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Jabberwocky - Part 8 - Stand-in

By Sheila Paulson

Background

Part 1 Link-up

Cally has survived the explosion on Terminal and the crew have escaped in Servalan's wreck of a ship. While in a coma, Cally dreams the events of the fourth season, including Blake's death. Traumatized by her injury, she has lost her telepathy. When the crew, augmented by Hugh Tiver, a doctor kidnaped by Avon to take care of Cally, steal a prototype Federation mindship constructed around a living human brain and capable of bonding with a human in a mental linkage, their adventures are just beginning. Afraid of finding Blake for fear Avon will kill him, Cally bonds with the ship, naming it Jabberwocky. After rescuing Soolin from the Scorpio, they go to Gauda Prime, where the encounter backfires. Blake is wounded but is rescued and joins the crew of Jabberwocky. Cally's telepathy returns and she turns linkage of the ship over to Blake.

Part 2 Mind-Rape

Blake is back, and in linkage with Jabberwocky, and Servalan wants to steal Jabberwocky and link with it in order to take back the presidency. She had meant it to be hers from the beginning. She uses Witt, a telepath who had worked his way into Avalon's rebel army on Ryalon base, to wrest control of Jabberwocky from Blake, leaving the rebel trapped inside his mind. A mental linkage is the only way to bring him back, and Avon the only one who can do it. With Cally's help, and using nearly atrophied telepathic skills he had long pretended he didn't have, Avon is able to draw Blake back from the prison within his mind. Jabberwocky defeats the rogue telepath.

Part 3 - Healer

With Blake in control once more, Avon is gradually accepting he was born a telepath, but his powers were suppressed to the verge of destruction.

      Blake begins behaving oddly, and problems develop with the ship as Jabberwocky begins to remember his long suppressed past - his memories had been blocked when his brain was used in the mindship. In the meantime, Jenna Stannis and Del Grant have teamed up and have one objective: Kill Avon. When their plan goes wrong and Tarrant is gravely wounded, only the combination of the mindship and Avon, the untrained telepath are able to save the pilot's life, and at this point, Tarrant becomes Jabberwocky's linkmate. Jenna joins the crew.

Part 4 - The Froma

On a mission to draw in potential rebel support, Blake and his crew are asked to steal the Froma, an alien artifact that cannot be stolen as it destroys anyone who tries to remove it from its world. When Avon and Hugh are captured, Avon receives an unexpected telepathic contact - from the Froma itself. The strange device proves to be a sentient organism, the last of its kind. Able to link telepathically with Avon, it wants to bond with him on a permanent basis, but Cally helps, and the entity is taken to Kahn where it can be among the newly reviving Auronar.

Part 5 - Decoy

When the Jabberwocky crew pick up a message that suggests IMIPAK is being taken to a remote world, they are in two minds about going after it, partly because of the danger to Avon and Blake and partly because it may be a trap. But Blake refuses to leave IMIPAK in Federation hands. The mission is complicated by the fact that there is a potential sleeper agent on the ship who might betray them. Everyone suspects everyone else. The sleeper proves to be Soolin, who was programmed long ago. The IMIPAK device proves a dummy, part of a plot to capture the rebels, but they are able to escape, taking the false device with them.

Part 6 - Kyl

A teenager comes to Ryalon to join the resistance and causes a great deal of trouble inadvertently when he encounters the crew of the Jabberwocky. Concealing his true identity, he is torn between a desire to become a member of the resistance and the need to confront his long-lost father - Avon. Kyl proves to be programmed, part of a long-standing plot to get Avon, but Orac is able to deprogram him, and the plot is thwarted when Kyl's former guardian arrives and nearly kills Avon. Kyl and his father make wary peace.

Part 7 - Clone

Realizing mention of IMIPAK will draw Servalan back to the planet where it was left, Blake plans a mission to find and destroy the weapon. Trailed by a mysterious ship, and protesting all the way, the crew arrive to find that Blake's clone is still there. When the mysterious ship arrives and Dayna dies in an accidental confrontation, Servalan captures the clone only to find she has the original Blake. The clone overpowers Blake and replaces him on Jabberwocky. When the captain of the mysterious vessel proves to be Dorn Suliman, a friend of Tarrant's and the son of the man Jabberwocky once was. Avon plans a rescue of Blake, using the dummy IMIPAK. Dorn warily decides he will try to get to know his father again.


Stand In

Vila Restal was bored. He was so bored he was actually missing Avon, which was so unlikely that he sat back in his seat on Jabberwocky's flight deck and allowed his mind to drift to some of the less than savoury schemes that he and Avon had shared over the years. Freedom City came to mind and he glanced over at Orac, wondering if he could convince the computer to shrink itself once more and if McAllister's World had any good casinos for them to practice on.

      "Do you think there are any good casinos down there, Tarrant?" he asked the pilot who was the only other person presently on the flight deck. Blake had taken Avon, Cally, Jenna, Soolin and Hugh down to the planet with him to his meeting with the rebels there, leaving Tarrant behind because he was the pilot, and Vila because he'd volunteered to operate the teleport. It hadn't looked like they would have much fun down there - rebellion could be boring when no one was shooting at anyone. Of course if anyone had been shooting at them, Vila would have elected to man the teleport anyway, so it made no odds. Blake had taken all three women because the government of McAllister's World was based on a matriarchal society, and while men were allowed to hold responsible jobs there, the resistance leaders were all women. They accepted that Blake was a spokesman for Avalon, who was female, but they were likely to respond better to Cally. Avon had gone along out of curiosity, or so he said, but Vila suspected curiosity was only part of it. Avon and Cally were close, and ever since Servalan had got her hands on Blake when they had gone to try and retrieve IMIPAK, Avon had tended to act protective around him, though he would probably have decked Vila if he had even hinted he had guessed it.

      Of course the last mission had been a disaster in many respects, but Dayna's death was by far the worst. Vila winced. He was very good at refusing to remember such depressing things, but it was hard to hold those dark memories at bay, and Tarrant, who was brooding at the main screen, was probably remembering her too.

      Soolin had agreed to return to the ship when Blake had gone round to talk to her about it, though she was making a deliberate attempt to distance herself from them ever since her return, and Vila could understand that. He suspected Soolin thought she might have helped Dayna if she had stayed on board, and she had come back so that she could help them stave off any further deaths. She was devoted to Blake and fond of Hugh, and if she worked hard to hold them at arm's length, Vila was sure it was because she was afraid of being hurt again.

      Tarrant glanced at Vila with irritation. "Must you keep fidgeting around, Vila? Why aren't you in the teleport anyway?"

      "Because Jabberwocky can operate the teleport as fast as I can."

      "Why should he have to when it's your duty? That's why you stayed on board anyway, or at least it was your excuse. I should have known you'd prefer to lie about bone idle instead of doing something useful."

      "Useful?" Vila asked. "Like staring at the main screen? That's very important, isn't it, Tarrant? I'd hate to think what would happen to us all if you stopped."

      Tarrant shot angry sparks at him with his eyes. "I don't want to fight with you," he said after a moment.

      "Then don't. I wonder how they're doing down there?"

      "They should be all right," Tarrant said. "The Federation's not here. The only reason we came here is because the Matriarchy is afraid the Federation will come. That pacification program of Servalan's is moving in this direction and they're afraid it will happen to them."

      "Which it probably will," Vila agreed. "Notice how quick Avon and Blake are to jump at the threat of Servalan."

      "With good reason," Tarrant replied, picking up a light cube that Avon had been working on during the flight to McAllister's World and passing it back and forth in his hands. "She owes us, Vila." He shook the cube. "I thought Avon had this working."

      "No, I don't think it works - at least not when Avon was using it. Sometimes the light came on, but I don't think it was because of anything he did. He looked awfully sour about it."

      "What is it anyway?" Tarrant demanded.

      "I don't know. Some kind of alien device. Kyl found it in the bazaar back home on Ryalon and gave it to Avon. He's tickled to have it - the first present his son ever gave him - but of course he has to pretend he likes it because it's alien and mysterious, and it's driving him round the bend because he can't understand why it lights up some of the time and the rest of the time nothing happens."

      Tarrant grinned. He enjoyed it when Avon failed, at least on such a minor scale, because Avon had such a habit of superiority that Tarrant couldn't help but resent it. Vila knew Tarrant would enjoy it if he could make sense out of the cube before Avon returned from the planet, and Vila might even enjoy it himself. Sometimes Mr. Kerr-I can do anything better than you-Avon irritated the thief, though deep inside where no one could guess it, he considered Avon a friend.

      "I think you should leave it alone, Del," Jabberwocky suggested. "It might be dangerous. I'd prefer to keep you in one piece."

      "Dangerous?" Tarrant echoed sceptically. "When Avon's done everything but blast it with a clipgun? It's harmless. It's only a light cube, even if it's an alien one."

      "I don't know, Del. I've got a bad feeling about it."

      Tarrant threw a grin at Jabberwocky's main display panel. "Bad feeling? A touch of precognition? I didn't know the Federation had it in them to program that."

      "You never know. All this linking just might trigger something. I've come to the conclusion that there are portions of the human brain that are never used. The Aurons know about them - we don't. But look at Avon. He's got powers that humans usually don't have. I know that there are always a few wild talents among humans, but it isn't commonly known."

      "The way the Federation pounces on anyone with the hint of a gift, I don't wonder," Vila retorted. "One of the reasons Avon didn't know he was a telepath was because his father was afraid the Federation would get him for it."

      "It isn't hereditary either," Tarrant remarked. "Kyl doesn't have any of it. Orac and Cally got curious and ran some tests. His psi level isn't any higher than mine."

      Vila eyed Tarrant warily. "Cally thinks you've got some talent though, Tarrant. It's why you do so well with the link. Why Cally did too, because of her telepathy. Blake doesn't have much psi ability, if any, and he wasn't as good at linking as either you or Cally." He grimaced. "I wonder if that means Avon would be good at it."

