleport.
//That is none of your business, Tarrant,// Cally broadcast pointedly for them all to hear, and thought she caught a moment of gratitude on Avon's face.
* * * * *
Another day, another spaceship... Only it wasn't just another spaceship. Kerril kept her eyes firmly on Vila's bobbing brown tunic ahead of her, concentrating very hard on not being impressed by the sheer scale of the ship. How many more corridors could there be before they reached the bridge, or the control centre, or wherever it was that Vila had said they were going?
She'd heard of Blake's Liberator, of course. As it happened, the Liberator had been one of the subjects of the tall tales they'd been swapping over that gambling game that had cost her all her newly-earned credits and left her desperate enough to sign up with Bayban - a mistake she'd regretted within days.
But she'd written off all the tales of an alien battleship on a crusade across the galaxy as just that - tall tales, like the hoary old legend she'd told when it was her turn, the story of the 'Flying Dutchman' who'd lured the salt-water ships of pre-space-flight Earth to disaster. She'd vaguely assumed that the Liberator was real enough, a one-off raider ship built by some crack-pot designer on a backwater planet and taken over by the rebel Blake, and put down all the rest of it to the exaggerations of dome-bound civilians, planet-crawlers who'd never even seen a ship.
Well, now she was on the Liberator, and it was unnerving. It was all wrong. Spaceships didn't look like this inside. The bulkheads were at the wrong angle - in fact she wasn't sure those were bulkheads at all - the walls of the corridors were slanted, and whatever it was they were made of, it gave the distinct impression of glowing. Alien, that's what it was. And the whole vessel seemed to be every bit as big as that broken-down pursuit ship crewman had claimed. Lost his nerve, they'd said. Babbling nonsense. If she ever got back to that bar, she'd have a tale or two to tell - but then they wouldn't believe her, either. Kerril bit her lip and resolved again not to allow herself to be intimidated.
She could feel the other woman's eyes burning into her back; the young one, the girl. From what Vila had told her, none of them had wanted Kerril on the ship. They'd been polite enough to her down on the planet, when they'd cut a swathe through Bayban's entire force in order to rescue Vila - who'd already rescued himself by that time, thank you very much.
But up on the ship was different, was it? She could feel the hostile eyes between her shoulder-blades... she wished she had her leathers back, now. She felt exposed in the thin cloth of her green chiton. But she'd wanted to show Vila she wasn't quite the scruffy mercenary he'd taken her for. Of course, he'd turned out not to be quite the little squirt she'd taken him for; she grinned, remembering. And steady as a rock when it counted.
So they didn't want her on the ship. Well, it was mutual. She hadn't wanted to be here, either. She'd wanted to be on Homeworld, with Vila - their planet, their own planet, the first place that she could have felt was home since she'd been shipped off-planet at the age of fourteen...
And then Bayban had turned up just at the wrong moment. Vila had grabbed her gun and tried to shove her through the gate to Homeworld, to safety; but she wasn't having any of that. Whatever happened, they were going to face it together... and she knew Bayban, she knew his tactics, and Vila would need her help to deal with him. And after that awful moment when the gate had started to close and she'd known none of them had time to get through - well, she'd got them away, hadn't she? Through the base with Bayban raging after them, and out into the open until they'd lost him.
They'd thought they were safe then. She hadn't told Vila - she didn't know if she could admit even to Vila - just how afraid she'd been, when during that endless wait alone on the surface in the cold and the wind she'd felt that prickling on her spine and turned to see Bayban grinning behind her. She'd betrayed him - she'd gone over to the winning side - and she'd seen in that fraction of a second just how bitterly that crazy power-mad killer hated her guts.
Well, she'd hated his guts, too, for weeks; and she'd emptied her gun into them while he took that fatal moment out to gloat. She'd always known Bayban's ego would kill him in the end. A pity that she'd never get to collect the bounty - but she got considerable satisfaction from the thought that he'd have hated that worst of all.
The empty gun tapped uselessly at her waist as they passed one last intersection and Vila's pace slackened. He glanced back and caught her hand as she came up behind him.
"All right, this is it, Kerril - the flight deck."
He was so obviously caught between pride in the ship and nervousness at the anticipated reaction of the rest of the crew that she couldn't restrain a grin. But her jaw dropped as they reached the end of the corridor and she saw for the first time the sheer size of the open space beyond. It wasn't so much that the Liberator's flight deck was bigger than the pilot's cabin on an orbital shuttle. She'd expected that. It was more that it was almost big enough to hold the entire shuttle...
Nor was the size just for show. At eye-level on the far side of the flight deck was the lower edge of the biggest viewscreen she'd ever seen; every scrap of wall space seemed to be lined with what looked like auto-mated analysis and monitoring controls and displays, while the deck space was split between a network of what had to be linked flight or command consoles and - somewhat incongruously to her eyes - a bank of seating and a low table which seemed to have migrated in from what would have been the mess deck on a Federation vessel. She remembered what Vila had told her and looked around for the golden-red dome of the giant computer Zen. She almost missed it at first, until a new pattern of lights rippled across its surface and she suddenly realised that the 'dome' she'd been looking for occupied an entire wall.
Some of the flight positions were occupied. She became conscious of more eyes on her - two men and a woman, all of whom she half-recognised from that brief encounter down on the planet. The girl was still standing in the entrance to the flight deck, and they were all looking at her, even Vila. She became aware that she was holding Vila's hand, that her mouth was open and that her chiton was uncomfortably grimy...
Vila watched her pull herself together and raise her chin to meet the new challenge. He gave her hand a last squeeze before releasing it, both proud and apprehensive on her behalf. Avon's face was as unreadable as ever. Go easy on her, Avon, he willed at him. Please?
"I gather I'm not welcome." Kerril looked around the flight deck defiantly, determined to get Blake's crew to acknowledge her.
"Let's just say that Avon's reserving judgement for the moment." The closer of the two men, a tall, fresh-faced young man with a cap of springy brown curls, was giving her an appraising look that made Vila, beside her, stiffen indignantly. But the appraisal ended in a swift charming smile that transformed his face and surprised a reluctant grin out of her in return. She began to relax slightly.
"Del Tarrant." Vila was making hasty introductions. Tarrant's name was followed by a glare at its owner which slid off that seamless self-confidence like meteor dust around a force-shield. "Dayna Mellanby." The glowering brown-skinned girl who had met them at the teleport. "Kerr Avon." An older, square-built man, who was watching her from behind a face like a wary mask. "Cally." An intelligent face, too long for beauty, framed by clinging brown ringlets. Vila spoke the brief name with affection, and the woman met Kerril's gaze with a hint of calm welcome in the shadowed eyes.
Vila was still turning. "Oh, and this is Zen," he added, apparently seriously, as a final introduction, waving in the direction of the great dome to her right. The pattern of golden light shifted as he spoke, almost as if in response, and Kerril's eyes narrowed as she shot an incredulous swift glance from Vila to the computer.
"Gun, please, Vila." The girl from the teleport had somehow materialised on the far side of Vila - she moved as swiftly and silently as a stealthed scout-ship, Kerril conceded with reluctant professional respect - and the tone of command was unmistakable.
"What? I'm not wearing a gun, Dayna," Vila protested, turning to stare at her.
"Hers," Dayna hissed at him, hostile dark eyes flickering past him in a glance at Kerril's holster.
"All right, all right -" Vila's eyes rose to Kerril's in naked appeal, and she shrugged - even if the gun hadn't already been empty, she was hardly going to start a fight over giving it up when she was dependent on the goodwill of the Liberator's crew to get her off Keezarn - and unstrapped the weapon while still gazing around the flight deck. Something was puzzling her -
"Where's Blake?" she asked, frowning.
Vila jumped, and the gun-belt she'd just handed him almost ended up on the floor. He looked nervously up at the man Avon. Kerril followed his glance, but she could read nothing in Avon's face.
"Blake is... dead." Avon's voice was as cold and unrevealing as his expression. "We believe he died shortly after the Andromedan war."
That made no sense at all, in more ways than one. "But I thought... Vila said..."
"What on earth have you been saying now, Vila?" Dayna accused him.
"I never mentioned Blake," Vila protested. "No, wait..." He turned to Kerril, a slight flush coming to his cheeks at the memory of those confused hours when they had been trapped together on the ancient starship, waiting for the air to run out. "But all I said was that I wished Blake could have met you... something like that... I never said Blake was up here. How could I?" He swung back to face Dayna. "Look, we were going to sleep - I wasn't thinking too clearly - I thought we were going to die. I really don't remember, Dayna."
"Since Blake is not here, it is completely immaterial what Vila may or may not have said," Avon interposed impatiently.
Kerril was staring at both of them. She had been certain that this was Blake's crew... Surely there couldn't have been two Liberators? "But Blake isn't dead. We sold him three crates of weapons last month."
There was a sudden total silence. Cally's heart gave a great lurch inside her, and then started again with thundering triple beats that seemed to shake her whole body. "You saw Blake?" To her shame, her voice was not steady.
Kerril was looking more confused than ever. "I saw the colour of his money. I didn't see the man himself, no."
"I don't believe it." Avon seemed to be frozen in his seat; Cally knew him well enough to guess that the totally immobile façade represented a shock as great as her own. "It's been a year. How could we have failed to find him? How could Orac have missed him?"
Tarrant, who had never had much time either for Orac or for Cally's talk of Blake, laughed shortly. "Perhaps Orac isn't infallible after all. The question is, do we believe her? And what, if anything, do we do about it?"
Vila was visibly trembling. He sank down onto the flight deck seating as if his knees had given way, catching hold of both Kerril's hands to pull her down beside him. "Kerril, where was he? What ship was he using?" There was a second of silence that seemed to Cally as if the whole flight deck was waiting for the vital answer.
"I don't understand." Kerril pulled her hands free. "This is the Liberator - this is Blake's ship, isn't it?"
Vila swallowed, and glanced apprehensively at Avon. But Avon made no reaction at all to that statement. "Apparently not." The words were dry and uninflected.
Tarrant frowned, but Dayna hushed him. "Kerril, just tell us what happened." There was a spark of enthusiasm in her eyes, and Cally remembered that Dayna loved a mystery.
Kerril looked at Vila, who put an arm round her. "Please?" he suggested.
She shrugged. "I don't know much. It was just a standard arms consignment - three crates of Federation-issue paraguns that someone had 'liberated' from a transport while they were unloading her. We were trying to get rid of them, and we heard Blake was buying.
"We were given co-ordinates for a pick-up point out in the Seventh Sector, and I was one of the ones picked to ride down in the shuttle with the goods. Some woman met us, had a look inside the crates, haggled a bit, paid cash - and that was it.
"He pays quite well," she added. "I lost my share in a bar on Zondawl, though. That was when I ended up with Bayban."
"So Bayban doesn't know anything about Blake?" Dayna said sharply.
"He knew he was alive." Kerril laughed, looking pleased with herself. "If he knew where he was he'd have cut Blake's throat by now. He hated him."
"You know, I thought that was funny at the time." Vila was frowning in memory. "He really hated Blake. He was jealous. You don't hate a dead man like that."
"Oh no?" Tarrant grinned.
"You can't be jealous of someone who's dead," Vila protested. "There's no competition."
Cally followed Tarrant's glance up at Avon, who sat as frozen as ever. She slipped down from her own flight position and went to him, touching his arm lightly. "Avon?" For too long now Avon had been avoiding decisions, allowing the Liberator's actions to be determined almost at random by outside events. "Avon. What are we going to do?"
Avon stirred and looked down at her. "Get Orac."
"What good is that going to do?" Vila protested, watching Cally leave the flight deck. Typical Avon. When in doubt, consult a computer.
Avon, not greatly to Vila's surprise, ignored him. He wasn't exactly communicative at the best of times, and when he went into one of these freezing-cold moods, getting information out of him was like trying to get soma out of a stone...
Avon came softly across the flight deck to stand directly in front of the two on the seating. Vila felt Kerril stiffen within his encircling arm and tightened his grasp, staring back defiantly at Avon. But the intense focus of the other man's attention was directed exclusively at Kerril.
"What was the name of this pick-up planet?" Avon demanded harshly.
Kerril never flinched. Of course, she'd been dealing with Bayban the Butcher on a daily basis; after that, even having Avon turn that stare like pincers on you probably seemed like nothing. At least Avon was sane... Vila thought about that one for a moment; well, as sane as any of the rest of them were, anyway.
She frowned, concentrating. "The locals used to call it something different - but the Federation name is Gauda Prime."
"Gauda Prime." Avon looked at Tarrant, but the pilot shrugged.
"Never heard of it."
Vila craned round as Avon looked up, and saw that Cally had come in behind them with Orac in her arms. Avon was already moving back to join her. "Orac, can you access any computers on a world called Gauda Prime, in the Seventh Sector?"
"There is a small Federation outpost on Gauda Prime," the computer responded. "Their computers are of a very simple design which is outdated even by Federation standards. What specific information do you require?"
"Are there any references to Blake in those computers?"
Almost unnoticed, Vila had slipped to his feet and was edging closer to Orac. As if unconsciously, the others, even Tarrant, were doing the same.
"By 'references to Blake' I assume you mean information on Blake's current whereabouts, since all Federation computer systems contain references to Blake's history, the charges against him, the current bounty offered for his capture, and so on? I enquire because there are thirty-one such references on file in the system in question."
"Orac," Avon said softly, "where is Blake?"
"If I had this information I would already have given it to you," Orac pointed out with remorseless computer logic, "since I am constantly monitoring Federation computer traffic according to your earlier instructions -"
"Does the information in those computers suggest in any way that Blake could have been present on Gauda Prime within the last year?" Avon demanded.
"Negative. However, the absence of such information does not prove -"
"I know." Avon silenced Orac. "It proves nothing at all either way."
To Cally's surprise, Dayna had offered to take Kerril on a brief tour of the Liberator, "just so that she knows where everything is, even if she can't find it" as Vila had immediately put it. The suggestion was sensible enough, but coming from Dayna, who had shown every sign of simmering resentment at the mere idea of having to teleport Kerril on board, it had taken Cally somewhat aback.
Dayna's moods had always been mercurial: she had little patience with Vila, but once she had got over her childish pique at Avon's refusal even to listen to her objections, she had obviously decided to take a look at Kerril in her own right rather than as some kind of appendage to Vila. Cool-headed, laconic and experienced, the older woman had apparently made a favourable impression on her; she had the combat knowledge that Dayna, despite her games with weapons, could only dream about, and she had stunned them all with her casual revelation, in response to an anxious query from Vila, that she had disposed of Bayban the Berserker single-handed down on the planet while waiting for Vila to come back down for her.
Cally suspected that Dayna's offer of a tour of the ship was at least partly prompted by a burning desire to get Kerril to herself in order to ask her a hundred questions about the exact details of how she had achieved such a feat. But whatever motives had given rise to Dayna's more friendly attitude towards their guest, she seemed sincere enough in her desire to show off the Liberator's facilities, and after a rather wary glance - she had evidently not forgotten Dayna's cool welcome when she had first come on board - Kerril had accepted.
Vila had shown every sign of intending to accompany them, but Cally had collared him as they left the flight deck, and taken him firmly off to her own cabin, despite his protests. She needed someone to whom she could confide the worries about Blake that had begun coldly to creep in after the initial euphoria of Kerril's assertion that he was still alive; and discussing that particular subject with Avon was completely out of the question.
It took a second explanation before Vila showed any signs of being convinced. "Think about it, Vila," she urged unhappily.
"I get it." Vila sat down heavily on Cally's bunk. He frowned. "No I don't. That doesn't make sense, Cally. If Blake doesn't want us, all he has to do is to say so. I mean, Avon's not exactly going to force his company on Blake, is he? Blake doesn't need to disappear and make us all think he's dead." He looked up into Cally's face in a mute appeal. "It's just not like Blake. Blake wouldn't do this to us, Cally."
But the very act of denying it made the possibility real for both of them, and Cally's heart ached for the stricken look that came over Vila's face. "Blake has been secretive before," she reminded him, one hand toying with the loose catch on the cupboard behind her.
"Often," Vila agreed gloomily. "Generally when he had some wild scheme planned and didn't want to give Avon a chance to demolish it."
He jumped up, almost colliding with Cally, who stepped hastily back. "Hey! Do you think that's it?" Then he deflated. "No... no. He wouldn't leave us behind. That's why he used to keep quiet - to get us all to come along without getting a chance to argue about it.
"Anyhow, what could he have got involved in that Avon would disagree with that much?"
Cally had been wondering that herself. Blake's schemes - with the possible exception of the acquisition of Orac - had never been of a type which Avon would actively have supported of his own accord; but, by the same token, had he been a free agent he would never have taken enough interest in any of them to bother to oppose them. Avon could occasionally be surprisingly strait-laced in matters that affected him personally; but Blake's concern for the welfare of the galaxy at large had always seemed a matter of complete indifference to him.
"Perhaps the Terra Nostra," she suggested.
Vila considered this idea hopefully, then shook his head. "Not without the Liberator. I don't think they'd be interested now, anyway."
He sat down again, sighing. The bunk creaked slightly under his weight. "It wouldn't have cost him much trouble. Just a brief vistape: 'Hello Vila. Don't worry, I'm doing fine. Sorry I couldn't make it. Wish you were here. All the best, Blake.'"
Cally leaned back against the wall, considering the problem. Blake's silence might not have been entirely voluntary. "He might have been captured by the Federation after Star One. He was badly wounded, after all." The loose catch broke under fingers that tightened suddenly, and she looked down at it in dismay.
"Avon says Orac would know about it, and I believe him. Anyway, we'd have heard. If the Federation caught up with Blake, do you really think they'd keep it quiet? It would have been top of the spacecasts for weeks. 'Reckless Terrorist Brought to Justice. Sensational Seizure of Brutal Blake. Peace in Our Time, says President.' And he'd hardly still be at the top of the bounty list. No, the Federation don't know what happened to Blake any more than we do."
Vila was twisting Cally's bed covers in his hands. "I think you were right, though," he added unhappily, meeting her eyes. "If Blake is still alive, then he doesn't want to see us - or he doesn't want us to see him. Perhaps he's been horribly scarred or crippled and he's ashamed for his old friends to see him. Maybe he's picked up some deadly infectious disease that's been eating away at him all this time, and he doesn't want us to catch it." He caught sight of Cally's expression and broke off hastily. "Sorry, Cally."
Cally struggled with the graphic images Vila's imagination had conjured up so casually. If he were right -
They both swung round sharply as the door opened, then Vila's face lit up. "I see Dayna's been showing you the Clothes Room, Kerril!" His eyebrows went up appreciatively. "Very nice. Very nice."
Dayna, in the corridor beyond, caught Cally's eye and jerked a cheerful thumb towards Kerril in an 'over-to-you' gesture. She waited just long enough to see Cally drop her eyes briefly in acknowledgement before disappearing off in the direction of the flight deck. Cally sighed and turned her attention to Kerril, who was enjoying Vila's admiring gaze with legs planted firmly apart, arms folded across her chest and her head tilted to one side in an expression of frank amusement.
The close-fitting studded costume was not only flattering but warmer and more practical than the once-elegant draped chiton she had been wearing when she came on board; but the unconscious combination of the style and colours Kerril had chosen, though they undoubtedly suited her, brought a smile to Cally's eyes. "Was black and silver your choice or Avon's?"
"I like her in black," Vila protested. "Well, I certainly like her in this black, anyway.
"Wait a minute. Couldn't you have found a shorter tunic?"
Kerril laughed at him, tugging at her belt. "Much shorter than this, Vila, and it wouldn't be a tunic!"
"That was the general idea," Vila explained. He grinned. "With legs like that, why waste them?"
Kerril made a grab for him, and missed as he dodged around Cally, almost knocking her off her feet.
"Not in here!" Cally said tolerantly, steadying herself against a shelf. "This cabin is too small, Vila."
"Well, so is mine," he protested, dodging behind her again.
"Yes, but there will only be two of you in it," Cally pointed out, opening the door again.
Vila heaved a theatrical groan. "Come on, Kerril. I can tell when I'm not wanted."
Cally watched them go with a smile that faded when they were out of sight. For the first time in months, she ventured a tentative mental probe out into the emptiness that surrounded the ship.
//Blake... Blake? Can you hear me?// The echoes of her mind faded away into the vast aching silence of the universe around her.
Cally sighed. He was not close enough to hear, and even if he were she would not know it. They were dumb, all of them, mind-dumb and crippled, so that it was like shouting into the speaker of some voiceless computer. The blank metal surface of their alien consciousness could never give back any response to show that they had heard and understood.
The Auron woman remembered the supple acknowledgement of other minds brushing against hers; wordless humour and passionate eloquence, where every emotional shading passed intact from mind to mind without the clumsiness of human expression.
Let it all be over soon, she wished. Let me go home.
Dayna covered the last fifteen feet of the corridor in a few strides and bounded down the steps onto the flight deck. Offering to show Kerril round the Liberator had been a spur-of-the-moment decision but she certainly didn't regret it - if even half of the yarns Kerril had spun her were true, the woman had crossed the length and breadth of the Seven Sectors in her time, as the saying went.
Why do we say that? Dayna wondered briefly. There must have been a time when there were only seven Sectors, I suppose. After all, the Seventh Sector - where it looks as if we might end up going, if Avon won't listen to reason - extends right out to the Rim on this side of the galaxy. Perhaps this was as far as they got for a while, before the Federation was established and started expansion in the other direction out from the Fourth Sector.
Kerril, apparently, had been to both, and to most of the sectors in between, and in the process had survived a few hair-raising episodes that rivalled the tallest of the tales Vila was apt to tell about the Liberator's exploits under Blake. The only thing Dayna still couldn't make out was what on Earth Kerril saw in a babbling incompetent like Vila...
She'd been planning to take Kerril all the way down to the inner holds, maybe astonish her with a glimpse into the vastness of the main lower hold; but they'd only just left the Rest Room when some freak of the ship's acoustics had carried a snatch of argument down from the flight deck, and it had dawned on her that she was in danger of losing her last opportunity to get some say in this Gauda Prime affair. She'd hastily tracked down Cally, left it to her to keep an eye on Kerril, and dashed back to join Tarrant and Avon.
She needn't have bothered to hurry. The argument had evidently been going on for some time, but as far as she could tell they had made no progress at all. Tarrant's patience, not exactly elastic at the best of times, was obviously severely frayed, while Avon appeared to be prepared to carry on all night if necessary. Neither of them even looked round at her hasty entry.
"The whole of this Blake business could be a trap," she pointed out at last as Tarrant launched into yet another variation on a point he'd attempted to make three times already in the last five minutes.
"Yes, we've already been over that!" Tarrant turned and glared at her. "I still say that the chances of Servalan's planting a female on an obscure planet with instructions to arrange for Vila to come down alone, to seduce him, and to insinuate herself into the Liberator just in order to let slip a piece of information which might or might not lure us to an obscure part of the galaxy, are so slim as to be practically non-existent!"
Whatever Kerril was - and Dayna was prepared to discount at least half of what she'd just been told - one thing was certain. She was not a trained agent, and if Tarrant had taken the trouble actually to talk to her he'd know just how absurd that suggestion was. Dayna wasn't sure she'd ever met anyone with a more direct and tactless approach to supposedly sensitive questions, Tarrant included. But just because Kerril believed she'd made contact with the famous Blake didn't necessarily mean that things were as they seemed to be.
"How do you like this one instead, then?" she suggested. "Servalan knows that Blake is out of circulation. She sets up rumours using Blake's name, aimed at trapping arms dealers and smugglers. They turn up to the rendezvous, the big operators get arrested there and then, and the small fry are sent back out as bait for bigger game - which we're about to provide! Every word of Kerril's story could be true, as far as she knows - and it could still be a trap."
"I don't think we need to invoke Servalan," Avon cut in, rising from his seat at the front of the flight deck where he had been staring down at his fingers splayed on the low table in front of him, patently ignoring ninety per cent of everything Tarrant had been saying. "Much as she would hate to admit it, there are other minds and other commanders at work in the Federation, and even Servalan cannot control them all. This isn't Servalan's style."
"If this is a trap, then 'Blake' should have contacted us," Tarrant objected, looking backward and forward from Avon to Dayna. "We've never traded in weapons and we don't need to buy them; under normal circumstances, we could have gone a year or more without ever hearing about it. As bait, that's useless."
"Precisely," Avon said. "Which is why I don't believe this is a trap."
Which could only imply one thing... Dayna stared at him. Going to investigate a wild rumour was one thing. But refusing even to entertain the possibility that they could be running their heads into a deliberately-baited snare was pure folly.
"You really think that Blake is alive and well and out there in the Seventh Sector waving at passing traffic and patiently waiting for you to come back and pick him up?"
Avon chose to ignore her incredulous tone. He set his hands on the rim of the weapons console and leaned forward, his eyes on hers. "Whoever it is out there, Dayna, the last thing he seems to want to do is to attract our attention. As Tarrant points out -" he glanced briefly to his right, where Tarrant was standing against the monitor banks beside Zen, watching them both with ill-concealed impatience - "if it were not for a series of implausible coincidences, we would have no idea that he was there. And, given that using Blake's name is hardly the best way to conceal oneself from Orac, he must have gone to a great deal of trouble to hide from us so successfully."
"Well, either he is Blake or he isn't," Tarrant retorted. "If he is, he obviously doesn't want anything to do with the Liberator, and I suggest we keep it that way. If he's some other rebel posing as Blake, presumably the last thing he wants is a ship-load of people who knew the real Blake turning up and exposing him as a fake. I don't see that it's any business of ours. There are a lot of people like Vila out there, who'd like to think of Blake as still roaming the stars somewhere, cocking a snook at the Federation. Why spoil their illusions?"
Dayna's eyebrows rose at this un-Tarrant-like sentiment. "Since when have you been so concerned to cherish other people's illusions?"
Tarrant took a couple of involuntary paces forward, his hands clenched at his sides. "I just don't see any point haring off to the edge of the galaxy to thrust our noses into a situation that could be a trap, and where we're obviously not wanted!"
"On the contrary, if it is a trap I imagine that we are currently most eagerly expected," Avon pointed out.
Tarrant swung round on him. "You know perfectly well what I mean, Avon!"
"Unfortunately I totally disagree with you."
Don't let him bait you into saying something stupid, Tarrant. You can act like seven kinds of idiot when you take off on one of your scatterbrained ideas, but this time you're right and he knows it. Dayna's eyes met Tarrant's in silent encouragement, and after a moment she saw him deliberately relax his clenched fists and clasp his hands loosely behind his back, chin raised, in an ostentatiously patient posture which she guessed to be a wicked imitation of one of his lecturers at the Academy.
"Avon, if we come running at every mention of Blake for much longer, the next time it will be a trap. We're too predictable. It's getting dangerous. Sooner or later Servalan is going to use Blake's name as bait for one of her schemes."
"Tarrant's right, Avon," Dayna contributed. "Dead or not, Blake's gone." This isn't Blake's ship now; this has never been Blake's ship in all the months I've been here. Blake doesn't matter any more, Avon; the Liberator is ours and we can go where we like. We don't need to trail after Blake...
"Spare me the philosophy." For a moment Avon's face showed her a trace of weary contempt. "We have a decision to make."
"We just made it," Tarrant retorted. "We leave this wild-goose chase well alone, and go on as we are."
"Do you intend to try a little more piracy, then, after the spectacular success of your last attempt?" Avon suggested smoothly. "I am growing tired of lurching from one disaster to another, Tarrant. We cannot go on as we are."
That was decidedly unfair. "So what do you propose to do, Avon?" Dayna put in hurriedly before Tarrant could let loose the unconsidered retort that was obviously boiling to the tip of his tongue.
Avon smiled for the first time. "I intend to do just what Vila and Cally expect."
Dayna frowned. "I don't understand."
"I doubt if it has even occurred to Vila or to Cally that we are not already on our way to Gauda Prime," Avon told her.
Dayna looked across at Tarrant, fury ebbing in his eyes to confusion that matched her own. Behind him, lights chased in orderly sequence across Zen's dome as the computer constantly surveyed and updated the parameters for the hundreds of separate systems which combined to keep the Liberator alive. A suspicion was beginning to grow in her mind.
"Zen, state current destination," she commanded.
"CURRENT DESTINATION IS THE PLANET GAUDA PRIME IN THE SEVENTH SECTOR," came the response.
Dayna stared at the computer, her guess confirmed. "How long have we been on course for the Seventh Sector?" she demanded.
"THE DESTINATION CO-ORDINATES WERE ENTERED THIRTY-SEVEN MINUTES AGO," Zen informed her.
"The next time Avon asks me for advice, I'll just save my breath," Tarrant muttered, stalking out.
Dayna was tempted to follow him. "Avon - why?" she appealed, turning back for one last attempt to make him see sense.
"'Why' is the reason," Avon said softly. "I'll have no false Blakes claiming his legacy. And if there's a chance that it is the real Blake - I have to know. And I have to know why he is doing this, Dayna. Why doesn't Blake trust us? Why does he need to hide?" Avon's face was set. "We need to know, Cally and Vila and I. We need to know why."
"It doesn't look like much," Vila complained, peering at the image of the planet floating on the main screen.
It looked much like any other Earth-type planet to Tarrant, but that wasn't the point. Since Avon had flatly refused to have Kerril anywhere near the weapons or the flight controls while the Liberator was in transit, Vila, who had been spending most of his time in her company, hadn't exactly been in evidence on the flight deck much lately. Generally speaking that was a definite improvement from Tarrant's point of view, of course; but apparently Vila, typically, had managed in the process to miss out on Zen's summary of the type of civilisation to be expected - or rather not to be expected - on the planet's surface.
He exchanged a glance with Dayna. "Are you going to tell him, or shall I?"
Dayna grinned back, with a certain relish. "According to Zen, it's an Open Planet - a mining colony where not even the Federation laws apply," she informed Vila helpfully. "In other words, by definition it's a hell-hole. Apparently it also rejoices in 'highly variable localised weather patterns, ranging from fog to snow to blazing sunshine within a single week'."
"Well, if it gets sunshine at all that makes it an improvement on some of the planets we've been to," Vila pointed out, cheering up, and Avon turned on him.
"We're not planning to stay there and we're not going to be walking around outside. Now, where's that Kerril woman?"
"Her name's Kerril," Vila insisted, with a brief flare of protest.
"Didn't I just say so? Now, get her."
"But you told me to keep Kerril off the flight deck -"
"Just get her," Avon snarled.
Vila scurried off the flight deck. "I don't know what's got into him," he muttered.
Avon ignored him, turning to the two women. "Cally, Dayna, get ready for teleport. Tarrant -" a brief glance in his direction - "I want you to put us down."
Tarrant's jaw dropped. "Now wait a minute, Avon -" He wasn't in the habit of being left behind to mind the ship, and he certainly wasn't in the habit of working the teleport for Cally and Dayna's benefit. Vila could do it. Vila liked operating the teleport - it gave him a nova-proof excuse for staying safely on board the Liberator.
Avon gave him a weary look. "Tarrant, I need Cally and Dayna, and I have no intention of leaving Kerril up here alone with Vila. Vila comes with us and you stay with the ship. If you really feel your teleport skills are inadequate, I'm sure Cally will go over it with you."
Very funny... and it left him seething without a retort, while Cally pulled weapons from the gun rack, and Dayna shot him a sympathetic glance.
"Avon, what do we expect to find down there?" Cally asked, passing one of the weapons to Dayna.
"Not Blake." Avon looked at her. "Another 'Bayban the Berserker' perhaps. Probably nothing, if this was just a pick-up point for the weapons deal. But there may be clues." He accepted the gun she handed him.
"Avon..." Vila said tentatively from the door. He had a puzzled-looking Kerril by the hand.
Avon turned. "Bring her over here, Vila. Get ready for teleport."
Vila's hand tightened on Kerril's, and for a second Tarrant expected him to protest; but Kerril caught hold of his arm with her free hand, saying something softly, and after a moment he gave her an uncertain smile and allowed Cally to lead him away.
Avon stared levelly at the woman before him. "Is this the planet?"
Kerril studied the main screen. "Could be. Looks like it." Her gaze returned to Avon.
"So how do we get in contact?" he probed.
"If you're expected, they send a shuttle up. Otherwise - who knows?" Kerril's smile was a challenge. Avon ignored it.
"Very well. You went down by shuttle. Where did the hand-over of the weapons take place? On the landing field?"
Understanding dawned on Kerril's face. "No, there's a base. Underground, I think. We didn't see much of it, though - just a big room with crates in it. And an office where they kept the money." She thought back, trying to remember. "They had heavy lifting machinery for handling the crates. It could have been mining equipment."
"Gauda Prime's a mining colony," Tarrant confirmed, uncertain just what Avon was driving at.
"Also an Open Planet." Avon's eyes were half-lidded in calculation. "Every profitable enterprise on the planet will have its own rival security force. Boundary sensors. Armed guards on all incoming and outgoing ground convoys. Even a trap would hardly be staged under those conditions." He glanced towards the front of the flight deck. "Orac, how many mining operations, both active and inactive, are currently recorded in the planetary computer systems?"
"Current operations are concentrated on two sites in the southern hemisphere," the computer informed him. "Extraction continues on a limited basis at five other sites, and three new locations close to the equator are currently being prospected. Activity has now ceased at a further nine sites, since the quality of the remaining ore no longer justifies the cost of extraction."
"Good. Have the computer installations at any of those sites been activated recently?"
"Only the two main sites and the Federation administrative outpost contain tarial cell computers," Orac complained. "Any other local installations are not accessible to me."
"Makes sense," Tarrant admitted. In fact, it explained quite a lot. It also opened up a number of possibilities he didn't particularly want to think about. He scowled. "After all, he can't be using tarial computers because Orac would have picked him up before."
"Yes," Avon said slowly, "but how does he know that?"
That was one of the questions he would have preferred not to consider... This was getting ridiculous. They were jumping to conclusions. He looked sharply at Avon. "We don't know if there's anything down here yet."
"True." Avon turned to Kerril again. "I don't suppose you noticed which hemisphere your shuttle headed for?"
"The northern hemisphere." Kerril grinned at his surprise.
"You're sure?" he shot at her.
Her head came up and she looked at him contemptuously. "Kerr Avon, I trained as a shuttle pilot. I'm sure. We came in over a steep range of mountains with an ice-cap, and the landing field was by a river."
Avon's eyes narrowed, and Tarrant thought he detected a new assessment in his gaze. The woman seemed to know what she was talking about - but as to whether that made her potentially more or less of a threat to them, even Avon was apparently uncertain. Kerril's gaze was steady, and she wore a slight confident smile.
There was a moment's silence, and Tarrant decided to take the lead. "Orac, give Zen the co-ordinates of those nine locations. Zen, display a contour map of the northern hemisphere of the planetary surface. Highlight the mine locations where they appear."
"None of those locations fits the description," Avon murmured. He glanced at Kerril again. "Zen, display southern hemisphere."
Tarrant scrutinised the display, frowning, then shook his head. Suddenly, absurdly, he was reminded of the viva voce examination he'd taken in his third year at the Academy: "You have grounds to suspect a concentration of enemy troops near your designated landing site, Mr Tarrant. What action would you take to verify this from orbit without endangering your vessel?" Well, he'd passed the examination with flying colours...
"All right, Zen, calculate an orbit which will allow full sensor analysis of the nine sites. I want a scan for any sign of activity or recent human occupation. Display results on the main screen." Of course, it wasn't a very elegant solution, and there was one problem. "This may take some time, Avon."
"No, wait -" Avon frowned. "Orac. Were there attempts to establish other mining settlements on this planet before the big corporations took over?"
"Indeed there were. Federation commerce records list thirty-eight other mining operations owned by private consortia during the early years of exploitation, none of which proved capable of satisfying the rates of return required by the Federation."
"List the locations of the four largest."
"The necessary data relating to the largest of these sites appears to have been erased from the administrative computers."
"Ah!" Avon leaned forward. "Does that data exist elsewhere, Orac?"
"Historical records held in Seventh Sector Control confirm that deletion has taken place, and supply the missing data. Systems records for the time of the deletion suggest sabotage."
"Orac, give Zen those co-ordinates. Zen, I want a full scan of that area."
"SENSORS REPORT MULTIPLE HEAT SOURCES. SOIL CONTAMINATION IS CONSISTENT WITH RESIDUES FROM SHUTTLE EXHAUST ON TAKE-OFF. SECOND-ARY SENSORS SUGGEST THE PRESENCE OF TWO ORBITAL SHUTTLECRAFT AND A SILO OF DIMENSIONS SUFFICIENT TO ACCOMMODATE A MERCURY-CLASS COURIER SHIP OR SMALLER."
Tarrant pounded hand against fist. "We've got him! Avon, we've got him!"
His grin was infectious, and Avon's return smile was genuine. "One should never try to be too clever, Tarrant. His fatal mistake was to meddle with those computer records. Without that, we would have had to search the whole planet for him. Now, we know exactly where he is."
The intercom clicked. "Avon? Tarrant? Are you still up there? Vila's getting jittery." Dayna sounded impatient.
"Deal with her, Tarrant," Avon said shortly. "Orac, I want ground plans of that base if they're available."
"Duplicates of such plans exist in Seventh Sector Control, and I have downloaded copies."
Tarrant, crossing to the communicator cabinet, glanced back at him with a rather rueful expression. For a moment there Avon had sounded almost human. He was obviously regretting it.
"Dayna, we've had a bit of trouble establishing teleport co-ordinates. Avon's just coming." He switched off the intercom before she could reply.
Kerril put a hand out to stop Avon as he followed Tarrant towards the corridor. "Is Vila going down to the planet with you?"
"What of it?" Avon countered coldly.
"I want to go with him."
"You still think I'm a Federation agent?"
Tarrant paused in the doorway and glanced back. "Let's say you're on probation." He gave her his most charming smile, but received only a freezing glare in return.
She looked down at Avon's gun. "If it comes to fighting, I'm a better shot than Vila."
