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Jabberwocky - part 11 - Overload

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.

Part 9 - Choices

When Avon's son Kyl stows away on a mission and winds up being kidnapped by Servalan, she plans to use him in trade for Blake. Left with an impossible choice, Avon is overruled by Blake himself, and with Jabberwocky's help and the development of a gestalt linkage, the whole crew forms a mental link to confront Servalan and rescue Kyl and Blake.

Part 10 - Program

Jabberwocky and Orac design a program that can hold a complete human personality. They use Dayna's personality - and the program becomes self-aware. Some of the crew want to use the program to get Dayna back, using an android body. Avon finds this impossibly distasteful and tells Blake he will leave the ship if the program becomes part of the crew. In spite of his objections, Avon winds up teamed with Hugh on the planet where the android assembly plant is located, in an attempt to rescue the Dayna android before Servalan can steal it. They escape in a defective ship with Servalan in pursuit, but with the help of Dayna, she is captured.


Overload

Blake glanced over his shoulder, frowned, then shut down the board he'd been working on and turned to survey the flight deck. Those of his crew who were present included Tarrant and Jenna squabbling over a flight plan, Vila chatting idly with Soolin and Hugh on the forward couch, and Cally and Dayna, their heads bent over the weapons' console, which had been stripped down for fine tuning. Everyone was there but Avon. Blake had been so involved with everything that had happened recently that he had accepted Avon's more frequent absences from the flight deck as just another of his attempts to prove he didn't need any of them, when everyone knew he did.

      But it was more than that. Lately Avon had found excuses for avoiding linkage and he had completely avoided the gestalt. Before Dayna's return, Avon had participated in it with some reluctance, but he had participated. In the month since their return to Ryalon and their base, he had found excuse after excuse to avoid it.

      Blake had missed it entirely. He always sought Avon out for such things but Avon had been busy. First he'd been studying the processes that had enabled Orac and Jabberwocky to recreate Dayna, then he'd declared a need to revamp Avalon's computer systems, something he'd long delayed doing because he'd proclaimed it boring busy-work best suited for low grade techs. Then his son Kyl had invited him on a camping trip. Blake had wondered at that, for Avon was no nature lover and while he cared for his son, he seemed ever so slightly wary of spending time alone with him. But he had gone and returned tanned and fit looking, with only the faint shadow in his eyes, when he thought no one was looking, to warn Blake that all was not well with him.

      Blake had tried a few times to urge him to talk, but discussing his problems had never been Avon's way and he had fobbed Blake off with impatience. Now Blake cursed himself for not realizing something was seriously wrong. Before all this had begun, Avon had avoided heart to heart discussions, but he'd done it with humour. This time, he'd withdrawn completely, and Blake hadn't even noticed.

      He caught Cally's eye and tried to summon her over without attracting everyone else's attention, and she said something briefly to Dayna and joined him. "What is it, Blake?" she asked in an undertone.

      "Where's Avon, do you know?" he asked, maintaining a casual tone.

      "He's somewhere on the base," she said. "I think Avalon sent for him. Something to do with Servalan."

      Blake hadn't expected that. "What about Servalan?" he asked more loudly than he had intended to do, and heads came up all over the flight deck.

      "She nearly escaped last night," Vila volunteered. "She bribed a guard - or seduced him - I'm not sure which. They only just stopped her, and Avon was furious. He said something had better be done with her before she managed to get away and take this ship with her." He glanced around at the others and let his eyes return to Blake. "We got to know her better when you were gone after Star One, Blake, and Avon got to know her best. He doesn't trust her a centimetre, but there's something between them anyway. Of course she tried to kill you, and he won't forgive her for that, but something's up. Better be careful, Blake. Having her here is dangerous."

      "We could always kill her," Dayna suggested as if she were volunteering for the task. It was hard to believe Dayna was not the original Dayna he'd first met at Gauda Prime. Jabberwocky had done a superb job recreating her memories, her attitudes, her very essence. He'd managed to retain her hatred for Servalan, and Dayna hated the fact that the former president of the Federation was actually held on their previously secure base. She made no secret of her distrust for the woman.

      "She'll be useful to us in the long run," Blake reminded her. "Avalon's hoping to use her in a prisoner exchange. From the sound of it, we'll be getting the better of the deal."

      "Giving them Servalan?" Tarrant asked sceptically. "I can't see it. She's the major threat against us. I don't like the idea of letting her go."

      "Neither do I, Blake," Jenna agreed.

      "I do not like keeping her here," Cally said more quietly. "If it is true that she got to a guard, what else can she do? If it's true Arpel is prepared to pay highly for her, we ought to consider that."

      "Why does he want her back so badly?" asked Hugh. "We've defeated her every time we've encountered her." He grinned suddenly. "Of course if he really does have rebel leanings, he might consider that an advantage. We know her, after all. We know how far she'll go and what she'll do. He could get her back and limit her resources and set her after us. It would look good for him and protect us."

      "Of course that depends on whether Arpel's a closet rebel or not," said Soolin practically. "He might just want us to think he is."

      Blake had considered that - he had to. He'd spent several intensive hours with Avalon trying to decide just how far the Supreme Commander might be trusted to keep his word in a prisoner exchange and how likely it was that he would give them some degree of support. It hadn't been resolved yet, and Avon, who had also attended the meeting, had been highly sceptical of the entire thing. His open distrust of Servalan had rather amused Avalon, who had reminded him several times that their prisoner couldn't escape. It seemed she had come close to being wrong.

      "I don't know which it is," Jabberwocky said, jumping into the conversation. "But I don't trust Servalan at all. Another thing that worries me is that Witt might do something."

      "Witt!" echoed Blake in stunned disbelief. A former undercover agent working for Servalan, Witt was a skilled telepath who had infiltrated the crew and taken possession of Jabberwocky. Unable to harm his link-mate, even when he didn't want him, Jabberwocky had finally rid the link of the agent by refusing to filter out the extraneous data that he processed constantly. The influx had come close to burning out Witt, and he had emerged childlike and helpless. Avalon had taken him in, giving him basic tasks to retrain him, and he'd shown no signs of regaining control of his telepathy. Neither had he displayed any loyalty to Servalan.

      "Surely not," Cally disagreed. "He couldn't even control his telepathy any more."

      "It's been some time," Jabberwocky replied. "He's come out of it a lot. They say he's started to heal again. One thing I know, he was one of the sneakiest people I ever met. If he started to come back, no one would know it. He'd keep it hidden. I think you should have Avalon keep an eye on him. I don't trust him either."

      It was something to consider. Blake frowned. "Maybe I should go talk to Avalon again," he decided. "If Servalan nearly got away, we've got to reconsider our plans to guard her." He glanced around. "Hugh, why don't you come too. If we see Witt, you'd be best able to tell if he's faking."

      

      

Blake and Hugh found Avon before them in Avalon's office, his face grim. When his crewmates entered, he turned to them and nodded. "So you have heard the latest," he observed.

      Blake found himself studying Avon, trying to decide if anything obviously wrong could be detected in his friend's manner, but all he could sense was Avon's annoyance at Servalan's near escape. Avon had always been good at hiding things, but since Avon had 'healed' him twice, Blake felt he knew him better.

      Avalon came forward and gave Blake her hand in greeting. "Hello, Blake, Hugh. I take it you've heard the latest."

      "Servalan?" Blake asked. "What happened?"

      "She had the same night guard for a week. Somehow she managed to win him over to her side. I should have sworn he was loyal to us, but she made him fall in love with her. He had her nearly out of the building before they were spotted and recaptured." She looked irritated, tossing her dark hair back from her face with an impatient gesture. "I should have been more careful. Jenkiss is young and susceptible, though I should have thought him quite dedicated."

      "She's locked up tightly again?" Blake asked. "What's the word on the exchange? How much longer do we need to keep her here?"

      "We hope to manage the exchange within the week," Avalon replied. She spun around to her desk and began to punch up data on her computer screen. "Arpel says he'll send a small flotilla to meet us at a neutral point of our choosing. He'll take possession of Servalan and give us Ralla and Kit, the two agents they took on Earth last year. Of course any useful information they might have had would be out of date."

      "And they will likely be programmed," Avon said sharply. "I do not trust this scheme."

      "Then what do you recommend instead, Avon?" Blake asked him.

      "Perhaps Servalan should be tried and convicted for her crimes," Avon returned smoothly, though an element of urgency ran through his voice that Blake doubted Avalon would notice. "If she were sentenced to death for her crimes against humanity, no one could complain that she had been killed out of hand, which has always been your reason for refusing to do it. Killing her is the only sensible possibility."

      "If we kill her, no one outside our organization will believe we gave her a fair trial," Avalon disagreed. "I want to present us as an opposition government, not a terrorist organization."

      "Governments have the authority to execute spies and traitors," Avon insisted coldly. "Letting her live is a mistake. I hope we won't all pay the price for it one day soon." He left abruptly without looking back and Avalon stared after him in some surprise.

      "He's been in a black humour for days, Roj. I know he's worried about her being here and this latest debacle with Jenkiss only confirms his suspicions. I wish it were over one way or another. How has he been on the ship?"

      Blake chuckled sourly. "He's seldom been on the ship, I'm afraid. I'd half assumed he was avoiding Dayna, but I don't think that's it. I think it has something to do with Servalan. Is there any way we can speed up the exchange?"

      "None that won't put the exchange ship at risk. I'm not using Jabberwocky, Blake. For one thing, the mindship is too valuable to risk, and for another, you and the rest of your crew might just be too great a temptation for Arpel and his flotilla. I've contacted Dorn Suliman instead. He's not officially a member of the resistance movement, but his loyalty is with us all the same."

