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Jabberwocky - Part 9 - Choices

By Sheila Paulson

Background

Part 1 Link-up

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

Part 2 Mind-Rape

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

Part 3 - Healer

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

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

Part 4 - The Froma

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

Part 5 - Decoy

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

Part 6 - Kyl

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

Part 7 - Clone

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

Part 8 - Stand-in

A mysterious cube proves to be a prison for an alien mass-murderer, who escapes - into Tarrant's body. With the link broken, Jabberwocky's sanity is in jeopardy, and Vila offers himself as a temporary link-mate. With Tarrant's body in stasis and the alien in possession of the ship's computers, only Vila can find a solution that will drive him away and restore the ship and Tarrant. The link is returned to Tarrant once the being is defeated.


Choices

"It's just another milk run, Blake," Tarrant objected impatiently with a defiant glare at the rebel leader. "That's all we do any more. Why bother to have a ship of this calibre-" he gestured around the flight deck "-if all we mean to do is sneak around the outer worlds when the Federation isn't looking, talking to sympathetic leaders?"

      "Because we must, Tarrant," Blake objected sharply, his arms folded across his chest as he stood four square in front of Jabberwocky's main screen regarding his crew. "I think we all might prefer going in with guns blazing, even Jabberwocky, but what's more important is gaining more worlds to stand behind us. Since Avalon has begun this attempt to create a unifying force, seventeen worlds have fallen in behind us. We've brought in eight of them ourselves. Eight new worlds that will back us when the time comes! That has to count for something."

      "I know," agreed the pilot. "And I agree it's important. It's just that there are other people who can do that as well as we can. We're equipped for more than that. We can out-fly and out-fight any other ship in space and what do we do? Slink around shielded and run when there's a threat. It's a waste."

      "I think it's a good idea," said Vila Restal predictably from his position on the forward couch. The drink in his hand would once have been adrenalin and soma, but these days Blake knew it didn't always need to be. Vila sounded sober enough. "Running, I mean," he plunged on. "We don't all need to be heroes, Tarrant. And this is more important in the long run."

      "You don't care about the long run," Tarrant accused. "You only care about security."

      "As well we all should," Cally joined in, raising her eyes from the communications equipment on which she was running checks. For the past two weeks, the crew had been doing maintenance, something boring but essential, helped greatly by Jabberwocky himself, who could give them better feedback about problems than ships' computers usually could. The mindship had truly been a stroke of genius, linking the human brain within the confines of a state of the art war vessel. Some of the genius behind the original planning had come from Avon, though he had never envisioned the survival of the human personality involved. He had been astonished when Jabberwocky proved far more human than he had expected. But now even Avon was comfortable with the mindship and with Jabberwocky. These days he didn't bother to object any more when Jabberwocky teasingly called him his father.

      "But don't you think it's a waste, Cally?" Tarrant had been working on the navigation console, ably assisted by Orac, and now he lay down his probe and stared around the flight deck as if seeking support.

      "I think we are doing very necessary work," Cally replied. "It is more important in the long run to win planets to our side than it is to go in with blasters firing. Besides, even if it is a milk run, it needn't remain that way. We encountered pursuit ships when we went to Kello last month."

      "Two of them," Tarrant returned as if they weren't enough to matter.

      "Enough for us to keep our hand in," Jenna argued. She had come for the meeting though it was not her shift time; she and Soolin and Hugh had been in the marketplace shopping when Blake had received orders from Avalon and decided to initiate things.

      Hugh Tiver strode over to Tarrant's position, picking up a circuit board and looking at it with every evidence of knowledge. He'd started his training as a pilot at the Federation Space Academy before being pulled following aptitude testing and thrust into medicine instead, so perhaps he understood what he was looking at. "Back off, Del," he urged. "You're outvoted this time."

      "I wonder why. Why are you all so content to take it easy?"

      "Why aren't you?" Avon demanded, suddenly entering the conversation. As far as Blake had been able to tell, Avon had been ignoring the lot of them. When the others had begun to trickle in, he had already been on the flight deck with Cally, with the detector shield console stripped down in parts around him which he monitored, tuned and replaced, bit by bit. He had not behaved as if he were part of the meeting but as if he had right of possession and the others had simply been there too, but the look he turned on Tarrant was mildly hostile and Blake wondered at it. Did Avon understand why he was so willing to go on these routine missions for Avalon? Did he care?

      "I do not know about you, Tarrant," Avon continued coolly, laying aside the laser probe. "But we've found enough trouble on these 'milk runs,' as you put it, to satisfy us all. Certainly our mission to Eridani Major was anything but safe. You almost died of the experience, as I recall. Neither did we come away easily from Triana. Without the help of the Froma, we should have been vaporized there." He speared Tarrant with a cool look. "But that is not enough for our dashing space captain, is it?"

      Tarrant glared at him. "I can't help being bored," he said. "It was never that way on Liberator."

      "At least we're still alive," Vila piped up. "It was dangerous on the Liberator."

      "Some of us are still alive," Tarrant burst out before he could stop himself. Blake winced, remembering Dayna all too clearly. He held himself responsible for her death and knew deep inside that the reason he was so willing to accept all these milk runs for Avalon was because of Dayna. When Gan died he had become obsessive, driving himself on, trying to prove himself right, to justify what he had done. This time he intended to go in the other direction. He knew his crew was at risk each time they left the security of the Ryalon system, but the kind of risks they took these days were justified, with acceptable safeguards. To go out on the death-or-glory missions that Tarrant craved meant a far higher risk and the chance he would be responsible for yet another death.

      There was no defence against Tarrant's hasty words, but Tarrant realized that himself, for he drew back, appalled. "I'm sorry, Blake. I didn't mean it like that."

      "You did, and you had every right to," Blake replied. "But the point is that Avalon wants us to go to Parais and Hallar Prime. We aren't in this rebellion alone, Tarrant. Being in possession of Jabberwocky doesn't give us leeway to choose our own missions."

      "All right," Tarrant agreed stiffly. "I agree with that. But I still think it's boring."

      "I don't mind," Jabberwocky joined in. "There are a lot of ways to have fun. I think we should all link now."

      Tarrant's eyes narrowed and Blake couldn't help wondering if Jabberwocky were chastising him for mentioning Dayna the way he had. Blake had never expected it to work so well when Tarrant became Jabberwocky's link-mate, resenting it a little because he had been the one who was linked before Tarrant and circumstances beyond his control had severed them. It had never been a bone of contention between him and Tarrant, at least Blake didn't think it had, but lately he and Tarrant were always on opposite sides when it came to a discussion. Blake wasn't certain he wanted group linkage.

      But Cally smiled. She never passed up the opportunity for a link, enjoying the mental contact she would once have known on her home world of Auron. She had been known to comment that the bond formed in the group link was as strong as anything she had experienced on her home. "I think it would do us all good," she agreed. "Jabberwocky knows what he is talking about."

      Avon stiffened a little. He had never been entirely comfortable in the group linkage and was even less so since he had felt Dayna die through his healer's link. But he cast a sideways glance at Blake, measuring and considering, and then he nodded. "We may as well get it over with. When Cally and Jabberwocky team up, the rest of us have no chance at all."

      That won him a fond smile from Cally and a delighted grin from Vila. Hugh, who was always willing to link, came down from the upper section of the flight deck and sat beside Vila. More slowly, Soolin followed, sitting beside Hugh. The two of them seemed more comfortable together these days than ever before, and Blake was glad of it. He knew how Soolin felt about him and also knew that his commitment was to Jenna, but Hugh was always there and that was to the good.

      Avon lay aside his tools and followed Cally down to sit between her and Blake, and Tarrant came last, his face vaguely resentful, but given no chance to refuse by Jabberwocky. He sat on the end of the couch and reached across reluctantly to take Soolin's hand.

      While everyone could link for purposes of operating the vessel without requiring physical contact, they had always maintained a direct touch when merging this way. Usually, Tarrant, in constant linkage with Jabberwocky, would pull the others in, but this time, he hesitated and Cally sent a telepathic, //May I?// before initiating it herself. After a few moments, Tarrant unbent and helped her.

      Blake felt the familiar warmth of the group mind surround him and relaxed into it, though he tried to block his own doubts, about Dayna's death, about his reluctance to risk another of them. He had become too close to everyone, even Tarrant, to bear losing someone else, and he held back his concern, closing it away in a corner of his mind before opening himself to the group.

      At first, it had been hard to do anything like that, but as they worked on the linkage, boosted by Cally's telepathy and Jabberwocky's skills, they learned how to function within the group link. In the beginning it had meant headaches each time they did this, but now they were easier at it and Blake was glad of it.

      Someone had once said they liked the group linkage because it was the one time everyone was at his best. He rather thought it had been Dayna who said it, Dayna who had been the most suspicious of Jabberwocky from the very beginning, but who had been willing to admit that there was good in their bonding. He winced at the thought of Dayna before he could mask it.

      Someone was there; he could feel another presence close at hand - in linkage he could feel all the others in a comprehensive whole and could distinguish one from the other - but this was much closer at hand, not physically but mentally, and it was sympathetic. He recognized the cool, clear pragmatism of Avon's mental tone overlaid by the concern that Avon displayed for him now. He knew Avon cared but it was never something for blatant display, instead a certainty in the back of his mind, a warm sureness that Avon would be there if he needed him, as he was now. Avon had healer's instincts, long suppressed, and Blake realized that Avon knew and understood why he was so willing to go along with Avalon when he had never hesitated to play the maverick before.

      Avon had come to fear healing, suffering over his failure to save Dayna and the agony of nearly following her into death through his healing bond. But Avon had healed again and probably would continue to do so if any of them needed it. He did not initiate healing now - it was too private a thing for the entire group - but his support was there.

      Blake could feel Tarrant too, and in the union of everyone's minds, the pilot's hostility had faded. It was hard to stay hostile when this degree of knowledge was possible. Jenna had said it once, that to be completely known was a kind of freedom. Of course they were all human and none of them lowered all their barriers, but there was more unity between them than there had been before they acquired Jabberwocky, more than could have been possible before. Blake began to relax in the safety of the support he felt.

      Jabberwocky's contact held great joy. Though the ship was not designed to function this way for extended periods, he was always thrilled with the thought of group linkage and ended it with great reluctance. The danger was that separate identities could be lost if they stayed bound too long and while it was sad to return to the loneliness of one's individual mind after being part of such a whole, none of them was ready to sacrifice his own identity. Human beings were not designed that way. Even Aurons weren't.

      Cally was the one to draw back first, sending the urge to separate, and they became individuals once again. But Jabberwocky had been right. They had needed the group linkage badly. Now Tarrant returned to his stripped-down console without resentment, whistling to himself, and Blake, freeing Avon's hand as the link parted them, flexed his cramped fingers, realizing they had been in there longer than usual this time. He caught Avon's eye and smiled and Avon actually smiled back.

      

      "What were they doing in there?" demanded Ren Harlin as he drew back from the door to the flight deck.

      "It's called group linkage," Kyl Avon explained. "Jabberwocky pulls them all in and it's something like group telepathy. Everybody's minds link."

      "I don't think I'd like that," his friend returned sceptically, eyeing Kyl with doubt. "Have you ever done it?"

      "Well, I've been in link-mode," Kyl temporized. "It was a little like telepathy. Jabberwocky could talk directly into my mind and I could talk to him without speaking, but it's not quite like telepathy. Cally says it isn't and she should know. She's an Auron after all. And it's different than when she uses telepathy with me."

      Kyl grinned. He liked coming aboard Jabberwocky now. When he had first met his father, he had doubted he would ever like him, but though Avon had taken a bit of knowing, Kyl was beginning to feel more comfortable around him and to like him a lot. His father liked him too, though he didn't show it the way people usually did. He had a sense of humour that had fooled Kyl more than once, and sarcasm often masked his softer feelings. Kyl knew all about that kind of thing; he did it himself. So gradually he and Avon had come closer to one another.

      Kyl had been raised with the surname Veelan, but after he'd been on Ryalon for a month he had come to Avon and asked him if he minded if Kyl went by the name Kyl Avon. It was the one time he had seen his father completely disconcerted, and then he had smiled, a wonderful, delightful smile and said simply, "Why not? It is your name." After that, both of them were more comfortable with each other, and Kyl had begun to come to the ship more often. He had been assigned a cabin and when Jabberwocky was in port, he could stay there if he chose. He'd been staying on board for a week now and last night had invited his friend Ren to stay over too. When Jabberwocky was away on a mission, Kyl lived with Ren and his family and he liked it there, but he was coming to consider Jabberwocky as his real home. None of his father's friends seemed to mind, and they were always happy to show him things about the running of the ship. Sometimes Avon let him work on the computers. Of course he checked the work afterwards, and didn't hesitate to criticize something done wrong, but he found things to praise too.

      Vila loved to talk to Kyl and told him wonderful stories about his father. Cally was always willing to spend time with him too, and while he'd felt a little uncomfortable at first with Cally because he knew she was sleeping with his father, that was just the way things were and he liked Cally now. He had been afraid she would resent him for taking some of her time with Avon away, but she never did, and Kyl, who had grown up rather prickly around people, inclined to hold them all at a distance, found that it was harder and harder to do that to Cally or Vila or Hugh, or any of the crew. He was least comfortable with Soolin, but rather than her cool control, he suspected it was because she was so pretty and because he knew she probably thought him nothing but a kid.

