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Of Renegades and Kings

By Jean Graham
"A true idealist demands the impractical.
A true realist demands the impossible."
-- Marilyn Vos Savant
 

"Setonus Prime, I think." Twisting an errant lock of hair, Blake leaned over the star chart stretched over Liberator's flight deck table. "It's a major Federation supply depot. An eminently suitable target."

"Agreed." The affirmation came from Morgen Tolen, a pipe-thin, sallow man of perhaps 40 who lounged beside Blake on the flight couch. He had reportedly led some dozen successful revolutions against the Federation on the outer worlds. To Kerr Avon, neither he nor his hawkish bondmate, perched at Blake's other shoulder, looked the part. Stern-faced and intractable, Seann Tolen might be mistaken for a judiciary, a banker, a Beta class instructor -- but never a revolutionary.

The others surrounding the couch were a motley collection indeed: Morgen's three 'lieutenants' -- Sol, Belus and Rica -- flanked in turn by Jenna, Cally and Vila.

Only Avon stood apart, eschewing Blake's summit meeting with the same calculated disinterest he'd practiced since Morgen and company had docked their battered freighter aboard and 'invaded' Liberator, at Blake's behest, four days ago. One would think that Gan's death -- not yet a week gone -- might dampen Blake's enthusiasm for bloodshed just a bit. But no. After that sickeningly maudlin display of false remorse and the brief (also staged) desertion of his crew for the company of a philosophizing parasite, Roj Blake was back at it. In spades.

"Avon?"

He realized that Blake had spoken his name in an annoyed tone, as though not for the first time. Avon turned from Zen's analysis dome, where he'd been running a check on three new medicinal substances discovered in Liberator's medical lab, and faced the crowd gathered round the flight couch.

"Yes?"

"Will it work?"

"Will what work?"

Exasperated, Blake clapped his hands together, rubbing the palms against each other. "It might help matters tremendously if you were to pay attention to the council's decisions, Avon."

Oh, so they were a council now, were they? How magnanimously democratic of them. Then again, he didn't recall ever having been offered a vote.

"Will what work?" he repeated, pointedly ignoring their illustrious leader's fit of temper.

"The detector shield. That is what you've been cobbling together for the past several weeks, or so you said."

Avon refused to be baited by the undisguised condescension. He schooled his voice to a chill, clipped monotone and said simply, "Yes."

A perplexed Vila cocked his head to one side. "Er, does that mean yes, it's what you said, exactly, or yes, the gadget will work, exactly?"

Avon addressed his comment to Blake and Morgen. "It should keep us off all but their extreme close-range detectors."

"That should be enough." Blake's hand made rapid movements across the tabletop. "We can meet Avalon's forces at Nantha, knock out the communications stations at Litanac, Bedra and Juffere, and end the run with a strike here." He tapped a satellite icon on the map. "On Servalan's doorstep."

Vila paled. "Strike Space Command Headquarters? You're kidding, aren't you? Please tell me you're kidding."

"In each attack," Blake said, ignoring the thief, "Liberator can go in first, using the shield, and knock out the detectors so that Avalon's ships can come in behind us."

Vila sent a pleading look in Avon's direction, plainly imploring the insertion of some common sense into this growing fiasco. It might well be too late for that. Avon's coldly personal preference had been to airlock Blake a year ago, just after Jenna's adamant refusal to abandon the man on Cygnus Alpha. Now it was too late for that as well. Blake had too many followers who would avenge him, and collected more by the hour. Liberator positively swarmed with them. When they rendezvoused with Avalon, there would be still more. Avon detested crowds even more than he loathed Blake's futile rebellion and the Federation it sought to overthrow.

"You'll need backups there," Morgen was opining over some tactical point or other on Blake's map. "And after the initial strikes, I suggest joining forces with the insurgents on Grettar. Then a bombing raid on the Federation outpost at Laches. It's a weak fortification, it won't take much to eliminate it and see the native population liberated."

"Whether they wish to be or not?"

Avon's question raised heads all around. Seann Tolen uttered a stifled oath and shot him a murderous look, but it was to Blake she spoke. "We could ask for more inspiring testimonials from your crew, Blake."

"You could," Avon replied, his smile holding no humor whatsoever. "You would not get them from me."

Blake's restraining hand prevented Seann's rise from the couch. He rose to approach Avon himself, arms folded in his 'I'm going to be very patient' stance. "If you have something to say, Avon..."

"I have a great deal to say. The problem, as always, is that you have not been listening. Apparently getting one of your crew killed was insufficient discouragement to deter you and your foolhardy crusade. I, for one, have no particular desire to be next on the death list."

