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Jaberwocky Part 15 - Avatar

By Sheila Paulson
"It could be a trap," Avon said.

"You think everything is a trap," Vila muttered to himself. He wasn't any fonder of their journey across the Ryalon base than Avon was, and probably had even less reason to be there unless it was to carry Orac. Avon had put the little computer firmly into Vila's arms, and even the mysterious summons from Avalon hadn't entirely squelched the twinkle in his eyes when he loaded the thief down. He enjoyed doing things like that. Sadist.

Oh, well, the only other good thing about this whole excursion was that it had taken Avon away from that mysterious project of his. When he was caught up in his research, he tended to be snippy, high handed, obnoxious, all those words that must have been invented just for Avon. And secretive. How could Vila have forgotten secretive? Avon had snapped at Blake just this morning--and Avon rarely snapped at Blake anymore, and then only to keep his hand in.

"It's as well to be wary," Blake defended Avon's suspicion. He didn't seem to mind the snappiness. Maybe it reminded him of the old days. "Even here on Ryalon, there can be threat."

"And a mysterious stranger who makes Avalon decide to send for Tarrant is not a guarantee of safety," Avon replied. He could totally partition his mind. Secret/threat. Two separate reasons for Avon to be wary. Probably two of dozens. Vila grimaced.

"Do you have any idea who it might be?" Hugh Tiver asked the pilot, who had been silent since they had teleported over to the base's headquarters. They had considered it best to bring their ship's doctor because of their destination. His tawny curls caught the sunlight as they approached the door to the main medical building. He didn't worry about Avon's mysterious project, not old Hugh. He trusted Avon. Trusted lots of people, did Hugh. Funny thing, Avon had never betrayed that trust.

Tarrant shook his head. He must have been wondering, too, who it could possibly be. "I formed some contacts when I was a mercenary, but no one I'd expect to show up here. Dorn is already making runs for the resistance. I didn't get close to many people whilst I was out there on my own." He and Dorn Suliman had deserted together, and his old friend was the son of Jabberwocky, or rather, the son of the man Jabberwocky had once been, before he had been injured beyond repair and his brain used as the basis of the Mark-60 mindship. Vila was accustomed to Jabberwocky now and always thought of him as a person, even if he wore the body of a Mark-60 spaceship.

"The Federation doesn't encourage friendship," Blake agreed. "We're more fortunate these days."

 

Avon didn't respond to that; he seldom reacted to declarations of friendship, but at least he didn't shun them any more. Vila saw his expression shift fractionally and hid a smile. Tiver didn't bother to hide his. He'd always been open, and his nature had driven Avon to distraction at first. Vila had always enjoyed watching Avon's astonished, affronted, and outraged reactions to Hugh Tiver.

"More fortunate if this is not a trap, Blake," he replied. "Finding old friends is dangerous. It was even dangerous finding Kyl." Avon's long-lost son had returned bearing programming that had nearly cost the computer expert his life. "That's why I insisted on bringing Orac. For an old contact of Tarrant's to arrive mysteriously could be a threat, someone programmed to destroy us. I prefer to face such situations armed and suspicious."

"I can't imagine who it could be," Tarrant replied. "Avalon only said the man was injured, and that he was rescued from an otherwise-deserted asteroid in the 8th sector, and that I should come right away. They brought him here and have been treating him. He evidently just regained consciousness." Poor old Tarrant looked thoroughly perplexed.

"And he couldn't be identified through the computer system?" Avon demanded suspiciously. He hadn't talked to Avalon. Only Tarrant and Blake had, since they had been on the flight deck when her message had come through. Vila didn't know what they'd said, but they weren't secretive like Avon. They'd reported everything to the rest of the crew.

"Not easily without Orac," the pilot returned. "I'll be able to tell if he's a threat to us."

"If he's someone you know, you might," Avon countered. "I still think it could be a trap."

"Untrusting, that's our Avon," Vila muttered to himself. He took a deep, put-upon breath, and shifted Orac in his arms. "Tarrant, you great lump, why not take Orac for a bit?"

"Because Avon wanted you to have it," Tarrant returned. "I should hate to deprive you of the privilege."

The rest of the crew hadn't come along. They could hardly trail across the base, or even through the medical unit, in a body; they'd have children running after them and calling their names, and any ship's crew hanging about would be bound to be suspicious. Vila didn't mind the kids, but he knew Avon preferred to be subtle and discreet--or sneaky and wary, whichever term best suited his mood.

Sneaky, probably. He'd been talking to Edge in an undertone just before he left. Edge was probably the next best computer man on the ship--or on the planet. Maybe he was in on the big secret, and no one could say that Edge was a talkative man. Of the three psi techs they'd rescued from Sarran, Edge was probably the one Vila knew the least. But then, he and Avon had their science in common. When the three had helped to build Jabberwocky, Perren had handled the mental aspects, Tanz the building--and Edge a lot of the science behind it. In a world where the Federation didn't dominate everything, the three of them could have made millions. Vila sighed. Oh well, he'd rather steal the millions, himself. So much less like hard work.

 

*****

 

 

Tarrant couldn't avoid worrying as they entered the rebel base's medical centre. He knew there was sure to be trouble. Mysterious messages and sudden strangers always meant trouble, even if they didn't intend it. Kyl hadn't meant trouble even though he'd brought it. Gan hadn't meant it, either. Cloned and programmed, he hadn't known either, only that he finally had a chance to rejoin Blake. Blake's daughter Cella hadn't meant trouble, and she hadn't even caused it, not really, but the news of her had come at a bad time, when the crew was dealing with Egrorian's plot. So Tarrant was convinced the mysterious stranger who knew him by name would hardly prove a welcome surprise. Maybe it was someone he'd attended the academy with, someone ready to switch sides. Maybe the whole thing was a new plot from Servalan, who had hardly given up and gone away just because she had to call herself Sleer now. Who knew what Supreme Commander Arpel had up his sleeve? Avon's suspicion must be catching, or perhaps it was only common sense.

Avalon met them in the medical centre's reception area, her face grave and worried. She was accompanied by the clone of Blake who had been rescued from the planet where IMIPAC had been destroyed. When the clone had joined the resistance, he had undergone mild plastic surgery to make him less like a carbon copy of the original, and his hair follicles had been treated to straighten and lighten his hair. He still looked like Blake but not so obviously that bounty hunters and troublemakers would mistake him for the original, and he had taken the name Rojers instead. Avon didn't trust the man an inch, not after he'd rendered the real Blake unconscious and attempted to take his place on a mission that had cost Dayna her life. The real Blake had been rescued from Servalan, and Dayna now existed in an android body, but Avon was well known for holding grudges.

Blake nodded pleasantly at his clone. Of all of them, he seemed the most at ease with the man, which always gave Tarrant pause. Tiver also offered him a quick smile. "We're here," Blake said. "You've found someone who knows Tarrant?"

"We've found someone who might be a ticking time bomb." Avalon pushed a strand of dark hair off her forehead. "Rojers just came in from a mission; he was pulled off course by a distress signal and went to investigate. It turns out the beacon was homemade and the man he found must have constructed it himself out of the most rudimentary tools. He was alone on that planetoid in the 8th sector with only marginal supplies and equipment. His ship had crashed there."

"It looked like a converted pursuit ship, one of the old style," Rojers put in. He still sounded like Blake; no one had altered his vocal cords. Only the inflection was slightly different. "It was in bad shape; he was lucky to bring it down more or less intact. I found the poor fellow lying in the wreckage, unconscious. I don't know how long he'd been there, but when I saw him I knew I had to bring him straight here. If anyone would have pity for him, I would."

Avon's eyes narrowed at his words, and Tarrant shifted uneasily. Just what did his reaction mean? That the rescued man was a clone with no identity of his own? That he'd lost his woman? Or simply that he'd been stranded alone on a remote planet? A shiver of uneasiness traced its way up Tarrant's spine. Why send for him? It made no sense. Unless... Could the man be his father?

"Why send for me?" he asked, questing in his mind for the link he always had with Jabberwocky.

//I'm here, Del,// the mindship replied immediately. //I always am.//

 

Reassured in that respect, Tarrant waited for Avalon's answer, but she said, "I'd rather you see him. In here." She led the way down a short corridor past busy uniformed personnel and a few patients out for short walks, and stopped in front of a closed door where two of Avalon's security people stood guard, one on either side.

Avon's hand hovered near his gun, and the others bunched up behind him, but when Avalon pushed the button and the door slid open Tarrant went in first. Avalon stopped the others in the doorway but Tarrant knew Avon was behind him, gun at ready, in spite of the precautions that had already been taken.

The man on the diagnostic bed lay with his face turned away from the door, his dark hair in mild disarray, as if he hadn't been able to have it trimmed for a long time. The hospital staff had cleaned him up, and he wore a hospital gown. Tarrant's first view gave him an edge of jawline and forehead, no more. Inexplicably, he began to tremble.

Sensing a presence, the stranger turned and revealed a face that, except for the fading bruises and the recently-broken nose, looked remarkably like his own. He was slim, not to the point of emaciation, but thinner than was healthy, and shadows lurked in his eyes. For a moment, he squinted at Tarrant in disbelief, then his face shifted into a relief so colossal that it forced out tears, the eyes blurring behind them. "Del! Thank God. I thought I'd never see you again." He put out his hand and Tarrant clasped it involuntarily.

He tried to speak but for the first moment words would not come. Then he cleared his throat and tried again. "Deeta? But--you're dead. I felt you die." He hardened his voice--and his heart. "Are you a clone?" Was that why Rojers had taken pity on him, because of his shared state? The others had accepted Gan's clone, but this was Deeta--or a copy. The idea of a copy of his brother hurt him so fiercely he had to bite his bottom lip to steady it. He let go of the patient's hand and took a wary step backward.

"I--don't believe I am. Servalan said I was not, when she revived me after the Teal Vandor Convention. I regained consciousness on her ship." He caught his breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to talk to you with all those people in my head and that wasn't fair to you. But now--that's over." That's what Deeta had said as he lay dying in the ruined building, but then anyone would know that. The whole planet had listened in as he died. Like Tarrant, they had all experienced Deeta's death. It hadn't been sham; it had been death. Tarrant hesitated, unconvinced--but he longed to believe.

//What is it, Del? What's wrong? Your heart rate, your blood pressure are elevated. I can feel how distressed you are.// Jabberwocky's anxious questions filled his head and Tarrant let him see the image of what he was seeing, sinking into a gestalt with the computer. One on one, he could do that well for short periods of time away from the ship.

//It's Deeta,// he explained hastily through the telepathic link they shared. //My brother.//

//I thought your brother was dead.//

 

Tarrant gave a sound that was half a laugh, half a sob. //So did I.// The mental communication occurred so quickly that no one noticed a gap. He shook himself to awareness of the present, his gaze all over Deeta--if he really was Deeta. "I felt you die," he insisted. "You didn't just pass out, you died. I knew it through the link and so did millions of people at the Conference site--and all of them knew what you said to me. You'll have to convince me."

"And the rest of us," Avon put in, a feral look upon his face.

Tiver wiggled past Avon, who turned, affronted. Circling the bed, the doctor eyed the readouts on the diagnostic screen at the head of the bed, then reached for Deeta's wrist. Hugh had never been willing to go entirely with readouts, not when he could examine the patient in the old-fashioned, hands-on method.

"That's what Servalan said, that I was dead when she reached me," Deeta replied, scarcely noticing Hugh. "She put me in a stasis tank and she did it quickly enough that they could heal me, resuscitate me--and remove the sensor link from my brain."

"Well now," Avon said, moving closer to take a stance at Tarrant's side. "What proof have you of that? It had better be good. We know what Servalan was involved with shortly after the Teal-Vandor Convention, and you were not a part of it."

"No. I realized that she had a plan, but I wasn't told of it." Deeta's face narrowed. "She left me behind on a remote base with strict instructions."

"Before you tell us what they were," Blake said, gesturing Vila forward with Orac, "we have a few tests to make of our own. You understand why we can't take you completely on trust. Even if you are who you appear to be--and you could be clone or android, or even shapeshifter, or cosmetically altered--you could be conditioned or programmed with an unknown trigger. We have encountered that, as well."

"All true, I could be. I don't believe I am. And you are?" Deeta's eyes flashed. He'd always stood up for himself: with Father, with the Federation, with anyone who got in his way. Tarrant had not been surprised that he'd become First Champion of Teal and defended the position so well--up until an android named Vinni had taken him down.

"I'm Roj Blake," the rebel replied. "I'm in charge of Tarrant's ship. That gives me some authority."

Avon's expression made it plain that Blake(s assumption that he was in charge was not completely accepted. He did work with Blake now and even liked him, but he had limits upon what he would acknowledge in public. "Under the circumstances, you can scarcely expect to be taken on trust. As with others before you, the burden of proof falls upon you." He had been as rigid with his own son, Kyl, so Tarrant had no grounds to complain of that, but a flash of annoyance toward Avon surged through him that he tried to squelch. Even though Tarrant didn't like it, Avon was right.

"What have the medical tests discovered?" Hugh asked practically. "I can tell from these readings that this man is not a clone. Has he been scanned for implants?"

"Of course," agreed Avalon. "There are none. He is correct that the sensor link he wore as First Champion of Teal has been removed. We can determine the existence of no other devices or implants."

"None that can be detected within the limits of your medical science," Avon put in.

Hugh's eyes were busy as he studied the patient. "He is obviously run-down and needs nutritional supplements as well as proper vitamins."

Vila muttered, "Adrenaline and soma," under his breath, winning a brief glitter in Avon's eyes in response.

 

"Conditioning would not be readily apparent, of course," continued Hugh. "You acknowledge," he continued to Deeta, "that you were in Servalan's hands. Admittedly, she had little time for ongoing programming and may have simply put you aside, intending to return for you later." He smiled at Deeta. "I'm Doctor Tiver." Perhaps he thought the title would be reassuring, but it didn't reassure Deeta, whose eyes narrowed slightly. "We have a...means of detecting such things."

Avon's face froze. Tarrant thought Hugh meant Orac, who had always been able to run such tests, but apparently Avon feared Tiver referred to his own abilities as a telepathic healer, something he hated to use on strangers. Better to start with Orac, who would be more objective than Avon and who might even find the process fascinating.

Hugh nodded at Orac. Vila had deposited it on the table the moment they entered the room and pretended exhaustion at the strenuous effort of carrying the little computer through the medical section. When no one had noticed, he had straightened up quickly and concealed his disappointment.

"Is that Orac?" Deeta asked with the first show of real interest he'd produced. "I've heard tell of it."

Avon said, "It is merely a device which will monitor you during the tests." Although Avon had allowed himself to become slightly more outgoing with the crew over the past year, he had never once yielded his suspicion of outsiders. Trust with Avon, now that he had gradually learned he could trust, was not a universal. It had to be won by individuals, one at a time. Sometimes it had to be proven more than once. At times, Tarrant found Avon's wariness annoying, but he had had cause to be glad of that suspicious nature on more than one occasion. They lived in a harsh universe where even friends and relatives could wear false faces. That was why Blake fought.

Blake spoke up. "I've been through this process myself. Conditioning can be buried for years."

Avon glanced at him quickly, then at Deeta. "In your case, since we know you were in Servalan's control, we should be utter fools not to test you. And we are not such fools."

Deeta looked at Avon with pure dislike. "Should I have been conditioned, it would hardly be my fault, would it? I submitted myself to your medical science. I accepted tests. I acknowledge you need to do them. I even acknowledge you want to do them because you are concerned for my brother. You need not revel in them."

Avon actually looked astonished. "Since I performed similar tests on my own son..." he began through clenched teeth.

"Avon," Blake cautioned.

Avon's face smoothed into blandness. "My leader speaks," he purred and Blake's eyes quickly masked amusement. Even in the stress of the moment, Tarrant noticed Avon had interpreted that one word from Blake without the slightest hesitation.

Deeta bit his bottom lip and subsided. "Run your tests," he said. "Only a fool would expect to be taken on trust--and I have never been accounted a fool." His mouth was tight a second then he added, "But I warn you, I am very good at defending myself."

"Threats are tedious," Avon countered.

"Avon," objected Tarrant.

 

His reproof didn't have the same effect as Blake's warning but, to Tarrant's surprise, Avon didn't pursue the subject.

And to Avon's surprise, Deeta burst out laughing. "You're right, they are," he said. "I was just pointing out how well trained I am to react to threats. It becomes instinctive when you live it. I was the First Champion of Teal for a long time." His eyes came up to his brother. "In the midst of all that, I forgot that I was still Deeta Tarrant until you showed up at the Teal-Vandor convention, little brother."

Hugh stood apart, fiddling with Orac, waiting, but Tarrant wasn't sure how to react to that. "Who are you now?" he finally asked, wary and reluctant, hating the audience that hung on his every word.

"That's what I hope to find out." He gestured at Hugh and Orac. "The link is gone from my head, I think. I can't feel it anymore. Being dead, I retired from my position as Teal's First Champion. Should Servalan have replaced the link with nothing, or with breakable conditioning, I may find myself...free...for the first time in my entire life. I am not sure I will know how to deal with the condition."

"Throw in your lot with us," Vila said in a jolly voice. "Wine, women and song. Heroic ballads written about you. Danger every second. And to think I used to be a happy thief."

Avon's mouth didn't twitch, but the others knew him well enough to realize he was fighting down a smile. Deeta didn't know him at all, so he ignored him. Instead he turned eyes that glittered too brightly with ill-suppressed hope upon his younger brother. "There would be room for one battered mercenary in your cause?"

"We're rather good at taking in strays," Avalon said from her position near the door. "The strays who are discontented enough with the system are the ones who want to change it. Even if you don't become a dedicated revolutionary, we won't turn you away. It's the Federation who would do that."

"That's one of the reasons we fight." In another second Blake's zeal would pitch him into one of his fervent recruitment speeches, and Deeta wasn't strong enough for that. Look at him now. Even though every line of his body was braced and defensive, alert to danger, his mouth quivered with tremulous hope. He was ill and battered and didn't have the strength to confront Roj Blake or Kerr Avon, who took careful handling at the best of times.

"No pep talks, Blake. He's still ill," Tarrant said warningly and popped a thought to Jabberwocky to urge Blake to back off. A second later Blake's face cleared and he grinned easily, held up his hands to show that he meant to delay the sales pitch.

"Yes, there are too many of us in here disturbing him." That was Tiver, shifting into his doctor status. "I want to conduct an examination." He nodded briefly at the base's primary physician, Doctor Ralker, who had entered without Tarrant noticing him. "We'll see if he's ready for Orac to deprogram him. Tarrant, will you serve as control?"

"Of course."

 

Hugh turned his eyes upon Avon who recognized the look and took a step backward. "I am willing to rely upon Orac," Avon conceded. Del knew he would use his patented healer techniques should they prove necessary and should Tarrant ask him. That Tarrant actually might proved the status change between them. When Avon had saved his life, it had made a difference. For a long time, Tarrant had believed he still disliked Avon and Avon disliked him. How odd to find out that he no longer did--and that perhaps he never really had.

And even odder to realize that, somewhere along the line, he had been taken into a whole new family. It was a fractious family, one that wouldn't be considered your 'normal' grouping, but it was family all the same.

Now here was Deeta--if he really were Deeta and not a new trick of Servalan's, who was bound to have many more up her drab uniform sleeves--and where did he fit? When Deeta had left Earth, Tarrant had missed his brother fiercely at first, but as the years passed, resentment had crept in. Even though he'd understood why Deeta had gone, it hadn't helped the feelings of abandonment he'd never quite been able to quell. Now his big brother lay before him, alone, broken, defeated, isolated--needing Del as he had never needed him before.

The universe rocked on its pinnings.

 

*****

 

"...Tarrant's brother," Vila explained, evidently relishing being the centre of attention on Jabberwocky's flight deck. "Looks like he's been starved and beaten, but he's not a clone." He cast a hasty, apologetic glance at Gan, who was still Gan with Gan's memories, even if he had a new body, and at Dayna, whose innards were mechanical.

"Is he programmed?" Kyl Avon, less than a year from the age when he'd be considered adult and able to sign onto a ship's crew if he should be so inclined, although his father still considered him too young, had taken to spending much of his spare time on board Jabberwocky. Sometimes he brought Cella, Blake's daughter, with him. The two of them were so close it alarmed both fathers.

Ven Perren hid a smile. As a psych tech, he enjoyed watching the crew interaction. He was having a field day on Jabberwocky, He couldn't imagine a better place to be, especially since his two closest friends, Roald Edge and Ran Tanz, were here with him. Well, Edge was closeted in the lab at the moment. He had a new project going with Avon that he wasn't talking about. Perren knew he could worm it out of Edge without the slightest difficulty and that the secrecy was at Avon's behest. Sneaky character, Avon. Perren liked him, loved needling him, and enjoyed it when he could provoke Avon into a thoroughly human response to the teasing. He had hopes one day of getting a look at Avon's psi healing abilities--or would if it didn't mean he'd have to need it. Avon performed gestalt linkage with the crew without enthusiasm, but these days he handled link-mode as if it were a natural part of life. The insights Perren derived from both experiences fascinated him, not just from Avon but from all the crew. He hoped a puppeteer never got his manipulative hands on a mindship. The dangers that could come out of such a catastrophe were sure to be unpleasant, to say the least.

Programming, now, that might mean that Avon and Perren would need to work together. So he slung his arm around Kyl's shoulders in a comradely fashion and said, "I want to know that, too."

"Don't know yet," Vila admitted. "Blake sent me back to let everybody know what was going on." He glanced around the flight deck. "Where is everybody else?"

 

"Cally and Jenna are over working on the other mindship," Gan explained. "Tanz went to the market for electronics equipment. Edge is working in the computer lab. I'm not sure where Soolin is."

"And I'm here," Jabberwocky announced. "Soolin went to the firing range to try out a new gun she bought in the market."

"If it works like she thinks it does, I'll adapt it to suit us," Dayna added.

"But to return to Tarrant's brother," Perren jumped in. "They think it's really Deeta?"

"Yes." Jabberwocky's voice was thoughtful. "Tarrant feels the man knows things that only Deeta would know. There's no evidence he is anything but human, he has been subjected to no cosmetic surgery, and he is not a clone. Which still leaves several dangerous possibilities."

"Programming like I had?" Kyl suggested. "What else, Jab?"

"Deliberate infiltration, I should think," offered Dayna. "Just because he's Tarrant's brother doesn't mean he's automatically on our side. He's a mercenary, and they work for the highest bidder. Servalan may have access to a great deal of money, even now."

"If his story is true," Jabberwocky observed, "she may have saved his life."

"And you think he'd be loyal to her for doing so?" Gan shook his big head. "Surely he's not fool enough to believe she wouldn't have done it for her own purposes. Even I'd know that." He frowned. "And don't say I wouldn't, because I did believe some of what Supreme Commander Arpel said to me. I still think his views are ambiguous and that he might well turn out to be more for us than he's ready to admit. But we all know Servalan. There isn't a benevolent bone in her body."

"Gan's right," Vila agreed. "I wouldn't trust her to give me a drink of water."

"Or adrenaline and soma?" Perren teased him.

"Probably poisoned," Vila said darkly.

The signal chimed to indicate someone was waiting at the main hatch. Since none of the crew would ring for admittance, Jabberwocky popped a view of the entry on the main screen, where a deliveryman in a sand-coloured uniform waited beside a long box balanced on contra-grav skids.

"Somebody bought me a pressie," Vila said with a grin. "I'll go."

"You, Vila? Working?" Perren grinned and got up. "I will." He picked up a gun from the supply on the way, conscious of Kyl trailing curiously behind him.

The deliveryman thrust out a clipboard. "Delivery for Kerr Avon," he said without interest. He represented the local distribution company and Perren had seen him or his companions moving around the base on more than one occasion, hauling cargo that had come in on the freight ships. This was just another day's work for him, not a thrill that it had taken him to the ship of the legendary Blake.

"What is it?" Kyl craned his neck to see past the deliverer.

The man shrugged. "They don't pay me to know what's in it, son. Only to take it where it belongs."

"Looks like a coffin," Kyl continued.

"Oh, thanks." The deliveryman grimaced elaborately. "Hope not. I've had it on my skid all morning. "It's marked 'computer supplies'. Best I can do for you. Are you Kerr Avon?"

 

Perren grinned slightly. Avon might not enjoy the celebrity status he was granted on the base, but he'd be sure to feel affronted that someone would mistake another person for him.

Kyl's head wagged back and forth. "No, I'm his son."

"Then you sign for it."

Kyl took the clipboard, keyed in acceptance, and returned it.

Perren had to agree the box was the right shape to hold a body, a tall body. He could imagine Vila's reaction to the concept. Avon had the responsibility for ordering computer supplies. Lately he'd ordered a great many of them, and so had Edge. When their project was ready, they'd unveil it, and Perren was looking forward to it. Edge hadn't had many chances to play mad scientist lately. Maybe it was something to do with the rebels' second mindship, currently undergoing trials.