Avon smiled grimly. "I assure you that Vila will not be doing any shooting if I have anything to do with it." He met Kerril's eyes. "Console yourself with the fact that Tarrant will not be going down to the planet either. Believe me, he is just as unhappy about it as you are."
* * * * *
Tarrant seemed to be having some trouble with the teleport console. Dayna shifted from foot to foot impatiently, watching him. "I'm putting you down in the landing field," he said at last, looking up. "I can't work out reliable co-ordinates for the underground areas."
Dayna rolled her eyes in exasperation. It wasn't as if he was being asked to do anything particularly difficult. "Just get on with it, Tarrant. Oh, and try to make sure we arrive reasonably close to ground level."
"Dayna, shut up. Tarrant, put us down."
Tarrant's fingers ran cautiously over the switches one last time before he reached out for the main control. "Good luck."
A chill, sharp-scented breeze stirred along the deserted valley, rattling the leathery leaves of the low-growing bushes that huddled down in the stained gravel at the riverside, where the crumbling stone of the banks had finally given way. The steep mountainside rose in abrupt contrast to the flat plain of the valley floor, on the far bank of the river that ran brown and swollen after heavy rain the night before. The rushing water ran slickly across mineral-streaked rock, streaming out long tufts of drowned greenery at its verges. Close-cropped, beaded with rain that tipped every blade with light, there was grass as far as the eye could see, with bare shoulders of silvered grey rock thrusting out high on the mountain where the soil was too thin even for grass. In the distance a plantation of conifers scarred the contours, and a dark shadow of rushes marked the course of a trickle of water high above a straggling copse of stunted trees on the far side of the valley.
Cally glanced round swiftly, gun out as she scanned their surroundings, and at her back Avon did the same. Dayna, between them, found herself slipping to one knee as she lost her balance on the short wet grass, and clutched at Vila for support.
"That incompetent curly-headed space-jockey!" she snarled. "I'll swear he does this on purpose!"
"Come on, Dayna, he almost got it right this time. Anyway, you ought to be glad he puts you down just above the ground instead of just below it," Vila pointed out, skipping back neatly out of her reach as she sprang to her feet, brushing ineffectually at the soaked knee of her jumpsuit.
She took in the landscape curiously. It wasn't Sarran - it wasn't even close enough to Sarran to hurt, and in a way she was grateful - but it wasn't the industrial wasteland she'd been expecting, either. There were some debris deposits further along the valley that she guessed were man-made, but otherwise the whole place seemed almost untouched, wilderness-clean. From high above them came the pure pitched cry of some flying creature, and she glanced up instinctively, seeking the brief curve of wings above the mountain. You could get to like this place - she shivered - but it was cold.
Cally slid her gun back into its holster. "All clear, I think," she told Avon. Avon nodded and thumbed on the communicator in his bracelet.
"Down and safe," he told Tarrant. "Stay alert. We may need to come up in a hurry." He clicked the channel closed.
"Now then, Vila. Can you get us inside?"
"You find the door and I'll open it," the thief assured him. He glanced up the daunting expanse of mountainside. "Mind you, finding it could be tricky."
Dayna, already twenty feet away, heard him and looked back. "Not if you follow the path!" She had sprung up onto the nearest of the mounds she'd seen, a half-overgrown heap of rock fragments that proved to be the lowest in a series that extended fan-wise along the valley. Winding between them was a bruised track in the grass that led down from the side of the mountains out towards the field below.
"Come on, Vila." She hugged herself briefly against the breeze. "I'm freezing!"
"Wait." Avon stopped them. "Cally, Dayna - no killing if you can avoid it. I want this to be subtle."
"Are you sure that's really it?" Dayna whispered, looking down the hallway at the shabby grey door.
"According to the old plans, that used to be the base manager's office," Avon murmured. "They don't seem to have changed anything else, so I imagine we'll find that our rebel leader has based himself there. With luck, we'll be able to get in and find out what's going on before anybody even knows we're here.
"Cally - Vila." As Avon caught Cally's eye and glanced down the corridor, Dayna settled into her crouch, gun aimed across her knee, to watch back the way they had come.
"A few moments more," Avon said, almost to himself, "and we should know..." His voice sharpened. "What's Vila up to now?"
Dayna glanced over her shoulder. Vila had abandoned work on the lock. He and Cally seemed to be conferring.
//Avon, Dayna, there is someone inside.//
Avon frowned for a moment, calculating. "It seems we're about to meet our answer in person..." He rose to his feet, touching her arm. "Come on, Dayna."
He led her up the corridor at a run, gathering in the others behind him with a gesture as he and Dayna reached the door, and shot a questioning glance at Vila.
//The door was not locked,// Cally told them silently.
Avon indicated the door control with a jerk of his head, and as Cally reached out to operate it, he and Dayna levelled their guns.
A quick glance as the door opened showed Dayna a small untidy office with the same utilitarian grey walls as the corridors. A couple of tired-looking computer terminals blinked at the corner of her eye, but her attention was immediately caught by the woman who had raised a weary blonde head from her work at the sound of the door, and now leapt to her feet, brown eyes furious, as she caught sight of their guns.
Beside her, she felt Avon stiffen in surprise.
There was a suppressed yelp of "Avon!" as Vila tried to push his way through and was deliberately blocked. On her other side Dayna felt a movement that was Cally, her gun wavering, her eyes wide and distressed.
"Don't move, any of you." Avon's voice held an icy edge of command that froze even Vila for a moment; but only a moment.
"But Avon, I don't understand -"
"Vila, shut up." Jenna's voice was as cold as Avon's, and her beautiful face was set hard.
"I might have known," Vila was babbling to himself, "all these months - and is it 'Hello Vila'? Is it 'Glad to see you, Vila'? No, it's 'Shut up, Vila' just like old times..."
"But she's not glad to see you, Vila," Avon said softly. "You're not glad to see us at all, are you, Jenna?"
"Go away, Avon."
Avon took a measured step forward, his aim never wavering, and Jenna tensed.
"You know, Jenna," he continued, "I underestimated you. You never even occurred to me as a possibility, and it should have been so obvious. I even thought it might be Blake himself, and I never once thought of you.
"But of course, it had to be one of us, didn't it? Who else had the knowledge to carry it off? Who else would know how to hide from Orac?"
He shot a contemptuous glance around the room. "Was it worth it, Jenna, to cripple yourself with these antique computers just to delay the moment when the Liberator would turn up overhead to unmask your little secret? We searched for Blake, Jenna, we searched for week after week on planet after planet, we searched beyond all reason to find him.
"And what were you doing, Jenna? When did you get your brilliant idea? Do you tell them to stop and deliver in the name of the revolution, or do you just deal in arms to the highest bidder? Did Blake die at Star One just so that you could pose as a gun-runner in his name?"
Jenna began to laugh. There was an edge of hysteria in it, and she was leaning forward to support herself on the desk. "You don't know, do you, Avon? You have no idea at all. All these months of hiding, and when you come at last demanding answers you don't even know the right questions to ask -"
Everything seemed to happen at once. Jenna made a lunge for the corner of the desk. Avon fired. Cally cried out and launched herself at Avon. Dayna ran forward as Jenna made a queer stifled noise and collapsed gracelessly sideways across the desk, her outstretched fingers still reaching for the alarm button. She began to slip downwards to the floor as Dayna tried to pull her free, Vila at her elbow helping to take the weight.
Avon shook himself free of Cally and moved forward to stand over them, his face unreadable as Dayna looked up. He caught her gaze and smiled harshly. "Meet Jenna Stannis, pilot of the Liberator. Blake's right hand. Smuggler, pirate, daredevil of the stars."
"And now she's a corpse. Avon..." Vila's eyes were miserable. "I know you two never got on, but did you have to shoot her?"
Avon frowned. "She's not dead - not unless Cally's interference caused a fatal accident. She shouldn't even be unconscious. I aimed for her arm, not for her heart."
Cally pulled Vila aside and knelt beside Jenna, feeling for a pulse. Her face was grim as she looked up at Avon. "I want her in the Liberator's medical unit, Avon. At once."
"By all means," Avon said drily, unclipping the spare teleport bracelet from his sleeve. "I came for answers, not a corpse."
"Come in Tarrant," Cally said sharply into her communicator. "This is Cally. We have five to teleport. I repeat, five to teleport."
"Cally!" Tarrant sounded relieved. "Where's Avon? Did you get the man you went down for?"
"In a manner of speaking," Avon cut in. "Now bring us up, Tarrant. And make a note of the co-ordinates. I don't want to have to go through this again."
"Cally, I can't get this tunic open," Vila said unhappily, trying to support Jenna's head with one arm and expose the wound with the other. "It seems to be stuck. I'm going to have to cut the sleeve."
Cally frowned, laying down the instruments she was preparing. "Let me see, Vila." Gentle fingers pulled carefully at stiff red fabric. "I think you are right."
She began cutting cautiously, pulling Jenna's tunic open at the throat and peeling it back as the strands parted. "There is already a dressing under here," she said, surprised. "Avon, I think your shot hit an old wound..." Her voice died away as she eased back the dressing.
Vila caught a glimpse, made a sick noise, and turned away. "Stay still, Vila!" Cally ordered, cutting down the sleeve, and exposing Jenna's arm and shoulder.
"Sorry..." Vila took a firmer grip on Jenna and watched, appalled, as more and more of the stained dressings were revealed and then gently removed. He had gone very pale.
"Please, Cally... I can't -"
Cally glanced up, took one look at his face, and sighed.
//Tarrant, get him out of here and give him a drink. Dayna, help me support Jenna.// She was pulling the collar of Jenna's tunic aside to expose the full extent of the damage.
Dayna took one close look at the suppurating burns that splashed across Jenna's right shoulder, arm and breast, and swallowed hard. "For pity's sake, Cally, what sort of weapon does that?"
"I should say that was a mis-aimed plasma burn," Avon said from his position by the door.
"They are normally aimed at the face," Avon told her levelly. "The result is almost invariably fatal."
"You can let her head fall now, Dayna." Cally laid Jenna gently back on the couch and checked the diagnostics. She frowned, unbelieving. "Avon, these wounds have been untreated for more than a week!"
"No tarial cell computers in that base," Avon reminded her. "No advanced medical facilities - perhaps no auto-doctor at all. She was trying to conceal the fact that she was wounded, Cally."
Dayna straightened up, looking curiously down at the woman on the couch now that Cally had drawn a light sheet over her to hide the seeping wounds while she prepared the cell regeneration unit.
"Will she live?"
Cally looked round. "Yes, she will live. The burns cover a large area, and are badly infected, but the Liberator's medical systems are quite capable of providing the necessary treatment. There will be no permanent damage; after a second treatment, even the scars would start to fade."
Dayna sighed. "If you don't need me, I think I'd better go and remove Vila from the drinks cabinet. I'm sure he's fully recovered by now."
Cally worked on for a long time in silence, occasionally glancing up to find Avon still watching her quietly. At length she stood up, stretched, checked her readings one last time, and came over to join him.
"I have done all I can. She should wake soon, Avon."
"Will she be able to talk?" Avon demanded.
"She may not wish to talk to you," Cally said bluntly.
Avon ignored this. "What about side-effects from the stimulants she was using?"
Cally's eyes widened.
"It was obvious," Avon said impatiently. "Without assistance, she would hardly have been on her feet, let alone attempting to use that arm."
Cally looked round at Jenna, who was stirring restlessly, and shrugged. "Some disorientation, perhaps, now that the drugs have cleared. She may talk more freely - that should please you," she added with a trace of distaste that only brought a glint of amusement to Avon's eyes.
Jenna threw her head back and said something blurred, and in a few strides Cally was by her side. "Lie quiet, Jenna."
She held Jenna's face gently between her hands as the other woman tried to turn her head from side to side. "It's all right, Jenna. Lie quiet, now. You are safe."
Jenna calmed beneath her touch and turned her cheek against Cally's hand, smiling slightly. "Blake?"
Cally flushed, aware of Avon's sardonic gaze. "Cally, Jenna, this is Cally. You are on the Liberator. You were wounded."
Jenna frowned a little. "Cally?" She tensed, her eyes opening. "Cally. Avon came... you were there."
"I was there," Cally agreed, holding Jenna's gaze with her own. She knelt beside the couch, slipping an arm behind Jenna's head as she tried to raise herself, and took a deliberate breath.
"Jenna, what happened to Blake?"
Jenna's smile was bitter. "Why don't you ask Avon? He seems to have all the answers, doesn't he?"
Cally tensed. "Please, Jenna. Even if Blake is dead... we have to know. Please."
Cool brown eyes stared back defiantly at her, and Cally risked a guess on Jenna's silence. "He is alive."
"Yes." Jenna's head sank back against Cally's arm, and her eyes closed. "I'm tired of hiding, Cally. Blake's fine. He's gone to Earth. He'll be back soon."
This time Cally's heart did not leap at the knowledge; there was only the dull ache of suspicion and pain that had been with her for too long already. "Jenna, why?"
Jenna didn't pretend to misunderstand her. The corners of her mouth twitched a little. "Poor Cally. This isn't quite the joyous reunion you'd been anticipating, is it?"
//What has Blake done? Why does he need to hide from us?//
"Cally, I can't tell you why. I gave my word not to let Avon know -" she raised her head, pitching her voice to carry - "and you're there, aren't you, Avon? Don't make Cally do your dirty work - it doesn't suit her. Speak for yourself."
Avon moved forward and stood at the foot of the couch, looking at her. "We always did understand each other a little too well, didn't we, Jenna?" he observed.
"Blake trusted you," she retorted, trying to pull free from Cally and sit up. "I was never such a fool."
Avon stiffened. "If Blake thinks he can demonstrate his trust by hiding from me and setting you to lie to me, then he must be even more of a fool than you take him for." He smiled, dangerously. "Whom is he trying to protect this time?"
"Of course." The smile grew.
"Another rebel leader."
Avon's brows drew together, and the smile froze.
"And you, Avon."
Avon stared at her, then laughed outright. "Am I supposed to be grateful?"
Jenna's laugh was equally bitter. "I doubt even Blake is that deluded. Believe me, in his place I'd have no compunction at all about disillusioning you."
"Really? I wasn't aware that I had any illusions - least of all about our dear friend Blake. Enlighten me."
"Don't tempt me," Jenna countered.
"Is it your well-known concern for my welfare or your quixotic loyalty to Blake's Cause that holds you back from these damaging revelations?" The gun he still wore was suddenly in his hand and pointing at her. "Just what is Blake hiding from me, Jenna?"
Jenna heard Cally's shocked movement beside her, smiled, and let herself fall back deliberately onto the couch.
"Do you really think you could get away with shooting me here in the sickbay?" she challenged. "Oh, in a straight choice between us, Cally would take your side, we both know that. But do you honestly believe that she would let you shoot me in cold blood without a struggle - or follow you afterwards? How many of them would follow you afterwards, do you suppose?"
"I think I could make you talk, Jenna." Avon returned the gun to his belt. "But I don't need to. You've already told Cally everything I need to know. I know where Blake started from, and I know that he's returning here. It shouldn't be too hard to intercept his ship along the way."
He walked to the door, and turned.
"Cally, get her a new tunic and put her down on the planet. We leave orbit in twenty minutes' time."
Jenna allowed Cally to dress her, and even leaned on the other woman for support as they made their way along the corridors; but she did not break her stony silence until she was actually in the teleport bay, and Cally had reset the stored co-ordinates. Their eyes met for a moment. There was no warmth in Jenna's steady gaze.
"If you still claim to want to help Blake, Cally - then keep Avon away from him."
A shadow of pain passed across Cally's face, and she turned to tap out the power-up sequence on the control panel with meticulous care. "Blake left us, Jenna," she said softly, and activated the teleport.
Tarrant laughed. "You should know, Vila. By my reckoning you've claimed a total of five towers already in a game that's only supposed to have four."
He leaned over to examine his partner's pieces. "Anyway, that was a perfectly legal move. In fact, it's a classic Altairan double. Either you'll have to sacrifice that corner you've been building, in which case we score a pasten, or else you'll have to let her redouble that belt she's just established, in which case we score a pasten next move." He grinned. "Kerril, that's brilliant. Where did you learn that one?"
Dayna groaned. "Vila, you idiot, we needed that corner." She made a hasty move to try to minimize the damage, than sighed in resignation as Tarrant promptly seized the chance to redouble on the other side of the board.
"You win, Kerril. I can't see any way we can get out of this one."
She got up and stretched as Kerril reset the pasten board. "Honestly, Vila, you're the only person I've ever met who can cheat at a game and still lose. How did you pull off that tower trick without my noticing, anyway?"
"That was just bluff," Vila protested weakly. "Tarrant's trying to distract you."
"You know, Vila," Tarrant told him kindly, getting up, "your game would probably improve if you tried playing it straight for once."
"Want another game, Tarrant?" Kerril offered.
Tarrant paused in the doorway and turned. "No, thanks. I'm going up to the flight deck to set up the next search pattern, and check on Avon."
"I'll give you a two-handed game if you'll take a five-pasten handicap," Vila volunteered.
Kerril grinned and kissed him. "Sure you don't want to make it ten?"
"Well, if you're offering..." Vila parried, kissing her back enthusiastically and winking at Dayna, who was laughing.
"Done!" Kerril re-programmed the board for a two-player game. "I'll give you a ten-pasten start and we'll see who wins." She glanced at Dayna. "You won't mind sitting out of this one?"
Dayna shook her head, getting up again to dial herself a drink. "I'll just sit back and watch the slaughter."
With Vila cheating outrageously and Kerril almost helpless with laughter, the game had not progressed very far before it was interrupted by Tarrant's voice on the intercom.
"Cally, can you come up here for a minute? I've picked up something funny on the communications frequencies."
Cally looked up from the corner where she had been sitting with a hand-held viewer, apparently staring into space.
"Cally, are you there?"
Cally sighed. "Yes, Tarrant." The intercom clicked off, but she made no move.
Vila got up and went over to her. Cally had been very quiet ever since they had gone down to the planet, and he could feel that something was wrong.
"Come on, Cally. We'll all go. You never know, it might be Blake."
He put an arm around her shoulders tentatively, but she pulled away and stood up. He followed her down the corridor, and she turned on him.
//And what if it is Blake, Vila? What will happen then?//
Cally's brown eyes were haunted, and Vila made an intuitive leap. "It's Avon, isn't it? You're worried about how Avon's been acting."
"At first Avon refused to believe that it could be Blake," Cally said unhappily. "If Avon could not find him, then Blake had to be dead. Even when we found Jenna at the base, he would not allow the idea to occur to him that Blake might really be involved.
"Now he believes that Blake has betrayed him in some way, and he is hunting him down, Vila. I can no longer trust either of them and I am afraid for both of them."
"Avon's never actually let us down," Vila said uneasily, aware of Kerril and Dayna behind them. "Oh, he likes to claim he feels no loyalty to anyone, but he's never left any of us in the lurch when we needed him."
//But Blake has let Avon down,// Cally told him as they entered the Liberator's flight deck. //What will become of those of us who are caught between them?//
"Cally, look at this." Tarrant was bent over the small screen on the communications console, frowning. "What do you make of it? It's not natural, is it?"
Cally looked at him dully, then seemed to make a conscious effort to return to her normal calm efficiency. "Someone is sending a background signal of a single audible tone across a wide band of frequencies. Have you traced it back?"
She was doing so even as he shook his head. Tarrant watched over her shoulder as she manipulated the controls, frowning as the final co-ordinates emerged. "Wait a minute... that's Gauda Prime again."
"Jenna," Avon said flatly. "A coded emergency signal. She's trying to warn Blake."
"Can you break the code?"
Avon's glare held more than its usual contempt. "Tarrant, not even Orac is capable of breaking a code given only a single item of input. However, in the circumstances, I imagine that the message is either 'Danger - keep away' or 'Danger - return quickly'.
"It's an old smugglers' trick to get a warning out to a ship approaching a compromised rendezvous without betraying the ship's location. It has only one draw-back - it's a one-way communication. If the ship's pilot tries to reply, he inevitably gives his position away to the watchers."
"Avon," Cally said sharply, "the signal has broken off."
"Second mistake, Jenna," Avon murmured. "Now we know exactly when the message got through."
"Hang on, what was the first mistake?" Vila protested.
Avon favoured him with an acid look. "Like you, Vila, Blake never knows when to keep his mouth shut." He set Orac's key in place.
"I have just recorded a communication between the courier vessel Quicksilver and the planet Gauda Prime which exactly matches your search parameters," Orac announced before Avon could speak.
"Put it on the main screen."
"There is no visual component," Orac objected.
"Orac, just play it back," Avon said with deadly patience.
Vila shivered as the main screen dimmed and Blake's voice, urgent and concerned as they had so often heard it, filled the room.
"Jenna, what's wrong? Are you all right?"
Then Jenna: "Oh Blake, you fool, it's Avon! Get off the air -"
Another voice cut in. "- Blake -"
"Transmission ends," Orac announced unnecessarily as the screen brightened. "Intercept course to source of transmission now computed, at a recommended speed of standard by six."
"Zen, execute," Avon ordered harshly.
"That was Blake," Vila said, shaken, to Dayna who was beside him. She gave him a strange look. "I mean, that was him. That was real."
Dayna was staring at him. "Are you all right, Vila?"
"Oh, forget it," Vila said wretchedly. "You never knew him. He's not real to you anyway."
Now seriously concerned, Dayna caught Kerril's eye and looked despairingly at Vila. "Do something," she mouthed.
"A glass of something medicinal?" Kerril proposed. Her mouth was serious, but her eyes caught Vila's and danced.
"What, twice in one day?" Dayna said suspiciously.
"I've got a nervous constitution," Vila promptly complained enthusiastically. "The slightest shock, and I'm a bundle of twitching nerves for hours."
Dayna had to smile. "Cally's got the key, but I don't suppose that will stop you."
"We'll take Cally with us. She needs cheering up."
"Does Cally drink?" Dayna objected.
"I can be very persuasive," Vila assured her. "Sure you don't want to join us? Come on, Kerril."
"INITIAL INTERCEPTION COURSE COMPLETE," Zen announced. "SINCE NO EVASIVE ACTION WAS ATTEMPTED, INTERCEPTION HAS NOW BEEN SUCCESSFULLY ACHIEVED. MERCURY-CLASS SHIP IS CURRENTLY IN VISUAL CONTACT RANGE."
"He hasn't even changed course," Tarrant said in disbelief. "He knew we were after him from that transmission, and he must have known we'd pinpoint his location and vector if we'd picked him up at all. He's had enough time to jink all over the place - lose himself in some solar system - cut his drive and play dead in an asteroid belt. In a ship that size, we'd never find him. It doesn't make sense."
"In my experience, Blake's actions frequently failed to make sense," Avon retorted.
Both men were staring upwards. On the main screen, the image of the little two-man courier ship floated against the background of space, only the twin circles of her paired airlocks distorting the tear-drop symmetry of the diminutive pressure-hull that formed her passenger cabin. The massive engine fins behind were obscured by the shadowy tangle of atmospheric braking and other auxiliary equipment which fringed her mid-section. Beside the Liberator, she looked no larger than a life-rocket.
"Avon, the other ship's signalling us," Dayna said suddenly. "Shall I acknowledge?"
"Acknowledge and open a voice channel," Tarrant ordered as Avon made no response.
"No visual?" Dayna queried.
Tarrant grinned. "Those little ships don't carry the equipment. They're all engine and no frills - like a stripped-down ore-booster. Zen, open a voice channel."
"Quicksilver to Liberator. Come in please." Blake's tone sharpened. "Quicksilver to Liberator. This is Blake. Come in please, Avon."
Avon stirred. "Blake," he said evenly. "'Where in the sun-seared depths of the Seven Sectors have you been?' doesn't quite cover the situation, does it?"
"We need to talk," Blake admitted. "I'm docking the Quicksilver with the Liberator's port-side airlock."
"No! Keep your distance. We'll teleport over."
"Avon, you can't teleport into an area this small," Blake protested urgently. "It's too dangerous. The entire crew space is barely the size of one of Liberator's sleeping cabins."
"Tarrant?" Avon snapped. "You claim to know courier ships."
The pilot looked taken aback. "I'd have said you could squeeze eight people in a Mercury-class - but you'd be crowding them right up against the hull walls. There's no way you could risk teleporting in under those conditions. You could probably teleport three in safely, but if there's someone already in the cabin, even that would be risky."
"You'll be one of the three," Avon told him drily. "Blake - Cally, Tarrant and I will be teleporting over. For all our sakes I suggest you keep yourself well away from the centre of the cabin."
"Don't be a fool, Avon -" Blake exclaimed. "If you're set on this, at least give me five minutes to clear some space for you -"
"Just keep out of the way, Blake," Avon cut in. "Liberator out. Zen, close voice channel."
"Avon, you're putting us all at risk -" Tarrant began.
"Find Cally, and get her to set up the teleport co-ordinates." Avon stared coldly at Tarrant until he finally left, scowling. Then he turned to Dayna.
"Dayna, I want Vila on the teleport and I want him sober. Target the neutron blasters on that ship and monitor the teleport channel. On my command, Vila is to teleport us up and you are to destroy Blake's ship. Do you hear me? There may be no time for second thoughts - I want instant obedience. I don't know what Blake is so anxious to keep us from finding on that ship and I don't mean to risk the Liberator in finding out."
"Avon, the weapons console is Vila's post, not mine - let me handle the teleport -"
Avon met her eyes. "I don't think I trust Vila not to... hesitate," he said, quite gently. "Your loyalties are not in question, Dayna."
The black girl's gaze fell. "If it comes... what command will you use?"
Avon watched her bent head as she toyed with the controls. "The command... will be 'Execute'," he said at last. "But if I can help it, it will not come to that."
"You look nearly as miserable as I feel, Cally," Vila complained. "Are you sure Aurons don't get drunk?"
"After that stuff Dayna forced into you, you ought to be as sober as a High Councillor's cloak," Tarrant retorted. "Cally's fine. She just doesn't want anything to do with this; and neither do I. Avon, you have no right to use us in this paranoid personal vendetta -"
"How does the Federation treat deserters, Tarrant?" Avon asked coldly. "If Blake has sold us to the Federation, you'll fare no better than the rest of us. Possibly worse. The Space Service looks after its own - and it has its own way of dealing with renegades and traitors."
"Avon, you have no reason to assume that Blake could betray us," Cally flared out. "Jenna even claimed he was trying to protect you -"
"I neither need nor trust Blake's idea of 'protection'!" Avon flung back at her. "I 'assume' nothing and I rule nothing out. I suggest that you and Tarrant try to do the same."
He walked forward to stand over Vila, seated behind the teleport controls, until Vila had to look up in order to meet his gaze.
"Vila, if I give you the emergency code 'Execute' while we are over there, I want you to bring us back immediately. Do you understand?"
"You mean, if you just say 'Teleport now' or 'Bring us up, Vila' you want me to pretend I didn't hear you?" Vila wilted under Avon's glare. "Look, I wasn't sure, I was just checking... 'Execute' means emergency teleport, right?"
Avon looked at him levelly. "You had better have it right. Has Cally checked the co-ordinates?"
"Better than that. Orac has!" Vila patted the box that sat on the surface of the teleport console beside him.
Avon's set features relaxed a little. "Good." He walked back to stand beside the other two. "Teleport, Vila."
"You'd better move a bit closer to Tarrant," Vila told him anxiously. "It's going to be a tight fit."
He waited, his hand on the main switch, until Avon had reluctantly complied. "Good luck," he said automatically, operating the control and blinking as the backwash of light from the teleport spilled over him.
He propped his elbows on the console, frowning unhappily, and sighed. "Blake, you'd better know what you're doing."
Kerril came in quietly and slipped into the seat beside him, and he put an arm round her for comfort. They sat in silence, waiting.
Cally's first thought was that Vila had been right. It was an extremely tight fit. Something shifted under her heel as her weight came down on it, and she staggered, clutching at Tarrant for support.
The three of them had been teleported into the narrow aisle between the two flight couches that occupied almost the whole of the tiny cabin. The curls on the top of Tarrant's head almost brushed the central lighting strip, and Avon seemed to have materialised off-balance and dangerously close to the side of the hull. He was pushing himself off from the wall and glaring at Blake, who was sitting on the end of the secondary pilot's couch and looking not a little annoyed himself.
"I hope you're satisfied, Avon. You might at least have let me clear some deck space for you." He reached forward and twitched the disembodied sleeve of an environmental suit from under Cally's boots, tossing it to join the pile of other assorted equipment on the opposite couch. His eyes met hers and softened. "Cally."
The dark oval of the airlock seals behind him framed his head and shoulders, throwing into stark relief lines of worry and disillusionment that had not been there before the Andromedan War. He seemed to have aged by more than a year, Cally thought, and wondered dully what changes he could see in Avon and herself.
"Blake," she acknowledged, and saw with a pang the smile in his eyes fade as they searched her face and found only unhappiness and bewilderment.
His gaze left Cally and travelled upwards. "Tarrant, I presume."
Tarrant was surveying him with open curiosity. "So you're the famous Roj Blake." He didn't seem too impressed with what he saw, and despite everything, Cally was surprised how defensive she felt towards Blake.
But Blake seemed amused. "Sit down," he suggested, including Avon and Cally in the invitation. "I'm afraid you'll find Quicksilver a little cramped after the Liberator. I'd have preferred this meeting to take place in rather more comfort, but..." His gaze returned, with a certain significance, to Avon.
"Just for once, Blake," Avon returned levelly, "let's not play games. I want an explanation." His voice was as controlled as ever, with a tinge of contempt. As the others folded themselves down into the curve of the wall to sit opposite Blake, he alone remained standing, his hand resting casually on the butt of his gun.
Blake sighed, and passed a hand over his eyes. "I owe you an explanation," he acknowledged steadily. "But -"
Avon's eyes narrowed. "'But'?"
Blake let out another frustrated breath. "Avon -" He seemed to be having difficulty finding the words he wanted. "I need to ask you, to beg you -" He stopped again, with a grimace.
"If I ever earned your trust, Avon, will you trust me now, and - not ask? Just trust me, and go?"
"You might have had the right to ask that of me, once," Avon said, so softly that Cally could barely hear him. "But you didn't ask, Blake." His voice rose.
"You told me you trusted me, and I was fool enough to believe you. And then, hours -" he gave a harsh gasp of laughter - "just hours later, you showed me what you really thought. You didn't say that you were going. You didn't tell us that you needed to do it alone. You just took the first opportunity to disappear and you deliberately let us think you dead because you couldn't trust us - you couldn't trust me - not to interfere in your little schemes.
"It was always 'trust' that lay between us, wasn't it, Blake? I was supposed to trust you blindly, and you could never trust anyone to do anything you could do yourself. You would never listen to me once you had made up your mind what was right, would you, Blake?"
Avon paused to draw breath.
"Avon," Blake put in awkwardly, "I didn't know what was going to happen. When we had to leave - I didn't mean to abandon the Liberator for good, any more than any of the rest of you. I had no chance to ask.
"Travis had shot me - I was ill, delirious for a long time. Then before I had a chance to contact the Liberator -" he grimaced again - "I got an offer I couldn't refuse. A real chance at reform of the Federation. Only, the price - the price required turned out to be your ignorance, until it was all over.
"By that time, it was easier to stay dead, Avon. I'd promised you the Liberator, and in my absence, you had her. I'd been missing too long already to expect to be able to turn up and then just disappear again, with no way to give any reasonable explanation. You'd said you wanted to be free of me, and I hoped you wouldn't search - or grieve - for too long. If I was wrong - I'm sorry." Blake's eyes were full of the old aching guilt as they rested on Cally.
"You didn't trust any of us, did you? Not even your loyal followers Vila and Cally." Avon's tone made it an insult, and Cally flushed.
"No." It was as if the admission jerked out of Blake against his will, and he seemed suddenly fascinated by the other airlock, behind Cally.
"Avon," he said at last, still tracing the outline of the airlock with his eyes rather than meeting the other man's gaze, "sometimes there can be secrets it's better not to know."
"Probably," Avon agreed, "but I doubt if Cally, for example, would consider that to apply to the secret of your continued existence."
//I will not have you using me as a pawn in this, Avon!// Cally sent, so fiercely that Avon raised a hand to his temples, wincing. He turned on her, but Blake interrupted.
"I knew it would be like this! Can't you see that this is why I could never contact any of you - that I couldn't tell you any part of it, even that I was still alive, because I couldn't trust you to let it be without trying to drag out the rest, no matter whom and what you destroyed in the process - including yourself, Avon!"
Blake was on his feet, and Avon had drawn his gun. His aim was as cold and steady as his eyes. Hot rage met cold rage, and Cally and Tarrant were caught motionless between them.
"Whatever you may pretend to yourself, Blake, this wasn't ever about my welfare, was it? It was about fear - fear of what I might do to you and your Cause and the fine new allies whom you're trying so assiduously to hide. Whom have you sold out to, Blake? Who are these new friends who claim to be able to promise you the world, yet are threatened by my knowledge of their very existence? Why are you afraid, Blake? Have you betrayed me?"
"No!" Blake yelled at him. "No, Avon, and you know that! Now, by all that's rational will you just listen to yourself - and listen to me - and stop waving that gun around!"
Blake was already moving as Cally cried out with all her strength. //No, Avon!//
The sheer mental impact of it froze them all for a moment; then the force of Blake's leap carried him crashing into Avon before he could fire, and everything became chaos. Blake went for Avon's gun - Tarrant went for Blake - Cally went for Tarrant - Avon went for Blake's throat - somebody smashed an elbow into Cally's mouth, and she almost lost her grip on Tarrant - a voice she didn't recognise was shouting - Blake was shouting - Tarrant was cursing at her and struggling - there was no room to breathe, no room to think, no room, mercifully, to shoot - and then everything went strange and quiet and painful for a moment, and by the time she understood that she had taken a partial stun charge, it all seemed to be over.
And now the inner seals on the starboard-side airlock were open, and there was a competent-looking woman standing at the other end of the cabin with the serviceable end of a large stun pistol aimed directly at them. He corrected himself; it was probably safer not to assume that all the charges were stun shots.
Somebody's boot-heel was lodged uncomfortably next to his ribs. Avon sat up, cautiously, and began to extract himself, glancing around to check on the others. Cally was still half-dazed; her lip was bleeding but she didn't seem to be seriously hurt. She still had Tarrant in an arm-lock; he was pulling himself free, but the only damage seemed to have been to his self-esteem. Though Avon thought he remembered Blake's hitting Tarrant quite hard at one point...
Beside him, Blake groaned, and clutched at his head as if he thought it might belong to someone else. He must have taken the worst of the stun, Avon judged, and wondered for a moment just whose side the mysterious woman was on.
He watched Blake dispassionately as the other man tried to sit up. It was strange. He could quite clearly remember trying to kill Blake; but somehow the man who'd been sprawled across him didn't look like a traitor any more. Blake the idealist, yes; Blake the crazy crusader, Blake the infuriatingly righteous, Blake the obstinate, the man who ran ridiculous risks, tried lunatic tricks - like going for the gun of a man who was trying to kill him - and had a maddening tendency to pull them off thanks to some totally irrational fluke of luck; yes, all of these. But that was the Blake he knew. The Blake he could trust, who never, ever, betrayed people, no matter what else he might rush them into against their better judgement...
The other Blake he'd thought he'd seen, the shadowy political schemer who'd found new friends amongst the powerful interests on Earth and been ready to sell his old allies to them in the name of Revolution - the one who'd panicked him so badly that he had indeed (humiliating memory) stopped thinking rationally for a while - was gone, and the relief of it was so great that he found himself offering his hand to help Blake to his feet. Erstwhile leader, old antagonist, and not-quite-friend... and unexpectedly heavy, he found. Obviously he himself hadn't shaken off the stun as fully as he'd thought.
"Your friend seems a trifle indiscriminate in her aim," he observed drily, as Blake winced at the sudden movement, raising exploratory fingers to the side of his head. He sensed, rather than saw, the other man's sudden stillness.
"Not my friend," Blake said, strangely, then, stricken: "Sula - there was no need -"
"The price was too high," the woman - Sula? - retorted, and Avon felt his own body tense in a shock of uncomprehending recognition. "I'm tired of running, Blake, tired of hiding, tired of risking your life in place of mine. I'll take my own chances -" The gun had already been lowered; now she pulled down the breather.
"Avon?" she said, a little unsteadily.
Avon's pulse and mind both seemed to be racing; only his body was frozen. For a moment he wondered if stun ever gave you hallucinations.
"Anna Grant," he managed after an endless second, voice perfectly - he hoped - under control. "Anna, you're dead."
"So," said Blake very gently beside him, "was I."
"Anna," Avon said again in disbelief, then urgently, and for the first time with a trace of hope, "How did you get away?"
Her face contorted in a moment's pain. "I didn't - get away," Anna said, with difficulty. Then, in a rush: "Avon, I can't tell you about it. Not yet. I swear I'll tell you some day - soon - but not now. Not -" with a glance at the others - "not here."
Avon's imagination supplied some unwanted details of the fate of those who failed to get away, and his mouth hardened. 'Tortured for a week,' Del Grant had accused him. But Del had been sure his sister was dead - but then again, Del had believed Avon himself dead...
"Blake, is this what you were trying to hide from me?" he demanded incredulously. It didn't make sense. What had Blake and Anna to do with each other - unless, some demon within him suddenly suggested, she had taken Blake for a lover?
He could live with that, he told himself, fighting down a surge of unaccustomed physical jealousy, he could live with anything, so long as Anna was not dead - not dead by his fault, as the Federation took petty vengeance for his fraud, his crime, his idea...
And, looking at them now together, as he followed Blake forward to join her, he couldn't see them as lovers - allies, yes; friends, perhaps; but lovers? That seemed about as likely as - his mouth twitched in amusement - Tarrant and Cally, say; though, come to think of it, he had a feeling Tarrant had tried just that, in his early days. But Cally, fortunately, had too much sense...