Blake's 'patient' arms unfolded themselves and dropped to his sides, both hands clenched into fists. The Tolens materialized to flank him, each wearing an indignant glare.

"If you oppose the revolution," Morgen bristled, "what are you doing here, with Blake?"

"That wasn't Avon's fault," Vila chimed in from the couch. "He chose the wrong cellmate, was all."

Avon heard Cally quietly shush the thief; Blake seemed not to hear him at all. His eyes remained riveted on Avon, angry, affronted and suspiciously assessing. "I take it," he said with a deliberate pause to breathe, "that you have objections to the overthrow as planned?"

"Only one."

"And what would that be?"

"It is a war you cannot win."

With raised hands, Blake quelled outbursts from both his fellow rebel leaders. He stepped forward, squaring off chest-to-chest within inches of Avon. "You have a better plan? If so, we'd all like to hear it."

Avon deliberately snubbed the challenge by turning away, pacing toward Zen's fascia, pivoting back to face them. "Perhaps I have."

Seann Tolen angrily muttered another curse. "Blake, why do you listen to this prating egomaniac? We have work to do."

Blake's wrathful gaze remained locked on his adversary's. "All right, Avon. I'm listening. Just how would you go about overthrowing the Federation, then?"

The earnest tone was strictly for show; Avon doubted the man had any genuine interest in his recommendations. With all eyes upon him, he answered the question anyway. "You do not overthrow it..." He ignored Morgen's snort of contempt and finished, "...you undermine it."

"With the computers?" Cally conjectured. "A so-called bloodless revolution?"

Avon nodded. "From the inside out."

Predictably, Blake would have none of it. He folded the arms once again, and with lethal calm, said, "You tried that once before, as I recall. It didn't work then, either."

Avon stiffened, the only outward sign of umbrage at the reference to his failed embezzlement attempt. He'd been about to say I didn't have Orac, then, but Seann's outraged ranting precluded him.

"There are no bloodless revolutions! The only way to defeat the Federation is to turn its own ruthlessness against it!"

"You've all been prisoners of the Federation," Morgen put in. "You've less reason to doubt this than any of us."

Avon frosted him with a look. "Spoken like a true fanatic," he said with no inflection whatsoever.

All three aides leapt to the Tolens' defense this time, and suddenly everyone on the flight deck was talking at once. Blake, failing to quiet the melee, opted to disregard it instead. He again approached Avon, and over the babble of arguing passengers and crew, said, "I'm going to need the support of all my crew, Avon. Which means, I'm afraid, that I shall have to ask you for a commitment. You're the best in the known worlds with computers, or so you and Vila tell me often enough. The rebellion would benefit greatly from your help." With a dramatic pause (during which relative calm had returned to the room), Blake concluded with, "Well, Avon? Are you with us?"

Avon glanced up to find eight eager faces beyond Blake's all awaiting his reply. Though the trap had been neatly sprung, he had no intention of allowing Blake to snare him so easily.

"I'll let you know," he replied, voice chill with rancor. Blake's objections died mid-word when Avon turned and summarily marched off the flight deck. His point had been made; he saw no use in further argument. There were systems checks to be completed in Zen's main computer housings below decks. It was company he vastly preferred to that of Blake and associates. Let them debate their futile war council without him. Avon wanted no part in such insanity. He never had.

Cally watched Avon's departure with growing dread. Unlike Blake, she had not been deaf to the computer expert's pain at Gan's death. Nor had she failed to note his increasing intolerance for Blake's methods, Blake's ideals, Blake's revolution as a whole. Why Avon stayed at all had mystified Cally from the beginning. Blake was fire; Avon ice. In her experience, the two elements seldom failed to destroy one another.

"Is it wise, do you think," she asked Blake, "to push him so far?'

"One way or another," the rebel leader rumbled, "I'll have an answer.'

Morgen was livid. "Why do you tolerate this... this blatant disloyalty?"

Blake's response was a near-whisper. "Some would call what we seek to do disloyal. Don't let Avon's facade mislead you. His help could be invaluable to the rebellion."

"Surely his is the sort of help we don't need." That opinion issued from Belus, one of the aides. He met immediate agreement from his two companions as well as the Tolens. Seann gave Blake a particularly hard look.

"His kind will hinder, obstruct, even betray us, Blake. We can't afford to risk keeping him here."

Iron would easily have smelted in Blake's gaze. "I'll be the judge of that," he said.

Seann retreated, but Cally saw the hate-filled fear in her face, in Morgen's, in all of them.