      He and Ren had been exploring the ship for most of the morning. They'd spent an hour back in the computer crawlways. Ren was good with computers - he was no Avon but he wasn't an illiterate either. Kyl considered computers and Avons a natural pair and meant to be every bit as good with them as his father was one day. Now they had come out, a little dusty and messed up, but ready to hit the flight deck. The group link was just breaking up as they entered, and the crew greeted them as they scattered to their duties, leaving only Avon, Cally, and Tarrant on the flight deck.

      Kyl grinned at his father, who nodded in response - Avon was not a man who smiled casually and once Kyl had learned that, some of his intimidation in his father's presence had faded; it wasn't that his father didn't approve of him, it was simply that he did not show approval with meaningless smiles. "We're doing a tour," explained Kyl. "Ren wanted to see the computer crawlways."

      "I see you brought some of it with you," Avon responded, gesturing to their appearance. "If you are bored, perhaps you could clean things up in there."

      Kyl grimaced. "I told you he was a hard taskmaster," he retorted to Ren. Crossing the flight deck, he patted the top of Jabberwocky's console affectionately. "Hi, Jab. How's it going?"

      "Just fine, Kyl. And how are you? It's good to see you on the flight deck with your friend. I watched you in the crawlways. If your father isn't careful, you'll know more than he does one day."

      Avon turned and favoured Jabberwocky with an affronted look, but reluctant humour warmed his eyes. Kyl had already learned to ignore Avon's words and expressions and look at his eyes. They gave a far better clue to what he was really thinking than anything else about him.

      "You will have to move back to the Harlin's tonight," Avon informed him as he inserted another piece into the dismantled detector shield. "Blake has been assigned another mission."

      "What kind of mission?" Kyl asked eagerly. "May I come?"

      "No," Avon returned at once.

      "Maybe you should bring him this time, Avon," Tarrant cut in, looking up from the panel he was adjusting. "It's just another milk run. There's not likely to be any Federation flotillas between here and Parais. It's too remote to be a threat to the Federation anyway. It might do him good to see how we operate on a mission."

      "I said no," Avon returned. "And even if I were to approve, Blake would still veto it. He thinks Kyl is too young for missions, something I am inclined to agree with, and you know that Blake fondly deludes himself that he is in charge."

      Kyl grinned. Avon always made remarks like that about Blake when anybody with a drop of sense could see that Blake was Avon's best friend and that when the chips were down the two of them always backed each other.

      But if the mission was so easy, why couldn't he come? Kyl considered it. It wouldn't be fair to his father to demand he come along on a risky mission, but an easy one like this would be a different story.

      He began to plan. He'd need Jabberwocky's help and he got along really well with Jabberwocky. He'd make a token protest to fool his father, then he would leave with Ren so if anyone asked Jabberwocky, he could say Kyl had left. Then when he came back, he'd talk to Jabberwocky alone. No one would check his cabin, and once they were well on their way, he could come out. Blake wouldn't turn back when they were almost at their destination.

      So he complained a little just for show and when Avon didn't back down, he conceded with bad grace and went off with Ren. He knew his friend would back him. He only regretted letting his father think he was mad at him. Their relationship was too new and too untried for him to be comfortable with a fight, even a mock one like this. But the sight of his father's disappointed eyes as he stalked away bothered him. Once he emerged from his hiding place, his first task would be to apologize.

      

      "Are you certain of it?" Servalan asked the Supreme Commander coolly. Space Captain Sleer, she thought with pleasure, enjoying her new rank, but it was too slow, and sometimes she wondered if Arpel found ways to balk her in her rise through the ranks. She had planned to be Supreme Commander again within the year, but Arpel was far more clever than she liked to think he was and so far he had held firmly to his position in spite of everything she had done to weaken it. The Serna mission had elevated her and made the powers that be watch Arpel closely, but the IMIPAK debacle had done nothing to boost her power. Enraged at allowing herself to be tricked by Avon - and just how had he killed that mutoid with a dummy IMIPAK? - she was eager to avenge herself against Avon, Blake and any member of Jabberwocky's crew who got in her way.

      Arpel drew on his pipe while Servalan remembered an old quote: "A pipe gives a wise man time to think and a fool something to put in his mouth." She could never be certain which Arpel was, a wise man or a fool, and it was best to assume him a wise man even if it meant rating him too high, because that way, he could not deceive her with a subtle ruse. He said at length, "I have been right about the mindship crew before. It was never my fault that you could not stop them. I begin to wonder at you, Servalan. You failed me at Serna and you failed me at Triana. Then you returned with neither IMIPAK or Blake. Perhaps you have outlived your usefulness."

      "Have I indeed?" she asked. "Perhaps you have strewn obstacles in my path. Perhaps you are secretly working for Blake and that is why my efforts are for nothing. Surrounded by traitors and incompetents as I am, it is not surprising that Blake is still free. Give me free rein on Parais and I will bring Blake to you, and with him, his crew of traitors and misfits, as well as the mindship."

      Arpel set aside his pipe. He didn't even look angry that she had accused him of treason. Perhaps she had been right, her angry accusation striking home, but she doubted it. Not even Arpel could successfully play such a dangerous game. He was toying with her, enjoying every moment of it, and there were times she wondered if he were not a puppeteer, playing games with her and the Federation and everyone else involved. But if he had ever been a psychostrategist, there would be some trace of it in his files, and she had accessed every record she could find that applied to Sharn Arpel. She knew every detail, the term marriage that had ended 20 years ago, the son of that marriage who had died in the Andromedan War, the years spent leading a fleet in the outer worlds, the fact that Arpel was a loner who had risen to power through sheer accomplishment, a man who was never a boot licker, who succeeded because he got the job done and because he was perceptive enough to avoid the traps and tricks that less successful colleagues and jealous opponents used to try to bring him down.

      That she found him physically attractive was a given; power was always attractive and Arpel wore his well. At first she had thought him easy prey and now that she knew he would take more subtlety, she found him more attractive than ever. She shared his bed, knowing it would make her appear to have found favour with him and that that would give her power she would have had to work much harder for without his tacit approval. He was devious, almost as devious as Kerr Avon, though he did not intrigue her as much as Avon always had. But he was no safer than Avon, and Servalan had always enjoyed playing with fire. Each time Arpel sent her out to look for Blake, she expected betrayal from him, and each time she navigated the path between the dangers which always arose, she wondered how many of them had been strewn in her path by her lover and commanding officer.

      She had tried to ensnare him, to make him fall in love with her, though she did not love him, because it would give her power over him if nothing else could, but Sharn remained cool and detached and amused. He took his pleasure with her at his convenience, welcomed her attempts at seduction, and stood apart from anything resembling affection for her. She suspected he liked her quite well, but that it did not matter in the overall scheme of things. He would sacrifice her in an instant if need be, and his knowledge of her true identity hung over her constantly like a shroud.

      But now there was another chance. Blake and his band were all she needed to overthrow Arpel and take his place as Supreme Commander, and from there it was only a short step back to the presidency.

      Arpel smiled at her. "Very well, Servalan, my pet. Parais is yours to do with as you will. I will not interfere until it is certain that you have failed."

      "I should not hold my breath if I were you."

      His grin broadened, predatory and compelling at one and the same time. "I shall be waiting for you," he said, leaving off cleaning out the bowl of his pipe. "And now, while your ship is being readied for departure, perhaps we can set aside our rivalries and enjoy ourselves for an hour or two." He pulled her to him roughly and his mouth came down on hers. Servalan found a man who dominated her both infuriating and stimulating, and she buried her resentment and gave herself over to the moment. One day, Sharn, she thought, your control will slip and I will be waiting. Until then... until then... And clear thought faded under the onslaught of pleasure that swept through her.

      

      The mission to Parais and Hallar had begun badly and did not improve much as they continued. They were all feeling dispirited; Blake wondered if that was why Avalon had sent them to Parais since no one expected any trouble there.

      Tarrant was bored and frustrated, and of all of them, he seemed to take Dayna's death the worst. Of course he had been closer to Dayna than any of the others and missed her the most, and his way of dealing with it was to hold it against Blake. He didn't mean to do that - Blake knew that much from the linkage - but it was natural since Blake had insisted upon the mission. Tarrant had blamed it against Jabberwocky at first, because Jabberwocky's search for his son had led to the arrival of the pirates including the one who had shot Dayna, but Jabberwocky's abject misery when his son had rejected him had broken through Tarrant's resentment and he had made his peace with his link-mate, and that left Blake as a handy target.

      Dorn Suliman, son of the man Jabberwocky had once been, was making an effort to come to terms with what his father had become, but it wasn't easy. He stopped by when he was in port and it was obvious that Jabberwocky cherished those visits, but Dorn had not yet completely accepted his father. So Jabberwocky was not in the best of spirits either.

      Avon had been forced to turn down his son's request to come on the mission and Kyl had taken it badly, so Avon was brooding about it, silent and uncommunicative, inclined to snap at anyone who had the effrontery to bother him. Blake watched him consideringly. Maybe they should have taken Kyl with them this time. Tarrant had certainly been right about the boredom quotient of the mission. Right now, Vila was halfheartedly playing chess with Avon and actually winning, for Avon's mind was not on the game. Jenna was in the pilot's position while Tarrant slept and Hugh was sitting on the forward couch reading a book tape, half asleep. The viewer dropped lower in his hand, jerked up as he awakened, sagged yet again. The only trace of animation on the flight deck was Soolin, who was playing a computer game, 'Thief', the one Avon had designed for Vila. She seemed to be winning, and Vila, who was not challenged at chess this time, kept sneaking looks at Soolin to monitor her progress. Hugh watched her too from time to time, but he had a different motive, Blake thought with a faint smile.

      "Forward detector sweep completed," Cally reported from her position. "No trace of Federation vessels."

      "Orac," Blake prodded, remembering he had asked the computer to run a check on Federation transmissions in the area.

      "The information has been available for three minutes and forty seven seconds," Orac snapped. "Kindly pay attention. My time is far too valuable for me to wait around while you daydream."

      "Did you pick up anything?" Blake snapped back, irritated too.

      "No. There are no messages regarding the Federation, or coming to or from the Federation, in this entire sector. I am returning to my own work. Please do not disturb me again with your mundane problems."

      "I'd like to disturb him with an axe," Vila pitched in when Blake pulled free the key. "Mind you, Orac would probably have some kind of defence system like he used when that poor shadow addict tried to remove his key."

      "You're dreaming, Vila," said Avon without heat, then while Blake was still looking at him, the computer tech froze, his face growing dangerous and angry as he turned toward the door.

      Half expecting to see Servalan or a Federation squad, Blake was astonished to discover Kyl hesitating there with a show of defiance.

      "Kyl," burst out Vila. "You're back at the base - or you're supposed to be. How did you get here?"

      "I came back on board," the boy said defiantly. "Tarrant said it was an easy mission. I thought it would be safe enough and maybe I could help. I've studied Jabberwocky's specs and I'm good enough with computers. You know I am, Father," he persisted, standing up to Avon in the face of his outrage. Blake suspected the most of it was concern that Kyl might be jeopardized by the mission, but his disobedience had infuriated Avon, who did not yet know very much about being a parent. The relationship between him and his son was growing closer, but it was far from a typical father/son situation. Kyl's discipline came from his foster family and Avon had had little responsibility for him as of yet. This was Kyl's first sign of overt disobedience and Avon did not like it.

      "Your computer skill is not at issue," Avon snapped. "You were told you could not come on this mission, yet you are here. We are too close to Parais to return to Ryalon, so you are here for the duration. I will expect you to stay aboard the ship when we arrive and do exactly what you are told at all times. As for now, go to your cabin and stay there."

      Kyl's shoulders slumped. Blake didn't want to interfere with Avon's decision for his son, but now that the boy was here, it was a pity for him to be confined and to see nothing. He said tentatively, "Maybe he could help us, Avon."

      The look Avon shot at him could have warped paint.

      Kyl straightened up. "I didn't expect anything else, Blake," he said, though his eyes never left Avon. "He doesn't care about me - I'm just a nuisance to him. He only pays attention to me when it's convenient anyway. It's easy to send me to my cabin - then he won't have to bother about me. Out of sight, out of mind, is that it, Father?" Heavy sarcasm filled his voice at the last word. "I thought once I was here it might be different, but I was wrong. Don't worry, I'll stay away, I'll stay out of your sight, Avon. I don't want to see you either." Before Avon could respond, he turned and ran off the flight deck.

      Avon's face was a rigid mask, but there was something in the set of his shoulders and the way his eyes refused to meet anyone's that told Blake his friend was well and truly disconcerted. He was accustomed to hiding his feelings behind a cold facade, and anyone who knew him well would guess he was doing that now. Vila sat quietly like a small animal hoping to be ignored by larger prey, though his eyes were filled with sympathy. Jenna, who had never been very fond of Avon, let her eyes linger on the back of his head without much enthusiasm, but Soolin, who had pretended complete involvement in her game while the nasty little scene brewed up, now looked fairly sympathetic. Avon would hate that as much as he would resent Jenna's cool scorn.

      "I will go to him," Cally announced and left the flight deck before Avon could forestall her, if indeed he meant to do so. His eyes followed her but he said nothing.

