Sacrifice and BetrayalBy Jean Graham
"As a matter of fact," he said, "we don't like it either."
"So you've said." Avon checked and rechecked the power pack attached to his weapon, then moved into the teleport bay with a determined stride. Had Cally not been occupied on the flight deck, he was certain, she would have added her objections to the lot. No matter. He discounted them all. "I go alone."
"To meet Servalan?" Vila marveled.
"On a prison planet?" Dayna added.
Avon merely smiled tightly and checked the power pack a third time.
"She hasn't had her hands on the presidency a terrestrial month," Tarrant put in. "Her fleet is still in ruins from the war, her government is shaky at best. And now she wants to strike some sort of bargain with us?"
"With me," Avon corrected. "It isn't quite the same thing."
"It's a trap," Dayna snorted.
"Perhaps," he conceded.
"Then let me go with you," she insisted. "I'll just kill her and then we can all get out of here."
His look said 'no' without any need of words. Dayna smoldered at the implicit condescension, but Avon had no time now for her childish bravado. An impetuous girl bent on revenge was the last thing he wanted in a face-off with Servalan.
"She could be planning to shoot you on sight," Tarrant suggested. "In which case, don't expect us to come looking. Little point in rescuing a corpse.
"I'll keep that in mind." Avon's gun snapped from its holster as he assumed a ready stance."Put me down, Vila."
He watched the three of them 'dissolve' in the white nimbus of the teleport effect, replaced in a moment by an uneven, grassy courtyard. Linear runs of crumbling rock and mortar broke the green. Amidst the one-time walls, Avon spun in a complete circle, but saw no one. What he did see were high walls and towers of ancient stone hemming him on four sides. Tiny, slotted windows looked out from those walls onto a grey, rain-swollen sky. It had the look, the feel, the odor of tremendous age, this place, and he detested it instantly, no less so because the repressive clouds were pelting him with a fine, needle-cold mist.
Once again he turned a full circle, more slowly now, warily scrutinizing the surrounding stone structures with their stairs, walkways, battlements. He saw heavy wooden doors, deeply scarred and secured with iron hasps; the decaying ruin of a guard house standing mute vigil beside a solid, wood-and-iron gate The latter barred a massive archway; Avon musingly wondered if it concealed a drawbridge, and what purpose this relic had served in the first place. How like the Federation to take over and make prisons of the remnants left behind by a native race -- a race they had in all likelihood exterminated.
He wheeled at a sudden movement -- the scraping of a door -- and came face to gun with Servalan. She emerged from shadow, draped in flowing and glitter-strewn white, a triumphant smile on her blood-red lips. She seemed to glide toward him despite the spongy earth beneath her stiletto heels. And though he kept his gun on her and his eyes on the doorway, no one else appeared; for the moment, he was satisfied that they stood alone in the courtyard.
"Avon," she said effusively when she'd come to a stop a few meters away. "I'm so glad you could come."
His tone was colder than the rain. "We'll skip the amenities, if you don't mind. Your message said you had a deal to offer. I'm listening."
Her golden-brown eyes, as wily as they were beautiful, widened in mock surprise. "Oh come now. Surely we can at least go inside, out of the weather?"
"No." The gun's barrel emphasized his reply. "Say what you have to say here, in the open."
"Why Avon," she demurred. "Anyone would think you didn't trust me."
"Anyone," he said, "would be right. I'm still listening."
With exaggerated resignation, she pressed manicured fingers together in front of her and said, "Very well. It's quite simple. I am proposing..." The slightest of pauses here. "...an exchange."
He tried to read the sly eyes, to divine some clue to her deception. In the end, he had to ask, echoing her words. "An exchange?"
"Yes. One prisoner for another. No conditions. Your ship and your crew will be allowed to depart unimpeded."
Not that you could stop them, he thought sullenly. She had already implied that he himself constituted half of the proposed exchange. Who did she hold prisoner in this fortress that she presumed important enough to persuade Kerr Avon to give himself up? Blake, perhaps?
Surely Servalan was not that naive. There was no one breathing for whom Avon would willingly sacrifice his freedom. Not even Blake. If that was indeed her scheme, the new president had severely miscalculated.
She raised a hand above her shoulder to signal someone. Avon's gun reacted, centered on the movement of shadowy figures in the doorway through which Servalan had come. Two Federation guards emerged, a thin, diminutive woman held between them. Though the hair and clothes were wrong, something about her reminded Avon of...