"She could be right about Avon, just the same," Jenna said from the pilot's console. "He could be a danger to us."

"Or the other way round," Vila countered. "Give me a bloodless revolution any day. I'm no keener on bloodshed than Avon is -- especially not if it's mine."

Cally smiled tightly. "That is ironic, is it not?" she said to Jenna. "You consider Avon a threat to us; he considers us a threat to him."

"Either way," Jenna scoffed, "look out."

Morgen remained petulant, plainly dissatisfied with Blake's seeming inaction. "Well," he pushed, "what's it to be?"

Blake strode to his flight deck station, put one broad hand on the console and deliberately spoke without turning to look at them all. "For the last time," he grated, "I will handle Avon."

And that closed the matter.

None of them saw Avon for two full days. Cally tracked him down at last in a fifth level auxiliary computer station, immersed in a clutter of circuit modules and diagrams, the only things outside himself for which Avon ever displayed any measure of affection.

"Hiding down here is hardly likely to help the situation," she said candidly.

Avon's startled reaction revealed more than mere surprise at her unexpected appearance. Though he instantly shuttered the response, Cally had already seen the guilty look that confirmed her accusation.

"What do you want?" he snapped.

Never one for small talk, was Avon. All right then. She came straight to the point. "Do you really believe that successfully undermining the computer systems could topple the Federation?"

Avon lowered the piece of circuitry he'd been studying to look at her, suddenly ingenuous. "Yes," he said. No arrogance in the remark -- simply confidence, complete self-assurance.

"Without a war?"

"Yes."

"But surely wars would result once the computer systems failed? There would be anarchy throughout the known worlds."

He considered that as though the thought had not occurred to him. "Perhaps. That would be Blake's demesne, not mine."

"And how exactly would you undermine the systems?"

"Through the banking programs." A spark of avarice lit Avon's eyes.

"As you tried to do before?"

That grated. "1 did not have access to Orac then," he iced.

"But Orac, as you have often said, is only a computer."

"Precisely. A computer capable of reading -- and overriding -- other computers." Avon grinned, an expression utterly devoid of any warmth. "With one crack at the Federation banking system, Orac and I could bankrupt them beyond any hope of recovery. Cause and effect: empty the till, and the hierarchy collapses. You must understand, Cally, that the Federation is, above all, a government of the money, by the money, and for the money."

On the heels of that bit of cynicism, Vila bumbled through the door with Orac filling his arms. "Here you go, Avon. Little bugger wasn't happy about having his research interrupted, but maybe you can-- Oh, hullo Cally." The thief dumped his burden on the cluttered panel serving as Avon's work station. "Joining the ranks of the dissatisfied, are you?"

"Not exactly." She cast a curious look at Avon. "Frankly, Vila, I'd be more surprised to find that you had joined them."

"Well, you know me. I like to stay where it's safe."

Avon's look reflected a bored indulgence for the thiefs incessant chatter, but he said nothing.

"I do not think I understand," the Auron admitted. "Are you leaving Liberator?"

"I never said that." Avon gave the words no emotional inflection. They were a simple, Avonesque statement of fact.

"But that is what you intend?"

Her pressing the point brought a flicker of -- consternation?-- to Avon's demeanor, but as he had done with Blake, he firmly refused to be pinned down. "Does it matter?" He pushed Orac's key into place and the flashing box whined noisily to life.

"Yes" she replied honestly. "It matters to me. I would like you to stay. I believe in what Blake is doing, but I also believe he could do it much more efficiently if you -- both of you -- were to remain with him."

Vila, who had obviously misinterpreted her interest, looked disappointed. "Is that the only reason?"

"You believe in him," Avon echoed. "Blake's mad crusade nearly got you killed on Centero. It did kill Gan. And for what? He cannot win, Cally. No matter how many of the rabble he gathers round him, he cannot win."

"But you have just said that by undermining the computers--"

"And you heard our fearless leader's reaction," Avon interrupted. "He does not intend--"

He was in turn cut short by Orac's strident, waspish voice. *I have detected a signal,*  it reported, *transmitted to Federation Space Command Headquarters.*

Avon waited a beat before demanding, "So?"

*The message informs Supreme Commander Servalan that rebel forces will attack the supply depot on Setonus Prime within the week. The signal was transmitted eleven-point-eight minutes ago -- from aboard Liberator.*

"What?" The shocked query issued from three throats simultaneously.

Avon waved a chattering Vila to silence and said, "Who sent the message, Orac?"