      "Jabberwocky won't like that," Hugh replied. Dorn had never fully adjusted to his father's present state, but he was gradually doing better, and he'd come into port two days ago. Since Tarrant - who had graduated in Dorn's class at the academy - was currently Jabberwocky's link-pilot, Dorn was somewhat leery of him but he'd unbent enough to go out drinking with Tarrant and then return to the ship, made mellow with drink, to sit on the flight deck talking with his father. Jabberwocky had been cheerful ever since. No, he wouldn't like the idea of his son taking that kind of risk, not with Servalan.

      "I think it's for the best," she replied. She studied the data on the screen. "Everything's under control now. Avon gave me a direct link to Servalan's cell so I can monitor her at any time. See?"

      Blake leaned forward to look. Servalan sat on the bench there, clad in prison fatigues that seemed incongruous on a woman Blake was accustomed to seeing in a floor length gown. Since assuming the identity of Sleer, now a Space Commander, she had worn her hair curly as part of her disguise, and it had grown a little longer than he was accustomed to. She was a lovely woman, even in the fatigues, and Blake could understand something of the young officer's temptation, though he didn't feel drawn to her himself. He sometimes wondered how Avon viewed her, but she was one of the few topics that Avon avoided except to plan her downfall. He never spoke of her on a more personal level, and Blake had never asked.

      "She doesn't look dangerous, does she?" he asked. "I imagine she could appear quite helpless and put upon to someone easy to manipulate. I hope you mean to keep Witt away from her. Jabberwocky isn't sure the changes in him are permanent."

      "Witt! I don't think he's seen her. But you're right, he was in love with her before Jabberwocky finished with him. He might be trouble. I'll put a man on him just to make sure."

      

Servalan had been returned to her cell some hours ago after her abortive escape had been discovered, and while she was disappointed that it had not succeeded, she had not yet given up. There were still two more chances for her escape. One was her former spy, Witt, who had visited her twice. He had changed from the hard-edged man she remembered, but his feelings for her had not changed and she thought there might yet be a way to make use of him. So far she had tried nothing, for she could not trust him, but if her main effort failed, he was there to fall back on.

      Her main effort was working, though more slowly than she had expected. Avon was fighting her all the way, and that caused her to feel a delicious amusement as she watched his struggles against her, his fight to regain control of himself.

      Contingency plans were wonderful things. How long it seemed since Terminal, since her plan to take the Liberator, since she had had Avon in her hands. The drug-induced illusion she had given him had brought her a great deal of pleasure, but it was more than that. Never one to waste an opportunity, Servalan had asked her programmers to add just one little thing for her. There was no time to waste on major programming, especially when she had hoped the Terminal scheme would rid her of Avon forever. But knowing Avon and suspecting that if anyone could win free of her scheme it was he, she had taken one final precaution. Should he manage to escape there had been a compulsion to obey implanted in his brain. All she needed was to speak a trigger phrase and he would follow her orders, anything she instructed until she repeated the trigger phrase. He would not remember it afterwards nor anything he did to obey it. If she were precise in her instructions, she thought that might be enough.

      On the ship where Avon and the others had captured her, such a plan would have been wasted. At first the doctor was with Avon and later Dayna as well. She meant to save it until she was alone with him. Knowing him, he would be unable to resist visiting her, if only to gloat. More likely he would come to make sure she was secure in her cell.

      It had taken several days, but he had come. By then, Servalan had decided what she expected of him, and was prepared for it. "Avon. How pleasant to see you."

      "Is it?" he asked, his teeth clenched. "You are lucky to be alive, Servalan."

      "You mean I'm lucky you didn't strangle me?" She put a hand to her neck, which was still tender from his attack. Hiding a smile at the memory of his pathetic devotion to Blake, she decided to make use of it. "That was unkind of you, Avon. Surely you understand I have the right to defend myself."

      "I understand that I will kill you, Servalan, if you harm one member of my crew."

      "Has it come to that, then, Avon? I should have thought you would put yourself first."

      "I do put myself first. It will be small enough risk to kill you. I came today to be certain you will not endanger me by escaping. It is my plan to strengthen security not only here but on the base as a whole."

      "I should have expected nothing less." She smiled at him. "But think of what we might accomplish together. I have always respected you, Avon. Together we could rule the galaxy."

      "We have been through this already, Servalan. I have no interest in allying myself with you. The risks would be far too great."

      "But, Avon, I could make you wealthy beyond belief."

      He shook his head impatiently. She stretched her hand out toward him, only to be brought up short by the force field that kept her imprisoned. "You shall be my consort," she said, intoning the trigger phrase with deliberate clarity.

      Avon opened his mouth to disagree, then he fell silent, staring at her blankly, his mouth still open. He looked rather like a zombie, his cool intelligence concealed behind a controlled mask.

      "You will arrange my escape, Avon," she continued in the same deliberate voice. "You will free me and take me to the mindship, which you will turn over to me. You will immobilize the ship's link-partner and establish me in his place. You will do this secretly so your plan will not be discovered. You will not remember this at any time and you will not speak of it to the others."

      "It will take time," Avon replied in a slurred voice that sounded drugged. "I will need to rework the computer systems. To free the mindship, I will need kill the link-partner." He stiffened, fighting her control with all the strength he possessed. "I won't do that."

      "You will do as I command."

      "I will do as you command," he repeated after her. It was enough for the moment. She could reinforce it with the trigger phrase each time she saw him. "You will visit me regularly, every few days, to report your progress," she told him. Then, deciding she had risked enough this first visit, she had said in the same tone as before, "You shall be my consort."

      Avon's face stiffened then relaxed. "I should think that unlikely," he replied with sour amusement. "You can offer me nothing, Servalan. You have nothing I want."

      "You think not?" She favoured him with a seductive smile, and he made an impatient sound and went away.

      He was back in three days, and upon hearing the trigger phrase, announced that he had begun a reworking of the base's security computers. This would eventually allow him to shut down the force field around her cell without triggering an alarm and to play a tape loop showing her still there after she had departed.

      "Excellent," she had approved, knowing Avon's computer skills were equal to the task. "And the link-partner? Have you planned his demise?"

      "No. I will not kill him, Servalan."

      "Oh, but why? It's not Blake, only Tarrant. You and Tarrant have not become friends, surely. You are too different. If you can remove him from the link without death, that would satisfy me. He is rather too pretty to damage permanently. But you must sever the link. The mindship will be mine."

      "It might be possible," Avon replied reluctantly as if he were still fighting for control. But he couldn't counter her programming. "A judiciously placed explosion would sever the link," he volunteered as if the words were being dragged from his body.

      "I knew I could rely upon you, my pet." She reached out to him caressingly, but the force field still restrained her. "You might test your handiwork by shutting it down," she suggested, letting her voice caress him softly.

      He remained unmoved. "Not yet. It is far from ready."

      With that she had to be satisfied, though she knew her control of him was precarious. She doubted he had realized it existed yet, but he might do so at any moment. The program was too simple to deceive him forever, and he was certain to notice that there were gaps he could not remember. Were it anyone but Avon, he would see a doctor, talk about it, try to have other people monitor him and discover what was wrong. But Avon was a secretive man, unlikely to confide in the others especially if he suspected something was wrong with himself. He would watch and be wary, but he wouldn't share that type of a problem with the others. At least that was what she believed. Subsequent visits proved that he had no idea of the programming, and she liked that. She had been careful not to ask too much.

      But time was running out. Her little ploy with the guard Jenkiss had been as much to divert suspicion from her games with Avon as it was an actual escape, though she would have taken it, had it worked. Jenkiss was useless, of course, and she felt no regret at destroying his career here. He was certainly decorative enough to have made the game a delicious diversion, but now it was time for more serious action. She needed Avon.

      

      

Avon stormed out of Avalon's office, determined to elude Blake. He meant to avoid Servalan as well, for he had found himself visiting her with astonishing regularity, often finding himself there when he had clearly intended to go elsewhere. But since she had done nothing more threatening than to try to tempt him to join her, it seemed well enough. She would soon be gone, and he could put the incident behind her.

      He had been avoiding the ship of late, to the extent of hiking into the wilderness with his son, an activity that didn't rank very highly on his list of pleasant pastimes. Talking computers with Kyl was always enjoyable, but surely they could have talked in a more comfortable environment than Ryalon's back country. Yet Avon had gone willingly, some subconscious part of his mind prodding him with the idea that it was safe out there. He tried to bring that thought to the surface but it would go no further than that. He was safe in the wilderness with Kyl, and the two of them achieved their greatest rapport to date on their expedition.

      That should have made it easier to return to the ship, but the closer to the base and to Jabberwocky he came, the more he wanted to turn and head back into the hinterlands. The fact that he could not understand it irritated him immensely.

      To make matters worse, he seemed to be growing forgetful. He would be working on Avalon's computer system and suddenly rouse from a trance as if his mind had gone somewhere and left his body behind. There was never a trace of botched work to account for it, but neither could he remember any daydream compulsive enough to account for such lapses. He took to keeping a close eye on the time, checking it frequently, and by doing this, he discovered that his so called lapses often stretched for as many as fifteen minutes.

      Careful to keep his research secret, he studied medical conditions which might show such symptoms. No one had suffered such diseases as epilepsy in centuries, but it seemed that such trances were symptomatic of the condition. But such triggering events as blinking lights caused no such evidence of seizures. Complaining of a headache, he went to the base clinic for an analgesic, and allowed the medic to run a quick brain scan, but the verdict was simply that he'd been working too hard on the computers and the medic urged him to knock off for the day.