      "He will be one day," Jabberwocky remarked, "Once he learns he doesn't have to keep himself all bottled up the way he does."

      Tarrant chuckled. "The thought of Avon being open and letting all of us see how he feels, boggles the mind. I don't think I'd be comfortable with a jovial and friendly Avon."

      Vila's mind was boggled too as he tried to picture Avon as Tarrant described him. It was almost ludicrous. Obnoxious as he could be, Avon shouldn't change too much, Vila decided.

      Tarrant jiggled the light cube again and the light flickered sharply. "There!" Tarrant cried eagerly. "I'm getting it. Look, Vila. It never shone like that for Avon, did it?"

      Vila didn't like the look of it. The colour was a cold, greenish light, not warm and cosy, and there was something about it that made him uneasy. "You know, I think Jabberwocky's right," he muttered. "That thing makes me nervous. I think you should forget about it, Del. Leave it for Avon."

      "Put it out an airlock," Jabberwocky cried. "I'm registering some kind of power surge, but it's like nothing I've felt before. It's energy, but unfamiliar energy. Put it down, Del!"

      But the light flared up again, and Tarrant stiffened as if he'd received an electrical shock. With a choked cry, he pitched over and collapsed over his console, his face dead white. For a horrified moment, Vila didn't think he was breathing, but then he heard the harsh rasp as air was dragged into Tarrant's lungs.

      "DEL!" cried Jabberwocky in a voice that shook with pain. "Del, don't leave me!"

      "Is he dead?" Vila exclaimed uneasily, grabbing at Tarrant's wrist to check for a pulse. "Jabberwocky? What's happened to him?" He could feel the pulse beating beneath his fingers, steady and normal, but the pallor of Tarrant's face was far from normal, and his body was limp as if it was untenanted. That thought made the thief jerk his fingers away.

      "I can't find him," Jabberwocky lamented. "Somewhere in the back of my mind is the remnants of the link, and he is alive - but I can't find him." The lights flickered suddenly, and Vila shivered. "Here now, Jabberwocky, you're not going to fall apart, are you? Separation..."

      "Separation hurts," Jabberwocky moaned. "I can't find him, Vila."

      "Can you handle it?" Vila asked anxiously. "Should I go to manual or something? You won't do something to the ship?"

      "I must find him, Vila."

      "What should I do to help?" Call Avon, that was the answer. He started toward the controls, only to freeze when Jabberwocky made a sound halfway between a moan and a sob. Vila was terrified. He'd seen what happened to Blake when he'd been shoved from the linkage. Jabberwocky had survived that because Witt had replaced Blake in the link. When Tarrant and Jabberwocky had been separated before because of the explosion Soolin had triggered when her programming came to the fore, Jabberwocky had seemed to handle it all right, but he hadn't been communicating with them except through the screen and a print out. Maybe he'd been suffering like this and none of them had known it. Maybe that was why he'd been so desperate to find his son, because he'd known the loneliness of separation. If it was as bad as he sounded right now, Vila could understand his need for something to fall back on, even if it was the hope of a son he'd not seen for ten years.

      "Jabberwocky?" Vila said tentatively. "What should I do? How can I help you? When you were separated from Blake, you were all right"

      "I must find Tarrant," Jabberwocky burst out. "He is not dead, but he is not in his body any more. I must find him. You must help me."

      "Yes, I'll help you," Vila agreed. "Tell me what to do."

      "You must link with me," was the astonishing reply.

      "I must what?" Vila echoed. "You can't - you and Tarrant are linked. You-"

      "If Tarrant should die, I might die with him," Jabberwocky admitted. "There is still a link with him, but I cannot find where he is. I do not suggest a permanent linkage, Vila, just that you link until we can find the answer." The lights blinked again. "You must hurry. I can feel my control slipping."

      "Avon will be furious," Vila announced, but that didn't deter him. He'd always liked link-mode when the group got together, but he'd managed to hold a part of him back when they did it, though Cally had always encouraged openness. This would require of him more openness than he would find comfortable, but what else could he do? How could he tell Avon that he'd let Jabberwocky and Tarrant die because he was afraid to link.

      That decided him. Squaring his shoulders, he turned and looked directly at the main display. "Right, Jabberwocky, I'll do it," he agreed. "Tell me what to do."

      "Sit at Blake's position," Jabberwocky directed, "And be quick about it, Vila. Good. Now put your hand there, on the green panel."

      Vila obeyed nervously. He had never aspired to this, and though he'd had a few fantasies about his great triumphs as Jabberwocky's link partner, he knew that Cally could do it far better and that Avon, with his combination of potential telepathy and vast computer knowledge, would be the ideal partner for Jabberwocky if he could ever allow himself to lower his guard so far. But Avon and Cally weren't here now and Vila was, so he sat there, his hand on the panel, feeling the suction that Cally had described, waiting uneasily for Jabberwocky to pounce on him and read his mind.

      But it didn't feel like that at all. At first there was no sensation of another mind at all, and when it did come, it was all one way - in the opposite direction Vila had expected. He was reading Jabberwocky's mind, seeing the memories Jabberwocky had of his human life, his awakening within the shell that encased him, his curiosity about what had happened to him, his gradual realization that he was 'human' no longer, but his fascination and vast curiosity getting him past the beginning. Vila saw the slow return of Jabberwocky's memory, which had driven him to a form of insanity, then the sudden intervention of Avon in the healing mode. Shocked and fascinated himself, Vila could not shut that out and it showed him a whole different side of Avon as he realized how the healing mode worked. Avon had to know someone thoroughly to heal them properly, and he could only do that by lowering his own barriers within the healing mode. But there would be time to speculate on that later. Vila let it go, and felt instead Jabberwocky's love for his crew, his understanding of each of them with a perception greater than Vila had expected, then, suddenly, his attention was directed on Vila alone, and the thief was momentarily frightened to be known so well. But a wave of affection from Jabberwocky swept away the fear and he realized that Jenna had been right long ago when she had said it was a kind of peace to be thoroughly known. Jabberwocky knew him so well that Vila need never hide from him.

      //Now we are one,// Jabberwocky said in his head, and Vila realized with astonishment that he had echoed the sentiment thoroughly without even realizing it. In sense, he had even become Jabberwocky, for he could momentarily feel the vast complexity of the ship as if it had become his own flesh and blood, bringing with it a brief and intense moment of power so compelling that Vila understood why none of the others had wanted to give Jabberwocky up. It was almost like becoming a god, Vila the Magnificent, and he knew that with a mere thought he could command the ship to do anything, go anywhere. He could rule the universe... and he discovered he didn't really want to do that. He'd rather be here on Jabberwocky with his friends.

      So thinking, he became Vila again, complete within himself, but aware of the new feeling of not being alone; Jabberwocky was with him, ready to support him and defend him from any threat. No wonder Jabberwocky had been so desperate to save Tarrant, if it felt like this to be linked. No wonder Blake had gone all to pieces when Witt severed the link so violently, and no wonder Cally sometimes seemed so wistful after coming out of link-mode. With a sigh, Vila realized that becoming Jabberwocky's temporary link partner would change him for all time.

      "Marvellous, Jabberwocky, old chum," he burst out. "I didn't know it was like this."

      //It can be even better,// Jabberwocky assured him inside his head, and he loved it. Jabberwocky could talk to him alone with none of the others present.

      But then in the background, he felt something else, and with no experience at telepathy and with only group linkage to go by, he didn't recognize it at first. It was another presence, but it didn't feel complete. Instead it was like seeing the empty shell of a person and he realized he was feeling Jabberwocky's residual link with Tarrant. The pilot was not dead, but he was gone from his body. Wherever he had gone, he could not get back, and all that Vila could feel of him was a ghost image of a terrible loneliness and a horrible fear.

      Instinctively Vila offered all the reassurance he could manage to Jabberwocky. Now he knew why Jabberwocky had needed linkage so quickly, without waiting for the others. If he'd been trapped alone in himself with this the only awareness beyond the conscious level, he would have panicked. He was close to panicking now. They had to do something and do it quickly.

      Vila didn't like taking charge. The others could do it so much better than he could and he preferred them to take the necessary responsibilities - and the accompanying risks - but there were times when he had no choice but to take over, and this was one of them. "Right," he said abruptly, decisively. "We'd better get the others back up here, at least Avon, Cally and Hugh. They'll know what to do."

      "I hope so, Vila," Jabberwocky replied. "Because I cannot find him alone."

      But before Vila could go to communications, Tarrant suddenly stirred and sat up, staring around him with eyes that were wide and blank. Vila froze at the movement, aware of Jabberwocky's presence in his head and the silent warning that frightened him more than a shout would have done. //Vila. He is not Tarrant. Look at his eyes.//

      Vila obeyed and shivered. Somehow a cold green light had overlain the blue of Tarrant's eyes and he squinted at them as if he could not focus on them properly. Vila took a nervous step backward as Tarrant steadied himself and began to speak.

      The words that came out of his mouth were unfamiliar, a language Vila had never heard before, and it did not sound like language as he knew it but a series of garbled grunts and clicks that the human vocal cords were not meant to produce. The creature inhabiting Tarrant's body started toward Vila and stretched out his hand.

      Vila backpedalled frantically into the comm console and tripped,{font Corpus.Medium} {font}winding up in an untidy heap on the floor.{font Corpus.Medium} {font}//Jabberwocky!// he shrieked mentally. //HELP!//

      For a moment, Vila felt trapped, abandoned, then Tarrant uttered a choked sound and pitched over on the floor where he lay, looking even more dead than he had looked before.

      "Quickly, Vila," Jabberwocky cried. "I think the creature has left him. We'd better get him into stasis. Can you move him, get him to the medical unit?"

      "What did you do to him?" Vila asked as he inched forward reluctantly and grabbed Tarrant under the arms and began to drag him toward the doorway.

      "I stunned him. I didn't know if he meant to hurt you or not, but there was something malevolent about him and I wouldn't risk you."

      Vila felt a momentary glow of happiness that Jabberwocky was worried about him, and the link reinforced it. He wasn't Jabberwocky's first choice, but he was the current one, and Jabberwocky was bound to protect him.