*That is not a determinable factor. I can confirm that the signal was beamed from auxiliary communications on level five. The Zen unit has also detected the transmission.*

Cally saw Avon's gaze drilling virtual holes through the bulkhead into the auxiliary communications cabin beyond. He placed both hands on Orac's casing and said carefully, "Scan for life signs in auxiliary communications five."

*I have already done so. There are none.*

"Been and gone," Vila said. "They'd hardly hang about after that, would they?"

Cally shook her head. "They've not been gone long. You saw no one in the corridor, Vila?"

The thief paled. "Er... no. I mean I wasn't looking, exactly, but--"

"We were."

All three of them started at the intrusion of a new voice. In the doorway, Blake just behind her, stood Jenna, a confiscated Federation blaster tucked under her arm. The weapon pointed unerringly at Avon.

"Stand away from the table," she ordered. "Keep your hands where I can see them."

Disinclined to argue with Federation blasters, the computer tech complied, turning his glare on Blake when the rebel leader strode past Jenna into the room. "What the hell is going on?" Avon demanded.

Cally could hear the brittle shards of hurt and betrayal in Blake's reply. "I was about to ask you that." She had never seen Blake so angry. His usually-gentle face now wore a look of stormy, ill-concealed rage. "Why, Avon?" It was a poignant, rasping plea.

Realization quickly dawned on Avon's coolly composed features. His eyes strayed toward the communications room and slowly tracked back past Jenna's gun to Blake. "Do you really imagine I would be so stupid? So obvious?"

"You can drop the coy act, Avon," Jenna huffed. "It could only be you. Everyone else was accounted for."

"Everyone," Blake emphasized. "Zen confirms that you were the only person on deck five when the message was transmitted. That would seem to leave little doubt."

Cally watched Avon's confidence erode, visibly giving way to confusion and a very tangible apprehension. How, she wondered, could such a message have been sent if not by Avon? She could have sworn that his surprise at Orac's report had been genuine. Yet, if Zen had accounted for everyone else aboard... She could make no sense of it. Surely, as he had just said, Avon would never be so obvious.

"Orac," Blake commanded, "confirm the whereabouts of all crew members at point of message transmission 09.47 ship's time."

*As I am not a monitoring device, I can be no more specific than to say that Blake, Jenna, Seann and Morgen Tolen, Sol, Belus and Rica were located on the flight deck. Cally was on level three en route to level five. Avon was on deck five. Vila was in the process of retrieving me from the teleport room.*

In the midst of the computer's grudging recitation, both Tolens strode through the door, and the little computer room suddenly felt very crowded indeed. Blake and Jenna parted to allow them entrance, but Jenna maintained her threat to Avon with the gun.

"I'm generally not one to say I told you so," Morgen gloated, "but I did try to warn you about this man."

"Don't be an idiot, Blake." Avon's anger returned in force. "I would have nothing to gain by--"

"You have everything to gain," Seann accused, "if you're a Federation spy. We've only one recourse for your sort."

Morgen nodded in terse agreement. "Treason warrants summary execution," he recited, judge and jury passing sentence on the instantly condemned.

Vila dropped something, a loud clatter in the suddenly silent room. "Now wait a minute," he stammered.

"Not," Blake boomed, "aboard my ship. I have no intention of stooping to Federation tactics."

"You have no choice," Seann hissed. "He may have failed to trap you this time, forced you to change your plans, but let him stay and I guarantee you he'll find another way!"

Chaos broke out, several voices trying to talk at once. Only Blake and Avon, their eyes locked, remained silent amidst the din. They stood thus until the babble subsided and a tension-filled silence fell once again. Orac's whine was the only sound.

"Lock him in the hold, Jenna," Blake said at length. "I'll decide what's to be done with him. In due course."

The clamor of voices began anew; Blake quelled it with a sharp gesture of his hand. "Jenna," he repeated, and made another gesture at the door. She in turn swept the muzzle of the gun in that direction.

Avon ignored the unspoken demand, instead faced Blake one last time. "I sent no message," he said. The clipped, no-nonsense tone concealed nothing that Cally could interpret as deception. If anything, those four words had laid Avon's soul bare, spreading the naked, unadorned truth squarely at Blake's feet.

Not surprisingly, the rebel leader would have none of it. He said nothing, but his eyes remained unyielding and coldly accusing.

Stiff shouldered, Avon wheeled and marched out of the room past Morgen's sly smile and Seann's smug expression. Jenna followed with the gun, though for all Avon paid her any heed, she might as well not have been there. Cally wondered whether the blonde freetrader would actually shoot Avon were he to defy Blake's order of confinement in the hold.