      Blake noticed Hugh gathering himself to plunge into the breach. Hugh was good at such things but it was not Hugh's place to deal with it. Avon liked Hugh but Hugh was too overt in his sympathy to help now. If Avon were to talk about Kyl, he would want bracing, not sentiment. So he shook his head at Hugh and steeled himself for an unpleasant interview.

      Before he could say anything, Avon moved, abruptly and shockingly, sweeping the chessboard clear in a gesture of barely controlled violence and Vila, who would ordinarily have remarked with glee that Avon had only done it so Vila wouldn't win, bit his lip and held his peace.

      As Avon stood up and headed for the door, Blake fell into step with him naturally, and when Avon threw him a warning look, he chose to disregard it. "Let's go to the rest room, Avon," he said. "I want to talk to you."

      Avon favoured him with a display of furious affront, but Blake didn't back down. Since Blake had come on board Jabberwocky, Avon had always been there for him, though Blake doubted he would have put it like that. Even after Dayna's death, Avon had tried his healing, when the concept of healing had to be abhorrent to him. If Avon, who was not outgoing, who was not comfortable with sentiment, had done that much for him, he refused to let Avon down now.

      His determination must have shown in his face for Avon bit back his annoyance and turned a neutral face on Blake. He did not welcome him, but neither did he demand to be left the hell alone.

      The two of them went to the rest room in silence and sat down at one of the tables. Blake asked quickly, "Coffee?" Avon accepted a cup but he didn't drink it, instead playing with the cup, twirling it in his hands and staring at the contents as if answers were written across the surface of the liquid.

      "What do you want, Blake?" he demanded, as if he was prepared to scorn any answer.

      "I want to talk to you about Kyl."

      "He's not your son, Blake."

      "You're not used to him being yours either." Blake had hoped for a slight softening in Avon's rigid visage, but there was none. Avon's hands were gripping the cup so tightly the knuckles showed white and Blake could not tell if it were from rage or some other emotion. "Being a father is more than a biological accident," he said gamely. "Kyl loves you but yours is not a normal relationship."

      "I hardly needed that brilliant bit of insight."

      "I wasn't meaning it as a criticism, Avon. That's not what this is about."

      "Then suppose you tell me what it is about." Perhaps Kyl's use of sarcasm was an inherited characteristic. "What is this really? Roj Blake's version of my healing? Balm to the soul? Did no one ever tell you that you are not particularly effective."

      "No? I've only begun - give me time. Why were you so angry when Kyl appeared? I've been expecting something like this. Haven't you? He's so anxious to win your approval and he thinks being useful on a mission would do that."

      "Why would he think I do not approve of him?" Avon asked, startled.

      "Why would he think you do? Have you ever told him so?"

      "I've praised his work."

      "That's not the same."

      "It is the only way open to me," Avon admitted. Blake relaxed slightly; that was a major confession from Avon and the fact that he could make it to Blake spoke for the positive changes in their relationship since Gauda Prime.

      "It's the only way you're comfortable with, you mean. Avon, that boy idolizes you. He'd do anything for your approval. He knows you value competence because you've shown him you do and that you despise incompetence. How else have you left him to prove himself but through his work? He wanted to help you, but he's barely sixteen. He's at that age where he thinks he can do so much more than he really can. Any sixteen year old boy would think the idea of stowing away on a ship the height of adventure. It wasn't defiance that brought him here."

      "I had forbidden it." That was very definite.

      "Did you never disobey your father, Avon?" Blake asked.

      "He had his own form of blackmail," Avon replied in an icy voice that forbade further questions and Blake regretted the mistake. Avon's past was a closed book, never to be opened unless Cally knew more. The only thing Blake did know was that Avon's father had forbidden Avon to have anything to do with his telepathic gifts. Avon had never discussed it, but remembering could wipe any trace of softness from his face and leave him cold and distant.

      "It isn't because Kyl disobeyed you anyway," Blake persisted, desperate not to lose Avon this time. "Is it, Avon?"

      "What else?" Too smooth and flippant to be believed, but as effective a barricade as a cold sneer.

      To anyone but Blake. "It's because you're concerned for him," Blake insisted. "Because easy missions have gone wrong before and this one could too though on the surface it doesn't seem likely. You don't want anything to happen to Kyl. You're concerned enough that you've alienated him rather than willingly risk him."

      "Anything else?" Avon was still holding him off.

      "Only that it's natural you feel that way. He doesn't understand because he's only learning to understand you. It isn't easy. Look how long it's taken me."

      Avon's face eased slightly. "But then you were always a slow learner, Blake."

      "I'll grant that. But I've got a suggestion to make."

      Avon eyed him warily. "Go ahead, Blake. I shall have no peace until you've had your say."

      "It's this. If you feel Kyl should be punished, devise a punishment for when we return to Ryalon. But this mission is an easy one. Let him come to the flight deck. Show him that while you disapprove of his actions you don't disapprove of him. I know you love him but he doesn't know it yet. If you come down on him too hard, it will be much more difficult for both of you next time. I'd hate to see something like this come between you."

      "Why is it you have such a knack for demanding sentimental declarations from me?" Avon asked resentfully but without much heat. "What is there about you that I let you get away with it?" He shook his head in perplexity.

      Blake smiled more at the hidden admission behind the question than the question itself. "Perhaps I'm too persistent," he said lightly. "What do you say, Avon? Will you talk to Kyl?"

      Avon plainly didn't want to do it, but once he had set his course, he followed through. "Alone, Blake," he insisted. "You are not coming."

      Blake nodded. "It's better that way. I think it's a safe enough run. Maybe if you and Kyl had asked me I would have let him come."

      Avon had been taking his untouched coffee over to the disposal and now he turned and regarded Blake sharply, with rather more perception than Blake was comfortable with. "Wishful thinking, Blake?" he asked.

      "A peaceful trip would be nice," Blake returned. He didn't expect that to distract Avon, but Avon had too much on his mind at the moment to follow up on what Blake had said. He nodded and put the coffee cup into the disposal. Then with a nod at Blake he left, heading for Kyl's cabin.

      Blake heaved an inaudible sigh. If ever they needed a nice safe mission, it was this time.

      

      Kyl was furious, resentful and hurt. When Cally had arrived prepared to soothe him and defend his father, Kyl had sent her away, though she had telepathed to him that Avon had not meant to hurt him. Kyl was not a telepath like his father, but he had always been able to sense and project emotions so he did that now, sending resentment and hostility and knew she felt it when she went away.

      It wasn't much later that the buzzer sounded and his father called through the door, "I've come to talk to you."

      Kyl considered ignoring him, but Avon was not a man one safely ignored. So he unlocked the door and it slid open. "You might as well come in," he said in a surly voice.

      Avon did, his face unrevealing. He was good at that, at never giving anyone a hint of what he was thinking. The others seemed to know, Blake and Cally and Vila and Hugh anyway, and sometimes Tarrant, but they'd had a lot of practice. Kyl only knew his father didn't want him here and it was all too easy to place interpretations on that. His father had been quick to find a substitute family for him, and only bothered with him when there was nothing else to hold his interest. Why should he want Kyl on a mission? He didn't want Kyl in his life.

      They looked at each other and Kyl wondered why his father didn't start yelling at him again. Of course he didn't need to raise his voice; that sneer of his was just as effective. Kyl tried to tell himself he hated his father and knew it wasn't true. But look at him standing there like a rock, not one shred of caring in his face. Kyl risked meeting his eyes, and surprised a look there that he couldn't interpret, but that was plainly uncomfortable. Vila had told him more than once that his father was not very good with emotions. Maybe he didn't know what to say either.

      Kyl decided to play it safe. "I didn't come here to be disobedient," he ventured. "I know it looks that way, but it wasn't to spite you." He stood as tall as he could and tried to look defiant and in control, suspecting he only looked young. "Jabberwocky fascinates me. I want to learn all about this ship. I wanted you to teach me because you know so much more than any of the others. I've never been on board in flight before. It's wonderful. I hoped Tarrant and Jenna would let me try the controls. I thought you'd be mad at first and then you'd get over it and I could help." He ran down then when Avon's face didn't change. "But I was wrong, wasn't I? I'm nothing but a nuisance to you and I shouldn't have bothered."

      "That is not... entirely true," Avon returned and Kyl realized with shock that this was every bit as hard for his father as it was for him. "Blake has been lecturing me," he added. "Never put yourself in such a position if you can prevent it. My anger was largely concern for your safety. Blake pointed out that I have no experience at being a parent and he is right. I did not even have a good example to learn from, unless of course one can count Blake himself." Kyl gaped at him, realizing that his father did not have all the answers after all. It stunned him, but it made Avon more approachable than he had ever been before. Kyl suspected it would not be hard for either of them to make a mistake, so he decided not to ask what Avon had meant about lacking a good example. That sounded like his grandfather had either died or not been particularly nice. Kyl wondered which, but he had enough sense not to ask about it.

      "I just wanted to spend some time with you," he admitted without looking at his father. "I know it was wrong to come along, but I couldn't resist. Haven't you ever done anything like that?"

      "I am rather good at resisting temptation," Avon remarked. "It often comes with hidden flaws. As you learned on the flight deck." He was silent a moment while Kyl tried to think of what to say next, then he went on, "It was never intended to mean anything but that a mission is not the proper place for you. This is my job. I do not leave you behind for a whim."

      That was better than Kyl had expected. He managed to smile. "Then couldn't you let me come to the flight deck? I would do whatever you said and not cause any trouble. When I was in space before, I was only a passenger and you can believe passengers unless they're very rich, never see anything interesting in flight. I've done flight simulations with Ren and there're a lot of things I want to try. Tarrant's even gone over the controls with me a few times. I was pretty good at it. Jabberwocky knows." He spun around to the computer's access and demanded, "Don't you, Jab?"

      "He's not bad," Jabberwocky replied promptly. "He's a little reckless, but Tarrant's been teaching him. What else would you expect? I think it'll be fun to have him here. You've got to admit this mission was pretty boring before he showed up. You were even letting Vila beat you at chess."

      "Were you?" Kyl asked, staring at his father in surprise.

      "If he does not win periodically, he refuses to play," Avon returned.

      "I could tell you lots of stories-" Jabberwocky began and Avon glared at the display.

      "But I won't this time," Jabberwocky corrected himself. "Some other time then, Kyl. I know lots of interesting things about your father."

      "I know how to reprogram you," Avon returned but without much heat. Kyl smothered a grin.

      "I'm sorry I stowed away," he admitted.

      "Indeed?" That sounded more like Avon.

      "Well, not really sorry. But I'm glad I'm here. I know you're not, so you don't have to say so, but I won't get into any trouble. I promise."

      Avon shook his head ruefully. "I must be turning gullible in my old age to listen to any of this," he remarked with an actual smile. "I've heard Vila make promises like that and I know better. But come along to the flight deck. Maybe we can have Jenna give you a flying lesson. She is not so rash as Tarrant. It would be good for you."

      "I'm not rash," Kyl responded.

      "Indeed?" Avon asked again, but he fell into step with Kyl and the two of them headed for the flight deck, if not perfectly comfortable with each other, at least in some degree of harmony. Kyl was delighted. He hoped it would last past his demands to go ashore when they reached Parais.

      

      Servalan reached Parais before Jabberwocky did, grateful now that she did not have to admit it, to Arpel's spy network, which had given her enough lead time to set up her plans. As Parais was only a token Federation world with only one minor base to boast of, she had chosen to come here in a civilian ship, well armed and keyed to respond to Federation contact with a recognized code signal to allow her to move about safely but which would not cause alarm among the freedom-loving Paraisians. Servalan had never been to Parais before but knew it to be an Earthlike world, settled in the old calendar by people who were stubbornly individualistic. They had never welcomed the Federation and had permitted the small base but no more, petitioning the Council on at least two separate occasions to prevent enlargement of the base. Because Parais had no raw materials the Federation wanted and because its position was not strategic enough to make a larger base necessary, the Federation had allowed their claims for diplomatic reasons. When people claimed the Federation was not responsive to the demands of the people, Parais would be displayed as an example. "If so, why did we grant the Parais Proposal?" If something valuable had been discovered on Parais, the Proposal would have been overthrown without hesitation, but so far that had not been necessary. Now that resistance was building there, it might be necessary to move in a force and display a show of strength to the Paraisians and teach them a lesson.

      Servalan rather thought the capture of Roj Blake would prove an acceptable lesson to the rebellious fools.

      This time around, she had not brought a mutoid crew, knowing that mutoids would be a dead giveaway, but the squad that backed her had been given loyalty conditioning and would not betray her. She intended to take Blake here, knowing his crew would try to free him and that in the confusion, there would be a good chance at the mindship. Taking the mindship was going to be the most dangerous part of the mission for it had been proven that Jabberwocky had ways to terminate unwelcome linkage. Reports from the Ryalon base had informed her of the fate of her man Witt, practically mindwiped by whatever it was that the mindship had done to him. Sending in other telepaths would have been futile even if she had had another as good as Witt to waste. No, the only hope she had of taking the ship was to hold Blake and his people hostage against the mindship's cooperation, at least until it could be programmed properly. Once that was done she could return to Space Command Headquarters in the mindship with Blake and his resisters her prisoner. And that would be the end of Sharn Arpel and the proper start of her return to power.

      She had no trouble inserting a man in the Port Authority where she could monitor the approaching flights. Once she knew where Blake's ship would come down, she could have it watched and choose her moment.

      Smiling to herself, she settled back to wait.