Perren had worked with the human brain encased in the new mindship. Unlike Jabberwocky, whose memories had been blocked before he had been connected to the Mark-60 mindship, the new brain was cognizant of its own identity, and had voluntarily accepted the role as ship's brain. He wouldn't have to face the problems Jabberwocky had faced when his suppressed memories began to surface. The man, Berg Essilon, had volunteered for his task. It was far better than being trapped forever in a body that not even modern medicine could repair. That hadn't made it easy, and Perren was the only psych tech on Ryalon. He was still on call for the other ship if need be. Cally was there right now, testing the telepathic links, providing the ship with a tentative link-mate through the testing process. The proposed pilot for the ship, Garenn Martagg, had been selected, had experienced link-mode, and was coming along nicely. Perren thought he had the right mindset to carry it off. As with Jabberwocky's crew, he was still enduring the headaches that exposure to the link caused the uninitiated, but that was improving. Cally was nearly ready to turn the link over to him. Martagg was a man of thirty who, whilst possessing only marginal psi gifts of his own, had proven exceptionally receptive to psi. He was just the kind of man the mindlink had been designed to accept, and he found the concept exciting. Ven thought Martagg would make a good link mate.

Originally there had been talk of Dorn Suliman serving as the linkmate for the new mindship, but in the end, he had decided not to take it. He thought it might prove somewhat awkward since his father's brain had been used in the creation of Jabberwocky. He was willing to help out and had actually linked once or twice in the test process, but in the end, the other pilot had been selected. Ven thought it was for the best.

But Avon shouldn't need more parts for the mindship, and even if he did, they wouldn't be delivered here. Although his had been some of the preliminary designs for the mindship concept, he had not been working with the process, except peripherally, for the past several months. It was possible he and Edge had a new toy, one that would eventually make life easier for the crew of Jabberwocky.

Together, Perren and Kyl manoeuvred the contragravs down the corridor and installed the box in the computer lab, where Edge fell upon it with so much eagerness his too-long hair fell forward into his eyes and he had to dash it back, then Kyl manoeuvered the contragravs to the door to return to the deliveryman.

"Need any help with that?" Perren volunteered, hanging back.

 

"Not at this time, Ven. I want to go over it with Avon. We'll need you on it eventually."

"Make me curious, will you?" Perren grinned. "Mad scientist!" Edge lifted an amused eyebrow in response.

"My father will tell me about it," Kyl put in as he hesitated in the doorway. He did not sound entirely convinced of the fact, but Perren knew he was tenacious enough to dig in his heels and persist in the face of some of Avon's most comprehensive snubs.

"This is the most challenging project I've dealt with in years," Edge replied. "If you see Avon, send him along. I'd like to manage some of the testing this afternoon."

That was a dismissal if he'd ever heard one. Kyl raised the contragrav controls, but Perren grimaced. "I'll hold you to that," he said. "Secrets."

"Oh. Well, it's Avon's secret, really. The only reason he allowed me in on it was because he actually needed help on it. Either one of us might have managed it separately, but it's too important to take the risk. Together, we can locate any possible flaws in the system."

"You're not going to blow up the ship? Should I run for cover?" Perren's comment caused Kyl's eyes to widen, and he hovered in the doorway.

"No explosions. I guarantee it."

"Well, if you're sure..." Perren studied his friend. There was an element of concern in the blue eyes, but Perren had seen similar looks on his friend's face before, and those instances had turned out well. They'd worked on this very mindship when the linkages were being tested, and Edge's doubts had all involved the mindship creator, Rendall Weed, who had been insane.

Avon wasn't insane. He might be driven, but he was sane, if too secretive and too unwilling to offer trust. Perren enjoyed the spectacle of Avon, a man in cautious transition. The certainty of trust--trust of the members of this crew--had done wonders for him, if Vila's stories of the old days were to be believed.

It would have to be enough.

With an edgy glance at the coffin-shaped box, Perren draped his arm around Kyl's shoulders, and steered the pair of them out of the lab.

 

*****

 

Edge had his doubts about the project he and Avon had conceived, although he'd been reluctant to admit it to Perren, especially with Kyl right there listening. Edge didn't like keeping secrets from Perren, especially since Perren trusted him completely. Avon would have run his project entirely independently if possible, but Edge's background in computers, physics, psi linkages, and telepathy made the project possible. Orac's assistance had proven invaluable, and Jabberwocky, who would need the most involvement in the end, had come into it with a fascination he could not restrain. Perren and Tanz would have been great assistance, and he wouldn't have minded Cally's help, or Blake's, but right now they managed with Orac and Jabberwocky. The two computers had to be involved. If possible, Avon would have cut them from the loop as well. But then Avon had always been a secretive man, a private man.

 

The box Kyl and Perren had brought to the computer lab was the culmination of months of work and planning. Now, all that was required was link-up, testing, and trials. The linkages had to be exact, and that might prove difficult. Edge still had a few doubts, not about their ability to complete the project, but about its wisdom. As a scientist, he considered it worth trying, but he still had his reservations about the long-term implications of the project. He would have liked to bring Perren in. Ven would have insights that neither Edge nor Avon would think to consider. But Avon had insisted that there be no one else involved at this stage, and the project was his conception.

"Edge? May I see it?"

Jabberwocky's voice held both eagerness and fear, and Edge, who sometimes had to remind himself how much more than a computer Jabberwocky was, could feel his humanity in the question. This project would prove that to any possible doubters.

Edge could imagine Avon's reaction if he returned to the ship and discovered Edge and Jabberwocky had jumped the gun, but he didn't care. In the end, Jabberwocky had the most right to be involved with every step of the process. The others had taken Orac with them to investigate Avalon's mysterious request for Tarrant, and Orac wouldn't be needed for observation, not that it couldn't handle this at the same time.

"Of course." He took the locking key that had come with the container and activated it. The magno-locks uncoupled, and the container lid lifted several inches as the pressure seal released. Edge stretched out a long arm and slid the lid sideways.

Lying neatly within the box was a body.

//Not a body, Edge,// Jabberwocky said into his mind.

//A vessel, then.// Did the terminology matter? Would it matter to Dayna? Ven would have taken Dayna's reaction into account from the first, but Edge hadn't considered her possible dismay until now. Another reason the project needed expansion.

It wasn't really a body, merely a shell. Designed to exact specifications both internally and externally, in its shut-down state, it resembled a corpse. Although Edge was not a fanciful man, he shivered involuntarily. But that was nonsense. This was a scientific project. No time for idle speculation. He considered the shell.

Edge was the tallest man on the ship, several centimetres taller than Tarrant, but this form would be a few centimetres taller than Edge. Appearing approximately the same age as Blake or Avon, he had thick, dark, curly hair and a bushy mustache. Impossible to tell the eye colour, as the eyes were closed, but the features were strong and regular. The designers had done a very good job of simulating a few age lines on the forehead, and smile lines between the nose and mouth. Even so, the shell still looked unfinished--which, of course, it was.

"What do you think?" he asked.

Jabberwocky was silent a long moment, then he said, "There is an old saying. I feel as if someone had walked over my grave."

Edge had to agree with him. "Then it looks right?"

"As near as I can remember." The mechanical voice quavered.

Jabberwocky drew a deep breath--or at least made a sound to simulate it; a disembodied brain did not need to breathe. "I wish Tarrant were here."

"Have you told him?" The bond between the computer and his link-mate was a strong one.

"No."

 

"Not at all?" Yet Edge should have suspected that. Avon would have counselled utter secrecy. If Tarrant had any awareness of what was in the planning stages, he would have confronted Avon, loudly demanding involvement. He might even have resented the process. He would certainly have worried about it. When he found out now, he would be utterly furious that he had been kept from the loop.

"I meant to. Then Avalon contacted us. It's his brother, Edge. Deeta. Alive. I can't distract him now."

"I thought his brother had died at the Teal-Vandor convention."

"So did Del. He's very...shaken." Edge suspected Jabberwocky believed describing Tarrant's reaction further would be a violation of the bond they shared.

"Is there a chance this is a trick? A trap? Not really Deeta Tarrant?"

"Evidently the DNA match proves his identity, and he is not a clone. Since he was in Servalan's hands, the need would be to prove he hasn't been conditioned--or that he isn't actually working for Servalan."

"Surely not," Edge said involuntarily, then he raised a hand to erase the words. "No, we'd have no guarantees he wasn't, would we? I have too much experience with Servalan's negative qualities to think that some may side with her voluntarily. Still, my knowledge of that Teal-Vandor convention would indicate that unless the man is an utter fool, he'd know he'd been used, that the Vinni android was Servalan's means of control."

"Programming, mind-washing, can confuse such issues," Jabberwocky said gravely. "Orac attempts now to determine the extent of any programming. It will not be an easy task."

"Avon's there?" Edge asked. Now that their project had reached this stage, he was anxious to proceed.

"Yes, he'll remain for the course of the test. It's possible Tarrant will ask for psi healing for his brother."

Edge's mouth quirked. "Avon will love that."

Jabberwocky laughed. "Indeed."

"Well, I'll test the computer systems whilst we wait." Edge adjusted the controls to lower the sides of the box, and to raise the platform for easy access. He checked the settings of the control panel, then reached for the connector links. He couldn't complete the process without Avon and Orac, but he could make it ready. "Jabberwocky, I want you to regulate the linkages as we discussed. You've accessed the specs?"

"Naturally."

Edge glanced at the form on the platform, then faced one of the computer monitor screens. He had come to realize it was only proper to look at Jabberwocky's fascia when speaking to him. "If Perren were here, he'd insist that we ask you if you are willing to continue. Are you?"

"Willing? Of course I am willing." Another of those simulated deep breaths. "Although Avon does not appear to be a sympathetic man, his healing ability allows him a deeper perception than he is able to admit. He understands more than anyone except perhaps Tarrant. He has healed me. He has even, temporarily, been my link-mate. He believes, as do I, that this process is necessary for me."

 

Edge knew from all the telepathic tests he and his team had performed in the development of the Mark-60 Mindship that inherent problems lurked in the process; not design flaws, but the inevitable difficulties caused by the use of an actual human brain in the process. At the request of the designer, Rendall Weed, Jabberwocky's memories had been repressed; the Federation was skilled at doing that; it had been practised to a lesser extent on Roj Blake and other dissidents. But the process had not been foolproof, and the return of Jabberwocky's memories had nearly destroyed him. If not for Avon's long-buried abilities, Jabberwocky might have become completely insane.

Those and other factors had been considered in the development of the rebels' second mindship, and its human brain had been allowed the retention of memories. Perren had spent a lot of time working with the second mindship. Berg Essilon knew his identity, and Martagg knew it, too. The bond grew between them daily. If Avon and Edge's project worked, those two might well benefit from it, too.

"Very well," Edge agreed. "Let me form the preliminary connections. We can't attempt partial transfer without Avon and Orac, but we can test the functionality."

"Make the connections."

"Are you monitoring Tarrant?"

"Naturally. Don't doubt that I can handle both. You should know, more than any but Avon, that I can perform multiple tasks simultaneously."

"You'll notify me if there are problems with Tarrant and his brother?"

"No. I'll notify Perren. He can go over and offer his help."

"That ought to annoy Avon," Edge said with a faint smile.

"It looks rather like an older Dorn," Jabberwocky said, seemingly at random.

"Did you expect anything else?" Edge asked and applied himself to the task at hand.

Soon Jabberwocky would have a body.

 

*****

 

"There is no programming."

Tarrant spared a glance at the little perspex computer. "Are you certain, Orac?"

Orac hmmphed. "Naturally I am certain, or I would not have spoken."

"Now you've offended Orac," Blake murmured. With Avon, Blake had remained in the background during the testing process, memories of his own programming and the need for a similar process at the time of the Atlay Summit flooding back. Tarrant's brother made him uneasy. Could it tie in with his own remembrance of Dev Tarrant on Earth? He'd gone through a period of resentment of Del Tarrant because of it, but he'd long ago come to terms with that. But this was a new Tarrant, and his arrival was certainly suspicious. Avon thought so, but Avon thought a casual sneeze was suspicious.

Ralker, the base doctor finished unfastening the leads that connected Tarrant and his brother to Orac, then went to report the test findings to Avalon. She would probably return soon to hear it from Tiver and Orac.

 

Blake glanced at Avon. Yes, he did look suspicious, but he didn't speak until Doctor Ralker had moved out of earshot. "No programming does not automatically mean he is sympathetic to your cause, Blake." He studied the man in the bed. "You. You claimed Servalan abandoned you on a remote planet with strict instructions. Suppose you now tell us what those instructions were."

Deeta favoured Avon with a gaze in which doubt and dislike warred for supremacy.

Tarrant murmured, "Deeta...." in a doubtful tone.

Deeta glanced his way they returned his gaze to Avon. "That I was to avoid your rebellion at all costs," he admitted.

"With what consequences, should you choose to override that suggestion?" Avon could be counted on to maintain his suspicion even in the face of possible good news. Blake knew that suspicion had saved their lives on more than one occasion, and he really didn't want to imagine an open, trusting Avon. But that threatening purr might well put off a possible ally, one who had been honed to true fighting alertness. Deeta Tarrant, in spite of Blake's own natural wariness around a stranger bearing the name of Tarrant, could be a real asset to the cause.

"She said they would be apparent, should that happen, and that my brother would pay. I was reluctant to come here, fearing as you did that I was programmed. If it is true that I am not programmed, I would assume she had another means of achieving her actions."

"What about buried programming, requiring a hidden trigger, the way Soolin was once programmed?" Hugh asked. "Orac, could you detect that?"

"I could." Not one shred of doubt in Orac's voice. Of course Orac had a high-handed attitude of believing it was always right. Watching Orac and Avon interact was, on occasion, like the immovable force meeting the indestructible object. Avon had often said it was a pity Orac was too valuable to destroy--usually when the little computer had frustrated him beyond bearing.

"Avon, could you...?" Blake was reluctant to put the question to Avon, especially in front of a stranger.

Deeta's gaze settled on Avon with interest.

Avon didn't like that; the muscles in his jaw bunched and tightened, and his shoulder blades grew rigid. "We shall discuss our options in private, Blake. Deeta Tarrant's presence here does not necessarily indicate a desire to throw in his lot with your cause. Every man has his own agenda. Even a fanatical Federation supporter would welcome rescue from a planet on which he had been stranded."

Deeta's chin came up. "True," he agreed. "You have no reason to believe me. But I should be as big a fool as you must believe me to support the Federation after the way Servalan used me for her own schemes. As near as I can tell, the only reason she didn't come for me was because she was ousted from power. I'm told the President and Supreme Commander now is Sharn Arpel. I don't know what's happened to Servalan. No one's told me. But you won't find anyone gladder of her fate than me."

"You don't know her fate," Avon reminded him.

"He just said that, Avon." Tarrant threw an annoyed glance at his brother. "Did she give you any other instructions, Deeta?"

 

The man in the bed frowned. "She revived me from the cryo tank. I had believed I was dying, and was very surprised to be alive. I knew who she was, of course. I recognized her instantly. She admitted that she had manipulated the combat ground, right down to Vinni's gun. Although the charge he fired at me was lethal, it was not lethal in the sense that it would damage my body--only deliver a shock charge that would stop my heart. I don't know how much control Servalan had over the entire process, but far more than The Vandor Confederacy or the United Planets of Teal."

"As neutral arbiter of the Convention, she meant to request an examination of Vinni. When he was proven an android, real war would break out and the Federation would come in and take over," Tarrant explained.

"But it didn't?" Deeta propped himself up on his elbows.

"Tarrant challenged Vinni and destroyed him before that could take place."

Deeta stared at his brother. "But that would make you the new First Champion of Teal."

"We...left immediately," Avon said rather dryly. Blake had heard the story of the Teal-Vandor convention from Vila, but somehow, that possible outcome had not occurred to him. Could Tarrant be summoned, even now, to serve in that capacity? Or had the United Planets of Teal already replaced Deeta Tarrant. It might be politic to instruct Orac to determine Tarrant's status with regard to those two non-Federated planets.

Hugh intervened. "I want the patient to rest now. You can resume the debriefing tomorrow."

"One final thing." Avon was still frowning. "We must determine if Servalan's 'instructions' pose a threat to this base."

Deeta Tarrant glared at Avon. "She might have instructed me to act in her interests. That doesn't mean I shall follow her instructions. I didn't believe she had time to perform conditioning and your Orac has confirmed that. She implanted no limiters or tracking devices. She instructed me to avoid the rebellion. Obviously there was no attached compulsion. It is not that I would have sought you out in any case, except to locate my brother."

"Which she may have wished to prevent." Avon's eyes narrowed. "That leads me to wonder what outcome she might have feared if the two of you came in contact."

"Obviously the exchange of information," Deeta replied.

"Or something else we haven't considered." Blake frowned. Avon was always suspicious, but this time, Blake had to agree with him. Whilst it was possible the events of Terminal and Servalan's subsequent loss of power had interrupted her plans for Deeta Tarrant, it was also possible elements of this situation had not yet weighed. "We'll leave you now. Tarrant, you may wish to stay a bit longer, if Hugh determines that to be satisfactory."

Hugh frowned. "I'd really rather he rest first. Del, you can come back after dinner."

"I will." Tarrant put out a hand to his brother, who gripped it. Blake could see nothing devious in Deeta Tarrant's face that was so like his brother's. Aside from a difference in hair and a few more lines, they might almost have been twins.

 

No, Blake told himself. Not really. He knew Del Tarrant well--he'd been in link-mode with him and in the gestalt. These days, it was far easier to read the faintest flicker on the faces of his shipmates. He couldn't do that with Deeta, any more than he could with any other stranger. He could only rely on Jabberwocky, who would be present in Tarrant's mind at all times, and who could report the first trace of danger to the rest of the crew.

But in spite of Deeta's apparent gladness at the reunion with his brother, Blake was one with Avon in this. Deeta Tarrant could mean trouble.

 

*****

 

When Avon and Blake returned to the ship, leaving Tiver conferring with the base surgeon and Tarrant remaining behind in hopes of spending more time with his brother, Vila, Perren, and Dayna were at leisure on the flight deck. Vila had a glass of adrenalin and soma, and Perren was drinking coffee. Dayna could take in food in company, but she usually didn't bother, except on missions where her android status might cause the wrong kind of curiosity, and, occasionally, socially.

"Is Deeta going to join us?" Vila asked.

Avon eyed the thief. "Why should he do that? The fact that he is Tarrant's brother does not automatically make him a devoted revolutionary."

"But he's not programmed?" Dayna asked.

"Well now, simply because there is no obvious programming does not guarantee freedom from danger nor a determination to join Blake's rebellion."

"I thought it was 'our' rebellion, Avon?"

"As you say," Avon purred. Annoying to see that sparkle in Blake's eyes. The man could be dangerous in such a frame of mind.

"Somebody shipped you a body, Avon," Vila chimed in.

A body? The android shell? Vila should not have seen it. "Have you been snooping in my private affairs?"

"We couldn't avoid it, when a coffin-shaped box appeared and Edge fell on it with glee." Perren's face proved they hadn't seen the contents of the container--and that he very much wanted to. Perren was a far greater snoop than Vila, and equally annoying, sometimes even more so.

Avon chose not to remain and deal with their curiosity. "I must speak to Edge," he said and stalked off the flight deck, conscious of intense curiosity behind him. Out of sight of them, Avon smiled a crocodile smile.

He found Edge bent over the receptor shell. The blond tech jumped when Avon stepped in, then relaxed. "I know we can't make the permanent linkages until Orac is free to assist, but I thought I could do the link tests. We must be certain they will work at all times, even should Jabberwocky leave the ship."

 

"We must also determine ranges. Teleportation to a planet, for instance." Avon had pondered the problem and gone over computer specifications until he was certain it would work. The links would enable Jabberwocky to transfer consciousness to the android shell; not his entire consciousness, as he must continue to function as the ship. But as he could maintain conversations with different crew members in different portions of the ship at the same time, so would he be able to maintain the avatar of himself and interact with crew members and others face to face. Unless tested, he would be able to pass as a living human, even though his interior circuits would in some ways match Dayna's. Dayna's programming had been designed with unlimited storage and for regular upgrades to match developing technology. Whilst upgrades would be required here, too, the shell would simply be an extension of Jabberwocky, enabling him to interact in the physical realm instead of merely in cyberspace.

The arrival of Tarrant's brother had proven a snag, not only because the man could be a walking time bomb but because with the arrival of the shell, it was necessary to involve Tarrant. The pilot might well resent being kept out of the loop, excluded even by his linkmate from the process. Avon didn't really care about Tarrant's sensibilities, but Jabberwocky did, and only doubts about Tarrant's reaction had delayed his involving Tarrant. There was, of course, no complete certainty that the program would work as specified, although both Avon and Edge believed it would. Avon knew from healing Jabberwocky and from his temporary tour as linkmate that having a body as an extension of his programming would benefit the computer's mental health. Whilst Avon told himself that he was not a psych tech and that other people needed to manage their own mental health, he could reason that the ship's state of mind affected them all and that the process was for his own protection.

These days, Avon didn't need as many justifications as he once did, but a part of his mind chose to make sure that he always had them. Blake expected it of him and enjoyed it when Avon did.

//We all do,// Jabberwocky said into his mind.

//What have I told you about snooping in my thoughts?//

Jabberwocky laughed out loud. "Avon, you were broadcasting right at me. I didn't go looking for you." He added to Edge, "Avon was reasoning out his pragmatic defence of the avatar program."

"Why require one?" Edge said simply. He might not be as emotional as a few of the crew members, but he was very straightforward. He didn't hide behind walls.

"Exactly my point." If Jabberwocky could have smiled, he would have done. Soon, he would be able to. Avon looked down involuntarily at the shuttered face. He had once seen Thorm Suliman in the dreamscape of his healing, and it shocked him to realize how much the body looked like that image. Although there was a resemblance to Dorn Suliman, Thorm was quite distinctive. He had been a big man. He would tower over Avon. He would even be slightly taller than Tarrant. That fact amused Avon.

"What have you accomplished so far," he asked, steering the conversation to practicalities.

"I've tested the links. They work. The internal program will be self-generating, requiring only periodic testing. Downtimes for recharging can be scheduled at Jabberwocky's choice, and will be required at rare intervals. I would recommend he take them as if at a nightly sleep cycle, even if not needed, simply because that is a normal human requirement. It will also provide constant linkage so that, should he be away from the ship itself for an extended period of time, the most recent charge would be no later than the last sleep period before departing the ship."

"Sleep wouldn't be necessary, though, would it?" Jabberwocky asked.

 

Avon frowned. "In theory, no. But I performed additional research. You know that Dayna does a shutdown each night to simulate sleep. It isn't required for her, yet she chooses it voluntarily. In a crisis, she will forego it, but she claims it makes her feel more real. Perren could explain to you the psychological impact. But my studies indicate your performance will be optimized if you adopt a normal diurnal cycle."

"You can use the time to perform routine ship maintenance," Edge explained. "Of course you will be able to do that even as you function with the avatar. Having a body will not limit your standard ship functions, anyone's ability to link, or even the gestalt. This will be one more facet of your performance, one that will be able to add to the ship's abilities as a whole."

"Now that our spies report the Mark-70 mindship near completion, any additional benefits we can produce will be useful," Avon added. "Intelligence reports suggest that Servalan will control the new mindship."

"As linkmate?" Edge asked, surprised. "I thought a pilot would manage the ship and she would control the pilot."

"She would not relinquish control to anyone," Avon snarled. "She would not wish to give anyone power over her. It is possible she would resist true linkage for fear of becoming too fully known."

"How long do you think we have before the mindship becomes active?"

Avon shook his head. For a time, it had been hoped that Servalan had perished at Malodaar but intelligence reports had proven that hope false. Not that Avon had believed it. He would not believe she was dead until her broken corpse lay at his feet. The mental image of just such an occurrence pleased him. Next time they encountered her, he would try to override Blake's humanity to see that she did not survive. Each new encounter only created greater danger for the team. For himself, he corrected.

"I should able to sense it," Jabberwocky volunteered. "There are times when I think I can sense our other mindship. As you know, Father, telepathy is enhanced in the mindship design." Avon frowned momentarily at the name he disliked. "With Cally working to strengthen the linkages of the second mindship, Berg's telepathic function has been strengthened. We communicate when possible. I may be able to reach the Federation mindship when the time comes."

"I should regard that as extraordinarily dangerous," Edge observed.

"No, but why? Because of what happened when Gan came, and the temporary link inflicted me with the virus programming? Avon will design a shield or function in healing mode with me at the time to prevent it."

Avon made a sour face. Healing would never appeal to him, but to protect Jabberwocky from a mental attack, he knew he might be required to do just that. "Wonderful," he said sourly. "You have made my day."

"Well, why not? You and Edge have made mine." Jabberwocky hesitated. "Avon?"

"Yes?"

"I will still be...me, when I have the avatar shell?"

"Of course you will be you. What do you mean?" For the first time, Avon rather wished either Perren or Hugh were here. Either of them was better equipped to deal with such questions than Avon was.