She turned her own accusing gaze on Blake then, interrupting a gloating comment from Seann Tolen. "He was telling the truth," she said. "Avon sent no message."

Morgen scoffed at her. "Are the Auronae now mind-readers as well?"

"I can often sense the emotional discomfort of a lie in one I know. Avon was not lying."

Their leader remained unconvinced. "It's second nature to him, Cally. No discomfort need apply."

"I disagree. He may seem to lack any emotion, but he is not..." She had to let the sentence trail away. Blake was no longer listening. He brushed past her and a speechless Vila, then stalked directly between the still-chattering Tolens and out the door. The two revolutionaries went after him, talking all the while. Their magpie voices faded down the outer corridor, leaving the tiny room in sudden, deafening silence.

Vila broke the spell with a frustrated sigh. "Well," he breathed, "I may not be an Auron, but I know my Avons well enough. I believe him."

"So do I, Vila. So do I."

*     *     *

The lock pick proved useless on the cargo hold door. For the first time, Avon lamented not having asked Vila for lessons; his own lock picking skills were far from adequate. Woefully inadequate, in fact. Not that he had a broad range of places to go should he manage to escape the hold. The only possibility might be to steal that heap of unreliable bolts Blake's riffraff had arrived in. It might -- just might -- get him to a habitable planet. If one was near. If the fuel held out. If he could pilot and navigate the ship alone. If he could get out of here first.

Far too many 'ifs.'

He gave up on the uncooperative lock, slid the pick back into the concealing heel of his shoe and tried to make himself marginally comfortable on the bare floor. He had no doubt that their glorious erstwhile leader would put in an appearance ere long, to inform the condemned of his fate. That in itself might provide his only opportunity for escape. He would not relish killing Blake, but with his own survival in question, neither would he hesitate should it become necessary.

By his chrono, nearly seven hours had passed when the hum of disengaging circuitry signaled the door's opening. Avon looked up, waited. A cautious Blake finally stepped through into the room, and the tech caught a glimpse of Jenna lingering in the corridor, gun still in hand. He hadn't accounted for the possibility of Jenna. Somehow he'd have made book that Blake would come alone. Perhaps associating with the unwashed masses was beginning to teach the man caution in spite of himself. Pity. In this case, better he should have learned that lesson after he and Kerr Avon had parted company.

The larger man towered over him, glaring down with accusing eyes. "I've only one question," he said, "to which I would like an honest answer. Why?"

Avon gave him a toneless but entirely honest reply. "I didn't."

Clearly, this was not the response Blake had wanted. "It's a bit late for denials. We've already established that no one else aboard could have done it."

With one arm draped casually over a knee, Avon permitted rank disgust to permeate his voice. "Must you be naive as well as stupid? Whoever sent the message must have used a time-delay transmission module. It is the only possible explanation."

Snorting, the bigger man glanced back toward the open door, where Jenna's vigilant shadow fell across the threshold. "We checked for that. No such device was found in the auxiliary communications room."

"A self-destructing module then. That is how I would have done it. If I had done it."

Blake paced away, then swung vehemently back to face him. "No one else had opportunity. Nor did anyone else have motive."

"Someone did."

"No," Blake rasped out. "I don't believe you. I can't believe you. Morgen's people have been checked and double-checked -- even Orac verified them each and every one. All of them are above suspicion. All loyal to the rebellion."

"Oh, I don't doubt it. After all, betraying you was not the saboteur's intent."

"What?"

Obviously, the thought of something more sinister than a straightforward betrayal had not occurred to Blake. Avon smiled tightly and elaborated. "It does not require a genius to reason that you would easily detect such a transmission and alter your plans accordingly. Therefore, the traitor has one of two goals. He is leading you elsewhere into a pre-arranged trap..."

"Or?"

"Or he simply wants to be rid of me. Haven't your guests made that desire clear enough?"

Unswayed, Blake shook his head. "I know these people. Morgen and his wife helped form the Freedom Party on Earth. Their crew are all hand-picked, painstakingly screened. They are not saboteurs."

No. They are fanatics, and fanatics despise individualism, skepticism, cynicism -- all that I am. "Well now," Avon said aloud, "whoever he is shall be your little mystery to solve. When I am gone..." Dead or marooned, he thought bitterly. It probably amounts to the same thing either way. "When I am gone, he will still be here."

"All right, Avon. Enough." Blake's quiet rage scuttled any faint hope that he might listen to reason. "You leave me no choice, I'm afraid."