      One possibility removed, Avon began to speculate on others. He still avoided the ship, but none of the others seemed to have noticed, and if they did, they might speculate that he was trying to avoid Dayna. He rather regretted it that she might think so. It was true he was uncomfortable around Dayna, though he found it easier to deal with her in company than alone. But time was dealing with that problem. Eventually he would be more relaxed with her. Dayna herself had pointed out that for him to deliberately avoid her would be a display of emotion, and the idea of that had made him work harder to come to terms with this new Dayna. It helped that she was so much like the original. Sometimes she would say something that felt so completely real and right that he would respond automatically, as if there had been no change. The others did it more and more, and none of them seemed uncomfortable with her. Sometimes Dayna was uncomfortable with herself, and Avon had squelched his healing instincts no fewer than three times. If Dayna wanted it, she would ask him for it, and until then, he was prepared to wait.

      No, it wasn't Dayna that kept him away from the ship. But then something happened that reinforced his desire to stay away. It had been two nights ago and Avon had returned to the ship to fetch something out of his cabin. On the way out again, he had paused in the flight deck doorway, watching Tarrant, who was drowsing in link-mode with Jabberwocky. Neither of them seemed aware of him, though Jabberwocky undoubtedly was. But Avon stood there and as he did, he felt his hand creeping toward the gun he always wore when he was off the ship. His fingers closed over it and he imagined himself levelling it at the back of Tarrant's head, pulling the trigger, seeing the young pilot collapse in death.

      Shocked at the compulsion, Avon had forced his hand away, fighting it every centimetre of the way. Before Tarrant could turn and discover him standing there, he turned abruptly and all but ran from the ship. He had not been back since.

      Almost immediately after leaving the ship, he'd felt a fleeting contact from Jabberwocky. //Avon, are you all right?// The concern felt wonderful, like a warm blanket, but he shrugged it off, denying the need of it.

      //Leave me alone,// he sent sharply. //I plan to be away for some days. If anyone should think to ask, you might inform them of it.// He hesitated.

      //You looked like you were going for your gun,// Jabberwocky pointed out in a very worried tone. //Is something wrong, Avon? You've been acting strange for days, and I'm worried about you. I know you like to keep your problems to yourself, but you know I'm always ready to listen. I don't want anything to happen to my father.//

      //I've told you before, I am not your father. Nothing is wrong. Leave me alone.// He severed the contact and fled, feeling as if he were being pulled deeper and deeper into a well, and the light at the top was getting smaller and dimmer and further away.

      The compulsion to kill Tarrant persisted, but when he thought it through, he could find no anger, no hatred, no reason to harm the other man. He was tolerating Tarrant better these days, and was hardly likely to want him dead. But the need drove him, and it seemed better to avoid Tarrant entirely than to risk something permanent, something beyond his control.

      Control? That stopped him. It was as if he were being controlled by some external force, something that he couldn't fight because he hadn't realized it was there. For the first time he began to see a solution, and the answer to it was all too obvious.

      Servalan.

      

      

Once the solution occurred to him, he put all his effort into discovering if it were correct. Could she have programmed him? A mental scan of their encounters recalled Terminal, and he was surprised it hadn't occurred to him before. It seemed logical for the bitch to cover all her bases, preparing for any possible contingency. Since so many of his missing memories involved working on the computer, he took himself to Avalon's base to look for signs of sabotage.

      Either the conditioning protected itself or the task was incomplete for he found nothing. The lack of proof failed to convince him his theory was wrong, though, and he went to work with a vengeance to secure the system. It was only that night when he slept in a private room in the main barracks that he realized if he were under compulsion he might have done exactly what he'd tried to avoid.

      Did that mean it would be safer to stay away entirely? Servalan would be transferred in several days. If he could hold out that long, avoid the base entirely, he might possibly prevent whatever it was that she was aiming for.

      But another plan revealed itself, her attempt to seduce the young Jenkiss into playing her game and freeing her. She was safely locked away again, but that meant little in the overall scheme of things. If he were truly programmed, he might not know he was helping her, even though he was aware of the possibility.

      A solution occurred to him, one that seemed obvious after the fact. Of course he could go to Blake and ask to be guarded, but the urge to shoot Tarrant made him wonder who else he might endanger on the ship. The last thing he meant to happen was to risk Blake or Cally, or any of the others. Instead of leaving entirely, to protect himself as well as the rest of them, he decided to try one more thing first. He was supposed to be a healer, though it was a gift he didn't want and had never sought out. Programming affected the mind. Perhaps it would be possible to go into his mind, locate the programming and expunge it.

      Several people had suggested to Avon that self-healing might benefit him, and he had wondered about it on more than one occasion but had always held back. There were areas of his mind that he preferred to leave entirely alone. Too many bitter memories could be exposed in such an attempt, and under ordinary circumstances, it was the last thing he would ever consider. But these were not ordinary circumstances. To go to the others for help was to endanger them, and it was also to expose himself, and he was far too private a person to enjoy the thought of Orac and Jabberwocky messing about inside his head. Better to deal with it himself.

      But to do that, he would need to return to the ship. Jabberwocky could monitor him, and if something went wrong, the computer could alert Cally. No one else must know.

      He didn't notice the gap in his memory that occurred as he went toward the ship. Servalan's programming was strong and under its power, he went to headquarters and initiated the escape program for Servalan.

      On his way back to the ship, he had to pass through the bazaar that dominated the port area. It was crowded even now at twilight, before the overhead lights had come on to light the way for late shoppers. Avon weaved his way through the crowd with some distaste, for he was solitary by nature and did not enjoy the close press of humanity. Finally he chose an alternate route, one that went through the back alleys, amid the tents and booths where the goods of a thousand worlds were sold.

      It was at one crossway between two main roads that he saw Tarrant picking his way along the street, Dayna on his arm. They were laughing and talking, and neither of them had a thought of danger. Ryalon was largely safe, though once a Federation agent had broken past base security and managed to wound Avon before he could be recognized and stopped. Remembering that incident, Avon felt the gun leap into his hand, and drawing back into the shadows, he aimed it at Tarrant.

      He had been aware of the compulsion to shoot Tarrant on the flight deck, and he was aware of it now. It felt as if a stranger inhabited his body, a stranger who had placed a spell over him so that he was not entirely certain it was real. Though he fought against it, furiously angry to find himself driven to something beyond his control, his hand raised the weapon remorselessly while his body drew back into the shadows out of sight of any witness.

      The shot sounded horrifyingly loud, but no one seemed to notice it but him. Always noisy, the bazaar absorbed it into its racket and clatter, and while a few people turned their heads, no one seemed to notice it - except Tarrant and Dayna.

      The pilot hesitated, his body jerking a little, then he seemed to catch himself and pitch forward as if he'd tripped on a stone. Dayna's arm shot out to hold him upright, and managed it easily, but Tarrant had gone limp in her grasp, and even in his hiding place, Avon could hear her stricken scream, "DEL!"

      He ducked into the alley and hurried away, and the further he went, the less real it seemed. He had imagined it, surely, imagined that he had taken a gun and coldbloodedly shot Del Tarrant. Why would he want Tarrant dead - or more to the point, why would Servalan want him dead.

      But before he could formulate an answer to that question, an answer that seemed too obvious to ignore, the memory of the incident faded into nothingness and he frowned, trying to remember what it was that had disturbed him. He had to get back to the ship, that was what it was. He had to return to the ship so he could examine the possibility of programming.

      He hesitated in the growing darkness, a part of him anxious to return and have this over at last. But another side of him hesitated, wondering if he might yet endanger the others. He retreated into the growing darkness, unable to decide what to do. He hated his indecision, but he could not control it. More programming? If he got his hands on Servalan, he'd do as he should have done before, kill her. There was no longer any other option.

      

      

"Something's wrong, isn't it, Cally?" Vila asked as he and the Auron sat on the flight deck. Though the flight deck was not always manned in port, Blake and Avon had decided it was wise to do so while Servalan was on the base, and after her near escape, Blake had insisted that two people be present at all times. Avon's absence from the schedule had been rather cavalierly explained away, claiming that his work on Avalon's base security was vital and grounds to excuse him from the duty roster, but Tarrant and Soolin had complained about it.

      "It's about Avon, isn't it?" Vila persisted, programming Cally a cup of rast and passing it to her. "He hasn't been himself lately, not since we got Dayna."

      "Do you think that's it?" Cally asked him.

      "Maybe, but I'm not sure." Vila's eyes narrowed as he considered it. "No, he accepted Dayna. He isn't always at ease with her, but he wouldn't stay away because she's here. It doesn't fit. When he is here, he treats her normally enough. They always got on fairly well, even on Liberator. It's not that, is it. He's not - well, quarrelled with you has he, Cally?"

      She shook her head, though there was a trace of unhappiness in her eyes that belied her denial. "It is true he has been more distant than usual, but until the past few days, he - came to my cabin as often as usual." Her cheeks went slightly pink. "But he was more quiet, more distant even then. I think it is Servalan."

      "Servalan?" Vila echoed in disbelief, then he shook his head. "She got to him sometimes, didn't she?"

      Cally nodded. "I have never been jealous of her, even knowing he feels something of an attraction. After she shot Blake, I thought him free of it, but he has seen her several times. His excuse is that he does not trust her, that he must be certain she cannot escape. But, Vila, I can't help wondering if there is more to it than that."