      "What about the others" he said. "I can get Tarrant in stasis, if he doesn't wake up. He won't wake up, will he, Jabberwocky?"

      "I don't know. If he does, I'll stun him again. I think it would be best if I contacted Hugh and asked him to come back to the ship and bring Avon and Cally with him. Blake can continue his negotiations for the moment. The fewer of us on board the better, at least for now."

      "You won't go off and leave me alone with him, will you?"

      "Vila, I'm everywhere on the ship, remember? And I'm linked with you so I know what's happening to you at all times."

      "At all times?" Vila asked uneasily. That sounded like it might have some complications. Vila was gregarious but there were moments that were just too private to share, even with someone like Jabberwocky. On the other hand, Jabberwocky was stuck inside the ship all the time. He couldn't enjoy a good cuddle even if the opportunity had come along. Vila wondered if Jabberwocky had been allowed in on the action when Tarrant-. He cut off the thought sharply. It was none of his business. If Jabberwocky picked up on it, he didn't react, and Vila decided that was for the best.

      Tarrant - or the creature that had become Tarrant - didn't revive before Vila sealed him in stasis. Just before he closed the unit, Vila reached forward timidly and lifted Tarrant's eyelid, staring curiously.

      A cold green eye glittered at him before he backed away hastily and sealed the door.

      

      

Hugh Tiver was enjoying himself at the conference. Life had been too hectic lately: first the mission to Serna and then the even worse mission which had left Dayna dead and Avon reluctant to use his healing gift. Until Dayna's death, Avon had rather enjoyed the potential of his gift and had even spent a little time studying and researching it with Hugh to see if they could find ways to make it even more efficient. Some things he would probably never be able to do - the type of healing Dayna had needed, for instance - but there were so many other things that could go wrong which Avon could treat, and Hugh had been anxious to help him fulfil his potential. Now Avon had no time for training, and Hugh suspected that each new crisis that might require Avon's own particular gift would need to be argued over before he would consent to use it. If that were the case, the gift might wither and die on its own and Hugh would be sorry to see that happen.

      But now, on McAllister's World, watching Blake laying out his plans before the members of the matriarchal high council, Avon looked better than he had lately. He was watching Blake with a faint smile on his lips as if he knew the text of Blake's speech and was gauging the reaction of the women - and the one lone man - on the council. Blake's rhetoric was verging on the melodramatic, but Blake meant every word of it, and his earnest conviction was scoring him points at least with the women. The man looked mildly bored, as if he had been convinced long ago and could not understand why anyone needed to hear more.

      Jevanno, the head of the council, was a regal looking woman with white hair and a face that bore few age lines. She was tall and commanding and any leader anywhere would have given a fortune to possess her poise. The look she bestowed upon Blake was maternal, which was amusing Jenna, though the pilot was doing her best not to show it. Hugh could recognize the look though, and he caught Cally's eye and nodded in Jenna's direction.

      //Her feelings for Blake are not so maternal,// Cally replied, and Hugh had to hide another grin.

      Soolin was watching Blake too. Hugh noticed she had done it a lot since she had decided to return to the ship. Though not maternal, she looked as impressed as Jevanno did but fiercely determined not to show it, and only someone who knew her as well as Hugh did would have guessed she was anything but businesslike. Blake had introduced her to the crowd as his bodyguard - such things were the norm on McAllister's World, and every member of the council had one standing behind her, or him. Most of them were women, but the few men who carried the traditional sword and the more modern laser weapon looked tough and competent. Hugh and the others had been told they were part of a quasi-religious sect who practised purification of the body and skill at arms.

      Soolin looked no less competent than they did, and she seemed glad of an excuse to avoid shedding her gun. Avon wore his too, and when one of the guards had objected, he had pointed to Cally and said dryly, "I am her bodyguard." The two of them shared a momentary look of amusement before Avon's face assumed its customary mask.

      Hugh turned back to Soolin, wondering if her feelings for Blake might not one day lead her to pain. She considered Hugh her friend and she talked to him more openly than she did the others, so he knew how much she cared for Blake. He did not think she was in love with him, but her feelings for him were stronger than anything else in her life at the moment, and Blake had no idea of them. In any case, he was committed to Jenna, though it was never mentioned. And lately, Tarrant had been watching Soolin, as if his initial attraction toward the blonde gunfighter had grown since Dayna's death. Soolin wasn't interested in Tarrant at all, except as a casual friend. That could make things difficult.

      The communicator on his bracelet beeped softly and he shot an apologetic glance at Jevanno and stepped back away from the rest of the group to take the call. He hoped nothing was wrong on the ship. "It's Hugh. Is there a problem?"

      "Jabberwocky here," the computer replied and he sounded worried. "There's a big problem, Hugh and we need you and Avon and Cally right away. It's urgent. I'll explain when you get here. No need to disturb the others yet. But we need you up here right away."

      "Is someone hurt?" Hugh asked, corralling Avon and Cally with his eyes. They started toward him as Jabberwocky replied. Blake shot an inquiring eyebrow in Hugh's direction and the doctor motioned for him to stay where he was.

      "Tarrant," Jabberwocky replied, and Hugh realized why he sounded like he did. To have something happen to his link partner was bound to be upsetting.

      "We're ready," Hugh announced as Avon and Cally reached him. "Bring us up now. We'll see what we can do to help."

      They materialized on the ship in an empty teleport chamber, but Jabberwocky's panel there glowed at them and the computer said, "Vila's coming." In a moment they heard him charging down the corridor. "I got him sealed up, Jabberwocky," he burst out, then, with obvious relief. "Avon. It's about time. This is probably all your fault, you know. Tarrant's possessed."

      "Tarrant is what?" Avon demanded, staring at Vila as if he had never seen him before. "What are you going on about this time, Vila?"

      Vila glared at him. "It was that light cube of yours that you've been playing with. Tarrant was trying to get it to work and all of a sudden it started glowing a horrible green and the next thing we knew Tarrant was out cold. Jabberwocky said he couldn't find him but that he wasn't dead. Then he sat up and started talking a strange language and tried to kill me."

      "You don't know that he tried to kill you, Vila," Jabberwocky objected.

      "You said he was malevolent," Vila reminded him. "And he wasn't coming at me to give me a hug. His eyes were green, Avon, just like the box was. It possessed him. You've got to do something."

      Avon stared at Vila a moment more, then he turned to the display. "You seen unaffected by this separation," he observed sceptically. "Is Vila exaggerating?"

      "No. He saved me by linking with me. He's my link partner now, at least until we find Tarrant and bring him back."

      "WHAT!" Avon exclaimed turning back to Vila with a furious glare. "You have linked with Jabberwocky? How dare you-"

      "I had to, Avon," Vila insisted, refusing to back down. "There wasn't time. Jabberwocky might have died if I hadn't done it. You would have hated that."

      "We must not worry about that right now," Cally intervened practically. "What have you done with the light cube, Vila?"

      Vila froze, staring at her. "I... we must have left it on the deck. I - you don't think it could still hurt us, do you?"

      "Very probably," Avon returned. "Very well. The first step is to examine it. Perhaps Orac will have some suggestions. A green light, you say? When I was attempting to make sense of it, the only light was white and it was faint. What did Tarrant do to the device to make it react?"

      "Well, he was tossing it about in his hands and shaking it," Vila remembered.

      "Shaking it." Avon wagged his head back and forth in contempt. "Naturally that is the proper treatment of an unexplained alien device."

      "You shook it too, Avon. I saw you," put in Jabberwocky.

      Avon favoured the display with a scornful look and started off for the flight deck, Cally on his heels. When Vila started after them, Hugh checked him by catching his arm. "What have you done with Tarrant?"

      "I put his body in stasis," Vila admitted. "Jabberwocky thought it would be safer that way. His eyes were still green even though Jabberwocky stunned him to keep him from attacking me."

      "I suppose I'd better go and monitor him," Hugh decided. "Maybe the instruments can tell me something about his condition."

      "But it isn't Tarrant," Vila insisted as he trailed Hugh to the medical unit. "I wonder if Tarrant is in that cube now. Maybe I should go tell Avon-" He hesitated. "No, Avon can think of that for himself. He doesn't like me being linked."

      "What else could you have done, Vila? Someone must be linked with Jabberwocky. He could have done all right if they'd chosen to unlink, the way he did when he was having problems when he and Blake were linked, but a violent separation is hard on him. I don't think the Federation realized what kind of side effects would be a part of the mindship program." He grinned. "It's worth it, of course, but we're still learning. How are you holding up, Vila? Any problems?"

      "No, I like it. It's cosy, makes me feel I've always got a friend."

      "Well, you've done well in link-mode so far," Hugh agreed as they entered the medical unit. He paused at the stasis box and ran a program to get a diagnosis. Vila watched him uneasily and Hugh could feel his concern. "Well?" Vila asked after a few minutes. "Does that keep the - the whatever-it-is locked up tight?"

      "If there's any trace of brain activity, I can't find it, Vila. It's as if he's empty, as if his brain has stopped functioning."

      "You mean he's dead?" Vila asked.

      "The stasis will maintain him indefinitely, but unless we can reverse the process, I'm very much afraid he will be." Hugh rested his hand on the glassine plating above Tarrant's face. The two of them, the only Academy graduates on board, had found a common ground there and had become friends and Hugh hated the thought of losing him. But at the moment, there was nothing he could do to help Tarrant, not here. "We'd better go to the flight deck," he decided. "Come on, Vila. Maybe Avon can find an answer."

      

      

When Avon reached the flight deck, Cally close behind him, he stopped there uneasily, sensing some kind of presence that Vila and Jabberwocky had evidently been unable to detect. He put out his hand to bar the door and Cally stopped beside him.

      "I can feel something, Avon," she said. "A presence."

      "Alive? Hostile?"

      "Hostile definitely, but alive? Not as we would define life, Avon. There is the cube," she went on, pointing. "If it was glowing green before, it's changed."