"Ah," Avon said knowingly. "So the executioner must now justify himseff to the condemned. Save your breath, Blake. You are no better than the madmen you conspire to overthrow."

That rankled. The bigger man's eyes flashed. "You can stop playing the innocent!" he spat. "You've wanted to be shut of us from the very beginning -- you've made a point of that. Well, you should be happy to know that your dreams will shortly come true. We'll be putting you off ship at Devank. It's a neutral planet in the 11th sector spiral rim, far from the Federation's influence, or anyone else's for that matter."

Avon scowled up at him. "Not far enough. Exile will not satisfy the bloodlust of these fanatics you've brought aboard, and you're a fool to believe otherwise."

"Perhaps," was the unexpectedly mellow reply. For only a moment, a hint of doubt tinged Blake's voice. "I'm sorry, Avon," he said. "But if the rebellion is to succeed, I... we... can't afford anyone without a total commitment, total loyalty."

What to say to that? Avon could think of nothing that hadn't already been voiced, and so they glared through an acrid, lengthy silence, so long that Jenna finally peered in to see what they were about.

"Are you ready?" she asked, a shade nervously.

Blake nodded, breaking gazes with Avon as he turned. He paused at the door to deliver a parting remark over his shoulder. "We won't meet again. Good-bye, Avon."

No point, really, in gracing that maudlin formality with a reply. When Blake had gone, Jenna tossed a last jaundiced look through the door before wrestling it shut. The lock cycled with a final echoing clank, leaving Avon alone with his thoughts.

Wash your hands of me if you will, Blake. If I find a way out of here, you may have occasion to eat those words.

Assuming Blake lived that long. His newfound friends were far from the compromising sort; hardly the bleeding-heart pacifist Blake was. Sooner or later, they would clash, and he would not have made book on Blake to come out on top of the conflict. A fool leading fools will only fall victim to other fools. Well, may you all go to hell. I will make my own salvation.

With an angry flourish, he removed the lock pick from his shoe once again and started anew on the security housing. He was damned if Kerr Avon would go like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. Not for Blake's -- or anyone else's -- satisfaction. Guilt or innocence was, in fact, irrelevant to the issue. He simply refused to be humiliated, made a pawn to Blake's glorious, foolhardy cause.

Two hours and uncounted imprecations later, the stubborn lock had not yielded. He had just pocketed the lock pick in disgust and resolved to try again later when a buzz-click echoed from across the massive hold. Avon was instantly on his feet, heading for the cover of two large shipping containers. The sound repeated itself with more clicks, then came the loud, reverberating scrape of a cargo door coming open. A moment of panic touched him: was it the interconnecting door or an outer hatch? Had the saboteur decided to be rid of him by opening the bay to the vacuum of space? The scraping continued, but nothing disturbed the bay's atmosphere. No suction, no depressurization. Avon's curiosity finally got the better of him. He peered around the boxes -- and only just stifled an audible sigh of relief. On the interconnecting bay platform, its huge door rolled aside and electronic lock flashing a violated red, stood Vila, dusting his hands and looking around the bay. Cally appeared in the doorway with another surprise -- Orac -- in hand.

"Are you sure he's in here?" the thief muttered. "I don't see him anywhere."

Avon stepped into the open, though he kept one hand concealed in the pocket with the lock pick -- his only potential weapon. You never knew who you could trust these days (therefore he wisely trusted no one).

"Oh," Vila said cheerily. "There you are. You're not really interested in hanging about in here I hope?"

Avon strode toward the platform, eyeing the bay beyond warily. "Just the two of you?" he asked with measured caution.

"And Orac," Cally said and sat the heavy computer down on the armored decking. "'The three of us have discussed it and decided that we agree with your assessment. The Federation can be defeated by other means than war and bloodshed."

Avon's mouth quirked. "And you intend that I should defeat it, do you?"

"With Orac's help." The Auron's gaze remained resolute, giving him no quarter. "Would you rather remain here? It might still be arranged."

Avon's grin escaped in a flash of white teeth. "I accept your terms," he said, and knelt to retrieve Orac from the deck.

"This way, ladies and gents," Vila chortled with a grand gesture at the open bay door. "One rebel ship ready and waiting for one master thief to spirit her away. Preferably to a nice safe neutral planet with wide open casinos, beautiful women..." He babbled on as they descended the ramp into the second bay, interrupting himself at the bottom. "Er, we don't have a pilot..."

"We have Orac," Avon said, and let that be an answer.