"Not exactly," Blake said slowly, and Avon had to blink twice before he could remember what he had asked. Suddenly he too was tired - tired of searching, suspecting, probing - tired of being cautious, of accepting nothing at face value. Tired, he admitted to himself, of fighting Tarrant at every step, of the responsibility for the lives of his crew, of running from the Federation. Blake was here, and had not betrayed him. Anna was here, and he himself had not betrayed her. Beyond that - just at the moment - he found, he did not care.
"You've made it very clear that I have no right to ask this," Blake was saying painfully, "but -"
"It's all right, Blake," Avon interrupted him, and almost laughed to see Blake completely taken aback. "It doesn't matter. I trust you." An idle corner of his mind wondered if he were going completely mad. It seemed a pleasurable experience... He captured one of Anna's hands - small, practical hands that had never been elegant enough to satisfy her - and traced the outline of the tendons with one finger, turned it over and traced the palm.
"You're coming back with us," he told her. She tensed but did not pull away. "Back to Gauda Prime on the Liberator."
"Cally. Cally. Come in, Cally!" She became belatedly aware that Vila's voice had been squawking from her bracelet for some time. She raised her wrist. "This is Cally, Vila."
"Cally! Do you know how long I've been trying to get hold of you?" Vila complained. "Are you all right over there? Am I supposed to teleport you back? That scream you let off nearly blasted my mind out of my ears - if you shout Avon's name round the galaxy like that, you'll have the whole Federation down on us. What's Avon done now, anyway?"
"Avon tried to shoot Blake," Cally said absently, watching the tableau at the other end of the cabin. She would have loved to hear what they were saying, but they were speaking too quietly.
Vila's frantic questions brought her back to herself. "No, they are both unharmed, Vila," she reassured him. "And Avon -" she watched, wondering, as Avon took a small, square hand in his own and traced it with a finger - "Avon is... very well."
"Airlocks," Tarrant commanded.
"Upper hold airlocks secured," from Vila.
"The hold doors are opening," Dayna confirmed. "Tarrant, you're drifting!"
"I know," Tarrant snapped. He was already applying a touch on the left laterals. "Got her."
"Hold doors now fully open." Dayna again.
If only Avon would stop standing over there by Zen, glaring at him as if he thought he could carry out the whole man>uvre better himself! That was the trouble with Avon; he didn't seem to trust anyone else to do anything properly... Tarrant heard Avon's remembered voice uncomfortably echoing his own thoughts and promptly dropped them.
Funny though, the way Avon had flared up at Blake like that, when they'd been over in the other ship. Of course, everyone knew Avon was paranoid enough to qualify as more than half round the bend; but all the same, it did sound as if the dear dead days with Blake hadn't been quite the harmonious paradise Cally was apt to make out.
Careful! She was drifting again. A good impulse on the right laterals should do it... there. At least he'd caught that one before Dayna announced it to Avon and the rest of the world.
The vast bulk of the Liberator was light and responsive under his hands on the manual controls. A touch here... pull her up a little... level off, kill the momentum... and the display told him the courier ship was now exactly in line with the hold doors. A little high, maybe, but the gravity field could deal with that once the doors were closed. Better safe than sorry - he didn't want to rip the bottom out of her.
In a way, it was a pity Zen handled so much of the routine work. The ship was a joy to fly under full manual; there was nothing to match her in the whole galaxy. It was exhilarating. He could never leave, no matter how absurdly dictatorial Avon became - and this was one thing Tarrant could do which Avon couldn't. Oh, Avon could fly the Liberator when he had to, but he flew her like a computer. You could almost see the numbers crunching behind those cold eyes of his. Tarrant knew the theory as well as Avon did, he'd had it drilled into him in his Academy days, but when he flew, it was by grace and instinct, and a sure sense for what you could pull off and what you couldn't, and the devil take what the theory claimed to be possible...
Careful! He was delaying too long, and she'd start to drift again in a moment. Mustn't get too cocky before he'd finished - Tarrant knew his own faults as well as any man, but after all there were worse character flaws than over-confidence.
He glanced up. "Zen, I want a visual representation of data from the aft sensors on the main screen. Cally, tell Blake I want him to give his ship one last nudge forwards and then close down his drive. He is not, I repeat not, to attempt to fly into the main hold. I'll do any man>uvring necessary. Tell him the Liberator's not a space station and the hold isn't shielded against drive flux. If he tries to use that over-sized drive inside the hold - even for braking - we'll be lucky if all we lose are the hold doors."
Perfect! He watched the shape that represented Blake's ship begin to inch forwards into the confines delimiting the main hold on the screen. At least Blake knew how to take orders when necessary.
"Can't you take it a bit faster, Tarrant?" Vila complained. "I'm getting a crick in my neck from holding my breath."
"This is about as easy as loading a heavy lifter backwards from underneath - in three dimensions!" Tarrant retorted.
"I didn't know the Space Academy offered a course in heavy construction vehicle driving," Vila remarked innocently.
"It's part of the aptitude tests," Tarrant told him with satisfaction. "What did you go through to qualify for a place at the Academy of Life - a course in picking pockets?" The Quicksilver was almost in now - he made a slight course correction - time to match speeds before closing the hold doors. The gravity field could take care of the rest. Another few seconds.
"Right, that's it. Dayna, close hold doors. We'll let her settle down gently."
He exchanged a grin with Dayna. "Nice work, Tarrant," she told him.
"Blake sends his congratulations," Cally added a moment later.
"Come on, then! What are we waiting for?" Vila was out of his seat and halfway across the flight deck already.
"We're waiting for you to unseal the hold airlocks so that Blake and Sula don't suffocate the moment they step out of the ship," Tarrant reminded him with his most charming smile.
Some time later, Tarrant sighed and finally sat back. "All right, Zen, take over. Execute previously set course for Gauda Prime."
Yes, that was definitely Vila he'd heard, and presumably the others coming back with him. You could hear Vila chattering a mile off... A pity. Tarrant had been rather enjoying flying the ship alone for once without Avon breathing down his neck. And he hadn't been in any hurry to rush off and meet Blake - mind you, he'd already met him once. He didn't look like a living legend. Of course, once you'd been a dead legend for a while, your reputation probably out-grew you... which could be the real reason why Blake hadn't seemed too keen on coming back to life.
The others had all trooped off down to the hold to greet the newcomers, though. Even Avon. Mind you, in his case, it was presumably the woman who fascinated him. Tarrant frowned. Somehow he'd always assumed Anna Grant had been more - well, more glamorous than that. And definitely younger.
Of course, he'd only had the story fourth- or fifth-hand, from Vila who claimed to have worked it out from something Cally had once said about something she'd been told by someone else... and Vila was capable of embroidering anything into a slender confection of stardust and outright nonsense. On the other hand, while he wouldn't have dreamed of risking his own skin by referring to the affair in Avon's hearing, he'd somehow never been able to dismiss it as a theory altogether; even Vila couldn't have come up with something that incredible out of his own head. And the whole idea of any woman's being interested in Avon had always been fairly mind-boggling from Tarrant's point of view. The man didn't even have any friends, as far as he'd ever heard. Poor old Avon, Tarrant thought, with the callous generosity of his twenty-three years, then grinned at the very idea of feeling sorry for Avon.
Here was Vila now - jumping about like a human flea, as usual - and after him, Blake. And then the rest...
"What's Earth like these days, Blake?" Vila was asking eagerly.
"Better ask Sula," Blake told him. "All I got to see was the inside of yet another dome."
"As far as I'm concerned, that's home," Vila pointed out. "Give me a nice safe dome overhead any day..." He noticed Tarrant glaring at him.
"If you've quite recovered from this sudden attack of urban nostalgia, Vila," Tarrant said pointedly, "perhaps Avon could let the rest of us know what's going on and why we've got a courier ship in the lower hold."
Avon looked round. "Blake?" he prompted.
It was at this point that the alarm-bells really started ringing for Tarrant. Either Avon really didn't know all the details - which, for Avon, was unthinkable - or he was just handing over responsibility - which was equally unthinkable. Either way, he'd been got at. By Blake, or by this so-called Anna Grant, or both. And if Avon couldn't be relied upon to be his normal paranoid self, then immediately behind Avon was no longer (as Vila had once put it) the safest place to be. He glanced across at Dayna, and was reassured to note that she looked equally astonished. He and Dayna were going to have to have a talk on the subject of Avon. Soon. Before Avon - or Blake - landed them in a situation that turned out to be terminally unpleasant...
"Blake?" Avon prompted.
Blake tried to marshal his thoughts, looking around at his impromptu audience. Cally, Vila, and the blonde stranger Kerril who seemed to be his constant shadow; Tarrant, the handsome young ex-Fed; Sula, still very tense and pale, and Avon, unobtrusively beside her, though his face wore its normal unreadable mask; and the black girl who must be Dayna, watching him suspiciously.
He wondered how far back to start; and how much he dared tell, even now with Avon in this strange accepting mood, disconcerting but welcome. More than welcome, indeed - for if it held, if only it held, if Sula and Avon could make their peace and Avon would help him this one last time, with Sula and the crew of the Liberator both on his side surely a strong hope became a virtual certainty. They could win; they could topple Servalan, they could end the abuses, the torture and mindwipe, the pacification drugs, the casual killing... they could open up the domes to end the overcrowding, free the slave workers on the colony planets, cut through the niggling petty mess of residence permits, of shift segregation, the arbitrary clothing allocations...
The 'audience' was getting restive. Blake smiled ruefully - without the ability to laugh at himself he would have given up long ago - and applied himself to the task of the moment.
"Before the Andromedan War," he began, "I was naïve enough to believe that I could bring down the Federation by destroying the computers at Federation Central Control. Avon disagreed. As we all know -" he sighed - "Avon was right.
"You may not know that shortly after the war, a rising did take place on Earth as I'd predicted." This was dangerous territory, and he skated over it quickly, with a glance at Sula to reassure her. "The result was bloody and futile; the reprisals afterwards wiped out almost all remaining resistance.
"I'd been fighting the Federation for three years. We'd acquired some of the most sophisticated technology in the galaxy - Orac and the Liberator - and we'd still got almost nowhere. The news of the rebellion on Earth convinced me that the Federation couldn't be taken from the outside. The only approach that stands a chance is to take it as Servalan did - from the inside. A palace coup.
"I imagine you've all heard the charges against me. Concerning the... children." He kept his voice steady with an effort. "I swear to you that they are false. But it doesn't matter if you believe them or not. What matters is that millions of people on Earth believe them. The last people on Earth who knew me personally - the last handful who were remotely connected with the Freedom Party, who knew me before the mindwipe - all died in the purges after the latest rebellion. On Earth, I'm discredited completely. Even if we could engineer a successful takeover, the High Council would never accept me. The only result would be a bloody civil war, which we'd almost inevitably lose... and the whole galaxy knows, I have far too much blood on my hands already...
"But there's an ideal candidate. No known political activism; no known links with the rebel movement; a formal Alpha marriage bond with a High Councillor; personally acquainted with the current President, though I gather Servalan doesn't improve on closer acquaintance; already known and trusted by most members of the High Council - and willing to take our side.
"Ladies and gentlemen -" Blake let the ancient honorific linger enjoyably on his tongue for a moment - "may I present your future President, if all goes well. Madam President Sula!"
There was a satisfactory hubbub.
"Chesku actually made it to the High Council?" Avon was asking Sula disbelievingly, and there was colour back in her cheeks for the first time as she told him, with relish, "Recommended by Servalan herself. She's always had a weak spot for flattery."
Watching them, Blake hoped suddenly, violently, with complete disregard for the political consequences, that this particular pairing could be revived. He'd never seen Avon caught out of himself like this before; it was a fascinating glimpse of the man that might have been, under other circumstances. How many thousand other lives had been warped out of shape by the Federation, he wondered angrily - so many already among the handful that he knew; Avon, Cally, himself, Sula, even Travis, surely... all of them twisted into violence and bitterness and revenge.
"Blake, what makes you think you can just parachute in a new President like that?" Dayna was objecting at his elbow.
"I want to know what all those guns were for," Vila put in.
"How is Jenna involved?" Cally asked.
"Let me give you the details -" Blake raised his voice. "I'm an optimist but even I can see that this is our last best chance. If we can't shake the Federation this time, we'll never do it. Servalan took the Presidency with the whole of Space Command behind her - Sula thinks she can take it with a maximum of a thousand men. We need to strike everywhere at once - all the main barracks, the Residency, the Council building, the spaceports, the distribution centres. A handful of men in Federation uniforms with Federation guns can take over a whole base. With a thousand men in the right places, we can take over a whole world."
He noted stunned expressions and smiled. "As I said, this is our last best chance. We can't afford to think in terms of one ship's crew any more. I've been recruiting Sula an army, and it's almost complete.
"On the outer worlds, they see me as the rebel Roj Blake, not Blake the pervert." He winced inwardly. Surely, somewhere on Earth, there must be evidence that he could use to clear his name, even now? Of all the physical and mental scars he owed to the Federation, that was the one he resented the most bitterly.
"Men are willing to follow me if I can give them hope. I send them to Gauda Prime on the understanding that we have a mutual assessment period. They spend a few weeks at the base with Jenna - either they leave of their own accord, she gets rid of them, they turn out to be Federation spies, or else they stick the course, and we arm them and send them to Earth where Sula trains and hides them. I can't afford to compromise Sula's cover - she has to be absolutely above suspicion until the moment comes. We can't even use the standard communication channels with Earth, because we have to assume that Central Security is monitoring them. Everything has to be done by word of mouth."
And please, Avon, he added mentally, assume that's why Sula hasn't contacted you and don't ask - because I don't want to lie to you, not you, not now.
"Are you claiming to have a thousand armed fighters on Earth itself?" Tarrant challenged him incredulously. "Where can you possibly hide them?"
"In the Wastelands - Outside - in with the Deltas," Sula parried. She looked the young pilot up and down, from his fresh face to his trim flight boots.
"I don't suppose you've ever seen the overcrowding in the Delta warrens," she added, acidly and entirely accurately. "You could fit twenty thousand in there and no-one would ever notice."
"It can't be doing Sula's cover much good to be seen going off in the Quicksilver with you," Vila interjected to Blake.
Blake shrugged. "It was a calculated risk. Nominally, she's on a week's leave with friends on a pleasure planet in the Second Sector. In point of fact -" he grinned suddenly - "she gets to spend six days in my company making the round trip to the rim of the galaxy - and even when I'm not trying to generate enough mess to cover up the signs of a second person's presence, I'm not the most tidy of cabin-mates - and about thirty-six hours underground on the delightful planet of Gauda Prime.
"That's why this is only the second time we've done the trip; but Sula needs to go over alterations to the final plans with Jenna and myself before we go into action next month - long-range planning only covers so much - and she wants to have a look at the heavy equipment we've stockpiled before we actually ship it to Earth. Of course, thanks to Avon's suggestion - and the consummate skill of the Liberator's pilot -" Would Tarrant swallow that with a straight face? Blake had to fight down laughter as he caught Vila's eye - "the outward journey is only taking us two days instead of three, so Sula might be able to afford a night's sleep on solid ground this time."
"Where does the Liberator come into this grand plan of yours?" Tarrant demanded. Blake had a feeling that spending much time in Tarrant's company might turn out to be as exhausting as spending it with Vila.
"That's up to Avon," Blake answered steadily. "You're all welcome to join me, or not, as you please. If we win, none of you will need to be outlaws any more, whether you fought with us or not. But Avon helped me to Star One, and the Liberator is his to command, as we agreed long ago."
As if the Liberator were his to give in the first place, Tarrant fumed silently. He hadn't built her - he hadn't even captured her. By all accounts he had just found her lying around somewhere and gone off with her...
"We'll think about it," he answered for himself and Dayna, taking her arm in order to get her to leave the flight deck with him. "We need to talk," he whispered as she resisted his pull. "Don't tell me you've been dazzled by Blake like the rest of them?"
"What do you mean?"
But at least she was following him now. Explanations could come later, in private...
Vila had other concerns. "Did you say Anna - Sula - was married?"
"It still goes on, among high Alphas," Blake pointed out, amused. "My own parents were married, you know."
"But she and Avon -" Vila protested.
Blake shrugged. "Chesku's a pompous nonentity. A rich, pompous nonentity," he amended. "I believe she was already married when Avon met her. It doesn't seem to have worried him."
Kerril joined them, grinning. "Don't tell me Blake's spoiling your romantic illusions?"
"It just doesn't seem right," Vila protested, disappointed. "I mean, Alphas make all this fuss about their special ceremonies - and then they just cheat on their bondmates like the rest of us?"
"If it worries you that much, you'd better take the subject up with Avon," Blake said sharply, glancing over his shoulder. "But I wouldn't recommend it."
"Did you know about Jenna?" Vila said hastily, trying to change the subject.
Blake tensed. "What about her?"
"I don't suppose you see much of her, if you're going around recruiting all the time and so on," Vila rushed on. "But you need to look after her better, Blake."
"I'd like to see anyone 'look after' Jenna - if she'd let him!" retorted Blake. "All I can do is try to keep moving," he added more quietly, "draw off the bounty hunters. They never troubled us much on the Liberator - but once you've got a fixed base, word gets around and they start coming in like a crowd of troopers to a bar. It's mainly my head they're after, but they tend to run into Jenna first, and decide to go for the double bounty. I've come across a few myself when I've been travelling, but Jenna's shot a dozen at the base already. I keep worrying that one day she won't be fast enough."
"That will be what happened, then," Vila suggested. "Oh, Jenna's fine -" at Blake's look of horror - "but you should have seen the burns when we got her to the medical unit -"
"Vila, be quiet." Cally came over hurriedly as she caught what he was saying. "Blake, let me explain..."
He moved slightly to his right in order to feel the reassuring warmth of Kerril against his shoulder. She guessed his thought, as she so often did, and slipped her arm around his waist. "Avon!" he repeated, more loudly.
The other man pulled his head reluctantly out of whichever part of Zen's innards currently appeared to have him fascinated.
"I suppose there's no point asking what you're looking for in there?" Vila added hopefully.
"Since the answer would be completely meaningless to you - no point at all," came the crushing reply.
"Try me," Vila challenged.
Avon shrugged. "I'm looking for the neutron polariser in the the sub-logical linkage of the secondary transference wells between the electro-magnetic display and Zen's subordinate crystalline matrix centres," he stated levelly. "Do I really need to continue?"
"I understood every word of that," Vila protested. "Well, every word up to the 'neutron' bit, anyway. What do you want to find this polariser thingy for? What does it do?"
"It controls the movement of the little white dot on the top left-hand corner of the Liberator's main screen - what else?" Avon retorted. "Vila, if you really want to understand Zen, I recommend you start from basics. We could spend a couple of hours off-watch tomorrow tracing the primitive arithmetic circuits - otherwise," he continued relentlessly over Vila's protests, "you could just tell me what it was you interrupted me for."
"It was you who asked to be called when we were within thirty thousand spacials of Gauda Prime," the smaller man reminded him. Avon must be slipping. He never normally forgot things.
"So I did." Avon also seemed surprised. He exchanged a glance with Sula. "Get Blake down to the hold. We'll meet him there. Can you be relied upon to handle the release yourself, Vila, or do I have to send Tarrant up here?"
"It's as easy as stealing credits from a cadet, according to you," Vila assured him. "I just open the hold doors, and the Quicksilver comes flying out on the back of all the atmosphere."
"If you forget the upper hold airlocks again, it will be all the atmosphere," Avon threatened him, following Sula out.
"Don't I ever get to live that down?" Vila asked plaintively, when he was sure they were out of earshot. He unwound Kerril's arm gently, and sighed. "I suppose we ought to be thinking about getting ready to leave, too."
Kerril pulled him round to face her. "Are you sure you want to go through with this?" she asked, holding his eyes with her own. "In these last few days, I've seen... The Liberator's your whole world, Vila."
"It's home," he admitted. "But Blake's a friend too, and he wants both of us; and Avon doesn't. I'm not waiting until he decides we've come to some 'populated planet', so he can throw you off the ship. At least if we stay behind at Gauda there'll be Blake, and Jenna; it'll be almost like old times...
"I'll miss Cally, though. And arguing with Avon. And teasing Dayna. And even Tarrant, when it comes to it. And Zen." Vila grinned suddenly. "Can't say I'll miss Orac, mind you."
"Have you spoken to Blake?"
He nodded. "Blake'll be glad to have you."
"What's the use?" Vila said gloomily. "He'd only manage to argue me out of it, and then I'd get all confused...
"Blake can tell him," he added, with the air of one delivering an ultimatum, then jumped as Avon's voice came over the intercom.
"Blake's ship is locked down and ready to go. I'm clear of the upper hold area and I've sealed the airlocks manually. Confirm."
Vila glanced over at the controls, then, with a shrug, up at Zen.
"Zen, are the hold airlocks sealed?"
"Did you get that, Avon?"
"I heard. Release the ship, Vila, and follow her in at a distance of several thousand spacials. I want to make sure Blake arrives first. Out."
"So would I, in your place," Vila muttered. "Zen, visual scan aft. I like to see what I'm doing."
A diamond cloud of vapour sprang from the opening hold doors, and in the midst of it, the Quicksilver like some ungainly insect glided free and drifted out behind the dwarfing bulk of the Liberator. As they watched, she slowed, steadied, and darted forward for the long dive in towards the distant planet.
"Zen, reduce speed to standard by three and keep a minimum distance of six thousand spacials. I want to make sure Blake gets plenty of time to explain."
He exchanged a grin with Kerril. "I don't think Jenna's going to be feeling too friendly towards Avon."
Tarrant paused deliberately in the doorway to the base manager's office, waiting for the two women to acknowledge his and Avon's presence. His eyes slid dismissively over neat brown Sula and settled appreciatively on Jenna's cool golden beauty. The first time he'd seen her, senseless and dishevelled in the Liberator's medical unit, he'd judged her beautiful; now, on her feet, with her blonde hair tossed back, with the pure line of jaw and nose arrogantly tilted, with the ripped red tunic and close-fitting trousers replaced by a blue dress whose ornate bodice revealed more of her spectacular figure, for his money, than the full skirt unfortunately concealed, the woman was simply stunning. And a pilot too, by all accounts, which further piqued his interest.
As Avon's impatience, at his back, came to the verge of simmering over, Sula finally deigned to break off the conversation and glance over at the door. That was enough of a cue for Tarrant. He took the chance to approach Jenna directly.
"Del Tarrant. We have met briefly, but you won't remember." He gave her his most charming smile.
Jenna's answering smile was cool, and her grasp of the proffered hand perfunctory. "Jenna Stannis. As you know." She turned away. "Sula, the heavy weapons you were counting on simply haven't been coming onto the market over the last few months -"
She took a step back, collided with Tarrant, and scowled. "Look, Tarrant, I haven't got time for social niceties." She removed his hands pointedly. "There are dozens of vitally important matters Sula and I need to cover, and a matter of hours to do it in -"
"As it happens," Avon cut in smoothly, "that is precisely the subject we need to discuss with you."
Jenna turned her icy stare on Avon, who returned it unmoved. "Is this urgent?" she demanded.
"By its nature it should be discussed first," Avon told her.
"Well?" Jenna seated herself on the edge of her desk.
"I propose that I and the Liberator and not Blake and the Quicksilver should convey -" he hesitated slightly - "Sula - back to Earth. The navigational computers predict that the Earth solar system can be reached in approximately twenty-eight hours at the Liberator's normal cruising speed, which is a passage time far briefer than can possibly be achieved by any vessel using conventional drive technology, even one with so low a mass-to-flux ratio as a courier ship. Passage on the Liberator would also be far more comfortable for her."
His eyes dwelt on Sula for a minute.
"From your point of view, Jenna, my proposal would have the merit of delaying Sula's departure by at least twenty-four hours, which, added to the extra time already gained, should allow you ample opportunity for discussion and planning."
Jenna leaned forward. "Do you really think you could get a ship the size of the Liberator through the security cordons on the Earth approaches without compromising Sula's cover?"
"Having heard a verbal description of the route Blake used, Tarrant assures me he can." Avon smiled thinly. "I believe he sees it as a challenge."
Jenna shot a suspicious glance at Tarrant. "This won't be a hit-and-run pirate operation. You need to get in and out without giving any suggestion as to whom you transferred, or where. If you get it wrong and compromise nine months of work, I swear I'll kill you myself. Do you still say you can do it?"
Tarrant grinned. "Leave it to me." Jenna glared at him, then, reluctantly, grinned back, pilot-to-pilot.
"I take it we're agreed," Avon said smoothly.
"The extra time would be welcome," Jenna conceded. "I assume Sula's been consulted on this? Very well, I agree."
"Perhaps now you have more time you will consider Cally's proposal?" Tarrant suggested hastily as Jenna seemed about to dismiss them again.
She stared at him. "Cally's proposal?"
"Cally wants you to return for a brief further treatment of your injuries in the Liberator's medical unit," Avon clarified. "Tarrant appears to be suggesting that you return now, with him." His eyes were guarded but his tone was sardonic.
"Without intervention, the scar tissue will never break down." Tarrant was oblivious to the gathering ice in Jenna's expression. "I can't believe you can be unaware that you're a very beautiful woman, Jenna -"
"Stannis. Pilot Stannis to you."
Undaunted, Tarrant gave her a dazzling smile. The door slid open.
"It seems to me sacrilege to allow a body like yours -"
"Sula, Jenna, we need to go over the assault plan for the main barracks," Blake interrupted, coming in. He exchanged a glance with Jenna; his eyes were amused, hers furious.
"Coming, Blake. Avon, I'll talk to Cally later if I have time. As for you -"
Jenna measured Tarrant coldly. "I think you're under a misapprehension, Tarrant. I don't go in for cradle-snatching."
"There are old pilots," Blake said softly but with a note of warning, as Jenna swept out, "and there are bold pilots. But around Jenna Stannis there are no old, bold pilots."
He gestured for Sula to precede him.
"If I had a hundred credits for every time someone's quoted that at me -" Tarrant began, scowling at Blake's back.
"Really?" Avon's eyes rested on him briefly. "I wonder why."
The echoing canteen was almost empty, with only a few men sitting talking over half-cleared plates, or staring into the dregs of their drinks dreaming of a lost past. She was sitting alone at the corner of one of the long tables, head bent, only the outline of her cheek visible beneath the feathering of her hair. Shorter hair suited her, he decided, besides looking more... practical, military; it was just still a little unfamiliar.
"Anna," Avon said quietly. Her head came up sharply and her eyes were wary. "Are you... busy?"
She smiled a little at that. "As you see," she indicated the empty bowl at her elbow, and shook her head. "I've seen all I need to see here. I've talked contingency plans until Jenna's sick of the sight of me and Blake groans when he sees me coming. Now I'm just dreaming -" she glanced around - "like the rest of them."
"Blake's dreams are potent," Avon acknowledged. He sat down opposite her. "Manna for the rabble... It's strange, isn't it? We were never dreamers, you and I. Yet here we sit, outlaws at the end of the galaxy, leaders of men, dream-merchants ourselves..."
"I aim to be President, Avon. That's no dream. I'd take great pleasure in toppling Servalan with my own hands."
"So would Dayna," Avon observed. "So would Blake. So, I imagine, would most of her subordinates. Not a popular woman, Servalan." He was silent for a moment. "I never knew you had political ambitions."
She was looking down at the table. "I've learnt a lot about the uses of... power... in the last four years." She glanced up quickly. "I never knew you had ambitions to become a starship captain."
Avon's smile was genuine. "I don't." He met her eyes. "But that starship contains the most intricate computer system I've ever known. Zen is the Liberator. And the Liberator is power - freedom - independence.
"I wanted her. Just as Tarrant wants her. And Blake's actions kept dangling her in front of me..." He sighed. "Some people are leaders, Anna. Perhaps you are - I'm not. And some people are followers; and I'm not a follower either. I walk alone...
"But without Blake, they needed someone to follow. And Tarrant would have got us all killed long ago. So I survive... and they follow me in order to survive. And I have absolute power - no freedom - and no independence. The Liberator carries more wealth than you and I ever dreamed of taking for ourselves; and I have no way of spending it. Ironic, isn't it?"
Anna reached out and laid her hand lightly over his. "The Liberator is the ultimate refuge; and the ultimate trap."
Avon's eyes widened slightly in appreciation. "You understand... Only the Liberator lets me escape the Federation. But while I have her, the Federation will always hunt me. And so - the ultimate trap.
"Tarrant thinks I'm a petty dictator. Dayna thinks it's all a game. Cally imagines we're serving the cause of freedom... and Vila doesn't think at all. And I'm trapped with them."
He glanced around as the canteen door slid shut, and found the room empty. "We seem to be alone," he observed, slightly surprised.
"It's late... nearly third shift..." Anna's hand tightened a little. "We've never been alone, these last few days - but we keep ending up... close to each other. Do you - mind?"
Avon's face was motionless. "At least part of the responsibility for that... was mine," he said gently.
Her hand on his lay very still. "In four years... have there been many... others, after me?"
"Anna." His voice was low, with a raw edge. "Look at me." Avon drew a breath. "Anna, in all my life there was no-one, there has been no-one, ever, ever, but you."
"For me, there have been many. There always were." Her eyes clung to his. "I was never faithful to you, Avon. You knew, didn't you?"
"I always knew. It didn't matter. It has never mattered, Anna. They meant nothing to you. It was just one more way of paying a bribe..."
He stood up, and moved to stand behind her as she half-rose, turning to him. He pulled her up to face him, both hands in his. "The answer is Yes," he told her softly. "I still want you. I've never wanted anyone else, Anna. When I thought they'd killed you -" his eyes darkened - "I wanted to take the torturers and pull them apart inch by bloody inch, in words first, until they were white with fear, and then in flesh, drop by drop, until they had paid and paid again for what they had done to you."
There was fear in her eyes, and he released her.
"Yes, I've changed, Anna," he acknowledged bitterly. "We've both changed... and you don't know any more what you feel about me. You're wondering if we were ever lovers, or just partners in crime. Well, now you know where I stand. You needn't worry; I shan't make any embarrassing demands on you."
He was almost visibly withdrawing behind his mask again, and Anna reached out to him desperately. "Avon -"
But she couldn't answer the query in his eyes. She captured one of his hands and held it tightly between both of her own, bowing her head.
"We'll talk later," he said at last, gently reclaiming his hand. "I'll see you on the Liberator, Anna."
She stood, rigid, uncertain, miserable, and watched him cross the room to the door and leave. He never looked back.
"What is it now, Blake?" Avon said sharply. "I plan to leave for Earth in less than an hour."
"It's Vila, Avon," Blake said, annoyed, lengthening his stride to catch up with Avon, who was showing no signs of stopping to talk to him.
"What about Vila?" Avon demanded without looking round.
"Vila's not going with you."
Avon stopped so suddenly that they almost collided. "What are you talking about, Blake?"
"Vila," Blake said patiently, "seems to have decided to leave the Liberator."
Avon stared at him. "Has Tarrant been at him again?"
"What do you mean, again? Tarrant's had nothing to do with Vila since you arrived."
"Tarrant tried to frighten him into co-operating with one of Tarrant's stupid schemes; threatened to get him thrown off the ship, and scared him out of what little wits he has - oh, never mind that." A gesture dismissed Tarrant's existence. "What's got into Vila now? He knows where he stands with me; he's a coward and he's an idiot, but he's useful. Irreplaceable, in fact, and I want him."
"Apparently," Blake said mildly, "you gave him an ultimatum: leave Kerril or leave the ship. I think he's calling your bluff, Avon."
Avon's face hardened. "Where is Vila? Why isn't he telling me this himself?"
Blake was fighting to keep a straight face. "I've been looking for him, but he seems to have disappeared. As to why - Avon, have you ever known Vila carry out an unpleasant task when he had a way to make sure someone else did it for him?"
They exchanged glances and burst out into a crack of rueful laughter.
"And I suppose he'll turn up like a faulty trace in a circuit, half an hour after the Liberator's left?"
"Undoubtedly," Blake agreed with a groan.
"Vila's a fool - but you know that." Avon sighed, sobering. "I'll talk to him when I get back, Blake. We shouldn't be needing him on this trip anyway. Try not to let him get killed while I'm not looking."
"I'll look after Vila," Blake agreed gravely. He held out his hand, and after a moment Avon took it. "Good luck, Avon."
He watched Avon turn the corner. Avon did not look back.
"... leaving the system, and about to increase speed to standard by four. Liberator out."
"Goodbye, Cally. Gauda base out."
Jenna looked up as Blake entered the office. "With Avon nosing around Sula's history on Earth, what do you suppose the chances are we'll ever see any of them again?" she challenged him.
"You could have stopped him." Blake came over to the desk.
"With all rational logic on his side? And Sula having agreed already?" Jenna scowled. "I just hope she's got enough sense of self-preservation left to keep him occupied if he goes down to the planet with her. Getting involved with Avon again was madness under the circumstances."
"Hiding from Avon in the first place was madness," Blake retorted. "It wasn't fair on Avon, it was completely unfair on Vila and Cally, it's been incredibly worrying and complicated, and just as I predicted, now that he has turned up, it's only ended up making him twice as suspicious and six times as dangerous. Avon's lingering trust and affection for Anna Grant are the only reason I can see to explain why he's suddenly stopped asking questions - they're probably the only thing keeping her, and possibly us, alive."
"According to Cally, Avon has already made one serious attempt to kill you, Blake. And I'm not convinced he didn't attempt to do the same to me."
Blake touched her shoulder. The pulse above her collarbone beat steadily under his fingers. "According to Cally, what Avon did to you was nothing compared to what the bounty-hunters had already done." She was silent. "How many were there, Jenna?"
"Three," she admitted. "They were posing as arms dealers - but I should never have gone in there alone to discuss terms. They jumped me as soon as I came in. I dropped two and the third one got off a lucky shot as he went down."
She laughed harshly. "If only there were a reverse bounty for bounty-hunters! That was the thirteenth, by my count."
"According to Cally," Blake said again, gently, "you would have died."
"So Avon did me a favour by shooting me?" Jenna retorted bitterly. "Is that what you're suggesting? I must remember to tell him that, I'm sure it will amuse him."
She shrugged his hand angrily free from her shoulder, and stood up to face him, her eyes almost on a level with his. "And if I had died, Blake," she spat, "would you have cared? Would you really have cared?"
She smiled at the shock in his face. "Oh, you weep for every sparrow that falls, don't you, Blake? Your bleeding heart is large enough to encompass all of humanity, isn't it? And where do I come in?
"It has to be some kind of cosmic joke. I've spent the last twenty years fending off advances from every man who's ever looked at me - yes, even Vila - and the only ones who've never shown the slightest interest have been you and Avon.
"No, this isn't about Avon." She laughed. "Though you paid more attention to Avon than you ever did to me, didn't you, Blake? Even this last year, it's been Avon, Avon, what will Avon do, does Avon know this? and all the time I'm in the background, trusted, useful, taken for granted; because you think you can rely on my loyalty and you can't ever rely on Avon.
"I nearly went off with Avon once, did you know that?" She laughed at him again. "Avon didn't want me, Blake, he wanted the Liberator and the money. Avon isn't interested, and we know why, don't we? So you've got no competition. Isn't that nice?"
She whirled away angrily as he tried to hold her, her breath coming in harsh sobs. "What's wrong with me, Blake? Don't you like blondes? Am I too tall? Not feminine and submissive enough? Am I too old? Or perhaps your tastes really do run to children after all!"
She sat down abruptly and dropped her head into her hands with a gasp. "Blake," she said, muffled, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
"Jenna..." Blake said softly, appalled. He looked at her helplessly. "Jenna, why didn't you ever tell me?"
Her head came up. "Why didn't you ever notice?" she retorted. "We've got Vila and Kerril practically living in each other's pockets all day, we've got Sula and Avon as mesmerised by each other as a pair of hypnotists, and it never even occurred to you to look at me twice!"
She got up slowly and put her arms round him. "I always said you were a fool," she said indistinctly, her face hidden against his collar.
Blake touched her hair. "I'm sorry. I should have known." He held her very gently.
"What difference would it have made?" Jenna said, still muffled. "I wanted you. You don't want me. All the will in the world can't change that."
"Jenna," Blake said awkwardly after a long time, when she raised her head to look at him, "if it meant that much to you... You could have... seduced me, any time these four years." His mouth twitched in self-mockery. "I doubt if I'd have been able to resist."
Jenna pulled away from him, her eyes blazing. "You think that didn't occur to me?" she flared out. "And you know why I didn't try?" Her voice cracked. "Because I love you, Roj Blake, and I still have some honour left!"
Her face contorted and she fled the room without looking back. Blake, left alone, sank his head into his hands. His fingers tightened among the dark curls until it hurt.
"Immediately?" Blake said, storing the bulb neatly into the next vacant slot on the right-hand side of his case. "Well, we've got another seven sensor arrays to sabotage -"
"I don't believe it!" Vila groaned. "Out here in the open air, in a freezing fog -" he coughed theatrically as a particularly noxious wisp engulfed him - "and now he tells us there's seven more of the things! When you said you had a job that required my particular talents, I didn't think you meant climbing poles in the fog!"
"Cheer up, Vila," Blake said heartlessly, leading them off around the perimeter. "You could be worse off - it could be me climbing onto your shoulders. Which reminds me," he added. "Next time, do try not to put your foot in my ear..."
"I don't understand why we're doing this, anyway," Vila grumbled, trotting in Blake's wake. "Removing the sensors I could understand, but replacing them?"
"Think, Vila. We don't want them to know we're here. And we don't want them to notice that the sensors have been sabotaged. So we can't do anything that will totally disable the arrays. Instead, every time they come round to check and replace the sensors, we send a sabotage party out to remove the new bulbs and replace them with pre-damaged bulbs." He patted the left-hand side of his case, which contained an interesting assortment of stained and corroded sensor bulbs.