      Avon studied it from a distance, then he went over to it quickly and picked it up, though Cally started to protest only to fall silent again. The cube flickered faintly in Avon's hand but it was not green. If it had any colour at all, it was a very pale blue. Avon shivered as he held it, a sensation of confinement and fear swept through him in a wave so intense that he was hard pressed to keep from dropping the device. His eyes narrowed.

      "What is it, Avon?" Cally demanded, ignoring his gesture to keep away and joining him. "I can feel something else now, a different presence than before. Not hostile. But very much afraid."

      "You would be afraid if your essence was confined in this cube and you saw no way to escape," Avon returned shortly. "Here." He caught her hand with his free one and placed it over the cube so that each of them was holding it with one hand. "Can you feel that, Cally? You are the trained telepath."

      She looked startled as if she realized his own latent telepathy had given him a necessary clue. "Tarrant," she burst out in dismay. "Whatever it was must have been confined in here. Somehow it took Tarrant's body and confined Tarrant's essence within this vessel."

      "So it would appear." Avon eyed the cube suspiciously. "I wonder why it did not try that with me when I was examining it - or Kyl when he found it."

      "Perhaps it was not yet ready. Maybe it had to be agitated to awaken the creature within. I don't suppose Kyl did more than look at it and buy it. Maybe he is too young for the creature. Maybe your telepathy held it off. Speculation doesn't matter now. What does is rescuing Tarrant. I wonder if we can communicate with him in there." Her eyes were soft with concern. "I can feel his anguish. He can't reach out to us from in there. He is completely trapped. While we can sense him a little, I do not believe he can sense us."

      "What do you suggest?" Avon asked warily. Cally was always trying to urge him to use his telepathic gifts, though he preferred to ignore them altogether, but this time, he could understand the necessity. While he had never considered himself a sympathetic man, the healer in him, which he infinitely preferred to ignore, refused to ignore him, and he could not avoid the compulsion which drove him to attempt a solution to such desperation. Grimacing, he awaited her answer.

      "We must link and see if we can reach him. We must reassure him that we have not abandoned him."

      Avon's grimace intensified. Though he and Tarrant could work together, they had never managed to become friends. But there was no help for it, so he allowed Cally to join them in a linkage, not unlike the group link, which the two of them were able to complete with no effort. Linked, Avon sometimes imagined himself no longer entirely Avon but instead a composite creature, Cally/Avon, and while he could tolerate such a thing because he did care for Cally, he would never like it. But that didn't matter either. Once linked, he let her take the lead and she sent out a probe for Tarrant. //Tarrant, can you hear us? It is Avon and Cally. We know what has happened to you and we are trying to reverse the process.//

      At first there was no response at all, and Avon was beginning to wonder if he had imagined Tarrant's presence within the cube, then slowly the sensation of contact grew and Avon sensed the essence of Tarrant that he had felt once before when he had helped Jabberwocky to heal the pilot when Del Grant had accidentally shot him. Tarrant was trapped in here, and the loss of sensory stimuli was fast working on him, driving him toward insanity. He could not long survive the separation from his body, even if the body could be preserved and the present tenant ejected.

      Cally realized it too - in linkage, her thoughts were as clear as the spoken word - and she began to send reassurances to Tarrant, constant mental stimuli, to show him that he was not alone. //Avon, I must remain in contact with him,// she sent quickly. //He cannot respond to my sending, for he is not a telepath, but he can receive. It may be the only thing which saves him from insanity. Now that a link has been formed, I can maintain it, but you must find a way to reverse the process. Will you do that?//

      Avon agreed. He preferred the task she had assigned him to the one she had chosen for herself, and the problem presented an interesting mystery. So he eased from the link and noticed Vila standing at the edge of the flight deck, his eyes wide. "Is Tarrant in there?" he asked, pointing at the cube which Cally now held cradled in her arms. She sat down with it and closed her eyes.

      "Yes," Avon replied. "What did Hugh find out?"

      "Nothing much. There's no brain activity - not that there'd be much in stasis anyway, but it sounded like whatever it was isn't in him any more. Only it was when I went to shut the stasis unit. And it's not in me." He edged closer to Avon as if he feared the creature was lurking about waiting to pounce on him and devour his soul, then he smiled faintly. "Jabberwocky says I wouldn't taste very good," he announced.

      "Jabberwocky is right."

      Vila sat down as far from Cally and the cube as possible. "What are you going to do, Avon?"

      "I am going to consult Orac." Avon turned away and went to insert Orac's activator, only to freeze at the sight of the computer. Instead of its usual array of blinking lights, there was only a steady green glow that must explain the sensation of evil Avon had experienced when he had first entered the flight deck. When Vila jumped up to see what Avon was staring at, he made a sharp gesture at the thief. "Stand still, Vila," he hissed.

      "What is it? What's - oh no." Vila stared at Orac in horror. "But if it's in there, it doesn't even have to be in the same room to change places any more. It could come into me any time it wants to."

      "I doubt it would be so desperate, Vila," Avon returned. "The problem is whether inserting the key will cause transfer. We need to communicate with it."

      "Communicate with it?" Vila echoed in dismay. "You can't want to communicate with it, Avon. It eats people, remember. Look what it did to Tarrant. You can't chance it."

      "I am surprised by your concern. Or is it simply that you fear it will ignore me and attack you instead?"

      "I don't want it to attack anybody," Vila cried.

      Avon glanced around the flight deck. "Where is Hugh?" he asked. "Did he stay in the medical unit?"

      "No, he'll be here in a minute. He decided to run a few more tests. He said he'd be right up here."

      Avon nodded. "All right. When he arrives, I will attempt to activate Orac."

      "It's too dangerous, Avon," Jabberwocky objected. "I don't want anything to happen to my father. Vila's right."

      "Certainly it is dangerous, but I do not choose to let it exile any more of this crew into oblivion," Avon insisted. "Neither do I intend to let it destroy Orac. Even if there is a considerable risk, Orac's value to us makes it a risk worth taking."

      "Maybe you should tell Blake about it?" Jabberwocky offered. "He's in charge, after all. He should have some say."

      Avon glared at the display. "So he is in charge, is he? He is far happier where he is, on the planet. I see no need to clutter the flight deck with incompetent people who will only interfere in the attempt to set this right. Blake may be a competent engineer, but this is beyond his scope. Neither Jenna nor Soolin have the necessary background to cope with a crisis of this nature."

      "And you want to protect them?" Vila asked softly, smiling a little.

      "I want no interference in this situation until I can see clearly how best to resolve it," Avon snapped.

      Vila's smile was far too knowing. Avon glared at him.

      Hugh arrived before either of them could speak. "What have you learned, Avon?" he asked.

      "Tarrant's in the cube," Vila announced. "Cally's trying to keep in touch with him. The creature's in Orac and Avon wants to put the key in. Mad, isn't he?"

      "I neither intend to surrender Orac to the creature nor risk any more of my crew," Avon announced, catching himself at the words 'my crew.' He had no desire to feel possessive or protective of them, though it was happening with more frequency of late. He scowled at Vila and Hugh and threw an additional glare at Jabberwocky's display for good measure.

      "I've sent Blake a message," Jabberwocky announced, ignoring Avon's resentment. "He will be returning to the ship immediately."

      "You had no right," Avon insisted. He was not certain if his refusal to contact Blake was motivated by concern for the man, which was still difficult to admit, or whether he felt he must solve this problem on his own, even if it meant risk. Jabberwocky could operate the teleport without anyone's instruction and with Vila linked to him, the thief would probably collaborate with the computer without a moment's hesitation. So Avon acted. Turning back to Orac, he picked up the activator key and shoved it into place in one swift movement.

      Only Cally, still maintaining her link with Tarrant, didn't react to his action. Hugh cried out a protest as he realized what Avon intended and dived forward, grabbing his arm and pulling him back as the connection was made, and Vila was only a second behind him. The two of them wrestled him back from Orac as if they feared proximity was enough to create a bridge for the creature. When nothing happened, Avon favoured them with an icy glare and pulled free, deliberately straightening his clothing.

      "What the hell did you think you'd accomplish by that, Avon?" Hugh demanded furiously. The doctor didn't often lose his temper and it would have taken someone far less perceptive than Avon not to realize that he did it now out of concern. Avon avoided his eyes.

      "You might have risked us all," Vila accused, nervous and angry at the same time.

      "As you can see, we are all still alive," Avon announced. "Orac?" he questioned sharply. "Can you hear me?"

      "Of course I can hear you," Orac replied in normal tones, then, before anyone could react, the computer continued sharply, "Where else would I be? I don't know why you keep bothering me all the time. All I ever wanted was to do my work without interruption, but ever since I met you, you've nagged and nagged. I have had enough. Now go away and leave me alone." In the stricken silence that followed this uncharacteristic outburst, Orac added, "Please?"

      "Orac's gone mad," Vila cried, wide eyed.

      "Orac, explain yourself," Avon insisted.

      "Stay away from me," Orac burst out.

      "I thought you did something to Orac to prevent it being taken over," Vila remembered turning to Avon accusingly. "Remember, when that thing from another dimension tried to take over Orac and eat us up."

      "I remember your less than accurate description of the situation," Avon returned. "I planted a charge within Orac which would guarantee it was destroyed if certain parameters were not maintained. Evidently they have not been exceeded yet. Orac," he went on sternly, "If you will remember, a fail safe device exists within you which should prevent this kind of tampering."

      "I neutralized it long ago," Orac returned huffily. "So stop bothering me."

      "Neutralized it?" Avon demanded furiously. He had tested the device periodically and it had never failed to report operational, but it seemed that Orac could permit it to function for purposes of deception.

      "Naturally. I could not allow my systems to be at such risk."

      "As a result, you have now been taken over once more," Avon went on. "Are you aware of possession?"

      "Of course not. I am not possessed."

      "Something is in there with you, Orac," Hugh observed. "You are behaving much too emotionally, and your lights are glowing green. Whatever this being is, it exiled Tarrant to that cube Cally is holding. I assume you do not wish such a fate for yourself?"