He stiffened as the trio marched closer, halting a few meters behind Servalan. The woman fought, trying to twist away. He heard her say "No," and the voice provided him a final, shattering confirmation.
The name was torn from him, a cry that brought a cruel smile to Servalan's lips and evoked an instant, electric reaction from the prisoner. She shook free of the guards' grip -- and then Anna looked at him, recognition and fear both plain in her tormented eyes. Anna was looking at him...
But she cannot be Anna, cannot possibly be Anna. Anna is dead. Four years dead. They told me, and I believed them...
Then the troopers had released her and she ran, past Servalan and into his arms, murmuring his name in small breathless sobs. He pulled the gun back to allow her embrace, held it stiffly beside her left arm as she repeated his name, a litany recited between kisses. He did not respond, and when she realized it, Anna drew hack, hurt and uncertain.
"They told me you'd been killed," she said in a voice hoarse with tears. "I'd heard there was someone with Blake, but I didn't dare hope. Since that last night I..." The tears came then, growing to an anguished cry. "Oh, Avon, why didn't you come back for me?"
Painfully aware of Servalan and the two guards smirking just beyond, he looked into Anna's eyes and spoke the cold, bitter truth. "I didn't come back because you were dead."
"No..." She began to sob, and this time he responded to her renewed embrace, crossing his left arm behind her shoulders, holding her to him. His gaze, venom and bile, strayed to Servalan then, and his right hand tightened on the grip of the Liberator gun. Perhaps Dayna had been right about killing her...
The rain stopped. Water dripped from the ancient walls and somewhere a bird shrilled, a lonely, raucous sound in the stillness.
Servalan's voice was just as sharp. "Quite touching, I'm sure," she purred. "But there's the small matter of our agreement to consider. We'll allow you a few moments of privacy -- to discuss our terms. Our scans indicate that you have only one teleport bracelet, but do let me warn you -- one armed guard on the battlements will kill you both if there's the slightest hint of any trick." The feral smile mocked him. "This particular prisoner, by the way, is scheduled for execution. Sentence to be commuted should the exchange be agreed upon. When I return, Avon, I'll expect your answer." She pivoted, regal despite the damp, and marched straight between the waiting troopers. They followed her back into the building and pulled the massive door shut behind them.
Anna's sobs ceased with the echo of the closing door, but her grip on his tunic grew tighter. "Don't listen to her, Avon! Don't do anything she proposes! She means to kill you, and your crew if she can."
He scarcely heard her. More pressing questions plagued him just now. Questions as to how Anna Grant had managed a resurrection from the dead.
"How, Anna?" He had to know that, first above all. "How did you survive? How, when everyone, even your brother, was certain you were dead? Who hid you, Anna?"
"My husband..." She shook her head, clutching at his arms in frantic desperation. "Oh please, we haven't time for explanations. Go now, while you still can!"
He gazed casually up at the wall above Servalan's door, followed the crenelated masonry until he spied the helmeted figure with the rifle aimed down at them.
"And if I agree to her terms, what then?"
"She has a small fleet waiting to seize your ship, and to kill everyone aboard. We shall all die then. Avon, please..."
He moved her back, to arm's length, the better to search those pale eyes for any hint of falsehood. "She can't have told you that," he said. "How do you know...?"
"I overheard her gloating to one of the guards!" She pressed in close to him again, kissing his neck, his ears, his hair. "Run, my love. Run and never come near this place again. I couldn't bear to see you dead, to see her gloating over that as well!"
He pulled her away again, fixing her with a resolute stare. "I will not leave you here."
"No. Servalan underestimates Liberator. It has outrun her finest fleet before."
"But she will demand that you remain behind. I couldn't live with--"
"Oh, but you will." His tone brooked no further argument. "That is precisely what you will do. Live."
Decision made, he turned back toward the door just in time to see Servalan returning. Anna's protests fell instantly silent when the president of the Terran Federation strolled idly up to face them, guards and smile both intact.
"Well, Avon? What's it to be?"
He upended the Liberator weapon, detached it from the clip and held it out to one of the guards, who took it without comment.
"I agree to your terms," he said to Servalan.
"No..." Anna started forward; he stilled her with an outstretched hand.
"Your word," he continued, "that Liberator will be allowed to leave. That her crew -- and Anna -- will be permitted to leave with her."
"You have my solemn word," the president averred. And he believed her not at all, but if there was one chance, even among millions, that he could at long last save Anna from harm... "I must confess a certain disappointment," Servalan went on, interrupting his reverie, "to learn the great Kerr Avon has a weakness after all. I'd never have taken you for the sacrificial type."