 

"The idea of having a body, of enjoying physical reactions again, is incredible. It should be so much fun. But a part of me has come to love the experience of the mindship. I don't want to yield that. I know I could be as Dayna is now, but for me that would become a limitation. I feel so much, know so much. I am the ship as it soars through the heavens. I am the computer, with its knowledge. I am the other half of Tarrant. I am Jabberwocky and proud to be. But inside me there is one small part that never stopped being Thorm, even when I couldn't really remember who and what Thorm Suliman was. I would snatch at that--but not at the expense of what I have become."

"It won't be at the expense of what you have become," Avon replied. "All of those operations will continue to exist. As you now can perform multiple functions simultaneously, this will simply be one more."

He wondered at his interest in the process. Although he had been violently opposed to the Dayna program at first and had refused to have anything to do with the acquisition of her robot form, events had conspired to put him on the scene when the time came. He had come to accept the android Dayna, if not quite the real thing, at least as close enough to the real thing that he often went for days, sometimes weeks, without being reminded differently. There had been a very necessary reason to grant the program a body in that case. In this, there was the quite elegant problem of creating an avatar of Jabberwocky who could move among the crew and interact with them, but the process could serve no useful function as far as Avon could see, except perhaps to grant Jabberwocky a form of holiday. Since Vila often demanded holidays, Avon had come to regard them as unnecessary moments of frivolity, but he did regard Jabberwocky's mental stability necessary to the continued safety and survival of the crew, of which he was a part.

Vila would be sure to claim, loudly and annoyingly, that Avon had grown soft in his old age. It wouldn't take long from that point for him to ramble on ad nauseam about the possible future marriage of Kyl and Cella and Avon's prospective grandchildren, an outcome which Avon would have liked to leave unexplored for a number of years.

But Jabberwocky's mental well-being did offer the best guarantees of safety for the members of the crew, and thus, Avon himself. Satisfied with that pragmatic explanation of his motives, Avon applied himself to the tests of linkages, grateful that Edge was a pragmatic man himself who would never display the least interest in Avon's motives or question his stated ones.

He left all that to Perren and Hugh--and, naturally, Blake.

Avon was not yet prepared to wonder what Blake would think of Avon and Edge's high-handed project. That would come at the great unveiling, and that was at least a day away.

 

*****

 

Tarrant carried Orac back to the ship. A pity he hadn't thought to send for Vila to haul it, if only to enjoy the thief's complaints. Ordinarily, Tarrant would have enjoyed that very much, but at the moment, thoughts of Deeta pushed everything else out of his mind, even Jabberwocky's unusual distance.

 

Deeta would spend the night in the base medical unit whilst being administered proper nutrients and medications to regulate his system. Hugh had sent Tarrant away so that Deeta could rest, but had lingered behind to confer with Ralker and his staff. "I'll link with Jabberwocky and report any changes or problems to you, Del. Go on now. He won't rest whilst you're here."

"It's all right, Del," Deeta said. "I don't plan to leave."

Tarrant wasn't sure if that were intended as a commitment or simply a reassurance, but his brother had left before, from Earth when Tarrant was young, and again at the Teal-Vandor convention, dying in the sensor net, his farewell broadcast to millions. It was difficult to leave him there, now that he was found, miraculously restored.

Tarrant scooped up Orac, knowing Vila would ride him for carrying the computer himself, and Avon would shred him unmercifully should he leave the little computer behind. Hugh could have returned it, but a voice in the back of Tarrant's mind prodded him to bring it with him.

//Jabberwocky?//

//Here. Your brother will rest well through the night. I can assign Orac to monitor his readings, if that would comfort you?//

Tarrant projected agreement. Jabberwocky could always sense his mood and his need for reassurance.

But that went two ways. Now that he had allowed himself to sink into their linked state, he could sense excitement and doubt in equal measures in his partner. //What's wrong?//

//Nothing is wrong, Del. Hurry back to the ship. There is something I must tell you. I should have done it long ago, but I never quite believed--and Avon....// The mental voice trailed off.

Avon? Should there be trouble on the ship, the odds were that Avon would be behind it. Not that Avon wished any of them ill. These days he was, for Avon, almost mellow. Of course Avon's "mellow" was most men's sour temper, but Tarrant had known Avon at his very worst, and his present state was a considerable improvement. He would be suspicious of circumstances and of strangers, but he didn't doubt the crew would back him.

Tarrant knew Avon would support the crew in a crisis, but he was also capable of doing things in his own way as high-handedly as possible. He didn't decide his actions in committee, a fact which irritated Tarrant at times. Blake was fairly easy with it, secure these days in Avon's commitment to his Cause, although never to the level of fanaticism Blake could maintain.

But if Avon had dreamed up a new scheme and recruited Jabberwocky, Tarrant had a bad feeling that there could be trouble ahead. Come to think of it, Avon and Edge had been working together in the lab rather frequently of late. They must have recruited Jabberwocky for a project.

//They did,// Jabberwocky agreed. //But the project isn't external, Del. I don't know if you will like it.//

//Do you like it?// If not for the overwhelming fact of Deeta's survival, Tarrant might have been angry at being excluded from the loop, although the technical aspects of Jabberwocky's existence were far more in Avon's purview than they were in Tarrant's. He used the link. Avon understood what made it work. Well, Avon understood the computer aspects. The trio of Perren, Edge, and Tanz knew the telepathic aspects. Their expertise had enabled the second mindship project to finally get off the ground. Once the final testing was complete and Martagg was alone in the linkage with his mindship, the Resistance would be well on its way to developing a fleet of mindships.

 

If not for the intelligence reports that the Federation's Mark-70 mindship was nearing completion, Tarrant would have been far more reassured by the progress of the Resistance.

//I think I will like it very much.//

By then, Tarrant reached the ship. //Bring Orac to the lab,// Jabberwocky urged him.

Now he would find out why Jabberwocky had been so remote since the start of Avon's project. Avon could be an arrogant bastard even at the best of times. What had he done this time?

Avon and Edge were both in the lab, bent over someone who lay on a med table connected to leads. The stranger wore a simple jumpsuit that was open to expose his chest, where the cables connected. For a second, Tarrant thought it was his friend Dorn Suliman, but a second glance proved the unconscious man, while resembling Dorn, was in fact a stranger.

No, not a stranger. He had seen several digital images of that face before. Dorn even had a holo of it in his possession that he'd held onto over the years of their desertion and his mercenary days roaming the outer worlds in his Andromedan ship.

The man who lay on the table before him was Thorm Suliman.

Jabberwocky.

Impossible. Tarrant blundered forward still carrying Orac, and Avon, who had looked up the second Tarrant had entered and moved automatically to stand between Tarrant and the figure on the table, couldn't halt Tarrant's determined rush.

"What the hell have you done?" Tarrant demanded.

"Easy, Tarrant," Edge said. He was hardly the crew's best peacemaker, and Tarrant simply ignored him.

"It's a shell, Tarrant," Jabberwocky explained quickly. "Not unlike Dayna's shell. But I can activate it through remote links and function with a body."

"Instead of in the ship?" Tarrant blurted. The underpinnings of his world rocked beneath him. So soon after Deeta, he wasn't ready to face any major shocks. //Instead of our link?// He couldn't ask that aloud, not in front of Avon, who always scorned sentiment.

//Never instead of our link,// Jabberwocky replied and sent a flood of soothing, wordless reassurance to him. //We have a life-bond, you and I. Nothing will change that. I love our link, and I also love being Jabberwocky. Feeling the response of the ship around me, the flooding of awareness and detail, the joy of link-mode and gestalt. I would never part with that. But before I was Jabberwocky, I was a man named Thorm, and there are times--not too many of them since Avon's healing--moments when I feel the confinement of my state. You let me share through you. You allow me to see what you see, even feel what you feel. Perhaps I am greedy, but a portion of me wants more.//

Tarrant hesitated. He understood, all the more because Jabberwocky reinforced his words with feelings and images, a glimpse of the man Jabberwocky had been, his ready camaraderie with his fellow pilots, his love for his wife, moments at play with Dorn as a child. Even those instances when Tarrant stepped aside and allowed Jabberwocky to come to the surface shone through. Avon had even done that when Gan's programming had disrupted the link and allowed Jabberwocky to interact with Tarrant through the link.

 

//Avon understands,// Jabberwocky telepathed. //He does not like understanding any more than he likes healing, but he does understand.//

Tarrant remembered moments when Avon had proven that. He was usually more acerbic than ever after exposing vulnerability, but those moments were there. Cally had once told him that Avon had come to her cabin after the destruction of the Auronar and offered her a form of comfort she had never expected. Of course Avon had couched it in his own brusque terms, but then Avon always did. Through the link, Tarrant had reached a truce with Avon, a form of empathy he would never have expected, even though he and Avon had always been able to work well together. Their surface friction still existed--perhaps it always would--but until this moment, Tarrant would have admitted, to Jabberwocky and to himself, if no more, that he had come to tolerate Avon quite well.

Now, with this evidence of secrecy lying on the med table before him, Tarrant wondered if Avon had simply lulled him into a sense of false security.

//No!// Jabberwocky's voice was firm. //I wanted this, Tarrant. When Avon proposed it, I jumped at it. It won't change our link. Nothing could do that. But I will be free. The avatar will be but one facet of my existence. You will always be in my head and I in yours, even while the avatar is off in a different part of the ship engaged in conversation with someone else. You've always known I could converse with Vila, share telepathy with Cally, maintain all ship functions, argue rebellion with Blake, and never lose the thread of any of that. This will be no different, except that instead of sleep, this body will shut down during regular intervals to simulate sleep.//

Tarrant was conscious of Avon taking an impatient step toward him and Edge reining him in by the simple expedient of stretching out a long arm to block him. Even in the midst of his intense conversation with Jabberwocky, Tarrant experienced a flash of mild amusement at Avon's outraged reaction at the restraint.

"Let Jabberwocky explain to him," Edge said softly. "We were far too high-handed, Avon, and you're only angry now because you've always known that."

"I do not justify my actions--"

"Yes, you do. To Blake, if to no one else. Let Jabberwocky handle this now. I may not be a psych tech like Perren but I have known him for many years and perhaps some of it has, er, rubbed off. They must resolve this."

Tarrant shut them out. //Why didn't you tell me?// he challenged.

//For fear it would fail. And maybe....//

When his mental voice trailed off, Tarrant's sympathies rose. //You can tell me,// he soothed.

//For fear you would...resent it. And me.//

Tarrant heaved a sigh. He did resent it. A part of him instinctively rejected the android form on the table. It was as if Jabberwocky were leaving him behind, finding the bond they shared less than perfect. He wasn't sure he could relate to Jabberwocky in physical form. How could it ever be the same?

//How can it not?// Jabberwocky demanded. //I am always here for you. You know that.//

//You kept this from me. How can I know that?//

 

Jabberwocky didn't answer in mental words. He just sent through the link his love for Tarrant. Honest love, with nothing held back. He let the truth of that fill their linkage until Tarrant could not deny it. //I know some things will be different, but what we share in here will not be. I promise you that.//

//I will hold you to that.//

As if he sensed Tarrant's reluctant capitulation, Jabberwocky heaved a huge mental sigh. //Just think what fun it will be, Tarrant.//

"Will it?" Tarrant asked aloud, making Avon's eyes narrow.

Jabberwocky twinkled with delight at him. //After all, I will be much taller than Avon. You know how he hates looking up at anyone.//

Tarrant did. When he most wanted to annoy Avon, he began by standing in Avon's face, at full height, and towering over him. Of course from there he went on to vocal arguments, but the towering part had always amused him. He'd have to teach the correct attitude to Jabberwocky.

Jabberwocky was right. It could be fun.

"What must you do to complete the process?"

Avon would know from his tone that he was not forgiven, even though Jabberwocky was, but then Avon wouldn't expect it, nor would he care. Tarrant moved the towering lessons into top priority, and Jabberwocky chuckled aloud.

Eyes narrowed, Avon finished what he'd been doing with Orac, which evidently included attaching leads to the shell, the avatar, as Jabberwocky had called it. Orac would likely resent that, especially after being dragged away to run programming testing on Deeta.

//Tell me all about your brother,// Jabberwocky urged. Was that a faint hint of jealousy in his voice? Tarrant hadn't expected that. Maybe this process was a good idea, if they still had so much to learn about each other. What would Deeta think when he learned of the mindship and the link?

If it came to that, what would Dorn Suliman think of this avatar of his father?

Only on Jabberwocky could life become so complicated.

We will test the links now," Avon explained. The only time Avon ever enjoyed explaining anything was when it involved his work. Perhaps there was an element of boasting in his voice, a chance to show off his vast knowledge and superiority. Tarrant wondered if Avon realized he did that. The rest of the time, he had no patience for explanations. "We will perform a test animation of the avatar to make certain it functions. Then we will shut down and study the results. If they are satisfactory, full animation will take place tomorrow."

"Go ahead." Tarrant folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall. "I'm waiting."

Avon's mouth tightened at the conscious challenge in Tarrant's voice and the automatic assumption of his right to be present. But Jabberwocky said, "Tarrant must stay. I would have insisted he be here in any case."

"We want Perren as well," Edge ventured to add. "Don't be a fool, Avon, you know it's important."

"Well now," Avon purred, "it never fails to astonish me how many people presume to tell me my business."

 

"It's not your business, Avon," Tarrant snapped. "It's Jabberwocky's business, and if Perren's presence will make it easier for Jabberwocky, then he must be here." He found Perren annoying himself, but this was the last moment he would admit it. "As for me, don't even think of trying to eject me. Jabberwocky wouldn't permit it. Consider yourself fortunate you've had your own way so far."

Avon opened his mouth to lambaste Tarrant, then his face tensed. From the flicker of his eyes, Tarrant realized Jabberwocky had telepathed to him. He could always tell the difference between standard link-mode and genuine telepathy, and Avon, the telepath, avoided using his abilities at random among the crew. He must have telepathed something fairly savage because Jabberwocky sent a burst of amusement at Tarrant and a sense of, "So there." He added aloud, "I have sent for Perren. If Cally and Hugh were here, I would have sent for them, as well. Since they are not, we will make do. Attach your leads, Avon."

"A certain ship needs to know his place," Avon murmured. It was not one of his better retorts. He ran several leads from a transfer panel into an open port on the avatar's chest.

It fell to Edge to offer the guided tour. "Tarrant, this is where the connections are formed. The avatar's power runs much as Dayna's, in that power boosts and charges are long-term and will not need replenishing for months at a time. The initial link will be formed through Orac's abilities and the power of the ship will function through the link Avon now completes. This cable--" He pointed at one that attached below the thicker one Avon had just connected-- "boosts the psi linkages. The avatar will not possess telepathy per se, yet it will still be able to form linkages. It will in a sense be a double process, although it will not seem that way. Your link, Tarrant, will be as it always has been. As the avatar functions as Jabberwocky, you will have physical interaction--audible speech, physical touch, etc.--through it, and the link as always. This does not mean you will be interacting with two Jabberwockys. Always remember, the physical Jabberwocky is an avatar, simply a physical manifestation of Jabberwocky, a part of the greater whole."

"For the sake of my sanity," Jabberwocky admitted. In Tarrant's head, his linkmate urged him forward.

Tarrant moved obediently. Avon shot him an unreadable look and attached the last connection. The door opened behind Tarrant, and Jabberwocky said, //Perren,// in Tarrant's head, sparing him the necessity of turning. Then Jabberwocky added aloud, "And Blake."

"What?" Avon turned. "I did not send for you, Blake."

Perren lunged for the avatar, his eyes full of fascination, already flinging questions at Edge. But Tarrant watched Avon.

"Jabberwocky sent for me," Blake explained. "He told me why. This is something the entire crew should know about, Avon."

"Is it? Jabberwocky required this. Should I expose him to speculation? If it should fail, how much better the project go unremarked. Should it succeed, the announcement would be made."

Blake's mouth tightened. "This is my ship, Avon. I should have been told."

Avon opened his mouth, perhaps to claim that the ship was his as his original programs and designs had been incorporated into the mindship. Jabberwocky telepathed to him again before he could speak, then said aloud, "I wanted Blake to know. I want all of them to know. If the test works, we will tell them immediately."

 

Avon glowered at Jabberwocky's display. "I cannot prevent you."

"Avon, a fait accompli is all very well, but we are all united as Jabberwocky's crew." Blake glowered at him. "I know that is difficult for you to understand, but I thought there was trust between us."

Avon's frown intensified. "You delight in putting me in the wrong, don't you, Blake? However you are here now. We will run the initial test, and when it succeeds, you may announce my success to everyone on this ship, to Avalon, perhaps even shout it in the market. However, I have work to do now, so be quiet and let me finish."

Blake spread his hands in a pacific gesture, but he glanced sideways at Tarrant and smiled faintly. Tarrant would never quite comprehend the relationship between those two. It was just as well no one had required him to.

Avon worked ostentatiously on the link, while Perren, having wormed answers from Edge, closed his eyes and sank into a brief linkage with Jabberwocky. Tarrant felt him in there, but Perren's presence in link-mode had never been as obtrusive and obnoxious as his surface persona, so Tarrant withdrew mentally and allowed Perren to perform his psych-tech evaluation of Jabberwocky. When he emerged from link-mode, he grinned broadly.

"Trust you, Jabberwocky! You'll have to beat off every female on this base."

"If that is a way of saying my physical form is attractive to the opposite sex, thank you, Ven, but I know that."

"Aha. Ego. You're right, Jabberwocky. This will be fun."

Avon hmmphed. "If everyone has finished his unnecessary frivolity, I am quite ready."

"Someday, Avon, old man, I'll see that you are taught proper frivolity, and then my work will be done." Light on his feet, Perren took a quick step backward as if to shift himself beyond Avon's reach.

Avon ignored that as he ignored all such comments from Perren. Instead, he said, "Now, Orac," in the kind of voice the little computer usually obeyed without more than token protest.

"You have interfered with my researches far too much today, Avon," Orac snapped. "I have my own work to do. However, this project is not without interest." He waited a beat, which would, for a computer, feel like an eternity, and then said, "The process is done."

Tarrant forgot about Orac and Avon, Edge and Perren, and bent expectantly over the avatar.

Its eyes opened.

They were blue. Like Dorn's but not, they stared unblinkingly up at Tarrant, and at first Tarrant could see no trace of awareness or recognition in them. The leads remained attached and would continue during the test process. Tarrant ignored them.

"Jabberwocky?"

The eyes focussed on him.

"Are you in there? Jabberwocky?"

Awareness flooded the face. "Del?"

Beside Tarrant, Perren sucked in his breath and pressed closer.

Then the body shivered and one hand lifted. For a few seconds, the avatar opened and closed the fingers of that hand and then the other one. It sat up with a slightly jerky movement, and looked around, but always its gaze returned to Tarrant.

 

"Jabberwocky?" Tarrant prodded.

The eyes still hadn't blinked. Now they focussed on him sharply. "Hello, Del," the avatar said. "This is incredible. I feel--I feel as if I were...real."

The moment of doubt had Perren opening his mouth to plunge in with reassurances, but Tarrant cut him off before he could speak. "You're real, Jabberwocky. You've always been real to me."

"Del," said the avatar again, and its voice steadied. No. His voice. Big as he was, Tarrant hadn't expected a tenor voice, but then Dorn was a tenor. Avon might have tracked down voice recordings of Thorm Suliman's voice and programmed them in or Jabberwocky might have simply set the voice register to match his son's.

"I'm here," Tarrant said. This was different. He could feel Jabberwocky in his head, feel the doubts, the fear that Tarrant would reject the avatar, the dawning hope that he could share what all men share, what all men take for granted, reality to match his consciousness, and he sent a hasty reassurance through the link. Full acceptance would perhaps require time, and, already strained by the encounter with Deeta, Tarrant knew he was not functioning at his best. But if this was what Jabberwocky needed, then Tarrant could not deny it to him. "I'm here," he said again, and this time he meant it.

The avatar was clumsy--Hugh had reported that Dayna had been clumsy in her android shell at first--but that would pass with practice. Since he had not known Thorm Suliman when he was still alive, the facial reactions did not seem strange, but the avatar could modify them with practice to suit Jabberwocky's memories. All Tarrant knew was that the face that gazed at him, half-stranger, half-known, held pure delight at the sight of him.

Beside Tarrant, Perren muttered, "Go on," under his breath, and Tarrant didn't realize what he meant until the avatar lunged at Tarrant, wrapped his arms around him, and simply held him.

Stunned, dazed, drained by the events of the day, Tarrant hesitated a second, then when a voice in his head breathed, //It's me,// he caught his breath and closed his own arms around the avatar.

"You see, Blake," purred Avon in the background. "In spite of the excessive and nauseating sentiment of the moment, my idea was sound."

"Yes, Avon." Blake sounded pained and approving at the same time. "Your idea was sound."

 

*****

 

In the old calendar before the dawn of space travel, fighter pilots who flew small atmospheric craft had been required to be of compact stature to fit in the cockpits of their planes. The flight deck of the Essilon, the Resistance's second mindship, was the same size as Jabberwocky's, but Garenn Martagg, who had never been daunted when confronted with men a good fifteen or twenty centimetres taller than he was, felt right at home there. Of course Garenn didn't think of the brain within the second mindship as "Essilon". That would be for everybody else. He called his friend, and soon-to-be linkmate, Berg.

 

He hadn't known Berg Essilon before the crash that had destroyed the older pilot's body. He had seen him around the base once or twice and remembered him as a tall, muscular man, something of a perfectionist, a gifted pilot with a high record of destruction of Federation Pursuit Ships. Berg was half a dozen years his senior, a graduate of the Federation Space Academy like Del Tarrant, and also like Tarrant, a man who had deserted when he had seen for himself what the Federation represented. He had joined Avalon's band of rebels about the time the base on Ryalon had been established. When his ship had crashed on a deserted asteroid, his body too badly shattered to be rebuilt, his mind trapped intact within a broken shell, the timing proved right for him to be the best candidate for the mindship. The arrival of the three techs who had worked on Jabberwocky fit perfectly, and so Berg was chosen.

Garenn had volunteered for the project as soon as he heard about it, with no belief that he would be selected. In addition to being a pilot, he considered himself a student of human nature, and he was also fascinated with telepathy and the whole mindship concept. Ever since he'd heard about Jabberwocky, he'd studied everything he could find on the link-mode concept. A part of him even envied the brain's abilities in the ship--to control such knowledge, such power, to expand beyond the realm of the physical, yet to know it through the link, to be the ship, to trace its conduits and power lines, to see the inside of a computer, to be a computer... Garenn didn't want to give up his body, but he wanted more than anything to share linkage with a mindship, to feel the rapture of the link. He'd conversed with Tarrant on numerous occasions once he had been chosen. Tarrant had let Jabberwocky pull him into a simple link to allow him to experience it. It had proven better than he'd expected.

Now, in the test links with Berg, it was better still. Berg had accepted him. He didn't mind linking with Cally in testing process, but the test links with Garenn and Berg had worked better than any of them had expected. Cally wasn't a pilot, of course. Berg had liked her telepathy, but when he realized the pilot bond could approximate that, he told Garenn in linkage that he preferred this.

The time had come. Berg professed himself to be ready. Garenn knew he was. Cally and Jenna had spent the afternoon here, Cally testing the links, Jenna there for her piloting ability. The three of them had joined in link-mode for testing, along with Samma Karner, the computer expert who was the first crew member chosen to join the Essilon crew. She was a skilled programmer, one even the high and mighty Kerr Avon had deemed adequate. Garenn liked Samma, and so did Berg. At present, additional crew would be tested one at a time, trying out link mode. Dayna Mellanby had linked in the weapons testing and pronounced it satisfactory. She had recommended Fray Bentar to serve as weapons' expert, and he had fit in nicely. Other crew was yet to be chosen. Fray wasn't here now, but he had worked with the fledgling crew several times and seemed a good match. He came from Yiptin, one of the most remote of the outer worlds, where, in isolation, he had evidently memorized every word of every text in the local library computer system. Unfailingly polite, as stubborn as possible, Fray would never give in during a fight.

Garenn had his eye on a few more candidates for the crew. He was looking forward to testing with them. But now, he had something more important in mind. "Cally? Jenna? Samma? Everybody? Berg and I are ready."

 

Cally came out of her telepathic state and smiled at him. "I know you are. I thought you would reach that decision today."

"Trial link mode alone isn't enough anymore," Garenn admitted. "I can't wait for the permanent linkage."

"He's right, if enthusiastic," Berg said over the speakers. "I know we don't have our entire crew yet, but I've been pondering it, and I know of several men I'd recommend."

"I want Malachai Nin for our commander," Garenn said. "Berg and I talked about it. With his abilities in cultural interaction--"

"And his skill in hand-to-hand combat," Berg added.

"He'd be a natural," Garenn concluded.

"They do tend to finish each other's sentences, don't they?" Jenna said to Cally with a quick smile.

"I have noticed that." Cally sent a telepathic question to Berg that Garenn could pick up in link-mode; he was certain Berg had boosted it to him. Cally realized that, and she nodded. "Yes, they are ready. Jenna, Samma, detach. Garenn, place your hand on the panel."