      

      Once Avon brought Kyl back to the flight deck, tempers improved throughout the ship and Blake felt that he was the only one who was waiting for the other shoe to drop. He knew having the boy here would make them more careful than usual and while that might be a good thing, too much caution was not good either. Blake was nervous enough these days, since the ill-fated quest for IMIPAK, and he had begun to wonder if he were losing his nerve. Gan's death had taken him hard since he could blame no one but himself. There were some risks worth taking but the mission to Earth, to seek out Central Control, had proven over and over that it was far too dangerous. He had tried to reconcile that with his conscience, while he sought Star One with a driven fanaticism and when he had learned about the alien invasion he had grabbed onto that as proof he had been right - if he had not come to Star One when he did, the Andromedans would have won. It was only when he was recovering from his wounds after the war that he had realized how illogical that reasoning was. He had vowed to do things differently and had tried, on Gauda Prime, to show more restraint. As a result, Avon had shot him. Blake shook his head. That was not entirely either of their faults, and it was behind them, never held against Avon now. But Blake had believed he had changed, that he would take fewer chances, that he would listen to Avon when Avon spoke the voice of reason.

      But he had not listened and Dayna had died. That a complex list of variables had led to Dayna's death was certain, but if Blake had not been so determined to seek out IMIPAK, it would never have happened.

      Which meant he could not allow it to happen again. It didn't mean that they would refuse dangerous missions, simply that personal obsession had no place in any mission in the future. Blake vowed to listen to Avon and the others when they tried to talk sense to him, but knowing his fierce determination to bring down the Federation, he could only hope he would listen when the time came.

      This mission was supposed to be as safe as possible. As far as anything they did came with guarantees, this did, but that did not mean some random factor couldn't change that. Blake hoped with all his heart that the random factor was not Kyl Avon, who now sat at the controls while Jenna ran him through an evasive manoeuvre. The boy's face was bright with enthusiasm, and Avon watched him with a bland expression that failed to conceal startled pride.

      Blake was delighted. At least there was one thing going well this trip. He hoped it would last.

      As they neared Parais, Blake gathered everyone together on the flight deck to plan their strategy. Avalon had arranged a meeting between Blake and some of his people and the planetary leaders, who were by no means hostile to the rebellion though as yet they had made no declaration of support. Blake thought it best to take Jenna and Cally with him, as well as Avon, who could be counted on to be properly suspicious. "And Soolin for backup," he finished. "She's the best of us with a gun and while I hope we won't need the protection, I don't want to go without it."

      "Learning sense at last, Blake?" Avon asked.

      "Perhaps." He grinned at Avon and added tentatively, "That leaves the rest of the crew to have a look around the port, though I'd like to keep someone on board at all times. You haven't been here before, have you, Del?"

      "Once a long time ago, but we stayed in orbit. I was still with Space Command in those days. I don't know the place, but there's supposed to be a gigantic market, at least twice as big as the one back home on Ryalon."

      Kyl's eyes lit up at the thought of exploring it and Hugh turned to Avon. "If it's all right with you, I could take Kyl around. I was here before too, Avon, about two years ago. I know the place. I think I could keep him out of trouble, and Vila could help."

      It was obvious that Kyl wanted to go but equally obvious that he didn't like the idea of pushing his luck. He looked at his father expectantly and said nothing at all.

      Clearly Avon did not fancy the idea, but perhaps he had learned something from the earlier experience for he nodded gravely. "Very well, but if it comes to a choice, listen to Hugh rather than to Vila."

      Vila's huffy, "I like that," was covered by Kyl's whoop of delight and he grabbed his father's arm eagerly and said, "Don't worry. I'll stay out of trouble." He cast a mischievous glance at Vila and added, "I know Vila too well to be taken in."

      Vila howled in protest, but his eyes were alight with amusement. Avon saw the look and shook his head with the kind of tolerance he usually reserved for Vila. Vila winked at him and took Kyl by the arm, explaining a proposed itinerary that was so bizarre no one would believe it.

      "He's incorrigible," Avon told Blake.

      "Kyl or Vila?"

      "Both of them. Hugh, if you are wise, you will keep Kyl away from any electronics shops. He has a tendency to spend money he doesn't have and I'm not a wealthy man."

      "I'll be careful," Hugh confirmed, and Blake knew he would keep an eagle eye on Avon's son for him.

      

      Hugh and Vila set off with Kyl between them, half an hour after the others had gone to meet with the Supreme Council of Parais, leaving Tarrant on watch. Hugh promised they would be back in three hours so Tarrant could have his turn, and the pilot, who looked ill-resigned to another three hours of boredom, nodded and settled back in the main control position, closing his eyes and drifting into a deeper linkage with Jabberwocky than usual. Jabberwocky and Orac would monitor the docking cradles and keep track of any potential threats, and all the landing party wore teleport bracelets even though the ship was grounded.

      Hugh's enthusiasm was dampened almost immediately by the heat. He had visited Parais when the northern continent, where the capital was located, was in its winter phase, a mild time of the year beset by occasional driving rain and heavy fog and drizzle. This time they had arrived in summer and the natives had dressed for the occasion in filmy gauze tunics, sandals and bare legs, with broad woven hats keeping the heat of the sun from their heads and shoulders. The first stop they made was at a shop conveniently placed to benefit from the tourist trade, where they traded their jackets and shirts for tunics like those of the locals, arranging for their heavier clothing to be returned to the ship, and set the broad brimmed hats on their heads. The heat was still oppressive, but not so bad as it had first seemed, and Kyl was delighted with his new clothes, spinning around to model them for the others. Vila, who had transferred numerous small items into the pockets of his tunic, seemed comfortable enough, and they continued into the market proper, ready to enjoy themselves, and, in Vila's case, investigate the local taverns. Kyl suggested he might enjoy that too, only to receive a headshake from Hugh in denial and he grinned wryly.

      "It was worth a try."

      "It would be more than my life was worth to let you go drinking with Vila," Hugh told him. "Come on. Your father's being awfully trusting of you to let you come here. I doubt anything will happen to you, but he can't help worrying."

      "I didn't know he worried about me," Kyl replied, matching his stride to Hugh's, which was faster than Vila liked. They could hear the thief complaining under his breath as he followed them into the open air bazaar.

      "More than you know," Hugh replied. "It must be like a miracle for him to have found you again, though he'll never admit it. If he lost you now, I don't know what it would do to him. You saw how he was when we lost Dayna."

      Kyl sobered drastically. He had not been given time to know Dayna very well, but he had liked what he'd seen of her and the closed off look Avon had worn when they returned without her had frightened Kyl, all the more when he realized how close he had come to losing his father with her. "I won't take any risks," he conceded. "That wouldn't be fair. I just want to see things. Ryalon's a good place to live and everybody's nice there but it's a little dull. When I'm seventeen, I'll be old enough to come with you, won't I?"

      "Legally, yes," Hugh replied. "But it will still be up to Blake, and he'll take your father's wishes into account. Don't push too hard. You'll be grown up soon enough."

      "I'm grown up now," Kyl disagreed, then he caught himself. "I suppose if I really was, I wouldn't have stowed away?"

      Hugh grinned. "Exactly."

      "You like my father, don't you?"

      The doctor nodded. "I do. I didn't when I first met him, when he and Vila kidnapped me to save Cally. It was only when I realized how badly hurt she was and how much it mattered to them all that she survive that I started to see your father in a different light. He was much harder to know then. I stood up to him from the first and he didn't like it, but I think he respected it. It won't be so easy for you though because he is responsible for you. If you have problems and you feel you can discuss them, Kyl, come to me or Blake and we'll help you if you can."

      "I think I want to handle them myself," Kyl decided. "That's what he'd do, isn't it." He spotted an interesting shop then and tried to steer Hugh toward it. "Let's go in here. I'm building myself a computer and Avon - I mean Father - thinks the design might be useful. I'm missing a few components and..."

      "And anything you can afford out of your own pockets you can have," Hugh decided. "Vila, we're going in here."

      "Then I'm going in there," Vila countered, pointing across the square where a happy crowd spread out at tables under umbrellas enjoying cool and refreshing drinks. "Pick me up again when you come out. Knowing this lad, it will be some time. As bad as his father, he is."

      Kyl took that with good humour, pulling Hugh after him into the shop, and Vila waved at them and set off in pursuit of the perfect drink.

      

      Servalan was waiting when the Jabberwocky settled into its docking area and she stayed where she was, well concealed, while the port formalities were completed and until a party left the ship. Blake, Avon, Jenna, Cally and the gunfighter, Soolin, the one who had been programmed and who had broken programming. They were expected at their rendezvous and Servalan let them pass, nodding to her men to allow it, watching the ship. It might be possible to take the ship and be waiting when the others returned, but she did not know how many people were on board or if Jabberwocky might take action against a boarding party. It would be easy to flood the ship with a knockout gas and then to summon the others and alert them. Servalan wanted to take no chances until she was certain it would go her way.

      Then, at length three more people emerged from the ship. Vila Restal, the doctor she had met so briefly on Triana, Hugh Tiver, and a third person she had never seen before. He was much younger than she had expected, and she frowned, narrowing her eyes, then calling for one of the troopers to give her a magnifying viewer.

      The young man had red hair and that put her off at first, then as he moved closer to her position and she was able to see him better, she froze, staring. There was something about him, something about his eyes... He looked familiar and it was only after furious thought that she put it together. It was not exact, but he bore a slight resemblance to Avon, in his bearing, in his eyes, in the set of his jaw. He was much thinner and the nose was different, but when he filled out a bit, there would be a closer similarity. Who was this?

      Servalan knew Avon's file thoroughly, knew he had at one time had a wife and child but they had disappeared and she had never been able to trace them. It was obvious that someone had erased the files and she doubted it had been Avon. If so, how had the boy found his father? Or was she merely dreaming, imagining it all.

      Disguised as she was behind tinted lenses to shield her eyes from the too bright sunlight and clad in the native tunic and straw hat, she could get much closer to them than would have been possible otherwise. She followed them, using the time they spent kitting up for the heat by acquiring a number of brightly wrapped parcels to fit the part of a tourist shopper. None of her troops were in uniform and she spread them about, always near Vila and Tiver and the boy, moving closer herself until they passed within a metre of her. They were talking about the boy's father and it became obvious very quickly that he was indeed Avon's son.

      Servalan let them go ahead of her again without losing sight of them and smiled to herself. This was even better than she had expected. In the boy, she had an ideal hostage, one she could use to manipulate Avon with complete success. Nothing could be easier than to use Kyl Avon to ensnare his father and Roj Blake. With Avon's son in her hands, she could control the situation completely and return to Headquarters in triumph. That would show Sharn Arpel who was the more skilled manipulator.

      When Kyl and Tiver entered the electronics shop and Vila headed for the nearest tavern, she realized her time had come and she sent her men around to the back of the shop to locate another exit. One of them was on the communicator immediately informing her they were in position.

      She sketched out a plan with the most intelligent of her troops and sent him into the shop. His job was to strike up a conversation with the boy or the doctor or both and to lure them out the back where the rest of her men would overpower them. It didn't matter if Tiver was killed; his value to her was nil. What mattered was removing Avon's son and returning to her ship where she would be safe from retaliation.

      

      Kyl was happily rooting through shelves of components when he noticed a fellow aficionado doing the same thing. "Finding what you need?" the man asked as he checked the reading of some small gismo. "This is one of the best shops here, but I know a better one."

      "Is it far?" Kyl asked. "I've designed a computer for myself and I only need a few more things to make it complete." He began to describe what he needed and was delighted when the man seemed to understand. "You're an expert then?"

      "No, just a dedicated hobbyist. I can fix them - I can't design them. Look, I'll give you the address. Or I can point it out. If you cut through the back way, you can be there in five minutes. Don't say anything to him," this with a gesture at the owner who was waiting on a wealthy merchant type. "He'll insist he has the best supplies in port, but he's just greedy. The prices are lower at Seyan's too."

      Kyl considered his credit situation and knew that he could not afford everything he needed here and that his father would not finance him this time. "Hugh, there's another shop that's cheaper," he said, gesturing to his friend. "He says he'll show me the way."

      "No, I said I'd steer you in the right direction," the other fellow returned. "I've got to get to my ship. With my luck, they'll leave without me. Come on, if you're interested. Stick your nose out the back door and you can see the place. It's a street over and you might miss it otherwise."

      Hugh had looked suspicious but the other man's impatience reassured him and he heaved a sigh. "We'll leave Vila to it," he decided. "Then we'll come back the other way."

      They went through the rear entrance and the hobbyist raised his arm and pointed out the rear of a building at an angle to them. "That's the place. Good luck. Tell them Morrin sent you and they'll treat you right."

      He turned to return to the shop and at the last moment stopped. Before Kyl could respond, he raised his hand and there was a gun in it. When Hugh cried out, he brought the weapon down on the doctor's head and Hugh dropped to the ground.

      As Kyl tried to go to him, men swarmed out of everywhere and surrounded him and the last sight he had before a gas was sprayed in his face and rendered him unconscious was a woman who removed her straw hat and regarded him with greedy eyes.