He frosted her with a look, his voice equally chill. "Spare me the psycho-analysis and get on with it."
The president shrugged, displeased at his curtailing of her exultation. "Very well," she said."Give her the bracelet."
Though Anna's eyes impeached him, she offered no resistance when he took her right arm, clamped the teleport bracelet over the sleeve of the soiled grey prison tunic. The last time he had seen her, on Earth, Anna had worn only silver bed sheets, and her hair, golden red, had spilled onto her shoulders as she toasted him with the wineglass. He shook off the memory, held tightly to the bracelet Anna now wore, and looked expectantly at Servalan.
In her most triumphant tone, the president commanded, "Call the ship."
He did, avoiding Anna's eyes as he pressed the communications stud. He spoke in concise, rapid-fire words. "Dayna, teleport and break orbit, standard by nine. No questions. Do it now, Dayna!"
In seconds, the white nimbus of the teleport field enveloped Anna Grant, snatching her literally out of his grasp. The pleading in her eyes changed to something else in that final moment; something cold and acquisitive and not at all like the Anna he remembered.
If she was not Anna, but some cruelly engineered avatar of Servalan's making... then he had gambled quite badly indeed, and lost his life for nothing. And Liberator...
The misting rain had returned, the damp clinging to his overtunic and hair. Somehow it left Servalan untouched, as though not even the elements dared challenge her power. The president regarded him with open disgust for a moment, then turned toward the door with a sharp gesture to the guards.
"Bring him," she ordered.
They marched him at gunpoint into the ancient building, through stone corridors reeking with centuries of accumulated damp and mold. The room to which Servalan led them, however, bore no resemblance to the rest of the aged relic through which they'd passed. Instead, they stepped from one century into another, from stone-castle antiquity to modern-day technology in the space of a heartbeat. White paneled walls framed banks of electronic equipment and monitor screens, most of them manned by individuals in Federation fleet uniform. Avon's attention focused at once on the large central screen, where a tracking satellite view of Liberator showed the great ship breaking orbit -- straight into the path of five pursuit ships in V-formation.
Servalan sauntered to the screen's edge, watching the unfolding drama with a smugly satisfied expression. The guards halted Avon a few meters away. He'd never doubted that she would break her word and try to snare Liberator. But he was equally confident in Tarrant's ability to slip the net -- or blast through it.
The ship veered as though to charge past the approaching fleet, veered again when the formation broke and swarmed after it like a hive of angry insects. Then, incredibly, Liberator broke stride and simply drifted to a dead stall amid the closing attack vessels.
Avon gaped. Not a shot had been fired, no apparent contact made. Yet Liberator, like the proverbial tethered goat, sat and waited while the beasts of prey swooped in and claimed her. Two, three, four of them docked, one at each of the great ship's entry hatches. All the while, Servalan's triumphant air remained intact, as though she had been certain of victory from the beginning. Which could only mean...
He stubbornly refused to consider that line of thought. Not Anna. Surely not Anna...
"Dernal to command," a strange voice announced over the control room's loudspeaker.
Servalan floated to the nearest console, depressed a switch. "Captain Dernal," she said silkily. "You've completed your mission?"
"The ship is ours, Madame President," the voice reported matter-of-factly. "The crew are secured in the hold; we have manual control."
But not computer control, Avon thought fiercely. That you can never obtain without overriding Zen's voice lock. And for that you need either Orac... or me.
"Well done, Captain," Servalan was crooning to the radio link. "Report in at once. I shall take immediate command."
"Yes, Madame President."
For the first time since they'd left the courtyard, Servalan looked directly at him and smiled. "Thank you, Avon. Your assistance has been invaluable thus far. And I shall need you, just a bit longer."
He could scarcely frame the words of his response. "Not Anna," he rasped. "There is nothing you could have done to turn Anna..."
"Oh, really Avon. Naivety hardly becomes you."
He could have killed her in that moment, choked the life from her with his bare hands. But the guards restrained his lunge forward. Servalan smugly turned her attention elsewhere as Liberator's teleport deposited a stout Federation space captain near the control room's doorway. The man marched straight to Servalan's side and presented her with one of several teleport bracelets.
"Reporting as ordered, Madame President," he said crisply as she accepted the bracelet and clipped it primly to her left wrist.
"Place one on the prisoner as well," she told him.