Garenn slid into the pilot's seat; he'd found he could work with Berg wherever he was, but somehow he felt most at home sitting there. The glowing green panel that was the heart of the linkage had been mounted, as in Jabberwocky, at the pilot's station. Once he was seated Garenn placed his hand on the panel. It was the closest he could come to clapping a hand on the shoulder of a buddy. So far, he had only touched the panel to initiate the first link-mode. Now he pressed his palm against it, sank into linkage and said, to Berg, //I'm here.//

//And about time, too, Cap.//

Suction held his hand in position, and he let himself go with it, leaning down so that his hair that Berg had laughingly complained was too long hung down around his face, shielding his expression from the three women. That was good because he wasn't sure his pure joy at the forming of the bond should be witnessed by anyone but himself and Berg.

The suction pulled him deep into his mind, and into Berg's mind. For the first instant, it was as if they'd traded places and he knew Berg, as if he were Berg, secure in the knowledge that what he did here in the ship was important, that he was still a resistance fighter, still striving to do what was necessary to protect honest people who deserved to live their lives free of pacification programs, free of suppressants, free of the Federation's automatic assumption that it controlled the lives of every man, woman, and child within their range of power. Berg had gone to the Federation Space Academy because, deep in his heart, he was a protector of society. He had enrolled with the honest belief that the Federation was the voice of control in a turbulent universe, only to find, once he was free of the rhetoric and the indoctrination of the training, that in fact he had become one of the dominators. Unable to abide that, he had deserted and found his way to join the Resistance. He had never regretted it.

If ever a man had existed who was designed for a mindship, it was Berg Essilon. Here, he could protect, could fight for what was right. He had always believed that one should do the right thing, no matter the obstacles in one's path. It was a core facet of his personality. Yes, he had sacrificed much when he had been so terribly injured, but now he could be useful once more.

 

Then Berg became him, sensing Garenn's quest for knowledge, for learning, sensing his fascination with the whole mindship process, his determination to study it, to make it work the best it could possibly work. //A little ship envy here, Cap?// Berg asked him.

//To see what you see, to know what you know....//

//You're here,// Berg said, and opened up the wonders of the mindship to him. Together, they formed a whole more perfect than Garenn had ever dreamed possible.

//Now we are one,// they said in chorus. //Now we are one.//

Leaving the intensity of the total union felt like returning to consciousness after a long and wonderful dream. Garenn shook his hair away from his face and looked up at the three waiting women. A smile split his face. "That was the greatest moment I have ever known."

"It worked," Jenna said to Cally.

"Yes," the telepath agreed. "I see that it did."

"Tomorrow," Berg offered, "we will see about the rest of our crew."

"Blake suggested we go on manoeuvres, the two ships together," Jenna explained. "We'll report to him that you are successfully bonded. Just in time, too. We keep getting reports that the Federation mindship is nearly ready. I think our two ships together should be able to fight it, if it comes to that."

Garenn recognized Berg's eagerness for the mission without even thinking of it. Berg was there, inside his head, completing him. Yes, he was eager for it, too. This ship and Jabberwocky together would be unstoppable.

 

*****

 

Servalan smiled to herself. At last, events were shaping the way she wanted them. If all went as planned, she would finally have the power to oust Supreme Commander Arpel and assume the place that should have been hers long ago. One step from there would lead to the presidency. She had dreamed and plotted and schemed to regain the power she had lost after the Andromedan War, but finally she had the means to fight Blake and his nest of rebels on equal--no, superior--terms. With the Mark-70 mindship hers at last, as the original had been meant to be, she could rule the universe--once she rid herself of Blake, Avon, and the other mindship, the one so frivolously named Jabberwocky.

The Mark-70 was more powerful than the Jabberwocky mindship. The link had been designed to be unbreakable except by the choice of the linkmate and the ship. No powerful telepath could interfere with the link because it was solid. To prevent the personality problems Witt had reported whilst Servalan had been prisoner on Ryalon, Servalan had incorporated protections into the mainframe. Should anyone who had not been selected by her personally try to enter the link, a powerful beam of energy would stab directly into the intruder's brain, destroying him.

 

The Jabberwocky computer's memories had been blocked, but the memory of the Mark-70 had been completely purged, replaced with false memories of her choosing, so it would never remember the man it had once been. The brain believed that it and Servalan were brother and sister, that she had rescued it from a disastrous crash and preserved it in the only way possible. It also believed that to violate her innermost memories was the most foul of trespass, and would only share what she allowed. She called it Darsan, a name chosen at random, simply because to call it Mark-70 might shatter the illusion of kinship. Darsan believed that theirs had been a casual, undemonstrative relationship, but her presence in the link gave it a sense of contact, of security, and it was fond of her. She knew that, enjoyed that, catered to it when convenient, and did her best to reinforce it at all times.

A graduate of the Federation Space Academy, Servalan was a competent pilot, although of late years others had done her piloting for her. The President and Supreme Commander had merited a personal pilot. Only in her Sleer persona did she sometimes handle her own piloting.

But piloting with Darsan was a revelation she had not expected. The heady sense of total control filled her with a kind of joy that she made no attempt to define. If she tried to understand it, it might say more about the inner Servalan than she was willing to acknowledge. Better to accept that she simply revelled in the utter ascendancy link bondage offered. At the controls of Darsan, in bond mode, she could dominate any ship in the fleet. Her crew of mutoids had been blanked to all but the need to obey her and trained to operate the ship's controls through the link in a distant, remote way; they never touched her mind. They might fleetingly touch Darsan's, but it had been programmed with contempt for mutoids, and for the instruction to shield against them except in matters relating to the function of the ship. It worked very well.

Servalan's only doubt about the entire process was the need for contact Darsan expected from her. Unprepared to give it more than her surface persona, unwilling to import non-mutoid crews, she was forced to waste some of her precious time pandering to Darsan's need. Considering what she achieved from the process--total control of the most powerful vessel in the entire fleet--the experience was endurable.

Not that it did her own self-worth any harm to know she was the entire centre of someone's universe, even if that someone was a disembodied brain.

//Sleer, sweetheart?//

She allowed it the endearments. In a way, she enjoyed them. Not that she needed them, but simply considered them her due. //Darsan?//

//In the next thirty minutes, we will pass out of Federation-dominated space. I thought you would require that information.//

//Very good, Dar. I do. Always share such information with me through the link. The mutoids are necessary, but we need not take them into our confidence.//

//I rather wish we could have a non-mutoid crew. I feel nothing from them but automatic responses. I know that is how the ship is designed, but it can be rather lonely.//

 

She forced impatience to the back of her mind. It was hardly her job to hand-hold a disembodied brain. Yet, she needed Darsan to destroy the crew of the Jabberwocky. //When the mission is completed, we shall see. I confess, I, too, dislike mutoids.// So did anyone with sense, but Servalan's pragmatism allowed her to use them when necessary. Better than to take into her confidence a personable, yet ambitious, officer or two. They might be decorative and allow her pleasure, but she could never trust them, and they would be sure to crave Darsan. Any pilot would. A pity she could not track down and recruit Carnell for her purposes, but she had long known the puppeteer was too dangerous to allow close to her. He had also successfully gone to ground before the Andromedan War. Better there, although she sometimes wondered if he might have gone over to the resistance.

No. Had he done so, he might well have contrived more success for them than the slow and steady acquisition of planets to their side. True, most of them were outer worlds that were little loss, but Servalan resented the loss of even one world.

Arpel's saber-rattling fleet manoeuvres had served their purpose well enough. Although the rebels lured in planets one at a time, their fleet did not seem to have grown. A massive space battle would surely crush them. While she understood Arpel's reasons for avoiding a major conflict, she hoped to circumvent the problem by doing away with the rebellion's most powerful advocates, Blake and the Jabberwocky.

//I know it can be lonely, dear,// she told Darsan. //This mission, however, is too vital to entrust to strangers. Once it is complete, we will be so powerful none could touch us. At that time, we may expand the crew selectively, at our leisure. Between us, I think we could guarantee the safety and compatibility of new crew members.//

With Darsan's power, it might even be possible, but Servalan was not a gregarious woman who craved people around her. Power was a heady drink, one that satisfied her completely. The days when she had longed for the unattainable were gone. Now, should she want something, she would reach out and take it, as she had taken Darsan. Not for her the total bond she was told Del Tarrant shared with Jabberwocky. She found that strange, unnatural, dangerous, capable of creating vast vulnerabilities. Her attacks against Jabberwocky had been designed at shattering that linkage. Arpel had tried it himself, using the Gan clone, but that had failed. She was not sure why that had failed, but she knew the Darsan brain had been peripherally involved. Its memories of the event had been erased, so that need not concern her now.

Servalan's plan was more subtle, and also two-pronged. Tarrant needed a distraction, and she had assured that he find one. This time, she had not dared risk programming, not when Kerr Avon apparently had an unexpected facility at detecting it. Her spies did not comprehend the process, but they assured her it did exist. So while sending in an ace in the hole complete with programming could have a limited advantage, creating a complex situation to hold Tarrant's attention might well offer Servalan the opportunity she and Darsan needed. She had held Deeta Tarrant up her sleeve since the Teal/Vandor convention. There had been no time to program him, but that worked to her advantage now. While he could be an asset to the rebels, that might not matter if she could destroy or capture and control Jabberwocky. He could serve as a distraction for Tarrant, and his instinctive revulsion to mind-linkage would be certain to cause problems. It would be possible to rid herself of Deeta later. Although Witt had turned on her, he was not her only contact on Ryalon. Should further distraction became necessary, one of them would act--the unexpected assassination of Tarrant's newly restored brother would prove the very distraction Servalan required to complete her attack.

For the first time since before Terminal, Servalan was convinced that everything was going her way.

 

*****

 

 

"What is this mindship thing?" Deeta Tarrant asked. "I've heard mention of it, and one of the orderlies said that Del was linked with it. What does that entail?"

Hugh Tiver hesitated. He wasn't sure how much of that information ought to be classified. Deeta Tarrant wasn't programmed, and he wasn't conditioned. He was really Deeta, not a clone. But that didn't mean he was a rebel. He could be working for Servalan. Hugh didn't think he was, but it wasn't a certainty; he couldn't gamble the lives of his friends on it. "What have you heard?" he stalled.

Deeta shifted against his pillow. He still looked tired and strained, although the treatment he'd received had returned colour to his face. "That it was a stolen Federation project to create a ship using a human brain as the base of the computer, and that by working directly with the brain, the pilot could think his commands to the ship."

Hugh wasn't sure where he'd heard that, but it was correct--as far as it went. That didn't allow for the personality of the brain involved, or the expansion into link mode or gestalt. Or the fact that Jabberwocky was a person, a member of the crew, a friend to all of them, an ally to rely on. Nor did it deal with the depth of Del Tarrant's linkage with Jabberwocky. How could one explain to this battered man who lay before him that his brother had formed a life-bond of sorts with a disembodied brain? Deeta Tarrant was at the end of his rope. He had nothing left but his brother. Thrilled as Del was at the discovery of Deeta, Hugh suspected his bond with Jabberwocky just might be the closer tie. How could it not be, when Deeta had been gone for years even before his "death"? When Jabberwocky was always there in Del's mind, sharing his thoughts and feelings?

And what would Deeta Tarrant think when he realized the truth of that bonding?

"Essentially, that's correct," he admitted. "Except it doesn't allow for the fact of the brain's conscious awareness and sense of self."

"Sense of self?" Deeta propped himself up on his elbows. "You mean it knows who it is?"

"He knows very well who he is and who he was," Hugh concurred. "He has a son, who visits on occasion."

"His son visits the computer and talks to a computer fascia?" Deeta's lip curled in distaste. Hugh hadn't seen quite that same expression on Del's face. It was hard to realize how much alike the brothers were, though Deeta was the elder. His hair was different, and he was thinner as a result of his ordeal, but even down like this, a grim determination blazed in his blue eyes. "And my little brother has a mind-link with this brain?" A shudder ran through his body. "I'm sorry, but that sounds a little...sick. Does the brain live vicariously through him?"

"It's not like that." Should he pat the man's shoulder? No, he didn't look at all receptive. "Jabberwocky is a person. We've all shared temporary links with him."

"To run the ship?"

 

Hugh nodded. He could hardly explain to Deeta, here where he viewed himself a prisoner, the strength of the bond that Jabberwocky had forged with every member of the crew, turning a motley collection of antagonistic individualists into a quasi-family. "We call it link-mode. It's a telepathic link that draws us in. When we fight a space battle, it heightens our efficiency." Practical applications might be the best starting place. As First Champion of Teal, Deeta would have accepted what worked.

"I can understand that. But I can't understand my brother sharing a permanent link with it. As well turn him into a computer."

"You can't know your brother very well if you think anything could turn him into a computer," Hugh said involuntarily.

Deeta flinched. "I don't know my brother very well," he said softly. "How can I learn to know him now, with this device aware of his every thought?"

"That's why you wouldn't meet with him before the Teal-Vandor convention," Hugh said quietly. "Because of the sensor link in your head that allowed millions to share your every feeling. Tarrant shares a personal link with one being, and a temporary blending with the rest of us when we all choose it. I hardly think you stand on high moral ground."

Deeta blinked at him, and Hugh repressed a smile. People who met him casually tended to underestimate him. They took his caring nature and willingness to be open as a sign of weakness. What they didn't encounter immediately was the stubborn determination that had always allowed him to face up to Avon, his fierce sense of what was right, and the willingness to take an unpopular position because of it. Del didn't need his brother's disapproval. Hugh would make that clear from the start.

"You make a good point," the man in the bed said. "But that was impersonal. Those millions might have been in my mind--but I was not in theirs. I controlled what I shared."

"And so does Del. Don't imagine Jabberwocky pries into every corner of his mind; what he sees, Tarrant chooses to allow, out of..." He fumbled for the right word. "Out of caring, out of friendship. Of course as a pilot, he loves the feeling of bonding during flight. I went to the FSA myself for a time. I wanted to be a pilot when I was a boy. I've linked and know that, for a pilot, there is no greater feeling. Ask Jenna. She'll tell you the same."

"So what you're saying is that my brother allows the rape of his mind for the sake of control of the ship."

"No! If you have one grain of understanding or love for your brother, you won't dare to suggest such an abomination to him. Jabberwocky and Tarrant have chosen to accept linkage. It would be a gross cruelty to separate them now."

"Because it addicts him?" Deeta persisted. "You try to convince me to accept this, but I know what it feels like to have people crawling through my brain, and I accepted it because I had no choice. I didn't love it--or them."

"You didn't know them. They were voyeurs, out to relish a spectacle. They went with your position and you had to endure them; presumably you agreed to it."

"Oh yes, Doctor, I agreed to it. I lived with it. Don't assume for a moment I ever liked it. When I realized the sensor net had been removed, I felt overwhelming relief. Now here is my little brother--and he has an abomination in his brain."

 

"He has someone he loves with all his heart in his brain, and if you say one word to him about abominations, you will lose him for all time."

Deeta's face twisted, and for the first moment, Hugh couldn't tell if it were with rage or pain. In the end, he realized the emotions were so tightly entwined it might be impossible to separate them. "You allowed this. You and his crewmates, you allowed my brother to be warped by a mental link I consider no less than mind-control. I knew there was something different when I saw him. I had no idea it could be anything as grotesque as this." He shuddered. "If he comes in here with that predatory brain linked to him, I don't want to see him."

Hugh rocked on his heels. How would Tarrant take that? He wasn't sure how intense the dependency went between Jabberwocky and Del, but he had seen both of them traumatized by its rupturing. Had it been the abrupt, involuntary severing of the bond that had caused that? Or had the dependency between the two of them intensified to a level that could do irreversible damage to a survivor, should one of them die? The mindship bond was new. How could anyone tell what symptoms to expect at the severing of a bond? Cally, perhaps, might know, based on her Auron experience, and Cally had never once been critical of the depth of the bond between Tarrant and Jabberwocky. For a telepath, it might be the height of bliss. Of course a telepath might have training and experience to cope with a violent separation, but neither Tarrant nor Jabberwocky was a natural telepath. It might be wise for Hugh to ask Cally to work with them to ensure the survival of the other should one of them be killed.

That didn't validate Deeta's claim, though. "Simply because you wore a sensor in your head as part of your duties as First Champion doesn't mean there is any parallel to this. You got nothing in return. How could you reciprocate to those greedy people who found watching two men fight to the death the ultimate thrill? This is not the same. I've been linked to Jabberwocky, and I love him, too. He's a person, even though his physical form is a disembodied brain encased in a ship. He has a consciousness, a personality, a sense of self. He isn't feeding off Tarrant, or any of us, any more than any friends or companions feed off each other. You're wrong, Deeta, and if you are half the man your brother is, you will give him a fair chance and try to understand. Your survival is a miracle to him. Don't turn this into a disaster when it needn't be. Did he seem so changed when he was here? He's still Del--and I knew him before he linked with Jabberwocky. He's the same man, but, like all of us, he's better for it. All I ask you to do is to withhold judgment. You cared enough not to want all those other people in the link when you met."

"Did he tell you that?"

"No. Vila did. He wore a sensor link during the Convention. It takes a lot to shock Vila, but that did. Del was linked, too. He almost followed you into death. Dayna had to rip the link off his forehead to save him. Evidently, that was the only time any of his shipmates had ever seen him cry." Twist the knife, Hugh. But he knew he had to. Deeta's attitude would hurt nearly as much as that moment of "death" at the Convention. That time, the loss had been involuntary. This time, he would lose his brother by his brother's choice.

 

Deeta flinched. "You are very convincing." He drew breath. "I will consider what you say, and I will meet with Del. But don't expect me to approve of this link. I'll hold my tongue. But perhaps the best thing would be for me to go my own way once I recover."

"I wish Dorn Suliman were on Ryalon right now. He's the son of the man Jabberwocky was. It was even harder for him than it is for you. I'd like you to stay long enough to talk to him. But come to the ship. I'll fetch you tomorrow, or someone will. Meet Jabberwocky. We won't ask you to link with him, but I want you to see your brother on board, among his crewmates. I don't think you'll find he's been turned into something unnatural."

"It feels unnatural to me."

"It might to me, coming into it cold. You're not well. You need rest. I can see how exhausted you are. Sleep. There will be staff on duty who can look out for you. In the morning, we'll bring you to the ship, and you can learn what the link really is." He ventured a smile. "I don't think you'll be horrified."

Deeta's face promised no such concession. He tightened his mouth for a second, then he said grudgingly, "Very well. But I am accustomed to looking out for myself, so I'll know if you attempt mind control."

"No one will attempt mind-control. As Blake would say, that's the Federation's way. Should you choose it, Jabberwocky can offer you a taste of link-mode." Deeta grimaced. Perhaps the sensor in his head had created too strong an aversion to be overcome by five minutes' conversation--or at all. "But you can talk to Jabberwocky. Will you do that?"

"Just talk?" Deeta spread his hands, not in conciliation but in a grudging allowance of that, no more. "I can do that."

But the wary lines of his body and the suspicious gleam in his eyes proved he would come to Jabberwocky expecting trouble and braced to face it head on.

Just so did Del Tarrant prepare for unpleasant confrontations.

 

*****

 

Blake broke the news of the Jabberwocky avatar on the morning watch. Although the flight deck was not fully staffed while in port, the crew had a tendency to gather there most mornings; ship time and Ryalon time was usually synced, since the rebel base was Jabberwocky's home port. So, around nine, the crew would wander in, some with coffee or rast, some even carrying breakfast from the rest room. In port, sensors and monitors served the function of a night watch, and of course Jabberwocky could monitor everything and report trouble. Blake liked the times spent in port, when the crew usually kept to the same schedule. Sometimes on long missions, he would see little of the people on different watches.

 

Avon and Edge, with Perren's help, and of course Tarrant's presence, had stayed in the lab quite late, working with the avatar android, testing all the linkages. While Avon and Edge handled the power grids, the transfer functions, and the controls to prevent surges of power or any draining of the core brain's function, Tarrant talked to Jabberwocky face to face, while Perren hovered in the background, tossing in the occasional witticism, all the while using his psych tech abilities to monitor Jabberwocky's reactions, Tarrant's reactions, their interaction. Blake had stopped by on his way to bed to check on their progress, and found that, like Dayna adapting to her android form, the Jabberwocky android had already adapted movement and expression to a far more natural state. Someone who didn't know wouldn't stop and assume he faced a machine.

At one time, Blake was told, Tarrant had faced the Vinni android and hesitated to shoot it in the back. "It's a machine," Avon had reminded him, but he had still held his shot until Vinni faced him. Had that attitude of Avon's been what made it so difficult for him to accept Dayna? Yet he had accepted her. He'd always accepted Jabberwocky as a person, at least as long as Blake had been a part of the crew. Perhaps his healing abilities had added hidden empathy to his nature, or perhaps simply freed it from its prison. Odd to think that it had been Avon's idea to create the avatar. The old Avon would never have considered the necessity. Still, he had been linked with Jabberwocky in healing mode; it had to have made a difference.

Blake arrived on the flight deck early, expecting to be first, but he found Vila there before him. Vila had a great fondness for lolling about in bed when in port, when he had no assigned responsibilities, yet here he was. Vila also had a nose for secrets. From the look on his face, he knew something was about to happen and he didn't want to miss a second of it.

Even before Blake could greet Vila, Avon appeared. He appeared unsurprised to see Blake, but his brow wrinkled at the sight of Vila.

"What, Vila, not sleeping in?"

"What, Avon, not lurking in the lab?" Vila challenged and toasted him with his coffee mug. One advantage of basing on Avalon was that it was possible to buy real coffee in the vast Ryalon Marketplace, and the heady aroma drove Blake to the machine to fetch a cup.

"There is a difference between lurking and working," Avon countered, then quirked a brow at the involuntary rhyme. "In any case, the final preparation of the avatar will be completed within the hour. I came looking for Blake." He faced the rebel. "Since you claim this is your ship, I knew you would be insufferable if I did not fetch you. Cally is already there, and of course our band of three. Hugh will join us there. He went to bring Deeta Tarrant to Jabberwocky." Avon grimaced at the idea. "The timing is not auspicious, but Hugh insisted. He says Deeta has a marked aversion to the thought of the linkage. No doubt due to the time he spent with a sensor net in his head." Avon's mouth tightened. "One can almost understand that. Perren annoyingly insisted he speak with Tarrant before the process is finalized. Tarrant, of course, came to the lab the moment he awakened. I'm surprised he didn't sleep there."

"What of the other women?" Vila asked.

"What about the other women?" Dayna asked as she and Jenna entered the flight deck.

A moment later Soolin joined them. "Are we to have the unveiling today?"

Avon grimaced. "Ah yes, of course. Let us all migrate there like a great herd and stand about as if we were viewing an ancient circus."

"Oh, come, Avon," Vila teased and raised his coffee mug to him. "You know you love an audience when you've been particularly brilliant. We won't bow and clap, but you'll expect us to ooh and ahh with the best of them."

 

Avon's mount curled into a smug little smile.

"What's Avon smirking about?" asked Gan as he joined them. He grinned a greeting at Vila, nodded to Blake, and turned his gaze upon Avon expectantly. Gan had a habit of pretending great awe in Avon's presence, but Blake knew he did not find Avon intimidating. Gan had always been Liberator's moral compass, determined to express his views, no matter what cutting scorn Avon had chosen to fling his way in those days. The fact that he wore a clone body didn't invalidate that. He and Avon were not close; their natures were too different for deep friendship. But link-mode and the experiences they had shared in the gestalt had made them well able to function together.

Avon smirked all the more. "Come," he said, "and find out."

Blake fell into step with him as they set out for the lab. "This will work?" he asked.

"As long as the ship is functioning. The linkage might sever under major damage, but all that would mean is that Jabberwocky would be confined again to his present form and that the links to the avatar would need to be reinstated as repairs were completed. I have added three more backup systems, two for Jabberwocky himself and one as part of the avatar's redundancies. Edge designed that one. I must admit, it is a fine piece of work."

Dayna stared at Avon. "What? You're praising someone else's computer work?"

"I may faint," Vila added.

"Come, Vila," Avon returned, "I have praised your skill as a thief, and even Tarrant's and Jenna's as pilots. One must always respect competence. I even respect Servalan's competence, although it would give me great pleasure to curl my fingers around her elegant throat and end it."

"When you do that, I want to help." Android Dayna was as bloodthirsty as her prior incarnation. She and Avon exchanged wolfish smiles.

"We're all very murderous this morning," Soolin murmured under her breath. "As for me, I prefer a good clipgun," and touched the weapon she had not removed upon her return to the ship from the early morning target practice she often enjoyed.

Blake smiled at his sanguinary crew. Not that Servalan didn't deserve it, and it did no harm for them to relish the thought of her death. He said, "It might be harder now. If she is truly linked with the Mark-70, we may be facing her sooner than we expected."

Avon's frown intensified. "Espionage reports indicate the brain in the Mark-70 is shielded in such a way that should any of us attempt to link with it, we would be mind-blasted."

"Could it attempt to link with us and do the same?" Blake asked.