The Tolens' ship had lived its former life as an ore freighter. Not much to look at, she had at least been modified with rudimentary weaponry and engines that might, with a heavy dose of luck, push her to TD2. Vila scampered up its landing ramp to open a hatch which he had obviously 'unlocked' ahead of time. Noticing Avon's scathing visual appraisal of the ship, he shrugged and sighed. "At least it flies," he said.

Avon and Cally followed the thief onto the freighter's cramped, shopworn flight deck, where the computer tech cast scornful eyes on the antiquated instrumentation. "Fly, perhaps," he commented dryly. "But it will never outrun Liberator in a pursuit."

"Surely it needn't try." Cally tapped the silent plastic box Avon held and echoed his earlier words. "We have Orac."

He reflected her slow, easy smile. "So we have."

When she produced the little computer's activation key from a pocket, he accepted it, tucking it safely away inside his overtunic. "Just for the moment, however, it might be wiser to get Orac out of sight."

"Eh?" Vila puzzled as the tech secreted their perspex prize in a maintenance closet. "Why?"

"Precautions." Avon slammed the panel shut, moved swiftly to the pilot's console, began manipulating controls. "First, we make certain no one else is aboard." The old-fashioned sensor scan gave him that answer in an agonizingly slow crawl of data across a monitor screen. Three life forms on the flight deck, no additional readings. "So far," he thought aloud, "so good." Now to see if these museum piece computers could initiate flight procedures without alerting Zen. If not, he may need Orac sooner than he'd planned. "Retract the ramp and close the hatch, Vila. With a little luck, we'll be departing shortly."

"Not just yet, I'm afraid." Blake's voice brought Avon's hands up from the console as though it had suddenly sprouted poison spikes. When he turned, it was to find not one but two figures on the landing ramp just outside the hatch. Seann Tolen stood smugly at Blake's side, another 'appropriated' Federation blaster cradled in her arms.

"What's the matter?" Avon queried in his nastiest tone. "Wasn't Jenna available for bodyguard duty this time around?"

Both Cally and Vila came to flank Avon as Blake and his armed companion moved onto the flight deck. Seann ignored them, pointing the weapon directly at Avon. "Treachery breeds more treachery." She recited the words like some ancient well-rehearsed litany. To Blake she added, "I told you he was dangerous. If you don't kill him how, he will infect more than these two. And we will have lost the war before it's even begun."

"Oh by all means." Avon rose from the flight chair, oblivious to the gun that unerringly followed his every movement. "Purge the dissidents from your midst, assassinate the renegades, secure the unwavering devotion of your rabble flock. How many will you need to kill, Blake, to assure the absolute purity of the remainder?"

Barely concealed rage darkened the rebel leader's face. With whitened knuckles, he clutched a studded hull strut near the freighter's hatch. "That is not the way it is," he insisted.

"His kind twists everything," Seann smirked. "He lies well, but the moment he sent that message, he signed his own execution order."

"Avon sent no message," Cally said calmly. "But you did, didn't you? A timed device, programmed to self destruct without trace as soon as the transmission was complete."

The woman's smirk became a grimace. "You'd say anything to defend him, wouldn't you? A traitor's traitor? The rebellion is my life. I would die before I'd betray it."

Avon had no doubt that she meant it, too, but he seized on Cally's thin lead just the same. "Oh yes. But you can't afford iconoclasts in your perfectly-ordered regime, can you? They... I... constitute a threat to your authority."

Seann's hands trembled as she grasped the weapon tighter. "Shut up," she breathed.

Avon paid no heed. "Since you cannot tolerate a threat, you have to be rid of it, permanently, and by any means. Even murder."

"Avon..." The cautionary word came from Blake, whose own facade had begun to crack the moment Cally had made her accusation.

For several heartbeats, a deafening silence hung between them. Avon shattered it with a single, sharp syllable, making Vila jump. "Well?" he demanded. "What are you waiting for? Murdering your way to the top takes practice. Why don't you get on with it?" Final gauntlet thrown, he stopped there, the fatalist in him resigned to the consequences. He would prefer death to a life spent in thrall to Blake, the Tolens -- or the Federation. Weary of it all, he no longer saw any distinction.

Swearing, Seann closed her finger on the trigger. In the same instant, Avon was peripherally aware of Cally charging across the impossibly wide gap between them, diving for the gun. He heard Vila cry out, saw him duck for cover that wasn't there. Blake bellowed something lost under the deafening explosion of the shot. The rebel leader had lashed out to grab the gun barrel, to force it down toward the deck.

Too late.