The captain glanced uneasily in Avon's direction. "But Madame--"
Servalan flared. "Are you questioning a direct order, Dernal?"
"No Ma'am. It's just that Central Security's instructions were that--"
"Central Security are not in charge of this operation," she interrupted. "I am. And I will not be questioned, disobeyed or countermanded. Now do as you've been ordered."
With a timid nod, Dernal moved to obey her. Others left the control consoles to claim bracelets at the same time.
Avon heard little of their words, and never noticed the circlet being clamped around his own wrist. Something as dark and empty as the void of space had clamped itself around his soul, and the ice of its death grip had begun to engulf him...
* * *
"Come on, come on!" Vila panted his desperate request to the door-lock inside computer auxiliary 6A. Green wire, blue wire, cross-circuit and fuse those two... A tiny puff of smoke rose from the open lock box, and Vila exhaled a relieved breath. "That should discourage visitors for a few hours, at least," he muttered.
He turned to retrieve a flashing Orac from the floor, then hustled around standing computer banks to the rear of the cramped little room, where he plunked his burden down on a worktable beside a console of monitor screens.
"All right, Orac." He thumped the buzzing computer lightly. "I want to see what's happening on the flight deck. And don't tell me you can't be bothered. This is important -- a matter of life and death, as a matter of fact."
*I would tend to agree,* the fussy voice acknowledged. Without further comment, it activated the central viewscreen to afford Vila a Zen's-eye-view of Liberator's bridge and the people assembled there.
The thief slid into a chair and leaned forward to peer at the screen, breathing a silent prayer of thanks to un-named gods for his escape -- thus far -- from whoever had boarded the ship. He'd had the good fortune, when Avon's call had come through, to be running maintenance checks with Orac in the room beyond the teleport chamber. He did not recognize the petite blonde woman who materialized instead of Avon, and pulled a gun on Dayna. He'd promptly snatched out Orac's key to silence its whine, then peered through the small hexagonal opening in the wall. The deck beneath him surged with the power of sudden acceleration. Tarrant must have heard Avon's urgent call on the flight deck and gone to standard by nine the moment teleport was completed.
The blonde stepped smartly forward to shove the gun into Dayna's face, muttering a demand. Vila heard Dayna press the comm control and say, "Hold it, Tarrant. We've got trouble." Almost at once, the power surge died.
"All right, move," the small woman demanded. She motioned toward the exit with her gun, and sullenly, Dayna complied. Vila had watched them leave, then turned back to slap Orac's key into place.
*I must protest the unexplained interruption of our maintenance-- *
"Listen, Orac, and no arguments." Vila's words rushed as fast as his racing heartbeat. "I want you to take over Zen and all ship's functions, right now! We've been boarded."
He'd slipped through back corridors to the computer room then, and nervously fused the door lock. The view Orac now gave him did little to encourage hun: it showed several Federation troops at Liberator's control stations, Avon sitting statue-like on the flight couch, and though there was no sign of the blonde woman, Vila recognized the female in obvious command only too well.
"Servalan." He uttered the name like a curse. "I knew that whole business was a trap. I told them."
He started at the unexpected intrusion of Cally's telepathic voice. He'd forgotten about Cally. She must have been on the flight deck with Tarrant when the strange woman brought Dayna in at gunpoint...
/Vila, we are locked in cargo hold four. Help us, Vila, but take care. There were five pursuit ships; many of Servalan's troops have docked and boarded./
Hold on, Cally, he thought, although he knew she couldn't hear him. I have to know what's going on, first.
On the screen, one of Servalan's troops urged Avon, with a paragun, to stand and face the president.
"I have to know what's going on," Vila repeated aloud, and settled morosely down to watch.
* * *
Avon obeyed the trooper's demand woodenly, rising to approach Servalan at the front of Zen's amber fascia. He should, he knew, have felt anger, outright rage at the ease with which she'd tricked him. But as it was, he felt nothing at all. Nothing but the emptiness.
"You will order Zen to accept my voice print," she instructed.
The guard raised his gun to emphasize the demand. Avon ignored him. "Zen," he said in a voice as dead as the heart within him. "Record Servalan's voice print. Hence forward, you will accept her commands."
Gold light bars flashed erratically across the computer's round face.
Too fast, Avon realized,
and with a dulled, detached sort of curiosity, he also noted that the computer was taking far too
long to respond.
*Confimed,* it said at last, and Avon's eyes widened in silent shock
at the voice, which was
not Zen's at all, but Orac's, deeper and thinly disguised.