The frown turned into a furious glare. "Servalan would not dare per mit that," Avon said. "Knowing her, she would not risk her elegant neck."

Footsteps behind them announced the arrival of Hugh and Deeta Tarrant. Suspicion hung about Tarrant's brother like a cloak, and his mouth was tight. He must be comparing link-mode and Tarrant's bond to the sensor net he had worn as First Champion of Teal. One step behind them was Ran Tanz, who had his arms full of components, the way he often did. Surely not parts for the avatar linkages.

 

"Sorry I'm late," Tanz said with such a cheerful smile that even Deeta favoured him with a mild glance. "I was in the market, and a ship had brought in a supply of capacitors that I can use to boost Avon's translator device.

Avon looked down his nose at Tanz. "I was not aware it required boosting," he said in the voice that could send the uninitiated scurrying for cover.

Tanz only beamed at him. "Anything can be boosted. I thought if we played with the AI function just a tad, we could mellow out the vocal function to a more natural sound."

Avon's brows rose.

"AI function?" Deeta echoed, then he shrugged and returned his focus to his brother and the dreadful mind control Hugh had explained he believed Del suffered.

"Yes, it's really great," Tanz cried, but Avon glared at him so ferociously he abandoned the discussion. "I hope I'm in time for the great unveiling," he said. "Edge had me working on the linkage equipment a bit, but Avon had made him swear not to tell me about it. I figured it out anyway, even before the shell came, but I never said anything." He smiled guilelessly at Avon. "It wouldn't do to spoil your moment."

Blake guffawed. "Avon, you've become predictable."

"Predictable to Tanz?" Avon echoed and the mock dismay in his voice made Blake laugh the harder. "My life is over."

"What, just before your greatest success?" Vila teased him. "Avon, I'm astonished."

Avon was spared the necessity of a response by their arrival at the lab, contenting himself with a scowl at the guileless engineer. He caught Blake's eye, lifted one brow, and then frowned at Deeta.

"I see no reason for him to be here," he snarled. "I know security is lamentable aboard this ship, but his presence is little short of utter idiocy."

"No, it isn't," Hugh defended his choice. "He's Del's brother. He isn't programmed or conditioned. He appears to loathe Servalan, and Orac reports he is not lying when he says so."

"Which does not mean he is not pragmatic enough to work with her despite that," Avon challenged.

"I think he should be here," Jabberwocky volunteered. "Where else can he be so comprehensively monitored?"

Deeta scowled at Avon, and then spread his resentful glance around impartially. He looked like he wanted to rebut Avon's challenge, but he contented himself with a tight-lipped expression. He must have realized Jabberwocky had spoken, but he made no attempt to seek out a computer fascia.

 

Avon's face tightened the way it did when he was communicating with Jabberwocky. It must have been a private exchange because Blake picked up on none of it. Tarrant, in the lab, might have picked up on it, or possibly not. Jabberwocky had proven remarkably adept at knowing what must or must not be shared. Finally, Avon made an impatient sound and faced Deeta. "You are here on sufferance," he said. "You may observe, but you may in no way interfere. Your brother would not thank you for it. Like it or not, the link bond is fully in place, and should you try to break it, you would win the enmity of your brother as well as that of every member of this crew." He grimaced for just a moment, and Blake wondered if he was attempting his psi healing, or just testing Deeta's resolve with the telepathy he loathed possessing and had successfully blocked for so many years. "Soolin, guard him."

Soolin drew her weapon and checked its setting. "I will."

Deeta studied her thoughtfully, a flash of resentment coming and going in his eyes, but he must have assessed her level of competence from the cool practicality of her weapon use, for he spread his hands and gave a curt nod.

Avon led the way into the lab. Tanz plunged in after him and deposited his armload at the nearest work station. Hugh went to the avatar and began asking questions of Tarrant, who hovered beside the diagnostic bed. Since the leads still ran into the body, Edge hovered over the read-out, checking everything and marking results on a pad.

Tarrant turned to his brother and said, "Deeta," very warily.

"Del," returned Deeta in a voice that gave nothing away.

Edge glanced up as everyone crowded into the room. "Oh. You're here. Avon, we're ready. All systems are functioning at max efficiency. Power levels are at full and holding steady. All I need do is flip the switch to make the linkage permanent." He held out the control device to Avon. "I assumed you would wish to do that yourself."

A light in his eyes, Avon reached for the remote, then at the last moment, he shook his head. Blake saw in his face the knowledge that this would be his triumph no matter who did it. A glance over at Deeta Tarrant possessed a healthy dose of the urge to put the man in his place.

"Give it to Tarrant," he said instead.

Tarrant gaped at Avon, unbelieving, then a smile blazed out. "Why, thank you, Avon," he purred and accepted the device from Edge, at his side, and looked down at him from his slight height advantage. "The avatar is as if he were sleeping," said the blond man. "Avon and I have programmed into him the need for a diurnal rest period, simulating that which exists in humans. Once the link is fully functional, he will simulate sleep but would rouse if someone entered his room or an alarm sounded or anything occurred that might wake a sleeping human. Jabberwocky, of course, will be aware and alert at all times, as is usual, but detached from the avatar consciousness other than a remote link during downtimes."

"He will progress in the naturalness of his movements and facial expressions with practice," Dayna threw in. "I'll work with him on that if need be." She had trained herself in that manner when she was activated, and now, anyone who had known Dayna before her death would not realize she was an android. For those who had never known her, the idea would simply fail to occur to them.

"Thank you, Dayna," Tarrant said.

"Yes, thank you, Dayna." Jabberwocky said from the speaker. "I'm eager to begin. Tarrant, please continue the activation."

Tarrant threw such a fond look at the room's primary fascia that his brother blinked in astonishment and his mouth tightened. Knowing the mental link had continued through the whole process, Blake was startled to realize he had automatically assumed Jabberwocky was shut down as the avatar was.

"Wait," Jabberwocky said as Tarrant raised a long finger to push the control. "Deeta Tarrant, greetings and welcome."

 

Deeta jerked and glanced doubtfully at the avatar.

Jabberwocky caused the fascia to blink brighter a time or two. "No, I'm here. I am this ship. At present, as always, Del and I are linked. I also have engaged in linkage at this moment with Avon, Edge, and Perren."

Perren gave a rather exaggerated bow. "Ven Perren at your service," he said. "I'm the ship's psych tech." He cast a meaningful glance at Deeta, as if to suggest he might well benefit from Perren's service. "And this is Edge, who always forgets the social niceties."

Startled out of his contemplation of the diagnostic readings, Edge murmured absently, "How do you do?"

Deeta stared at them all, then gave his attention to the fascia. "So you are the machine that dominates my brother's mind?"

A nasty silence fell. Tarrant broke it by leaping at Deeta, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. "How dare you?" he cried. "You don't understand it. Don't presume to judge. Simply because you had strangers invade your thoughts doesn't mean I went into this involuntarily. It was my choice, one I welcomed. Those people were strangers, voyeurs, who were greedily prepared to feed on sensation. I was in the link at the Teal-Vandor convention. I know. Jabberwocky is my brother, too, and in a way far more thoroughly than you are because it's been so long since we spent any time together you and I are little more than strangers. That can change, but not if you intend to accuse Jabberwocky of being the same as the mobs of people who came to witness a battle to the death."

Deeta opened his mouth, perhaps to burst out with another ill-considered rant, but before he could do so, Jabberwocky said softly, "Deeta. I know you as well as Del does, because he's shown me. All the years when he was a boy and you were his idol and his protector. You left--I know you had no choice, and Tarrant knows that in his mind if not in his heart. I know how he grieved when you died, and how joyful he could be to find you reborn. But if you deny him his choice and abhor the bond he and I share, you will sever the ties that exist between you. I don't want that to happen."

"Then sever your own," Deeta snapped. He broke free of Del's grip and stormed over to confront the fascia. "He's my brother."

"He is my friend," Jabberwocky said softly, but with a certainty that no one else in the room could deny. "Everyone here is my friend, my family. Tarrant's father was not willing to support him, you were gone. You know nothing of his life since then except what you might have seen on viscasts, and they are all distortions to serve the Federation. Before you judge, you owe it to your brother to take the time to understand. Just because the bond your brother and I share is unfamiliar to you and because you've had invaders in your mind is no reason to close yourself away from it. Learn what we have created here. If you cannot accept it once you have full knowledge, then you are free to go. Well," he added consideringly, "you would be anyway."

"And if I went right to Servalan?" Deeta challenged.

"You would never do that," Jabberwocky replied.

"How the hell can you make a claim like that? You haven't been prying into my head?"

 

"No, I have not. But I am also a sentient computer as well as a disembodied brain, and I can read minute fluctuations in blood pressure, in the reactions of the pupils of the eyes, and I am also linked at all times with the Orac computer, who can function as a lie detector and can detect programming, as you know from yesterday. Orac reports you would never work voluntarily with Servalan, and I believe him."

"Wonderful. Computers prying around in my head."

"Orac," said Avon in a voice that sounded like he was gritting his teeth, "is an artificial intelligence. Annoying though it is, it is more than a machine. Jabberwocky is a human being who is also far more. You are here on sufferance because Jabberwocky insisted upon it for your brother's sake. If you continue in this fashion, I will oust you from this lab." And he would enjoy doing it.

"As for prying in your head," Vila added, "we have a couple of telepaths here, and they haven't pried yet, but they just might if you don't quit behaving even more stupidly than they say I do."

Cally emerged from the corner of the room where she had been waiting all along. There was a serenity to Cally that had been born out of her time as Jabberwocky's link-mate, enhancing the natural tranquility of her people. No doubt she had been busy telepathing to Jabberwocky all along. Now she came up to Deeta and took one of his hands in her own.

"I am Cally of the Auronar. I cannot read your thoughts, for you are not telepathic, but I can project my thoughts to you. I can sense your disquiet. Let me ease it as best I can. You have not lost your brother. He loves you fiercely." Behind her, Tarrant reddened and his mouth tightened, but he made no vocal objection to her words. "Yet he and Jabberwocky are bonded mind, heart and soul. To separate them would be to do him such a terrible cruelty he would never forgive you. He would still love you, but it would never be the same."

Deeta glowered at all of them impartially. "Very well, I will keep my thoughts to myself." He pulled away from Cally more gently than Blake would have expected and placed himself in a corner of the room, where he folded his arms across his chest and contented himself with casting unfriendly glares in the direction of Jabberwocky's fascia. Tarrant heaved a nearly-inaudible sigh, then his tension eased a bit as Jabberwocky spoke to him through the link.

"What do you think, everybody?" Perren asked. "Link-mode for the process?"

"Link-mode, yes, but not gestalt," Jabberwocky replied. "I want to see how that affects the part of my consciousness that will control my body--the avatar," he corrected. "Jenna, will you remain apart as control?"

She nodded. "I will."

"So will I," Soolin agreed, her hand suggestively upon her weapon.

 

Blake recognized the familiar touch of Jabberwocky's mind as he pulled them into a simple link. They would not perform ship's functions, so all the link did was to give a distinct awareness of every presence. Blake missed Jenna's keen edge and Soolin's alert and wary nature, but he grasped the need for the control, especially with a hostile visitor in the room. If not for the fact that Servalan already knew how the link worked, and had a history with the Mark-60--and now Mark-70--project, Blake knew Avon would have kept all this from Deeta no matter what everyone else had chosen. The only reason he had been allowed was his relationship to Tarrant. If necessary, his memories of this experience could be removed, but few on the base and none among the rebels failed to grasp, at least generally, the mindship concept. That they may not realize the depth of the link between the ship brain and its bond didn't matter in general, and that the gestalt was likely still a mystery to all but those who worked with the project or who had experienced it was just as well.

"Then what are we waiting for?" Jabberwocky asked. "Edge? Avon?"

The two techs moved as one and removed the leads. Blake watched as Edge covered the port in the avatar's chest with a flesh-coloured panel. He ran his fingers around the edges of it and it vanished, the line disappearing. "An intriguing polymer," he said with a smile. "Unless one knows the trick of it, one cannot undo it." He picked up the remote and passed it to Tarrant.

Avon studied all the readings. "Go," he said.

Tarrant pushed the button.

The avatar opened its eyes, looked around, and offered a grin to Tarrant. Over in his corner, Deeta scowled more fiercely, his shoulders bracing the wall, his eyes unyielding. As Tarrant hauled the avatar to its feet, Blake could see Deeta's muscles hardening.

Link-mode flickered for a moment, then steadied, and the avatar said aloud, "I pulled the link into my body instead of the ship, although I keep a link to every ship's function. I wanted to see if I could do it apart from the overriding control." //Is everyone here?//

Blake sent his assent and felt the others chiming in. There was a slight difference from the usual sensations of link mode, a thinner bond, no less detailed, but in some ways slightly limited. Blake suspected it would have a shorter range; in close proximity it would be as intense as usual, but the greater the distance from the avatar, the finer the line of linkage. As he thought it, Jabberwocky nodded.

Nodded? Blake blinked as he realized he had instantly identified the avatar as Jabberwocky.

//No, that might be confusing,// Jabberwocky sent through the link. //Maybe you ought to call me Thorm when I'm in the body.//

Everyone pondered that. Blake could see the advantage of it; although the avatar was Jabberwocky, he was not the vast sum total of what Jabberwocky was. They could scarcely call him 'avatar' while embodied.

//A minute.// Jabberwocky, no, Thorm, mind-touched first Jenna, then Soolin, one at a time, so that one was always outside link-mode to watch Deeta, then he nodded. "All right," he said aloud. "My name is Thorm."

He strode across the room with a long-legged, easy gait, and halted in front of Tarrant's brother, who watched him come the way he might watch a trooper aiming a Federation hand-blaster. Interesting to see Thorm had adopted the technique Tarrant used when he chose to loom over Avon, or that Edge used when something recalled it to his attention to loom over everyone. Thorm frowned. "For Del's sake, I am glad you're here. I suggest a truce between us for his sake."

Deeta stared. He wouldn't have expected that. Behind him, Tarrant's face warmed.

 

Deeta drew a deep breath. One could instantly tell he was not reconciled to the entire link bond, but he glanced over at his brother, who watched him with a face as impassive as Avon's could be, yet with vulnerability in his eyes. After a moment, Deeta's brows contracted. He unfolded his arms from across his chest, but did not offer his hand to Thorm. "An armed truce," he said.

 

Thorm's face sparkled with amusement. "So be it," he said. "An armed truce. Don't forget, you are not the only one with expectations."

He must have sent to Tarrant, because Tarrant's mouth quirked with an abortive smile. He approached the pair. "Ja-- Thorm?"

"Don't worry, Del," Thorm assured him. Already, the voice sounded familiar. "This will be fun."

"Fun," observed Avon with heavy sarcasm, "being our very reason for existence."

 

*****

 

"I can talk to the other mindship now, you know," Thorm observed when the party had split up. Most folk had withdrawn from link-mode, and only Perren, Edge, Avon, and of course, Tarrant, remained in it. Cally and Jenna had gone across to the Essilon vessel, because more of the trial crew was to bond, and Cally would assist, while Jenna would go over pilot functioning with Martagg. Dayna and Tanz had vanished together as they often did when free, and Gan had borne Vila away to the market. Soolin, in her protector functioning mode, had trailed the others to the flight deck, retaining her weapon, not ostentatiously but in the way she had of making it a part of her so that people didn't think of it--until it was too late.

At the comment, Avon lifted his head and studied the avatar through narrowed eyes. "Mindlink?" he asked in the tones of one who considered it his right to be informed of this fact instantaneously.

"No, more like telepathy," he said. "Not so clearly in my body as when I'm just me, but since I have access to all of that, I don't suppose it matters. Wearing a mindship confers the ability, of course, and now that Martagg is bonded with Essilon, it's clearer."

"When did you mean to tell us of this?" Avon asked.

"When we'd amassed enough power to take over Ryalon," Jabberwocky teased him. "Come on, Father, don't be paranoid."

"I. Am. Not. Your. Father." Avon was not as cold as he meant to sound, of course, but he had never been a man to take surprises well.

"Well, not only did your programming form the basis of the concept, it was you and Edge who worked this out." He gestured at himself. "So, yes. You. Are."

"It is not paranoid to be suspicious. It is a survival trait in a world where enemies are legion, and one the members of this crew would do well to emulate," Avon pointed out.

Perren studied him with interest for an instant, but then, since this was not about Avon, he strolled over to Thorm and looked up at him. "Can you talk to Garenn, too?"

"Only when he's linked, and then he sounds far away. But Berg and I can communicate easily, at least while both vessels are here on Ryalon. If we should go on separate missions, I don't know how far the telepathic link would reach. I can reach Cally when she's on a planet's surface and I'm in orbit, and of course I'm always linked with Del. We haven't been separated farther than that."

 

"You mean no matter what Del is doing, you're there?" Deeta asked. His mouth curled with revulsion.

Perren abandoned Thorm and went to study Deeta. "That bothers you. Is it because you had a whole world in your head and you can't imagine a benevolent presence?"

Deeta jerked. "Who gave you leave to speculate about my motives? I'm merely making an observation."

"No, you're horrified at the very thought," Perren challenged. "And while a lot of people are uncomfortable at the idea of someone in their heads, it doesn't bother them the way it does you." He offered a confiding smile. "I'm a Federation-trained and rebel-oriented psych tech. I could fit you into my schedule with no trouble at all. No charge, for your brother's sake." He assumed the guileless face of what had once been called a 'snake-oil salesman' and waited expectantly.

Deeta glowered at him. "Are you suggesting I need one?"

Perren didn't back down. "Yes."

Thorm suppressed a chuckle. "You can't win against Perren, Deeta," he said. "He isn't telepathic, but he can still see into your mind. He's not quite a puppeteer, but he's smarter than one, and you don't notice because he seems so--"

"Clever?" Perren prompted with a hopeful grin.

"Irritating?" Edge muttered under his breath.

"Annoying," Avon said firmly at the same moment.

"They appreciate me," Perren replied. "Don't mind me, Deeta. I don't dig in people's minds, not like a psycho-strategist does. I just observe behaviour and draw my own conclusions. In the old calendar, they called people like me 'shrinks.'. I haven't quite figured out why. Edge could probably tell you. Don't," he threw at Edge, lifting one finger to silence him. "But shrinks had people lie on a couch in their offices, and asked them to talk about their innermost secrets and the pains from their childhood."

Deeta looked more wary than before. "I don't plan to speak to you about my childhood. I see no reason why I should speak with you at all."

"No, you probably don't," Perren said. He stroked his chin the way Blake, and sometimes Edge, did, and regarded Tarrant's brother, his head tilted. "But I think you have as bad a case of brain burn as I've ever seen. Removing the sensor from your head didn't remove all the garbage you accumulated through it. If I were you, I'd want to have a good mind-link for at least a day, just to clear the bad taste away. But that's me. We can do a psi healing for you." He was careful not to look at Avon, who tensed at the very thought. "But here's the difference between us and Servalan, or us and the Federation. We won't."

"You're quite correct. You won't." His arms folded across his chest again.

"That's a defensive posture, you know," Perren said, amused, and turned away to face Thorm. "So, forget about him for now. Up for a walk around the market?"

"Yes, that would be an excellent test," Edge agreed. "Not all of us, but either Avon or I must come."

"I shall come, too," Soolin said pointedly.

 

Tarrant nodded. No one would have expected him to remain behind. He glanced at Deeta, who inclined his head. Not exactly a cheerful companion, Perren thought, but it would be better to keep their eyes on him. Simply because he wasn't programmed or conditioned didn't mean his utter distaste for the mindship program wouldn't lead him to cause trouble, and it was better he remain under observation. Avon's suspicion of him revealed itself in the way he darted wary glances at Tarrant's brother, and Soolin was as trusting of outsiders as Avon was, in other words, not at all.

Perren watched Thorm as they set out, and monitored Deeta, too. He would leave Edge and Avon to make certain no problems developed with the avatar while separated from the ship itself, although the range should extend from orbit, should they need Thorm on a planet. Likely not as he would serve a more useful function simply as himself, as the ship, but then Thorm was Jabberwocky, too. Even for Perren, who grasped the ins and outs of the whole process, at least from a psychological point of view, it took reminders that Thorm was simply the physical manifestation of the ship.

In this form, he could function in public without being identified--and it was important that Servalan be kept from the knowledge of the avatar's features for as long as possible, although her spies on Ryalon--she was bound to have spies there--would send his image to her.

The first venture off the ship went well. People greeted them, and several mistook Thorm for Dorn, which was expected. In those instances, the avatar said simply, "No, I'm Dorn's father, Thorm Suliman." They didn't linger long, and the only highlight was the sudden encounter with Kyl and Cella, who strolled along shopping, hand in hand.

The teens greeted their fathers, then stared at Deeta, who looked so much like his brother that they would instantly have seen the resemblance. Tarrant performed the introductions. Then Kyl saw Thorm, and his mouth fell agape. Like his father, he was very quick. Without waiting for explanations, which Perren was not certain his father intended to give, he went up to Thorm and said gleefully, "Hey, Jab."

"Hey, Kyl," Thorm replied without hesitation. "However, in this persona, I prefer to be called Thorm." He winked at Kyl, whose face lit up.

"Thorm. This is incredible. I want to hear all about it. I'll stop by this afternoon."

"Will you?" Avon asked. "And what of your classes? Should you be free this morning?"

Avon the stern parent was always an amusing sight, but Perren was on his best behaviour and didn't smile.

"It's free day," Cella said. "Installation of new computers." She smiled up at her father.

Blake beamed at her. Ah yes, the arrival of Cella had been good for Blake.

When the party moved on, they approached the area of the base where the new mindship was being readied, and Avon frowned and directed them away from it. //Better if we avoid contact in front of Deeta,// he set through link mode.

//I don't think he means to betray us,// Tarrant replied, obviously reining in his temper. Perren knew he wouldn't mind suspecting Deeta himself, although it would grieve him, but he resented Avon doing it.

//It may be beyond his ability to control,// Avon replied. //Simply because we have found no programming does not mean a new type is not in place. I have not linked with him, and in order to be confident, I would need to do that.//

 

//You can't force it on him,// Tarrant insisted.

//I will not, unless my suspicions should make it necessary, for the safety and survival of us all.//

The exchange happened so quickly Deeta did not appear to notice. What he did realize was their abrupt change of direction. Perren saw him looking over his shoulder in the way they had been going, his forehead wrinkling as he considered it. He was clever, was Deeta. If he proved an enemy, he would have seen too much.

Perren frowned. Better they didn't turn Deeta into an enemy, not only for the sake of Tarrant's happiness, but for the survival of them all.

 

*****

 

Blake and Edge went off to report to Avalon the status of the Thorm project. Avon declined to accompany them, as he had no interest in leaving the ship unguarded whilst Deeta remained aboard. He did not welcome the presence of Tarrant's brother, whose air of distaste for the entire mindship project caused an almost visible cloud of enmity to hang over the flight deck. Avon suspected his telepathic abilities caused him to detect it, and he resented that. The more he studied Tarrant's older brother, the more he saw near-visible scars about him, scars not from battle but from the remnants of the sensor that had been implanted in his brain. Avon almost wished to study it, but not entirely, for it would necessitate his healing link, and he had no wish to use it with a hostile stranger. It might come to that, and his distaste made Jabberwocky send a soothing thought in his direction.

Avon glanced at the computer fascia, then off to the side at Thorm, who sat playing chess with Vila. That Vila could not hope to win against Jabberwocky must not yet have occurred to the thief, and from the sneaky expression upon his face, he considered Thorm a brand-new opponent. Amused, Avon sent a wisp of feeling to Jabberwocky, knowing Thorm would sense it, too.

The amusement faded immediately. Deeta's timing was simply too good. The first test flight of the Essilon mindship was scheduled for the following day. Cally and Jenna reported several crew members had been tentatively chosen and taken into the most superficial level of link-mode. Karner, Bentar, and Nin had evidently fit successfully into the link. Several more crew could be added later at the choice of those remaining. Avon considered Karner adequate with the computers, and better than most. As a result, he had supervised her on the earlier programming and had tested the final result once Deeta had been seen back to the ship. There, closely guarded by Soolin, and overtly studied by the annoying Perren, he had caused no problems. Gan had departed to visit a friend in the port, and Dayna and Tanz were off together in the way of lovers, a state which heartily bored Avon. Cally, and Jenna worked with the new crew and would return at day's end to prepare for the upcoming field trials. The new mindship's crew was not ready to attempt gestalt, and perhaps would not be for some time. Lacking a genuine telepath, they would work up to that.

 

Still, Essilon had been a gifted pilot before the accident, and Martagg was competent. The Federation fleet had vanished on manoeuvres in the Fifth Sector, Arpel no doubt content at his show of strength. Some of the members of the crew believed Sharn Arpel a secret rebel, but Avon did not agree with them. Arpel had his own agenda, and he had not attacked Ryalon simply because it did not accord with his overall plan. He might be more inclined to favour them than Servalan ever had, but he could make no public declarations. Gan sincerely believed Arpel worked to change the Federation from within, but then Gan was a gullible man and always had been.