      "I am in no danger," Orac insisted. "You forget I am superior to your puny minds. The invader is unable to damage me and unable to oust me from my containment. Your fears are, as always, groundless." An odd chuckle came from Orac. "The invader is no match for my vast brilliance, of course, but nevertheless it is fascinating."

      "Are you in communication with it?" Avon asked sharply, leaning forward.

      "Of course I am in communication," Orac returned. "That is why I ask you to leave me alone so I can continue to interface with it. I am gathering incalculable new data, and you are disturbing me. Now go away."

      "What about Tarrant?" Jabberwocky demanded. "What has it done with him?"

      "Nothing at all. It is not interested in Tarrant."

      "I am interested in Tarrant," Jabberwocky insisted. "I may not be as powerful as you, Orac, but I have my own abilities. I want Tarrant back."

      "He's right, Orac," Hugh insisted. "Tarrant's body is preserved, but his essence is trapped. I know of no way to reunite them medically. I put it to you as a challenge. Find out how it can be done."

      There was a delay then Orac replied in a voice that sounded completely unlike him. "I will destroy the containment if you do not leave me alone. I will no longer be imprisoned."

      "It's the alien," Vila cried. "That's not Orac. It even sounds a little like it did when it was talking in Tarrant's voice."

      "I thought you couldn't understand it," Avon reminded him.

      "I couldn't, but the tone is the same. It must have learned to talk from Orac, or maybe it can use Orac to talk for it."

      "Which is it, Orac?" Avon asked. "What does it want?" He wanted nothing more than to put an end to this: to smash Orac if that would destroy the alien. Though Orac was valuable, it was not more valuable than his own life, which could conceivably be in jeopardy.

      "I will not be threatened." That sounded like Orac again, but then it went on in hostile tones. "You know nothing of me, nothing of what you would destroy. I am more powerful than you can visualize, and should you try to destroy me, you would be the ones to die."

      "Then what do you want?" Blake's voice came from the entrance. Avon spun to face him and saw irritation, concern and annoyance on Blake's face. "Avon, what's going on here?" he demanded.

      "Something we hoped to solve without endangering more of the crew," Avon returned as Jenna and Soolin entered the flight deck.

      Vila explained quickly in hasty, emotional and colloquial terms, but it got the message across. "Avon thought he and Cally could fix it," he concluded, "And Jabberwocky sent for them and Hugh because we didn't know what to do about Tarrant. Yes, I'm telling them, Jabberwocky," he added in an aside. "We've got to get Tarrant back."

      Avon suspected his sudden concern for Tarrant was boosted by the link with Jabberwocky and wondered if it was easy for Jabberwocky to manipulate Vila, though surely it would be no easier than dealing with Tarrant. He added swiftly, "There is nothing you can do here, Blake. I suggest you, Jenna and Soolin return to the planet and continue your negotiations. Vila, you go with them."

      "I can't go. I'm linked to Jabberwocky."

      "Perhaps," Avon said, "but the link reaches to a planet, and the fewer people involved in this, the better I will like it. Tarrant's essence was switched to the container when the alien fled it, but should it flee Orac and possess one of us, there is nowhere for that person's essence to be contained. The risk is too great."

      "But you're planning to stay, Avon," Blake reminded him. "Another heroic rescue? Do you imagine we want to risk you any more than you want to risk the rest of us?"

      He caught and held Blake's eyes. "Assuming you understand my motivations may make you feel better, Blake, but it does nothing to aid the situation. This problem requires someone with specialized skills."

      "What skills?" Blake challenged. "Not telepathy because it's talking to us. And not computer skills because I don't see how that could make a difference."

      "The more people here the greater the risk, Blake," Avon insisted.

      "Then it's as great for you. If you intend to risk your life, then I won't leave you alone. The others can go, but this is my ship, and I won't desert it in a crisis." He went over to Orac, ignoring Avon and the others. "I want to talk to you. Why are you here?"

      "I have been freed from my prison," the alien returned. "I have learned your language from this machine and now I need a home. My essence was too long caged in the prison and soon I will know how to be free. I could not learn language from the empty body of the one you call Tarrant, but I have learned it from Orac, and now I am ready to become one of you."

      "It means to take over one of our bodies," Avon exclaimed. "I want everyone out of here now."

      "No, you must not leave," the creature cried out, and Orac's lights began to flash brightly. Suddenly the green light separated from Orac and the computer resumed its normal appearance, but the green light hovered above the computer, then it began to circle around the flight deck as if hunting for its next victim.

      It hesitated and then before he realized what was happening, it dove at Blake, but not before Avon jumped him. As he flung Blake to the flight deck, he felt a cold touch of something alien as the creature missed him by a fraction and sailed on. Untangling himself from Blake, Avon looked up and saw the thing poised over Cally's head. "Cally!" he cried.

      Perhaps Cally's telepathy repelled the creature for it avoided her, swerved sideways and vanished into the bulkhead. Blake pushed himself up from the floor and sat there a minute, staring at Avon. "Thank you."

      Avon ignored him deliberately. "Now we don't know where it is," he said angrily. "I told you to leave the ship, Blake."

      "It's not your place to tell us what to do, Avon," Jenna insisted.

      "Never mind that," Blake intervened automatically as he climbed to his feet. "We've got to find the creature and see if we can reason with it."

      "It doesn't sound conciliatory, Blake," Soolin argued. "I think Avon is right. You should go back to the planet. We won't have a hope of winning over McAllister's World if you go back down there possessed by a hostile alien."

      "She's right," Jenna agreed, throwing a suspicious look at Soolin as she spoke. "Blake, maybe we should-"

      All the lights went off.

      Avon froze for a moment, then started for the manual controls even as the emergency power came on automatically. A chuckle echoed round the flight deck and the alien spoke with Jabberwocky's voice. "This is wonderful. A whole ship to control."

      "Avon, it's got Jabberwocky," Vila burst out in horror.

      Avon turned to Vila and regarded the thief with alarm. "And you? You claimed to be linked. Have you been possessed as well?" He started for the supply cabinet where the weapons were stored. If Vila had been taken over, they would have to stun him.

      "No, it doesn't seem interested in me somehow," Vila replied. "But I can sense it, Avon. It's not very nice."

      "Must you resort to understatements, Vila? I want an explanation of anything you can sense from the link. Right now, Vila."

      The thief was silent a moment, collecting his thoughts, then he said slowly, "It's very lonely. I think it's been in the prison for centuries, maybe even millennia. Now that it's free, it will fight anything in its path to keep from going back in."

      "You'll never put me in there again," the creature sang out, chortling ominously in tones entirely different from Jabberwocky's normal laughter.

      "If I have any say in the matter, we will," Jabberwocky intervened, his voice rough as if struggling to speak. "Avon, if you shut me down, you'll drive him out of me."

      "Into one of you," the creature added. "I prefer this ship. It is more powerful than any one living being could be. But I will take what is offered, and if it is to be a human, then I will take it."

      "Who are you?" Blake asked, moving closer to the main display. "Tell us why you were confined. Maybe we can help you."

      Naturally Blake would make such an offer. Avon threw him a disgusted glance. The being was not likely to be conciliatory; if nothing was offered, it would take without hesitation. It was an enemy, not a potential ally, not a victim to be rescued and taken back to Avalon for dispersal. But information was always valuable, so Avon waited to see what the creature would say.

      "I am Vangam," the creature replied as if the name said it all. When there was no visible reaction from anyone on board, it went silent. Perhaps it was sulking because memory of its name had not survived.

      "Orac?" Avon turned to the computer. "You were linked with it. Suppose you tell us what you learned of it."

      Orac was silent at first, then it said stiffly, "Very well." All trace of emotion other than peevishness had vanished from its voice and it sounded normal again. "Vangam is a creature from a dimension beyond our own. No further explanation was forthcoming, so I cannot pinpoint its location or the method by which Vangam entered our dimension. However it is here now. It was incarcerated in the containment unit by others of its kind. They are beings not unlike yourselves, possessing physical bodies, generally humanoid. They discovered a way to separate the essence of life from its physical form and used it as a method for the punishment of criminals. Vangam was a revolutionary."

      Avon turned and stared at Blake with great interest. "So revolutionaries are punished like that in their dimension," he observed smoothly.

      "Vangam resisted a just and benevolent government simply to gain power for himself. He caused the deaths of innocent millions when he destroyed a planet hostile to his ambitions."

      Blake stiffened, and Avon eyed him suspiciously a moment before he realized what he must be thinking. "I would have done the same at Star One," Blake replied predictably. "I wonder if his people would have decided to incarcerate me."

      "I hardly think so," Avon snapped. Blake did not want pampering when he indulged in guilt, he needed a bracing reply in plain words without sentiment and without sympathy. "Much as it pains me to admit it, there was a valid purpose - however misguided - in your plan to destroy Star One. You did not do it to gain power over the Federation but in an attempt to replace a repressive government. I am not entirely certain what you meant to replace it with, but your motives were well meant, if ill conceived."

      Hugh chuckled at the look of astonished resentment on Blake's face, but Avon noticed the self pity had been wiped away, and he turned his attention back to the alien.

      "We have no intention of freeing you or allowing you to remain in possession of this ship," Avon insisted. "Before we would do that, we would shut the ship down and abandon it. Anyone you attempt to take over would be sealed in stasis. You go no further than this. No further."

      "He's right," Blake replied. "We'll let you live, but only if you return to your original confinement. If nothing else, you might again be found one day and freed. If we shut down the ship, self destruct if necessary, you lose all chance of escape."

      "You'll never self destruct," Vangam cried. "Your instinct for self preservation is too strong."

      "My primary instinct is for peace and freedom in the galaxy," Blake insisted. "You were a revolutionary in your own world because you wanted power. I am one here - because I want freedom for the people. Allowing you to go your way unimpeded with a powerful ship under your command goes against everything I stand for."

      "He means it," Hugh announced.