      He looked at Cally's woebegone face and wished he knew how best to comfort her. She had come to love Avon very much, and it was obvious that Avon cared for her in return, but he was so bloody self-sufficient that it was hard to tell how deep his feelings ran for her. Vila would have said Avon was closer to Blake, but Cally had never resented that relationship. But that was different, for Avon's feelings for Blake would not be likely to impinge upon Cally's preserve, or at least Vila didn't think they would. It wasn't jealousy that motivated Cally now, it was something else, some worry that she could not quite define. That scared Vila. Cally was sensitive to atmosphere; trouble around her would provoke a sort of feeling for it, something that had saved their lives on more than one occasion. But she hadn't had to direct her 'feelings' toward Avon before.

      "You don't think she's got round him, do you?" Vila asked worriedly. He hated the thought of that. Servalan had better keep her claws free of Avon or she'd have Vila Restal to deal with.

      The realization of his devotion to Avon embarrassed Vila, and he didn't take it any further, but Cally smiled at him knowingly. "We will protect him if we possibly can, Vila," she offered, stretching out her hand to clasp his reassuringly.

      Jabberwocky screamed. It was the most horrid sound Vila could remember, making him jump wildly and spill his coffee on the deck. "What-" he began just as most of the lights on the flight deck went off.

      "Oh, no," Cally cried, then she flew to the intercom and jammed her finger down on the button. "Blake, everyone, come quickly."

      "Jabberwocky?" Vila prompted uneasily. No telepath, he was unable to tell what had shocked the ship like this, but it was fairly obvious it must concern Jabberwocky's link mate, Tarrant - or one of the crew. More likely Tarrant though. "What should we do?" Vila cried. "What's wrong?"

      "Bring him here," Jabberwocky moaned, his voice full of shock and misery. "Bring him here, Vila."

      "Is it Tarrant?" he asked, turning to Cally for an answer just as the others began to arrive on the flight deck. Blake was in the lead, his face pale. Probably, like Cally, he had sensed the problem through the remnants of the link he'd had with Jabberwocky before it had devolved to Tarrant.

      The others looked shaken. Perhaps the cry had echoed through the entire ship. They gathered around, looking from Cally to Jabberwocky's fascia, all of them asking questions. Everyone was there but Avon, Tarrant and Dayna.

      "It's Tarrant," Cally said quickly. "He has been shot."

      "Not dead?" Jenna asked sharply. Though she and Tarrant were sometimes at odds over their shared pilot duties, the rivalry was a friendly one and she seemed furiously resentful that someone else would dare to threaten him.

      "No," Cally replied. "I would sense it if he died. Since we began the gestalt, I have a greater awareness of the rest of you. He lives - but he is gravely hurt. Dayna's there. I've told her to bring him back here. He can be treated here far better than in the base clinic."

      "That leaves a job for me," Hugh said, his face shaken. Tarrant was probably his closest friend on the ship. "Cally, I'll want you to assist me." He rushed out, making for the medical unit, and the others followed him.

      "Who did it?" Blake demanded of Cally as they ran.

      "I do not know. It was done from ambush; that is all Jabberwocky knows. He is struggling to maintain the link. It may be the only thing to keep Tarrant alive."

      "He nearly died once before," Soolin reminded them. "Will that make it harder this time?"

      "I can't answer that, Soolin," Hugh told her gently. "Is it that bad, Cally? Can you tell?"

      "I think perhaps it is nearly as bad," she replied. "I have contacted Avalon telepathically and warned her that there is a sniper in the bazaar, but there is no way to identify the assailant. Perhaps Tarrant saw him, I don't know."

      "Avon," Jabberwocky said in a curious voice. "It was Avon."

      Hugh cast a wild glance at Blake before he pushed into the medical unit, but Blake froze in the corridor. "Avon!" he burst out in shocked disbelief. "You can't mean Avon shot Tarrant."

      "He nearly pulled a gun on him two days ago. I saw it. I didn't think he meant it then. I thought something was bothering him and he put his hand on his gun, but Avon does things like that. I never thought it would lead to this, Blake. I'm sorry. It's all my fault."

      "It isn't possible," Jenna protested. "Avon wouldn't shoot Tarrant, and you know it, Jabberwocky. Maybe they don't always get along, but Avon risked his life to save Tarrant when Del Grant shot him. He'd hardly turn around and undo it now."

      "He's been acting strangely, though," Soolin replied.

      "Cally, get in here," Hugh called from the medical unit.

      She looked at Blake with anguish in her eyes and went into the room.

      "Blake, you can't believe it," Vila argued, even though he and Cally had been speculating about Servalan's influence over Avon only moments before it happened. "Avon shoots people face to face. He doesn't fight from hiding. That's never his way." He caught Blake's arm and shook it. "We've got to do something. If it goes round the base, what Jabberwocky said, he'll be in trouble."

      "I think it's too late to prevent that, Vila," Blake replied. "But if anyone wants to hurt him, they'll need to go through me. He wouldn't shoot Tarrant in his right mind. We both know that."

      "It's Servalan," Vila cried. "She's done something to him. I know she has. Better make sure she can't get away."

      "What could Servalan do?" Jenna asked sharply. "He hates her, especially since she tried to kill you, Blake."

      "It would certainly explain why he's been so strange lately, though," argued Soolin only to break off as Dayna came down the corridor carrying Tarrant in her arms and trailed by two of Avalon's uniformed port guards. A hasty bandage had been affixed to Tarrant's stomach, but it was already stained with blood. Dayna's face was worried as she pushed past them into the medical unit, and the two guards halted at the doorway. One of them, a stolid middle aged man Vila recognized as Fen Garret, turned to Blake. "We couldn't find anyone," he reported. "No one saw who did it. I've got people out now looking, and we'll join them. I think you can protect him here."

      "I think we can," Blake replied. He had gone pale at the sight of Tarrant and his resolve must have hardened. "Whoever did it will have to get through me to try again," he insisted.

      "And me," Soolin replied. "I'll get weapons for us, Blake." She set off with determination, her mouth set in a tight line.

      The guard looked around. "You're all here?" Craning forward, he peered into the medical unit, where Hugh and Cally had already bent over Tarrant and Dayna had folded her arms and assumed a place at the foot of the bed. "No, Avon's missing. I'll send out an alert to keep an eye for him in case this is aimed at your whole ship and not just Tarrant." He studied them in turn. "Avalon's been informed of it. We won't let whoever did it go free."

      "Better tell Avalon it might have to do with Servalan," Vila suggested unhappily. "We wonder if it isn't part of a plot to get her free. Tarrant's the obvious target, linked as he is with Jabberwocky. If he - if he dies, Servalan might think to slip in and link in his place." He saw startled realization dart across Blake's face and heard Jenna's gasp of realization.

      The guard paled. "We'll put an armed troop around the ship then. The last thing we want is for her to take Jabberwocky."

      Garrett and his mate waited until Soolin returned with weapons before they left the ship. Vila strapped his on, uneasily watching the others. He hadn't realized until he said it that an attack on Tarrant might be a plan to take over the ship, but once he'd said it, it seemed like there could be no other reason. It might explain Avon's actions too.

      "Blake," Vila began hesitantly as soon as the guards were gone, "You don't think Servalan's got Avon programmed, do you?"

      "Programmed?" Blake echoed in disbelief. "We've all been tested for programming before, Vila."

      "Maybe but it's never that conclusive, is it? It takes some trigger to bring it to the surface. No one would know otherwise. Look how it worked with Soolin."

      The gunfighter nodded. "I had no idea of it, Blake. Even after I'd begun to act on it, I didn't realize it. I suspected someone else."

      "Avon could have been programmed at Terminal," Vila reminded them. "Servalan had him then. She made him think you were there, Blake. Who knows what else she did. She's just the type to do something she didn't need then on the off chance she'd need it later. I don't trust her."

      "Vila's right," agreed Jenna. "I can see her doing something like that. I think you'd better call Avalon now, Blake. If Avon's been loose on the base computers all this time, who knows what he could have done. Have the port guards look for Avon. If he's programmed, he could get into more trouble than he could get out of."

      Blake leapt to obey, his face stricken and miserable.

      

      

Servalan knew it had begun when the force field enclosing her cell went down with only a sparkle of dispersing energy to mark it. The guard who was stationed to watch her was buried in a book viewer and didn't glance up. She waited a moment, knowing from her conversations with Avon that the shut down of the field would be accompanied with a fifteen minute tape loop. Only the guard was a problem.

      The second step of her plan arrived noisily in a flutter of arms and legs. Loren Witt, her former agent, who had been purged by Jabberwocky, came down the corridor strolling into the passage gracelessly. His sad-clown face was bright and merry and he greeted her with a delighted smile. "My lady, Servalan, I've come to visit you." He sounded simple, and she could never tell if he really were that way or if it were part of a plot to disarm everyone and convince them he was harmless.

      Her guard put aside his book viewer. "Ah, hello, Witt. You're looking well today."

      "I'm looking well," Witt repeated as if to convince himself. "I'm looking well, Marnin. I've come to see my lady Servalan." He smiled brightly at the guard and then suddenly lashed out with one long arm and slammed a fist against the man's chin. Marnin crumpled and lay still.

      Looking extraordinarily pleased with himself, Witt stared down at the body. "I did well, didn't I?" he asked her, then his face cleared. "Shall we go? I must say I've grown bored with seeming the fool in recent months. I may not be the telepath I once was and will be again, but I'm your man, my lady. As ever was." He took her hand and pressed his lips to it. "Come quickly. We'll have little time."

      "Time enough," she said. "Have you brought me a gun?"