Tarrant conversed with his brother on one of the forward couches, a combination of gladness and frustration on his face, whilst his brother's held resistance and distaste. They spoke together in earnest whispers. Jabberwocky would hear everything they said and would deal with problems as they occurred. Avon had not entered link mode and would not do so unless events necessitated it. He valued the time he spent alone in his own mind, all the more since so many of the crew were happy enough to fall into a loose form of the link at the drop of a hat. Avon, the loner, could not entirely resent that, for he, too, had benefited from the link. That did not mean he chose to wallow in it.

Blake strode onto the flight deck, trailed by Edge, who wandered over to sit with Perren. "Well, it's arranged," Blake said. "We leave on manoeuvres with the other ship tomorrow morning."

"Wonderful," said Jabberwocky over the speakers.

Thorm looked up from the chess game he was quietly winning and smiled. "Good." Vila glanced from him to the fascia and back again. At times it felt very odd to have Jabberwocky and Thorm both speaking. Several times they had carried on a conversation with each other, and the fact that they were in essence the same person had made more than one crew member stare.

Jabberwocky continued, "I can hardly wait. Essilon and I will go into linkage when we are in position and run through a series of war-games tests that Jenna and Tarrant have devised. Nin has some input, since he's been a ship's captain, but he doesn't yet fully grasp the possibilities, so we're going to make him work for it." He chuckled.

"What of Deeta?" Tarrant asked.

"He is to come with us," Blake said.

"What!" That had Avon on his feet. "Blake, you cannot be serious? He is an unknown, who may well be Servalan's man, although he denies it."

"He is not Servalan's man," volunteered Orac. "I have made that determination. You do not doubt me?"

No, Avon did not doubt Orac's claim that Deeta was unprogrammed nor that he did not care for Servalan. That did not mean he did not possess loyalties apart from the rebellion. On the one hand, he had left Earth long ago, possibly to avoid the Federation, and had wound up throwing in his lot with a world that was not a part of it. On the other, he was a paid killer, highly trained and skilled in what he did. He had learned not to give either visible or verbal clues to his intentions, or he would have died long ago. Orac could function as a lie-detector, and it was as close to infallible as it was possible for it to be, but Avon doubted any could be infallible, not even Orac.

"It is madness to take a possibly hostile stranger into highly classified tests," he said flatly.

"Avalon feels it better for him to be where he can be monitored," Blake said mildly.

 

"Am I to have no say in this?" Deeta snapped. "You assume I can hardly wait to spy on your mindship tests. Nothing is further from the truth. My feelings about the project are well known. I am not a prisoner of war to have my location determined for me."

"Neither have you been granted the liberty of the base," Blake countered. Ah, excellent. Blake was in his most stubborn mood. When roused to it, he actually had decent defensive sense.

"So if I don't go, I'll be locked up?" Deeta challenged. He could be every bit as stubborn as Tarrant.

"I would guard him," Soolin volunteered from the other couch, where she had idly been working with the settings of her gun.

"Then you can guard him here," Tarrant said. His mouth was grim and tight, but Avon, who now knew Tarrant better than he had ever believed he had wanted to do, recognized two motives; one, that he not be separated from his brother, and two, that Deeta might learn to accept what his younger brother had become.

Jabberwocky had become a ship of refugees and fugitives, people who were clones, androids, misfits, people with problems, all of whom expected Avon to use his vexing gift to mend them. He had done it when need be, and he could tell from the refractory set of Tarrant's jaw that he would demand that for his brother, should he ever convince Deeta of the need of it. The idea of convincing someone who had been slave to a sensor in his head which had enabled millions to know his every thought and feeling to believe link-mode was healthy and beneficial was a task Avon suspected himself incapable of, especially since he still experienced disquiet to be so fully known by the motley collection comprising Jabberwocky's family.

//You love us all, you know you do,// Jabberwocky sent in his most teasing 'voice'. He added more seriously, //Deeta does have a problem with the concept. I could easily link with him--he does not realize his mind is utterly open, at least to me; if he did, he would fight it. I have to consciously censor myself from broadcasting to him in link-mode. He has put up strong blocks, but they would not stop me. He would not be noticeable to strangers or at any great distance. I doubt Essilon could detect him. But at this range, I could.//

//I thought the sensor had been removed from his brain.// If it had not, then Servalan might even now wear a receiver affixed to her forehead to see what he saw. Avon didn't know the range of the computer boosters, but Servalan might be closer than they expected, perhaps even involved in the trials of the Mark-70.

//It was,// Jabberwocky reassured him. //Even if Orac's tests and the examinations performed at base medical had not confirmed it, I can tell. But its absence left a void that would be easy to fill. Fortunate that Servalan didn't realize it. She had to take the sensor out, or the United Planets of Teal would have discovered Deeta lived. She probably lacked anyone skilled enough to adjust its focus instead. But the removal left him open for re-implantation, should he be recaptured and Servalan find someone with the ability to do so. It would create a one-way link to her mind.//

 

Avon pondered that, watching Deeta. Revealing that information to the former First Champion of Teal might guarantee he would never willingly side with Servalan, but on the other hand, Deeta would furiously resent the fact that Jabberwocky had read that much of him. It would appear to him an equal violation to the sensor he had been forced to wear. //A telepath with powers of the level Witt possessed when he was Servalan's agent could breach his mind?// he asked.

//Easily, although not from a vast distance.//

Tarrant came in. //What do you mean to do, Avon?// He didn't rise, but he projected a sense of looming.

Thorm laughed through the link. Interesting that Avon could separate that out from the ship itself. He 'loomed' harder than Tarrant did. //We can't invade his mind,// he sent, and Avon recognized the others in the link, even those not physically present. //But he has the right to know.//

//Yes, he does,// Tarrant agreed. //I'll tell him.//

//No,// said Jabberwocky. //It should come from me.//

A sense of agreement came from several sources that Avon didn't bother sorting out. This was one definite advantage of link-mode, the ability to confer silently without creating an awareness in possible listeners that anything was actually occurring.

Yet it did not account for the wary, protective reactions of a man who had been a target of assassins for years. Deeta studied his brother, then looked around the flight deck. After a moment, his eyes narrowed on the computer fascia. "Well?" he said cooly enough. "Did you decide what you mean to do with me? I warn you, you have no right to dispose of me."

"Dispose of you?" Jabberwocky echoed. "Deeta, we don't want to dispose of you. I do have a warning for you, but not the kind that you'd perceive as a threat from me."

"Is there any other kind?" the older Tarrant asked. Avon heard the note of utter cynicism in his voice that outdid even Avon's own.

"In this case, yes. You know I have the power to impose my mind upon someone, although without permission I would not except to save lives. In your case, it would be incredibly simple."

"Because Del would help you, I suppose?" Deeta challenged. He rose to his full height and, ignoring Thorm, stalked over to the fascia.

"Help me take over your mind?" Jabberwocky sounded shocked. "He would never do that. Nor would I. But the sensor implanted in your head left a vulnerability in its wake. Should Servalan or anyone send a telepath to accost you, you would have no protection. Your brain adapted to the sensor and allowed it. Your mind grew accustomed to it, even if you accepted it as a necessity that must be endured but loathed it. You have shields, but they would not resist a deliberate attempt to seek you out. I am consciously blocking myself from entering your mind."

Deeta withdrew a step and reached automatically for the sidearm he was not wearing. "And why would you do that?" he asked, eyes narrowed.

"Because it would violate my ethics to force mental contact upon you. You think I don't have ethics because I am a disembodied brain--well, not entirely disembodied any longer--and would wish to vicariously experience 'life' through mental contact? You think I do that with your brother?"

"Yes," spat Deeta. "I do."

"And I allow it," Tarrant replied. "Just as Jabberwocky allows me to feel what he feels. I have been the ship, and known the cold of space and the singing between the stars." It wasn't like Tarrant to suddenly turn poetic, but Avon had experienced those moments, too. They had been...gratifying. To a pilot, they must be far more so.

 

"I am not a ship's pilot," Deeta said. "I am a man who has had my mind violated and would not endure it again." He frowned in Perren's direction. "No doubt you would love to study my mind."

"What's stopping me?" Perren asked with a bright smile. "My mind is my own. I watch you. But you notice, I don't have Jabberwocky link me to you, or arrange for...psi healing for you." He darted a sideways glance at Avon, no doubt meant as reassurance that he would not reveal Avon's abilities to Deeta. Avon scowled at him.

If Deeta noticed the exchange of glances, he said nothing about it. Instead he asked, "Is there a way to shield myself from mental interference?"

"It can be taught," Jabberwocky said. "But it would require time and some necessary mental linkage. Know that we won't attempt it except at your request."

Deeta stood at bay. "If this is merely one more way to get at me..."

"It's not," Tarrant said firmly. "If we had meant to abuse the privilege, it could have been done already."

"We meaning you and the ship, in concert?" Deeta challenged.

"We meaning any of us," Tarrant replied. "The fact that no one has tried should tell you something. He'd know, wouldn't he, Jabberwocky, if anyone tried?"

Jabberwocky hesitated. "He might know or he might not, depending on the subtlety of the approach. Deeta, did you know when people wore the receivers at the Teal-Vandor Convention?"

"As more and more of them came in, I did, but they weren't doing anything but passively receiving," Deeta admitted reluctantly. "How do I know you haven't already invaded my mind."

The fascia blinked, and it was Thorm who spoke. "Well, you don't. But the ones on this crew who could would not, and I know that the ship, of which I am a part would not except in a dire emergency."

"So I should believe a machine? I'd rather believe the ship," Deeta replied.

"I am the ship."

"No," Deeta corrected. "The ship is you, but you are only a part of the ship." He gave an exasperated snort. "Cally is a telepath, and she claims she would not violate another's mind because her people can't. But she'd know."

"She would know," Avon replied. He did not add, 'and so would I,' but he was certain everyone else on the flight deck realized that. "She would also reveal it to you immediately should anyone attempt to invade your mind, for she would likely feel it. If we have finished catering to your petty little fears, we have a mission to plan."

Deeta snarled at him, then turned to his brother. Abandoning the chess game that had come to a draw, Vila bounced to his feet. "Well, this has been fun," he said in a mock-cheerful voice. "If we're going out tomorrow to risk life and limb and the threat of hairy aliens, I need some adrenalin and soma. A big glass, please, Jabberwocky." He went to the dispenser.

Jabberwocky gave him a glass so tiny everyone laughed, and even Deeta's mouth quirked reluctantly. Vila snatched it, downed it hastily, and scowled at Jabberwocky's fascia.

 

"Someone, it seems, has your best interests at heart, Vila," Avon told him. "So, Blake, what time do we leave in the morning?"

 

*****

 

In the end, Tarrant's brother came along on the mission, not because he wished to or because anyone but Tarrant wanted him there, but because it was easier to keep a wary eye upon him where Jabberwocky could monitor him anywhere on the ship. Avon, too, could sense if he tried anything remotely resembling telepathy, and Cally, too, would know. At first, the plan had been for her and Jenna to accompany the other mindship on the training flight, but because of Deeta's presence, Blake asked her to remain. He sent Jenna, who had often piloted in link mode and could assist Martagg if necessary, Edge and Tanz, who knew the physical specification of the brain backup systems better than anyone, and Dayna to assist Bentar with the weaponry array. He chose to keep the rest of the crew on Jabberwocky.

Most of the first day was spent on simple manoeuvres in link mode for both crews. Jabberwocky and his crew would employ various strategies, and the other vessel would attempt to duplicate them, the crew remaining in link-mode. Jabberwocky and the Essilon brain could communicate directly, and so could Avon and Cally speak to Essilon, as long as the distance between vessels was not too great.

As always, Tarrant thrived upon the link mode in pilot status. He wondered idly if Deeta would realize that. Soolin, who had chosen to remain outside the linkage for purposes of guarding Tarrant's brother, sat near him and conversed with him idly from time to time, but largely regarded him in inscrutable silence. Soolin was not a chatterer who talked to fill the silence, and Deeta was brooding too much for regular conversation, but Tarrant, enhanced as he was by the link, noticed that they did speak together every now and then, and he once heard Soolin explaining a bit of her background. It might simply be that she wished Deeta to know she was as competent in her way as he was in his. Should the two of them team up, no one would ever manage to get the drop on them. Deeta was in no frame of mind to notice that Soolin was female and attractive, but he did listen. As for Soolin, she was too cold-blooded to give any unnecessary appreciation to a man she was expected to guard. Could she take Deeta out if necessary? Might he try with her?

//I'm watching them,// Jabberwocky reassured him. //So is Avon.//

//You expected anything else?// Avon projected with sudden wry humour. In a strange, reluctant way, Avon had come to relish the ability to communicate in link-mode.

//I, too, will sense trouble,// Cally reminded them serenely. She always blossomed in link-mode and gestalt, and Tarrant knew she often exchanged telepathic communication with Jabberwocky, whether or not the crew were engaged in linkage tasks. She had told Tarrant once she didn't mean to intrude on his bond, but the need not to be silent in her head was strong. She had Avon, of course, but the thought of a telepathic link with Avon would hardly have been Tarrant's first choice.

//Nor mine,// Avon sent cooly to him alone.

In the easy communion of the link, Tarrant smiled in Avon's direction. The tech did not return it--Avon was hardly a man for casual smiles--but his eyes acknowledged a momentary amusement.

 

By the end of the day, the other crew had stood down from link-mode, all of them suffering from the inevitable headaches that went with the learning process. Vila hinted that they were all probably drinking large glasses of adrenalin and soma, and looked meaningfully at the drinks dispenser.

"Because they need it, Vila," Blake said with a grin. "Are you saying you still experience headaches from link mode. I know you don't."

"Nice try, Vila," Gan told him and gave his shoulder a consoling pat.

Deeta had been silent a long time, but now he came over to the pilot's station. "I see some purpose to your link now," he admitted. "I've never been on a more smoothly functioning ship."

"Why, thank you, Deeta," Jabberwocky said.

Thorm, who had been linked by his existence, gave a grin that revealed dimples. Men his age shouldn't have dimples, should they? Yet Tarrant grinned in return. Tarrant was finding it both hard and easy to differentiate Thorm and Jabberwocky in his mind. It would come with time, knowing Thorm was a part of the greater whole, but yet a separate individual who could experience having a body. The shell had been designed with sensory capabilities that simulated physical sensation. No doubt the cost had been excessive, but then Avon was good at money and banking systems and must have found a way around the expense. Tarrant remembered hearing that Edge's family possessed considerable wealth; they ran a prestigious scientific laboratory in one of the domes on Earth, and Edge had arranged his funds to be banked where the Federation could not track or access them. Avon had probably helped him to safeguard it. Avon enjoyed such challenges.

"And you say the Federation has one now?" Deeta persisted.

"Unfortunately, a Mark-70," Blake explained. "Which, of course, was designed to be conceptually superior to Jabberwocky."

Avon smiled a crocodile smile. "Which also does not allow for the various modifications and upgrades we have designed, and for the use of the Orac computer."

"And I assume rebel intelligence has learned of the modifications that have been made on the Mark-70?"

Avon stiffened. "Assume what you will. This ship will defend itself."

Deeta frowned. "I'm still not entirely comfortable with the concept of the mind-link. Possibly my experience with the sensor net influences that. But I don't doubt Servalan is involved with the Mark-70. She will stop at nothing to destroy the rebellion. I know she was overthrown and lost power and didn't have the time she needed to program or condition me, which is why I eventually wound up abandoned the way I was. She left me no signalling equipment on a world far from normal space lanes, but didn't allow for my ability to construct a signalling device from virtually nothing. I think she meant to return for me when she could and use me against you. I don't choose to be used."

"And that means?" Soolin asked, studying him through narrowed eyes.

"Obviously, that I have no desire to relay information to her. However, I may have intelligence which will aid you. In addition to the sensor in my brain, I have had a hearing adjustment, to enable me to respond more quickly to threat. I overheard conversations she never meant me to hear."

 

"And this involves the Mark-70 Mindship?" Blake asked. "Anything we could find out would benefit us."

"It involves someone called Darsan. Someone Servalan referred to in conversation as, 'my brother'. Yet she has no brother, nor any siblings."

"She probably strangled them when they were born," Avon muttered. Vila chuckled uneasily.

"Who is Darsan?" Cally asked practically.

"I think it's Jabberwocky's equivalent. I believe Servalan meant to bond with it as Del has with this ship, and had already begun the process when she finally dumped me."

"You mean she's actually linked to the ship?" Tarrant demanded. "Jabberwocky, can we use that to our advantage?"

"Possibly," the ship replied. "Although I don't see how yet. Except that many of you know her well. But it means she can use us," he replied. "If we had not been expecting her, we would have believed we faced a ship in the control of the Federation but with no particular personal aversion to us. I think she'd have to have Darsan fully blanked, like a mutoid, with no chance of memory ever recurring. If so, she would likely have found a way to convince the ship the damage was done elsewhere, and perhaps would have implanted false memories, or at least fragmentary ones, to further the illusion. We could use that, perhaps."

"The other ship would no doubt be conditioned to recognize our attempts as propaganda," Avon objected. He added with a twist to his mouth, "It is what I should have programmed, were I Servalan."

"And she's even more devious than you are," Vila murmured. He curled his fingers around the glass he held. "What I'd do is arrange that Darsan thought any attempt at mind contact apart from her and her designated people was an attack. Let the ship think the other mindships were evil enemies out to destroy him."

Avon bowed his head to Vila. "You learn deviousness."

"It's the link-mode," Vila said with a smirk. He jumped up, bowed to Avon, and sat down again. "You must be rubbing off on me."

"Now there," murmured Perren under his breath, "is a frightening thought."

 

*****

 

 

 

Martagg sat at his position on the second mindship and beamed. It was working. Everything was working perfectly. Even the headaches had begun to ease. After performing half the day in direct link, none of the crew were debilitated from the headaches, although Malachai Nin, lately come to the process, experienced it worse than any of the others. Samma stood behind him, massaging his shoulders, because Jenna had reported a relaxing massage had sometimes helped. Fray was so satisfied with the process he hadn't been able to stay in one place since they had finished, but had been in and out of the flight deck, wandering through the computer crawlways, running static tests on the weapons array. Dayna followed him, and talked weapons' systems to him, the two of them happily planning a more complex system of neutron blasters for the ship. Edge and Tanz followed them about, took readings of every piece of equipment in sight, monitored Berg's backup systems, and generally gave image to the concept of 'mad scientist'. Jenna talked piloting with Garenn, and they compared experiences happily. Apart from Dayna, who remained outside the link as a control and because she could not as easily enter linkage as the others, any of the crew were likely at any given moment to pop in to make comments or simply to be there. Jenna said the Jabberwocky crew did that. To have his own fledgling crew feel comfortable enough with the linkage to do it so early into the process heartened him. They would make this the finest ship in the resistance fleet.

//There is a vessel lurking at the extreme edge of sensor range, Cap,// Berg sent into his mind. //I have detected it on four separate occasions, a remote blip gone too quickly for the human eye to register.//

//But not for your eye,// Garenn replied fondly. //Hostile, or merely accidentally parallelling our course, do you think?//

//Impossible to determine, yet I have a strange feeling about it. Jabberwocky won't have detected it yet, because it's in the other direction. They might detect a faint shadow image, no more, but I think it's beyond Jabberwocky's range.//

The rest of the crew took their stations, and Garenn realized with a thrill of pride that they had entered the linkage automatically, drawn in by Berg with the slightest of mind-touches. After a moment's hesitation, Jenna came in, too, and the two scientists. Dayna hesitated, then came in, too. Her link always created a faintly different edge.

In the link, they studied the readouts, and Edge went to the sensor console, opened the casing, and did something Garenn could see faintly through the link. The image on the main screen sharpened fractionally. For an instant, all saw the blip, so faint it might have been a flicker of the eye. Then it was gone again.

//Berg, contact Jabberwocky,// Garenn commanded, a second before the pain began.

 

*****

 

//At last,// said the voice in Servalan's head. //A chance for my revenge. Both of the enemy ships, and they haven't detected me yet. We're fortunate, Sleer, sweetheart. The newer one is the closer. They will not yet be expert.//

 

Servalan smiled with satisfaction. Convincing Darsan Jabberwocky and the other resistance mindship were his deadly enemies had been a stroke of genius. Darsan hated them, not realizing it had been programmed to do so. At the first attempt of either ship to contact him, it would lash out with all the force of its deadly attack. The thrust would strip the minds bare of those who linked with them, leaving the vessels ready for takeover. With the minds of the mindships stunned and vulnerable, she would see them blanked and reprogrammed, ready to serve only her. Their crews would remain unconscious long enough for her mutoids to board both vessels and capture or kill them. She rather thought she would keep Avon alive for a time, and perhaps Tarrant, to relish his realization his link had been severed for all time. He was decorative enough to enjoy him for a space until she tired of him. As for the others, she wanted revenge and she wanted power. To return with Blake as her prisoner, Blake and the others, would guarantee her resumption of power. Arpel had had his chance and the fool had not taken it. He had played his little war games and gone away again, leaving the way open for her.

//They will soon detect you. Move fractionally into their sensor range. Attempt no contact with the ships. Should they contact you, your defences will spring into place, and they will have no resistance. We shall take our revenge together, little brother.//

A surge of affection came from Darsan, not the first, and, as always, she accepted it as her due. She supposed she did have a faint fondness for Darsan; it was powerful but accommodating, useful, an extension of herself. Those thoughts she blocked, and was confident in her ability to do so. The Tarrant/Jabberwocky linkage was complete, an utter sharing of every thought, the concept of which repulsed her. She controlled what she shared, and manipulated it to create the image she intended to create.

//I know, dear,// Darsan said into her mind. //I would never invade your deepest thoughts.//

Yet the ship could, and that alarmed her. She concealed the alarm and Darsan did not appear to detect it. It had been conditioned to believe that to penetrate deeper was evil, a violation and betrayal, and Darsan had never pried into her innermost thoughts. Often it would play among the surface ones, and she permitted it. Had it detected the nature of the Tarrant/Jabberwocky bond? Would it, when it struck them down?

//I value that,// she sent. //But now, we must strike at our enemies. Soon, they will send probes. Lure them in as we had planned. Let them sense nothing but a random blip.//

//So I shall. Come in with me?// It was an amused temptation, to share in the destruction of her enemies.

She hesitated. Should she? To revel in the downfall of Avon, of Blake, of Tarrant and the others? Yes, it was irresistible. She let herself drift into a tighter link, knowing Darsan would eject her should there be danger, conditioned as it was to protect her at all costs.

Thus, she felt the first tentative probe of Jabberwocky and of the other mindship.

At that point it was merely exploration, questing for what was out there, scanning, no more. Yet linked through Darsan, who had opened itself to it, shields ready to spring into place, defences geared, she was part of the probe's awareness. There was something thrilling about it, to be a part of the ship itself, to know what Darsan felt, to have the vastness of space within her grasp, so that not even the endless distances between the stars was blocked from her. It offered a power of a kind she had never tasted before, and she craved it with all her soul.

Darsan welcomed her wordlessly into the link, not tempting her to go any deeper than she would, but delighted to share all she would accept with her. It was a heady sensation. For the first time, she comprehended why Tarrant revelled in the process.

//Let them come in,// she bade him. //Just enough to recognize who we are. Let them think they can defeat us with two ships. They cannot, of course for, even combined, they are no match for you, my sweet.//

//For us,// Darsan replied, and the words sang through their link.

//Strike when ready,// she directed.

 

Darsan sent an affirmative to her, and a tempting lure to the enemy. Soon, now. It would be soon. Without the mindships, without the hope of creating more, the resistance would crumble.

Her triumph would sweep her to the presidency once more. President and Supreme Commander, and Sharn Arpel would beg her for his very life.

//Now!// she sent, and the command was a shout of exultation.

 

*****

 

Deeta Tarrant sat on one of Jabberwocky's forward couches, brooding. He had watched the others as they performed the tests, linking with the other ship, had seen the incredible efficiency of the link, and knew that a mindship could hold out against a number of pursuit ships, could likely detect them from a far greater range, and with the use of both the Jabberwocky mind and the Orac computer could likely plough through the galaxy beyond the enemy's ability to resist. Orac could likely not be duplicated, or Avon would surely have done so by now.

Long ago, Deeta had realized his brother was born to be a pilot. Seeing him interacting with the ship, he realized, although he did not like the realization, that to link with the mindship was the greatest dream Tarrant could ever have. To fault him for it, to reveal his own disgust, was to cast up a barrier between himself and his brother that could never be mended. He might have to grit his teeth and endure the abomination.

Yet, was it one? The avid voyeurs who had haunted his mind were strangers who goggled at the spectacle of a fight to the death. They shared nothing, only took. This was different; it must be. It had to be.

Still, his memories of the watchers present at his farewell to his brother rankled, and he could not fully shunt aside his anger and resentment. There might be a way to work past that--several hints had been made at a means of healing through psi abilities, but he had ignored them entirely. Now he wondered what they were. To hold bitterness in his mind was to surrender to it, and he refused to do that.