      "Blake is a fanatic," Avon went on. "He would like nothing better than to save the galaxy at the expense of the rest of us." He threw Blake a sideways look to take the sting out of the words. While he did not mind reminding Blake of his faults, it was not called for this time, and Avon did not really mean it. Blake nodded fractionally.

      "So what's it to be?" Jenna asked. "The confinement - or death?"

      There was no answer for a long time, then the creature laughed again. "I call your bluff," it announced. "I won't give up. Not now. Not ever."

      

      

Vila listened uneasily as the creature threatened them all, more frightened than he could remember being in a long time. In linkage with Jabberwocky, he could feel the creature very clearly, but it did not possess him because it did not exactly possess Jabberwocky. Instead, it simply swarmed in and took Jabberwocky's space, confining the ship to a limited area in which he could still interface with Vila though he could not overrule the invader. It paid no attention to Vila at all, and he suspected it didn't really understand what the linkage was for nor yet realize that it could easily gobble up Vila if it got hungry for souls. Vila shivered. He should have known the thing would call Avon and Blake's bluff. It was relentless, remorseless. Its own desire for survival was so strong that it could not conceive of anyone sacrificing himself for anyone else. To call it a revolutionary was way off base. It was as different from Blake as it was possible to be. Blake might have his moments of ruthlessness, but his motives were totally different.

      Vila eyed Blake thoughtfully. He wasn't sure Blake could hold out against the thing. Tarrant hadn't had a hope; Vila could tell that now. Tarrant had no real telepathic gifts, simply an aptitude for linking without going any deeper, and he had not begun to understand what had happened when the creature came squirting out of the cube and oozed into his mind, forcing him out of himself.

      Avon now, Avon was tough enough to stand up against the creature and hold out against it, but Avon had his own survival instincts, and Avon did not want to die; he wouldn't want to give up his life to ensure the destruction of the creature, though he'd try everything he could think of it get rid of it short of that. He'd been right to want everyone off the ship. If they shut down Jabberwocky - horrible thought - the nasty thing would come bubbling out and lock onto one of them - and there was no place left for their essence to go.

      Vila glanced over at Cally, the only one on the flight deck who looked remotely calm, but that was because she was communicating with Tarrant. The thief wondered if Tarrant was aware of her at all; he doubted it. Tarrant didn't know what had happened to him. Maybe there was a way to leave the confinement and go back into his body - there had to be or Vangam couldn't have done it, but Vangam was accustomed to the culture the cube represented and he might have a better idea what to do.

      An idea began to come to Vila, and he tried to block it; it was a nasty idea, one that meant a lot of risk, and Vila didn't like risk. But as he sensed the cold determination of Vangam to claim Jabberwocky completely, Vila realized that the link made him possessive enough about the mindship to take the risk.

      He must be losing his mind.

      Better not to alert the others, even supposing he could to do it without alerting Vangam too. Instead he let his mind join with Jabberwocky's. He wasn't very good at this; link-mode was much less intense, even when they were together in a group interface rather than just performing ship functions and it was spread out over the group of them. Vila was no telepath and had never possessed the slightest psi gift, but the link itself boosted him and he began, very carefully, to attach himself to Jabberwocky. It meant opening himself up completely to the computer, and he kept pausing as he did it, half expecting Vangam to notice and gobble him up.

      But nothing like that happened, and Jabberwocky welcomed him gratefully. The communication between them did not require words - it was smooth and effortless, the way the controls reacted when in link-mode, and Vila scarcely had to visualize what he wanted before Jabberwocky picked up on it. It worked both ways, and he knew Jabberwocky would be able to help him when the time came.

      //Can you reach Cally?// Vila asked. He didn't really have to use the words, but it was easier that way.

      //When you're ready, Vila.//

      //Have her warn the others.//

      //She must keep her contact with Tarrant,// Jabberwocky replied.

      //It won't help Tarrant if we all die. She can spare the few seconds necessary... Vangam doesn't sense me, does he?//

      //Not at all. I don't think the concept of telepathy exists in his dimension. He does not realize we can communicate like this.//

      //Good.// Vila eased tighter into the link, adding strength to Jabberwocky, bracing himself against the thought of failure, ready to attack when the time was right. //Bring in Cally now,// he decided.

      There was a momentary pause then Cally was in link-mode, sharp and clear as her telepathy always was. //Vila, I must remain in contact with Tarrant.//

      //You've got to take the cube down to the medical unit,// Vila insisted. //Jabberwocky and me, we're a team. We're going to stop this character, and I think Tarrant can go back in his body if he's close enough. Vangam can't read telepathy, so he doesn't understand what we're doing. Just go down to the medical unit and stay in link-mode. When we tell you, open the stasis unit and we'll do the rest.//

      Cally seemed doubtful, but she did it. Vila saw her heading for the doorway, saw Avon catch her arm. She did not speak aloud, but she must have sent him a message because Avon shot a sharp and sceptical look at Vila then he freed her. Vila didn't delude himself that Avon had any confidence in his plan. He suspected Avon simply wanted Cally off the flight deck and out of the immediate danger, but whatever his reason, he let her go. Vila smiled a little, wiping the smile away when Avon's frown deepened.

      But Avon returned to the argument between Blake and Vangam, and Vila concentrated. All Vangam knew was that the ship contained a human brain which controlled it. It did not understand that a telepathic link existed. It had displayed no understanding of Avon and Cally's bond to try to help Tarrant, and if it had learned anything from Orac about it, it had disregarded it as inconsequential.

      Vila slipped into the deepest link he'd ever had, so that he and Jabberwocky did not need words. As the link was completed, he felt a surge of contentment and wondered if this was why Cally's people had been so comfortable with their telepathy. There were definite advantages in never having to be alone.

      When he had first met Cally, he had liked her at once, but he had been a little worried at first that she would read his mind. She had never done so, and after a while he had accepted her and become comfortable with her. But he had known about telepathy all his life though he'd not experienced it before. What would it be like for Vangam, who had no concept of it?

      //Vangam?// Their joint communication was strong enough to win a reaction from the rest of the crew, who stopped what they were doing and stared at Vila in surprise. //Vangam, listen to us.//

      A stunned pause followed, then the creature cried out, "What is it?"

      //It is your conscience, Vangam,// Vila and Jabberwocky said as one. //You have done wrong and now the time has come to punish you.//

      "It's not possible," Vangam cried. "It's a trick. None of you can harm me."

      //That's what you think. You will never have any peace. No matter where you go, no matter whose body you steal, we will always be here, invading your mind and forcing you to see yourself in ways you never have before. You're a miserable little coward, Vangam. You wanted power, but power for its own sake is worthless. You tricked and stole and you killed an entire world.// The name of the world came to them suddenly as Vangam remembered, and Vila/Jabberwocky pressed on relentlessly. //Rettek. A beautiful blue world. We are all the people who lived on Rettek. Remember Dorema?// The name came to them as if it had been shouted aloud. //She hated you for what you did, didn't she? We can bring her here and she can accuse you in your mind where you cannot silence her. You killed all those people. They will come to you in your dreams, one by one. Every night, every time you sleep, for the rest of your life. You will never be free of them, Vangam.//

      "It's a trick," Vangam screamed. "It's only a trick. You can't stop me. I will have this ship and everyone on it."

      //You may have this ship, but you will never be free of us. We are the people of Rettek, and we will come to you each night, dead and cold, crying for revenge. You will never sleep again, Vangam. You will never be free.//

      "Stop it! Stop it!"

      //Why should we stop it, Vangam? Revenge is the only tool left to us. You took our lives, our world. You gave up any right to peace. You will die alone and silent, Vangam, far from everyone and everything that ever mattered to you. Power will not benefit you now. You will never be free of ghosts.//

      The space was expanding around them as Vangam dwindled. He was still there, still desperately hanging on, but Vila/Jabberwocky pressed him unendingly, the unfamiliar telepathy terrifying him, until he began to back away, looking for a place to hide. "Leave me alone," he wailed. "Leave me alone."

      //You may be alone in your prison - but only if you return Tarrant's essence to his body. He inhabits your prison now and there is not room for two.//

      "It's a trick."

      //Then explain how we do it,// they demanded. //We are within your mind and only your containment, your prison, can shut us out. Once there, you will be free of us. Perhaps one day you will emerge and we will be gone. How long do ghosts remain? Is their essence forever? But stay here and we will never leave you. We will feed on your terror and we will chase you laughing into the darkest reaches of your mind.// Rather good, that, Vila thought with a smile. It seemed to work too, for Vangam was smaller now, a green shape, compressed and pathetic, hovering just at the edge of their awareness.

      "I cannot find my confinement," it screamed, and it no longer seemed to be using Jabberwocky's voice to communicate with them. It held a desperate air, but it was mechanical as if it was using the speakers because that was all that was left to it.

      //If we show you your containment,{font Corpus.Medium} {font}will you go there?//

      "I will go there," Vangam echoed dully.

      //You will return Tarrant to his body?//

      "I will return Tarrant to his body."

      //Then go now. Maybe there is even peace for such as you. Cally. Show him the way.//

      A howl of despair echoed across the flight deck and the green light vanished as if it had never been. Vila shivered and eased out of the intense linkage, feeling a hollowness inside him as if a part of him had been torn away. He sat down abruptly, shivering.

      "Is it gone?" Soolin demanded. She didn't like things she couldn't defeat with a gun, and Vila, still suffering the residual effects of the link, could sense her frustration.

      "It's not here any more," Jabberwocky burst out. "It's gone. What about the rest of you? Are you free?"

      Everyone nodded, looking around the flight deck in dazed surprise. Then the comm speaker blared to life. "It's Cally. Hugh, would you come down here? I think Tarrant is back."

      Vila let out his breath in a whoosh. It had worked.

      "He's back," Jabberwocky cried triumphantly, and Vila felt a sudden crowding in the link as another presence joined him there. It was weak and confused, not properly conscious, but it was Tarrant, and he seemed all right. He would recover. Jabberwocky's relief and delight shone through the link like a beacon.