      

      Parais custom required a three hour break at the noon meal that was a holdover from its pre-technological times when the heat of the day was too intense for extensive work. Now that interior climate control was planet wide, the old customs need not have applied, but by then the trend was set and Blake and his people were freed from their meeting to rest and relax, return to their ship, or explore in air conditioned cars if such was their pleasure. Jenna expressed an interest in sightseeing and Cally decided to accompany her, but Avon opted to return to the ship and Blake said he would go too. Soolin, accepting her role for today as bodyguard, chose to see them back to the ship and then have a look around herself, so they all returned to Jabberwocky in a large ground car, then, when Avon and Blake had entered the ship, the three women went exploring.

      "I don't blame anyone for wanting to stay out of that heat," Blake observed as they entered Jabberwocky. "I wonder if the others are back yet."

      "Knowing Kyl, he's probably still dragging them around the market," Avon returned as he led the way to the flight deck. They found Tarrant there alone looking annoyed.

      "It's about time someone returned," he commented. "It was my understanding we would take turns going out."

      "It's the hottest part of the day," Blake consoled him as he headed for the drinks dispenser to call up a cool drink. "You wouldn't like it out there very much. I should have thought the others would be back by now."

      Avon, adorned in a leather jacket, had not minded the heat so much in the council chamber, but it had bothered him in the short distance between the council chamber and the ground car and between the ground car and the ship. He stopped in the entrance to the flight deck. "I'm going to shower and change," he announced. "Someone should have reminded us of the climate."

      Blake, who had stopped at the outfitter's shop near the docking cradles and who looked cooler in a gauze tunic, though he had removed his hat once he came on board, said, "At least there were options."

      Avon, who had not bothered to change his clothes and who had shed his hat the moment he boarded the ship, made a disgruntled sound and shook his head before he went in search of fresh clothes and a shower.

      When he emerged from the shower and donned fresh clothes in a lighter weight material and with unaccustomed short sleeves, he felt much better, and he wondered if Kyl was back yet. About to go to the flight deck to see, he was halted by Jabberwocky who announced, "There's a private message for you, Avon."

      Kyl. Probably he'd found something he wanted too much to pass up and hoped to float another loan from his father. So far, he had paid up each time he'd requested money, and Avon had expected to hear from him before now especially if he had found some interesting gadgets. "All right," he said. "Pipe it through."

      "Avon, is that you?" The voice was familiar but it was the last one he had expected to hear. Servalan. He knew her instantly and he also knew from her smug and complacent tone that he would not like what she had to say.

      "Servalan. What are you doing here, as if I did not know? The Federation has no hold on this world."

      "Not yet," she purred. "But I have a hold on you."

      "I should doubt that," he said coldly, but in spite of the heat of the day a chill finger ran up his spine.

      "Kyl," she said. "Your son, I believe. Why, Avon, I never knew. You've kept secrets from me and I don't like it."

      "Have I?" he stalled, wondering what was coming. Had she seen Kyl? Did she have him. It would never do to allow her to sense his alarm. She would fasten on any trace of weakness and it would be that much the worse for him and for his son.

      "But that doesn't matter any longer, not now," she went on. "Your son is a guest on my ship - which is well guarded and well armed. So far, he is quite safe, and I am content to leave him that way. Given acceptable options, I do not make war on children."

      "Make no claims of morality to me, Servalan, I know you better. You have never hesitated to use children and other helpless people to achieve your ends. What do you want of me?"

      "Why, Avon, that should be obvious. I want Blake."

      Avon went rigid. "Blake?" he echoed dumbfounded, though it should have been obvious. "Blake should be safe from you here. The locals do not take kindly to pressure from the Federation."

      "And you, Avon? Do you take kindly to pressure? I am not asking the locals for Blake. I am asking you. If you do not find a way to bring me Blake - and I should think you could devise an acceptable subterfuge quite easily - I will have to harm your son. I may even be forced to kill him. But bring me Blake and he will go free. He is no use to me beyond a bargaining chip. Your son for Blake. A not unfair price, is it, Avon?"

      Avon stood frozen, presented with an impossible choice. Blake. Since Gauda Prime, since the first group linkage, Avon had come to realize how important Blake was to him. It was not something he was comfortable admitting, but Blake had only demanded an admission from him in healing mode and though he expected Avon to act as if it were true, he did not rub it in. He accepted Avon's loyalty and friendship as a given but returned the feeling wholeheartedly as only Blake could do. No longer as fanatical as he had been before, Blake was a man Avon could respect, whom he had been drawn to from the beginning. Even Cally, whom he cautiously dared to love, did not affect him as strongly as Blake did. Uncomfortable with analyzing his feelings, Avon had no choice now and he remembered the sense of warm companionship he shared with Blake, something he cherished even when Blake irritated him most.

      But Kyl was his son. His flesh and blood, all that was left of the entity that had once been Kerr-and-Arda, two foolish innocents who thought they were proof against anything life could throw at them. It had not taken long to prove the naivety of such an assumption and since then Avon had been careful to allow no more such simpleminded risks. But now there was Kyl, and Avon had to admit that the boy's safety mattered to him.

      It was a conundrum, and it should not have been so difficult. In the old days it would have been easy - he would simply have weighed the odds, choose the most acceptable solution, then proceeded to carry out the necessary actions. But this was different. He could not surrender Blake to Servalan and he could not endanger his son. He had two choices and neither of them was acceptable. She was asking him to make the hardest choice of his life and she would not wait much longer before expecting an answer.

      Avon was not sentimental, and he did not believe his decision was motivated by sentiment. It was simply unacceptable to lose either Blake or Kyl and as a result there was only one option left available to him. A rescue attempt would endanger Kyl, who had certainly been divested of his teleport bracelet. There was also the question of Vila and Hugh, who had not been mentioned and who were not here. He said, "Before I give you my answer, what have you done with the others?"

      "Others? Other, you mean. Your doctor. If he has not returned, you will find him in an alley somewhere."

      "Alive?" Avon asked sharply, cursing himself as he realized she would detect his concern.

      "I neither know nor care. Tiver is not part of this bargain. I have your son. What is your choice?"

      "I will bring you Blake." It was a lie. He would not surrender Blake to Servalan because to do so would not free his son. She would never keep her end of the bargain, but if she thought he meant to keep his, he could stall her. Instead of Blake, he would go himself. There was no other acceptable decision. Survival at any price had once been his modus operandi, but those days had faded with the development of his healing skills, the return of Blake, Cally's declaration of affection and the reunion with his son. Survival without Blake and Kyl would be unacceptable and if anyone could face down Servalan and win, it was Avon himself. She would never guess that Avon was vulnerable. She would use Kyl as bait, but she would never guess how completely she had brought Avon to a stand. He would go in Blake's place and he would kill her. There was nothing left to do.

      So he arranged a rendezvous with Servalan and then cut the connection. "Jabberwocky?"

      "What are you going to do?" Jabberwocky asked. "Not turn over Blake? If she doesn't know you were lying, I do."

      "Turning over Blake would only mean she had two hostages," Avon snarled. "And that I will not permit."

      "What will you do instead? Can I help you? Can Orac? There's got to be something we can do to take her and get Kyl back. I like him and I don't like the thought of that woman holding him. I never liked her and I was afraid I'd have to link with her. Anything I can do to stop her, I'll do."

      "I am going myself," Avon returned shortly. "I will expect you to keep that from the others and at the same time initiate a search for Hugh. He may be seriously injured. Also locate Vila. Learn why he was not with them when Kyl was taken. I will expect an answer in the next five minutes."

      "You can't go there alone," Jabberwocky burst out in alarm. "It would be suicide, Avon. We can't risk losing you either. You may not realize how much we value you."

      "I realize such comments are meaningless." He began to arm himself, choosing weapons that could be concealed about his person. She might run a weapons check but there could be time to act before that happened and he refused to go to meet Servalan unarmed.

      He could sense Jabberwocky watching him but the computer did not comment again, and Avon, who was waiting to hear the result of Jabberwocky's attempt to contact Vila, left him to it. Finally, Jabberwocky's lights blinked again.

      "Vila is in a spaceport bar," he announced. "I did not recall him, because to do so would require explanations. I think you're making a big mistake, Avon, but it's your choice. I have been unable to summon Hugh or Kyl. I'll keep trying."

      The buzzer sounded at Avon's door and he stiffened, calling out sharply, "Who is it?"

      "Blake. Tarrant wants to go sightseeing. Would you mind taking the flight deck for an hour until the others come back? I have some notes to review before our next meeting."

      Avon had no choice but to agree. Once Blake had gone off to prepare for the afternoon session and Tarrant had left the ship, he would be able to escape undetected. "Just a minute, Blake," he called out, stowing several small explosives in his pockets. They had been designed by Dayna and were compact and undetectable. They should be of great use to him. Then he unsealed the door.

      "You don't mind?" Blake asked, draping an arm around Avon's shoulder companionably. Avon had discovered that he did not mind such gestures from Blake, so he did not pull away, realizing only too late that Blake had an ulterior motive. He felt the prick of a needle in the side of his neck and before he could jerk away, a strange lassitude began to steal through his veins. Unbelieving, he tried to focus on Blake and saw grave concern and stubborn determination etched on the other man's face.

      "Damn you, Blake," he ground out. "What have you done?"

      "I won't put you in a position where you must choose between me and Kyl, Avon," Blake returned, helping him to sit down when his knees betrayed him and turned to rubber. "Neither will I let you sacrifice yourself in a vain attempt to free your son. I've lost too many people already and I won't lose you. Not you," he added fiercely. "The drug will put you out for three hours. By then whatever needs doing will be done."

      "No!" Avon spat. "I. will. not. risk. you. Blake. This is - my choice. If you - die, I will - never forgive you."

      "I will not lose another crew member, Avon." Blake refused to back down. "I don't intend to die. When you wake up, I'll be back with Kyl. Tarrant will teleport Hugh and Vila back and Jabberwocky will call the women. If necessary, we'll make an assault on her ship. I'm also planning to notify the Council of what she has done."

      Avon's mind had gone fuzzy, but that roused him. "Fuel for your Cause, damn you," he snarled, but when Blake eased him down to his bed, Avon did not resist his grip. Blake held him against his shoulder for a long moment then lowered him the rest of the way. "I'm sorry, Avon," he said. "I'm only doing what you meant to do. This is my ship and my crew. It's my responsibility."

      "Blake..." Avon tried again but before he could force out anything more, the cabin swirled around him in a sickening dance carrying him into a maelstrom than grew darker and darker until he could see nothing at all.

      

      With only the briefest of warnings, Vila materialized on the ship's teleport platform to find a dazed and groggy Hugh sprawled on the deck beside him and an angry Tarrant operating the controls. "Where the hell have you been?" Tarrant demanded, coming around the console in a hurry and joining a frightened Vila at Hugh's side.

      "I got separated from the others," Vila justified himself uneasily. "I've been looking for them."

      "Are you sure you haven't been in some bar?" asked the pilot with heavy sarcasm as he checked Hugh's pulse.

      Something was seriously wrong; Vila had known that when Jabberwocky had contacted him asking about Kyl and Hugh, and now that Hugh was here, clearly hurt, and Kyl wasn't, he had the proof of his supposition. "I was in a bar or two," he admitted, "But when the others didn't come back and Jabberwocky called me, I went to look for them. I didn't find them."

      "And it never occurred to you to call in?"

      "I was just going to, wasn't I, when Jabberwocky contacted me. What is it, Tarrant? What's wrong?"

      "Help me with him," Tarrant replied. "Jabberwocky says he's badly concussed. Hugh, can you hear me?"

      "Uhhh," Hugh muttered, squinting up at Tarrant blankly. Then, with a real effort, "Somebody...jumped us...got Kyl..."

      "We know," Tarrant replied.

      "Got Kyl!" Vila burst out, horrified. "Who's got Kyl?"

      "Servalan," Tarrant told him shortly. "Come on, let's get Hugh to the medical unit. No, you fool, don't make him stand up. Help me pick him up."

      The doctor's face went green as Tarrant lifted him with Vila's uneasy assistance, but once Tarrant was carrying him toward the medical unit without visible effort, Hugh's face eased slightly. "Del," he mumbled.

      "I'm here."

      "Don't let Avon... go after him on his own."

      "I won't." Tarrant sounded very positive and very much in control.

      "But-" began Vila, alarmed, plucking lightly at Tarrant's sleeve, "If Avon knows about this, he'll-"

      "Blake's taken care of that," explained Tarrant. "Now it's up to the rest of us to take care of Blake."

      "What do you mean?" Vila asked in growing alarm. He didn't like any of this, not one bit.

      "Servalan gave Avon a choice. To get his son back, Avon was to turn over Blake to her."

      Vila's heart lurched. How could Avon make a choice like that? And what had Blake done about it? The thief was certain he would not like any of the answers. "But she wouldn't honour a deal like that," he cried with certainty. "She'd only trick him in the end. She wants Blake, but she wants Jabberwocky just as bad. Tell me what's going on," he demanded urgently.

      "I don't know what help you'll be, if you've been guzzling alcohol all afternoon."

      "I haven't," Vila defended himself, practically running to keep up with the pilot's longer legs. "Once it would have been like that, but not now. You know that, Tarrant. I only had one drink, a cool one, not even very alcoholic, I swear it, and when that was finished and the others hadn't come, I went after them. They weren't in the shop where I'd left them so I went on. I thought they were having me on. I went to every electronics shop I could find." He hoped Tarrant could hear the sincerity in his voice. If he had been with the others, would he have wound up like Hugh - or could he have prevented the abduction? Would Avon have expected it of him? Would Avon ever forgive him for this?