      "Of course." He produced it and passed it over, and she checked its charge, satisfied with it.

      There were no guards in the corridor. Avon had done his work well. The base hummed along in its apparent safety, no alarms sounding, no troops massing, and they reached an outside door in perfect safety. Witt seemed himself again, though an occasional hesitation made her wonder if the damage Jabberwocky had inflicted on him might be permanent. He had once been the shrewdest agent she had known, amoral enough to suit even her, loyal only to her and to himself. Now he displayed extravagant devotion to her like an attendant worshipper and though the hard edge crept into his voice from time to time, it seemed slightly forced. Witt was with it enough to have deceived Avalon and her people, but a child could be deceptive. Servalan knew she could place no reliance on him.

      Together they immobilized the guard and put him into the cell, reinstating the force field. He would be found at the next change of shift but that was not for four more hours. By then the mindship would be hers.

      But for now, Witt was all she had. She followed him into the trees that backed the base, where he would guide her around the city and into the bazaar near the spaceport. There had been no alarms, no evidence that her escape had been discovered and she gloried in her freedom. By now Avon would have removed Tarrant, and the mindship would be free and waiting. The others would be too shaken to realize the need for another link so quickly, and by the time they did, it would be too late. The mindship would be hers.

      With Witt's experience to guide her, she had sought the aid of a psychostrategist some months previously, always anticipating that one day the mindship would be hers. Explaining the problem, she had sought a solution, and the only one available was a hypnotic block, geared to shut down and close herself off to an overload of data from the ship. The man had guaranteed it with his life, and she had smiled and agreed. Should it fail, should she die or become brain damaged, data guaranteed to implicate the man in criminal activity would be activated and his career would be at an end. He knew it too, so it was to his advantage to make certain it worked.

      Now all that remained was to reach the ship and form the linkage. With Witt to back her, she would take the ship. If she found herself a hostage along the way, so much the better.

      

      

Avon tripped over a guy wire that ran between two tents and would have fallen if someone hadn't shot out a hand and caught his arm to steady him. "Dad!" cried an all too familiar voice. "What are you doing here? I've been looking everywhere for you."

      He raised his eyes to find his son, Kyl, accompanied by his friend Ren Harlin, both boys looking worried. Ren's eyes darkened when he saw Avon study him, and he looked away.

      "Tarrant's been shot," Kyl burst out. "I wasn't sure if you knew, but everybody's looking for you."

      The news stabbed at Avon like a blade. He had refused to acknowledge his growing closeness to the rest of the crew, but since the development of the gestalt, it had been there inside him, growing slowly. It had nearly driven him to depart, for fear of watching them die, but he could not do that. Now as he received the news, it triggered his memories, the programming, the sight of a gun in his hand, his struggles to lower it, Tarrant falling and Dayna screaming his name. Avon flinched as if the charge had struck him, feeling the colour drain from his face.

      "Some of them say you did it," Ren offered hesitantly.

      "That's crazy!" Kyl burst out. "You can't believe that nonsense. Tarrant's Dad's friend. Why would he hurt him?"

      "You've heard what they're saying. He did it for Servalan."

      "But he hates Servalan," Kyl insisted.

      "You shouldn't be out here," Avon told his son in a voice that he held steady with a colossal effort. "It is too dangerous. Go home immediately."

      "No. I'm not a child. I'm out here to find you and to protect you. I don't think you did what some people are saying, but you look like something's wrong. Won't you tell me what it is?"

      His son's loyalty stabbed him with fresh pain. "Leave it," he snarled, determined to hold the boy at bay, to prevent him from any entanglement with Servalan's devious schemes. If he were truly programmed, there was no telling what he might do. Better to avoid everyone.

      "I won't leave it," Kyl replied, his spine stiffening with resolve. He glared at his father, a cold and steely look in his eyes that Avon had seen all too frequently - in a mirror. He had forgotten the strength of his son's determination, strength that had helped the boy break programming of his own. "I know something's wrong and I mean to find out what it is. We'll go back to Jabberwocky and let Blake help you. I know you trust Blake."

      "No. Servalan is out there. I won't risk you at the ship."

      Kyl's lips curled in amusement. "There's a greater risk for her. Avalon's got a whole guard troop around Jabberwocky. There's no way for Servalan to get in."

      "She means to get in," Avon insisted, forcing out the words with an effort. "The attempt on Tarrant's life is an attempt to free Jabberwocky for her control. Blake must know that."

      "Then you'll have to tell him. Come on, we'll go with you." He tightened his grip on his father's arm. "Help me, Ren."

      Ren took a hasty step backward, causing Avon a small inward smile. His son's friend had always been in awe of him, and Avon enjoyed the feeling. But this time the boy overcame it and joined Kyl, each of them gripping an arm.

      Eyes burning with outrage, Avon tried to struggle free, but though they were young, both boys were fit and strong and he doubted he could break free without risking injuring his son. That he would not do. So he subsided, resentment pouring through him, and allowed himself to walk tamely at their side.

      "Who did shoot Tarrant then?" Kyl asked. "Servalan?"

      "No," replied Avon coolly. "I rather suspect it was me."

      Kyl jerked as if he'd been struck. "You couldn't have done."

      "Any more than you could have tried to give Jabberwocky over to the Federation when I first met you?"

      "Oh." Kyl went silent a moment. "She's programmed you, hasn't she? Then what you need is Jabberwocky and Orac right away. Come on, Ren." New resolve crept into his voice. Programming was beyond his father's control and indicated no betrayal. Avon rather doubted Tarrant would be so forgiving.

      All the way back to the ship, he kept his eyes peeled for Servalan. It would be like her to try something in revenge, once she discovered her plans for Jabberwocky had been thwarted.

      

      

The news of Servalan's escape came to them via Jabberwocky while Tarrant was still in surgery, and Dayna, who had been shooed from the medical unit, beat the arm of her chair with a clenched fist so hard the metal dented. Raising frustrated eyes to Blake, she demanded, "What good am I?"

      Startled, he turned his thoughts from Servalan's escape to the girl beside him. "What?"

      "Useless. I've all these powers that go with my new body. Infrared scan, extra hearing, speed, better reflexes. Yet when all this began, what did I do? Nothing. Whoever shot Tarrant got away with it."

      "So far," Soolin told her. "They'll stop him."

      "But if it's Avon..." Vila began, his voice trailing off. "They'll kill him."

      "We don't know that," Blake replied, but his heart lurched at the thought. He should be out there searching for Avon, trying to protect him. He knew that Avon would never have hurt Tarrant in his right mind. Now Avon was out there, possibly programmed, certainly confused, definitely in danger. Blake gnawed his finger, trying to think of a solution, but one eluded him.

      "Blake?"

      He jumped, staring in astonished disbelief as Avon came down the corridor toward them, trailed by Kyl and his friend Ren. Both boys looked shaken and frightened, and Avon's face was white, his eyes shadowed. He came to a stop before Blake, who leaped to his feet and grasped his arm to steady him when Avon seemed to sway.

      "Avon, are you all right?"

      Ignoring the question, Avon pointed in the direction of the medical unit. "What of Tarrant?" he demanded. Though Blake thought he could see urgency in his eyes, his voice was strangely flat as if the question were a presumption on his part.

      "He's bad," Blake replied honestly. "But Hugh says not as bad as before. We think he'll make it. Jabberwocky's staying linked the whole time, feeding him what strength he can."

      "I see." Avon avoided Blake's eyes. "I'd like to talk to you privately," he admitted. "Just a minute." He turned to his son. "Kyl, you and Ren go home. This is no place for you. You've done your bit."

      Avon didn't sound either warm or conciliatory, but Kyl didn't take offence. "Are you sure it's all right?" he asked anxiously.

      Avon hesitated. "You may safely leave me to Blake," he said at length. "Go now and be careful. You might ask some of the guards outside to escort you home."

      The younger Avon hesitated a moment, then he nodded. "You'll give us word of Tarrant?" he asked.

      Avon flinched. "Someone will," he agreed.

      Kyl hung back a moment as if to hug his father, but seeing nothing in Avon's face to welcome the gesture, he decided against it. "Come on, Ren," he urged and hurried away quickly, not looking back.

      When he had gone, Avon turned back to Blake, ignoring the others. "In private, Blake," he insisted.

      "But, Avon," Vila began, only to fall silent when Avon favoured him with a repressive glare. Gesturing at Vila and the others to leave it, Blake nodded. "All right, Avon. We'll go to your quarters."

      "Be careful, Blake," Soolin said under her breath, but Avon heard her.

      "A moment, Blake," he said, and removed his gun from its holster, passing it to Soolin. "Does that satisfy you?" he asked her.

      It seemed as good as an admission he had shot Tarrant, and the others must have thought so too, for he heard Jenna draw in a sharp breath, and Dayna stepped forward, her face unreadable.

      Avon stared at them a moment, then all trace of expression left his face, and he walked away. Like his son, he did not look back.

      Blake said quickly, "It'll be all right," and followed him.

      They went to Avon's cabin, where Avon peeled off his gunbelt and flung it on the top of his desk. The room was meticulously tidy, as it usually was, but Avon did not seem to care, for he removed his outer jacket and tossed it casually onto a chair before turning to Blake. He looked braced for the ordeal ahead, and he had meticulously schooled himself to present an abstract face, but his eyes were full of pain.

      "I suspect you already know," he said, "That I shot Tarrant."

      "We'd guessed as much. Jabberwocky thought you meant to try something the other day. But it's programming, isn't it, Avon? Servalan did it?"