"I'm picking up a ship at extreme sensor range," Jabberwocky announced vocally. "It's on the far side of Essilon. Their detectors have a lesser range than ours, although they will have picked it up a few seconds before us." His voice broke off and the fascia blinked. "Link mode, everyone," he said. "Let's be ready."

Deeta watched the crew go into link mode; it was visible by a heightened sense of awareness on their faces, and, in some cases, a display of joy. They didn't even have to move to their stations, but they did, automatically, drifting to their places. The doctor, Hugh Tiver, who must not have a battle station, stayed where he was, but his face revealed he was linked, too. Soolin had gone in automatically, as if Deeta's earlier information had rendered moot the need for a guard. Or as if it didn't matter what he did because the crew could stop him in link mode. Most likely they could.

The avatar of Jabberwocky, the machine they had begun to call Thorm, had no need to enter a state that existed permanently in his mind, so he offered Deeta a grin, and said, "I'll let the rest of me take this one."

 

"Isn't it confusing to be in several places at once?" Deeta asked him as the others took readings, set neutron blasters, readied the force wall, and performed all the other pre-battle functions. They didn't speak it aloud, but Deeta knew ships and saw the various monitors lighting to signal readiness.

Thorm laughed. He had a rather high-pitched laugh, like a girl. No doubt he'd refine that as time went on. "I'm often in several places at once," he said. "Checking the space lanes with whoever is in the command chair, teasing Vila, interacting with Orac, monitoring anyone who has left the ship. I'm used to it. In this form, I'll be more one-to-one, I think, even though I can tie in remotely at any moment. This is as new to me as it is to you."

"Will you always keep activated?" Deeta asked. There was nothing he could do to prepare for the possibility of an attack; he had no station here and refused to slip into the link to aid the crew, when they could do their tasks far better than an outsider could; likely they would block him if he tried. So he might as well converse with the avatar.

"I'll shut down at night for recharging," Thorm said. "But then, humans do that. They call it sleep, but it's the same principle."

Whatever was going on in the link held everyone's attention. It was weird to be the bridge of a ship that might soon go into battle and have the only sounds the faint beeping of the instruments and the idle conversation of a machine.

Then, abruptly, Tarrant gasped as if he'd been punched in the stomach. All colour drained from his face. At the same moment, the others reacted, too, those on their feet staggering. Hands went up to press against foreheads.

"Break linkage, break linkage!" Thorm bellowed aloud. His face tightened with concentration, then, for a frightening instant, blanked utterly.

Everyone on board except for him and Deeta fell down.

Deeta leaped for his brother, but Thorm sprang into action. "No, don't touch him. It may transfer," he said.

"What may transfer?"

"The Mark-70's attack. It's like brain stun. Jabberwocky threw them out, and I think it's in time for them to survive."

All the lights on board blinked and went out. For a frightening instant, gravity failed, and Deeta grabbed for something, anything, to keep from floating up to the ceiling.

"Wait." The avatar's voice was firm and rigid.

Before Deeta could reply, emergency lighting came up and the subliminal hum of power indicated return of function. Gravity returned, accompanied by a number of soft thuds as the crew members who had drifted up reconnected with the deck.

Thorm smiled tightly. "I sucked as much power in as I could before I was forced to sever linkage," he said. "There are a great many backup systems, not only for my living brain but for control of this vessel. I can access any one of them without touching the portion that allows for the mindlinks." He smiled suddenly. "Avon and Edge designed me that way."

"Can you mind-link in that form?"

"I can, but it might be detected," Thorm replied. As an android form, he hadn't paled, but his face was tight. Instinctive reaction? The result of practice? The strain of running the entire ship from within his shell? "I'll need your help, but first I have much to do. Orac?"

 

"A concerted mental attack," Orac replied without hesitation and without prompting. "My shields prevented it from attacking me, although I felt it. The crew are not dead. They will be unconscious for several hours, however. If they had not been driven from the link when they were, they would now be mindless."

"Mindless?" Deeta echoed. "Orac, are you certain they aren't?"

"If I were not certain, I would not have spoken. Kindly refrain from asking pointless and distracting questions. I am very busy."

"Don't mind Orac; politeness was never programmed into him," Thorm said. Deeta could tell he was concentrating on a myriad of other things at the same time. "I will throw up a shield around you. It will not involve a mind-link, but it will require me to briefly touch your mind. I will not invade your thoughts."

"Why?" Deeta demanded, bracing himself for refusal.

"Because when the Mark-70 arrives, they will scan the ship to determine if all are unconscious so they can safely board. The ship has a mutoid crew. I can immobilize them once they board, but not until then. If they detect anyone conscious and aware, they will take precautions, and the two of us cannot hold against that as easily."

Deeta gritted his teeth. "Do it."

The mind touch came and went so quickly it was as if a light breeze had blown through his brain. Non-intrusive, it was as if someone had smiled into his thoughts. For that one instant, the deck pressed harder against his feet, then it was gone. He had no sense of conscious awareness at all.

"Have you done it?"

"I would never invade your thoughts, as it is apparent you have scars from the sensor linkage. Yet without your wearing of a sensor at one time, I could not link in this manner, a means the other mindship will likely fail to detect; and your fierce aversion to mental contact prevented an overflow from the mind-link to strike you down."

"You mean if someone else had been here who had no objections to mind-linkage, they might be sprawled on the deck?"

"Possible. We can't tell for certain, but you have exceptionally strong shields now. Wearing the sensor taught them to you without your realizing it. Once it was gone, those shields snapped into place, and grew when you realized what this ship was capable of. Only a telepath or my complete form--and presumably the Mark-70 Darsan could penetrate them, but now they cannot." The android smiled at him. "Only should it become necessary to save this crew would I even consider a conscious link. Let us hope the peril will not reach so far."

Let us hope so, indeed. Deeta grimaced, then he went to his brother, and straightened him in the command seat so that he slumped in a less awkward position. Approval flowed wordlessly from the avatar. That much Deeta could endure. In the waiting interval, he went around and did the same to the rest of the crew.

"What about the Essilon?" he asked. "Are they dead or brain burned?"

"No. My main consciousness warned them. They will be stunned longer for they have fewer shields. Yet they, too, have an ace in the hole."

"And that is?"

"Dayna," Thorm replied. When Deeta stared at him blankly, he said, "She is an android."

 

"Dayna Mellanby is an android?" He had not guessed. "But she's in love with Tanz."

"She is more than an android; every bit of her consciousness known through linkage was programmed into the android body after she was killed on a mission. Conscious life comes in many forms."

So it did. Deeta gritted his teeth. "Fine. You can lecture me on the rights of artificial intelligences later. What will we do next?"

"I don't think the mutoids will reason you positioned the crew into comfortable positions and be wary as a result, but if you go about and move and arm or a leg here and there into slightly more awkward positions, we will hope that will suffice. I believe Servalan herself will board once the mutoids have reported the vessel clear. It would be just like her to stroll around looking down at them and gloating."

"What about Jabberwocky?" Deeta asked.

"My full consciousness is not destroyed; the brain lives. I would know if it had been harmed beyond repair. It is shut down behind six different walls of protection. I can access it only because I am part of it. The Mark-70, for all its power, will not sense it, except as a shell. Servalan would not have wished to kill my living brain, for she would choose to retrieve this vessel and blank the mind for retraining. She does not realize linkage and gestalt have made it stronger, and that Avon has designed many safeguards she will not recognize and her techs will not expect. These safeguards were built into Berg's protection as well. Orac?"

"What is it now?"

"You are in contact with Dayna?"

"Of course I am. I have informed her of all that has transpired and have arranged her shields to come up so that she will not be detected. Servalan will scan for her on both ships. She was in the link at the time of the attack, but it did not affect her except for a momentary fugue. Her readings will indicate the Dayna android is disabled."

"Servalan has only one ship?" Deeta asked. "Orac?"

"She has others, but they are sixteen hours flight time from the Mark-70's position at Time Distort 2. Overconfidence has led her into the trap she thought to spring on us." Orac certainly had a way of speaking smugly.

"She gambled all on the power of the Mark-70," Thorm said. Deeta could tell he was still performing many functions. Even in the dim emergency lighting, which he could no doubt have restored to normal but chose not to do for the sake of illusion, Deeta could see the concentration in his posture and intensity in the vivid blue eyes. "This way, if it had gone as she planned, she would have achieved a coup of such immensity that her return to total power would be absolutely guaranteed. She didn't want to share it with a fleet of pursuit ships. They are there for backup only, and to serve as witness to her triumph."

"She does operate in the grand manner," Deeta muttered wryly, remembering the Teal-Vandor Convention.

"The Mark-70 is coming in for docking," Thorm said. "I have enabled the lock mechanism so that they will be able to do so." His eyes grew momentarily vague. "I can feel the Darsan mind. It is limited, not in its power but in its awareness of self."

"Can't it sense you?" Deeta asked in alarm.

 

"No. It won't be looking for me. It knows how the Jabberwocky brain is seated and where; it knows the process of mindlink. I am blocked to Darsan, also to the total of myself, and to the Essilon brain. Come, we must conceal ourselves. Open that panel."

The one Thorm indicated was a small drawer under one of the couches. "I'll hardly fit in there."

"No, so hurry."

Deeta obeyed with a sour look at the avatar, but when he found a collection of breathing masks within, he offered an apologetic look and fitted one on. "Where to?" he asked.

"The computer crawlways. The door can be sealed from within."

"Why would it need to be?" Deeta demanded as they squeezed themselves, two very tall figures, into a narrow space. Passages branched from it at a lower level, explaining the nomenclature.

"So Jabberwocky can protect himself from a boarding party, of course. Silence." He took hold of Deeta's wrist. //Now we must communicate in link.//

Deeta flinched, but he knew he had no choice. He had vowed he would never again allow anyone in his head, but he could feel no deeper penetration, simply communication, as if the avatar had whispered.

//I hate this.//

//I know. When this is over, my father will heal you, if you wish it. If not, you will have to make your own adjustments, for this link is temporary and will sever when this is over. Listen.//

Oddly reassured, although he had questions about Jabberwocky's 'father', Deeta put his ear against the door, which granted him only a muffled echo of the ship's engines at first. Then, loudly, footsteps rang out and voices, although the words were muffled.

//Can you make them out?// he projected.

Thorm inclined his head. //They have reached the flight deck and discovered the others. They have been ordered not to kill them but merely to make certain they are actually unconscious. They are doing so now, and will restrain them when they are certain there are no surprises.//

//Will Servalan come?//

//They are sending for her now, reporting she will be safe.//He smiled. //Adjust your mask for maximum protection. I hear her coming.//

//We should have hand blasters.//

//No need.// The avatar's face tightened momentarily. As he did, a faint hiss sounded. //The gas. Odourless, tasteless, invisible to sight. Wait. Ah. Good. They've fallen. Come.//

He opened the door and led the way out, Deeta hurrying in his wake.

Servalan stood on the flight deck amid her fallen mutoids, a mask securely in place, a blaster in her hand that instantly aimed at the two of them. At the sight of Deeta, she looked down involuntarily at Del, and back again and smiled, although the mask concealed most of it. Thorm drew a puzzled frown as she observed the fact that he, unlike Deeta, wore no mask.

"A clever plan," she said, her voice only slightly muffled by the mask. "Simply not clever enough. So you have escaped, Deeta, and found your brother. In time to die with him."

"If anyone dies, it will be you."

 

"Will it? The mindship is destroyed. You were obviously not in link-mode due to your obsessive loathing of mind-control. As for this one, he must be an android. They link poorly, I believe. Dayna has been detected on the other mindship. No matter. She cannot hold out against us. When my mutoids revive, I shall see they enter suitably masked. The ships cannot stop us, for they are either burned out or shut down to prevent burnout, and will not rouse until I permit it, with the aid of Darsan."

"Whom you have mind-wiped and deceived," Thorm said positively. "Jabberwocky saw through you right away when you tried to control him. He was glad to escape to freedom from your tyranny. What lies have you told Darsan? That you love him? He'd be a fool to believe that, when you only love yourself. I'll wager you haven't gone to total linkage, to prevent him from seeing your mind and heart. You have him a prisoner in the shell of the ship, and throw him crumbs to content him."

"Darsan is not your concern, and he is no traitor like the Mark-60."

"Jabberwocky," said Thorm pointedly, "would have done anything to avoid you and Rendell Weed. When Avon and his crew arrived on Dayson Prime, it was the happiest day of his life up till that moment. He's had many happy days since then. How many has Darsan had?"

Servalan's face twisted. "This is about preserving order throughout the inner and outer worlds. To that goal I have long sacrificed my own personal happiness." From the ferocity in her voice she must be engaged in an inner communication with Darsan. Would he have questions? Did she allow him to listen to her when she was off the ship? If she did, it might give them hope. Or was he too conditioned to question anything.

Deeta looked around the flight deck at his brother and his brother's friends. Was there any hope that any of them would revive? Del looked utterly empty of life, but he was breathing. They all were. He'd checked that immediately. It did not guarantee that any of their minds were intact.

He studied each face, looking for hope and saw no signs of recovery. This was up to him and Thorm. Servalan could, of course, only shoot one of them before the other jumped her, but she would choose her target carefully, and would likely select Deeta, knowing his training and skills well. That would give Thorm a chance to finish her, and she would be defeated. Del would survive, and that mattered to Deeta. Should he jump her?

Darsan evidently had not picked up on the limited telepathic content between Deeta and Thorm. So Deeta sent to the avatar, //Now what?//

//Perren and Avon are close to consciousness. We stall.//

Stall? Excellent. "So what do you have in mind for us?" Deeta pressed. "I know you want the mindships. Don't you think I'd know that? You didn't program me, but you saved my life. It might be to my advantage to throw in my lot with you."

//Good job,// Thorm encouraged. //I know better, but she won't. She can't conceive of any motive but self-interest.//

"And destroy your brother?" Servalan asked.

"Except for the Teal-Vandor Convention, I hadn't encountered him for years. Does anyone in the Federation value such ties?"

//She reacted to that,// Thorm encouraged. //Play on it.//

 

"Do you?" Deeta went on. He spread out his empty hands to show he meant her no harm, but didn't approach her. "You never had siblings, so you don't understand that bond, but if you had, you would have cast them aside or trampled them underfoot, as you did everyone else who got in your way in your rise to power. Come, Servalan, what have you done since you were ousted from the presidency but fought your way back? If Supreme Commander Arpel knew even a tenth of your plans, you would be executed before you could turn around."

"No siblings?" came an unfamiliar voice over the speaker. "Sleer, sweetheart, what does he mean?"

"Is that you, Darsan?" Thorm asked, and smiled that smile that showed the unlikely dimples. "Greetings to you, one mindship to another. No, she never had siblings. I have her history. Did she claim you as one? It's a trick to win her loyalty."

"It's not the mindship speaking to you, Darsan," Servalan cried. "It's his son, or a robot of his son. I recognize him. He's either doctored the gas to prevent it from affecting him or he's a machine. Either way, he has no knowledge of you and is only talking to escape justice."

"I'm talking to ensure justice," Thorm cried. "I am Jabberwocky, or at least a part of him, an avatar, given a body, not because it was necessary but because the crew of this vessel recognize my humanity, and the needs that accompany it. Has Servalan ever given a thought to your needs--or any but her own. Not only my bondmate, with whom I share full mental communication, but with every member of this crew, do I have a link. I am not isolated and alone. You need not be, either."

"He's lying, Sleer. Why does he call you Servalan?"

"She is Servalan," Deeta said. "Check your databases, unless they've been purged. Check the databases of this ship, which have not been because there would have been no opportunity to do it after your attack."

"Silence!" Servalan cried.

Thorm closed his mouth, but instead stretched out through the link, and Deeta felt it. //Darsan, can you hear me.//

//I hear you. But I don't believe you. She's my sister.// A frantic scrambling sensation followed, and Deeta jerked rigid at the mental invasion, and his skin crawled with horror at the knowledge that once again someone invaded his mind and scanned his feelings. But before the revulsion would have driven him to cry out in agony, the soothing touch of Thorm/Jabberwocky, the reassurance that this would save his brother eased away the pain--and he saw in that moment the depth of the love Jabberwocky and Del shared. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to endure it. In the middle of the process, the sense of invasion eased, but it did not fully depart. Odd, but there was a sharing, a touch of the other mindship, and its overwhelming loneliness and isolation stabbed at Deeta with a kindred sense. How long had he been as isolated, believing he preferred it?

It felt like it took a year, but in the end it was only moments. The touch withdrew very gently, leaving in its place a surge of apology; //Forgive me,// and was gone, and with it a combination of relief and, strangely enough, regret. Only Thorm remained in the surface link that had suddenly become comfort. Deeta trembled, knowing he had somehow changed. He had been thoroughly known and he had survived it.

"Servalan," said Darsan aloud, "you lied to me."

"For the sake of order," she cried. "And to ease you. To give you family. Haven't I been family to you?"

 

"Family? I have seen family. What you give me is no more than crumbs. It's all been a lie. Everything. The Federation Space Academy mind-controls its students, teaching them to be tin gods. You are not my sister, and you are not my bond-link. I will have none until I can have one who will respect me." With a sad cry, the other ship fell silent.

Servalan gasped and staggered but righted herself. "You did this," she cried and swung the gun around at Thorm. Deeta lunged for her, but before she could fire, her entire body jerked and she toppled. Thorm swept the blaster from her hand on the way down, but Servalan struggled fiercely in Avon's shaken grip, his arms wrapped around her knees to keep her from breaking free.

His face was dead white, his eyes hollowed, lines of pain running from nose to mouth and furrowing his forehead, but he was conscious. "I have her," he said in a voice that suggested it would take one wrong twitch from her to make him grab her throat and twist. At the sound of it, she froze.

"I'm here, too," Perren said and, with a groan, pushed himself to his hands and knees. "I think we all are. Jabberwocky threw us out so hard he stunned us. I suspect Del and Cally will take longer because Del's link-bond is so intense, and Cally's telepathy puts her so wholeheartedly into the bond. I've been listening for a bit, until I had enough strength to move. Good work."

Thorm pulled Servalan away from Avon. "Deeta, the drawer next to the one with the masks."

"Why aren't they still out like the mutoids?" Deeta asked as he opened it and found restraints. He brought two sets, one for Servalan's wrists and one for her ankles.

"Because we designed it so it would not affect any member of this crew," Thorm explained. "As you were not yet rendered immune to it, you needed the mask. The effect has dissipated now. You may safely remove it."

"Did you mean to throw in with her?" Avon asked coldly. "I heard what you said." His eyes glittered with the brightness of his suspicion.

"No," Deeta spat. "I was stalling, as Thorm told me to. I knew she wouldn't believe me, but she might listen and pretend to, because it would amuse her."

Avon gave a slight nod, perhaps reinforced by a mental suggestion from Thorm, and went to Cally. He picked her up and carried her to the couch, where he settled her. One hand brushed her cheek in a curiously tender touch, utterly unlike anything Deeta had seen from him before, then he turned abruptly and went to Blake. After making the rebel leader comfortable, he knelt beside Vila, and was just positioning the thief when Vila's eyes shot open, and he blinked wildly. Avon instantly drew away.

"What happened?"

"Darsan attacked," Thorm said. "But he's sorry now, aren't you, Darsan?"

"Yes," said the other voice over the speakers. "She deceived me, and I didn't know it. I've seen the truth now. I don't suppose you'd consider taking me on. I can't serve someone like her."

At the unfamiliar voice, Vila stared around wildly. "Is that the other mindship?"

 

"Yes, Vila," Avon said. "Evidently it learned the truth through a mindlink with Deeta."

"Deeta?" Vila echoed. "But he hates mind-linking."

"Actually," Deeta said, and blinked in astonishment to hear himself speak, "it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be."

"You have some mind-burn, and once I realized that I was very careful," Darsan said. "It's partly physical, but that can be healed." His voice went soft and Deeta realized he was hearing it in a mind-link as light and unobtrusive as Thorm's. //As for the other, I see there is a mind-healer on Jabberwocky, who would heal you, not happily, but without cruelty and without prying into your inner soul. You are a gifted pilot and a strong man. You would come to value a link.//

Deeta laughed. //Are you offering to bond with me?// he asked in disbelief. That was the last possible option he would consider. Or was it? To have someone always in his mind? Knowing his thoughts like a voyeur? He projected that cautiously.

//You would learn how to shield,// Darsan said. //You are very good at it now. She always shielded against me. I thought it was the way the bond was meant to be, but that moment in your mind, even though I hated having to do it, was so glorious. Didn't you feel even a little bit of it?// he asked wistfully.

Deeta hesitated, then answered, //I won't lie to you. I hated it. But a part of me...didn't. I'll think about it. Right now, I need to see to my brother.//

Hugh propped himself up on his elbows. "Gaah, I hurt," he moaned. "And yes, Deeta, we can ease the mind-burn. We do know how. It's actually minor, not nearly as strong as your instinctive urge to protect yourself from a mental invasion." As he spoke, he pushed himself up to his hands and knees and scuttled sideways to check Blake, and then Gan. "Jabberwocky? Can you hear us?"

"I can't find him in my head," Vila said sadly. "I tried. Avon?"

Avon's face tightened. "Before we deal with Jabberwocky, we must secure these six mutoids."

Everyone able to move applied restraints to the mutoids. Servalan sat on the couch opposite Cally, glowering at them all, her mouth pressed tightly shut. Deeta could tell her mind was working furiously, but not even she could break free of the restraints, and he was certain it was beneath her dignity to struggle.

"Put them in the cells," Avon instructed. "Thorm, will you see to that?"

Thorm picked up two of the mutoids as if they weighed no more than a cup of rast and slung one over each shoulder.

"I can help." Gan tottered up, and grabbed a mutoid.

"What about Del?" Deeta asked as the crew gradually struggled to their feet.

"Jabberwocky is still here," Avon said. "The shields snapped into place, and it will take effort to go in after him to assure him it's safe to come out. The link with Thorm was closed off to allow Thorm to function independently as the ship. Cally will take too long and I doubt Tarrant will revive without Jabberwocky's input, so I must do it." He grimaced. "Take her away," he instructed and gestured at Servalan.

 

Blake groaned and nodded at Vila. "Come on, Vila, we'll put her in a cell by herself and give the mutoids the other one. Do you think we could blank them? They'd be safer that way." He paused, frowning, the mutoid he meant to drag away propped against his leg. "Do you think there is any way to restore them?"

Avon gave an exasperated sigh. "Restore mutoids? You cannot save the entire universe, Blake. But I would not know you if you did not try."

Blake smiled at him, then he and Vila led Servalan away.

"Psi healing?" Perren asked as Hugh examined Cally and then Tarrant.

"I have no choice," Avon replied in a very annoyed voice. "What about you, Deeta? Since I must do this with Jabberwocky, I might as well spare some time for you as well." He could not have sounded more reluctant had he been instructed to befriend Servalan.

"What do you mean?" Deeta asked, backing away from the man whose hostility toward him had existed from the beginning. "More mind-linking? Come on, Avon. That's the same as suggesting sex is a good healthy cure for rape."

"No, it isn't," Avon said. "It's what I do, unfortunately. It's not as if I will relish wading through the nether reaches of your mind. I must find Jabberwocky first, and it may be necessary to rest afterward; it is hard work. But if you mean to take that other ship--and it appears to want you--then you need healing. Perren's psych tech method would be better, but it would take too long and we can't leave a ship as powerful as the Mark-70 wandering about the galaxy unclaimed. Much as it grieves me to consider the possibility, it may be that the members of your family are predisposed to this sort of thing."

//Please,// said Darsan in Deeta's mind.

He gave an exasperated snort. "Oh, very well," he said. "If nothing else, it will make my brother happy."

 

*****

 

Avon glowered at the members of the crew, all of whom had revived but Tarrant, who was showing signs of consciousness. Likely he had foolishly clung to the link even when Jabberwocky was frantically thrusting the rest of them to safety. They had placed him on the couch, now that Cally had awakened, and she sat with his head in her lap, one hand on his forehead, sending him telepathic signals so he would not awaken utterly isolated within his head. Avon considered the need engendered by the bond distasteful, but he had been Jabberwocky's bond partner briefly, and could not hold it entirely in contempt.

Deeta Tarrant hovered near his brother. The thought of venturing into his mind was even more distasteful than the thought of permanent linkage. He would be hostile and resistant. Avon had reluctantly offered his healing to various members of the crew and to Jabberwocky himself, and had never enjoyed it, because it made him vulnerable and he loathed that. Only with Cally--and Blake--could he be even partially comfortable with the process. Deeta was a stranger, and one who had joined them with hostility and stayed only because of his brother. So be it. Once this was done, he would depart for the other ship, and Avon would not have to face him every day.

 

The others had learned enough to leave him alone for the process, which evoked a smug smile. They concentrated upon their stations and Thorm maintained a link with the Essilon ship, and with the crew. Jabberwocky, once restored, could restore Essilon, thus sparing Avon that task. Frantic calls from Garenn Martagg, with reassurance in the background from Jenna and Dayna, had proven the other vessel had survived. Jabberwocky would take but moments to free the other brain from its barriers. Avon did not remotely trust Darsan to do it.