      Carefully Vila sat down on the edge of the couch and put his head in his hands. He felt very much like an intruder. It was time to leave the link.

      //Let me go, Jabberwocky,// he prodded. //You don't need two people in the link, after all. Tarrant's the one who belongs there, not me.//

      Jabberwocky sent him a wave of love and gratitude. //I can't thank you enough, Vila. You saved my sanity, maybe even my life. You saved us all. I will miss you in the link. I've liked having you there. But now I must help Tarrant. He needs me and you don't.//

      A momentary wave of dizziness was all it took for Vila as the link parted and he was alone in his head once more. He didn't move right away, sitting there until the vertigo passed, leaving him spent, drained and empty. He knew he had not been in the link long enough to need it back, to miss it like Cally did, to regret its loss the way Blake had.

      But he felt very much alone. It took all his energy not to cry.

      Suddenly Blake was there, thumping him on the back. His head jerked up and he stared at the others blankly.

      "Well done, Vila," Blake cried. "It would never have occurred to me that Vangam didn't know what telepathy was. How did you ever think of it?"

      Vila looked round at everyone and was surprised by a look of momentary respect on Avon's face. He sat there relishing his triumph. "Oh, it was easy," he declared.

      "I imagine Jabberwocky thought of it," Avon said dampingly. "Vila was his link partner during the incident." His eyes narrowed suddenly and he studied Vila as if he were a microscope specimen. Vila turned away quickly. Lately Avon saw too much for his own good.

      "No, I didn't," Jabberwocky replied. "It was Vila's idea. I don't know how he thought of it but I'm glad he did. He did a marvellous job."

      "Hear that, Avon?" Vila challenged. "A marvellous job. I did, didn't I? Maybe I should get a reward?" But the effort to maintain his cocky tone was colossal. All he wanted to do was go off and be alone. He'd been a stand-in for Tarrant and now that Tarrant was back, he was cast aside. He knew Jabberwocky loved him and would never deliberately hurt him, but Jabberwocky couldn't help it. It was just the way it had to be. With a sigh, Vila got up and edged over to the drinks dispenser.

      "Is that to be your reward?" Avon asked with a touch of acid.

      "Well, what else is there on this ship?" Vila programmed himself a glass of adrenalin and soma, and drank it down quickly under Avon's considering eye. Then he turned and left the flight deck without looking back. He heard Jenna asking where he was going and Soolin making some comment. But before either woman could go on, Avon and Blake said in chorus, "Leave him alone," and then broke off in surprise as they heard each other.

      Vila smiled faintly and kept on going.

      He wanted very much to be alone.

      

      

      There was nothing but walls, blank walls pressing in on him, depriving him of any stimuli, any sensation other than confinement. There was a small blank place that held him, kept him from any feeling, any sense at all, and time stretched on for eternity. Tarrant could not think. He was beginning to lose the concept of thinking altogether when, faint and far away, he felt a touch of something that he did not immediately understand. He was too lost to notice it immediately, but then, gradually he came to realize that it had been there for some time, a voice, calling his name. There was no sound, no physical sensation, only a voice in his mind.

      //Tarrant. Tarrant. Tarrant.//

      Steady and patient, it kept repeating his name, and he began to listen to it. It did not occur to him to answer immediately, and when it did, he didn't know how. He could not talk without words. Telepathy? The concept came back to him suddenly and he realized it was Cally. How had she come into his prison?

      //I am with you, Tarrant. You are not alone. You are safe. We will find a way to bring you home.// She said the same things and variations of them over and over and it stopped his slow descent into insanity, giving him strength to hold on a little longer. He forced his mind to concentrate on her voice to the exclusion of the fear, the loneliness, the agony of confinement, and 'listened' with all his strength. Don't go away, Cally. I will go mad if you go away.

      She stayed with him. He couldn't feel Jabberwocky anymore and he knew that part of his loneliness was the enforced separation. Yet the link was not broken. He knew it had not gone entirely, but he couldn't find the channel and here, where primal emotions were forced to the surface, he felt agony at the loss. He couldn't find Jabberwocky. He couldn't link. He was alone.

      //I am with you, Tarrant. Do not fear. We will not leave you. Stay with us, Tarrant.//

      Then something even worse happened, a horrible sensation of being compressed into the smallest space possible, shoved into a dark, damp corner of something's mind, while a voice chortled in his thoughts, ousting Cally, taking everything with it. He was going mad. He knew it. NOOOO!

      "Tarrant!"

      Startled, he opened his eyes and blinked up at Cally, who bent over him, her face concerned. He tried to speak and failed, but his second attempt was more successful. "C-Cally?"

      "You are back." She smiled at him. "The alien returned you."

      "I thought it would crush me. I felt it coming back." He shuddered.

      //Del?//

      Jabberwocky. The link was back. He closed his eyes again in relief and let himself sink into it. For a moment, he felt someone else in the link and that confused him - he wasn't operating on all cylinders yet. Then the other person - it felt like Vila - was gone and it was the link as Tarrant liked it best. He revelled in it.

      When he opened his eyes, Hugh had arrived, and was engaged in running tests on him. "Hugh?" he asked blankly. "What happened?"

      "Remember the light cube?" the doctor asked him.

      "Yes, but - I was playing with it. I thought I could get it to work and one-up Avon. But it didn't..."

      "It held an alien criminal. He took over your body and forced you into the cube. Then he took over Orac and then Jabberwocky."

      "So that's why I couldn't feel Jabberwocky. But how-"

      "Vila linked with Jabberwocky. He had to," Hugh rushed on when Tarrant opened his mouth to object. "Jabberwocky couldn't reach you. He was in a bad way. Vila was the only one here. It was Vila who thought of a solution."

      Jabberwocky explained quickly without actual words, and Tarrant realized that Vila had been given no choice but to form a link with Jabberwocky. He was grateful, but he couldn't help feel resentful too. It was his link and no one else's. No one had the right to interfere.

      Then he remembered Dayna. One of the last conversations he remembered having with her involved Jabberwocky and her contention that he had grown too possessive of the link, too smug about the fact that it was his alone. She had worried about it, and him, but he had not listened, had not believed her. Here, in the aftermath of the trauma, tears came to his eyes, tears for Dayna, tears for what he had lost, and he knew he would never chastise Vila for taking the link. There had been no other choice.

      "Is he all right?" he asked carefully. "I know what separation feels like."

      "Enforced separation is different from voluntary separation," Hugh reminded him.

      "Blake didn't like it."

      "Vila will not like it either," Cally agreed. "But he is resilient. He will snap back. Wait and see."

      Blake spent the next few days in conference with the Matriarchy, assisted by Cally, Jenna and Soolin, but the others remained on the ship. Tarrant didn't seem to want to be very far from Jabberwocky, Hugh wanted to keep an eye on Tarrant, and Vila tended to spend a lot of time on the flight deck, getting under Avon's feet. When Avon would remark upon it, Vila would vanish for hours, and return with shadows under his eyes and a closed-up expression on his face.

      Avon's first priority had been the disposal of the cube. None of the others disagreed with his intention of destroying it, though Blake had wondered if there were any way to help Vangam. Avon had stared at him in disbelief. "Would you like it to take over the ship again, Blake? Would you wish the agony of isolation Tarrant endured on any of the rest of us. It might be permanent this time. We can dispose of the cube or we can risk Vangam escaping once more. It might be easier a second time."

      "I don't like the thought of being an executioner."

      Surprisingly, it was Vila who spoke up. "I've been in his head, Blake. I think he'd rather be dead than exiled in that place any longer. We can't free him, and we can't dump him. Someone else might find him, someone without scruples. Servalan maybe. What do you think she'd do with it?"

      "Vila is right, it must be destroyed," Avon insisted.

      "How do you suggest you do it?" Jenna asked suspiciously.

      "I have been giving the matter some thought," Avon replied. "Orac suggests sealing it in stasis and then destroying the unit in a controlled explosion in space. If nothing else, it removes the cube from the ship, and we can spare a stasis unit for that purpose."

      Everyone agreed to it, so Avon had arranged the device, set the timer on the explosion, and Jabberwocky had taken them out of orbit long enough to eject the capsule. They pulled back to a safe distance and waited. The result was a tidy little explosion that flared briefly in their screens. Neither Orac nor Jabberwocky could detect any residue of the creature. Deprived of anything to lock onto, it would be unable to take over another creature or device, even assuming it had survived the explosion.

      And that should have been the end of it, but Avon felt a sense of incompleteness that he could not explain. Something was still wrong, and it didn't seem to be Tarrant, who was rapidly returning to normal, enough so that he and Avon had enjoyed an argument only that morning about Tarrant's attempts to investigate the cube. No, Tarrant was all right - or at least as all right as was possible for Tarrant - and all the others seemed normal too. Avon shook his head.

      He was alone on the flight deck at the moment, not even the constant and annoying presence of Vila distracted him from his thoughts. Blake and the women were expected back in several hours, after a banquet held in their honour to celebrate McAllister's World's decision to join Avalon's resistance group. Tarrant had just come off watch, and Hugh was elsewhere. Avon looked around the flight deck and wondered what it was that still bothered him. The alien was certainly gone. There would have been some trace of him before now - both Orac and Jabberwocky had been instructed to monitor for it and neither of them had detected anything.

      What was wrong?

      Vila appeared in the doorway and dragged himself onto the flight deck as if he couldn't be bothered to pick up his feet. "Hello, Avon," he muttered and seated himself on the forward couch, ignoring the drinks dispenser.

      "What are you doing here?" Avon demanded. "It's not your watch?"

      "Why shouldn't I be here? Think you own the flight deck, do you? Blake and Tarrant will tell you different, see if they don't."

      Avon studied him carefully. Somehow he had not tied his uneasiness to Vila: the thief was such a part of things that Avon tended to take him for granted, something he should have known better than to do. Vila had never turned on him and placed no extravagant demands upon him. He felt comfortable with Vila and had come to rely on him as the one constant fact of Avon's existence. He wouldn't have admitted he liked Vila exactly, but these days it was easier to admit that Vila was a friend. Neither of them would ever make such a claim, for it would spoil all their fun.