      "What did you mean, Blake's taken care of it?" he asked nervously.

      "Avon was going to go to Servalan himself. Jabberwocky said he couldn't make the choice. Who could and live with himself? Blake wouldn't leave it to him. He drugged Avon and went in his place."

      "Alone? To Servalan? She'll only take him prisoner."

      "And what do you imagine she would have done to Avon?" Tarrant heaved a sigh as they entered the medical unit and he deposited Hugh on one of the couches. "Jabberwocky's been lecturing me," he admitted. "He says Blake's been blaming himself for...Dayna all this time."

      "So have you," Vila retorted as they attached monitors to Hugh and adjusted the instruments to monitor his condition and report.

      "Both of us were wrong," confessed Tarrant. "But Jabberwocky says that's why Blake's been accepting these milk runs, to keep the rest of us safe. I didn't realize that even though I can look back at that last linkage and see how it was with him."

      "Blake's always been quick to blame himself," Vila agreed, realizing he had not consciously formulated the idea either. "Jabberwocky, link with Orac and the medical computers and give us a report on Hugh's condition."

      Tarrant drew a deep breath. "I don't think we can blame Blake for Dayna, any more than we can blame Jabberwocky. It - just happened. But now Blake isn't prepared to let Avon go off and risk himself. He decided to take it on himself."

      Typical Blake, thought Vila with a combination of irritation and pride. "What we need," he said aloud, "Is a plan. A way to get them both back. Couldn't you have stopped him?"

      "Not and brought Hugh back."

      "Hugh is suffering from a bad concussion," Jabberwocky replied. "Treatment will appear on the screen. His life is not in jeopardy and I will monitor him and awaken him periodically while the rest of you confront Servalan."

      "Confront Servalan?" Vila echoed uneasily, but when Tarrant flung him a look of scorn, he pulled himself together. "What will we do?" He wasn't used to Tarrant taking charge so decisively - usually Tarrant liked to fling his weight around, but now he seemed the only one who was talking sense. Vila stared at him, realizing that Tarrant must have grown up while he wasn't looking.

      "I have an idea," Tarrant replied. "And we might need Blake and Kyl's help to pull it off."

      "Blake and Kyl," Vila echoed. "But he's a prisoner."

      "That doesn't matter." He connected the diagnostic probe which would inject Hugh with the necessary medications. "Hugh? Can you hear me? I need you to listen a minute."

      "...hear you..." Hugh replied. As the drugs took effect, his eyes opened and they looked clearer. "I'll try, Del. What do you need?"

      "In about three hours, Avon's going to be waking up furiously angry. Jabberwocky will explain further. By then, you should be feeling a lot better. Ordinarily I wouldn't want you to be up, but if you think you can make it to Avon's cabin - Jabberwocky will tell you when, so you can sleep in the meantime - it would help us out."

      "I can manage," Hugh replied. He didn't look like he could manage anything more strenuous than just lying there, but Vila knew the treatment would soon have him feeling better. It wouldn't take his headache away, but he'd be more alert and less dizzy and just maybe fit enough to stand up to Avon in a pinch. He patted Hugh's shoulder sympathetically.

      "Not your fault, Vila," the doctor told him.

      "Tell that to Avon."

      "Come along, Vila," urged Tarrant, catching his arm and pulling him toward the door. "Jenna, Cally and Soolin are back. We need to plan."

      "But what are we going to do?" wailed Vila as he let Tarrant steer him out of the medical unit.

      "You'll find out soon enough," was Tarrant's decisive if unhelpful reply.

      

      Blake hesitated outside Servalan's ship, regretting his impulsive action now that it was too late. His concern for Avon had motivated him this far, that and his memory of Dayna, lying limp and still as they laid her to rest on Sarran, but now as he stood here, he realized Servalan wouldn't free Kyl simply because he was here. His plan, hastily devised with Jabberwocky and Orac, had as good a chance of working as anything so shabbily conceived ever did, and he felt a sudden fear that he had only made things worse, but he couldn't let that stop him now. Maybe boldness would carry the day.

      Raising Avon's portable scanning device, he aimed it at Servalan's ship and raised his teleport bracelet. "Jabberwocky, anything useful? Get Orac to give me readings."

      Jabberwocky's filtered voice came through to him. "Orac is standing by to open the ship's seals. There are two guards on the outer perimeter, at roughly six metres from your position. If you step four paces to the left and fire a stun beam at wide angle, you will take them both out."

      Blake clipped the scanner to his belt still activated, grinning with satisfaction at the result. Maybe this would work after all. This was the first real field test of Avon's newest gadget, though they had practised with it both on Ryalon and on a deserted world they had encountered on the way back from their last mission. The link with Orac could prove invaluable. Avon's ability to pack so much into a device of this size and still enable it to be compatible with both Orac and Jabberwocky proved yet again what he might have been able to accomplish, given a kinder universe. Blake resolved that if they ever defeated the Federation, he would see that Avon had the best possible labs and equipment for the research and development he so clearly loved.

      But there was no time for that. Obeying Orac's suggestion, he strode forward and fired, relieved when two men fell from their concealment and lay sprawled at his feet.

      "How many more?" he asked in an undertone into his bracelet communicator.

      "There are ten within the ship but only two are guarding Kyl. The others are on standby alert, four on the flight deck, two just within the entry and two with Servalan. I will be unable to respond aloud after this or you will be overheard. My telepathy has a limited range, but it will reach you. If you do not 'hear' anything further, push the recall button on your bracelet twice." //The doors will open in precisely twelve seconds. When they pop open, the guards will be surprised and will investigate, though they will attempt to check with Servalan. Orac has immobilized all ship-wide communications and ship to shore communications. It has also engaged a magnetic field to prevent the vessel from taking off.//

      It was not as 'loud' as Cally's telepathy, but it was as clear and Blake heaved a sigh of relief. Checking the setting of his gun, he shifted position carefully, afraid that any unusual activity would alert Servalan to a rescue attempt and jeopardize Kyl's life. He didn't believe he could ever face Avon again if he didn't come back with his son.

      Quickly Blake dragged the guards he had stunned out of sight of the door, and just in time for he had barely ducked into shelter when the door opened and a guard emerged cautiously. Blake waited, holding his fire, and the man frowned, shook his head and started back to the entrance, raising a hand-held communicator to his mouth and tried to report in. A minute later, he lowered it again, shaking it lightly, then muttering a curse. If the man guessed some kind of power damper was in effect, he didn't instantly seek shelter. Perhaps he blamed it on faulty equipment or the excessive heat, though the likelihood of all the equipment failing at the same time was nil.

      Blake fired another stun beam and the guard fell. Quickly he darted from cover and pulled the guard into concealment with the others.

      "Hey, Reno," called a voice from the ship. "What's going on out there."

      "Nothing," Blake called back, imitating the guard's voice as best he could. "Some kind of power failure. Not just us. I'll have a look around."

      "Just what we need," Reno's friend returned, evidently suspecting nothing. "I'll go pacify the Captain. She's fuming, suspects a plot. Tell Rond to make a round of the nearby ships and keep an eye open for the rebels."

      "Right," Blake called back.

      He gave the man one minute to be out of range of the door, then he slipped forward and into the ship. No one met him, and he was able to proceed without hindrance. It was almost too good to be true.

      Unhooking the scanner again he held it aimed at the passage. //Proceed straight ahead,// Jabberwocky instructed. //You have clear passage. I will tell you when to turn. This is rather exhilarating, isn't it?//

      Typical Jabberwocky, Blake thought fondly and followed the instructions as he proceeded deeper into the ship. It was a converted planet-hopper, at least on first glance, but inside it was much closer to regulation Space Command issue and Blake, who had studied Federation vessels had no trouble determining the way to the cells. He headed there with occasional cautions from Jabberwocky, taking out the two guards who stood outside. They collapsed before him and Kyl, who had been sitting disconsolately on a bench in the tiny cell, gave a whoop of triumph. "Great shooting, Blake," he cried. "I knew someone would come. Is Father with you?"

      "Gently," Blake cautioned him in alarm. "We don't want anyone to know I'm here." He punched his bracelet. "Jabberwocky, I've got him. Give me ten seconds and teleport." He pushed back his sleeve to free the spare bracelet and was in the process of detaching it when Kyl let out a squawk of alarm and Blake felt something cold touch the back of his neck. The barrel of a para handgun.

      "Why, thank you, Blake," Servalan purred as two of her men grasped his arms to immobilize him and another tore away both teleport bracelets. "It was so good of you to come and save me the trip. Now I have enough hostages to ensure that Avon will give me the mindship."

      

      "Are you sure this is going to work?" Vila demanded sceptically, shrinking down in his seat, his face grim and miserable.

      "It will work, Vila," Cally assured him. "We have done this kind of thing before. You have been a part of it. You know it has worked."

      "Never to this extent," Jenna objected. "It might work for you, Cally, because you're a telepath, or for Tarrant because of the link, but the rest of us? I don't know."

      "Of course it will work," Jabberwocky assured them. "After all, I've been sending direct to Blake and he heard me. I could scan Servalan and her mutoid the time we pretended we had IMIPAK, couldn't I? Don't you trust me, Jenna?"

      "I trust you, of course. I'm just not quite sure about this."

      "Neither am I," Soolin agreed with her.

      Jenna cast a sideways look at Soolin as if she did not value that particular support and Tarrant hid a grin. He knew both women thought highly of Blake and that Jenna tended to resent people who took time away from Blake that might have been hers, Avon first of all, and sometimes Soolin. Blake had made a crusade of working to lower the blonde gunfighter's barriers in much the same way he had done with Avon, and Jenna didn't like it. There was nothing overt between the two women that spelled distrust, but Jenna had never quite warmed to Soolin and the younger woman seemed to find it mildly amusing.

      "I'm sure," Tarrant defended Jabberwocky. "I'm linked all the time and that applies to time when I'm off the ship, even when I've teleported from the ship in orbit. We won't be that far away this time, and we've all had practice at link-mode. We're good at it."

      "We have a proper frame of reference when we're in link-mode," Jenna reminded him.

      "I think our motivation will be strong enough," Jabberwocky interrupted, revealing something he had shown Tarrant without words moments before. "Blake has failed. Servalan has him a prisoner. Now how many of us want to get him and Kyl out?"

      Tarrant half expected a show of hands at Jabberwocky's question, but instead, Cally nodded. "I am with you, Tarrant," she agreed as she secured her weapon in its holster.

      Vila's unhappy face didn't change much, but he uncurled himself and began to strap on a gun too. "I have to come. We have to get Kyl back."

      "You're brave all of a sudden," Jenna told him. She was angry at Blake for taking such a risk and at herself for not being here to prevent it, and likely to take it out on anyone who got in her way. Tarrant knew she must resent his taking charge, but with the link coming through him he had no choice. At least he didn't have to fight Avon and Blake to make his plan work. Tarrant was good but he knew his limitations and taking on the two of them at the same time was a little beyond his powers.

      "I'm not brave," Vila replied automatically. "Mind you, I don't like the thought of facing Servalan, but the thought of facing Avon if he finds out we've lost both Blake and Kyl doesn't bear thinking of." He stood up to his full height and Tarrant realized that Vila would back him completely, not out of fear but out of his feelings for Avon. He hid a smile and Jabberwocky spoke into his mind. //You can count on him, Del.//

      "I'm in," Soolin replied. She had never put her gun away and now she calmly checked the charge. "Protecting Blake is my job. I'm not sure how well this will work, Del, but I know my skill."

      Jenna's mouth drew itself into a tight line, but she nodded. "All right. I'm in too. Let's go."

      Cally fell into step with Tarrant as they approached Servalan's ship. "When do we link?" she asked.

      "When we get there. It'll put a lot of strain on Jabberwocky to do it for any length of time. There's no point in starting too early."

      "There are still five men on that ship besides Servalan herself."

      "There are five of us. I'd say we have the advantage."

      "Don't get too optimistic, Tarrant," Jenna told him dampingly. "This isn't going to be easy."

      "None of it will be. But if it works-" he broke off grinning at the very idea. So far linkage had not been tried for what they were doing now. As a crew, they had grown closer during the past months and had come to rely upon each other thoroughly. Even minor disagreements and dislikes did not come before the unity that had built between them and Jabberwocky. If even Avon could unbend and stop barricading himself against the universe, anything was possible, and Tarrant knew best how much they still had yet to accomplish with Jabberwocky. This was going to be glorious.

      They halted just outside the docking cradle and Tarrant stretched out his hand to Cally. She took it and he drew her in easily. Link-mode worked best in flight with the controls one was familiar with, but for the first time the many hours of drill Blake had forced upon them to learn to manage unfamiliar positions and from places other than the flight deck made complete sense. Here, they would not be using link-mode to manipulate the ship but to manipulate Servalan, to work through Jabberwocky and even Orac, though its link would be computer based and not direct, to take possession of Servalan's vessel and free their missing crew. The unity of the link would enable them to move silently, to plan their next step without verbal contact, to disconcert Servalan with something she did not understand.

      Cally slid into link-mode easily, but Tarrant had expected that. He hoped her telepathy would boost them all in spite of the distance from their ship, but Jabberwocky was warm and close and supportive in his mind and Cally became a part of that, glorying in the link that had once been hers alone. He felt her momentary regret before she could suppress it and was glad that Jabberwocky often used telepathy to her. Having experienced the linkage, he could understand now, as never before, what life must have been like for Cally, a telepath among humans, alone and silent within her head.