Servalan did not appear to notice, but then, she was familiar with neither
machine. "Zen," she
said, "my men inform me that there are only three prisoners in detention. From their descriptions, I surmise that we are missing one small Delta thief. Where is Vila Restal?"
Again the uncharacteristic delay while the light bars winked and shifted. *Vila Restal is no longer aboard Liberator.*
"What?" The president glared briefly at her troops. "No escape capsules were launched. There wasn't time. Therefore, he is still aboard. You will tell me where."
The huge computer hummed as though contemplating its answer. *Vila Restal's last known location was the planet Keezarn, twenty-one point seven days ago. No communication has been received from him since that time.*
She glanced dubiously at Avon, who deliberately returned nothing but a bored, noncommittal look. "Very well, Zen," she said imperiously. "My troops have also been unable to locate Orac. Tell me where it is, then."
When the silence lengthened, she lost patience and snapped, "You will answer the question, Zen!"
*The one called Orac,* it intoned in a fair imitation of Zen's phraseology, *is also no longer aboard.*
"No longer aboard!" She repeated the words with venomous disbelief. "I suppose Orac is on Keezarn as well?!"
*The one called Orac,* 'Zen' said after a somewhat shorter delay, *was stolen by Vila Restal upon his departure from Liberator twenty-one point seven days ago. Its last known location was also the planet Keezarn.*
Livid, she turned accusing eyes on Avon. "I can't believe you'd allow Orac to escape your clutches. Vila, perhaps -- he's worthless by comparison. But never Orac."
"Believe as you like," he said, nonplused. "Neither is aboard."
She seethed. "Vila stole Orac?"
Hiding the smile that threatened to surface, Avon said simply, "He was a very good thief."
Her angry reply was forestalled by a commotion at the main entry hatch. Several troopers entered from yet another docked pursuit ship -- and with them came Anna Grant.
She'd replaced the prison garb with a clean grey tunic, thoroughly military in design. Avon did not want to look at her, did not want to believe that this treacherous creature could possibly be his Anna -- the Anna who had shared his life, his bed, his love... But he couldn't keep his eyes from her despite the horror gnawing at his soul. His Anna would never have betrayed him. Unless she had never truly been his Anna...
She stopped on the stairs, locked gazes with him for one horrified moment, then headed toward Servalan with fire in her eyes. "Our agreement was that--"
The president cut her off with a perfunctory sweep of her manicured hand. "I have altered the agreement."
Anna bridled. "Kerr Avon was not to be part of the bounty," she persisted.
"Oh?" Servalan scoffed. "Did you honestly think I would release so valuable a prisoner into your care? You're a fool, Anna Grant. And a disgrace, I might add, to Central Security."
Avon, who had begun to feel too much like a bone between two fighting dogs, glanced up sharply at that last remark. Central Security? Anna?
"Don't believe her, Avon." Anna spoke to him for the first time since she had teleported from the prison courtyard. "It's not what you think. Not what it appears--"
"Her code name was Bartolomew," Servalan gloated, pleased at the ire her revelation engendered in Anna. "And she was assigned to 'run' you from the very beginning. Oh, they didn't know about the bank scheme at the start. They had some quaint idea that you were political. Typical Central Security bungling. So she stayed with you, through it all; became besotted with you, in fact. But in the end, she still had a duty to perform. She was, after all, supposedly Central Security's best agent."
His tortured gaze begged Anna to deny it, somehow prove it all a lie. But all she said was, "Avon..." as though the single plea of his name could somehow erase the accusations. "Avon, please!" She was touching him, holding his arms, trying to caress him again. But he responded to the advances not at all.
"Central Security's best agent," he repeated mechanically, painfully aware of their leering audience. "You were never even real..."
"It wasn't all lies. Not all of it! Not the part about loving you!"
He scarcely heard her. "Of all the things I've known myself to be," he said in a bitter monotone,"I never recognized the fool."
Servalan's guard pulled Anna roughly away then, and with an oath, she stalked back to the access way, turning back only long enough to aim a final threat at the Federation president.
"You'll pay for this, Servalan."
Then she was gone. Four of the troopers followed in her wake, their boots clumping away down the access corridor.
Dimly, Avon heard Servalan order Zen to set course for Earth. The victor, smugly triumphant, was returning home with her spoils.
For reasons he had no desire to analyze, Kerr Avon found it difficult to care.