"Hang on - you missed one," Vila objected as a pole loomed past them and was gone.
"Local perimeter sensors," Blake said. "We're only interested in the long-range arrays."
Kerril stopped suddenly. "But that means we're being picked up on the perimeter scan! They're bound to associate that with the damaged sensors later on, even if they don't come out to investigate us," she accused him.
"Not," Blake said grinning, "in the fog." He urged her on. "I believe the fogs around here are acquiring a very bad reputation for damaging sensitive equipment; they speculate that it's the high acid content..."
Vila choked. "Now he tells me!"
Kerril laughed, pounding him on the back. "The only thing this fog contains is us."
"How often do you have to do this?" Vila asked as they got on the move once more.
"They seem to have settled into a pattern of replacing the bulbs every six weeks," Blake explained. "When they do, we have to be very careful about outside movement - definitely no shuttle landings - until the next fog comes up and we can slip the degraded bulbs in. After that, our base has effectively disappeared from the map - the long-distance scan range is cut down by a factor of about ten. Oh, the permanent geographical features will still show up, but the sensors simply aren't sensitive enough any more to pick up transient events."
"What happens if a fog doesn't come up?" Kerril objected.
Blake laughed. "On sunny Gauda Prime? We get about two fogs a week here."
He paused at the base of the next pole to open his case. "Here we are. This is the next one." He drew out a discoloured bulb and handed it to Vila, who clipped it onto his belt.
"Kerril, give me a leg-up." The thief scrambled onto Blake's shoulders. The larger man took the weight with a sharply indrawn breath.
"Vila," he jerked out after a couple of minutes, "will you stop dancing the fandango on my collarbone and get on with it?"
"You're not tall enough," Vila complained. "I can't reach... Got it." He dropped neatly down and handed the fresh bulb to Blake, who had straightened up with a gasp.
"Only six more to go," Vila reminded him cheerfully. "Unless there's another mining base whose scan zone overlaps ours?"
"Mercifully, no," Blake said, rubbing his shoulder. "I don't know what you were doing that time, Vila, but I preferred the foot-in-the-ear technique." He sighed. "Come on."
"You said the sensors were the immediate task," Kerril reminded him as they moved off. "What else did you have in mind?"
"We can get contraband Federation weapons," Blake told her, "but we need some genuine uniforms."
"Yes," Vila interrupted, "I bet they tend to get damaged while you're in the process of dealing with the current owner."
"Shut up, Vila," Blake said automatically. "We've had information for some time that a freighter, the Amsterdam, is due to pass through this Sector in a couple of days with a shipment of new uniforms for the Rim sectors' outposts. I plan to hijack it. Jenna made arrangements with a pirate named Handar to intercept the Amsterdam out-system, so no suspicion can fall on us. But since I'm unexpectedly here instead of on my way to Earth - thanks to Avon - I plan to join Handar and lead the boarding-party myself."
"I'll go with you," Kerril said immediately, her eyes gleaming. "Pirates' law on the booty?"
"The cargo's ours and Handar gets the rest. I imagine he'll invoke pirates' law on that, so if you join the fighting you'll be in for a cut. I plan to make sure there won't be too much fighting, though," he warned her.
"Even better." Kerril grinned. "Booty and no risk. Not that there'll be many pickings on a freighter," she added wistfully.
"For all I care you can strip the wooden panelling from the captain's cabin, as long as we get those uniforms," Blake retorted. "We'll be putting the Amsterdam into a sundive to cover up the hijack anyway - we need more ships, but it's not worth the risk. She may be a civilian freighter, but she's under contract to Space Command, and when their supplies and uniforms fail to arrive they'll start checking up on every vessel in this Sector in an attempt to track her down. Even if we manage to fake up a new flight log and I.D. signal for her, you can be sure that they'll take a second and third look at any ship they find of that class and age - and maybe at the nearby planets too. The whole point of a base in the Seventh Sector in the first place was that the Federation isn't interested in the Rim. I'm not prepared to jeopardise the set-up on Gauda Prime for the sake of one clapped-out freighter. Better if she simply disappears." As if to underline his words, another pole appeared suddenly out of the whiteness before vanishing a few paces later.
"Blake," Vila suggested nervously, "why don't you just wait for the Liberator to come back?"
Blake frowned. "She may not be back in time. Anyway, Handar knows his business. I don't suppose he'd welcome a ship-load of strangers - and amateurs at that - showing up at the last minute and maybe panicking the freighter's crew into doing something stupid."
"We've tried piracy before," Vila objected, stumbling on a tussock of wet grass and hurrying to catch up. Then his face fell. "Actually, you've probably got a point. It was all Tarrant's idea, you see, it always is. We were all going to be rich - and then somehow when it came down to it, we ended up nearly losing our ship instead. I'm not sure Tarrant's really cut out for piracy. Perhaps Avon ought to get Jenna back -"
Blake, who had begun to look thoroughly confused, glanced back and said firmly: "Jenna has better things to do than play at pirates, Vila. And once Avon returns I imagine he will have plans of his own for the Liberator -"
Vila looked at him. "And you've managed perfectly well without Avon's help for the last year, and you want to keep it that way?" he suggested.
Blake stopped and stared at him through the fog. After a moment he grimaced. "That too."
"How far to the rendezvous point, Tarrant?" Dayna asked for the third time.
"In a straight line - about three minutes. The route we seem to be going, it could be half an hour." He glanced up, frowning intently. "Next waymark, Sula?"
"Abandoned asteroid mining station, registration L23X, at co-ordinates NS37489/J2226/0," Sula commanded crisply.
Tarrant worked for a moment. "Set. Prepare for course change - now."
"Avon," Cally protested, "the last time we came to Earth -"
"The last time we came to Earth," Avon said tightly, "was a dangerous and disastrous fiasco."
Cally flushed. "Avon, I haven't forgotten. But we had no trouble with the security cordon. Our current heading is taking us out of the solar system -"
"ATTENTION. UNIDENTIFIED BODY DETECTED ON COLLISION COURSE. EVASIVE ACTION IS IMPERATIVE."
"Wait," Tarrant said quickly. "Zen, does it have a registry beacon?"
"AFFIRMATIVE. RESIDUAL SIGNALS FROM DEACTIVATED BEACON CONFIRM IDENTITY AS MINING STATION L23X. IMMEDIATE EVASIVE ACTION IS IMPERATIVE."
"Next waymark, Sula!"
"Co-ordinates NE32903/J2226/0," Sula said swiftly.
"Set." Tarrant flung the Liberator onto her new course, sweating.
"Tarrant," Avon snarled, grabbing at the seating to save his balance, "I'd be obliged if you could remember that this is a battleship and not a racing yacht, and refrain from leaving your course changes to the last moment!"
"It would be helpful if the waymarks represented safe space and not the obstacles on an obstacle course! What's the current mark?" the pilot flung at Sula. "An uncharted gravitational anomaly?"
"That was the final waymark and we should now have passed the security cordon undetected," Sula said calmly. "I suggest you reduce speed to prepare for the transfer at the rendezvous point." She looked across the flight deck. "Cally, the new security measures were brought in after the Andromedan War by personal order of the new President herself. Every ship approaching the Earth system has to give her identity and ships can be stopped and searched at random. Armed ships need to produce authenticated orders before they can penetrate the cordon."
"Servalan's afraid some other commander may pull off the same trick she did," Dayna commented.
"That's precisely why she's refused to appoint a Supreme Commander. She sees the Space Service as more of a potential threat than the rebels. The whole system is designed as a vast security perimeter for the President."
"It sounds like a recipe for commercial chaos," Avon observed.
Sula smiled. "Not only that, but it's ruinously expensive. The entire High Council were unanimously against it and Servalan had to force the measures through by personal decree."
"Don't tell me Chesku actually opposed the President?" Avon interjected in disbelief.
"By a strange coincidence," Sula said drily, "many of Servalan's most vocal opponents on the High Council fell victim to a series of unfortunate accidents shortly after that episode. My esteemed husband was one of Servalan's strongly recommended replacements. The High Council subsequently became more... malleable."
"Meanwhile, the security measures are strangling Earth and the President is becoming ever more unpopular among the higher echelons?" suggested Avon.
"Precisely." They exchanged a smile. "Servalan's digging her own grave, Avon. All it will take is one little push at the right moment..."
"I hate to interrupt this happy scene," Tarrant said sharply, "but there seems to be a space hulk at the last set of co-ordinates you gave me. Are you claiming that's your transfer point?"
"The hulk is the Cor Caroli. She's used as the supply depot for the mining units on the outer planets. The crew are on our side. Transmit the identification code, Cally."
They listened to the chirping reply.
"Is that the correct response?" Avon demanded.
Sula nodded. "The shuttle is already in - they're giving us the code to proceed to the airlock on the starboard quarter."
"No," Avon forestalled Tarrant as he reached for the controls. "We'll teleport in."
"We?" Tarrant said pointedly.
Avon's smile was dangerous. "I'm going with her, Tarrant. After all -" the smile grew - "someone has to bring back the spare teleport bracelet."
"Avon," Dayna protested, "why let them know about our teleport if we don't need to?"
Avon turned on her, still smiling mirthlessly. "Dayna, by now they have us on visual scan. They have undoubtedly identified us and almost certainly know about the Liberator's teleport. The risks of letting them know about our technology are minuscule compared to the risks we run if we discover, after we find ourselves tethered to a hulk of twenty times our tonnage and unable to pull out in a hurry, that the rendezvous point has been betrayed and we have a squad of Federation troopers at the other end of an open airlock and a flight of pursuit ships in the offing.
"Remember the last time we used the airlock? Kairos? Nothing will come on board this ship without a teleport bracelet."
"What's the matter, Avon?" Tarrant jibed, startled. "Nervous?"
"I imagine Avon is remembering our last rendezvous with a resistance group from Earth," Cally said sharply. "I certainly am."
And of the six of us, only Avon and I are left here now to remember, she thought. Oh Gan, when did I last think of you? Life goes on... but the dead should not be forgotten. "The fact that they have given the correct recognition code does not mean that we are safe," she emphasised bitterly.
"Point taken," Tarrant snapped. "Avon, are you planning to go all the way down to the planet?"
Avon's eyes met Sula's. "After all, why not?" he murmured. "That's a good idea, Tarrant. I think I'll do just that."
Dayna exchanged a despairing glance with Tarrant. "Are you saying you want us to hang about in Earth orbit until you happen to feel like coming back up?" she demanded.
"No, of course not. That would be stupid," Avon said shortly. "I want you to get out of this solar system altogether. Get out and stay out. No risks, no false heroics. Give me... eight hours. Then make a run in via the waymarks, in past the hulk and down into teleport range for a direct pick-up off the surface. Anna will give you the co-ordinates of her base. I'll be there."
"And if you're not there in eight hours' time?" Dayna challenged.
"In that case," Avon said softly, "you can assume something has gone wrong... and do exactly as you please. No rescue parties, Cally. No deals. Just get clean away and keep the Liberator out of Servalan's hands."
He turned away. "Anna, give Tarrant the Earth co-ordinates. And you'd better list the waymarks again for him. Cally and I will meet you at the teleport."
"Down and safe," Avon reported calmly. "Everything seems to be in order here. We're about to transfer to Chesku's personal shuttle for an authentic return from holiday, so I don't anticipate any trouble either in attaining Earth orbit or during re-entry. I expect to see you in... seven hours and forty-eight minutes. Until then, stay clear. That's an order. Avon out."
Cally's voice followed over the intercom. "I shall be in my cabin, Tarrant. Call me if you need me."
"And there goes the shuttle," Dayna said, pointing. They watched as the small craft pulled away from the huge dark shape of the hulk and raced downward towards the inner planets.
Tarrant reached out and cut the main screen. "Now do you believe me?" he challenged. "Just as I predicted, Avon's obsession with this woman is endangering us all!
"So much for Jenna's 'caution' and Sula's 'safe route' - Avon's new decree is that we not only double the risks of detection by entering the Earth system twice, but we actually go down within teleport range of one of the most heavily defended planets in the galaxy. And for what? As far as I can make out, the only logic behind this is to allow Avon to spend a few hours alone with his ladylove."
He snorted. "It's not as if he hasn't had enough opportunity on the ship. But no - Avon the cautious, the ever-careful, has suddenly decided to do his canoodling in the most dangerous place in the Seven Sectors. Dayna, can't you see something's wrong?"
"Believe me, I'm just as unhappy as you are. But I don't see what you expect us to do about it! Stage a mutiny? You know as well as I do that none of us would have lasted this long without Avon. We need him - and he doesn't need us.
"Yes, all right, Tarrant, I know we make his life easier, and I know he relies on our backup sometimes. But when it comes to it, the moment he decides any of us have become a net liability, we'll be off the ship - like Vila. He'd known Vila longer than any of us - even longer than Cally, Tarrant. But the one time Vila stands up to him - pouf! and Vila's gone. How long do you think any of us would last if we start pointing the finger at Sula?"
Dayna sighed. "I assume she really is Anna Grant?" she added.
Tarrant snorted again. "Well, Avon's the only one who'd know, isn't he? But anyway, what do any of us know about Anna Grant? Apparently her brother Del Grant's in hot water with the Federation, and Anna was Avon's accomplice in the fraud that got him sent to Cygnus Alpha. That's all we know. Now she turns up again as an ambitious rebel leader with a direct link into the High Council. And Avon doesn't even question how this transformation took place."
He scowled. "I'm convinced Sula's at the bottom of this whole Blake cover-up business that Avon was so hot on the trail after - and now seems to have dropped entirely. I don't trust Blake and I don't trust Sula, and I've an idea Jenna knows a lot more than she's telling. I swear I'll find out the truth about Sula and I'll make Avon see her for what she is!"
"Tarrant, are you sure?" Dayna appealed.
"Dayna, even Blake admits there's a cover-up, and all he says is 'Trust me'. We don't even know him - why should we trust him? Why was he trying to hide Sula from Avon? We won't be safe until we know. I want your help."
"Of course I'll help you - but what are we going to do?" Dayna protested.
"Oh, we'll leave this system like good little girls and boys - but before we go, I'm going to ask Orac some questions..."
"...I must, however, inform you that Avon left specific instructions some time ago that any attempts to access information on the subject of Anna Grant should be reported to him as soon as possible."
Tarrant stared at Dayna. "What do you make of that?" he demanded incredulously.
"Shows a healthy sense of paranoia, I'd say." Dayna laughed. "Come on, Tarrant, you know how prudish Avon is. The last thing he wants is anyone poking around his personal affairs. In fact, I'll wager that's all that's behind this excursion to Earth - a natural desire for a bit of privacy. No sinister motives, no conspiracy. Come on, where's your sense of proportion?"
"Perhaps you're right..." Tarrant scowled. "Orac, you haven't actually attempted to access that information yet, have you?"
"I am awaiting confirmation of your request."
"Confirmation denied," Tarrant said hastily. "Abort that command. You have nothing to report to Avon, understand?"
Without waiting for an answer, he hastily snatched off Orac's key. "Come on, Dayna, let's get the Liberator out of here before Cally wakes up and wonders why we're not moving."
"I'm impressed," Avon said finally, with more than a touch of respect in his voice. "Very impressed." He looked around the room, admiring the organisation. "Also amused. If only Servalan knew that the best-planned rebellion since the New Calendar began was being run from a room in the home of one of her own High Councillors!"
Anna smiled. "In the end we decided it was the safest place. No-one questions the amount of time I spend here - and Chesku's one of Servalan's most loyal supporters. No-one would think to search our home unless I were directly suspected; and if that happens -" she shrugged - "it's all up anyway. The whole plan depends on my being able to get inside the Residency without Servalan's suspecting anything."
Avon was frowning. "Where is Chesku?" he asked with a touch of unease.
"He's away." She met his eyes. "I simply don't know, Avon. We spend so little time together these days that it sometimes seems we only meet for formal occasions. He won't be back until tomorrow. Is it important?"
"I prefer not to be wondering whether your husband may walk through the door at any minute," Avon retorted with a certain asperity. "He might even recognise me, which would be extremely difficult to explain."
"Chesku never comes down here," Anna said quietly. "And... and, Avon..." She was suddenly in his arms, clinging and kissing him with an intensity that shook both of them.
"Is this Yes?" Avon asked with a hint of gentle mockery, as she pulled away at last, looking up at him. His arms tightened suddenly. "Anna... Oh, Anna -" Then she was held so tightly against him that he could only kiss her hair, the forgotten, achingly familiar scent of it filling his senses. "Anna, I love you, I love you, I love you..."
She struggled a little and he released her at once, but she looked up into his face, her eyes shining. "Avon, if you only knew how long I dreamed of doing this -" She gave a little laugh, half-sob, and laid her head against him again. "If you only knew how long I've missed you -"
"Only you," Avon said quietly, kissing her hair again. "Only you, ever and for always, Anna." She turned her face up and he kissed her mouth, once, gently, and a second time as she responded. He could feel her heart beating with his in great racking shudders that echoed through both of them.
"Only that I love you," Avon murmured against her. "It's only that I love you, Anna..."
She pulled away from him as they broke apart, and sat down, somewhat unsteadily. "I'm not sure this is quite the right place for this," she said on a note of breathless laughter, glancing around at the immaculate white-gleaming storage and busy computers. "Not quite what I'd imagined."
"I've no objection to computers," Avon told her, his voice quivering in amusement. "On the contrary." He surveyed their surroundings. "Given the choice, though, I would prefer a little more room..."
Anna caught his hand, touching it swiftly to her lips, and jumped up, pulling him towards the door. The familiar cold mask of his face was transformed, his features open and alight with laughter and affection, and she felt her heart twist within her anew at this miracle she had wrought in him.
"What is it?" Avon asked sharply as sick memory suddenly swept across her face. "Anna!" He tried to catch hold of her, but she held him off.
"No. Listen to me first, Avon, listen to me and then see if you can bear to touch me." Her voice shook. "If you can ever forgive me for what I was - what I did -"
His hands fell away from her arm as he stared at her. A cold premonition touched him. "- there can be secrets it's better not to know -" Blake's voice whispered in memory.
Anna's hands were clenched in front of her, and her gaze was painful and set, avoiding him. "Listen, Avon. You asked me on the Quicksilver how I escaped when they came to arrest you -" There was fear in her eyes, and he felt a great wave of denial engulf him.
"No, Anna!" Her head came up sharply in shock. "It doesn't matter, Anna," he said more quietly, and caught her face between his hands when she tried to shake her head. "No. Listen; listen." He kissed her as she tried to speak.
"I don't want to know what you did, where you hid, what lies you told, whom you seduced, whom you betrayed, whom you condemned, what you destroyed... you survived, Anna. You did what you had to do to survive. It doesn't matter what it cost. If it hangs between us like this - then I believe Blake; it's better not to know.
"I'd have paid any price to have you here, alive, with me, a second chance... That's all that matters, that you're alive."
He laughed unsteadily, remembering. "I thought you were Blake's lover, once," he told her, and felt an answering laugh shaken out of her. "And I would have been glad for you, Anna, if you had only been alive, and happy..."
Her shoulders were shaking with half-laughter. "Avon, if you really thought I could look twice at Blake while you were in the room..."
"Blake has his points," he reproved her, half in earnest. "Occasionally his 'instincts' about people are actually right..." He held her against him until the shuddering breaths finally quietened, then touched her nose gently when she looked up, until she smiled.
"Just tell me one thing," he began. Fear flickered in her eyes. "Whatever happened... it's all in the past now, isn't it?"
She laid her head back against him with a great sigh of relief, nodding. "It's over. What you see now... is the truth. Anna Grant, Chesku's wife -" she gave the little chuckle which her unfortunate husband had always awoken in her - "Blake's ally, President-in-waiting, and -" she traced the nape of his neck softly with one finger - "all yours, Avon."
"We've got four hours, Anna mine." He extricated himself from her embrace gently, and took her hand with a curious sense of childish pleasure. "Now where were you planning to go?"
"...Avon, do you copy?... Avon, do you copy?..."
Avon tensed. He raised his bracelet and depressed the communicator button. "Come in, Cally. I copy."
"Avon, we are at maximum teleport range. I can barely hear you." The voice was faint and full of static.
"Cally, don't teleport yet. Continue approach for ten seconds until you are well inside maximum teleport range. Do you read me?"
"I read you. Teleport in ten seconds. Out."
"Ten seconds, Anna." He held her for a long moment, then stepped back in surprise as she slipped something into the shoulder of his tunic.
He pulled the long spray of flowers free. "What's this?"
Anna was laughing. "Buddleia. From Outside. A Wastelander brought it. The President's brought flowers back into fashion; it's the latest luxury. But this is a real wild one -"
Cally's voice came again. "Teleporting... now."
And everything changed; and he was standing on the Liberator, the ridiculous twig with its purple flowers still in his hand.
Cally was staring at him. "What have you got there, Avon?"
"Botanical specimen," he said shortly. He disliked being made to look a fool in public. "Or Servalan's newest fad. Depending on how you want to look at it." He laid it down on the console and set the two teleport bracelets back in the rack.
"Funny," Dayna said, looking at the flowers. "It looks almost familiar."
"Earth flora, Dayna," Avon said wearily. "I don't think so." He set Orac's key in place. "Anything to report, Orac?" Dayna tensed.
"I have discovered nothing of interest," the computer replied testily.
"Good." Avon was suddenly very tired. Earth time was almost six hours behind ship time, and he had missed a whole shift's rest. "Get us out of here, Tarrant. Standard by eight. Then back to Gauda. I'm going to my cabin."
"Thank you, Orac," Dayna breathed with a sigh of relief as Avon's back receded along the corridor.
She picked up the flowers. "Do you want this, Cally? Souvenir from Earth? No? Well, I'll take it. Say what you like about Servalan, you can't fault her sense of style..."
He jumped as a new burst of shouting and clanging echoed through the airlock from the bowels of the Amsterdam, and the three men seated on the floor opposite him cringed.
"Please," the freighter captain said, sweating. "We've surrendered. We won't make any trouble." He eyed Vila's wavering gun nervously. "Do you think you could consider pointing that gun somewhere else?"
"I said no talking!" Vila insisted, trying to look like a ruthless pirate. He wasn't sure how much longer he could hold these men. If only Kerril would come back. She could intimidate people just by looking at them. But she'd gone off with Blake and he'd been left behind and then ordered to guard the prisoners... The noises were getting closer. Vila's eyes flickered to the airlock in panic, but before he could decide what to do he recognised Handar's voice and sagged with relief.
The pirate captain shouldered his way through the airlock cheerfully. Behind him a knot of men surrounded a sullen-looking prisoner.
"Here's the last of them!" Handar bellowed with vast good humour. He was a rangy, sandy man whose incongruously loud voice and enormous moustache were in ridiculous contrast to his cadaverous figure. "Found him in the air ducts. And it's just as well for him we did. You wouldn't want to be on the ship where she's going, cully," he added over his shoulder to the prisoner. "Much better off in a nice snug life-rocket with your mates...
"Get them moving, Vila. Life-rocket bay's in the belly of the freighter. I'll leave you a couple of men to keep them in order... you, and you." A bony finger stabbed at a hulking black-haired pirate and the skinny girl next to him with a seamed, cynical face. "Mardos, you can help Blake's lot shift the cargo. The rest of you, come with me. We'll strip this craft to the bone." One gangling arm slapped Vila on the back while a gesture from the other rounded up his crew and sent them pouring back through the airlock ahead of him.
The last prisoner spat after him and promptly found a gun jammed under his chin by the young-old girl. "Try anything and I'll blow your head off," she hissed, reminding Vila irresistibly of Kerril.
"All right, get them moving," Vila snapped weakly at the other pirate, who looked as if he could pick up the three remaining prisoners with one arm. The effect was spoiled by the fact that he had to get the Amsterdam's captain to show him the way.
"But this is only a two-man life-rocket," the captain protested, struggling.
"You'll just have to get intimate then, won't you?" The girl leered at him.
"I don't understand. Why can't we use both rockets?"
"Listen, cully." The pirate's grin faded, and she jabbed her gun into his ribs to emphasise her point. "If it were up to Handar and us lot you'd all have been spaced ten minutes ago. So you can go down on your knees to Blake and kiss his boots, 'cause if it weren't for him your frozen guts'd be sprayed halfway to the atmosphere by now. If he wants the other life-rocket then you should be begging him to take it. Shut up and get in." She spat on him.
"Look, you're only going down to the fifth planet," Vila added. He felt sorry for the man. "You'll only be in the rocket a few minutes. You'll be fine."
"There's nothing on the fifth planet of this system but rain and rubble!" The freighter's sub-commander was gobbling with indignation. "You can't put us down there. It doesn't even have a name!"
"You'll be the first settlers. You can give it one," the big pirate told him, grinning. "Got a distress beacon in that thing, haven't you? You'll get picked up... in a few months' time!" Suiting the word to the deed, he picked up the objector bodily and thrust him through the narrow airlock, to the accompaniment of a chorus of kicks and curses from the three already inside. "You've got two minutes, then we fire the life-rocket!" he shouted through the slot, and slammed it.
"I'll deal with this," he grunted to Vila and his skinny companion. "You two can muck in shifting crates in the hold."
Vila choked down the indignant response that rose to his lips. The man was even bigger than Gan and he definitely didn't have a limiter.
"All right, where's the hold, then?" he said instead to the scowling girl. After all, he reasoned, the two of them put together would hardly count as big enough to do a useful job of work. He was sure Blake could be persuaded to concur...
"Do you want the honour?" The stocky Mardos paused before setting his shoulder to the last crate, and grinned across at Blake.
Blake laughed, wiping his palms on the hem of his tunic. "You're welcome!" He watched the crate lurch its way through the massive cargo airlock and into the tight-packed hold of Handar's Raptor's Strike. "And that's that."
He turned as Vila came panting back from his latest message to the pirate leader. "He says he's finished and you can get rid of her now," Vila reported, and collapsed breathless against the dripping side of the hold. "Can't you let me have a rest, Blake?" he pleaded. "I'd rather have been pushing crates!" He leaned heavily against Kerril as she hauled him to his feet.
Blake grinned at him, then relented. "We've finished in here now. Tell me where to find Handar and I'll go and talk to him myself."
"He's on the Strike's flight deck." Vila bounced up, miraculously restored. "I'll show you. Look, there's a quick way along this crawlway over the hold that'll bring you out right outside the main blaster arrays -"
"Thank you, Vila," Blake said dubiously, measuring the width of his shoulders against the dimensions of the crawlway, "but I think we'll take the slow route." He used his sleeve to mop his face.
"Don't know what you want all those uniforms for anyhow," Mardos grumbled amicably, falling in with the group from Blake's base as they left the freighter's hold.
"Well, you see," Vila began, unable to resist, "we're planning to celebrate the end of the year with a grand fancy-dress ball and masquerade. Everyone turns up as Federation troopers, and then it's helmets off at midnight for the grand unmasking..."
Mardos was goggling at him. "Shut up, Vila," Blake said mildly. "You're giving him ideas."
"How can you tell?" Vila retorted.
"Shut up, Vila," Blake repeated with a definite edge to his voice. Vila subsided.
The flight deck of the Raptor's Strike was already seriously overcrowded when they got there. Vila followed closely in Kerril's wake as she cleared a way through for them with her elbows.
"Blake! How's it going?" Handar roared, catching sight of him above the others.
"We've cleared the hold," Blake shouted back. "With your permission I'll take a man across to blow the Amsterdam's controls and send her into the sun. Who's your explosives expert?" He finally managed to shoulder his way next to the gangling pirate captain, who deigned to lower his voice slightly.
"Mardos is your best bang man," he boomed, and from under his arm Vila could just see the stocky man grinning and nodding from the doorway. "But it could be dangerous, you know, Blake," Handar added in a penetrating whisper. His moustaches seemed to bristle in alarm.
"I know that!" Blake retorted. "That's why I'm going myself. And why I want Vila on communications," he added unexpectedly. Vila blinked, flattered but alarmed.
"Can you do it, Vila?"
Vila peered in the direction of the communications operator, seated amidst a tangle of equipment on the near side of the flight deck. It didn't look anything like the set-up on the Liberator.
"Probably," he said optimistically. "If you can get at least half these people off the flight deck and give me a bit of elbow-room."
"Clear the flight deck, cullies," Handar roared instantly from above him, alarming him even more. He tugged at Blake's arm.
"Blake, are you sure you don't want the regular operator?" he begged, as the latter promptly started to disappear off the flight deck in company with most of the other assorted idlers and flight crew.
Blake smiled down at him. "I just want someone who knows the way I think," he reassured Vila. "If something did go wrong, I wouldn't want to end up explaining everything twice over in an emergency."
"A lot of good a friendly face on the other end of the channel is going to do you if I can't get this thing to work," Vila muttered, sorting desperately through an apparently infinite maze of connections. "Right. Got it - I think.
"Oh, the channel's already open," he added in surprise as the screen in front of him cleared to show the freighter's grimy, cramped bridge.
Handar grinned. "Reckon my cullies didn't give the crew too much time to shut down," he observed.
Blake was already halfway off the flight deck. "Mardos, get your kit. Handar, get ready to uncouple your airlocks once we're through and pick us up afterwards," he added, turning back in the doorway.
"Good luck!" Vila shouted after him.
"Piece of cake!" came back the cheerful answer.
"Blake," Vila said urgently for the third time, "blow those automatics and get into that life-rocket! You're getting too close!"
"The automatics haven't attempted to kick in yet," came the infuriatingly confident answer, "so the systems obviously reckon there's plenty of time to override. I want to make sure the Amsterdam's well on the way to the point of no return before we leave."
"You want to leave before you get to the point of no return," Vila howled. Even he could see the increasing acceleration of the freighter as she hurled herself towards her fiery end, and the crew behind him were starting to mutter disquietingly. "Blake, maybe the automatics in that old rustbucket aren't working!"
Blake's expression changed. He glanced rapidly down at the instruments off-screen, and from the way the colour drained from his face, Vila had a sick feeling that he'd just hit the nail on the head.
"Mardos," Blake rapped out, "blow those charges and let's get out of here!"
"Best bang man, indeed," Vila muttered as his view jumped and then dissolved into static. "Looks like a bit too much bang if you ask me. Mardos, you idiot," he shouted uselessly at the blank screen, "you've blown the visual!" He heard the last charge go off with a resounding crash. "Far too much bang."
"Get that door open!" Blake was snarling in the background. There were incoherent noises, and shouting, and a series of loud thumps.
"They're still in there," Vila whispered, going pale himself. "Blake, what's going on?"
There was more panicked shouting in the background. Everyone left on the Strike's flight deck was crowding around Vila as if they could will the fuzzing screen back to life simply by staring at it.
"Vila." Blake's voice suddenly, very close to the pickup. Vila could hear his harsh breathing. "Vila, the doorframe's buckled. We can't get out."
"Mardos, you murderous blast-happy maniac -" Vila exploded. "Blow the door clean off!"
There was another tremendous blast that sent the audio pickup squealing towards complete breakdown. When his ears cleared Vila could hear a rising monotonous sobbing in the background: "We're doomed, we're doomed, we're doomed, we're doomed..." Blake was shouting something.
"Blake!" Vila yelled frantically.
The dreadful sobbing cut off abruptly with the sound of a blow. "Vila." Blake again, a sick note in his voice. "Vila, it's too late now anyway. I've checked the instruments. We just passed the point of no return. Even if we could get this door open, the life-rocket wouldn't do us any good. We're accelerating into the sun, Vila -" He broke off sharply.
Vila stared at the blank screen. "No. No, I don't believe it. No!" His voice rose. "Blake, you can't just die like that - Handar, do something!"
Kerril's hand was clenched so tightly on his arm that his fingers were going white. "No, Vila!" she hissed frantically in his ear. "The Amsterdam's too far down the gravity well. It would be suicide even to try!"
"Handar, keep well away!" Blake was snarling. "Vila, face it, it's too late -" He broke off again. "I'm going to blow the whole cabin open. Better to die that way than the way we're going... everything's getting hot to the touch, Vila, and it's going to get worse and worse..."
On the main screen the Amsterdam was already almost indistinguishable against the blazing atmosphere of the sun. Vila stared numbly at it. "Blake," he managed pathetically, idiotically, "do you want to leave any... messages?"
Incredibly, he heard a weak chuckle. "Tell Avon I wish I'd waited for him. Tell Cally I hope she gets home to Auron. Tell Jenna - tell Jenna I -"
There was a green light blinking in the corner of Vila's vision. It was blinking urgently. It had been blinking, he realised, for some time.
"Blake, wait," he interrupted urgently. "Don't - don't do anything -" With fumbling fingers he scrambled to make the connection.
Cally's urgent voice burst onto the flight deck. "Vila, Vila, this is the Liberator, do you require assistance? I repeat, do you require assistance? I repeat -"
He let out a great sobbing breath. "Cally, Avon - Blake's on that ship. Get him out of there!"
Avon's face was absolutely expressionless. "Orac, I want a constantly updating teleport fix on that freighter. Dayna, get to the teleport now and take a spare teleport bracelet -" he broke off and Dayna could hear Blake's voice saying something urgently in the static-filled background - "no, two; it seems there's two of them in there. Cally -" But Dayna was already running for the teleport area, the Auron woman pelting after her with Orac in her arms.
"Dayna, this is almost maximum teleport range already," Cally was saying urgently, but Dayna needed no prompting to snatch up three bracelets and snap one onto her own wrist as quickly as she could, stepping back into the teleport bay just as Cally's hand poised itself over the main switch.
Everything changed; and she was staggering to keep her balance in a tiny, savagely tilted, suffocatingly hot little room filled with choking explosive fumes. Blake reached for her out of the smoke as she slid helplessly down the slope to what had once been the back wall of the Amsterdam's bridge.
"Here - he's down here -"
They were both coughing helplessly as she tried to fit the bracelet around the crouched man's arm, her bare shoulders agonizingly close to the searing heat of the deck metal.
"Cally -" she managed between coughs - "teleport now!"
The cool air of the Liberator met them like a blow to the face. Dayna staggered, losing her grip on Blake's arm as he collapsed slowly towards the floor. "Tell... Vila... safe," he gasped, coughing violently.
Cally was already crouched over the smaller man, who seemed almost catatonic. "Tarrant - Avon - help me get this man to the medical unit," she commanded, and the two obediently got an arm under him on either side and began to carry him, still rigid, down the corridor. "Blake -" He opened an eye as Cally bent over him. "Blake, I can't carry you -"
"S'all right." Blake was still coughing. "Help me up... I can walk..." Dayna grabbed his other arm and they managed an unsteady progress in Avon and Tarrant's wake. "Vila..." Blake urged again.
Avon glanced over his shoulder, breathing hard. "Vila knows," he said shortly. "Blake, what possessed you to try to pull off a trick like that without waiting for the Liberator?"
"Would've worked," Blake objected. He tried to laugh. "Vila said... too much bang..."
"No more talking," Cally ordered.
"Dayna... Avon..." Blake persisted stubbornly.
"Yes?" Avon demanded.
Blake smiled faintly. "Thanks."
Blake's sleep was uneasy. After the second time that he had woken sweating, his throat raw with silent screaming, to find himself safe in his room in the underground base and not, after all, trapped in the hell of the dying Amsterdam, he had rolled out of his bunk and padded across the floor to turn the heating unit off altogether; but then he found himself unable to sleep at all. Cally had warned him that he was 'in shock', that there might be side-effects; had pointed to the dire example of Mardos, who had been transferred back onto the Raptor's Strike still mute and unmoving, save to follow where he was led; but Blake had cheated death so often before that he had assumed he would be unaffected.
He tossed restlessly. To be trapped so helplessly, hopelessly, with no possibility of last-minute rescue - he had accepted that he was going to die, and it seemed it was going to be a while before some parts of his mind acknowledged that it was not going to happen after all. He sighed, and sat up. It was not as if he didn't have other things on his mind.
There was Avon's news, for example. Orac's news, rather. Avon had been quite specific about it last night on the Liberator, before they'd all come down to the base; the sensor sabotage operations had only been blunting the tip of the iceberg. Orac's investigation had revealed that enough circumstantial evidence was being routinely collected by Federation sensors and survey and incident reports to pinpoint not only the mere fact of resistance activity in the sector, which he'd never really hoped or attempted to conceal, but the very star cluster, system, planet and probably even co-ordinates of their base.
"According to Orac," Avon had told him, "the information already accumulated in the Sector's computer banks is such that - I quote - 'the existence and very location of the Gauda base becomes patently obvious immediately any moderately sophisticated correlation techniques are applied to the currently existing data'. After allowing for Orac's standards of 'obvious' and 'moderately sophisticated' -" he had given his cold smile - "I would have thought that even you would find the conclusion... worrying, to say the least."
The only conclusion Blake could form was that it was a matter of when, not if, the devastating Federation raid would come. It was no consolation to know that when it came, it probably would be intended to clear up some obscure pirates' nest, not to wipe out the notorious Roj Blake... As far as he could see, all he could do was to carry on as before and trust that the inevitable assault would not come before the uprising on Earth, now only a month away. Avon's response to that suggestion had been a character analysis both astonishingly unpleasant and uncomfortably accurate. Avon's worst fault had always been his tendency to be right.
But Blake couldn't see what else he could do. Evacuation, at this stage of planning, was out of the question. Avon's opinion of Blake's only previous attempt at computer manipulation, here on Gauda Prime, had been scathing; it had apparently led Avon directly to his base. In any case, the problem was not one of information which could be destroyed by blowing up a computer; the problem was the constant trickle of casual observations which could not be avoided, yet built up into a damning picture. Like the random flaws in a series of hectograph transmissions which eventually revealed all the traits of the sender...
Logic told him that they were in no more danger now than they had been yesterday, when they had known nothing. Logic told him that discovery might well be inevitable, but that the chances were high that it would not take place within the next month. Logic did nothing to quell the sensation that the sword hanging over his head was suspended only by a thread.