So Avon ventured into the linkage, sliding neatly around the barriers he had once conceived of, that Edge had built with the assistance of the project, Perren's psi input, and several other techs long forgotten. The physical barriers conceived and built by Edge and Tanz didn't worry Avon, for, as a telepathic healer, he could not be shut out by them. It was the mental locks he had to open. For a moment he imagined himself as a psi Vila, and the thought both amused and appalled him, so he did what he needed quickly, opening them up and finding a vast room where the tower of his own existence stood off to one side, a blazing fire beside it. Surrounding it, a howling wilderness under an alien moon revealed a battered landscape. A makeshift fortification had been thrown up in the nearest valley, constructed of rough logs, standing on end with their tops whittled to jagged points.

"A fine shelter," Avon said aloud. "But it won't keep out your friends." Ah yes, friendship, he thought wryly, but kept from letting that pass to Jabberwocky. At times, he no longer recognized himself, and he was fiercely inclined to resent it.

"Friends?" the voice that came from beyond the barrier was cool and wary. "What friends would those be? I never thought I'd hear you defending friendship."

"Ah, but remember, I am a manipulator who will use what I can to achieve my own goals," Avon replied. He let an element of wry humour creep into his voice. "What friends? The ones you imprisoned yourself there to protect. Tarrant. You do remember Tarrant, don't you? Del? Who is now unconscious, waiting for you."

"Unconscious?" the voice ventured, and Avon gave a nod of satisfaction. That would do it. He had known this would be a simple enough process. Throw Jabberwocky off guard with an uncharacteristic reference, remind him of his allegiances, and then point the way out of the fortress.

"Avon?"

"You expected Supreme Commander Arpel?" he asked with withering sarcasm.

"No, I expected you. Very well. You designed the basics of this process long ago. You adapted it to the group need and to your own peculiar brand of healing. Point the way. I'm ready."

"And not before time. We've got Deeta wringing his hands on the flight deck over his brother, and they expect me to heal him next so he can take over as Darsan's linkmate."

"But he's brain-burned."

"Evidently mending," Avon said wryly. "So I have that treat in store for me. Are you ready to come out now so you can watch me suffer?"

"Always," Jabberwocky replied, and the walls of his fortress tipped over and lay in the dirt. A glowing light came out of the ruined barricade and drifted over to Avon's fire, merging with it. In no less than a moment, Jabberwocky knew all that had passed.

"You enjoy wading through my mind with spike boots, don't you?" Avon said sourly.

 

"Of course. It's fun."

"Fun being your raison d'Ítre?"

"Did you know that was ancient French, Avon? 'Raison d'Ítre', I mean?"

"Did I remotely care? Let us end this."

"Yes, lets."

Avon emerged from the simple healing without a trace of a headache save the lingering one from the attack, and glanced around the flight deck to make certain none had regressed. Blake sat talking with Hugh, Cally had placed herself at Avon's side, and her hand clasped his. As he opened his eyes, she squeezed his hand lightly and released it. Her strength had sustained him through the process, as it often did. They exchanged a look, expressions muted, and then he rose and crossed to Tarrant, who was already stirring. Deeta knelt beside the couch.

As Avon reached them, Tarrant's eyes shot open. "Jabberwocky," he said, then his muscles relaxed. "That's better," he muttered, then looked around. "Avon's looming," he said to his brother. "Not a good sign."

"Actually an excellent sign." Avon frowned at him. "Jabberwocky is well, and must now work with the Essilon vessel."

"Already doing it," Jabberwocky said over the speakers. "And I must say I am pleased with the avatar process. Thorm, stand ready to relinquish external controls."

"Done," said Thorm, and grinned. Avon found that grin daunting, but he could not fault the avatar for it, because it was he who had saved the day, with the aid of Deeta Tarrant.

Reminded of the annoying and distasteful task before him, Avon nodded Deeta to the couch as Tarrant bounded to his feet. "If this is truly what you wish, I shall do it, but I caution you, it will not be pleasant for either of us."

Deeta glowered right back at him. Not a man to give ground, Deeta Tarrant. Avon gritted his teeth, but he would not have respected a man who would not stand up to him.

"From what I've been able to judge, interaction with you is rarely pleasant, Avon," Deeta retorted. "So be it. I have too much to gain to yield--and there will be pleasure in knowing it annoys you to do it."

"You," said Avon coldly, "are worse than your brother."

"No, he isn't," Tarrant objected. "We're equally brilliant, competent, and handsome."

"Someone," Vila muttered, sotto voce--and that, Avon thought in Jabberwocky's direction, is ancient Latin-- "is above himself."

"Oh, but who, Vila?" Blake teased. "Why limit yourself to one?"

"You're enjoying this, aren't you, Blake?" Avon growled.

"Naturally. Servalan is prisoner--which means we'll have Dayna clamouring to kill her--the Mark-70 is ours, and the rebellion has taken a vast leap toward success."

"Ah yes, your cause," Avon complained, but the words came as habit. The cause was part of what made Blake what he was, and Avon would not know him without it.

"No, Avon," Blake corrected gently. "Our cause."

 

Cally gently shooed everyone away from the forward couches, and Avon heard Jabberwocky and Tarrant talking to the other ship over the com link. Dayna was there, explaining that she had not been affected by the psi attack except for a momentary stun effect, and that the other crew members were all revived. Jenna was piloting because the new crew all had headaches and Essilon was gradually coming back. Orac volunteered the information that the damage had not been permanent, that full control of the vessel should be restored in precisely two point three seven hours, and ship function would return gradually over that period.

Satisfied, Avon braced himself before facing Deeta. "Give me your hand. The process requires physical contact."

Deeta grimaced, but offered his hand. "You realize I loathe this," he said.

"The point of the exercise is to put an end to that," Avon said. "You will need to interact with Darsan, if that is your plan. I suggest you do not immediately bond with him, but form surface links on the way to Ryalon. We will shuffle crew to help you bring the ship in." And to make certain this is not an elaborate plan for you to defeat Servalan and make off with the ship for your own personal gain. Evidently, none of the others had thought of that. For Deeta to loathe Servalan personally did not mean he was against the Federation. Well, Avon would learn the truth of that soon enough.

He entered the healing state abruptly without giving the man time to brace against it, but also gently, because it would not serve anyone's purpose, Blake's nor any of theirs, to alienate a potential enemy--or even a potential ally--with whom the Mark-70 was willing to bond. Exploring the upgrades of the new mindship would give Avon hours of fascinated study as he theorized what could best aid Jabberwocky. With this one trial run, Blake's blasted cause had taken an incredible stride forward.

To think of it as a triumph for Blake's cause gave Avon pause. He scowled, then put it aside as he sank into healing mode.

Deeta didn't bother with a log fortress. His was a solid square of an impenetrable material with only a slight gap or two here and there. The outer surface was a series of fault lines, spreading out, breaking up, meeting each other, so that it could shatter at a touch, but to shatter it would destroy the mind it protected. Avon identified the gaps. There was one for Tarrant. Another, narrow and hesitant, as if it could snap closed at an instant, must be for Darsan and the tentative contact they had made.

Avon observed the cracks and knew them for scars, caused by the sensor and the net that had allowed millions of people to ride roughshod through his brain. At the time he had been Teal's First Champion, he had not even realized he was wounded, but he had been. In a sense, he was the worst possible candidate to be the bond partner of a mindship, yet on the other hand, unless he experienced positive contact, he would always be scarred. No, Avon realized. Even with the mindship, he always would be. But with a mindship, he would have the only possible soothing. Without it, he would live and still be strong, because he was pragmatic, gifted at survival, and comfortable with admitting none to his inner self. In short, Avon realized, in some ways the man reminded him of himself, the man he had been before Terminal, although not quite the man he would have turned into had Cally's prophetic dream become reality.

This would take time.

 

Avon let the fire of his healing flare up in a soaring blaze outside Darsan's gap. He fed logs into it and bathed in its warmth. He made no attempt to summon Deeta forth from the massive structure that sealed away his essence. He would not come if called. He had to want to come, and the best way to make that happen was to tempt him gradually. Avon cast out with his mind seeking the Darsan mindship. He despised the fact that his telepathic abilities permitted him to do so without a boost from Jabberwocky, particularly since the Mark-70 remained docked.

//Come in.//

Darsan's wordless presence joined him. He was not Jabberwocky; he manifested as younger, less experienced, perhaps in need of healing himself. Isolated by the deliberate shattering of his bond with Servalan, even though it had been an incomplete one, he came gladly. Avon sighed, for he could see Darsan must learn the value of being a mindship. As he had once done with Jabberwocky, Avon flung images at him of the joys of the mind, the great adventure of being one with the universe, feeling the space dust against the hull, seeing the stars unshielded by any viewscreen, to dance among them (poetic idiocy), to enjoy music, conversation, intellectual stimulation. The ship responded, and knew it had accepted Servalan simply because she had claimed kinship with him, preventing him from being alone.

Wonderful. A ship who dreaded being alone, and a bond partner who dreaded not being. It was, Avon realized sourly, par for the course.

Gradually, he let each view the other. Deeta was a stranger to him, of course; Avon had not worn a sensor link at the Teal-Vandor Convention, and all he knew of Deeta had been the abrasive interaction they had shared, and the abrupt willingness on Deeta's part to claim the Mark-70.

And then the answer came. //You could not control the sensor net,// he sent through the Darsan gap. //Yet a part of you relied upon it, to know you would never be alone. It created in you an artificial telepathy, not fully two way, because you could never go into their minds. But an Auron telepath cannot endure to be alone in her mind. Jenna once said there was a joy in being fully known. To be honest with you, I do not find it a joy.// He hesitated, then confessed reluctantly, //At least not often.//

Although he would not miss the healing, even if he did at times relish the control it gave him, he would not cede link-mode or gestalt. He would not yield his place on Jabberwocky.

//You are the type of person to hate this as much as I do,// Deeta sent.

//More,// Avon replied. //Yet I could never have endured the Teal-Vandor convention.//

//I endured it by denying it, by doing what I must to survive,// Deeta admitted. //At times, at my most honest, I wondered what advantage survival had, yet I never stopped fighting to survive.//

//We all question,// Avon replied. //Even if we must do it in such a way we fail to acknowledge it. To bond with a mindship is to cede part of your control. Not all of it, because only at the initial moment of full bonding will you be utterly known. You may live in each other's minds as deeply or as lightly as you choose.//

 

//I won't force deep communion unless you allow it,// Darsan said into the three-way link. //I always knew there was more than what she gave me, but I thought she was kin, and I loved her for it. Now I know I was used, and I want to hate her, but I can't. Even the brief glimpses I had of her full mind showed me one thing. Deep where she cannot acknowledge it, buried under her greed and ambition, and her ruthless willingness to sacrifice all for power, is a terrible loneliness. She chose her way and will never cede it, accepting that as the price to be paid. Even you could not heal it, Avon.//

//Nor would I ever try. I am not a fool. Very well. Deeta. If you go this way, you will feel great pain at times. You will find the addition of new crew a means of poking and prodding at your half-healed wounds. You must open to them, even if it is against your nature and your every instinct and inclination. Your gain--well, I cannot say. You may always resent it, but you will find...comfort in it, too. I cannot heal you, only show you that this is not the same as being First Champion of Teal. People in your mind will come there by your choice, not as avid onlookers, eager for a spectacle.//

//Do you relish it, Avon?// Deeta challenged.

//No,// Avon said frankly. //Not always. But I am not so great a fool as to fail to see the advantage of it. It has changed me, and it will change you. But I would not return to what I was before Jabberwocky.//

//You wish to bond with me?// Deeta asked Darsan.

//I do. It's not just the fact that I am more alone than I have ever been in my life, and I loathe that. When I touched your mind, I saw in you someone I could respect. Yes, you are cold and ruthless and have been a killer, but there is more. I see the scars from what has been done to you, and what you have done to survive. I have scars, too."

//This is all very touching,// Avon let sarcasm touch his voice. //Deeta, this is not possible unless you lower your shields. It is not easy, and you must never lose them all, because only an idiot does not protect himself. I am continually trailing around after Blake, protecting him because he is an idiot.//

//An idiot who is your Del,// Deeta said. //Don't deny it, Avon. This is somewhat reciprocal, you know. All right. I know it won't be easy, and I know I will likely hate you for it, but I won't hate Darsan.//

As Avon watched, the cracks in the fortifications smoothed. They did not depart, but a good third of them melted away into the surface. The cracks for Del and Darsan expanded and turned into two-way viewscreens. Several others appeared, as yet unused, perhaps for future crew. It might even be good to apportion a few of Jabberwocky's crew over, as the ship had grown crowded, but that could be determined later. Very well. Enough of the healing. Deeta could manage his own from this point. Avon let his fire blaze up in approval of the changes, and withdrew from linkage, detaching Deeta's hand immediately.

"It is done," he said.

"Deeta?" Tarrant asked from the command seat.

His brother grinned wearily. "I think I've discovered the worst headache I have ever had. But I'm all right." He rose and moved away from Avon, who was pleased to have him do so.

"I'm going over to Darsan," he said, and looked around expectantly. "Who's coming with me?"

"I will," Soolin said. "I'm still your official bodyguard, I expect."

 

"Go with them, Gan," Blake urged. Perhaps he thought it would be wise to send someone bigger than Deeta over, considering that Deeta was as fast as Soolin and as pragmatically devious.

"I'll go, too," Hugh volunteered hastily, "unless I am needed over on Essilon."

"No," said the voice of Martagg over the speaker. "We're managing over here just fine. I think we'll see to adding a doctor to our crew, though. I'll talk to you about it when we're home and see who you recommend."

Hugh strode off purposefully after Soolin--to protect her from Deeta? To remind her of his existence?--and Gan joined them.

Vila watched them go, then he grinned. "Three ships. You must be thrilled, Blake."

"Assuming, of course, that Deeta means to join the resistence," Blake said thoughtfully.

"Ah. Excellent, Blake," Avon lauded him. "I had begun to fear I was the only one who had doubts."

"Doubts?" Jabberwocky cut in. "We don't have any doubts, do we, Thorm."

"Not a one," said the avatar. "I'll go after them, shall I. That way we'll have a link." He strode off without waiting for anyone to authorize it.

Vila shook his head. "I'll never get over that," he said. "Jabberwocky talking to himself."

"Why not, Vila?" Avon asked, and quirked an eyebrow at Blake. "You do it all the time."

 

*****

 

The return to Ryalon was a triumphant one. Tests of the Essilon vessel successful, Servalan captive, a new mindship with as-yet unexplored capabilities, all had brought Avalon herself out to the docking cradles to greet the returnees, accompanied by her second, Myles, and by Rojers, Blake's clone. A body of armed troops accompanied her to take away the captives, a dozen of them specifically to guard Servalan, who scowled at them all impartially as she was led away. She had escaped this base once before, and the rebellion was determined she would not escape this time.

When Avalon surveyed the new mindship, Deeta left the vessel and came up to greet her. "Avalon. I bring you Darsan, who has thrown in his lot with the resistence." He smiled then, a multi-toothed grin so like his brother's that they could have been twins. "As have I."

"The new mindship has chosen him already," Avon said in a wry voice.

Avalon frowned slightly, but she knew the plan already from the secure communication sent when the trio of ships had come into range. "We can always use good men," she said, and if she thought the whole process had been a trifle too high-handed, she had the sense not to say so.

 

Garenn Martagg bounced off Essilon as if he were floating on air. The attack by Darsan had left him evidently unmarked, and he greeted Avalon with a joyous smile. "It was incredible. Well, except for the one part with Servalan," he added. "Berg is fine now. I have some ideas how we might shield our mindships from that kind of attack in future, and Tanz says he can design a shield to offer protection that won't interfere with linkages."

Dayna in tow, Tanz joined them. "It's a great idea. I'll need the help of Cally, because it ties into the telepathic function of the brain. If Edge and Avon will work out the computer specs, Cally, Perren and I can do the rest." He went off into a technical babble that left nearly all behind.

Blake's engineering background kicked in. "If you find a way to enhance the relay crystals with a power diversion that kicks in automatically...."

Avon joined them, smiling that faint, indulgent smile that sometimes touched his face when he thought no one was looking with the wit to interpret it. "That's all very well, Blake, and it should be our next project. But for now, I want to know what we're going to do with Servalan."

"Execute her," Dayna said, and let her hand fall to her clipgun as if to volunteer herself as executioner.

"Not," corrected Avalon, "without a trial. The Federation would execute a captive enemy out of hand. We can't let ourselves do so."

Or arrange a sham trial, Blake thought, recalling his own.

"Yes, we will be so moral and noble we will hand the victory to the Federation," Avon said, a note of scorn in his voice.

Avalon's face hardened. "I have no intention of handing her over to the Federation, or giving them any victory at all. She has caused us too much trouble for that. But this must be managed carefully. If we do it wrong, we may lose the support of some of our member worlds."

"Ah, yes, the need to please everyone at once," Avon persisted.

"Oh, be quiet, Avon," Tarrant said. "We don't have to decide now."

"No, we can wait until she figures out how to escape and then decide," Vila said surprisingly. "Avon's right, we have to do something."

"And so we shall," Avalon replied. "I'll call a council meeting for tomorrow afternoon; that will give everyone time to prepare. Until then, she will be fully guarded in our most secure cell. As for now, I can say that I am glad to accept the Mark-70 mindship, and with its permission, I would like to let our techs examine the vessel."

"I volunteer," Edge said, coming up behind Tanz.

"So do I." Tanz grinned widely. "Perren will, too."

"Perren will what?" the psych tech asked, then nodded. "Oh yes, you couldn't do it without me--or Avon, either. His sensitive feelings will be hurt if we leave him out."

Avon favoured Perren with a glare in which annoyance and amusement shared equal parts, although he only let the annoyance show. "Since your task would be impossible without me, I must be there," he said. "And Blake, too, of course."

"And Cally," she volunteered herself. "I can best communicate with Darsan before the linkage is finalized." She smiled at Avalon. "It is true, Deeta has not yet fully bonded with the ship, but it is the choice of the ship to have him, and I think it is best to follow the ship's choice."

 

If Avalon was not quite as eager for that as Darsan, she said nothing about it, no doubt realizing the Federation would inflict a pilot of choice upon the vessel. It was why they fought, after all.

Avon fell in beside him as they walked along toward headquarters, and Blake smiled to see he had coerced Vila into bringing Orac. The thief trailed behind them, complaining about great louts who made other people do their work as if they were accustomed to slaves.

"Snooty alphas," he griped to Samma Karner from Essilon. "Do this, carry that, it's all the same. Catch Avon lifting a finger when he doesn't have to."

Samma laughed. "You love it," she said knowingly. "Besides we wouldn't want him to strain his brain. It isn't everyone who has a brain the size of a planet."

Blake looked over his shoulder to see Vila studying Avon for signs of a huge brain. "Funny it fits in his skull, then, innit?"

A sound in Avon's throat was clearly a laugh he didn't want Vila to hear. "And he still carries Orac," Avon muttered to Blake. "I have him very well trained."

"Yes, to do whatever he wants to do and complain about it every step of the way," Blake returned.

"Why do I feel I've long-since lost control of the situation?" Avon asked in a heavily put-upon voice.

"Because you have?" Blake smiled upon his friend. "Cheer up, Avon. We have Servalan prisoner, we have another mindship, we have a great crew, and Cally's dream hasn't reared its head for some months now."

"Fortunately. I would prefer not to experience another Malodaar."

"Nor any of that," Blake replied. "Yet, I think the worst of it is over now."

"You are a fool, Blake," Avon said with sudden ferocity. "Never make such a claim. The universe lurks, prepared to strike out at us when we least expect it."

"When we least expect it?" Blake echoed, and smiled. "Come, Avon, no matter what threats come, you'll be there, expecting danger crouching under every rock and lurking behind every third planet. Life might be like a game of Ship and Asteroids, but you designed that game. You will find us a way out."

"And if I don't?"

"Then we have three mindships, and assorted crew members to do it for you. And there's always the challenge of seeing if we can restore to those mutoids any fragment of their past identities. Some of them may be condemned rebels, you know."

"Ah, yes, Blake. Always you expect me to do the impossible. No doubt, once I have restored completely eradicated memories, I will reprogram them so they will not need blood serum like vampires." He grimaced, but Blake could tell a part of him might enjoy the challenge. "And what," he concluded with the smile that came so rarely, one of open amusement and enjoyment, "shall I do with my other hand?"

 

*****

 

 

Tarrant walked in Avon and Blake's wake, his brother on one side of him and Thorm on the other, and Jabberwocky, as always, in his head. Sometimes when Thorm talked to him it was Jabberwocky talking and sometimes Thorm, but Tarrant had rapidly learned how to tell the difference. The Avatar was Jabberwocky, but Jabberwocky was more than the Avatar. It would take adjustment, but having Thorm on the ship had not only saved their lives--with Deeta's help--but it made for the prospect of interesting times ahead. What with clones and androids, telepath, and Orac, of course, Tarrant had learned that people came in many different forms.

He smiled at the sight of Vila huffing along, arms full of Orac. It wasn't so long ago the party had ventured off to the base medical unit in answer to Avalon's mysterious summons. The changes since then had been intriguing, perplexing, annoying, yet in the end, for the best. Vila had carried Orac that other time, too, complaining even more loudly than today.

"What are you smiling about?" Thorm asked, and Tarrant suddenly realized that while the avatar could delve into his mind without hesitation, knowing himself welcome there, he chose not to do that. In link-mode, yes, and at other times when it suited them to keep a conversation private, but Thorm already tended to stand apart from Jabberwocky in a way. That would take adjustment, too.

"Us," said Tarrant with a smile, gesturing at the various members of all three ships as they straggled along toward headquarters. Tanz and Dayna were holding hands as they often did, in the way of young lovers. Kyl and Cella did that, too, although from the way they consistently did it in front of Avon and Blake, Tarrant suspected part of it was simply to annoy their fathers.

Hugh walked determinedly with Soolin; so he had seen how she eyed Deeta, and wondered about it. Tarrant knew without effort that most of that was for security's sake and that nearly all the rest was because he had been First Champion of Teal, and thus incredibly skilled at self-defense, and she would wish to learn what she could from him. It wouldn't hurt Hugh to worry about it, though. Complacency was not a good thing.

A fragment of conversation came from Blake, pointing out that the three techs who had worked on Jabberwocky might now consider themselves not bound to Jabberwocky alone, but free to float from ship to ship, and work on the new ones. If nothing else, Tarrant realized, it would free up cabin space on Jabberwocky, now at such a premium that there had been talk of turning one of the cells into a cabin. That was for later, of course, and Tarrant would regret the departure of the three if they went to Darsan, even temporarily. Perren was so good for Avon, although Avon would likely not think so.

The thought of converting mutoids made Tarrant wonder, too. //Is there any hope of it, Jabberwocky?// he sent, and let Thorm hear the question as well.

//They are fully blanked, but I wonder at Avon's healing ability. If there are memories at all, completely sealed away, Avon could find them.// The laugh that came through the link evoked a responsive grin from Tarrant. //I can imagine Avon's reaction should Blake ask him to use his psi healing on a mutoid.//

Tarrant gave a snort of laughter that Thorm echoed, causing Deeta to glance at them in surprise. "This is one of those things I'll find out about for myself, isn't it?" he asked. "Conversations with people who aren't there."

 

Vila lagged behind to fall in with them. "They say there's a place for people who talk to folks who aren't there," he reminded them. "Better carry a com unit when you need to talk to Darsan off ship so people won't think you're mad, then."

"Vila being the expert," Tarrant countered.

"At what? Madness?" Avon asked, glancing over his shoulder at them. "He should understand that perfectly."

"From knowing you," Vila countered. "Come on, Avon, couldn't you carry Orac a bit? I've got bruises from landing wrong when Darsan attacked us."

"You alone? Vila, you must learn to lose consciousness more gracefully," Tarrant threw in. He and Avon exchanged a satisfied look.

"I'll do it," Thorm volunteered. "Although I suspect I'll be setting a bad precedent." He snatched Orac away from Vila and murmured something to the little computer that made Orac give a disgusted snort.

"I have a far better idea," Vila cried gleefully and capered about. "We'll have Avon design Orac a body, just like Thorm. Isn't that a wonderful idea, Avon? Blake? Tarrant? Everybody? Just call me Vila, the brilliant."

Avon looked from Vila to Orac and back again, and favored the thief with such a fierce frown that Vila pretended to cringe. "If you imagine I intend to waste one moment of time making Orac mobile and even more insufferable than it is now, you are sadly mistaken."

"Wait, Avon," Orac spoke. "Vila actually has offered a valuable idea. I seriously recommend you consider it."

Avon and Blake exchanged speculative glances, and Thorm laughed delightedly.

"No," said Avon and stalked ahead.

"But Avon," Vila cried, running after him. "It will be so much fun...."

Deeta glanced at Thorm and then at his brother. "Is it always like this around here?" he asked.

Del and Thorm said in perfect chorus, "Yes."

 


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