      "Oh yes," Avon replied. "I remember little of it. I can't recall the trigger phrase, but parts of it are clear. I don't know why I remember the Tarrant parts so well."

      "Maybe because you fought them harder," Blake suggested. He was careful to avoid overt sympathy, certain Avon would not tolerate it.

      "Perhaps." Avon could fake indifference beautifully, but Blake knew him too well for that. He couldn't hurt one of them without hurting himself.

      "Servalan is free," Blake told him. "But I think you knew that."

      "I suspected it. I have some gaps in my memory, Blake, most of which are connected to work on Avalon's computers. No doubt I programmed her escape into the system. I rather suspect she has recruited Witt again."

      "We're aware of that. The word is out. You've seen how well we're protected here. We guessed the attack on Tarrant was to free Jabberwocky so she could take on the link. No doubt she's discovered a way to protect herself from the overload Jabberwocky would have inflicted upon her the moment she'd tried."

      "Yes. She prepares herself well in advance. I suspect she programmed me at Terminal. Nothing very complex, Blake, simply to obey her commands."

      "When Tarrant - when Hugh finishes the surgery, we can have Orac remove the programming," Blake volunteered. "Avon, look at me. I know - all of us know - you wouldn't have done it deliberately."

      "I am certain that makes a great difference to Tarrant."

      "It will. We've been through this before. We've countered programming. I hope this is the last of it, but we know it can be done." Avon looked so unhappy that Blake longed to comfort him, but the walls that Avon wore seemed higher today.

      "For now, lock me in here," Avon said quietly. "Have Jabberwocky shut down my computer link and seal the door. Put one of the port guards outside it if you will."

      "Avon, I-"

      "If you say, 'I trust you,' I will know for certain what a fool you are. You don't dare trust me, Blake."

      "I trust you, Avon. The programming isn't you and it never was. You'd not free Servalan nor hurt Tarrant in your right mind and the others know that."

      "Do they?" he asked tartly. "I'm sure that Soolin and Jenna would happily throw me from the ship, and Dayna wasn't looking pleased just now. Even Vila - he looked frightened of me, Blake. Frightened of me. Vila. I can't-" He broke off, turning away abruptly. "Leave me here. When - afterwards, you might spare me Orac. Or rather," he added, "You might use Orac to rid me of Servalan's work."

      Blake's heart ached for him, but there was nothing else he could do. "Do you want me to wait with you?" he offered tentatively, certain Avon would refuse.

      Avon did. "Leave me, Blake. For all we know, I have been programmed to kill you too. You represent a major threat to Servalan. No doubt she'd happily remove you."

      "I doubt she could make you do it," Blake replied positively.

      Startled, Avon stared at him, then something eased in his face. "Optimism, Blake?" he asked.

      "No," Blake replied, locking eyes with Avon. "Certainty."

      The tension left Avon's rigid pose and for a moment, he almost smiled. Then he shook his head. "In my right mind, I could agree with you," he said in a curiously gentle tone. "Go now, Blake."

      Blake smiled sadly and left the room.

      

      

The minute Blake was gone, Avon went across the room and lay upon his bed. Closing his eyes, he sank into the healing state, something he had learned to do without being boosted by Jabberwocky or Cally. It had been some time since he had practised healing, using it with extreme reluctance and only in an emergency, but this was an emergency. Programming was done to the mind and his healing worked best on things of the mind. Unless he did this now, he might endanger one of the others. Bad enough he had tried already. Unthinkable that he would try again.

      Uncomfortable with the knowledge of himself this would reveal, he hesitated in the meditative state, seeking the strength to go on. He doubted programming could influence him here, since this was beyond the realm of Servalan's experience, but it was better to shield himself. Cally had taught him to set barriers in his mind to keep his fledgling telepathy from inadvertently intruding upon her, and while he had not enjoyed the lessons, he had come to realize they were necessary. Though, like Cally, he could not receive from those who were not telepathic, he found it easier to sense emotions, and that was a gift he did not welcome. So he had strengthened barricades to avoid it and only lowered them when necessary, or with Cally in the privacy of one of their cabins. Sometimes, he realized with shock, he did it around Blake. Looking back on this realization, he realized that he did it around Blake automatically, only raising the shields when the interaction was likely to be difficult, as it had been just now. Even so, Blake's worry for him and for Tarrant had leaked through the cracks.

      Now he put up those walls again, trying to shape them to hold Servalan at bay. He firmed up an image of her in his mind and designed a wall to keep her out. Only when he was certain it would hold did he let himself seek the fire that was the essence of his healing power.

      He found it quickly enough. The images of his healing were almost entirely visual, and presently he found himself standing in a ruined town, most of the structures flattened and splintered as if by a long-ago war. One building stood, rising before him in the distance like a beckoning finger, and he headed toward it, alerted by the traces of light that filtered out of holes in its sides.

      The closer he got to the building the more his steps lagged. It was a dark and ominous place, made of something like obsidian, yet there was no shine to the surface, as if the years had dulled it to a dreary matt finish. Along the walls were long and jagged cracks as if something had been trying to break its way in - or out - for some time. There were boarded over windows as well, and here and there a board was missing, showing a faint gleam of yellow light, pale and flickering like a fire.

      Pausing outside the building, he circled it, seeking an entrance, but he found none. The pale yellow light tempted him; something about it drew him, compelling him closer, and he found himself picking up a small rock and trying to batter his way inside. The tower had a strange power that drew and repelled him at the same time. He wanted to go in, but another part of him ached to turn and flee.

      Then, remarkably, he was inside and he saw a vast, empty room, rising high and echoing above his head. In the exact centre of the hard marble floor, someone had constructed a bonfire that blazed fiercely. Shadows passed before it from time to time and some of them looked familiar. They held out hands to the fire and came away warmed. Other shadows drew near and then fled as if afraid the heat would burn them, but they returned to try again.

      The shadows had no form, only outline, but they looked familiar, and he suspected they were the echoes of his crewmates, those who had shared linkage with him, shared healing, shared gestalt. That one darting shadow kept coming back for more, stretching out hands to warm itself, and he knew it was the essence of Vila Restal. Another shadow sat contentedly beside the fire, swaying back and forth, leaning close and pulling back as the fire moved. Cally. How easily she had fitted herself into his life. How much she gave and how little she took, yet were she to go, he would feel the emptiness where she had been.

      Other shadows came and went, sometimes seeming content, sometimes unsatisfied, one of them in particular catching his attention. It faded before his eyes then reformed, drifting automatically to the fire as if seeking completion, and to his surprise he saw a burst of smoke drift away from the flames and give it more substance. Dayna?

      One shadow continually darted toward the flames as if prodding it, refusing to give ground. It occasionally found a bit of smoke to feed back to the fire, and Avon knew from the support offered that it was Hugh.

      The shadows that came and went were Soolin and Jenna, and though he was close to neither woman, it was surprising how easy it was to tell one from the other.

      Tarrant was there too, some distance from the fire, quiescent yet complete, and the awareness Avon felt of him indicated he would recover. But Tarrant held back now and Avon knew there was much between them that would need to be resolved before Tarrant could feed at his warmth again.

      Another shadow held no shape but it was everywhere, always supportive. Jabberwocky? He nodded as he recognized the essence of the computer.

      That was when he saw the final shadow. At first he had scarcely noticed it, thinking it was part of the fire, for it rose from it and sank back again and again as if it were part of the same life. Without it, the flames would smother, yet with it, they danced higher and brighter than Avon had believed possible. It took more than flame to be complete. At the sight of Blake, Avon realized he was smiling.

      But other shadows lurked near, formless and malevolent. In a way they reminded him of snakes, twisting nearer and nearer, oozing in through the cracks in the wall. It had to be Servalan's programming.

      It had pervaded the entire structure, a part of it oozing out to touch Tarrant, the rest of it curling toward the fire as if to smother it. None of the others could help him fight it. Avon recognized the battle ahead of him and went forward to meet it, merging himself with the flames.

      Before he moved, Avon had felt the compelling warmth the fire was capable of emitting, had felt the pull of it, the pleasure of basking in its glow. But the moment he entered it, he was shocked at its intense cold, as if it gave off heat sparingly but allowed none for itself. The coldness was bonechilling, agonizing, and he froze there, trapped in the ice at the core of the blaze. It took a colossal effort to shake himself free of the icy torpor to join with it so that he could move again.

      Now for the programming. Avon controlled the fire, directing it, aiming it at the smoke snakes that wove their way about the tower. With lethal accuracy he sent out tendrils of flame, searing and charring them to nothing. One by one, he sought them out, pinning them in the accuracy of his attack. With satisfaction, he watched them dissipate, blowing away in the breeze, oozing apart, becoming nothing at all.

      He wasn't sure how long he fought the programming, but it seemed to take a long time. He noticed that the shadows of his comrades drew back to let him work, and he was careful to allow his fire to touch none of them. They could be destroyed, or at least their form within his mind could be detached, and he did not wish it. It might be easier to go on without these obligations, but he could not quite do that.

      When the programming had been eradicated, he looked around the tower and saw that it was a barren place, cold and empty, and that the only note of warmth was the heat he spared his comrades. Odd that they could take comfort from him when he had none to spare for himself. He was shivering, freezing, burning with the cold. It was time to separate from his inner core and become himself again.

      But the healing urge within him hesitated. Surely he could not walk away from this. Jabberwocky's fire had burned cold too, trapped within the core of a spaceship with nothing to warm himself but the link and his intellect. Avon had shown him the pleasures that were still his, the caring his crew felt for him, and helped him back to warmth. Could he do the same for himself?

      Did he even wish it?