Blake rose, to pace around the room. And then there was the other matter; which was Jenna. They had been more or less consciously avoiding each other since the evening the Liberator had left with Sula, and quite apart from the fact that it was wretchedly uncomfortable for both of them, they just couldn't go on like this much longer, because she was running the base and they needed to work together... and he didn't know what to do.
He'd thought he'd known her for four years, and now all of that seemed to have suddenly been retrospectively rewritten; and apparently he hadn't known her at all. Blake groaned softly and leaned his forehead against the wall, letting the faint soothing throb that was the lifeblood of the base soak through him. He didn't know what to do - he didn't know what he wanted, which was even more worrying - he didn't know what, if anything, Jenna expected of him.
Yesterday, on the Amsterdam, when it had suddenly seemed that there were to be no choices at all, for a few minutes he'd been quite clear about what he felt for Jenna - what, he had understood then, he'd felt for a long time - and he had wanted very badly to let her know. This morning - he sighed, and turned away from the wall - this morning, faced with the possibility of actually telling her he loved her, he was back in the old aching whirl of uncertainty. And what that fact told him about himself was unpleasantly reminiscent of what Avon had said last night...
A thought which reminded him, again, of the betraying data the Federation held. And so, round and round... with no solutions to any of it. Blake flung himself back down on his bunk and tried hopelessly to get back to sleep. Nightmares, at the moment, seemed preferable to the company of his own thoughts.
He might have dozed a little. All he knew was that he gradually became certain that he had to talk to Jenna. What he was actually going to say, he was not yet sure; but they had to work out something - he smiled bitterly at himself - for the sake of the Cause if for nothing else, because if this went on much longer, he, at least, was going to go out of his mind.
He rolled over, got to his feet and slipped quietly down the corridor to Jenna's room. She was an early riser and with luck she would already be awake...
For a moment as the door slid open he thought he had somehow got the wrong room. The dark head on the pillow stirred, and then Tarrant sat up in amazement, putting a protective arm around Jenna as she uncurled from beside him. "Blake, do you know what time it is?"
For a second Blake just stared at them, until comprehension and amusement began to spread across Tarrant's features as he took in the situation. "Jenna's made her choice, Blake," he told the older man calmly. "Now why don't you just get out?"
Instinctively, Blake glanced for confirmation at Jenna, whose face was crimson. "Blake, go away!" she said furiously.
Stunned, he stepped backwards and let the door close in front of him. It stared back at him; blank, grey, a little scratched... Behind the door, Tarrant said something, and laughed. Blake turned abruptly on his heel, flushing.
Back in his own room, he sat down on the edge of the bunk and stared numbly, hurt and humiliated, at the floor between his feet. He felt a strong impulse to grab something - preferably Tarrant - and hurl it against the wall to make a satisfying impact. Then he felt a strong desire to beat his own head against the wall. Finally, he did nothing.
After a long time, he got up slowly and began to dress. A vigorous workout with Cally would do him good - he was out of condition anyway - and would serve as a reasonable substitute for fighting somebody. Cally would, of course, wipe the floor with him - but there was a masochistic element in his current mood that found that prospect not unwelcome. Cally would definitely still be asleep, but he was not, at the moment, in a mood to be particularly considerate to others.
Cally's face was intent and set. Blake felt the ripple of muscles across her back as she threw all her strength against his hold, and tensed, resisting her, trying to anticipate the next move. He felt her weight shift and flung himself sideways, trying to bring her down with him, as they pivoted together and his footing slipped inexorably from under him. Cally was a fraction slow and he managed to hook her; they landed hard but she was underneath, the breath driven out of her, and in that second's grace he managed to get a new hold and pin her, face-down. He held her by brute force, his greater strength and weight finally coming into play, and after a few seconds she admitted defeat and lay still.
"Your win, this time," she encouraged him, rolling lithely to her feet and extending a hand down to help him up. Blake rose rather more gingerly, trying to brush himself down. The grass was not nearly as soft as it looked.
"A fluke," Blake admitted ruefully. "Let's see, that makes the score eight wins to one, so far. Not exactly impressive."
"You are out of practice," Cally pointed out logically, stretching. Her eyes met his. "And you are too angry. You are not thinking clearly. This is a contest of the mind as much as of the body."
Blake grimaced. "It's not losing to you that makes me angry, Cally."
//I know.// She smiled at his wary expression. //You know I cannot read your mind, Blake. But we used to know each other very well. You do not normally wake me to demand combat practice at the start of first shift.//
Blake's eyes fell. "I'm sorry about that. I don't plan to make a habit of it."
She dismissed it with a shrug. "Do you want to stop now?" she offered.
He grinned. "Stop now that I've finally managed a win, you mean? I'm not such a poor sport. I'll last out the whole ten rounds and give you a chance to make the score nine to one."
He stretched sore shoulders and waited, poised, for her to make the first move.
"Hallo, Cally. What on Earth are you doing to Blake?" Vila's voice said cheerfully. "If you want to strangle somebody, why don't you go and strangle Avon?" His face swam into view, silhouetted against a blindingly blue sky, as Cally released her hold and sat back. Blake blinked up at him. Vila's face from underneath was a disconcerting sight...
"Your win, Cally," he acknowledged cheerfully, sitting up. "Hallo, Vila. You're up early."
Vila grinned, and sat down beside them on the grass of the landing field. "After that little trip of yours in the fog, Kerril decided she was going to teach me to enjoy being Outside whatever the weather. I keep telling her it's a lost cause - I'm a Dome man through and through - but she's convinced she can convert me to the beauties of Nature.
"I must say your planet is ideally suited to the task," he added, pulling Kerril down onto the grass beside him. "We had Fog, we tried Rain a couple of days ago -"
"- Vila wasn't too convinced, so I was planning to have another go this morning," Kerril took over, laughing. "Unfortunately it doesn't look as if the weather's going to co-operate."
Vila glanced around appreciatively. "I don't know about that... I think I could get to like sunshine." He lay back, yawning, his head in Kerril's lap. "How long are we going to be on this planet, Blake?"
Blake's smile faded abruptly. "Another month or so - if the Federation don't find us first."
Vila squinted up at him. "Avon's been scare-mongering again, hasn't he? Cheer up, it may never happen."
"It had better not happen," Blake told him tightly. "If we get wiped out here before the ship comes for the rest of Sula's equipment and the siege weapons, the whole rising on Earth's probably doomed. Thousands of people will be killed to no purpose and the Federation will be more secure than ever. Quite apart from the fact," he added savagely, "that we'll all be dead."
"If it matters that much, then Avon will find some way round the problem," Vila said surprisingly.
Blake frowned. "Even if he could - what makes you sure he would? For someone he doesn't trust, and a Cause he doesn't believe in? Pulling me out of the Amsterdam was one thing, but deliberately running his own neck into danger to eliminate a hypothetical risk isn't Avon's style."
"Well, for a start it's a computer problem," Vila pointed out. "I've never known Avon resist a challenge where computers were concerned. And anyway, Avon's got just as much at stake in the fall of the Federation as the rest of us. Servalan's never going to stop chasing him until she's got the Liberator, you know. And I should think he'd be glad to get off the bounty list - what is he now, Kerril?"
"Number six and still rising," she supplied automatically, then raised her chin under Blake's sceptical look. "Blake, by the time you'd been a week with Bayban, you'd be able to recite the top forty names on the bounty list - backwards."
"Anyway," Vila continued, rolling over to face Blake, "I don't believe Avon cares ten credits for democracy and any of that stuff, but I'm pretty sure he's no keener on being an outlaw then anyone else."
"I imagine Avon's ambition is to settle down on a nice peaceful planet somewhere and quietly embezzle a couple of million credits," Blake agreed, sighing.
"Sounds good enough to me," Vila said cheerfully. He noticed Cally's eyes on him. "What about you, Cally? What would you do if we beat the Federation?"
Cally had been watching him and Kerril rather wistfully for some time. "I would be able to go back to Auron," she said softly, sitting neatly cross-legged, her back very straight. "I would no longer be an exile. I would be among my own kind."
//I am tired of being an alien, Vila. And I too would like to find a mate.//
Vila looked at her in surprise. He had never thought of Cally as the romantic type. "But nobody cares about your being an alien any more," he protested, sitting up. "I mean, you're just one of us."
//That is what I am afraid of, Vila.// The thought was sad in his mind. //That they were right to exile me. That I have become no more than one of you.//
"Steady on -" Vila protested, then glanced at Blake, who was tactfully looking over his shoulder up the mountainside. He settled for taking Cally's hand and squeezing it comfortingly.
"What would you do, Blake?" he asked hastily. "If it were all over? I suppose you want to become President."
Blake looked around, amused. "I don't think I'm really cut out for politics, Vila. Sula's welcome to the job as far as I'm concerned. She's a born politician - ruthless, ambitious, willing to compromise to get things done. After her - well, we'll see who gets elected.
"As for me; I think I'd rather try to make some changes on a smaller scale, where you can really see results - District Commissar for one of the smaller regions on Earth perhaps, or even Sub-Commissar. I'd like to go back to Earth.
"And I'd like to clear my name - not just a free pardon, I imagine we'd all get those, but to prove that the charges were completely false in the first place." He sighed. "Well, since we're playing this game, what about you, Vila? I don't suppose a free pardon would do you much good - I can't see you going straight, somehow!"
"I'd like lots of children," Vila said dreamily. "And lots of locks, as a challenge. And we'd take them all to one of the pleasure planets -"
"What, the locks?" Blake interjected, laughing.
Vila glared at him balefully. "- no, I wouldn't, I'd come and live in your district, Blake, and cause a one-man crime wave, and you'd never be able to prove anything!"
"I wish you would go straight," Blake said without much hope. "I'd hate to be the one instructed to arrest you..."
"It's part of me," Vila said, quite seriously. "If I didn't steal things, I wouldn't be me. Ask Kerril."
"We've had this conversation before," Kerril confirmed. She reached over and kissed Vila. "I don't care what you steal as long as you don't get caught, Vila. One trip to Cygnus Alpha ought to be enough for any man's lifetime."
"I'm the only man alive who's ever escaped from Cygnus Alpha in the first place," the thief retorted proudly. He scrambled to his feet. "Come on, Kerril, I'm getting hungry. We ought to be able to get some food in the canteen by now."
"We're all just dreaming, you know," Blake said, sighing, as Cally rose, neatly, and pulled him up to join her. "Avon told me once I'd spent my whole life dreaming. He told me to wake up, look around, and see where it had got me. I'd love to be able to throw that back in his face one day..."
"We've got a real chance, this time, you said," Vila pointed out, looking back.
"I know. But that's what I thought before Star One."
"Avon also said you worry far too much, Blake," Vila retorted. "And I don't think he meant it as a compliment."
"Why?" Blake challenged wearily. "Do you need any Federation uniforms?"
"Possibly." Avon refused to be drawn.
Blake watched him warily. "The first thing I need to do is to establish exactly what we've captured."
"I take it you neglected to obtain the cargo manifesto during your heroics on the bridge of the Amsterdam," Avon observed, not really surprised. He felt a tiny twinge of satisfaction as Blake winced. "What do you plan to do? Open every crate and count them all?"
"There should be an individual manifest inside the door of every crate," Blake informed him. "And the consignments come as one of a limited number of standard sets, so it will be a matter of tallying up how much of each set we've obtained. Apart from that - yes, basically."
"And I suppose you want us to help?" Avon suggested, his tone carefully neutral.
"I know better than to expect you to dirty your hands personally," Blake retorted. Avon watched him, amused. One-all. "But if any of the rest of you would be willing to help -"
His glance was carefully avoiding Tarrant. That was interesting. Avon narrowed his eyes, speculating.
"-I'd be very grateful," Blake concluded.
"Let's take a look," Dayna said, shrugging. "Where are these crates of yours - still in the shuttle?"
"Jenna got a working-party to transfer them into the old loading hall last night. That's the biggest room we've got. It's just down here."
Avon followed him out of the canteen with the others, curious despite himself. "How many crates?" he asked involuntarily as the sheer scale of the cavernous hall dawned on him.
"A hundred and twenty-eight; a full shipment." There was amusement in Blake's eyes and Avon's expression hardened.
"Are they locked?" Dayna asked, her tone rather less enthusiastic than it had been.
Blake glanced at Vila who spread his hands. "Only one way to find out." He stepped up to the nearest end and gave the door a good tug. "Yes. Although -" the thief was investigating the door with skilled fingers - "I don't think much of their locks."
"How long?" Blake demanded.
"Couple of minutes." Vila was at work already.
"You're slipping, Vila," Avon told him calmly. "I've known you crack a Federation three-way security lock faster than that."
"That was when I was scared," Vila protested. "I only do my best work when I'm scared." He had slipped a couple of probes into the lock and was adjusting them delicately.
"Perhaps that could be arranged." Avon used the perfectly flat tone that held more menace than an overt threat. He felt Blake, to his left, make a sharp movement, and shot him a vicious warning glance: keep out of this, you fool, I know what I'm doing.
But Vila just chuckled. "Sorry, Avon, it won't work. Not even you can scare me a hundred and twenty-eight times in a row. Now let me get on with this, I'm almost finished."
An instant's mental arithmetic brought Avon to an unwelcome conclusion. He frowned. "You do realise," he said acidly to Blake, "that if it takes Vila two minutes to open each crate it will take him four hours to open the entire consignment?"
Vila looked up from what he was doing. "Blake," he protested, "I enjoy a challenge, but I'm not spending four hours opening a hundred and twenty-eight identical locks!"
Blake looked hunted. "Explosives?" he suggested semi-seriously.
"Setting the charges for each crate would take almost as long... Wait - Vila, are the locks identical?"
"I should think so," the thief said, busy. "Otherwise they'd need a dozen different keys to open them at the other end, wouldn't they?" He straightened up triumphantly. "There. Got it." The door swung open.
"And here's the manifest." Blake ran a scanner over the data-cube fixed to the inner surface of the door.
"Four Area Commander's uniforms and sixteen Section Leaders," he reported incredulously. "Complete from helmet to boots. Avon, if it turns out we hijacked an entire shipment of officers' uniforms -"
"I've always fancied being a Section Leader." Kerril was inside the crate, exploring the packages. "I wonder if there's anything here my size?"
"Ask Blake," Avon said shortly. "It should be on the manifest. Vila, come and have a look at the lock on this one. Is it the same?"
"Looks like it." Vila probed. "I think so. Not that it makes it any quicker to open - or not much."
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Blake's eyes met Avon's. "Skeleton keys?"
"Precisely." They shared a rare smile. "Vila, could you manufacture a key that a totally unskilled person - Tarrant, for example - could use to open this pattern of lock?"
"Of course," Vila said promptly. "Given the right equipment."
"And having done so," Avon suggested, "you could duplicate it to produce three or four copies? Good. Blake, see if you can find him the right equipment somewhere in the base, and another half-dozen data-cube scanners. With six people, all equipped with keys, we should be able to deal with this in about twenty minutes."
"And now yours, Dayna." Avon took the last scanner and interfaced it with his own.
"In total, we have: one crate of maintenance techs' coveralls - probably included in error - seven crates containing assorted officers' clothing covering all ranks from Sector Director to Section Leader, two crates of environmental suits in various sizes, twelve crates of assorted other protective clothing, and one hundred and six crates of ordinary troopers' uniforms, which I imagine are the ones Blake is principally interested in -"
He frowned, counting heads. "Where is Blake?" he demanded. Surely the man could not have had the gall to order an operation like this and then disappear without waiting for the results?
"There was a message for him, about ten minutes ago," Tarrant said wearily. "Something about Jenna and arms dealers and wanting back-up this time." His tone suggested that he, personally, would not have relied on Blake to back-up a drain.
Avon hesitated, then looked round sharply as sirens began to sound in the corridors. His hand went automatically to the gun which he, like the others, like trusting fools, had left on the Liberator... There were voices outside - Blake's recruits, he hoped - and the urgent sound of feet.
"Either the Federation has arrived," he said at last, deliberately, "or Blake has got himself into some kind of trouble."
Blake came in silently and handed Jenna her gun without a word before taking up a wary stance near the door. He avoided meeting her eyes. Jenna bit her lip. Perhaps it had been tactless to ask for Blake... but she needed him, she needed someone who knew the routine, someone who could sense when things were going wrong.
Jenna turned with a sharp swirl of skirts and glanced again over the straggle of containers the smugglers had brought them. If the contents were as claimed - heavy laser cannon, a disruptor, plasma projectors, and even a polarising arc - this one deal would provide all the weaponry Sula had requested, and more. In point of fact, they had not anticipated being offered anything like this; cash could be a problem. She smiled, expecting some smart bargaining ahead.
"Send them in!" she called, and turned to watch the door, her weapon in her hand, held unobtrusively but ready. With a party of six, she was taking no chances - though the most likely reason for the large number was simply that none of the smugglers trusted the others alone with the goods.
Blake watched her greet the smugglers, watched the initial pleasantries exchanged and the hard bargaining begin, and relaxed his guard. It seemed this group, at least, were genuine...
"I don't buy blind!" Jenna said sharply, bringing him back onto the alert. The men were opening the containers with obvious reluctance, and their leader was sweating as she leaned over to inspect the contents of first one, then another, openly watching his reactions.
Her head came up imperiously. "Blake, I want your opinion on these. Our friends tell me this is a plasma projector, but I'm not so sure..."
She caught his arm as he reluctantly left his post to join her, drawing him aside. "Blake," she said urgently into his ear, "I wouldn't know a disassembled plasma projector from a pile of random machine parts, but from the way this group are reacting to the very suggestion, I'd say there was something wrong here."
"But of course they are in parts!" the smuggler leader was expostulating as she turned back to continue the argument. "Do you think weapons of this kind come in neat shiny cases, with ribbons on, perhaps?" The effect of this was undermined by the droplets of sweat that were beading on his upper lip.
"Take a look," Jenna said softly over her shoulder, elbowing Blake towards the nearest set of containers. "I'll guard your back."
"Looks like a laser cannon to me," Blake said cautiously after a minute's investigation. "Definitely a weapon of some kind. And this one -" he lifted the next lid - "this one's the same, whatever it is."
"Of course they are the same!" the smuggler protested. "Both laser cannons - yes? - just as I told you!"
"Not those," Jenna said shortly, turning, "these. What do you make of this pile of junk? Whatever it is, I'll swear it never held a plasma in its life -"
Blake laughed suddenly. "I'll say it didn't! Unless I'm very much mistaken, this is a food dispenser -"
Something hit him bruisingly hard in the small of the back and he was falling, trying to grapple with his assailant through an unex-pected swirl of fabric as the vicious crackle of an energy discharge seared past somewhere overhead.
"Stay down," Jenna hissed in his ear, rolling free of him as another energy barrage spat over their heads. "You go this way - I'll go that way. Don't let yourself get pinned down - use the containers for cover - one of us at least needs to trigger the alarm system."
"I should have been more careful," Blake admitted grimly. "I didn't think this lot looked the vicious type."
"They're scum - space rats," Jenna said contemptuously. "Any rat's vicious in a corner - Call yourself a smuggler, would you?" she spat suddenly, aiming and firing at something over Blake's shoulder which he glimpsed only as a blur of motion before it fell back with a howl.
"Blake, we've got to move." She gathered herself to crawl swiftly for the cover of the next crate, and glanced back as he touched her arm, her long limbs poised easily in a ridiculous flurry of skirts. "Yes?"
Jenna grinned fiercely. "To coin an old phrase - thank me when we both get out of this alive. Now move!"
"...and after that it wasn't too bad. We worked our way to the front of the room fairly quickly, then Jenna made a run for the alarm while I made a run for the door as a feint. They didn't know which one to shoot and ended up missing both of us.
"Once the alarm had been sounded, they knew it was all up; they had no chance of getting out of the base. One of them tried to blast his way out through Jenna, and I shot him - after that the rest just gave in. When I offered to pay for the genuine weapons on the condition that they correctly identified all the fakes, they actually got quite friendly. That was the point when you came in."
"Yes," Avon said drily, "we burst in expecting to find you bleeding on the floor, and instead we found you arm-in-arm with a greasy-looking fellow, discussing the finer details of food dispensers. You must forgive us if we were less than enthusiastic."
Blake smiled. "Oh, I appreciated the thought."
Avon gave him a cold look. He sat down on Blake's bunk, lacing his hands around his knees. "I came to tell you," he said abruptly, "that I think I have found a solution to your Federation computer problem."
Blake sat on the other end of the bunk, leaning back against the wall. "What's the solution?" he prompted.
Avon smiled for the first time. "The finer details of food dispensers." He watched Blake, his eyes amused, as the other man tried to think of an intelligent response.
"Avon," Blake said at last, with restraint, "what exactly are you defining as the problem?"
It seemed that was the right question. There was a certain approval in Avon's eyes. "The main problem, as I see it," he began, "is how to get access to the computers in Seventh Sector Control."
"Wait a minute." Blake leaned forward. "Why Seventh Sector Control? And why not teleport?"
"We can't stop the observations being made," Avon pointed out. "On the other hand, individually the data items are no threat. It is in Control that routine reports are collected and stored together, where they can be compared and analysed. As to your second question - naturally it would be possible to teleport directly into the computer nexus in Seventh Sector Control. It would be rather difficult, however, to shoot everyone present, reprogram the system, and escape without the sabotage being noticed. This has to be a covert operation if it is to make any sense at all."
"Reprogramming the system itself gives you no qualms, then?"
"I'll probably need access on two occasions - the first time to analyse the current system, the second time to insert the new routine I will have been developing in the interval, a routine which will perform its own correlation analysis to detect data items suggesting the location of a base here, and delete or corrupt a sufficiently high proportion of them significantly to reduce the likelihood of detection."
"But not all such items?"
"That's an amateur's mistake," Avon said with barely concealed contempt. "A complete blank on the map is as glaringly obvious as a dense cluster of sightings."
Blake raised an eyebrow. "And the food dispensers?"
"It doesn't have to be food dispensers," Avon admitted. "Though the concept has a certain... symmetry. The idea is that we go in as maintenance techs."
Blake nodded. "Vila told me about the uniforms. Was that what you were hoping for?"
"I was hoping there might be something... unusual... in that consignment," Avon acknowledged. "We could hardly go in as troopers - we'd be at the beck and call of any officer who saw us loitering - and while we could go in as top brass it would scarcely be inconspicuous. Even in a place as tightly guarded as a Sector Control base, however, lowly civilian workers can pass almost unnoticed. Particularly if their party has a Federation trooper with them to keep an eye on them."
"And the food dispensers?" Blake demanded again, intent on Avon.
"I'd want some kind of back-up while I was actually in the computer nexus," Avon told him firmly. "Adjusting food dispensers, once you'd brought the subject up, occurred to me as an ideal excuse for a small party to hang around the corridors outside. We can hardly start carrying out major maintenance work on their recycling or electrical systems. But we can certainly improve the quality of the food - and after one demonstration, I doubt that anyone will be questioning our motives."
Blake grimaced. "The food down here certainly suffers by contrast to the food on the Liberator after you'd adjusted the systems there - I'd forgotten how dreary Federation standard issue was. But you yourself will be otherwise occupied, and none of the rest of us have ever even -"
"Neither had I, before the first time I tried," retorted Avon. "The adjustments are not difficult, Blake. I'll show you and Vila what to do - you're the two with the best chance of passing as maintenance techs. We'll make it a party of three - that's standard - with one guard. I thought perhaps Kerril?"
Blake's face softened. "Vila will be pleased."
"Possibly." Avon looked at him levelly, then got up to leave. "If we're doing this at all, it should be done soon, Blake. Good night."
"I took Cally over all the computer systems this morning," Jenna said impatiently. "She and I probably know more about pre-tarial-cell computers than Avon by now. As for running the base - Dayna, Cally was a guerilla before the London ever left for Cygnus Alpha, when you were still playing with dolls and Tarrant was a raw cadet. She's quite capable of handling Blake's final forty recruits for a day or so."
She stretched deliberately, her eyes on Tarrant. "I'm a pilot, not a bureaucrat. I'm tired of flying a desk. With Cally willing to take my place for a while, and Tarrant willing to share -" she exchanged a slow smile with Tarrant - "I'd be a fool to turn down the opportunity to get my hands on the Liberator again."
As Dayna still hesitated near the console Jenna shot the girl a glare. "I may be out of practice, Dayna, but I doubt if I could wreck the Liberator if I tried. There's no need for you to breathe down my neck. Tarrant's quite capable of doing that."
Dayna's scornful look suggested that Jenna's current neck-line offered plenty of scope for breathing. Jenna stared back coolly and after a second the girl looked away.
"Where's Blake?" Avon snapped in an undertone to Vila, watching Jenna lean across Tarrant to examine something.
"Funny, that. He just disappeared, a while ago - muttered something about finding an empty cabin and catching up on some sleep and shot off the flight deck in a hurry." Vila craned round. "I told him what you said about not changing out of these coveralls if that's what you're worried about. He gave a sort of nod and said all right."
Vila heaved a sigh. "Avon, can't I at least wash? I really don't want to spend the next eight hours in the same coveralls I was using when we were pulling those wretched machines apart this morning, without a single break."
"Of course you can wash," Avon said impatiently. "Just make sure you put the same clothes back on. We'll hardly look inconspicuous if we're all three wandering around the base in spotless new coveralls; if we can't look well-worn we can at least look crumpled and dirty."
"In that case you at least ought to roll around on a dusty floor for a bit," Vila muttered, surveying the other man's almost immaculate figure with dislike. "If I go and sleep in my clothes like Blake, will that make you happy?"
Avon glanced across at him. "Since all Control bases are run to Earth time, some sleep now might be a good idea. Dayna will call you before we arrive."
"And computer minds like yours don't need sleep?" the thief jibed.
"Under the circumstances -" Avon's eyes had returned to the two pilots - "I prefer to be certain that there is at least one level head on the flight deck."
"Vila! Vila!" Someone was hammering on the inside of his head. Funny, he hadn't had that much to drink - in fact he didn't think he'd had anything to drink...
"Vila, wake up will you?"
Vila reached out drowsily for Kerril, almost rolled out of his bunk, and as a consequence suddenly found himself wide awake, fully clothed and lying alone on his own bunk in his old cabin in the Liberator. He felt a moment of panic. It hadn't all been a dream, had it?
"Vila, have you got Kerril in there?" Dayna banged on the door again.
Vila shut his eyes and let a broad grin spread across his face. So it hadn't been a dream after all. "Try the Rest Room!" he shouted back, reopening his eyes and sitting up.
They were back on the Liberator, and Avon had actually accepted Kerril as part of the crew. He'd formally introduced her to Zen, and assigned her a cabin next door to Vila's... Well, if he was finally going to win an argument with Avon it might as well be an argument worth winning. Vila grinned in ecstasy again, and pinched himself to make quite sure he wasn't dreaming.
"Vila, are you coming?"
"Coming, coming..." Vila unlocked his door.
"There's been a change of plan," Dayna said urgently as soon as the door swung open. "We've been monitoring communications traffic to and from Seventh Sector Control; there's been a lot of it and we've just discovered why. Today, of all days -" she grimaced - "there's a VIP visiting the station. Vim Angd, the Area Commander. He gets to tour the whole station, inspect the crews of all the Space Service vessels currently docked, dine with the top brass, unveil a plaque, the works - and the tour alone lasts for hours," she added sotto voce, her sympathies obviously with Angd. "The whole routine of Control will be totally disrupted."
"So we're pulling out, then?" Vila said hopefully.
"No. Avon's planning to do the whole thing in one go. He's going to stay down there for hours and work on the computers on the spot while everything's out of action, instead of trying to do the whole thing in abstract and assuming it'll work first time. It's dangerous but he reckons it's probably a unique opportunity."
Vila was staring at her in dismay. "You mean, we have to stay down there for hours too? I thought this was going to be a quick in-and-out operation!"
"Sooner you than me," Dayna said, cheerfully but not unsympath-etically. "Do you know where I can find Blake? And did you say Kerril was in the Rest Room?"
"She was there the last time I saw her," Vila said dubiously, "but that was hours ago. Tell you what, you look for Kerril, and I'll get Blake. He'll be in his old cabin, I expect."
"Go to the teleport area," Dayna called over her shoulder as she ran back down the corridor towards the upper levels of the ship. "We'll meet you there."
"Sorry I'm late Avon, I couldn't find Blake, he was in the wrong cabin -" Vila excused himself breathlessly, then broke off short in a gasp of horror at the sight of the black-clad Federation trooper whose gun was swinging menacingly to cover him.
Kerril took off her helmet and gave him a grin from inside her balaclava. "What do you think, Vila?"
"You could arrest me any time!" he told her honestly, grinning back in idiot relief. "Just don't give me shocks like that, my heart won't stand it."
"Let's hope you can fool the Feds as well as you fooled us," Blake said from behind him where he too had stopped short. "Avon, I've got the tools. We're ready." He passed a teleport bracelet to Vila, who fastened it automatically on his arm.
"Once we're down, you'd better take those off," Avon warned. "Put them in a pocket or somewhere out of sight. There will be too many people around who know about the Liberator's teleport, and the bracelets mark us out. We'd better not use our own names either. I'll be Altran, you can be Bennis and Blake can be Galler. Try to remember that, Vila. I don't want you shouting out 'Avon!' at me in the middle of a Sector Control base."
"'Galler'," Blake murmured, following Vila to join the other two in the teleport bay. "All right. Helmet on, Kerril. Ready, Dayna?" She nodded.
"Put us down."
And they were in a bright white corridor with the ring of boot-heels coming steadily closer, a little party of scruffy brown-overalled techs with a tense-looking guard. This wasn't supposed to be happening... Vila clutched at the arm of Avon, who shook him off. "Eyes down!" he hissed, and, to Kerril, "You're Federation. You've got a right to be here!"
A pair of officers came round the corner and strolled past, returning Kerril's salute casually without a glance at the techs, and Vila sagged in relief.
"A- Altran," Blake snapped, "this was supposed to be an empty corridor!"
"We took a chance." Avon's smile was unpleasant. "It came off, didn't it?" He was already unclasping his own bracelet, and motioned impatiently for the others to do likewise. "Down and... safe," he reported briefly into the communicator before dropping the bracelet into a breast pocket. He glanced swiftly up and down the corridor. "The computer nexus is this way. Bennis, Galler, come on."
Blake sat back on his heels with a sigh. "Well, I could do with a drink after that. Let's see if I've put it back together properly this time." He reached for the controls, but Vila forestalled him.
"Here, I'll do it." He made a swift selection, and sniffed at the glass of fluid that resulted. "Hmmm... not bad."
He passed the glass to Blake, who took a sip, almost choked, made a despairing face, and passed the drink hastily on to Avon. "Just what have I done wrong now - Altran?"
Avon was frowning. "I saw nothing wrong..." He sniffed, shot a disbelieving glance at Vila, checked the settings Vila had just programmed in, and smiled grimly, making a selection of his own. "There's nothing wrong. You might find this more to your taste."
Blake sipped, at first gingerly, then gratefully, giving Avon a puzzled look. "Our friend 'Bennis' has just achieved the impossible," Avon told him. His smile twisted into genuine amusement. "Apparently he's discovered a way of getting alcohol out of a food dispenser. The fact that the taste is vile is obviously immaterial."
"He said he wanted a drink," Vila appealed as he fitted all the access panels back into place neatly. Avon ignored him, gathering up tools.
"We've wasted enough time. You all know what to do now. There's a dispenser the computer techs use just outside the main computer nexus; we'll go straight for that one, and as soon as there's an opportunity I'll slip off. If anyone notices, tell them I've gone for spare parts, and move on as soon as possible.
"If you get into real trouble, get Dayna to teleport you out; otherwise I want you to stay close by. Avoid teleporting in public if at all possible. Clear?"
Blake nodded. "How long will it take?"
"Hours," Avon said curtly, leading them up the corridor. "We'll keep in touch via the bracelet communicators. I want you to call in on the hour, every hour - I'll make sure I'm in a safe place to receive your call. Otherwise, keep off the air."
"Now then, what's going on here?"
There was quite a crowd of off-duty computer techs surrounding them now - the usual idle gawpers attracted to any job of work in a public place - and Kerril suddenly realised, too late, that they were bound to attract notice from patrolling squads like this one. She had been leaning against the wall, enjoying the deference shown her by the scuttling techs; now she sprang rigidly to attention as the squad leader snapped out "You there, trooper! Are you in charge? Is that any way to carry out your duties? What's your name?"
"Yes sir. No sir. Kerril sir," Kerril rattled off, trying to sound military. The note of panic in her voice was real.
"Helmet off when you speak to an officer!" The officer swung round, glaring at the crowd, and motioned to the rest of his squad. "Clear this rabble out of the hallway. Area Commander Angd's inspection tour will be coming through here and the whole tour route must be security cleared." His hand went significantly to the butt of his paragun, and the gawpers suddenly remembered urgent business elsewhere.
He stared at Kerril again. Her free hand itched for her own paragun, and she could feel Vila's frantic eyes on her.
But the officer seemed satisfied with what he saw. "Don't slouch on duty, Kerril. And don't let civilians obstruct the hallway. You're not on Earth now."
"No sir." She ripped off a smart salute, which he acknowledged.
"Helmet on. Fall in, trooper." He waved her towards the rear of his squad.
Kerril wondered frantically how to get out of this. What was the penalty for impersonating Federation personnel? Mindwipe?
"But sir - my duty - the techs -"
"We're taking the techs with us. The hallways must be cleared." He turned towards the brown-overalled pair who were making a great show of diligence in their attention to the partially-dismantled food dispenser.
What if he recognises Blake? Kerril thought desperately. The man's face has been on the wall of every Federation outpost across the galaxy for years! How can he miss him? From the way Blake had his head and shoulders deep inside the machine, she was sure the same idea was haunting him.
They're just techs, she thought frantically at the officer. They're just civilians. They don't count. Being caught in the company of Roj Blake would probably guarantee her a one-way trip to Central Security. It might be better to draw her gun. It would be suicidal, but at least it would get them all killed quickly and cleanly here and now...
"Here, you two," the squad leader said roughly. "Get the front back on that thing. You can finish work later when the inspection tour's gone by. Now come along with us."
There was no help for it. Blake and Vila reluctantly shuffled into line, heads down, shoulders hunched, as close behind Kerril as they dared. One curious glance, and any one of the troopers could have claimed a million credits' bounty money. Vila couldn't believe that none of them reacted. Blake's luck, he thought. How do you do it, Blake? Then, uncomfortably: didn't work for Gan, though, did it?
The squad set off at the double. Fortunately for the state both of Vila's nerves and of his legs, it was not long before they turned left at an intersection and then stopped at a door. One of the troopers opened it.
"Inside," the squad leader told them laconically, gesturing with the barrel of his paragun. "And you," to Kerril. "Make sure they don't try to go wandering about. Any more stragglers we round up we'll send in here, and you can keep an eye on those too. Any trouble and we'll know where to look; so keep alert."
"Yes sir." There was no other possible answer.
The door hissed shut, and they all stood frozen for a minute while the brisk steps faded outside. Then Kerril was in Vila's arms, and his knees were weak with relief. "I thought we'd had it there," he told her in disbelief. "I really did. I can't believe it." She kissed him very thoroughly.
"We could have done a lot worse, you know," Blake remarked, and the other two drew apart to stare at him.
"Next time you feel an urge to get arrested by the Federation, just let me know and I'll stay well clear," Vila retorted.
"We weren't recognised; and now no-one is going to question our presence here. Kerril can even quote specific orders to guard us. In fact, we've been ordered to stay here for hours..."
"You mean we're not going to teleport up now?" Vila was horrified. "But Avon doesn't need us; and it's the perfect opportunity."
"No." Only Avon had ever dared to argue with Blake when he used that tone. "We don't know what help Avon may need. We stay here."
An isolated corner of Avon's mind noted that the computer room was gradually emptying around him. Most of his conscious attention was focused on the monitor screen he'd managed to find, tucked away in an obscure corner among the computer banks which suited his purposes perfectly. He'd had even less trouble than he'd anticipated in gaining access to the system; once he'd removed his brown coverall, his own pale, close-fitting clothes were close enough to those worn by the majority of the computer techs to allow him to pass as just one more quiet, anonymous worker. There were safeguards in the computer itself, of course, but he bypassed them almost absently, with only a moment's conscious contempt for the lax security procedures. This was going to be easier than he'd assumed.
One of the first things he'd found during his initial investigations of the system had been a complicated strategy game. He'd pulled up a copy, set it running and switched all four players to computer control. It was evolving now in the background, an excuse for any guilty-seeming activity. Meanwhile, screen after screen of schematics flowed past as Avon queried and probed the system, analysing the responses and deducing logic paths. Zen was the nearest thing to an illogical computer he'd ever come across; that was why it still fascinated him, of course, but also why it was such a challenge to alter its programming in any way. Just at the moment, Avon was more interested in results than in challenges. This computer, human-designed, was totally logical and almost ridiculously predictable.
Already he'd noticed half-a-dozen weak points where a single alteration would propagate to affect every operation that tried to use that routine -
"Hey." Someone touched his shoulder. The palm-sized gun - one of Dayna's low-powered but lethal little toys - was in his hand before he recognised the woman, a fairish plump tech who'd been working in the next bay and smiled at him as he'd gone past, and mentally categorized her as probably not dangerous. He thought that he had controlled his expression; but she must have caught a glimpse of that murderous impulse in his eyes. She was backing off, holding up placatory hands.
"Hey, it's all right. I didn't mean to startle you. Guess you must have been concentrating hard. Gets me that way sometimes."
Avon slipped the gun back into hiding and tried to look non-threatening. "What is it?" he asked coldly, glancing to check that there was no sensitive information currently on the monitor.