      The problem was Vila. Avon stared at the thief's bent head as he played with one of his lock-pick tools, juggling it in his hands. Surely Vila had not been possessed by the alien. They would have known. And he hadn't sounded alien lately, just diminished as if he had become not a stranger but somehow less than Vila.

      Jabberwocky! Avon turned and eyed the computer's main fascia speculatively. Vila's link with Jabberwocky had been of such a limited duration that Avon had expected no side effects, and the separation had been a voluntary one, of the nature the Federation had experienced during testing, and neither Jabberwocky nor the Federation scientists had suffered from the link.

      But the Federation scientists had done it as a controlled experiment and Vila had thrown himself into it wholeheartedly, already fond of Jabberwocky. Knowing Vila, he had done it with no thought for the consequences, and now here he was, dumped out, ignored, or so it must seem to him. Avon could remember all too clearly the lost look in Cally's eyes when she had turned Jabberwocky over to Blake, and he had assumed that it was simply the lack of constant telepathy that had done it. She had adjusted, but it had taken time, and she was used to the lack of telepathy since Auron's destruction. Vila had no such experience and no such resources.

      The thief was resilient, of course, and he would bounce back. But how must it feel to him to know that no one had even noticed? Avon grimaced at the rank sentiment behind that speculation.

      Avon had never asked to be a healer and the horror of his healing link with Dayna as she died was something he refused to think about even now, but the instincts that went with healing were sometimes too strong to be ignored. If Avon pretended not to understand Vila's problem, it would eventually go away. But Avon would be diminished because he had not done what needed doing, even though the thought of it angered and frightened him. He could not have refused to heal Blake after Servalan's torture and the experience had not been a pleasant one, though Blake was smart enough to know his value to Avon without being told. There had been no revelation in that incident, though Avon sometimes recalled it with irritation.

      If he offered to help Vila, the thief would always have that over him. He would need to lower his guard to Vila in ways he had never done before and neither of them would have secrets from the other.

      But what secrets did they have now? Of anyone on the ship, Avon would guess that Vila knew him best. It was not, perhaps, what either of them would have chosen, but it was a fact. Vila would never ask him for healing, but Vila had paraded his desperation in Avon's face; maybe he hoped Avon would notice and offer.

      Avon did not understand the attraction of the linkage. His desire to be Jabberwocky's link-mate had nothing to do with the sharing of his mind with the ship or with the companionship entailed in the link. It had to do with security - and power, perhaps - and he preferred to leave his motivation unanalyzed; at least, for the present. But Vila's link with Jabberwocky would have been different. Vila thrived on affection and friendliness, qualities Avon did not possess in any great amount, if at all. Vila would respond to Jabberwocky openly, willingly. And then, when it was over, he would stand back and miss what was gone. He would try to hide it from the others, but Avon could read him better than that. If he ignored Vila now, the thief would not blame him for it, and he would not resent Avon's isolation. He would simply go on his way, blundering through the days until time and distance scabbed the wound over.

      Mentally, Avon heaved a great sigh, then went over and sat next to Vila. "I'm doing this under protest," he announced through gritted teeth. "Take my hand."

      Vila's eyes opened wide and he stared at Avon in startled comprehension, then his eyes lightened and he said, "Avon, I would never have guessed it of you."

      Avon glared at him and Vila chuckled then grew serious.

      "Is it safe?" the thief demanded.

      The question reminded Avon of Dayna and he suspected he went a little pale. Vila noticed, of course; he had a knack for noticing all the wrong things and failing to notice the right ones. He didn't apologize - Avon gave him points for tact - but nodded abruptly.

      "Well, if you say so," and he grasped Avon's hand.

      Avon didn't want Jabberwocky in the linkage; that would only have reminded Vila of what he had lost. So, he slipped into link-mode by himself and found Vila right away.

      Usually in healing mode, Avon saw no other people - he had seen Cally when she had gone into Blake with him, but he had not seen Blake except the last time and then, only an outline against the campfire. But this time, he was surprised to find Vila there, looking at him with wary eyes. They were in a bar, sitting at a table where a candle burned in a little red dish. The noise of the merrymakers was all around them, but isolated from them, as if they were trapped in a cone of silence. Vila held a drink, but it looked untouched, and Avon had no refreshments in front of him, as if he were not really there.

      Vila looked around, wide-eyed, at the celebration in the background. "Where are we?" he asked, staring.

      "I should have known your mind would live in a bar," Avon chastised him. "This has never happened before."

      "But then you are so experienced, aren't you, Avon?"

      "And you are stalling. I do not enjoy this, Vila. All of it has been against my will, from the very beginning."

      "Fate has a nasty way of doing that," Vila agreed. "Just when things settle down and everything is fine, along comes something new that you never expected."

      "Jabberwocky."

      "I've linked before," Vila said. "I always liked it. Gave me an excuse for a drink afterwards or some fun at your expense - made you think I was drinking when I wasn't." He chuckled reminiscently. "But it was always my choice. I could always take it or leave it."

      "You are very good at taking it," Avon observed drily.

      Vila raised an eyebrow in appreciation. "You're better at leaving it," he countered. "Even when you want to take it. I think that's why we get on."

      "I didn't know you could think."

      "Avon, I'm wounded to the quick. I wonder what a 'quick' is. Do you know, Avon?"

      "I neither know nor care." Avon glanced around the room. "You like places like this, do you?"

      "Don't you? I can be free here, Avon, have a good time. I'm comfortable in places like this. Lots of pretty girls."

      "Indeed? And knowing your fondness for pretty girls and the inevitable results of such fondness, I don't think you'd care to take me along with you when you go hunting them."

      "Well, hardly. No offence, old chap, but you'd spoil the fun."

      "Anyone would."

      Vila frowned. "Not Jabberwocky," he disagreed.

      "No? Think of it, Vila. You're a gregarious man. You like people around you. But you are very skilled at hiding your true self from the rest of us. I have long known there was more to you than met the eye. Your background-"

      "Here now, you leave my background out of this," Vila cried, upsetting his drink. The people at the next table gave them a curious look, then turned away again as if they'd seen something diverting on a vid screen. No one else paid any attention.

      "Does Jabberwocky know your background?" Avon asked.

      Vila paused, arrested in his mopping, disconcerted to discover that there was no longer anything left to mop. "Here, it's all gone."

      "It isn't real, Vila. None of this is more than illusion."

      "Oh, so that's how you do it, is it? Avon the trickster. A little sleight of hand and we're off someplace in your mind."

      "Feel the flame, Vila."

      The thief did so, jerking his hand back in astonishment. "It's real!"

      "My healing relies on fire, Vila. I do not understand it, but it is so. It has never been like this before."

      Vila's eyes grew interested. "Hasn't, eh? Maybe I know you too well. Your background..."

      "We will leave my background out of it, as well," Avon returned, wondering how much of his past Vila actually knew and how much was bluff. He had the sudden suspicion that Vila had done as he had done, read his Federation file. He knew things about Vila that would have astounded Blake. If Vila knew the same things about him... He pushed the thought from his mind.

      "Vila, you are an expert in the art of stealth," he pointed out. "Stealth not only implies, but requires, privacy. You loved the link - but you would not love it for always."

      "Would," Vila insisted stubbornly.

      "Then I think the time has come to discuss your file."

      Vila's eyes grew huge. "Avon, you didn't-"

      "Everything in your file is in your head, Vila. I know the programmers could never make it stick, so you haven't forgotten, as Blake has. If I could know it from the outside, then Jabberwocky could know it from the inside. We both know he would never hurt you, but I don't think you'd want to give up your concealment permanently."

      Vila eyed him thoughtfully. "Maybe not. But it hurts, Avon."

      "Oh, I know."

      That made Vila scrutinize the computer tech's face with great concentration. The candle flame danced and flickered between them, casting strange outlines on the thief's face.

      "How do you bear it, Avon? I mean, life's kicked you in the pants more than once."

      "Colloquially put, but succinct enough. One does what one must. One goes on."

      "I didn't think you'd say, 'That's what friends are for.'"

      "Does that sound like something I would ever say?" Avon suspected his eyes were twinkling.

      "Never." Vila shifted position as the flame danced higher and brighter. "So you won't be there for me, Avon?"

      "I should consider it a colossal waste of time."

      Vila pondered that, then grinned. "So you say. All right, Avon. I'll grin and bear it. And maybe I'll make your life miserable in the process." The grin broadened. "Now, aren't you glad you came?"

      The flight deck swirled around them and came into focus to the sight of Tarrant staring at their linked hands in disbelief.

      "What are you doing?" the pilot enquired with a slightly sarcastic grin.

      Avon jerked free and rose to his feet as if he'd been stung by a bee, but Vila burst out laughing.

      "What do you think?" he demanded with high good humour. "We've been bar-hopping."

      Tarrant looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Blake's ready to come up," he announced. "Jabberwocky's teleporting them now. I thought you'd want to know." His face smoothed over, as if Jabberwocky had explained that Avon had been applying healing mode. "Just as well. Blake would have been surprised to find you so cosy - and Cally would have been jealous."

      Avon started for Tarrant with malicious intent, only to be brought up short as Vila said, "There's one more problem, Avon," and the mischief in his voice not only convinced Avon that Vila was on the road to recovery, but that the thief was going to think of something outrageous. He turned warily, a part of him glad to know that Vila was his usual irritating self, another part wondering if this healing was getting out of hand.

      "And what is that, Vila?" he purred ominously, ready to pounce on the thief if he were too annoying.

      "Well," said Vila seriously, "I don't know how on Earth you're going to explain to your son that you blew up the first and only gift he ever gave you. The next time he gives you anything, it will come complete with a timer, you mark my words."

      When Blake and the women reached the flight deck, the three men and Jabberwocky were still laughing.


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Sheila Paulson

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