      Shivering, he pondered it. His nature was to be separate, solitary. He had learned through bitter experience that to allow others into the tower only resulted in pain in the end. The places along the sides of the tower where the walls had thickened were the places where people like Anna had been, people like his wife Arda, dead so long ago at the Federation's hands, his brother Terrick, other people who had come into his life, fought their way past the tower's walls and warmed themselves so briefly at his fire. He knew, without understanding how he knew, that his fire had burned hot when they were with him. But they had gone, sucking away the heat as they went, drawing it from him until he was loath to offer any more.

      Here in his centre, he could see it clearly, in its most simplistic form. What could he offer himself but the same risks that had all but killed him before?

      No. Better not to try. Better to leave himself as he was.

      The smoke image of Blake returned then, as did the others, dancing around the edges of the flames and he knew they could feel a warmth from him. More fools them. If they came too close, they would burn themselves. Touching an object that was bitterly cold left a burning sensation, didn't it? Those who came too close to him would burn one way or another, and it was better for him to maintain this icy facade so he would not burn himself with them.

      But he had not let the others go unhealed. Odd, when he hated the gift so much, that it would prod him so relentlessly. Staring at the shadow images that surrounded him, he focussed on the Cally image. She demanded little from him, demanded little and gave much. How many times had he warmed himself at the fire at the core of her, taking comfort from the sharing as well as physical gratification. Cally would know if she were being used, and he had touched nothing of the martyr in her. Would she stay with him if he reinforced the tower's walls? Would he miss her if she went? A part of him protested automatically. Abandon Cally? It was not to be thought of.

      Vila's image darted forward too, lingering just beyond the reach of the flames. Vila always came back, no matter how intense their sparring matches became. Vila enjoyed the game as much as he did, and Vila backed him quietly, without seeming to do so. It seemed strange to admit it, but Vila had become a friend. Though the thief often irritated him, Avon had never given up on him. The game had strange rules, but both of them enjoyed it. He didn't want to end it.

      Then there was Blake. Blake had changed since he joined the crew of Jabberwocky. Once entirely too driven, he had still drawn the reluctant Avon to bask at his fire, and Avon had often done so, making excuses for it, pretending he did not need Blake and could leave at any time. Yet finding Blake again, shooting him so wrongly, watching him recover, Avon had not shut him out. There were no reinforced walls to keep Blake at bay. There never had been. And even if he had tried, Avon suspected Blake would have found ways around them and come through anyway. Blake was so nearly a part of his own fire that for him to shut Blake out permanently would be to quench his own flames. Once he would have hated to admit a need like that, a vulnerability, a road to the possibility of pain. Now he knew he could not detach Blake without leaving raw wounds behind. It would be an amputation, leaving behind it the ghost pain an amputee often feels. The nerve endings would never die.

      Avon realized he was trembling violently, burning up in his own inner coldness. He must stand free of himself to work his healing. Here inside, he could only feel the damage. Once apart from the flames he might try to heal himself. It might be difficult, perhaps even impossible, but he had to try. If he failed, at least he had this much.

      Stepping forward, he tried to move out of the flames, only to jerk to a halt when he realized that the cold fire had moved with him. Turning to look at the place where he had been, he saw no trace of fire there. Instead it burned around him, one with him, unwilling to let him go.

      Startled but not yet alarmed, he tried once more, making a conscious effort to detach himself, but the result was the same. He had settled into the cold core of his being and he could not draw free.

      Raising his hands before his face, he drew a horrified breath as he saw only dancing flames. He had no hands, no body. He was trapped here, caught in a prison of his own making. He could never be free.

      Struggling wildly, he fought the fire, unable to touch it. The harder he struggled the colder it became. Finally, numbed and clumsy, he allowed the banked fires to sink down into a frozen kernel of fire, knowing he had achieved at last what he had long claimed he sought, complete isolation. Even Blake's shadow hovered a little distance away, and the others had drawn back too. For the first time, Avon tried to reach them, calling their names, but they didn't seem to hear him. He was trapped.

      

      

"No word on Servalan yet," Jenna announced as she turned away from the intercom.

      "She won't be easily caught," Dayna agreed. She had begun pacing up and down the corridor, glancing at her watch from time to time, her tension all too evident. Blake watched her and smiled faintly. Anyone who said that this was not really Dayna would realize their mistake if they saw her now. Her feelings were obviously genuine. "I hate this," she burst out. "Waiting like this. It's been too long, hasn't it?"

      "Not that long," Vila told her. "It just seems that way. Hugh's good. Well, he is, isn't he?" he demanded when no one responded.

      "Of course he is." That was Jabberwocky, taking a part in the conversation for the first time. "He's doing very well."

      "Jabberwocky," burst out Soolin. "Is Tarrant..."

      "Hugh's not quite finished," the computer explained. "But he thinks it's going well, and Del seems stronger. He'll be all right. I can reach him now." They could hear the smile in Jabberwocky's voice and the tension snapped.

      "I knew it all along," murmured Vila. "I said it would be all right, didn't I?" He grinned broadly. Then the smile faltered a little. "Somebody better go tell Avon."

      "I'll wait for Hugh's official word," Blake decided. "That'll come better. Avon's bound to require certainties."

      "And so he should," Dayna replied. "I know it's programming, but he should have resisted it."

      "It's not always possible," Soolin told her. "I shot Hugh under programming. Don't you think I'd have done everything possible to avoid shooting Hugh, Dayna? I couldn't stop myself."

      "Avon didn't easily forgive you for it either," Dayna reminded her. "Yet you're defending him."

      "Oh well then, Avon's not a forgiving person," Vila remarked knowingly. "Makes it hard on him. How easily do you think he'll forgive himself. Had Blake lock him away, didn't he?"

      "Knowing Avon, he can get out of that room any time he wants to," Jenna observed.

      "He is still there," Jabberwocky put in. "He is sleeping."

      "Sleeping!" objected Dayna. "We're sitting here waiting for news of Tarrant and he's sleeping."

      "He would say sitting here serves no useful purpose," Blake reminded her. "Avon rarely falls prey to sentiment."

      "Yet you love him," Dayna replied wonderingly. "You have masochistic tendencies, Blake."

      He grinned. "Perhaps I do. I haven't been disappointed though."

      "Cally won't turn her back on him either," Vila insisted. He took a dramatically defiant stance. "Neither will I."

      "And you'd say that to Avon's face, would you, Vila?" Soolin asked him, amusement lighting her eyes.

      "Well, no, perhaps I wouldn't," the thief replied. "Not suicidal, am I?"

      "Suicidal?" echoed Dayna, unwilling to yield her annoyance. "Del wasn't suicidal either, and look where he is right now."

      "Dayna," said Blake gently, joining her and putting a hand on her shoulder. "You've always been close to Avon. Don't hate him for this. You couldn't hate him any more than he hates himself anyway."

      Dayna looked startled. "How does one ever tell what Avon is thinking?"

      "Easy," Vila crowed. "I always can."

      "Oh yes," she remarked darkly. "I used to see you always telling on Liberator."

      "That's different, and besides, I knew then too. I was just more cautious. You've been in the bloody gestalt with Avon, Dayna. Doesn't that make a difference?"

      She spun round and faced him. "I've been in it, yes, but it's a little different for me. I don't link in easily any more. Link-mode works well for me, but gestalt is much harder." Then she relaxed a little. "All right. I do understand. But it's harder because it's Avon. If one of you had shot Del, I don't think it would have been so difficult."

      "You had put him on a pedestal," said Soolin knowingly. For all her reluctance to get involved, she was pretty decent at getting to the heart of people's problems. "He hasn't fallen off. Servalan's pushed him. If you blame Avon for this, you let her win."

      Dayna froze, then relaxed. "You're right," she admitted. "All right. I won't hold it against him."

      The medical unit door swished open as if Hugh had timed it - perhaps he had. He emerged with Cally behind him, smiling wearily.

      "Well, it's finished," he said with a reassuring expression on his face. "Tarrant will be fine. It was a nasty wound, very messy, but a lot of the damage was superficial."

      "And a lot was not," Cally said. "Don't deny your skill, Hugh." She came forward and touched Blake's arm. "He'll be waking up in several hours. In the meantime, Servalan. Has she escaped?"

      Blake filled them in. "I don't know if we can help to find her," he said. "And in fact I don't mean to leave the ship untended. Jabberwocky says Avon's sleeping, so we'll give him a little longer while we learn the status quo. I want Tarrant watched, though. Soolin, you stay."

      "I'll stay," Hugh volunteered. "I'd do it in any case."

      "True, but I want someone here who's good with a gun. Servalan wants the mindship, and Tarrant's vulnerable now."

      "Vulnerable with a whole port guard troop surrounding the ship?" Jenna asked in disbelief.

      "When it's Servalan," Blake reminded her, "anything is possible."

      Leaving Soolin and Hugh behind, the rest of them went to the flight deck. The guard who had been stationed there looked relieved to see them and at a nod from Blake went out to join his fellows around the ship. Blake activated the main screen to give himself a view of the area outside, and was reassured to find no less than twenty guards standing watch. Servalan was hardly likely to have a small army with her.

      Messages to Avalon proved that Witt was missing, which meant he was likely with Servalan. Cally had said Witt's telepathy was powerful but uncontrolled, and the most he'd done with it lately was to learn how to shut out other people's thoughts. A strong broadcast from him would feel like someone yelling at the top of his lungs in a person's ear, and while there were worse things, Cally suggested they form a surface link so she could help to shut him out if he tried to attack them that way.