The tech followed his glance. "You can come back to that later. We've got to go. They're clearing the room for the Area Commander's tour." She gave him a friendly grin. "Reckon all those messy humans must spoil the view or something. Anyhow, you didn't seem to hear the warning, and I thought I'd come and get you before Security come round. They can get a bit rough."
She offered him a rounded arm. "Care to come along to the shift canteen with me? Name's Dalgetta Reno. Friends call me Etta."
"Altran," Avon responded reluctantly. His mind was coolly calculating probabilities. Unless the security sweep were unusually rigorous, logic told him that he had a better chance of remaining inside the computer nexus undetected than of evading this uncomfortably friendly woman after the sweep had ended and then slipping back in.
"Dalgetta, this isn't a good point to stop. Give me a few more minutes. I'll see you in the canteen when I've finished." It sounded stilted. Would it do? With relief he saw her trot off, waving. With luck, she'd fasten onto someone else in the canteen when she realised he wasn't coming.
The time-display told him it was almost an hour since he'd left Blake. Time to find a safe place to be when Blake made contact; which, if there were a security sweep pending, probably meant somewhere outside this room. He touched, briefly, the reassuring shape of the teleport bracelet inside his tunic where he had stowed it after concealing the coveralls, then blanked the monitor display and joined the last trickle of techs as they left.
Avon watched the last of the troopers leaving as the security sweep finished, coldly furious. That was it. Blake's call was ten minutes overdue now, and any more time spent waiting was time wasted that could have been employed in doing what he'd come here to do - come here, in fact, to safeguard Blake's own base...
He lifted the bracelet to his mouth and pressed the communicator stud. "Galler?" he said tightly. "Come in, Galler. Confirm contact." Silence. If the stupid fool had got himself captured -
"Galler. Galler!" He gave up. "Blake. Answer me, Blake!" Blake had been mindwiped once already. He had no resistance to interrogation. "Blake!" If you don't answer me, Blake, I shall -
Wait. The channel was open at the other end. He could hear voices in the background. "Avon?" It was barely a whisper.
"You were supposed to contact me ten minutes ago." Avon's tone was soft but deadly.
"I'm sorry, Avon. We've got company here. Can we keep this short? Vila's trying to cover me, but it's difficult." Blake did not sound at all apologetic.
"Are you in danger?" Avon demanded.
"No. We're in a room with other techs cleared from the corridors to make way for Vim Angd's procession. We can get out if we have to, but it'll be fairly obvious."
"Stay where you are," Avon told him coldly. "I'm about to start work on the programming of this computer. I anticipate no problems. I expect to hear from you in another hour. Out."
He found to his fury that he was trembling slightly. Blake was supposed to be here to ensure that he had an escape route, not the other way round. Why had he ever got involved with Blake again in the first place? The man was a liability...
He banished Blake firmly from his thoughts and tried to remember the insight he'd had just before Dalgetta had interrupted him. There was a certain routine which could be the key to the whole thing... he slipped back unobtrusively into the main computer room and brought the monitor screen back to life. Ah, that was it. Now, which were the circuits to use for the data correlation? Under here somewhere...
It was going well. Avon laid down the laser probe and flexed his fingers. The stiffness in his back told him that he'd been working for longer than he'd realised. No matter. That part was finished. There was a worm at the heart of the system that would eat away at all incoming data, filtered through the program he was about to supply... he set the access panels back in place, sliding out the manual control board from under the casing. This was one thing he missed in Zen, but then, Zen had never been designed for human use. For some things, voice control was just too imprecise.
He set a couple of switches, then began to stroke the touch keys, hesitantly at first, but his movements soon blending into a confident blur, broken only by occasional pauses to adjust the parameter set or to alternate between two types of key grouping. There were some skills one never really lost...
He could feel the logic of what he was trying to do unfurling in the back of his mind, the command groupings presenting themselves faster and faster until he could see the shape of the whole program, twenty or thirty stages ahead of the groupings he was actually entering in. It was good work; he knew it instinctively. When it flowed like this, it was always good... and that memory tugged another, and he knew suddenly why this computer seemed so familiar. It was the same model as the one at the Central Bank, the one he'd spent so long analysing so patiently, when he and Anna -
Avon's thoughts shrank away from that, then returned, wonderingly, to probe the scar that no longer hurt, that was no longer there at all; then deeper, into memories that had once been locked away for ever. Anna laughing. Anna teasing him, always awkward in those days, to talk of love. Anna asleep, nestled close... Anna in front of the Central Bank, looking up... Anna planning for the future, her face intent but her eyes dancing when they met his. Anna mocking Chesku; she had laughed so easily and so often, and he had never been able to bear to remember...
Avon sat very still, one hand lying loosely over the controls. Beside him the images chased patiently across the monitor display; but his eyes were relaxed and focused far into the past, and he was smiling.
The door slid open and Avon's head came up sharply. Beyond, he could hear voices. This must be Angd himself. Avon had planned to be out of here by the time the Area Commander and his group arrived. He cursed himself for wasting time, and dropped to a crouch behind the computer banks, listening intently. There was no reason for them to come back here; he should be safe...
The communicator chimed against his ribs. "Reporting in," Blake said softly. "Confirm." Avon shot one furious glance at the time display - how could he have been so criminally careless as to lose track of time like that? - and caught up the bracelet.
"Confirmed," he muttered between set teeth. "Out." And that was where dreaming got you, he told himself viciously. That was where mooning over the past got you...
They could hardly have failed to hear the communicator. They were coming; he could hear steps approaching rapidly. For a moment he considered the gun again, and then the teleport - but he wanted, he wanted badly to finish this work, and there was still a chance. Avon slid the control board swiftly back into its casing. A series of low-voiced commands banished the half-completed program into storage and switched the screen to the strategy display and the first computer player back to human control. As the trooper came round the corner, Avon had just enough time to note, with disgust, that he'd picked a player who was losing badly.
The paragun's aim wavered, then fell, as the trooper took in the scene. "This isn't the time for games, tech," she said contemptuously. "Can't any of you civilians take an order? This place was supposed to have been cleared an hour ago." She peered over his shoulder. "You're losing anyway. Come on. Switch it off."
Trying to feign a docility he was far from feeling, Avon did as he was told, and was led out at gunpoint past the slender, olive-skinned Area Commander and his party, who watched with amusement but - fortunately - no great interest. He tried to memorise the route as he was taken through several corridors and finally to a nondescript door.
"Here's another trouble-maker for you, trooper," his escort said cheerfully. "Keep an eye on him."
Blake looked up sharply, shock in his face, as Avon was thrust into the room. He crossed swiftly to meet him. "What went wrong?"
Avon longed to wipe the concern off Blake's face. "Your call came at an... inconvenient... moment," he said instead, his voice under tight control. And I know as well as you do, Blake, that it was my responsibility to have anticipated it and my insistence on the call in the first place; and if you dare to mention it... Blake had obviously decided not to do so; forbearance which Avon found even more infuriating.
"Maintenance and computer techs don't fraternise," the other man said suddenly, with a quick glance backwards around the room. "We're attracting attention. What do you want me to do?"
"It's your job to get me back in there," Avon told him savagely. "All I need is another ten minutes. But you'd better make it fast, Galler."
He turned his back and stalked over to join the other computer techs, all Alpha and Beta grades, who were studiously ignoring the brown-clad Deltas. From the corner of his eye he could see Blake and Vila close together in front of the guard, conferring hurriedly. Presently Vila came sidling up.
"You've got to fight me," he whispered. "Then Kerril gets an excuse to throw you out. Got it?"
Avon considered this surprising suggestion for a moment. Hardly elegant - but it would probably work. He jerked his head, assenting, then took a step backwards in surprise and distaste as the smaller man suddenly thrust his face into Avon's own, grinning foolishly and belligerently.
"You Alphas think you're so grand," he challenged in a slurring drunken sneer that had everyone in the room staring at them. "You think you're so much better than the rest of us, just because you don't get your hands dirty. But you're a tech just like me. Computers or maintenance, what's the difference? You're a failure, tech, an Alpha failure."
"Keep it personal, Bennis, or you'll start a brawl," Avon hissed at him in a furious undertone. Let the onlookers take that for an insult.
"Ten credits to a Dobal ahn-stone your father met your mother slumming in the warrens!" Vila promptly retorted, and hit him viciously but unskilfully in the ribs.
Avon hit back cautiously. He normally fought to kill... and while Vila was tougher than he looked, that wasn't saying much.
Vila rained a volley of blows at Avon's head and shoulders, most of which he dodged. "Hit harder, you cack-handed shift-merchant!" the thief gasped. "You're supposed to win this!" He sank a fist deliberately into the pit of Avon's stomach.
Avon gasped. His return blow had behind it all his strength, and all the force of his fury against Blake and against his own folly. He hit Vila rather harder than he would have intended.
Something hit Avon a stunning blow on the side of the head. He staggered back, and a Federation trooper - no, it had to be Kerril - had him in an agonising arm-lock that was threatening to break his elbow. Somewhere a long way off Vila was moaning "My jaw's broken!" over and over again until someone told him to be quiet.
Avon's head began to clear. He tried to look round but Kerril clubbed him again, viciously, and began dragging him backwards to the door. "You stay here until I come back!" she told the rest of the crowd, harshly. "The show's over."
He wrenched himself painfully free of Kerril the moment the door slid shut behind them. "If you ever handle me like that again, I'll shoot you where you stand," he promised her icily.
"If you ever hit Vila like that again, I'll choke you with your own guts before you can make the first move," Kerril spat back at him.
Avon laughed shortly. "If you mean to fight all Vila's battles for him, you'll spend your life brawling."
"Sounds like a life that would suit me perfectly," she retorted, taking her helmet off to grin at him. "And the sooner you're finished, the sooner we can all get out of this. Now move!"
They traversed three corridors in stony silence before Kerril reluctantly reached out to bring Avon to a halt. "There are people ahead of us," she warned him. "Do you want to bluff it out?"
Avon listened for a second and caught the confused sound of many footsteps approaching. He glanced around. "Down here." He chose a broad corridor. "If it's Angd and his party, they've already seen me once recently. I'm supposed to be locked up by now; I don't want to take a chance on their recognising me."
After less than ten seconds, Avon knew that he had made the wrong choice. The new corridor was broad, well-lit and featureless. And the footsteps had turned down it after them. The two exchanged a look and began to run.
Around the next corner - and the corridor widened into a holding chamber where a single shipping container still lay marooned against the wall to their right, dwarfed by the dimensions of the giant door beyond. The warning yellow of the pressure seals around the portal mocked at them.
"Pressure door," Avon said softly, visualising, too late, the layout of the base. "It leads to the docking bays on the rim of the station. Vila might be able to open it - we can't. And there's no possible excuse for us to be down here. If we'd bluffed back at the start we'd have had some chance, but now -"
What was the woman doing - trying to hide behind the end of the crate? Of course, Kerril wasn't used to the teleport - Avon was already clipping his own teleport bracelet around his sleeve - but she ought to be able to see that there was no cover there... And then the end door of the container was suddenly swinging open, and he began to run towards her.
"It was worth a try!" Breathless and grinning, Kerril let him see the plastic of one of Vila's 'skeleton keys' in her hand as the two hurriedly inserted themselves into the crowded interior. She tried to swing the door shut, and Avon caught it just in time, holding it ajar a crack. He doubted that even Vila could have opened one of these containers from the inside...
Crouched motionless, they heard the light, bored tones of Vim Angd approaching as the Area Commander complimented his interlocutor on the improved food quota performance of the Gentalis system. Avon smiled grimly in the darkness. One had to admire the man's diplomatic stamina - hours of this and he was still going strong.
They felt the heavy sigh of the pressure door as the escort released the seals, and then the voices began to recede, boots clattering on the open gantries of the docking bays. After a long second the great door swung shut again, with a sound so deep as to be barely audible; Avon tensed, listening, but there was no further sound outside and they emerged cautiously.
Kerril breathed a deep sigh of relief. "Were we just lucky or do they use a standard lock on these things?"
"I trust I shall never have further occasion to find out," Avon retorted wearily. Some of the equipment in that crate had been endowed with painfully sharp corners.
He gave Kerril a curious look. "Do you always carry Vila's equipment around with you?"
She glanced down at the key she still held and shrugged almost apologetically. "Seemed a waste to throw Vila's work away, that was all." She flushed under Avon's steady gaze and set off back down the corridor. "You should be getting into the computer room."
"Yes," Avon agreed, following, "and I imagine that now that Angd has left this section of the base your collection of techs will be released back to their duties; you had better be back in time to do so."
But he detained her at the intersection as they were about to part. "Kerril - tell Blake to teleport up to the ship as soon as you get the chance. I'll get Dayna to bring me up once I've finished down here; it shouldn't take me too long, and I want to leave as soon as we can. We've pushed our luck already."
He hesitated fractionally. "And give Vila my - my congratulations."
"Again, Orac," Avon said wearily.
"The tests which I have just concluded were sufficiently exhaustive to eliminate all possibility of error -"
"It should be obvious that the entirely unnecessary duplication of effort involved -"
"Just do it, Orac."
Blake paused in the entrance to the flight deck. "Trouble, Avon?"
"On the contrary," Avon told him drily. "Orac reports that the alterations to the Control main computer appear to have been a complete success."
"But you don't find that credible?" Blake leaned over the back of the seating, watching Orac's lights chase each other in endless circles as the little computer communicated with the vast data banks on board the space station they had left behind them.
"I distrust reports of unallayed success," Avon said thinly.
Blake smiled. "Even when they apply to your own work? False modesty never used to be your style, Avon."
"Analysis complete," Orac interrupted. "Processing of test data produced results within predicted parameter range in ninety-nine point eight seven percent of cases. As I predicted, this corresponds almost exactly to the earlier -"
"Enough, Orac." Avon removed Orac's key and laid it on the low table beside the computer.
"Is point one three percent a high enough error to set your mind at rest?" Blake needled him lazily.
Avon tried to summon up the strength for a glare. "I suppose you would claim that you never doubted the success of the mission?"
"I never doubted the success of your work." Blake smiled.
Avon's eyes hardened. "In that case, you are either the fool that Jenna calls you, or completely ignorant of the complexity and subtlety of such a project."
"Oh, I'm completely ignorant about computers - on your level," Blake admitted without hesitation. "But I know you pretty well, Avon." He held up a hand as a plea for a few seconds' grace as Avon took a furious breath. "I don't believe you'd ever have proposed such a scheme if you weren't already confident that you could carry it off with success."
"Your type of stupid assumption of success nearly got us all killed a dozen times," Avon snarled. He had promised himself that he would never let Blake manipulate him again...
Blake met his eyes, mocking casually. "You always pulled us out."
"One of these days," Avon said levelly, "'Blake's luck' is going to fail you."
The other man shrugged. "It often has. I don't rely on it, Avon. Don't worry."
"I had no intention of doing so." He got up, deliberately. "I'm going off-watch, Blake. You can either stay and talk to Tarrant -" he smiled slightly - "or you can do something useful for a change; go and retrieve your belongings from Vila." He saw with satisfaction that for once he had Blake totally at a loss.
"The contents of your former cabin, Blake. The possessions you abandoned so precipitately at Star One. I believe Vila still has the box." Avon's voice was acid.
Blake frowned. "If Vila's had it all for the last year, I wouldn't have thought there'd be much left."
"Even Vila's flexible morality baulks at taking a dead man's shoes. Particularly when they don't fit." Avon turned, halfway across the flight deck. "Perhaps you should ask to see the assortment of objects he 'acquired' during his hours in Sector Control."
Blake winced. "Anything useful?" he asked reluctantly.
"I imagine he'll find the credits quite useful... as for the rest: no. Vila has no discrimination."
Someone tried the door control, and found it locked. "Vila, can I come in?"
"Who is it?" Vila called automatically, getting up to trigger the lock.
"It's me." Blake made the time-honoured reply, and Vila grinned as the door opened.
"Have a drink?" he offered, finding another glass from a storage recess. "I prefer to drink in company. It's friendly."
Blake's eyebrows rose. "Hence the locked door?" he queried, tasting the drink Vila poured him with a rather suspicious expression.
Vila shrugged. "Stops Dayna making snide remarks," he explained. "Anyway, there's four of us now." He raised his glass in salute to their reflections in the tiny mirror as Blake groaned in mock-despair.
"How's the jaw?" he asked cheerfully.
Vila ran cautious fingers along it, slightly shamefaced. "Not even a bruise," he admitted. "I ran one of those first-aid things over it when we got back to the ship, and it went down like magic." He looked up at Blake in brief appeal. "It was an accident, you know."
Blake nodded. "I know." His mouth quirked slightly. "But does Kerril?"
"Oh, Kerril seems to have made her peace with Avon," Vila assured him, pouring himself another drink. He offered Blake the flask. "More?"
"This isn't half bad," Blake conceded, letting a clear violet trickle run into his glass. "Where did you get it? Looks pretty expensive." He frowned at the intricate design chased into the metal.
"It's shocking how careless people are with their valuable possessions," Vila agreed solemnly. "Fancy carrying liquor as good as this in an outside pocket... Oh, come on, Blake." He squinted at Blake's expression. "You were happy enough to drink it just now. How did you think I got it?"
Blake smiled rather ruefully and picked up his glass again. "I suppose there's no point wasting a good drink..."
They sipped in companionable silence for a while. Finally Blake set down his empty glass with a sigh. "Avon says you've got a box of my belongings somewhere, Vila. He suggested I relieve you of them."
For a moment Vila couldn't think what Avon could have meant. Then his face clouded with memory.
"Yes... We didn't know what to do, Blake. At first we kept expecting to pick you up on the next planet. After a bit it started to get pretty clear that you weren't going to be coming back... and your cabin was still the way you'd left it. It looked as if you were going to walk into it any minute, and we were all a bit, well, superstitious about it. And it wasn't as if we needed the extra space; there's still about twenty empty cabins on this deck. Even with Zen, you know, I always said five was a skeleton crew for a ship this size -"
"Seven," Blake corrected absently.
Vila snorted. "Well, Orac doesn't exactly need a cabin, does he? Or Zen, if you count him. And Gan -"
Blake was staring down at his locked hands. "No, I haven't forgotten Gan, Vila. I haven't forgotten that Gan's death was my fault."
"Look, you weren't the only one that was fooled -" Vila protested.
"I know. Forget it. It's over," Blake cut him off. After a second he glanced up. "Go on."
Vila blinked and then recovered the thread of his story. "Eventually I think Avon decided it was ridiculous. He ordered me to pack all your stuff up and clear the cabin - it's just another spare cabin now, you'd never know which one it was.
"It was like -" he hesitated - "it was like officially declaring you dead, Blake. That was it. The vid goes on, but one character's dropped out...
"Avon wanted me to void the whole lot into space. There was about the right amount there for a space burial -"
He broke off again and abruptly dropped to his knees, pulling something out from underneath his bunk, his face hidden.
"But you didn't do it?" Blake prompted softly.
"No," Vila confirmed, muffled. "I stuck the box under here. It's been here for months and I've never looked in it again. I couldn't bring myself to throw the stuff away, though. I suppose it was a sort of link with the past -"
The box came free with a jerk, and Vila emerged suddenly, rather dishevelled. He threw back the lid.
"There's not much there," he admitted. "Mostly clothes, a few data-cubes - Avon had a glance at those in case they might be important, but they weren't - and various oddments... Oh, there was a bottle, but I drank that - I didn't think you'd have minded?"
He looked up a little uncertainly as Blake laughed. "Of course I don't mind!" He knelt down beside Vila, sifting through the box. "I wish I had thought to take some of these clothes with me when we evacuated - I could have done with them later..." He explored the litter of small objects at the bottom of the box, and frowned. "Oh. I'd forgotten about this."
He straightened up, and shut the box. "All right, Vila, I'll take this stuff down to the planet with me - not that I'm going to be there for much longer if all goes well." He sat back down on the bunk. "But I'd like you to keep this."
Vila looked down at the tiny shape Blake had pressed into his hand with some puzzlement. "What is it?"
"A link with the past." Blake laughed. "It's exactly what it looks like - a knot of wood. I picked it up the first time I was Outside - well, the first time I could remember, after the mindwipe, when I was just starting to discover who I was again. It was an interesting shape, and made of wood, and I thought it could be valuable. Those were the days before I'd ever teleported onto half-a-dozen forest planets, when I thought everybody lived in Domes and made their furniture out of plastics and their luxuries out of wood... Anyway, you know what happened after that.
"But I still had this in my pocket when the London sailed for Cygnus Alpha. I kept it to remind me of Earth and to remind me of the Outside... and then I'm afraid by the time we'd been on the Liberator a few months I'd rather forgotten about it."
Blake smiled rather sadly. "I know you don't like the Outside much, Vila, but it's still a part of Earth where we were both born. And when I'm dead you'll be able to say to your grandchildren: this little twist of wood was grown on Earth itself and picked up by Roj Blake. Assuming people still remember me by that time," he added, a little bitterly.
"What makes you think I'll be the one who's still alive?" jibed Vila uncomfortably. He didn't like it when Blake the optimist started talking about death.
To his relief Blake grinned. "Oh, you're a survivor, Vila, like Avon. But you've got the gift of seeing life in nice simple terms, and Avon hasn't... Born to be hanged, they used to say, and nobody gets hanged anywhere in the Federation that I know of. You'll live to be a hundred."
He started to get up and then paused suddenly. "I suppose Jenna's stuff is somewhere in the ship as well?"
"Avon told me to clear both cabins but I got Cally to do Jenna's. It didn't feel right, my going through Jenna's things, after all the times she used to yell at me for doing it when you were alive - I mean - oh, I'm all muddled -" Vila dropped his head between his hands briefly.
"We missed you," he burst out suddenly. "Even Avon missed you - I don't suppose he even admits it to himself, but he did. I don't understand. Why did you do it, Blake? What was that important? Would it have brought about the end of the world just to let us know you were alive?"
Blake's face was a study in misery. "I wanted to," he said at last, between set teeth. "Believe me, Vila, I wanted to. But Sula was certain - and Jenna backed her up - that if Avon knew I was alive, he'd want to know what I was doing. And if he knew what I was doing, he'd want to know who with. And if he knew who with - above all, if he knew who with - he'd want to know how we'd ever met and why she'd got involved. And if he ever found that out -"
But Blake sat frozen.
"What would have happened?" Vila demanded impatiently. His eyes followed the direction of Blake's.
"Don't let me interrupt you," Tarrant said pleasantly. He ducked through the doorway. "It sounds most interesting."
Blake and Tarrant were staring at each other with dislike. Vila looked from one to the other, not understanding.
"Tarrant, it's your watch," he said at last, fishing for certainties in a world that suddenly seemed to have gone over his head.
Tarrant grinned. "Jenna's taking the other half of my watch. She says she wants to make sure she doesn't forget the... feel of the ship." His eyes were still on Blake, who looked away suddenly. He gathered the box into his arms, stood up, and left Vila's cabin abruptly.
Vila stared after him. "Tarrant, I was talking to Blake."
"I wouldn't have stopped you," Tarrant retorted. "Anyway, if you want to hold private conversations you shouldn't leave your door wide open. I was only walking down the passage. I didn't ask Blake to rush off like that."
"What have you got against Blake anyway?" Vila protested. "You hardly even know him. He's never done anything to you, has he?"
"I don't like the effect he has on Avon," Tarrant said angrily. "If you had any sense, you wouldn't either. And I didn't like the sound of what I heard him saying to you one little bit."
"Then you shouldn't have been listening in!" Vila told him with a brief flare of rebellion. But he subsided. "Actually, I didn't like the sound of it much either."
Tarrant's face cleared. "Then you'll help Dayna and me find out what Blake and Sula are really up to?"
"I trust Blake," Vila said stubbornly.
Tarrant laughed shortly. "Then you're a fool. And you'll probably end up mindwiped - not that anyone would notice in your case." He tugged savagely at the door on his way out so that it swung shut behind him with a thud that sent a jolt through the deck-plates.
Vila sat alone, turning Blake's gift over and over in his hands. Should he warn Blake about Tarrant? But if Blake had done nothing wrong, surely he had nothing to fear from Tarrant. And if the pilot were right...
Vila groaned and got up. He wanted to talk to somebody else, preferably Kerril. With luck, Tarrant's little trick with the door would have woken her up, and if not -
Well, she'd shared the bunk in here often enough. He didn't think she'd grudge him a place in hers.
Much of the time he was trapped in the base with about fifty other people, most of whom were suffering from the same malaise - all the preparations had been made, all those who were going to drop out had dropped out, all the basic training had been completed, and there was nothing left for the would-be-revolutionaries but the waiting for the ship to come from Earth. That ship's arrival would trigger the abandonment of the base on Gauda Prime; its return to Earth would be the signal for the start of Servalan's overthrow. But the waiting was corrosive to morale.
Avon's crew were suffering less. Worn thin by constant running and fighting, they seemed to have seized on this few weeks' lull as a freely-bestowed opportunity for the kind of total relaxation which Cally had so often begged Blake to allow his crew - usually, he remembered guiltily, without success.
Gauda Prime was hardly a pleasure planet; but it was at least largely covered in wilderness. For Dayna and Kerril that seemed to be enough, and their regular hunting expeditions frequently featured a protesting Vila in tow. Cally seemed to have volunteered to understudy Jenna in running the base, and Tarrant - well, when Jenna wasn't with Cally, she was with Tarrant, the two of them seeming to glory in goading each other on to more and more reckless exploits. Blake wasn't sure if Tarrant was trying to best Jenna or just to impress her; they seemed to be coming out pretty well even. He tried to ignore what was going on between those two as much as possible, but Tarrant deliberately made that difficult.
Meanwhile Avon had elected to stay up here in orbit alone, away from all of them - just as he had always wanted, Blake thought rather bitterly. He'd only come down to the planet once or twice. Blake had not been particularly happy with the idea of Avon up there on his own - obviously the Liberator could not orbit for long periods unmanned, but they could easily have had rotating ship- and planet-crews - but Avon had arrogated the post to himself when the question had first been raised, and no-one else had dared demur. Blake was very conscious that he no longer had any real authority over Avon at all, and that Avon's presence was still a dangerous unpredictable factor in their careful plans for the uprising. And so far Avon had shown no signs of breaking orbit, taking the Liberator for his own, and abandoning the rest of them on the planet, as he could well have done...
Blake had also been uneasy at the idea of having the Liberator - probably the most distinctive ship in the galaxy - in permanent orbit around his base. But again, so far, whether because they had done no raiding recently, because of Avon's detector shields or the work he'd done on the Sector Control computers, or simply because of the lax security in the Sector which had led Blake to base himself here in the first place, the Federation appeared to be ignoring them completely. And there was no doubt that having the Liberator in orbit, with her powerful sensors and Orac to monitor Federation communications, had made the base on average more secure rather than less.
In a way Blake would have welcomed having Federation activity to worry about. With no more recruiting necessary, with all the equipment acquired, with Avon commanding the Liberator and Jenna - or, increasingly these days, Cally - commanding the Gauda base, Blake himself was in the unwelcome and ironic position of being essentially useless to his own Cause. The others all had their own skills to fall back on, but the only talent that Blake had ever really possessed was leadership, the ability to sweep others along in the current of his own enthusiasm, to get them to listen to each other and work together instead of falling apart into a wrangling group. Without that, he was no more than a second-rate engineer, and a political liability.
Worse, he seemed to have ended up as an outsider. The Liberator's crew - with the exception of Tarrant - were friendly enough, but they had re-formed into a tight-knit unit which often unconsciously excluded him. Jenna had been his only companion for too long - well, whatever happened now, that was over.
Even with Vila and Cally, whom he'd known for years, there was nowadays always the subtle constraint of the unexplored question of his own disappearance. Cally was happy enough to take him through combat practice when asked - though of late she'd been so busy that she'd taken to getting Dayna to work with him instead - and Vila was always ready to share a drink or win a few credits on a game of pasten. But while he liked Vila, a little of his conversation tended to go a long way, and they really had very few interests in common... Which left Avon.
Which was the reason why Blake was up here, in the spare shuttle - it seemed Jenna and Tarrant had taken out the better of the two already for some kind of space aerobatics - docked with the Liberator, and wondering if Avon could possibly have missed his approach. He might, of course, be asleep. It was past third shift down below, but alone on the ship there was no reason for Avon to keep regular watches by planetary time.
Blake grew tired of waiting and used the override to release the airlock from the outside, a minor breach of space etiquette. If anyone had told him, he thought, cycling the airlock, if they had suggested three years or even two years ago that he would end up deliberately seeking out Avon's company when he wanted someone to talk to, they would both have laughed the idea to scorn. It wasn't that he liked Avon exactly -
Blake sighed, stepping out of the airlock. All right, he did like Avon. But it was difficult to count someone as a friend who persisted in treating Blake's own gregarious instincts as some kind of personal threat, and whose normal response to friendly overtures was to become more defensive and caustic than ever. As far as he'd ever been able to make out, Avon didn't want to be liked.
He wasn't naïve enough to think that Avon was likely to welcome his presence on the Liberator, but he couldn't very well throw Blake off the ship bodily - well, probably not - and at least he'd be willing to argue about it... Where was Avon, anyway?
The flight deck was empty, all the lights dimmed; Orac was not in sight, and neither was Avon. Blake tried the Rest Room, which was also empty, although there were scattered signs of occupation. Rather reluctantly, he went down to the cabins. Avon had always bitterly resented any intrusion into his personal territory.
To his surprise, Avon's cabin door was open. Avon didn't seem to be in there either - in fact, Avon was definitely not in there. The Liberator's cabins were hardly large enough to admit of any doubt in the matter, and Avon's was, as usual, almost bare of any personal possessions. In four years' space-faring, one would have thought the man would have kept at least some of the stuff they'd picked up. Even Cally's cabin had its 'souvenirs'; but Avon restricted his personal belongings with the same rigid control that he applied to the rest of his life.
Wait. Blake frowned. There was something new in there - something so incongruous, for Avon, that without thinking he took two swift strides forward into the cabin and caught up the frame into his hands. The image within gazed back at him, laughing, a woman who must be, who had to be Sula - Anna - but with her set competence softened into happiness, a loose cloud of rich hair framing her face, her cheeks flushed with delicate colour. Blake turned the frame over gently, and as the projection faded he realised that he'd seen this before after all; it was the familiar battered black plastic case that had lain on the high shelf in Avon's cabin since they'd first taken the Liberator. The casing was starred as if it had hit something with great force; and he'd never seen Avon so much as glance at it in three years. He held the frame face up and watched the image flicker back into laughing life, fascinated by this glimpse of an Anna he'd never seen - the woman Avon had loved -
"You had better have a good reason for this, Blake," Avon said very softly behind him.
Abruptly aware of his position, Blake swung round to face him, ashamed, and blurted out the first thing that came into his head: "Avon, she's beautiful."
"Put that down." Avon's eyes were cold and flat, and they did not soften as the other man hastily restored the picture to its proper owner. "Now get out."
This was not a good start. "I was looking for you," Blake offered in inadequate apology, pausing in the doorway. "I swear I didn't mean to intrude... but I recognised her, and -
"Avon, in all the months I've known her, I've never once seen Sula laugh."
"She was always laughing." It was surprised out of Avon, and for a moment it was hard to say whether he looked more furious with himself or with Blake. Then he glanced down at Anna's face and his hard eyes seemed to relax a little. "She laughed at everything," he said quietly. "She was never afraid... in those days."
"When was that recorded?" Blake asked him carefully. Instinct told him that Avon was poised more utterly than he had ever been between intimacy and complete rejection. He hazarded a generous guess. "Ten years ago?"
"Less than five." Avon's face had closed down. "The last few years have hardly been kind to you, either, Blake."
Nor you. Blake bit back the retort, only too conscious of late of his own deficiencies.
Avon showed him his usual bitter smile. "One day, Tarrant will stand where you and I now stand," he observed, following Blake's further train of thought with his usual unwelcome accuracy. "By that time, Jenna will have tired of him, of course... You should be more careful around Tarrant, Blake. He's laughing at you."
"Thanks for the advice. I'll bear it in mind," Blake retorted levelly, flushing. He met Avon's eyes defiantly. "Am I that obvious?"
"The situation is patently obvious to any moderately sophisticated observer, as Orac puts it."
Blake understood the message perfectly: you stay out of my affairs, Blake, and I'll stay out of yours... The moment when real friendship might have been possible, whatever it had been, was gone; they were back to the old guarded hostilities, and in a shamefaced way Blake was glad. There were too many questions which Avon would have had the right to ask.
"I assume you didn't come up here for any pressingly urgent purpose," Avon interrupted his thoughts drily, "or even you would have managed to mention it by this time."
"I just came up for -" Blake hesitated - "for a change of scene."
Avon sat down on the edge of his bunk and began removing his boots. "In that case," he said pointedly over his shoulder, "perhaps you could let me get some sleep. Go and talk to Zen."
Blake grinned. "I leave conversation with computers to you, Avon." He stepped back from the door, and heard it swing shut and lock behind him as he turned back towards the flight deck. The memory of the earlier Anna's face was still strangely vivid in his mind's eye. He compared it to Sula as he had first known her, and felt more compassion for Sula than he had in those days.
She'd paid for what she had done, you could see... and, caught between love and duty as she had been, how many people in truth would have had the courage she had lacked, and thrown away their whole life in the name of love? He himself had betrayed his whole Cause, his family and his friends; he had stood up in public and repudiated everything he had believed in; and the fact that the information had been ripped from his memory by Central Security interrogation, the fact that his mind had been wiped and reprogrammed to make him a puppet of the Federation's propaganda machine, made no difference to those who had died because of him. Who was he to condemn Sula? Avon was still alive; and everyone Blake had ever known and cared for on Earth was dead.
The lights on the flight deck were still dimmed. That suited his mood. Blake dropped wearily into the seat behind the upper-right console - Gan's seat, treacherous memory whispered - and let his mind gradually slow to a blank. The atmosphere of the flight deck was familiar around him. He'd spent more hours here than he'd ever spent on Gauda Prime; and his own childhood on Earth seemed distant and remote, like all his memories from before the mindwipe. In a way, the Liberator was the only home he could remember having.
"Do you remember me, Zen?" he asked on impulse.
"VOICEPRINT IDENTIFIED," the computer responded immediately. "SUBJECT IS ROJ BLAKE."
Well, what had he expected from a computer? Even if Zen did seem almost human at times... Blake was finally able to laugh at himself. At least Avon hadn't wiped his access to Zen at the same time that he'd ordered Blake's cabin cleared. It would be nice to think that the oversight had been a deliberate memorial. Unfortunately - Blake smiled - it wasn't very likely.
"Put the monitor feed through onto the main screen," he commanded, adjusting the controls in front of him. "Wide scan. Wider. Maximum range, low resolution."
He sent the scan skimming out through the starfield, to the point where even the Liberator's sensors could detect only the massive bodies of the stars themselves. The endless depths of space... he watched the hypnotic wheel of the galaxy around him, and dreamed.
"...Avon, he is nowhere in the base, and the second shuttle is missing. I hoped he was with you."
Blake stirred, guiltily. He must have dropped asleep. He hadn't meant to do that.
"He was certainly here an hour ago." Avon had obviously been woken from sleep, and he did not sound pleased.
Blake got up hastily. The communications system appeared to have been patched straight through to Avon's cabin, but he linked the flight deck in. "Cally, what's wrong?"
"The recycling system." She sounded worryingly relieved to hear him. "Blake, something is blocked somewhere and I don't have the skill with the systems to trace it."
"You probably know more than I do already." Blake frowned. "Surely Jenna's back by now."
"I contacted her and they are coming in. But they were a long way out, Blake."
"What in the name of the Council were they doing?" Blake snapped.
"High-g turns." Cally sounded disapproving. "Without the inertial compensators. If the pilot miscalculates, he could black out. That was why they needed to be so far from the planet."
More daredevil stunts... Blake winced, then gave a sudden affectionate grin, remembering something. "I'll bet Jenna hasn't told Tarrant that her home planet had a gravity of one point six Earth-normal..." A tinge of satisfaction crept into his voice. "I fancy Tarrant's been having a fairly rough time."
"Blake, it may be an hour before Jenna is back." Cally's voice was urgent, and he sighed.
"I'll be with you in ten minutes. Liberator out."
"Do you want me to teleport you down?" An unexpected offer from Avon.
"Thanks, but no, the shuttle's up here... I'd better take it back."
"From revolutionary to maintenance tech to sanitation worker - what a career," Avon's comment came drily over the intercom.
"How can a man set the world to rights unless he first sets his own base in order?" Blake riposted, switching off. He smiled. From Avon, that last jibe had almost been a peace-offering.
In point of fact, it was almost three-quarters of an hour before he caught up with Cally, by which time she had already located the blockage by the practical technique of leading an exploration party down into the lower mine galleries which had been adapted as maintenance tunnels. He heard them coming a long time before he could see their light. Vila's chatter was unmistakable, but the sound carried strangely in the galleries. Blake kept expecting to find Cally's party around the next corner. In the end he almost walked into them.
"Oh look, Cally, it's Blake!" Blake stepped back hurriedly from Vila's enthusiasm. The small man reeked of stagnant water. He also seemed to have managed to get dripping wet from head to toe.
Cally too was looking pleased with herself. "Thank you, Blake, but we have found the source of the problem. The lower galleries are no longer stable - every time the Quicksilver is launched, they are under stress -"
"It was a rock-fall!" Vila interrupted, too eager with his news to wait. "The pipe was broken and blocked up - nothing could get in and nothing could get out."
"Apart from Vila, who fell in," put in Dayna, grinning. "We had a job pulling him out, I can tell you."
With an effort Blake tried to drag his mind back to the original problem. "Can we fix it, Cally?"
"Perhaps... but I do not mean to try. I have sealed off that section altogether, Blake. We can direct the flows through C and L sections now that we know where the trouble is. With only a few days before we leave this base, it would be folly to begin draining the tunnel in order to clear hundreds of tons of rubble."
"I'll take your word for it." Blake was looking slightly dazed.