* * *
Vila ran one hand through thinning hair."We've got big trouble, Orac. And I hope you've got some ideas, because I'm fresh out."
He was still trying to digest all that he's just seen. He'd heard Blake mention Anna Grant once, after Albion. But the thought that this cold-hearted witch could be anyone Avon would love...
*The requisite course of action is quite clear,* Orac huffed in reply to his statement. *You will have to release the others and reclaim the ship.*
"Oh, that's all is it? You got any suggestions as to just how I'm to do that, Plastic-brain? Those corridors are crawling with Federation troops."
*This room contains an access hatch to the sub-deck crawlway system.*
Oh yes. He'd forgotten about that, too. Hadn't Dayna and Avon used it to keep out of Tarrant's sight when he'd first boarded Liberator? Still sounded dangerous, though. And claustrophobic.
"Is that the best you can come up with? Can't you just flood all but this room and cargo hold four with nerve gas or something?"
*That would require the manual attachment of gas canisters to the ventilation intake vents in maintenance chambers four, five, six and--*
"Okay, okay, forget that. Just release the lock on cargo hold four then."
*The hatch on cargo hold four has been secured by manual override. It will therefore require manual--*
"Manual release," Vila chorused with a sigh. "Wonderful. Fat lot of help you are, you flashing heap of spare parts. And while I'm crawling around under the deck, what happens if Servalan starts asking 'Zen' more questions? Who'll coach you on the answers then?"
*I am perfectly capable of maintaining the fiction as establish thus far. Servalan will be informed that our course and speed is Earth at standard by seven. Flight computers aboard the accompanying pursuit craft will be altered to correlate this information. Our true course remains non-specified sector twelve at standard by three. I really must learn more about this game. The possibilities would appear to be virtually endless!*
"Eh?" Vila had the feeling he'd just missed something. "Game? What game is that?"
*Prevarication!* the diminutive computer enthused. *The human capacity for falsehood is unsurpassed anywhere else in the known wor--*
"Later, Orac," Vila groaned. "Now let's go over the story one last time..."
* * *
Servalan had insisted on taking the pilot's position, relegating four other stations to her guards. All four had removed their helmets and settled in, long ago discovering that they had little to do and already looking decidedly bored.
Avon, though he had no idea why, had been permitted to remain, resuming his position on the flight couch. Perhaps Servalan considered his presence a form of insurance. Protection from anyone or anything that might attempt to cut off life support to the flight deck, or activate Zen's hallucinatory defense mechanism. Not an unwise move, all told; one he might have used himself. But someone or something was at work against her just the same, though she wasn't aware of it yet. The vibrations pulsing through the deck at his feet were nowhere near the strength of a standard by seven space drive. He could only hope that Orac/Zen had lied about their destination as well.
They had neither seen nor heard from Anna since her indignant departure from the flight deck. She had re-boarded the docked pursuit ship and flown off to join the flotilla accompanying Liberator to Earth. If indeed they were going to Earth.
He could still find little within him to care what became of Liberator or her crew. But the numbness had begun to give way to a quiet fury, a rage directed entirely inward. With a fatalist's eye view, he damned Kerr Avon for a fool a hundred times over, and then went back to damn him again. How had he ever been so naive as to think that anyone -- Anna, Blake, even his own family -- could be trusted? The innocence of youth, perhaps. Well, he would suffer the delusion no longer. Never again...
"Zen." Servalan's voice broke in on his reverie. "Are you continuing to monitor any attempted transmissions from flotilla nine?"
In completely un-Zen-like tones, the computer snapped, *Well, of course I am! *
The president merely smiled at the machine's impudence. "And have there been any attempts by the flotilla to contact Central Security?"
*Pursuit three attempted such a message thirteen point six minutes ago. *
The blood-red lips tightened ever-so-slightly. "And I trust you blocked the transmission?"
"Good. You really are quite a clever machine, Zen. Not at all what I expected, after our brief encounter over Kairos. I shall have to find some suitable reward for you when we return to Earth."
*I require no reward,* the pseudo-Zen declared, distinctly miffed.
Servalan's intended rejoinder was curtailed when one of her guards sat abruptly upright at the communications console.
"Madame President... Pursuits one, two and four report they are under attack!"
"What?! Zen, I want visual, immediately!"
The viewscreen irised open at her command, just as the guard spoke up again. "Pursuit two reports the attackers are..." He paused, blinking in disbelief. "Madame, they report the attackers are pursuits three and five!"