      He felt her smile rather than saw it. Together they were stronger than before, able to function better, and as a team, a trio, they pulled Vila in next.

      Bringing in a non-telepath who had never been primary link at such a distance from the ship might not have worked, but it it did and Tarrant heaved a mental sigh of relief as Vila joined them in linkage. //This is better than ordinary link-mode,// he exulted. //I like it. Cally, I like it. Tarrant, you're lucky.//

      They drew the other two in next, simultaneously, and felt the gestalt that they had become strengthen as each member took and gave energy from the whole. It was a different kind of bond, not so much a submerging of separate personalities that happened in the group link that Blake liked so much but a joining of different people, as if they had become a colony creature, capable of independent thought and action but always aware of the others' presence and location. It was exhilarating. Cally's joy was a song running through the link and Vila was like a child playing with a new toy. Jenna and Soolin put aside their hostilities without hesitation and smiled at each other, caught up in the mood and the moment.

      As one, they turned and marched upon Servalan's vessel.

      They had almost reached it when the knowledge that it was guarded burst upon the link, transmitted from Orac, who was reading everything possible about Servalan's ship, through to Jabberwocky, who was a part of the nexus.

      Needing no time to plan as each member reacted, they decoyed the guard out with a call for a meeting, Cally standing forward as a recognized member of Blake's crew. When the guard stepped out to take her prisoner, the others emerged from their hiding places and stunned him. Two separate bolts took him down; he would be out for hours.

      Perhaps it would not always be this easy, but for now, carried along by their purpose and their excitement at the new and wonderful experience, they boarded the ship. Orac fed information to them through Jabberwocky and they didn't stop until they reached the bridge of the ship, where Servalan sat in the control seat trying to work the controls. When her guards would have fired, Soolin took out one of them and Tarrant the other, as they burst into the flight deck in tandem, each diving in a different direction. One blast came dangerously near Tarrant's arm - he felt the heat of it sear him and knew he would have a burn there, but it was not incapacitating and it didn't stop him. When the others came pouring in, Servalan's guards surrendered instantly, and she drew herself to her full height and faced them.

      "You have something we want, Servalan," Cally spoke.

      "We want Blake," Tarrant continued.

      "And Kyl." That was Vila. He passed an extra gun to Soolin without looking and she took it without taking her eyes from Servalan. When Servalan's eyes narrowed suspiciously, Tarrant knew that they would need to keep her off balance long enough to get away. Knowing Servalan, it could not be this easy.

      //She is concealing something.// That was Cally, her certainty becoming the group's certainty as they made a hasty count of the guards. There was one missing.

      Soolin stepped forward and slid the mouth of her gun against Servalan's throat. "My friend Dayna wanted you dead," she said. "I think the best thing I could do for Dayna would be to kill you where you stand. But you have another man and if that man kills Blake or Kyl-"

      "-you will find death preferable to what we will do to you," Cally finished smoothly.

      "Get on the speaker," Jenna ordered. "Tell your man to bring Blake and Kyl here immediately. I said immediately," she prodded when Servalan did not move.

      "Communications are down," the ex-president said, swallowing uneasily.

      "We will restore them," Tarrant replied. When Servalan's eyes turned in his direction, he waved his hand and smiled. "You have them again. An open channel."

      "Darstan," Servalan called. "You will bring the prisoners to the flight deck." She had always valued her elegant hide too much to take risks when her own life was at stake.

      "You'll need to send two more guards," came the filtered reply. "The prisoner Blake is unconscious."

      "What have you done to him?" Jenna's cry echoed through them all as they felt her alarm doubling their own.

      "He has been...persuaded to tell us his plan to free the boy," Servalan faltered.

      "If he dies-" Jenna began and such was the unity of the moment that they all completed the thought in chorus, "You will be the next to die."

      She pulled back uneasily, knowing something was different but unable to understand what it was. She had no reason to doubt the threat - she would have killed without hesitation if she had been in their place.

      "We'll go there," Tarrant replied. //Check the bodies, Jenna.//

      "Right away," she said aloud and bent to make sure the guards were deeply unconscious.

      "Cally," Servalan burst out. "It's your telepathy?"

      "It's much more than that, Servalan," Vila replied and couldn't resist proving it. Using Jabberwocky to boost him, he sent a telepathic message to her. //Does this feel like Cally? Better do what we want. We're not a patient person, you know.//

      Disconcerted but obviously thinking furiously, Servalan walked with them. Though the group could not read her thoughts, nor did they want to, they could sense her body language, each of them adding his or her observations to the whole, creating a picture of a woman who was on the verge of trying something.

      "I shouldn't, Servalan," Jenna cautioned her. "Even you might value a few more minutes of life."

      "Are you reading my mind?" she asked involuntarily.

      "None of us would want to," Vila burst out. "There's enough sickness in the galaxy without going looking for it."

      "Tell your guard that we are coming in and to throw down his weapon." Soolin jabbed at her with the gun. When Servalan's muscles bunched in preparation for a break, Soolin's gunfighter instincts recognized it//they all recognized it, and without the need of a warning, Tarrant and Jenna grabbed Servalan and restrained her. They could feel the seethe of her black fury.

      "Now," Soolin repeated. "Tell your guard to throw down his weapon."

      Hate shot out of Servalan's eyes, but she obeyed. "Darstan, you will put aside your weapon. You will not endanger the prisoners."

      They made her enter the cell block first, Soolin's gun pressed against the base of her skull, Tarrant and Jenna each holding an arm. The guard backed away from his discarded weapon and Cally retrieved it. Then while she held it on him, Vila approached the cells.

      "Vila," Kyl cried eagerly and they realized that they had been sensing him for the past few minutes as Jabberwocky had brought him in to alert him of the impending rescue. He looked past the thief to the rest of them and his face furrowed in momentary confusion, then a smile lit his eyes like the sun. "I'm in linkage," he cried. "Aren't I?"

      //That you are,// Jabberwocky told him. //Kyl, where's Blake?//

      Kyl's elation vanished like a flame that has been smothered. "They hurt him," he said in a small voice. "There was nothing I could do to stop them. I tried." The bruises on his cheek and chin bore witness to his efforts, but he had wanted to do more. They could feel his helpless frustration and resentment and they shared his worry for Blake.

      "He's in there," Vila said softly, pointing to Kyl's cell, where a man lay unmoving upon the single cot. At first they thought him dead but then they realized they could hear the painful wheeze of his breathing.

      Kyl pushed open the door and stepped out to make room for someone more experienced, and the group chose Cally to go to him. When she did, they all felt her distress at his battered condition. Having no time for subtleties Servalan had ordered him beaten. Kyl showed it to them hesitantly, along with his own futile struggles to overcome the much larger guard. At first Blake had fought too, but his struggles had become weaker and feebler and then he'd stopped fighting altogether. Kyl had cried and now was mortified to realize they all knew it, but none of them blamed him and he relaxed slightly. "Cally?" he asked aloud.

      "Get these cuffs off him," she told Servalan.

      "But I have no key."

      Vila stooped and fished one from the guard's pocket. Unlike Servalan's, the guard's face showed no resentment, only a calm resignation, and he made no attempt to fight.

      Vila passed the key to Servalan, and she stepped forward trailed by Soolin and the gun, which seemed bonded to the base of Servalan's skull. When she approached the body, silently fuming at being forced to this task, Cally stepped back to give her room, raising her eyes to share a distressed look with the others. It was then that Servalan acted.

      "I will kill him if you do not take this gun away," she told Soolin, who tensed violently as she realized that a tiny gun had slid down Servalan's sleeve into her hand and that it was now lying caressingly against Blake's temple. "It is not a powerful weapon," she explained, "but in such a location it will do the job. Back away, all of you. Darstan, get their guns."

      The phlegmatic guard brushed past Vila and started to collect them, his expression bored and confident.

      Soolin did not move, her every fibre screaming resentment.

      "Soolin," Servalan spoke to her. "I do not believe you want Blake dead."

      "Neither do I want you alive," Soolin countered, but her anguish was a living thing that touched them all.

      Jabberwocky's touch was feather-light, drawing them all together and beneath it was another touch, not as strong as usual, but equally familiar. Blake!

      Tarrant began to smile as Jabberwocky drew the semiconscious Blake into the linkage, feeding him strength from the others. It would not speed his recovery, but for now it would give him the ability to act. All it needed was one second of distraction, but Servalan's hand was as steady as a rock.

      It was Kyl who acted, beating Vila by mere seconds, suddenly doubling over and crying out. The others, aware of his duplicity, all pretended horror, and Soolin loosened her grip, crying out, "What have you done to him? He's just a boy."

      Kyl's resentment at that description flashed through the link and Tarrant had to hide a smile at his sense of outrage at being so described. But Servalan felt Soolin's gun loosen and shrugged her shoulders away, shifting slightly, ignoring Kyl's act while she consolidated her position.

      The last thing she expected happened. Blake's bound arms shot up and he grasped her wrist. Even weakened by her torture, he was stronger than she was and every member of the link channelled energy to him as he forced the muzzle of the weapon away from him. It discharged harmlessly into the ceiling light fixture, sending down a shower of sparks and casting the two of them into shadows. Before Servalan could regain her grip, Soolin grasped her around the neck and pulled her backward so abruptly that she was in danger of being throttled. She loosed the gun immediately to dig her fingers into Soolin's arm.

      Darstan threw away their spare guns to get at his, but before he could do anything, Tarrant had spun on him and swung his fist with a curious elation that the others shared. The pain that shot through his hand was secondary to the satisfaction he felt when Darstan toppled like a tree and lost all interest in the proceedings.

      Only then did Tarrant realize how much his hand hurt and he sucked in his breath sharply, wondering if it was broken. He flexed it hopefully, winced, and realized it was only bruised.

      The group felt the pain and tried to absorb it, though they were clumsy and inexperienced in such matters, then they had subdued their prisoner, freeing Blake's wrists and securing Servalan's in the same cuffs. Soolin's fury at the woman for threatening Blake, for everything she had ever done to them, spread through the link and for a moment, Servalan's fate hung by a fine line, then Blake boosted himself into a sitting position, curling one arm protectively around his ribcage as he sucked in a cautious breath, wincing.

      "No, don't kill her," he gasped.

      "Lie down, Blake." Jenna knelt beside the cot and tried to ease him down again, but he resisted though he smiled and welcomed her arm around his shoulders when she gave up and sat beside him.

      "I'll be all right," he said. "Maybe a cracked rib or two and some bruises, that's all." He paused to take several very shallow breaths. "We can't kill her."

      "She deserves it," Soolin spat. "Making war on children, beating helpless prisoners."

      "Yes, she deserves it, Soolin," Blake replied, raising his eyes and holding hers. "But we aren't executioners. That is the way of the Federation. Avon would mock me if he were here, but even he would know I am right. If we kill her in cold blood, where is the difference between us?"

      "Then what do we do with her?" Vila asked. "I can't say I'll be very upset if she's dead - or very happy if she's free."

      "Oh, I'm not going to set her free," Blake replied matter of factly, smiling at the livid rage that disfigured Servalan's face. "We've come here on a mission. It must be about time to meet the Council again. Jenna?"

      "Twenty minutes from now," she confirmed, looking at her chronometer.

      "Excellent. Someone go hire us a car. I don't want to be late."

      "Blake, you are not well enough for this," Cally warned him. "I would be surprised if you could stand unaided."

      Blake looked around the group, still joined by the link, and he felt their support and concern as if it were a part of him. Tarrant wondered how he could have borne giving up Jabberwocky and tried to keep the thought from the group linkage. "I don't have to stand unaided," Blake replied, his face warmed by his most caring and charismatic smile. "That's what my friends are for."

      As one, they pulled Blake to his feet, and though he wavered at first, he managed to stand steady. Vila edged forward and he and Jenna took the burden between them, holding him upright as they walked out of the cell. Kyl fell in behind them as Tarrant paused long enough to put Darstan in the cell and order Orac to reinstate the locks through the link.

      Then, reluctantly, he signalled to the others that it was time to come out of linkage.

      Jabberwocky was drained and exhausted and Tarrant could feel his relief when the group link was gone - and his regret. //It's not fair, Del,// Jabberwocky told him in a tired voice. //You lot can have adrenalin and soma for your headaches. What can I have for mine?//

      Tarrant looked at the group around him, momentary stunned and bereft to have come out of the nexus and found themselves alone again, and he rubbed his own aching temples and repeated Jabberwocky's plaint. That won smiles from everyone.

      As they climbed into the ground car, Kyl suddenly burst out with a question that had been plaguing him all along. "Where's my father? And what happened to Hugh?"

      "They're all right, Kyl," Cally reassured him. "Hugh was hurt but not badly and he'll be fine."

      "And my father?" Kyl's face darkened. "I suppose he couldn't be bothered?"

      "Servalan gave him a choice," Cally continued as Blake gave directions to the driver for the Council chamber and Soolin, her gun securely pressed against Servalan's side, settled herself to guard their prisoner. "She said he could have you back if he would give her Blake."

      Kyl's mouth fell open in horrified realization. "That's not fair," he protested, then, staring at Servalan, he added, "But she wouldn't be, would she? So where is he?"

      "He was going to come for you himself," Blake informed Avon's son, "And give himself up for your safety, since he did not see fit to sacrifice either of us. I couldn't let that happen, nor could I force him to choose between you and me. Some choices are impossible."