Vila bounced up again on his other side, shivering. "I nearly drowned," he protested, brave enough now that it was all over. "Kerril's decided to give up on the weather and teach me to swim instead."
"A completely unnatural habit," Blake commented cheerfully. "If humans had been meant to swim in water, they wouldn't be born inside Domes."
"I learnt to swim on Sarran before I could walk," Dayna teased him. "It's easy. I'll teach you both."
"No thanks." Blake shuddered. "When are you going to start teaching Kerril some of your own skills, Vila? What about lock-picking lessons in return for swimming lessons?"
Dayna groaned. "Don't encourage him, Blake. He's already given Kerril two pairs of my earrings and one of Jenna's necklaces. She said Kerril could keep it, but she wasn't exactly pleased at the time. Do we really want two like Vila?"
"Vila's irreplaceable," Blake assured her with a touch of mischief. "Avon said so."
That actually seemed to have silenced an incredulous Vila for the moment, but it earned Blake a disgusted look from Dayna. "Unrepentant and unregenerate, more like," she muttered darkly.
'Vila Restal, if you are reading this then I strongly suggest that you pass it on to Avon immediately; otherwise I shall ask him personally to dismember you when I arrive...'
Of course, Avon reflected with a certain fatalism, if Vila had managed to unseal the message capsule and crack the biometric lock keyed to Avon on the security cylinder inside, clearly addressed 'FOR THE EYES OF KERR AVON' - and he wouldn't have put it past him - a mere written threat would have been unlikely to deter him. On the other hand, if one couldn't drink it or spend it, there was always a chance... Flattered as he was by Anna's accurate assessment of Vila's abilities, he was rather relieved that Vila had not been here.
Absently, he reached for a laser probe and laid it across the top of the slip to hold it flat, studying the rest of the letter with a tiny frown of concentration. It had been hand-ciphered in fluent dark characters which he recognised after a second as a representation of Federation code nine. A moment's amusement - that would certainly have foiled Vila - was followed by a deeper concentration: it was hardly his speciality, but he thought he could manage...
'By the time you are reading this, Avon, I shall be about one day's journey away on board the heavy transport Perseid. This is the ship I had arranged with Blake to send - you can tell him this; it will serve to justify dispatching this message. For coming myself, I have no justification, only that the risk is not so very great and that I could not resist the chance to be with you one more time.
'Since you left I have thought of you every hour of every day, Avon, everything I touch reminds me of you, everywhere I go there are memories of remembering you. And all the bitter memories are so changed, and the memories of happiness no longer hurt... how is it that the mere knowledge of your existence can do this to me? Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed, and the hardened shell that seemed all that was left of me has cracked, and beyond hope I find I am still here, still yours...'
It was a long letter. Avon unrolled it gently, his expression intent, almost emotionless save for the tiny frown that occasionally drew his brows together as his lips moved silently in the deciphering. At the end he released the slip absently and watched it curl up. In his mind's eye he was seeing Anna. They had had so little time together, and almost none of it alone.
After a long time he sat back, his decision reached. Anna's letter he set gently back in the security cylinder within the message capsule, a slight echo of his smile touching his mouth. Such primitive technology, that had taken days to deliver a single sheet of cipher which Orac could have transmitted millions of spacials as a nanosecond burst of data. And yet his hand lingered as if casually over the page that her hands had touched, before he shut the case and rose to his feet.
Cally, behind Jenna's desk, reached out with a practised hand to switch the incoming call through to audio only. It would be Avon, almost certainly; but there was no point taking unnecessary risks.
"Liberator calling Gauda Prime." The slightly impatient tones she'd expected. "Come in, Gauda base. This is Avon."
"This is Cally at Gauda base," the Auron responded automatically, switching the visual through to the small monochrome screen to her right. She glanced across, smiling. "Hello, Avon."
She got almost a genuine smile in response. "Hello, Cally."
Cally stared at the screen in something like dismay, unsure how to handle this. The last time she'd spoken to Avon he'd been sleepy and thoroughly annoyed. That, she knew how to cope with.
Her confusion must have shown. Avon's face hardened, and Cally wanted to call the moment back, but it was too late.
"I want to speak to Blake." It was the familiar impatient demand, and Cally sighed.
She switched over to the base intercom. "Blake? Answer, please. Avon needs to talk to you."
"Cally." Blake took a few seconds to answer, and she remembered that he had gone off to one of the empty halls with Dayna for another combat session. He'd been growing increasingly frustrated with his inability to re-learn the combat moves they'd practised together when she'd first come on board, eager to demonstrate her worth as a crew member, and she'd been trying to get him to work with Dayna instead in the hopes that her simpler, more aggressive style might prove less frustrating; but she feared he was finding the girl's sheer exuberance hard to keep up with.
She gave him a moment more to catch his breath. "Blake, I'm putting Avon through on the intercom." She linked the two systems.
"What is it, Avon?" He sounded rather wary, and Avon stiffened.
"Two things. Firstly, your ship's about to come in. She's the Perseid, heavy transport outward-bound from Earth. I've checked her registration and she's a regular Rim-hauler, so her presence in this Sector should arouse no curiosity."
"Sula's very competent," Blake agreed. "And secondly?"
"I'm taking the Liberator out. Now."
There was a dead silence.
//Be careful, Blake!// She had not meant to send that. She was not sure if it had got through.
"I'll get your crew together," Blake said at last, neutrally. "I assume they all have teleport bracelets?"
"No!" Avon said harshly. "I mean to go alone."
"You can't do that!" Blake exploded. "You can't leave them all behind. And you can't handle the Liberator alone. It's not safe."
"Zen can handle the Liberator without any of us," Avon retorted icily. "You know that as well as I do. Even Vila could handle the Liberator alone for twenty-four hours, which is all I shall need."
He cut Blake off as the other man tried to protest further. "Blake, if you really want to discuss this, I suggest you come to the office, and I'll teleport down and meet you there. I'm not prepared to broadcast this argument to the entire base over an open intercom. Liberator out."
Dayna scrambled up from the floor, trying to catch Blake's eye as he turned defeatedly away from the wall intercom. "Blake, it's not worth it. You can't force us on him if he wants to go off on his own. He's quite capable of keeping us all off the flight deck at gunpoint."
He finally looked at her, and she pressed her advantage. "He's planning to come back. He's not going to abandon us, not this time at least."
She grinned fiercely. "What's the matter, Blake? Were you afraid I had fond illusions about Avon? Just because I joined forces with him after my father died doesn't mean I see him as some kind of father figure."
The picture was so incongruous that they both had to laugh.
"Staying with Avon's my best chance of getting Servalan some day," she told him firmly. "And annoying Avon right now's not a good idea as far as that goes." But she rather spoilt the effect by sighing. "I suppose I am quite fond of Avon in a way. But -"
"I know." Blake grimaced. "He doesn't make it easy, does he?"
"Anna will be on that ship," Avon said levelly. "There has been a slight change in the plan. Consequently I mean to take the Liberator to escort her in. Nor do I see why I should account to you for my actions."
"I didn't ask you to," Blake retorted. "But if you -"
He swallowed what he had been going to say with an effort. "Take Cally," he said instead. "She can stand watch for you on the way back. She's competent and -" he hesitated slightly - "quiet."
"Discreet, you mean?" Avon's tone was cynical. "I notice you haven't asked Cally's opinion on this." Unexpectedly he turned to Cally. "Well, Cally? Will you come?"
//I have told you not to use me as a pawn against Blake!// she sent fiercely, then aloud, for Blake's ears: "I agree with Blake. You should not go alone." She smiled at both men. "And I shall be glad to let Jenna have her desk back."
Blake grinned. "That aspect had occurred to me." He glanced at Avon again. "I take it that's agreed, then. Teleport bracelet, Cally?"
She nodded, setting it into place around her wrist and going to stand beside Avon. A strange excitement had come upon her. Back to the Liberator, back into space - but it was more than that.
"And so it begins," she said suddenly, to her own surprise. "The end of the Federation."
"It is, at least," Blake said quietly, "the end of the beginning." He smiled as Avon raised an eyebrow. "Take care of Sula. We wouldn't have much chance without her."
"I intend to," Avon said coldly. He raised his bracelet. "Orac, bring us up. Now."
The fair head and the brown came up in a simultaneous guilty reflex. "What does it look as if we're doing?" Vila protested, scrambling to his feet. Kerril followed suit hastily.
Blake folded his arms. "Perhaps that was a silly question," he conceded. "On the other hand, you still haven't told me why you're trying to break into my safe."
Vila opened his eyes very wide. It was a tactic that sometimes worked. It never worked on Avon, and it didn't work now on Blake. "It was your idea," he said. "We were just doing what you suggested."
"Vila, I really don't recall recommending safe-cracking as a leisure activity."
"Lock-picking, you said. Give Kerril lessons in lock-picking. In exchange for swimming."
Blake stared at them. "I should have listened to Dayna, shouldn't I?" He found the chair, and sank into it. "Don't you think the safe is a little complicated for a beginner?"
"Well, she didn't have much difficulty with the door lock," Vila said proudly. "So I thought it might be time to try something a bit trickier."
"What do you mean, the door lock? We don't keep this door locked."
"Jenna does now," the thief told him. "And Kerril cracked it in thirty seconds flat.
"Using my equipment, of course," he admitted. "Once you've identified your type of lock and you know your tools, any amateur can crack a standard single lock with properly calibrated equipment. The real skill's in calibrating the frequencies on an unknown, booby-trapped lock. And a device with a mechanical element, that's quite tricky to pick. And building your own equipment. And designing it. And improvisation -"
"Well, there's nothing wrong with your ego, anyway," Blake said, chuckling despite himself. He caught Kerril's eye. "Is it really that easy?"
Kerril grinned ruefully. "Yes and no." She showed him the contents of Vila's grey tool-case which lay open beside her. "As far as I can make out it's like a puzzle-box - if you've got the piece that fits, the right tool for the right lock, it's just a matter of putting the impulses in at the right place. But if the right piece isn't already there and you have to rearrange the box to make a place to fit one of the other pieces you've actually got - well, as you know, that's a lot harder. What Vila's been teaching me is basically a set of standard keys to fit most situations. Outside that -" she shrugged apologetically - "I'm stuck."
"Dayna will be relieved. Jenna too." Blake smiled. "Vila, did it ever occur to you that the loss of a certain necklace might have something to do with this new locked-door policy?"
"She knows I can open them in less than ten seconds, so what would be the point?" Vila objected logically. He looked round as if expecting to see Jenna in a corner. "Where is Jenna anyway?"
"I don't know. Celebrating, probably. The whole base is in chaos at the moment - everyone heard Avon's news over the intercom and there's a sort of feeling that things are about to start at last. Jenna and I have been working on this for almost a year, remember. You've only known about it for a few weeks." Blake sighed. "As a matter of fact, I was rather hoping to find Jenna in here."
Vila's face brightened. "Kerril and I could go and find her for you," he suggested hopefully.
"Thank you, no," Blake said hastily, "that won't be necessary."
"In that case," Vila proposed, cheerfully, "we might as well have another go at this safe."
Blake frowned. "If it really means that much to you, Vila, I'll open it for you myself."
"You still don't understand!" Vila looked up at him rather indignantly. "It's not the credits - Jenna says you're pretty well out of cash so I don't suppose there's much in there anyway - it's the artistry of it.
"Watch this, Kerril." He knelt down in front of the safe again. "Nice piece of work you inherited here, Blake," he told the other man approvingly. "There's a genuine mechanical six-way linkage into this. You won't fry that with any amount of electronics. Your average old-fashioned pick-lock could crack it in an hour, of course," he added cheerfully over his shoulder, fingers working delicately inside the lock, "but they're a dying breed." He shook his head wisely.
"Thanks," Blake said drily. "I'll remember that the next time I come to commission a thief-proof lock."
"It wouldn't do you much good," Vila said sadly. "It's an ungrateful world. The more artistry you put into a lock the higher the chances that some vandal like Bayban the Butcher will just turn up and fire a laser cannon into it when he can't get in."
Blake got up and came over to watch Vila, fascinated as always by the contrast between the small man's babble and his deft, skilled handiwork. "Aren't you ever tempted to do that? Just blow the lock off?" he suggested after some time, smiling.
"It's messy," Vila said with distaste. "Anyway, half the locks you and Avon give me to work on are booby-trapped. Try and take short-cuts on one of those and it wouldn't just be messy - it could get fatal."
Something clicked under his hands. "Got it," he said with satisfaction. "Here, Kerril, you can do the last bit. In the middle here, see? Between these two contacts. I'll hold them apart for you."
Amused, Blake watched Kerril solemnly select a tool unprompted and apply it cautiously. There was a second, louder click, and Vila beamed as the door slid open. "What do you make of that, Blake?"
Blake laughed. "Well, I've never actually watched anyone breaking into my own safe before... Kerril! Don't touch those!"
Kerril drew her arm hastily out of the safe as if she had been burned. Vila was already under the desk, and Kerril looked half-way to joining him. She peered inside the safe again, cautiously. "Blake, they're only data-cubes," she said, puzzled.
There was sweat on Blake's face. "Sorry. Over-reacted. But I'd rather you didn't touch any of those."
"You didn't need to make all that fuss about it," Vila complained, emerging. "What's on those data-cubes - State secrets?"
"I can guess, but I don't actually know," Blake told him. "That's not my data there. Sula left it here with me. Some of it's personal. Some of it is records from the Central Security computers. Some of it is other government stuff from Earth. It was for Avon. When she became President. Or before - if something happened to her. A sort of legacy."
"Sounds deadly dull," Vila complained. "Wait - is that a bottle I see in there?"
Blake caught hold of his collar as he leaned forward, dragging the smaller man round to face him. "Vila, I want you to give me your word that you won't even touch those data-cubes. Or Kerril either."
"I swear, I swear," Vila said hastily, cringing before the force of Blake's insistence. "I'm not interested in that sort of thing. You know I'm not." He smoothed down the set of his ship-suit with a slightly aggrieved air as Blake released him.
Blake looked at him searchingly, then, apparently satisfied, knelt down and drew out the bottle.
"Jenna got me this," he said softly, holding it up to the light. "From one of her smuggling friends. Neither of us ever found out how it ended up out here - all the way from Earth. I told her we'd save it for a special occasion..."
"Well, this is a special occasion, isn't it?" Vila demanded. "Everyone else is celebrating, you said so. And Jenna's off enjoying herself somewhere else - she wouldn't begrudge us a glass or two surely?"
Blake's face was set. "Under those circumstances," he said evenly, "I don't see why not." He produced three beakers and quarter-filled them.
Vila sniffed at his cautiously.
"I'm not sure I like the colour," he said dubiously. "It looks almost alive. Like blood." He sniffed again. "Smells good, though."
"This is red Earth wine," Blake told him impatiently. "It always looks like that." He raised his glass. "To the future."
"To the Liberator," Vila echoed.
"To us," Kerril added simply, smiling at Vila. They drank, then Blake re-sealed the bottle firmly and shut the safe, resetting the lock. Vila watched him regretfully, but made no comment. Blake didn't look particularly happy, for a man who was supposed to be celebrating.
"Not half bad - for a red wine," he told him appreciatively, watching the last drops run down the inside of his glass.
"It's vat-grown, of course," Blake pointed out disparagingly. "The picture on the label is pure fantasy. Nobody grows vines like that on Earth nowadays."
"Well, I thought it was good." Vila sighed, and tried again. "What will you do with Servalan, Blake, once you've won?"
"I really don't know, Vila. Dayna wants her dead. Sula wants her humiliated. And I want both, I suppose; I want her tried properly and condemned. Even Servalan deserves a fair trial. But then I wonder - how can you have a fair trial without the possibility of an acquittal? Because Servalan has to die. She's too ruthless, too clever, too ambitious. She could seduce her way off the most obscure penal colony in a month. And the whole galaxy knows, she deserves to die, if anyone ever did." Blake sat down on the corner of the desk, staring down at the floor.
"And if I don't take any measures to prevent it, Servalan is going to die, conveniently, probably very unpleasantly, during the assault. There are enough people in the resistance who hate her to have her murdered a hundred times over. Half her own staff would probably stab her in the back if they got the chance. And what right have I got to fight, say, Dayna in defence of Servalan's life, just so that I can put her to death myself with full legal panoply?"
He set his empty beaker down with a sharp click. "I'm sorry, Vila, I'm not being very good company. You'd better go and find someone else to celebrate with."
Vila reached out, unhappily, to touch Blake's arm. Blake didn't look up.
"Blake, do you remember that morning, out on the landing field? When we talked about our plans for the future?"
The other man did look up at that. "Dreams."
"Blake, it's coming true; it's all started. Isn't that worth celebrating?" Their eyes were on a level for once. He felt like taking Blake by the shoulders and trying to shake some sense into him. "Blake, it's because of you. You make people's dreams come true. Can't you see that?"
Blake smiled a little, finally. "It's all right, Vila. It's nothing to do with that." He got up stiffly. "Thanks for trying, though."
Vila watched him go and exchanged a look with Kerril.
"Another drink?" she suggested, glancing towards the safe.
"What's the point? I know the combination now." Vila shrugged. "Anyway, I don't feel like it."
Kerril scowled. "Oh, not you too, Vila?" She closed his tool-case with a snap and handed it firmly to him. "Blake is none of our concern." Looping his free arm securely about her waist, she told him: "Now let's get rid of this stuff and go and find a real party." She leaned her cheek briefly against his, and to her relief he grinned.
"Cally." She woke instantly.
"One moment, Avon." Cally dressed fast, with swift economical movements.
"I have the Perseid on scan," the intercom continued. "Closing to visual range. I want you up here by the time we make visual contact."
"Coming." Cally groped for her boots, pulled them on. She settled the belt of her tunic. "Ready, Avon."
But by the time she reached the flight deck, slightly breathless, the swollen grey image of the Perseid was already floating on the main screen.
"Ugly, isn't she?"
Cally looked at Avon in surprise. "Very ugly," she agreed honestly. "What is her cruising speed?"
"The Meteor-class are rated at Time Distort two," Avon observed drily. "Both ugly and slow."
She sighed. It would be a long watch, on the way back. "Are they expecting us?"
"Since they haven't challenged us yet, I think we can assume either that they are expecting us or that they keep a very poor look-out." Avon gave his smile. "You had better contact them."
Cally moved to obey, then halted. "Will you be using the teleport?"
"In that case, I would be better employed setting up the teleport co-ordinates," she told him practically. "You should contact the transport yourself. Sula will be expecting to hear from you in any case."
She smiled inwardly at his expression. //You know I am right, Avon.//
Glaring at her, Avon moved to the communication console. "Civil Administration transport Perseid, this is Liberator..."
Avon had been over there for a long time. Cally sat patiently, motionless behind the teleport console she knew as well as the back of her own hand. It seemed to her sometimes that she had spent more hours here than on the flight deck, though she knew it could not be true. At least things happened, on the flight deck. Here, you only waited.
You sent people into danger, and waited for them to tell you what was happening. Long hours of silence, while you dreaded the 'Teleport now' that could come at any time without warning and deman-ded instant reaction, because seconds could make all the difference to those trapped below. Or, worse, silence that was never broken, while you wondered how long to give them, when you called and there was only an empty hiss at the other end, the hiss of a bracelet without a wearer - for whatever reason. It happened; and every time it meant those below were in dire trouble.
She looked at the rack of teleport bracelets. When she had first come aboard, it had been almost full. Now almost a third of the sockets were empty - a measure of their disasters. Every bracelet lost, destroyed, captured, taken, had meant a life in danger. The teleport was a two-edged blade. With it, they could go almost anywhere. But without it they had no way back to the Liberator. And so there was no choice - someone else had to go down, with spare bracelets, into known danger, into a nest of alerted enemies...
And then there were the other times, the times like now (she hoped) when nothing went wrong, and you were still kept sitting here, waiting. Waiting because you had to be there when they were ready to come back, and you never knew when that would be. Oh, she didn't blame them - she was just as bad as the others, when it was her turn; you didn't waste time sympathising with the teleport operator when you had a mission to get through on some alien planet.
And nobody used Orac to operate the teleport if there were a human - or an Auron - available. He had his own priorities, and rescuing humans in trouble only featured as one of them when it had direct implications for his own survival. You did not teleport down, if you could help it, when there was the possibility that when you needed to come back up in a hurry you would end up arguing with Orac about it. But teleport operator was a thankless job, all the same.
Cally glanced at the time again. Avon had only gone across to pick up Sula. He really should not be taking this long; however much those two had to say to each other, surely they could say it in privacy over here? She would give them two more minutes, she decided. Then she would call Avon, and tell him she had been worried that something was wrong - and there was always the possibility that it was.
"Teleport, Cally." She jumped a little, and smiled at herself, operating the teleport to bring them back. People were always worried that being a telepath meant she could read their minds - but sometimes she thought Avon was the one who really seemed to have a knack for it.
She glanced curiously at Avon, but he was as unreadable as ever. By comparison Sula, beside him, looked almost radiant, despite her badly crumpled dress greys.
Sula caught the direction of Cally's gaze, and smiled. "Not really appropriate clothing for a spaceship. I know. But coming on the Perseid at all was a last-minute decision - and I had to persuade Chesku I was volunteering to take over one of his dreaded diplomatic missions to the Outer Worlds. Hence the full regalia. I've been borrowing a coverall from one of the crewmen for the last few days - but Avon assures me your Liberator's bound to have something more suitable in the Clothes Room?"
"Of course." But Cally's polite smile faded as she followed Sula and Avon out of the teleport area. She didn't want to offend the woman, but -
"Forgive me; but your husband will soon find out that you failed to carry out that diplomatic mission?" Blake had called Sula competent; but Cally knew that her original plans had not featured this journey at all. The woman had taken a worrying risk.
Sula's tone was arrogant. "Not until they complain. If that goes through the official channels, it won't arrive until after I return to Earth. And once Chesku gets me inside the Residency on my return -" she smiled fiercely - "my dear husband's usefulness will finally be over. I don't mean to have a Consort hanging around my neck when I become President, Cally. If the Alpha marriage bond allowed for divorce, Chesku would have disposed of me long ago." She touched the sidearm lying neatly at her waist. "All I mean to do is to return the compliment."
And Avon was looking at her with approval in his eyes! Cally struggled with her feelings. Avon was logical and ruthless, she'd always known that. But to walk at the side of a woman who was planning her own husband's death - and after that to take, in some sense, that husband's place - oh, he must be very sure of her, indeed. Cally had killed, often, without hesitation and without remorse. But Sula, Avon's lover, was talking murder.
Cally turned away to hide her face. After all, Chesku was a High Councillor, she told herself. He was at least as culpable as any other Federation official, and he wouldn't hesitate to betray his wife to Servalan - and the whole conspiracy with her - if he found out what was going on. And Avon knew the man, and she herself did not. But she was fairly sure that Blake would not have been informed of this part of Sula's plan. And it occurred to her to wonder what other minor details had been kept from Blake...
"Cally!" The other two had reached the flight deck, and Avon wanted her there. And she had a long watch ahead of her. With an effort, the telepath schooled her face to a mask that almost equalled Avon's, and moved swiftly through the corridors to join them.
"I've given Zen commands to escort the other ship at a minimum distance of four hundred spacials," Avon told her as she arrived. "The Perseid is already under way. Current speed is standard by one half, increasing. This should be an absolutely routine flight, with no trouble. The Perseid's cleared right through for the Seventh Sector, it's a regular run, and her commander reports that no-one has shown any interest in her so far this trip. If anything goes wrong, activate the detector shields, go to maximum speed, and call me. In that order. Understood?"
"Yes, Avon," Cally said patiently. He was obviously more nervous than he looked. She knew perfectly well what to do on a night watch.
"You could start by getting Sula some fresh clothes," she suggested with a perfectly straight face. "And she has not been formally shown around the ship yet -"
"Cally," Avon said softly, "if I had wanted Vila I would have brought him. Now shut up."
But he took her advice, she noticed with amusement. When Sula came quietly back onto the bridge about half an hour later, she wore a close-fitting dark blue costume with a divided light over-dress in silver-blue, belted at the waist; a flattering but practical style Cally herself had experimented with once or twice. And Avon had an arm around her and was looking more relaxed than she had ever seen him before.
She glanced at them from time to time, the two of them sitting at the front of the flight deck, talking quietly. Occasionally Sula would laugh, and once she thought she heard a laugh from Avon. Cally watched Sula's head on Avon's shoulder, and despite herself wished her well; because Avon loved her. Because she was making Avon happy. Because Cally had invoked Anna Grant's name once, for Vila's sake, and Avon had listened.
"Avon, you are off-watch," she called down at last. "You should go to bed."
Avon, predictably, glared at her. But Sula laughed and jumped up, catching hold of Avon's hands, and after a moment he let her pull him to his feet. Cally watched them go, and when Sula smiled at her in passing, she smiled back.
Anna stirred, and Avon pulled her closer.
"Go to sleep, Anna." He felt her laugh.
"Avon, I've been asleep for most of the last five days. Have you any idea just how small the crew accommodation is on a heavy transport - or how limited the entertainment facilities are?"
"Surprise me," Avon said lazily into her hair. "How limited?"
She shook her head. "Let's just say that being asleep was a definite improvement. Particularly when it came to the viscasts from Earth."
"My poor High Councillor's wife," he mocked her gently. "You should learn to share the tastes of the rabble."
Anna stiffened. "I've got no more time for the rabble than you have, Avon."
"Unfortunate - given the type of recruits Blake seems to be sending you."
She groaned, remembering. "Half of them are raw idealists who hardly know how to hold a weapon, and the other half have blown up a couple of silos on their own backwater colony, and think they know it all. 'Rabble' doesn't even begin to describe them. You wouldn't believe the hell I have to put them through before they'll do what I want, and without arguing. And then half the time they still won't accept orders from anyone else."
Avon stroked a shoulder. "They have some good taste, then, your rabble."
"I need an army, not a personal guard!" Anna protested. "I can't be in twenty places at once and I can't stand over them when the time actually comes to make the attack -" She turned rest-lessly in his arms, burying her face against him, letting him stroke the tension out of her. "I've done what I could," she said at last, quietly. "I've armed and trained my thousand. I've sown discontent with Servalan everywhere I can. It's too late to worry now. This is our time - our time together..."
She reached up to touch his cheek. "You know, I still have difficulty believing that you're real, let alone that I'm here."
Avon promptly kissed her. "Convinced?"
"If that's the method you plan to use, I wouldn't mind a little more persuasion..." But after a second she turned her face away sharply and clung against him tightly, shaking.
"Oh, Avon, Avon, I -"
Avon frowned in the dark. "Anna, what's wrong? Why are you afraid?"
No response. Only her grip tightened around him.
"Anna," softly, "I love you."
That sent a fresh shudder through her. "Do you remember?" Her voice was almost inaudible. "How I used to tease you to say that - and you never would? And now you are so sure - and I - have no right -"
"No right?" Now it was he who was afraid. "Anna, you're the only person in the world I'd even allow to make such a claim!"
And then he remembered; and understood. When they had come to arrest her... "It doesn't matter, Anna. That wasn't you. You had no choice. You'll forget. I'll help you to forget. It didn't happen, Anna. Not to you. It will be all right. It doesn't make any difference between us, not now. Listen to me, believe me. It didn't happen..."
"You trusted me. Always."
"I still trust you. Only you. It's over. We're safe. We've got all the time in the world. It will be all right."
She had relaxed, but she was crying. Was that a good sign, or bad? Good, he hoped, but he knew so little about this sort of thing... He wondered, briefly, what Anna had planned for Central Security in the uprising. She was too good a strategist to waste resources destroying an installation that could offer little aid to Servalan during the attack; but afterwards... in the aftermath there would be time enough. For revenge. For what had been done to him, and to others. But most of all, for what had been done to Anna.
"Why does every woman end up with this compulsion to play with my hair?" he demanded irritably.
"It's the only bit of you that really is as irresistible as you like to think," Jenna retorted. "Oh, and the smile -" as he grinned.
After a moment's tussling she had him pinned down. "Now, what did you do in the great war, Tarrant?" she prompted.
"'Del'?" he suggested hopefully.
"Tarrant," Jenna corrected firmly. "What about the war?"
"The Andromedans?" Tarrant shrugged. "There's not much to tell. I was there."
"I'm sure you were," Jenna agreed drily. "Staying well out of Servalan's way and 'salvaging' the derelicts."
Tarrant turned over to face her. "I'm no coward, Jenna, and whatever you think of her Servalan's no fool. She called in every ship within two Sectors - legitimate or not, provided it was armed. No questions asked.
"I was in an in-systems blockade-runner with a crew of three and a cargo of contraband furs. We dumped the furs and went. That ship was small enough to fit inside Liberator's flight deck - small enough to fit inside Zen - with a single blaster about as powerful as a laser probe. All we could do was dance around like some kind of insect, trying to needle the Andromedans enough to draw their fire away from the ships that had some chance of doing real damage.
"The ship was crippled, then destroyed. My crewmates were killed and I was picked up by a Federation pinnace not much bigger than the ship I'd just lost. The officers were all dead and I bluffed my way into command; and the rest you know. That's how I spent my war, Jenna, while you were safe behind your force-wall piloting the fastest and best-armed ship in the galaxy."
"Alone against the entire alien fleet!" Jenna retorted. "And then when Servalan came, we were just a legitimate target for both sides."
"Servalan's not a fool!" Tarrant repeated. "Not one Federation vessel fired on you - did it? No, I thought not. You don't get to be Supreme Commander by politics and back-stabbing alone, Jenna - the military's too important to the Federation for that. I served in the Federation and I should know."
"Hence your current exalted rank."
Tarrant grinned lazily. "I got on the wrong side of some important people. There was no way I was going to get promotion until someone got rid of Gorsky, and I got tired of waiting."
"So you resigned."
"No, I tried to get him discredited, and got caught. I reckoned my chances of survival were better if I deserted than if I stayed to face the court-martial. I didn't say there was no back-stabbing in the Federation, Jenna..." Tarrant pushed her off and sat up. "What did you do in the great patriotic war, anyway?"
"You know most of it, don't you, from Avon?"
"Vila. Avon's not exactly the nostalgic type." He looked at her accusingly. "You know, Vila's not too happy about the bits he doesn't know. In fact, none of us are."
Jenna's expression went cold. "Believe me, Tarrant, none of us are."
Tarrant waited patiently. Finally he sighed and put an arm around her. "Jenna, I don't care how shady the dealings are that Blake has got himself involved in. I wouldn't give two credits for the ideological purity of the revolution. I'm interested in you, that's all." He traced a finger down her side, then leaned forward to kiss her.
Jenna moved restlessly.
"You were with Blake?" he prompted.
She sighed. "Yes. Blake was in a state of collapse. He'd been badly wounded. When we had to evacuate the Liberator I went with him. The pair of us were picked up by a ship heading for Epheron, but then we got the chance to transfer to a freighter bound directly for Earth. Blake insisted that he needed to get to Earth. He could barely walk, he was half-delirious, and he wasn't listening to rational argument any more."
"Does he ever?"
"Sometimes. Oh, he was right about the rising on Earth," Jenna admitted. "But it was a crazy thing to do. We should have been contacting the Liberator, or at least trying to get him down onto the planet and under a medical computer there, not heading off on a quixotic chase to the other end of the galaxy on a long-haul freighter where the sickbay doubled as the brig!"
"He seems to have survived the experience," Tarrant pointed out, amused.
Jenna sighed again. "We never made it to Earth. And you know what happened there."
Tarrant shook his head. "Blake gave us the outlines, but he was pretty cagey about it."
"It was a messy business. It's just as well he was out of it; he doesn't see it that way, of course."
"I'd have thought one mindwipe was enough for any man."
"Blake thinks his leadership could have saved them. The galaxy knows, any leadership would have been an improvement - but not in the condition Blake was in.
"In any case, we ran into an Andromedan straggler. That ship was half a sector out of the battle zone, totally crippled and without a hope. It still attacked us in the only way it could; it self-destructed at close range." She felt Tarrant wince in sympathy.
"That crippled us. Main drive - scan - communications - they sacrificed everything to keep life-support running."
"But surely if you anti-phased -"
"Tarrant, I was a passenger and an illegal one at that. It was twenty minutes before I could even get someone to tell me what had happened."
The pilot groaned.
"Precisely," Jenna agreed. "By that time, it was hopeless. They patched up the main drive and they did what they could with the secondary scanners. The rest was just scrap. Precious little data in - and no communications out. It took us three weeks to reach Earth. Blake was back on his feet - and the rebellion was all but over.
"Oh, there were plenty of people running around taking a little quiet personal revenge in the name of the revolution - and plenty of Deltas shouting slogans and maniacs burning things for the fun of it - but even Blake could see there wasn't a future in it. We found out later that they'd all gone straight for Central Security and had a nice little bloodbath there."
"Given Central Security's reputation I'm not surprised," Tarrant put in drily.
"They'd given the Federation forces a free hand everywhere else," Jenna pointed out. "A lot of those would-be revolutionaries ended up back in Central Security again. Afterwards. Permanently."
She yawned and pulled Tarrant down to lie beside her. "Anyway, the first we knew about all this - we didn't have any communications, remember? - was when Sula boarded."
"She was on the run?"
Jenna nodded. "She'd stolen a craft and got it into orbit on automatics, but she didn't know how to set a course or reprogram the automatics, so she was trapped. Lucky for her that she ran into us after a couple of days - the pilot picked her up on secondary scan, realised something was wrong and grappled her in using the docking tractors. As none of the docking systems were powered up when the ion shockwave hit us, they were still all in working order.
"She and Blake and I were all equally trapped at this point - all we could do was sit in this freighter, going round and round in Earth orbit until some ship came to find out why we weren't responding to any signals. After Sula explained the situation on Earth, she proposed a temporary alliance - Blake's name still counted for something with the rebels in those days, so we'd vouch for her loyalty if a rebel ship picked us up, and she'd vouch for ours if it was a Federation ship. She was Federation Central Security, you see. She'd just escaped the massacre and she was running for her life."
Jenna gasped. "Tarrant, that hurts. Tarrant! If you don't let go I'll break your arm!" She tore herself free and struck him across the face. "What's got into you?"
Tarrant's muscles were rigid and he was staring at her. "Sula - Sula - the Sula working with Blake - is Central Security?"
"She was an informer, Tarrant, an investigator, not a torturer, if that's what's worrying you," Jenna said acidly.
"To be quite frank," Tarrant retorted, "I'm more worried about my future prospects of survival."
"Don't be a fool. You're ex-Federation yourself, and I assume that even Avon doesn't regard you as a security risk!"
Tarrant flushed angrily. "Avon's paranoid."
Jenna chuckled. "You mean he does?"
"No, of course he doesn't. Well, not on those grounds. Look, Avon thinks all human beings are a security risk - what are you laughing at?"
Jenna silenced him most effectively by kissing him.
"So how long were you in orbit before you were picked up?" Tarrant enquired after a while.
"About a week." Jenna wound another curl of his hair around her finger. "It was... interesting."
Tarrant frowned. "Sounds deadly dull to me."
Jenna ignored him. "Sula knew who we were, of course, and she seemed to want to talk. The funny thing was that she didn't seem interested in the Liberator that much. She didn't ask the usual questions about teleport range and maximum speed and so on. She didn't even try to trick us into giving away details casually while talking about something else, the way you'd expect from a Federation spy. She kept trying to find out who Avon was."
"You mean, where he was."
"Who he was," Jenna repeated. "His full name, any details about his family - not that I'd have told her even if I'd known - how we'd met, exactly what crime he'd been convicted of. Then she started trying to get us to talk about the oddest personal things - his tastes in food, clothes, women, music... the way he wears his hair, the way he always responds to certain questions... And she asked about Anna Grant. It wasn't quite as blatant as that sounds, but it wasn't exactly subtle.
"Blake was worried enough about Avon himself by this time; we'd been out of touch for nearly a month, we were about half the galaxy away from our last known position, and Avon's paranoid enough at the best of times -" Jenna interrupted herself. "He was never paranoid enough to try to kill any of us before, though."
She looked at Tarrant accusingly. He looked back levelly.
"I suppose it hasn't occurred to you that Blake's little disappearing trick might have had something to do with that?" he suggested sweetly.
"You don't even like Avon," Jenna protested.
Tarrant disengaged her fingers from his hair, ungently. "You know, while you were orbiting Earth in your nice slow freighter, Avon was risking my neck by combing the Rim sectors for someone for whom I felt no loyalty and had never even seen. When he discovered Blake was alive and well and actively hiding from him - not from Servalan, not from the Federation, not from Bayban the Berserker, not even from Vila, but from him, Avon - I don't need to like him to have every sympathy for him if he wasn't exactly overjoyed to see Blake."
He traced the fading scar downward from her right shoulder with a caressing finger.
Jenna glared at him. "After about two days of this bizarre type of gossip with Sula, Blake lost his patience and challenged her to justify her questions or leave Avon alone - preferably both."
"And that's when you learned she was Anna Grant?"
Jenna nodded. "It was a bit of a shock. Real name Anna Grant, alias Sula, Central Security code name Bartolomew."
Tarrant grinned. "Avon's precious Anna was no more than a Central Security spy - what a weapon to use against him the next time he needed taking down a peg or two!"
Jenna raised an eyebrow. "You really don't know Blake very well, do you?"
"Oh, come on, Jenna - don't tell me Avon didn't ever try to come the lord over Blake the way he does over the rest of us?"
"You and I think alike, Tarrant - but Blake doesn't." She smiled a little, annoying Tarrant. "He wouldn't be Blake if he did."
"I suppose that's how she got away when they were trying to track him down." Tarrant was thinking aloud. "They wouldn't touch one of their own."
"That's right - they did a cover-up for her and put out that she was dead, but apparently they wouldn't let her have any information about him afterwards, either. I got the impression that love-affairs with civilians aren't exactly encouraged."