Avon failed to stifle a cry of pain when the charge burned a path of fire through his left thigh. It threw him with brutal force against the console, from there to the deck when the injured leg would no longer support his weight. Through a blood-red haze, he watched Cally become airborne, colliding feet-first with a screaming Seann Tolen. The guerilla tactic sent its target flying backward to slam against the bulkhead; Blake's grip on the gun had wrenched it free in the moment before Cally's kick struck home. Now he held it by the barrel like a snake-handler grasping a poisonous viper. Still screeching obscenities, Seann quickly recovered her balance and launched herself at Cally. Blake intervened. His free hand struck out, a savage backhand that sent the raging woman spinning away from him. A sickening crack signaled her collision with the same bulkhead as before; this time she crumpled to the deck, head twisted to an impossible angle, and did not move again.

Ashen, Blake knelt and placed two fingers to Seann Tolen's throat. He looked up at Cally with a distraught expression. "I never meant..."

"No," the Auron said curtly. "But she did." Cally headed for Avon straightaway, bending to expertly examine his wound. Vila had reappeared, still half-hiding behind the flight console. They all watched Blake rise from the dead woman to turn stricken eyes on them.

"I never meant..." he said again, and again left the sentence hanging bare.

"That," Avon gritted, "has always been your problem." Gruffly, he brushed away Cally's ministrations with one of Liberator's tissue regenerators. He also ignored her offered support, gripped the console strut instead, and forced himself to his feet -- to Blake's eye level -- defying the onslaught of sheer agony from the half-treated wound.

"I was wrong." The rebel leader bit out the words in grudging, acrid tones. "I've never achieved perfection, Avon. For that failing, I apologize."

The wrath in his words did nothing to temper Avon's own ire. "Perfection was never required of you," he said. "A little common sense might have been sufficient."

"That's true," Vila's nervous babble interjected. "I never wanted perfection. Just a little comfort. A little safety. That's all I ask."

"You'd have little enough of either on Blake's ship."

Avon's charge hit home. The fire in the bigger man's eyes faded like a dying wind, replaced by remorse, defeat, and a deep sadness. "I'm sorry for you, Avon," he said bitterly. "For all of you."

A different Blake -- one Avon scarcely recognized -- slung the rifle strap over one shoulder, and looking every inch the vanquished warrior, bent to gather Seann Tolen's limp body into his arms. Without another word, he carried his silent burden down the ramp, across the deck and out of the landing bay.

Avon stood rigid and immobile until the hiss of the bay door's seals confirmed Blake's exit. Only then did he give in to the weakness inflicted by the laser wound: he sank back against the console, nearly falling. Cally, who had taken two tentative steps after Blake and halted, turned back now to reach out for Avon, but again he brushed her away. "No. No time. Close the hatch. I'll start the pre-flight sequences." He used the console for support, bypassed the thief's shyly proffered hand, and fell into the pilot's chair with a grimace. "Vila..." He fumbled in a pocket for the perspex key, pushed it firmly into the other man's hand. "Tell Orac to finish the override sequence. Get those bay doors open. And incapacitate Liberator's weapons systems."

Hatch closed, Cally dropped into the chair beside him. "You can't think Blake would fire on us!"

"It will not take him long to discover that I am leaving with more than a broken down rebel freighter and two of his erstwhile crew.

Cally's gaze traveled to Vila lifting a flashing Orac out of its hiding place. She said nothing more, but began hastily pressing the engine-firing controls at the co-pilot's station.

A moment later, the small renegade craft shot from Liberator's bay into deep space, on a heading for the fifth sector rim planet Teldor. When the great ship tried to follow, Avon ordered Orac to disable her engines. When they were finally safe away, he sat back and at last allowed Cally to resume fussing with the healer/regenerator. Teldor, he reflected, would make a perfect hideaway. Remote, sparsely populated, outside the Federation's influence yet sporting three of the large casinos Vila found so attractive. The ideal place from which to direct the new rebellion.

In short order -- a year from now, perhaps -- the old Federation would fall, collapsing in upon itself like a tower of paper cards put to the torch. It would expire in part from its own greed, its own corruption, but it would be aided by an unseen angel of death who would silently help it along on its journey to hell, all the while seeing to it that, simultaneously, a new king -- Blake -- would rise to power. Neither side of this cosmic conflict would ever know that a renegade's intervention had designed and delivered their fates.

The new regime would have every chance to prove itself worthy, to try its wings, to prove its ideals, to free the oppressed, and so forth. For the avenging angel, there would be power and control without involvement, wealth and freedom without liability, victory with total anonymity.

Avon's smile blossomed at the thought.

He could live with that.
 


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