      "Between you and me?" Kyl's voice shot up an octave, and he cleared his throat, embarrassed but also elated. "I thought - Servalan said she'd given him a choice, but I didn't know what it was. I thought he - that you and he-"

      "You didn't know how much he valued you?" Blake asked gently. "Now you do."

      Kyl's eyes were huge with astonishment and delight. Tarrant, watching them over his shoulder from the seat ahead of them, wondered if the young Kerr Avon had ever worn such a look. He shook his head. He'd probably never know.

      

      The Council chamber was noisy in preparation for convening the late afternoon meeting, and the Resistance group had not returned. Jarvin, Chief Justicar of Parais, had already climbed to his high bench and his aide-de-camp, the young and zestful Rudi, had picked up the gavel to bang it for order when the outer doors of the chamber were suddenly flung wide and Roj Blake appeared.

      Jarvin was on his feet, staring, for in the interval, Blake had clearly been brawling. He needed the support of the beautiful Jenna Stannis and a man who had not been here for the morning session, and behind him were a number of other people; he recognized the Auron, Cally, and Blake's bodyguard, the lovely Soolin - Jarvin had a weakness for blondes. But they seemed to have a prisoner, a woman with short dark hair and a furious expression on her face.

      "I'm sorry for the melodramatic entrance, Chief Justicar," Blake announced, and though he looked like he was in pain, his voice filled the chamber. "This morning, a question was asked by one of the Representatives, and that question was, 'Why fight the Federation? Why not just leave well enough alone?' This afternoon, I want to show you why we fight."

      He drew forward a teenaged boy whose face bore several bruises, but who held himself erect like a young prince. "This is Kyl Avon, the son of my associate, Kerr Avon. Today, this woman, known as Space Captain Sleer of the Federation Space Command, captured Kyl in the marketplace and offered to trade him to his father in exchange for me."

      Some of the Representatives drew sharp breaths and stared at the Space Captain, others looked from the boy to Blake and back again as if assigning new meaning to his bruises. Jarvin nodded, understanding what Blake was saying and wondering if the unpleasant incident was enough to win the Council to Blake's position.

      "As a duly appointed representative of the Terran Federation, I claim these people as my prisoners," Sleer announced clearly. "They are enemies of the state."

      "Parais does not make war upon children," old Representative Mirabis called out in her sharp, cackling voice. "Boy, how old are you?"

      "Sixteen," Kyl Avon returned.

      "By our laws, four years yet a child," Mirabis agreed. "Space Captain. The Federation's small presence here is tolerated, no more, and our freedom has been guaranteed - until now - by the Parais Proposal. This is not a Federated world and you have no authority here."

      "I have the authority of a duly appointed government official in pursuit of a criminal. Extradition is a legitimate move."

      "Not when no such treaty exists," snapped another Representative, this time Corlis' son Betchly, who was young and hotheaded and a dynamic speaker who often swayed others.

      "I am not finished," said Blake. "I want to explain what else happened during the mid-break. My man, Avon, was understandably upset. To be asked to make such a choice - do you know what his choice was?"

      "Tell us." Mirabis demanded, leaning forward like the senile old gossip she let people believe her to be.

      "He decided to go himself, to offer himself for his son's freedom, and for mine."

      "Then where is he?" called an anonymous voice from the crowd.

      "I chose to go in his stead. I am leader; I will not let one of my people go to what may be his death in my place. In return for that, Sleer had me tortured." He gestured deprecatingly at his bruises.

      "And then the rest of us rescued him," Jenna returned with a blazing look of scorn for the Space Commander. "We killed no one, stunning her crew only, and took back what was ours."

      "And Sleer we bring to you, a woman acting illegally upon your world, taking your laws into her own hands," Blake pressed on. Jarvin hid a smile, noting that Blake's crew had also taken the law into their own hands, but that his people seemed to love them for it.

      "He subdued me illegally," Sleer cried out.

      "After you beat him into unconsciousness," Tarrant countered. "Blake came straight here. He hasn't even had his wounds treated yet. Can we ask your leave to take him back to our ship and examine him. We can return to the meeting tomorrow, or some of us can stay now."

      "We will discuss what you have shown us," Jarvin replied, though he was certain he knew what his people were going to choose. Thank the gods for Blake. Something like this had done the trick, though it was a pity he and the child had been made to suffer for it. "Guards," he called, raising his voice to the two men at the door who bore the traditional shields of the Council. "Take this woman to the cells. We will address her crimes tomorrow. She is to be charged with kidnapping, assault and espionage."

      "You will pay for this, you old fool," Sleer cried as she was led away.

      "She's very devious," Blake replied. "I'll trust your security measures to handle her, but be prepared for anything."

      "And now," Jenna cut in, "We must take Blake back to the ship."

      Jarvin smiled at Jenna and Soolin, then expanded his smile to include the entire group. He raised his hand in the formal benediction that had never been given to an outworlder before. "Go in peace and friendship," he intoned solemnly and it did his old heart good to hear the Representatives take up his cry and echo it.

      

      Hugh Tiver awoke when Jabberwocky prodded him mentally. //Hugh, we're going to need you now. Do you feel any better?//

      Groaning, he forced his eyelids open and squinted at Jabberwocky's display. "Did you get the speeder that ran me down?" he asked with a faint grin, rubbing the back of his head. There was a sizeable lump there, but the skin was not broken. Raking a hand through his tangled curls, he propped himself upright and hesitated, but no dizziness overcame him.

      "I just may live," he replied. "What about Kyl?"

      "He's free. They arrested Sleer and gave her to the Council as a present. It's a pity they couldn't have gift-wrapped her, but the Council was appreciative anyway. It looks like they're coming over to our side, all courtesy of Sleer's gestapo tactics."

      "Gestapo?" echoed Hugh.

      "Another nasty bunch of people I found in a file somewhere. They were a lot like Servalan. Can you walk? Avon's going to be waking up soon and I'd as soon he wasn't alone. He might not believe me if I told him Kyl and Blake were both safe. Of course when he sees Blake - and Kyl has a couple of bruises too - we might have to restrain him to keep him from going after her to kill her with his bare hands."

      "I'm on my way," Hugh agreed, taking a few cautious steps, grateful when he reached the corridor where he could hold onto the wall. Every step beat in his aching head, and he was grateful to Jabberwocky for dimming the lights.

      "It's not for you," Jabberwocky returned. "I've got a headache too. I did link-mode with the others when they rescued Blake - it stretched me a little thin, so I've powered down until I'm up to full strength again."

      "Are you all right?" Hugh asked in alarm.

      "I've felt better, but on the other hand, we beat her. I feel wonderful. They may have to let her go later, but I don't think she'll win this planet around again. They're one of us now. Isn't rebellion fun?"

      "Not so I'd notice," Hugh returned sourly.

      Avon was lying on his bed, a peaceful expression on his face, when Hugh let himself into the cabin, but the sound of his entrance disturbed Avon's enforced rest and he opened his eyes. For a moment, he simply stared, then with a groan he sat up, and clutched his head. "I may kill Blake," he observed bitterly. "I see you survived."

      "I don't feel well enough to appreciate it yet," Hugh returned. "They hit me over the head. Kyl and Blake are all right," he added hastily before Avon could ask him. "Blake got worked over a bit, but he's all right. He took Servalan off and gave her to the Council as a prisoner. He's due back here at any time."

      Avon pushed himself to his feet and swayed. Hugh wondered if it was worth it to encourage him to sit down again and decided not. "I am going to the flight deck," Avon announced. "Blake owes me a considerable explanation."

      "Does he? He did it for you."

      "He had no right."

      "He had the right of his concern for you - and his guilt over Dayna."

      Avon stiffened. People didn't mention Dayna to Avon these days, and Hugh knew he was risking increasing Avon's resentment and rage, but he had to get it clear. "He couldn't let you be put in the position Servalan tried to put you in - and even if you had given in and taken Blake to her, she would merely have held out for Jabberwocky. She would have done the same if you had gone yourself."

      "I might well have extricated myself without a beating," Avon returned.

      "When she had your son to use against you?"

      That made Avon pause, but a few minutes later, when the others returned, he was not yet reconciled to Blake's actions.

      The sight of Blake took the wind out of his sails, and though his eyes narrowed as he studied Blake consideringly and his face showed no signs of yielding, he was silent as he catalogued Blake's apparent wounds: one black eye, a cut lip, bruises on both cheekbones, a scraped place on the left cheek that had bled a little, and possibly, from the way Blake stood and breathed, some broken or at least cracked ribs.

      "You deserve all that," Avon snapped at last. "How dare you interfere in my responsibilities, Blake?"

      Blake faced him openly, smiling, with no sign of repentance and no trace of defiance. "What other choice was open to me, Avon? I couldn't let you risk your son and I wouldn't force you to give me to her. And I have lost enough crew to last the rest of my life."

      "We don't need mollycoddling, Blake," Vila put in quietly.

      Avon and Blake ignored that. "We are in a dangerous business," Avon pointed out. "It is impossible to go through an entire rebellion without a scratch - as the sight of you proves conclusively." Though he was still angry, his next question surprised Hugh. "Are you badly hurt?"

      "This is nothing." Blake waved away his condition.

      "Nothing, is it?" Avon's lip curled in a very effective sneer, and he glared at Blake. "Did it never occur to you that my decision was already made and that it would have guaranteed your safety and Kyl's?"

      "You were going to let her kill you to spare the pair of us?" Blake shot back. "Maybe our safety isn't the most important thing to us, did you never think of that?"

      Avon drew back, uncomfortable as always when faced with a declaration of affection, even one as carefully veiled as this one was. It was evidently all right for him to risk his life for Blake, though he wouldn't have described it that way, but he didn't relish anyone doing the same for him. Hugh realized with sudden insight that Avon had faced enough losses in his life to be willing now to take risks to prevent it happening to him again.

      "The point is that they're both safe," Tarrant cut in with a grin. He was favouring his hand but he looked intact otherwise except for a slight blaster burn along one arm, but the boredom and resentment he'd been wearing like an uncomfortable pair of shoes had vanished as if it had never been. Maybe he had needed action as much as Blake had needed security.

      Then Kyl approached Avon cautiously. "I'm sorry, Father," he said. "I suppose I shouldn't have gone to the market."

      Avon stared at his son, speechless, then he reached out to touch the light bruises on the boy's face. "Did she do this?" he asked, and Kyl winced, not at the touch but at the savage fury on his father's face.

      "No, it was one of the guards," Kyl said, "When I tried to stop him hurting Blake."

      Avon had pulled his hand back when his son flinched, and now he stood staring at the boy as if he had no idea what to do next. "You let her live?" he asked Blake.

      "She is a prisoner here. Even when they negotiate her freedom, she will have failed. And we have learned a new way to deal with her, in link-mode."

      "Link-mode?" Avon echoed, startled. "Off the ship?"

      Blake nodded, and Kyl burst out, "It was great. I never felt anything like it. Next time we try, you'll have to try too, Father. It was one of the best things that ever happened."

      "Next time?" Avon asked, eyeing his son. "If you ever stow away on this ship again without permission, I guarantee there will be no next time."

      Kyl managed to grin, though his mouth seemed to hurt. "Next time, I'll ask properly," he promised and before Avon had the slightest idea what he meant to do, he flung his arms around him and hugged him tightly.

      Hugh grinned as Avon tensed, then, before everyone's startled eyes, Avon put his arms around his son and held him closely a moment, his cheek pressed against the red hair. When he freed him and backed away, Kyl's face was jubilant, and Avon looked more at peace than Hugh had seen him in a long time.

      Avon turned to Blake. "And now you," he said in such an ominous tone that Blake took an involuntary step backward, though not, Hugh thought, as if he feared that Avon would hug him too. Like as not he would encourage that.

      "You are not fit to be let out alone," Avon told him. "Look at you. I don't want you to think I have forgiven you for what you did to me, but if none of the others have the sense to see you belong in the medical unit, I do." He glared at Blake, but Blake must have read no malice in the look for he smiled back and Avon's lips twitched though he resisted a return smile. He approached Blake, displacing Vila at his side. "I will relish every moment Hugh confines you in the medical unit," he announced. "And remember that in future, we do not expect to be protected. No one is here against his will - some of us are even here without permission..." Kyl grinned at that and Vila winked at him. "As for the rest of us, don't protect us, Blake," Avon told him. "I, for one, will not tolerate it. You are alive thanks to Jabberwocky and to luck. No overprotection and no foolish risks."

      "You're a fine one to talk about foolish risks, Avon," Blake returned, but he leaned against Avon as he walked and Avon gave him support unhesitatingly. Jenna drew back as if she knew the two men needed some time together and let Avon take Blake's full weight.

      Hugh smiled as he watched them cross the flight deck together, Avon holding back to match Blake's unsteady footsteps. When they reached the doorway, Avon halted, putting a hand to Blake's chest to help him maintain his balance. "Oh, Jabberwocky," he called out.

      "Yes, Avon? What is it?"

      "When I am finished with Blake, remind me. I've been considering and I have determined the computer equivalent of adrenalin and soma. With all that linkage, you must have a worse headache than Hugh."

      Vila's face lit up. "Computer equivalent to adrenalin and soma?" he echoed. "Avon, I always knew that somewhere inside that cold exterior was a man after my own heart."

      


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Sheila Paulson

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