"Surely defrauding the nation of millions of credits practically qualified Avon as an honorary Federation official?"
"Very funny." Jenna didn't bother to smile. "She didn't even know he'd been sentenced to Cygnus Alpha, Tarrant. She was pretty sure he must be the 'Avon' with Blake, but until she ran into us, she'd had no definite information about him at all."
Tarrant frowned. "You sound almost sympathetic."
"Even spies can fall in love," Jenna noted, shrugging. "I can't believe any woman would have made such a fool of herself with all those pathetic obvious questions unless she genuinely cared about Avon - incredible as such an idea may seem in relation to Avon. After three years, she was still asking strangers for news of him. I didn't trust her, but I did believe her, and yes, I did sympathise.
"Of course, Blake was desperate for news about the rebellion and so was she, for completely opposite reasons. They spent hours jury-rigging communications equipment to try to pick up enough signals to work out what was happening, and then hours in the evenings analysing the rebels' mistakes and arguing about superior tactics. By the end of the week, Blake had convinced her both that a successful revolt against the Federation was possible, and that she was the one to lead it."
"Lead the people who'd been trying to lynch her? And how on Earth did Blake persuade her to abandon the winning side for a hopeless cause like that? Not all for the love of Avon's beautiful eyes, surely?"
"They were looking for a Central Security agent, not for Sula, wife of an eminent official and personal acquaintance of the President," Jenna pointed out drily. "In any case, by that point Central Security had been recaptured and the reprisals had more or less wiped out the resistance. But she told her superiors that her cover had been compromised while the buildings were in rebel hands; that she couldn't go on as an undercover agent. She was allowed to resign in order to spend more time with her husband. And she promptly started to build up a full-scale organisation of her own on Earth.
"Besides, you know what Blake is offering her - the Presidency."
"I'd have thought Blake would have wanted that for himself. What makes him think Sula will be any different from Servalan?"
"Sula has agreed to a list of twenty measures Blake wants her to take to start restoring democracy as soon as she becomes President. After the first year, according to Blake, the President will stand for re-election, in an genuinely open election, and before that Sula intends to do something about the worst elements of the High Council."
"Like her husband, for example?"
Jenna smiled coldly. "In Sula's place, I'd make sure Chesku had an unfortunate accident during the confusion of the coup."
"If I were Blake, I'd watch my back during that first year of yours," Tarrant riposted. "Once Sula's got power, there'll be no reason at all for her to pay any heed to Blake's 'democratic' ideas - and plenty of reasons for her to override them."
"I totally agree with you!" Jenna snapped. Her face softened. "But he won't listen, you know. I suppose I'll end up watching his back for him. As usual."
Tarrant pulled her against him angrily. "Just what is it between you and Blake, Jenna? Half the time when you're with me I get the impression you're acting a part for his benefit. When you want back-up it's Blake you send for. Now you're proposing to appoint yourself as a kind of bodyguard to him. It's over, Jenna!" His face darkened. "It had better be over."
"Over?" Jenna stared up at him. "I never slept with Blake, Tarrant. I thought you knew that."
"Oh, really?" The young man's face was flushed. "In that case I'd like to know what he was doing walking into your room that first night at about this hour of the morning!"
Jenna held his eyes coldly until the bluster faded from them. "Tarrant, you've never even claimed you loved me, have you?"
"No. You wouldn't have believed me." He grinned suddenly. "Besides, it didn't seem to be necessary."
"It wasn't." She smiled, and reached up to kiss him. "We're two of a kind, you and I. We know exactly what we want, and once we decide we want it, we grab it. I've thoroughly enjoyed our little arrangement here. You're eager, vigorous and handsome."
She lay back, smiling coldly. "And there are just two words you don't understand at all, Tarrant. Love and loyalty." Her dark eyes hardened. "So don't ask me questions about Blake, because until you understand those words you won't even understand the answers!"
After a moment or two she pushed him away. "Take your hands off me, Tarrant. I've had enough. I'm going back to sleep." When he persisted, she glared at him. "Remember, this is my room. If you can't lie still you can just get out."
"All right, I'm going!" Tarrant retorted on impulse. He began to dress, angrily, watching Jenna. But she didn't even look at him. "And I may not be coming back, either!"
Jenna smiled lazily, her eyes still closed. "Do grow up, Tarrant."
"If I were you, I wouldn't be drawing attention to the age gap between us - ma'am!" He saw with pleasure the smile disappear from her beautiful face. But she refused to rise to the bait.
"Tarrant, I started this affair. It's not over until I say so. Now get out, calm down, and for once in your life try to be content with what you've got instead of grabbing for what you can't have." She yawned. "And be quiet about it. I really do want to get some more sleep."
"You're up early, Tarrant!" Vila looked up cheerfully but somewhat blearily as the canteen door opened.
Tarrant scowled, surveying the debris with disgust. "And you're up late, I take it." A particularly loud snore from a comatose hairy-looking character with his head on the table interrupted him, and his mouth twitched fastidiously. "What is this, Vila - the morning after the night before?"
"All asleep," Vila agreed, indicating the happily snoring bodies strewn around him, on and under the table. His expansive gesture knocked over an empty glass. "All asleep now - except me."
"I don't imagine most of them have had the practice you've had," Tarrant said sourly, picking his way across the remnants of the party. "Where's your little friend? Safe in bed?" He caught sight of a spill of blonde hair across Vila's lap, and his lip curled in contempt.
"Kerril's with me," Vila protested, patting her head in a vague proprietorial way. "But she went to sleep. They all went to sleep. Except me. It's lonely."
His face brightened. "Come and have a drink, Tarrant." He peered at the half-inch of liquid left in the bottom of the decanter sadly, then pulled a clean glass from the long row laid out at the end of the table, and emptied the decanter into it with an unsteady but generous hand. "All yours. Go on."
Tarrant turned away impatiently.
"It's good stuff!" Vila protested belligerently. "All for you. Last in the whole base."
"Shut up, Vila." Tarrant tried to push past him, but the small man was waving the half-full glass dangerously in his direction and with a curse he dodged round to the next aisle.
"You're right, it's not good stuff," Vila confessed solemnly, absently drinking from the glass himself. "That's because we drank it all. But nobody wanted this..." He eyed the yellow liquid balefully. "You don't want this, Tarrant."
"Vila, shut up. You're putting me off my breakfast."
"I know where there's some real Earth wine. In Jenna's office. In the safe. Nobody knows except me and Kerril and Blake." His expression faded from cunning to a mournful plea. "Get the bottle for me, Tarrant. Can't get up. Don't want to wake Kerril. Tell you the combination."
"If you get up, you'll probably pass out," Tarrant snapped. "As for Kerril, I shouldn't think anything short of another alien invasion is going to wake her - or any of them. And what makes you think I'd steal alcohol out of Blake's safe for you anyway?"
"He said not to touch the data-cubes, not the bottle," Vila argued. "Made me swear. Sula's files. Central Security. Top secret."
Tarrant straightened up sharply from the food dispenser. "What? What data-cubes?"
But there was an imbecile grin on Vila's face. "Top secret. That means I mustn't tell."
Tarrant set his empty tray swiftly down on the corner of the nearest table. His handsome face was intent.
"Look here, Vila, I don't fancy that yellow stuff; but if there's some real wine going, I'll gladly have a drink with you. Just tell me how to get it and I'll go right away."
"Good old Tarrant." Vila beamed affectionately over at him. "Just come here and I'll whisper the combination..."
"Dayna! - Dayna -" Tarrant stopped short in the doorway disgustedly. "You're not still in bed, are you? Don't tell me I'm the only one still sober this morning!"
Dayna grinned. "It was quite a party. You should have been there." She sat up and stretched sharply. "Anyway, I'm as sober as you are. I don't like getting drunk. Takes the edge off your reflexes."
She looked at him more closely. "What's up, Tarrant? The Perseid will be in by second shift, and we're all moving out. What's left to do except pack?"
"Dayna, you said you'd help me - I've been looking all over the base for you - we've got a real chance to find out what sort of devil's pact that bastard Blake has got us into with Sula! I want your help!"
Dayna sighed. "All right. Give me a few seconds to get dressed. But I think you're making a mistake about Blake, you know. I like him."
Tarrant snarled. "Don't tell me that bleeding-heart act of his has got you fooled as well. Listen, Dayna. Jenna let slip this morning that Sula's a Central Security agent!"
Dayna's face went grey. "And Blake knows?"
"Jenna claims he 'turned' her. Jenna says she's safe because of the Avon connection. Jenna thinks she's really backing this crazy scheme to make herself President." Tarrant's face twisted. "But then Jenna threw me out this morning when I questioned her attitude to Blake, so just how objective is she, anyway?"
The girl grinned fiercely. "So Jenna's given you the push, has she? She's been playing you on a string for weeks, Tarrant, and you couldn't see it. I can't say I'm surprised. I'm sorry if you're hurt, Tarrant, but you had it coming. Now let me get dressed." She fixed him with a brown stare. "And don't think of starting anything with me, Del Tarrant, because I saw through you long ago."
She pulled on a red jumpsuit and boots hastily. Tarrant caught her arm as soon as the door opened. "Come on!"
"You haven't told me where we're going," Dayna protested, hanging back.
"We're going to break into Blake's safe," Tarrant told her, urgently. "Vila gave me the combination. There's files on Sula in there. Central Security files. All the stuff Blake's trying to keep away from Avon, I'll bet. Those files are probably the key to the whole affair."
He scowled. "Don't look like that, Dayna. We're not going to steal anything. If there's nothing dodgy in those data-cubes, no-one need ever know we were there."
"Dayna, I can't open this!"
Dayna, on watch in the corridor outside, put her head cautiously through the door.
"It won't open!" Tarrant dealt the safe a furious blow with the side of his fist, to no result. "That idiot Vila gave me the wrong combination!"
"Ask him again?" the girl suggested nervously. "Keep your voice down, Tarrant. Someone's going to catch us in here."
"He's passed out cold." Tarrant swore. "Anyway, not even Vila's stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice."
"You've probably got two of the characters transposed." Dayna frowned. "Concentrate, Tarrant. Try to remember."
The pilot tapped in the combination for the fourth time, with an exaggerated pause for thought before each keypress. To Dayna's amusement, the door slid quietly open, and Tarrant flushed.
"All right, take this, Dayna." He passed out the wine with barely a glance, and Dayna set the bottle down on the desk.
"Tarrant - what have you found?" she asked hesitantly after a long pause.
Tarrant growled. "Nothing. There's piles of stuff in here, and none of it's labelled. I don't even know what I'm looking for." He passed out a handful of prismatic cubes. "Here, switch on that viewer and run these through it. Look for the words 'Central Security' in the titles. Call me if you find anything. We're going to have to look through the whole lot." His head disappeared back inside the safe.
They worked in silence, Dayna casting constant nervous glances at the open door of the office. The pile of cubes beside her grew larger and larger. Suddenly she stiffened, staring at the screen. "Tarrant! Is this it?"
In a second, Tarrant was beside her. "I don't know. I told you, I don't know what I'm looking for." He squeezed in next to her. Heads together, brown and black curls mingling, they studied the close-printed text below the severe photograph.
"I don't think so," Tarrant said slowly. "This is her Central Security personnel record; but we already know she was an informer. As Jenna was at pains to point out, I was Federation myself, once - it's not in itself damning, and even if Avon didn't know, I don't see why Blake would go to such lengths just to hide that from him. Let's have a quick look, see if there's anything interesting in this...
"Here's her service record. Recruited at age twenty-five; that's quite late. She must have been an outstanding candidate. Successful operations -"
His voice broke off.
"Tarrant!" It was a strangled gasp. Dayna looked sick. He put an arm tightly around her shoulders, as much for his own comfort as for hers. She was rigid against him.
"I can't believe Blake doesn't know this. I can't believe he's had these files for a year without reading them. That means -" his voice rose - "Blake's working with her, probably Jenna too, and we're all in the most deadly, immediate danger!"
"Six rebel groups..." The girl's voice was a whisper.
"And you want to make part of the seventh?" He shook her roughly. "Blake's betrayed us, Dayna. Sula's got Avon - got him by the gut-strings. We've got to tell Avon. We've got to tell him now!"
He glanced up at the time-display. "It's second shift already. Avon could be arriving at any minute. We've got to get to him first. Who knows what Sula's brought in on that ship? Avon's too besotted even to notice! Why do you suppose she wanted him to come out alone?" He gave her shoulder a fierce squeeze. "We could have lost the Liberator already, Dayna! Come on!"
Dayna still sat motionless behind the viewer. Tarrant caught at her arm one final time, then he was gone, out of the door like a running plasma bolt. She stared at the damning evidence, feeling sick. This was going to break Avon. This was going to break Avon, finally and utterly, and she didn't want any part of it. Six rebel groups infiltrated. Six rebel groups destroyed. Six men seduced and betrayed. And Avon had been the seventh...
Cally yawned. "It was still a long watch. Do we leave the base today?"
"I'm afraid so." Blake frowned. "I'll get one of the others to pack up your things for you. You'd better get some sleep -" as she yawned again. "You should have called Avon, Cally."
"I managed very well," she protested. "And Avon has often taken longer watches. So have you, for that matter."
Blake grinned ruefully. "Yes, but I had a tendency to fall asleep in the middle of them when no-one was looking. You're too conscientious, Cally." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Where is Avon, anyway? And how is he?"
"Happy." Cally smiled at Blake's raised brows.
"You can tell?"
"I can tell," Cally assured him placidly.
"Well, I hope Sula's got her mind on what she's doing," Jenna commented sceptically. "Tarrant's gone off somewhere, Dayna's disappeared, Kerril's got a hangover and Vila's completely dead to the world. I can't very well sober him up if I can't even wake him up. I could do with some help from Sula or Avon in getting the base evacuated and all the men and equipment ferried up to the Perseid by tonight. And I'll want you to pilot the other shuttle, Blake. Just where are Sula and Avon, anyway?"
"Sula was changing back into her greys when Avon sent me down," Cally told them. "They should be here any minute - unless Orac is arguing again..."
Almost on cue, the outlines of two figures solidified in front of them.
"Sula," Blake said politely, stepping forward and holding out a hand. "As it turns out, it's just as well you've come in person - we could do with some help." His eyes met and acknowledged Avon's gaze.
"Come into the main loading bay," he continued, leading them all off down the hallway. "We've assembled everything there. It will be a matter of organising it into loads and transporting it in relays out to the shuttles..."
Cally, following the others, caught herself yawning again. I will go to bed in a few minutes, she told herself as they reached the loading bay. But not yet.
"Cally - Avon - stand back!"
Tarrant's face was bone-white, but his gun hand was steady. Cally automatically stepped back, staring at him. Avon's hand started to reach for the gun he was not wearing even as Sula stepped swiftly in front of him, her own sidearm drawn and aimed unwaveringly at Tarrant.
"Tarrant, have you gone completely out of your mind?" Avon demanded in icy tones.
"Stand back, Avon!" Tarrant repeated urgently. "You've been as much a victim as the rest of us. You're in danger!"
"Tarrant," Blake said steadily, both hands held out at his sides to show that he was unarmed, "I think you owe us an explanation. And quickly."
Tarrant ignored him. "Avon, I'm giving you one last chance to stand back." Avon showed no signs of moving, and Tarrant looked directly at Sula. "Stand away from him - 'Bartolomew'!"
The name obviously meant no more to Avon than it did to Cally, but: "No -" Sula whispered, more a protest than a refusal, "no -"
"Tarrant -" Blake took an instinctive half-pace forward before the gun swung to point at him. He glanced at Jenna, whose colour was ghastly. "Whatever Avon has ever done to you, he doesn't deserve this -"
It made no impression on Tarrant. "Shall I tell you about Bartolomew?" he said to Avon in a tone that was almost conversational. "Four years ago, Bartolomew was one of Central Security's top undercover agents, a professional seducer. Specialising in rebels.
"Bartolomew was sent in whenever a suitably vulnerable member of a rebel group was identified. Someone so inexperienced in love that they wouldn't question the rapidly developing affections of this friendly stranger. The Central Security agent was invariably welcomed into the group, trusted absolutely by the victim, given access to all their plans... and when the time was right, Bartolomew struck. The group was betrayed. Every member was executed. Bartolomew's cover was still secure. Six times, and it worked perfectly."
Blake was staring at Jenna. "Blake, I never told him this! I never told him any of this. I swear it!" Jenna's face was ashen.
Avon was staring at both of them. His face was set, and he had gone very pale.
"Four years ago, Avon, you had a brilliant idea. An idea that could have netted you a fortune from the systems of the Federation Central Bank. But you weren't quite discreet enough in those days, were you? They found out, Avon. You were so good, you must have frightened them. They ranked you as a major threat to the State. They set their best agent on your trail. They assigned you Bartolomew."
"No." Avon's composure was shaken. "No. I would have known -"
"But there's one thing you don't know, Avon." Tarrant's gun was very steady, and it was aimed directly at Sula. "'Bartolomew' was a woman. And her name was Anna Grant."
"Blake -" Avon was not looking at Tarrant. His eyes were completely shielded, and his face was a mask. "Blake - is this true?"
Cally saw Blake's eyes meet Sula's. Blake's eyes fell. "Yes." His voice was raw. "Yes, that much is true, Avon. But - "
"I wonder how they found you, Avon." Tarrant's voice was relentless. "I wonder how they knew you so well that they picked you up even after you'd escaped the city. I wonder why they left you alive."
His eyes returned to Sula. "You'd never had a victim survive before, had you, Bartolomew? I'd guess that something went wrong, and that's why 'Anna Grant' had to be the one to be dead, and not Avon. You didn't do too many more successful operations after that one, did you? One failure after another - did your nerve finally go? Or was it the thought that there was a man still alive who could reveal your double identity with a few incredulous questions? A man so brilliant, so wary, that your only chance of blinding him to the truth was to seduce him all over again?"
His voice roughened. "Or was it the Liberator, Bartolomew? What exactly happened when Blake got to Earth? Did Central Security get him too? Servalan must have been disappointed when you told her you'd picked up Blake and you still hadn't got the Liberator.
"So they reprogrammed Blake and they sent him out as bait for other would-be revolutionaries. But there was one man they couldn't catch by that method. One man who knew the old Blake too well. So they had to hide Blake - they had to keep Avon guessing. But they wanted the Liberator.
"Are they just giving you one more chance, Anna - a chance to make up for the operation you bungled the first time? Or was it your biggest coup ever, when they brought you in on the operation, in order to net the Liberator, to pull off the impossible - to get Avon to trust you, not once, but twice?"
Caught up in the flow of his own rhetoric, he let his gun waver.
"Tarrant!" The desperate cry behind him was Dayna's. The shot was Anna's.
Tarrant swayed forward for a second, staring down, apparently surprised, at the blood that was rapidly spreading across the flap of his tunic. The he fell, slipping forwards, as Dayna ran to him, flinging herself to her knees at his side.
Anna made a small sound of pain. Avon had her from behind, one arm pinning her backward against him, her left arm clamped to her side, the iron grip of his other hand over the wrist that held her gun. Slowly, inch by inch, as Cally watched, numb, as Anna fought with all her strength, the gun was forced round, her wrist bent agonizingly, her elbow raised, until the muzzle pointed directly at Anna herself.
Only then did Avon relax his grip a little. But his face was cold and hard as ice. His eyes were unreadable.
"That might as well have been a confession, Anna." There was no pity in his voice.
Anna's head came up proudly, finally. Avon let her twist in his grip until she could meet his eyes. His hold on her gun never slackened.
"Central Security knows nothing about this. They never caught Blake. They never sent me here. I swear it." She drew a deep breath. "But - four years ago - they sent me to entrap you." Another involuntary gasp as his grip tightened.
Her eyes concealed nothing, asked for no pity. "Kerr Avon, I swear to you, by everything we ever held sacred, that I loved you." Her hand moved suddenly, convulsively under his on the trigger. The sound of the weapon was muffled against her breast.
* * * * *
"He can't be dead, Cally! Not Tarrant. Not just like that." Dayna's voice rose in a plea of disbelief. "Not like that!"
Cally had Tarrant cradled gently against her shoulder. Now she laid him down again. "Dayna, there is nothing I can do. I could not have saved him." Her own eyes were wide with shock and disbelief.
Blake heard a muffled sound beside him and reached out, too late, to touch Jenna as she fled suddenly, her face hidden in her hands. He started after her, and stopped short, helpless. There was nothing he could say. There was nothing he could do, to undo what had just happened.
It was Avon he'd feared, always. Brilliant, cynical Avon, who loved no-one, took nothing on trust, who would never rest once his suspicions were roused. He'd been watching Avon; not Tarrant, not the restless, reckless young man who'd taken his place at Jenna's side with such ease, who'd dug, unwatched, for the truth - the disastrous, devastating truth - with a doggedness none of them had ever suspected. Who, apparently, had feared and hated Blake; and that, at least, he should have seen and tried to cure, if he hadn't let his own jealousy blind him.
"Cally, he was the most alive of any of us! He can't be dead!" And now it was the living girl that Cally held in her arms, as Dayna clung to her, sobbing with the easy, unthinking tears of the young.
But someone else was dead... Avon alone had not moved since that final shot. Not a muscle had changed in his face. Anna was still locked in his arms, her gun held rigid in his hand. Only, the blood ran down over his other hand where it held her body against him, stained his sleeve and ran down....
For a brief, insane moment Blake wondered if the beam had somehow passed through both of them, had killed Avon at the moment it killed Anna... "Avon!" he said sharply, reluctantly. "Avon."
Avon turned slowly. Their gazes met; but there was neither recognition nor sanity in Avon's eyes. That dead stare never wavering, he stooped a little, gathering Anna into his arms, and began to walk towards the main doors that led Outside.
"Blake!" Cally said sharply, following Avon with her eyes.
"No," Blake said, on impulse. "Let him go. Let him go alone." He set the main motors in action, slid back the doors a crack to let in the light from outside and allow Avon through.
And then it was just himself; and Dayna; and Cally, who was swaying on her feet from fatigue, and misery, and despair.
//Blake, what are we to do?//
He found himself turning his head restlessly from side to side, seeking answers which were not there. Because Cally was right; they had spent a year preparing this rising, and it could not be stopped, not now, not though the heart and soul had been seared out of it in one fatal morning. The momentum would carry it on, guided or unguided, until thousands were dragged under and it all came to an end.
"We carry on," he said, his voice sounding strange even to himself. "But not yet. Tell the men... tell them there's been an accident... a fatal accident. A delay. Tell them they've got another hour... two hours."
He crossed to the two women, knelt down, and took Tarrant in his own arms. The pilot had been slender, for all his height. No great burden.
"We'll take Tarrant with us in the Liberator," he said softly, rising to his feet. "We'll give him a space burial. He would have wanted that."
Avon had gone a long way up the mountainside. Blake found him at last sitting on the rocks that jutted out half-way up a small, dry ravine. There was still blood on his hand and sleeve, but it was dry. There was no sign of Anna. Nor of the gun.
Avon must have heard him coming, but he did not turn. "Avon?" No sign of recognition. Blake's heart sank still further. He touched the other man's shoulder, cautiously, and felt the familiar flinch from his touch. Avon looked up. There was no welcome in his eyes, but there was at least sanity there.
"Blake." Avon seemed about to add something, but bit it back. Blake would have welcomed even one of Avon's most hurtful comments, but nothing was forthcoming. He sat down on a rock of his own below Avon, at a distance he hoped Avon would be comfortable with. He said nothing.
"Well?" Cold eyes held him. "You don't look very relaxed down there, Blake. Why don't you just say what you came to say and go back?"
Every careful approach he'd prepared on the way up seemed to have flown out of his mind. "Tarrant was wrong," Blake said, painfully. "I didn't betray you, Avon." And then cursed himself. Because they were both only too aware of the woman who had.
"If I thought you had, Blake, you would already be dead." Like Anna.
"Tarrant was wrong about everything," he said desperately. Except Anna - except Anna. "He was afraid. He saw conspiracies everywhere."
"You gave him ample opportunity, Blake. You paraded secrets before us and said 'Trust me'."
"You trusted me." He had not meant to say that.
"Yes..." Avon sounded as if he had not meant to say that either. "But I - know you, Blake. Tarrant didn't. And he was jealous of you."
That hurt. "I rather thought the boot was on the other foot."
Avon's smile was not pleasant. "Tarrant was jealous of what he saw as your influence over me - and over Jenna. You're a rather overpowering character, Blake. I think Tarrant felt eclipsed. He doesn't - didn't like loyalties he couldn't understand."
And if that were true, of Jenna and of Avon both, that was the most astonishing admission he'd ever got out of Avon... For a moment, Blake felt warmed. Then he remembered the main reason he had come.
"Anna left you... a legacy. Diaries, personal records; every-thing about herself from the time you first met. The truth." He hesitated.
"What truth?" Avon struck in bitterly.
"That she loved you. And she betrayed you. And she never forgot you, Avon. I was to have gone to find you, when she became President, and to have given you those records, and to have asked you to read them and then to judge her. And to forgive her, if you could."
"How can I forgive her?" Avon asked coldly. "Every memory I thought I had of her is a lie. My whole past is based on lies, Blake. How do you forgive that?"
"Not every memory," Blake protested.
"So when do the lies start to become truth? Do I start at the beginning, say: the first time we met, that was a lie? And the second time. And the third time. And start to wonder about the fourth? Or do I start at the end, and say: she loved me the day she betrayed me? Or do I work backwards, and wonder how long she kept me dangling while she fed information on me to her masters?"
"Would you have killed her?" Blake challenged him starkly. "This morning, would you truly have killed her?"
"I don't know," Avon said at last. "Perhaps." His face hardened. "She believed I would."
He turned away, until Blake could only see his profile. "She was afraid. Ever since we met, on the Quicksilver, I could always feel the fear in her. I thought it was the torture that had done that - but there was no torture, was there? She was afraid of me. She was afraid I would kill her. Always." He turned back, and through his momentarily unguarded eyes Blake caught a brief glimpse of hell.
"Can't you forgive her?" Blake said impulsively. "Avon, can't you try?"
"Blake." It was a warning, and he could almost see the shields beginning to snap down again.
Blake clamped his fingers tight on the edges of the rock in an effort to prevent himself from getting up, from going to Avon, from taking hold of him, physically. Avon would not permit it. And even if he would tolerate him - it wouldn't help. Not for Avon. Not when the blood of the only person whose touch he had ever actively sought out was still drying on his clothes...
"Did I do right?" he appealed, suddenly, painfully, not for Avon but for himself. "I thought - I thought you could trust, but not forgive, that it was better not to know, that you might be -" Happy. But somehow, one didn't say that to Avon.
"In a way," Avon said unexpectedly, not looking at him, "it would have been - easier - if I'd never trusted either of you. If I'd forced the truth out of you, there and then, on the Quicksilver. Then I could just hate her." Blake caught a glimpse of the gun under the rock, as he shifted. Avon had it after all.
"Have you appeased your conscience, now, Blake? Are you going to deign to leave me alone?"
"That rather depends on whether you are planning to come back," Blake said steadily.
"Are you?" Blake retorted.
Avon ignored the question. "What happens to your rebellion now, Blake?"
Blake winced. "We carry on."
Avon's smile was more mirthless than he had ever seen it. "You know what that means?"
"I know. I would have thought it might have appealed to you."
"I would hardly have thought it would have appealed to the others. What happened to your fabled concern for their welfare, Blake?"
Blake smiled. "Safety first? Yes, that was always your rôle, wasn't it, Avon? Obviously we need you along with us..." He let his voice sharpen. "Or are you just going to run away from it all, up here?"
"When I could be dying usefully on your behalf?" Avon shot back at him. "You can't manipulate me any more, Blake. Now go back."
"Are you giving me the Liberator, then?" Blake challenged him.
Avon's eyes hardened. "Not if you plan to throw her away on useless heroics, Blake."
"Not if I can help it," Blake told him, standing up. He took a deliberate pace up the ravine. "Give me that gun, Avon."
For a moment he could have sworn the other man had no idea what he was talking about. Then he saw Avon's glance flicker downwards. "No."
Anna's gun, of course, and the weapon that had killed her. "Then give me your word not to use it."
Avon smiled again, harshly. "I wasn't planning to use it." He too stood up. "Blake - if I give you my word not to use the gun - and to go to Earth with you - will you just go away - and leave me alone?" His voice shook a little on the last word, his control threatening, finally, to break, and Blake turned away hastily, descending the ravine. He didn't want that humiliation, for either of them.
He glanced up once, half-way down. Avon was still standing, silhouetted now against the sky, watching him.
Jenna had hoped he would be awake. He had taken the first watch, and Cally had relieved him on the flight deck barely half an hour ago; and none of the others, in the cabins that she had passed, had seemed to be able to sleep any more than she had. She hesitated, then activated the light control at half-intensity.
Blake had inhabited this cabin for only a few hours, but already it was in chaos. Somehow, he had never picked up the long-term spacer's habit of compulsive neatness. Jenna's own space-trained instincts urged her to nudge shut the cupboards, to stow away the hand viewer and the tumbled stack of cubes that lay beside it, to find a drawer for the spare nightshirt that had been impatiently flung aside and to stand the stray boot neatly beside its fellow.
They'd all ended up with the habit of picking up after Blake, in the old days. If you had to share a ship with him, it became necessary out of sheer self-defence. It wasn't that he was unwilling to do it himself, only that he had a tendency to become distracted half-way through which was apt to make matters worse... so you either shut your eyes to Blake's chaos, like Avon, and did your own work elsewhere, or you became adept at restoring order in a few swift touches before matters could get any worse. She'd done so often enough - in the old days - and Blake, being Blake, would be carelessly, generously grateful for a few minutes before rushing off to the next urgent matter that claimed all his attention.
But Blake was currently asleep at the heart of it all, his face buried in the crook of one brown-sleeved arm, the other arm flung up protectively. Despite the light, he had not stirred. Jenna hesitated again. Finally she twitched aside the dangling sleeve of a discarded shirt, fastidiously, and sat down on the edge of his bunk, reaching across to take hold of his shoulder. She shook him. "Blake!"
He'd acquired the spacer's waking habits, though. She could feel him tense into instant alertness under her hands, dark eyes narrowing, focused and coherent as he came up onto one elbow. He blinked. Perhaps not so coherent. "Jenna?"
Blake rolled over and sat up. There was an edge of contempt in his voice. "You might at least have had the decency to wait until Tarrant's bed was cold -"
Jenna refused to let him see her wince. "Oh, don't be a fool, Blake -" Her mouth twisted on the familiar words. "I couldn't sleep. I couldn't stop thinking. About Sula. About the rebellion."
His eyes were wary now.
"You and I are the only ones who know the plans. The others think we've got a chance - even without Sula. But we haven't, have we?" She gripped his arm.
"The network is Sula's. The contacts were Sula's. Most of the information is in Chesku's apartment where none of us can get at it. The whole plan depended on taking out the Residency from the inside, right at the start. And without Sula there's no way we can get anyone in there.
"It's going to be like the last time, Blake. Do you remember? - sitting up in orbit, helpless, listening to disaster unfolding, listening to the cold reports of purges, containment, reprisals. Only this time we won't be in orbit. We'll be down there with them, trying to implement a crippled plan without a figurehead."
His fingers had closed around her own forearm, but she overrode him. "Listen to me. Whom are you planning to put in as President? What chance do you think any of us would have of pulling it off at this stage?" Her voice cracked. "Why do you think we needed a renegade like Sula in the first place? We're going to die, Blake, we're all going to die!"
His grip was fierce on her arm. "Do you think I don't know, Jenna? Do you think I didn't know that from the moment she pulled the trigger? Do you think Avon doesn't know?" He released her. "Why else do you think he came with us?"
"And Vila? And Dayna? She's hardly more than a child! Why are you throwing lives away, Blake? What good is it going to do anyone?" She thrust hair back impatiently out of her eyes, in a gesture that dashed away tears of frustration before he could see them.
Blake caught her by the shoulders. "And if we don't go to Earth? What do you imagine will happen then? We can't call the rising off, Jenna. As you pointed out, I don't have Sula's contacts, I can't get messages out; I don't even know where half the trained men are located. Do you think they'd take an order like that from me, anyway? The Earth end of it is Sula's - it always has been. Without Sula, I can't even stop it. There's going to be a rising, whatever we do!"
"And it's going to fail."
Blake's eyes were steady. "And it's going to fail. That's what Tarrant did to us, Jenna. It was our last chance, and we staked everything on it. I called in every drop of credit I had. I browbeat people into believing in me, into lending me men, into sending us aid they could ill spare. And it's all going to be thrown away. Because of Tarrant."
"Because of Avon!" she flung back at him. "Because Avon doesn't forgive and doesn't forget -"
"-and if Tarrant had deliberately set out to hurt Avon as much as possible, he couldn't have done a better job!" Blake broke in furiously. "What would you have expected from him, under the circumstances? Sweetness and light?"
He seemed to become abruptly aware that his grip was bruising her, and let go, flushing, as Jenna pointedly massaged the injured shoulder. "We should have told him," he said bitterly. "The consequences could hardly have been any worse."
Jenna sat very still, holding herself rigid. "Aren't you going to ask how much I told Tarrant?" she goaded him, through set teeth. "Don't you want to know the details of how I betrayed you?"
"I think," Blake said gently, "I'd rather - not know."
"Like Avon?" Jenna retorted.
"I'm not Avon." Very gently. His eyes saw too much. "Jenna, you didn't get Tarrant killed, no more than I did. Or Vila. Or Dayna. Or Avon. Tarrant got Tarrant killed. And I'd have prevented it if I could, if I'd only guessed, if I hadn't been so blind jealous -"
He broke off. "Don't claim you didn't know, Jenna."
"Loving you... hurt too much," Jenna said levelly, after the silence between them grew too much to bear. She was intensely aware of him, so close, watching her. "I wanted something simpler. With no questions asked, and no demands on either side." Why didn't he do something? Why did he just sit there, watching her, waiting?
"What did you want me to do, Blake? Beg? I tried that, remember?"
"By the time I - understood what I wanted," Blake said at last, "it seemed to be - too late." He looked away, finally; then glanced up. "I don't want to go through that again, Jenna. I don't think I can take it. Not now. If we both come out of this alive - to coin an old phrase -"
Perhaps it was the shared smile that finally broke the barrier between them. She hardly knew how it happened; but it was good, very good, to have his arms around her again, to let her own fears and tension ebb against that warm strength... She let him pull her closer, relaxing into him. She wouldn't demand anything more. Yet. On the other hand -
But: "I've got to go to Earth," Blake said softly against her ear. "Without any leadership at all it will be ten times worse. You've seen that. And this time it was my plan that set all this in motion. I've got to save what I can. And we've got the Liberator - we never planned for that - perhaps the teleport can get someone inside the Residency? Though they know about the teleport now, they're bound to have it protected; but Dayna might just get her chance at Servalan yet -"
Jenna felt something twist painfully inside her. She held him more tightly. Oh, Blake, won't you ever give up?
Cally, on the flight deck. As she was, last night. Not such a long watch, tonight, with seven of them on board; or six. Because Avon has neither spoken nor looked at anyone since coming on board. The next watch is nominally Avon's, but it has been tacitly arranged that one of the others will be taking it.
But memories of last night are overwhelming. For Cally, who has slept for most of the intervening hours, it does not feel like last night. It feels like the previous shift - only a few hours ago... the ghost of Sula's laugh still haunts the flight deck.
Kerril and Vila, half-awake and half-asleep respectively. Both confused by the sense that disaster has overtaken them when they were not looking. Both pitting stubborn incomprehension against unwitnessed facts; unable to believe, at a gut level, in what has come to pass. There has to be some mistake...
Vila's waking dreams are troubled by the figure of Dayna, strangely insistent that he must have seen Tarrant that morning, he must. But last night is hazy, and this morning is a complete blank, no matter how hard he tries. His last conscious memory of Tarrant is of a laughing figure half-glimpsed down a corridor, hand raised in greeting to somebody out of sight; it troubles him more than he cares to admit.
Dayna, curled on her bunk, drained from crying. Tarrant's cabin, next door, is achingly empty. She cleared it herself, this evening, before they sent Tarrant on his final journey into the heart of a sun; a journey she cannot help visualising, not as cleansing fire, but as the choking hell of the Amsterdam.
Cally says he probably died almost at once, before Dayna ever reached him. But in her mind, her own nightmares are rising again, of Servalan and Sarran. Her father, her sister, her home, her childhood, her whole life - gone in one day. And ever since then the Liberator had been her life, and she and Tarrant, the newcomers, the youngest, had fought and laughed and quarrelled and romped and argued like brother and sister in truth. And now he too is gone, and it seems that she alone cares enough to cry...
The seventh is Avon. Awake and enduring, in silence, a cabin that still seems to hold the scent of her. To claim another cabin would be an admission he is not prepared to make.
He would rather be anywhere but here; be back on his mountain-side, high and bare and dry and alone. Until Blake had come, making claims on him, trying to pull him back from the empty, painless place he had found.
And now he is trapped here with the memories of Anna, memories that he had once buried, memories that will not die again but turn to bitter slime in his fingers as he tries to thrust them away. He wonders, with the abstract corner of his intellect from which there is no escape, whether he will still be sane by the time they reach Earth, and the oblivion which Blake has, tacitly, promised him.
Beside the creeping grey bulk of the Perseid, the Liberator hangs almost motionless, deadly and graceful, a battleship never meant for human hands. Behind her, the obscure planetary system that holds Gauda Prime, lawless mining colony, is already no more than just another pin-prick in the great sphere of stars. The tips of her four raking blasters reach ahead towards the heart of the Terran Federation, Earth itself - one more blue planet orbiting a yellow sun, its importance out of all proportion to its size.
Where Servalan is, at this moment, putting the final touches to her plans to celebrate the inauguration of her new Residency with a banquet at which Councillor Chesku and his wife are, naturally, to be honoured guests...
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