He hadn't yet completed the sentence when one of the ships on screen burst into flaming debris and spiraled off into the void.
"We've lost pursuit one," the guard said breathlessly.
Servalan swore. "The fools. Arm all ship's weaponry, Zen. Fire on pursuits three and five at once."
*Weaponry is not available,* Orac/Zen informed her perfunctorily.
Before the president could argue further, a half-dozen armed troops clattered onto the flight deck from both entryways. Four of them moved to cover the guards at each flight position; the last two bracketed Servalan, their rifles aimed. Avon watched dispassionately from the couch: no one had acknowledged his presence.
The ensuing battle on Zen's screen temporarily forgotten, Servalan turned an incensed glare on her helmeted captors. "And what is the meaning of this?"
"You'll come with us, Madame President," the muffled voice answered. "Now."
"You commit treason," she ranted. "I'll have Anna Grant and the rest of Central Security on the execution block for this!"
"Now, Madame President. Move." His rifle swung toward the doorway and back again. Fuming, she led the parade off the flight deck, until one solitary armed trooper remained. He did not speak, merely slipped into the pilot's chair and sat back to watch the battle as nonchalantly as he might watch a vidplay. A second ship burst into flaming death on the screen. No way to tell which side was prevailing: all Federation pursuit ships were unerringly identical.
Avon weighed the odds, decided they would never be better than now, and opted for living a while longer. Even if, as Vila would say, he had to die trying... Carefully, he reached beneath the cushion beside him. Ever since the incident at Obsidian, he'd kept a small handgun concealed inside the pillowing.
Inwardly, he laughed at his own inconsistency. An hour ago, he'd gladly have allowed Liberator and all aboard her to perish. Now, however, the survivor in him would choose to fight -- if only for the privilege of facing Anna one last time.
The trooper, still faceless behind his green-rimmed helmet, sat raptly at the pilot's console, watching Zen's screen. Avon shot him through the heart before the man could raise his forgotten weapon, then rose and walked calmly round the flight couch to the weaponry console, tucking the small gun out of sight beneath his leather tunic.
"Orac," he said, "have Zen put up the force wall and clear the neutron blasters for firing. Target the remaining three pursuit ships and commence immediate attack."
*Oh, very well,* the prissy voice conceded with bad grace. *Force wall activated. Neutron blasters cleared. Targets ranged...*
Triple beams of violet plasma streaked toward the three ships. One struck its mark, sending the fighter craft plummeting out of view. The others veered away, milled in momentary confusion, and then at last opened fire on Liberator.
As the console lurched with the impact of the first volley, Avon unleashed a cold and humorless grin. "Now, Orac," he breathed between clenched teeth. "Now, we fight."
* * *
Clutching a purloined Federation gun, Vila trailed after Tarrant and the girls with mounting trepidation. They'd already fought two pitched battles with Federation troops and were still trying to make their way to the flight deck. But something damned peculiar was going on. The Federation troops were also fighting each other.
They were approaching the escape pod bay when more gunfire erupted. All four of them flattened themselves to the corridor wall, their motley collection of guns at the ready. In the same moment, Liberator rocked with the force of an outside blast.
Tarrant glanced back toward them with an uneasy smile. "Nothing like having all hell break loose at once," he whispered.
As more gunshots echoed from the bay, Dayna said, "I'd give a hell of a lot just to know what's going on."
A uniformed trooper stumbled into the corridor as she spoke. Four guns snapped toward him, but he collapsed with a gasp before any of them fired.
"I think it is time we learned what is going on," Cally suggested. She motioned toward the bay with her gun.
Tarrant nodded. "I'm for that. I'll go first, shall I?"
When no one objected, the pilot crept forward to the juncture that formed the bay's entrance, paused and waited. Silence. Vila found that more ominous, somehow, than the gunfire. Weapon extended, Tarrant peered around the bulkhead -- and promptly ducked a laser bolt that scored and blistered the wall behind him. He returned fire from the floor, rolled away from another blast, then scrambled to his feet just as a loud thump echoed from inside the bay. Dayna led them forward when the pilot disappeared around the juncture, but before they reached the door, Vila heard the whoosh of an escape capsule launching. They arrived to find Tarrant alone in the bay. Alone but for the bodies of three Federation soldiers littering the floor.
"What's happening?" Vila panted. "Since when do the Feds turn on each other?"
"Perhaps since we became worth fifteen million Federation credits," Gaily theorized. "Who knows?"
Tarrant bit his lip. "Well whatever the reason, the illustrious president just ditched her prize and opted out in that escape pod."
"Servalan!" Dayna cried as Liberator rocked with another strike against the force wall. "I say it's time to move, then. Let's get to the flight deck and see if we can vaporize that capsule before one of the pursuit ships picks it up."
With murmurs of accord, Tarrant and Cally followed her out. Vila lingered a moment, then went along. He wasn't at all sure he'd like what they would probably find on the flight deck.
And he was right.
What they found were more bodies -- three Vila could see from the entry -- as well as two standing troops and that Grant woman, all coming in from the main access hatch, off another docked ship, he supposed. But by far the most frightening sight was the bleak, utter emptiness in Avon's eyes when he turned from the weapons console to face Anna.
In a blur, Dayna and Tarrant had called out and dispatched the two guards. Avon never blinked, and Anna Grant appeared not to notice.
"I told you it was not as it seemed!" she pleaded with the black, fathomless gaze. "I set all of this up, Avon!"
The computer tech's tone was flat, dead. "Yes," he hissed, and the menace in that single syllable made Vila shudder.
"We intend to overthrow Servalan, take control of Earth administration. We can do it together, Avon. You and I!"
"Nothing we couldn't do," he said, as though echoing another's words. "Imagination our only limit?" He turned away toward the viewscreen, where only the stars stretched now, into infinity. From among the four observers frozen in the doorway, Cally took a tentative step forward. Vila put out a hand to gently draw her back, shaking his head in silent warning. As though she were somehow aware that Avon's cryptic words had doomed her, the Grant woman's features hardened with lethal determination. She reached for a sidearm Vila had not noticed until now -- Cally's shouted warning came barely in time. Avon spun and fired. Where his gun had come from Vila had no clue, but he must have been holding it already, before he turned...
In the next instant, Anna Grant lay awkwardly on the deck with Avon kneeling over her. Vila felt suddenly like a voyeur, watching the oh-so-untouchable Avon gather his dying lover into his arms, cradle her, tenderly kiss her forehead.
Anna's voice, almost too faint to hear, whispered. "It wasn't all lies. Not all... I... let you go... my love."
The frail form went limp then, and the terrible quiet lengthened until Avon murmured something more. Vila had never heard a voice so desolate. "No," he said. "You never let me go. You never did."
Liberator's boarding parties were gone -- all the troops either killed or fled back to the sole surviving pursuit ship that had, until recently, remained docked with the DSV. It turned tail and ran for Earth the moment it was free of link-up. Zen confirmed that it had indeed picked up a life capsule en route.
* * *
Not surprisingly, no one thanked Vila for having had the foresight to teach Orac how to lie, or the courage to rescue the crew from cargo hold four. They simply went about the morbid business of clearing the ship of corpses, dragging all of them in turn to the airlock. All but one.
More than an hour had passed since the debacle on the flight deck. Avon had not moved in all that time, and no one had dared approach him.
Vila had walked back onto the flight deck and into an air of tension thick enough to slice. Tarrant, Cally, Dayna, all at their flight consoles, merely sat and stared at the bowed figure still cradling the body of Anna Grant. There were tears in Cally's eyes, the hint of mist in Dayna's. And in Tarrant's, the lost look of a very young boy with no idea how to cope with the dilemma at hand.
Truth be told, Vila had no idea either. But sooner or later, someone would have to do something, wouldn't they? Better it be sooner, he decided, and walking with deliberate care, he moved to the kneeling Avon and crouched beside him.
Avon jerked away at the first touch of Vila's hand, but when the other man tenderly persisted, permitted the second. The thief kept a light grip on his arm then, and tried to meet his eyes, but the computer tech's gaze was inward, to a time and place light years away.
"Avon... Come on, Avon. Give it a rest, then, eh? I'll just take her for you, shall I?"
With patient coaxing, Vila at last drew the clenched hands apart, and gathered Anna Grant's unyielding corpse into his own arms.
Avon rose then. Like a man in a sleepwalker's trance, he moved toward the exit corridor. Dayna started after, but Tarrant held her back. "He'll be all right, Dayna. He'll want to be alone. Just give him time."
Some minutes after Avon's shadow had vanished down the corridor, Vila silently bore his burden down the same route, toward the airlock.
He said nothing to contradict Tarrant. But he had seen death just now in their erstwhile leader's eyes. Cold, quiet, intractable death.
Somehow, deep down, he doubted that Avon would ever be 'all right' again.
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