      "I hope she didn't see Kyl when he was going home," Blake worried, and put through a call to the Harlin residence. Kyl himself answered and began asking questions about Tarrant. Blake was able to reassure him, and Kyl provided some reassurance of his own when he admitted that Avalon had sent along more guards to protect him. He sounded as though he resented it, but he had gone along with the plan.

      With one less problem out of the way, Blake turned back to his crew. "Now we just have to worry about Servalan," he said.

      "No, Blake," Jabberwocky burst out with sudden alarm. "There's a new problem. Avon."

      "What about Avon?" cried Blake, leaping to his feet.

      "He's not just sleeping," Jabberwocky began ominously, and Blake felt the colour drain from his face.

      "Not dead?"

      "No, he is alive, Blake," said Cally, her face furrowed with concentration. "But I cannot touch him. He has gone, somehow. He is there, but very far away."

      They stared at each other in horrified concern, then Blake set off at a run for Avon's cabin and the others thundered after him.

      The guard was still there, and he stared at them in amazement as they bore down on him. "Stand aside," Blake ordered, reaching for the lock controls and programming them open. The door slid back and he and Cally plunged in together, Vila only half a step behind. The others paused in the doorway.

      At first glance, Avon looked peacefully asleep, his body still, his breathing deep and regular, but after a moment, Blake realized that this was not normal sleep. Occasionally slight twitches stirred his hands and feet, and behind his closed lids, his eyes moved back and forth. Blake put a hand to the side of Avon's neck to feel for a pulse and discovered it a little elevated. But his heart was beating normally. Avon lived, but when Cally touched his arm and called his name, there was no response.

      "What's wrong with him?" asked Vila in a small, frightened voice. "Something else Servalan did?"

      Blake wondered at his tone then, for he suspected if Servalan were to walk into the room, Vila would display none of his customary unease but would dispatch her without hesitation.

      "I do not think so," Cally replied. "This is something different."

      "He looks the way he's done when he's gone into his healing mode," Jenna observed from the doorway. "When he and Cally tried to heal you, Blake, he looked a lot like this."

      "But that was in the medical unit in a controlled setting," Blake burst out.

      "He doesn't need the medical unit or a controlled setting," Vila reminded him. "He did his mumbo jumbo on me on the flight deck. He doesn't need Jabberwocky to do it any more and hasn't for a long time. Do you know what I think? I think he's trying to get rid of the programming on his own. Maybe we better leave him until he's finished."

      "Could he heal programming?" Blake cried in astonishment.

      "It is of the mind," replied Cally. "I think he could do it, though it might prove difficult." She frowned, her hand still resting upon Avon's arm. "I fear there is more to this than that."

      "Something Servalan arranged?" Dayna asked darkly.

      "No, I do not sense her. This is more than that. Avon's instincts for healing are very good, Blake. He has never had formal training though I have tried to do what I could. When someone is in need, he must often fight his instinct to offer them help. He hates the gift and, I think, fears it, for it allows people too close to him. But the instinct will not go away. He might choose voluntarily not to use it, but it is still a part of him. Even before it emerged, I believe the instinct was there. He tried to comfort me in his own way after Servalan destroyed my people, and he has never been cruel to those in real need."

      "Make your point, Cally," Blake said more sharply than he intended, his concern for Avon overriding all else.

      "Very well, it is this. Avon was forced to go into himself to eradicate the programming. When there, he would have seen his own psyche. There are wounds within Avon which have never healed. I fear his instinct to heal would have overpowered his common sense. I think he tried to do what he does upon himself."

      "Is that possible?" Blake asked in disbelief.

      "Perhaps a skilled Auron healer might do it, but I do not believe that Avon could do it. Though he is an expert at detachment, it might be impossible for him to maintain the objectivity necessary when the wounds he must heal are his own. I fear he has become trapped within himself."

      "The way Blake was when Witt forced him from the link?" Jenna said on a note of realization.

      "Not quite in the same way, perhaps, but yes. He would be aware, of course, with the knowledge he was trapped. It could - do great harm to him."

      "Then what must we do, Cally?" Blake asked. "None of us are healers. Could you go in and find him if Jabberwocky helped you?"

      "Perhaps. I will try, of course."

      "You're too tired, Cally," said Jenna quickly. "You've just spent several hours assisting Hugh with Tarrant."

      Cally turned to Jenna. "I must try to help him. He has become a part of me, but even were he a stranger, there is no one else who can do it."

      "What about the gestalt," suggested Vila. "If we went into gestalt, we could at least give you strength."

      "It would leave this ship quite vulnerable," said Dayna coolly.

      "Quite vulnerable with a guard troop outside?" scoffed Vila. "Besides, Soolin's protecting Tarrant and if anyone can do it, she can."

      "Jabberwocky," Blake called. "Can you manage the gestalt and still scan for Servalan?"

      "I am still giving Tarrant strength," Jabberwocky replied. "To do that and help Avon would drain me still further. I will do it, but when it is finished, I will be forced to power down everything but the medical unit."

      "I'll remain outside the link," volunteered Dayna. "Someone must watch the flight deck. We'll send the guard here to do that and I'll guard the rest of you."

      Blake knew she was right. The only limitation they had found in Dayna's new android form was a difficulty to join in the gestalt experience. She would be unable to offer much strength for the bond, but she was skilled with a gun and could give them protection.

      "I can't think of anyone I'd trust to do it as well," Blake told her.

      When Dayna had gone to stand outside and dispatched the guard to watch the flight deck, Blake drew up chairs beside Avon's bed and sat down. Cally and Vila sat on either side of him, and Jenna beyond Cally. Clasping hands, they allowed Jabberwocky to take them into link mode.

      Blake had always welcomed link-mode, from the very first time he had tried it, and even now, with the threat to Avon hanging over them, he relished the heightened awareness it gave him. The others were there too, old friends, good companions, members of his original crew, and it felt natural to see them this way.

      When Jabberwocky deepened the contact, all of them welcomed it. Blake could feel the bright spirit of Vila, Cally's quiet strength, Jenna's fire, and he let it sink into himself, absorbing and giving in one as they submerged their separate personalities into each other. These four knew each other well, so there was no hesitation, only a brief pause to divert energy to Cally, who would lead their quest for Avon. Blake had known all along that he must be there too, and that knowledge went through the gestalt with certainty.

      //It will be you who will bring him out, Blake,// Cally sent to him. //It must be.//

      The others agreed, and Blake let himself be guided by Cally and Jabberwocky. At first they/he could see nothing but confused images, then they melted away and they/he stood on a blasted plain, amid the ruins of a once magnificent city. The lone tower that emerged, damaged but defiant, from the rubble around it stood like a beacon, light oozing from the cracks in its facade.

      //There.// All of them spoke as one, like a Greek chorus. //He's there.//

      //Come.// They drifted across the devastated city and approached the tower, hesitating outside, seeking an entrance. For a moment, the building blocked them, for it lacked doors and windows. Then instinct took over. This was a fortress Blake had breached many times already, and he knew the way in. Without hesitation, the group moved as one, through one of the many cracks in the walls. Curiously the crack was just the right shape to admit them.

      The interior of the black tower was nearly as wasted as the city outside. Smoke shadows danced around a tiny fire, and Blake/Cally/Vila/Jenna drew back in momentary recognition as they sensed their own images before them. Then the shadows drifted forward and touched them and they knew they had found the parts of them that lived in Avon's mind. Though the shadows had no real consciousness there, they knew the territory, and they guided the gestalt around the one tall room, showing them places where hasty and awkward reinforcements had covered jagged holes in the walls.

      //Blocking out Anna, maybe.// The thought seemed to come from all of them at once.

      //Or any pain.// That was Cally, taking the lead. //The fire,// she added. //Come to the fire.//

      The gestalt strode over to the fire and looked at it. Cally//they put out her//their hands and a faint but consistent warmth spread through them.

      //I will touch it,// Cally said and did so. A moment later, she had jerked back her hands but not before the others had felt the agony of the flames' coldness.

      He gave heat but held none for himself. Blake//the others felt the pain of that, and knew that that must change before Avon could be freed. Stepping closer, he looked at the flames, half imagining he could see Avon's face amid them. That was where Avon was trapped.

      //Call him, Cally,// he urged.

      //I will, but you must back me.// She stepped forward again and stretched her hand toward the fire. //Avon, it is Cally. Come to me, beloved.//

      The flames shifted uneasily but nothing else happened. Cally's fear for Avon ran through them all.

      //No.// That was Vila. //It needs more than that, Cally. Don't you see, he's trapped in there. He can't come out on his own. He went in to fight the programming, and stayed to help himself; I'm sure of it. But I don't think he's ever known how to help himself. It's always easier with other people.//

      Blake/the gestalt was certain Vila was right, and not for the first time, he/they felt a surge of surprise at Vila's unexpected depths. //What do you suggest?// he/they asked.

      //Easy. Someone must go in and bring him out.//

      Easy? Perhaps, but they doubted it. It would hurt, and that fact alone would be a deterrent. But the flaming face that was Avon wore a look of total agony, cold and frightened, not entirely aware of them. Perhaps he could draw a little warmth from the shadows that lived here, but they had drawn back now to let their real counterparts do what they could.

      //I'll do it.// Blake tensed to prepare for the ordeal. //It must be me, Cally.//

      She felt his understanding; all of them did. She knew her importance to Avon, but Avon's need for Blake was of another order. //Yes, you must go,// she agreed. //But carefully, Blake. Stay too long and you will be trapped with him.//

      He felt Jenna's fear for him, Vila's worry for them both and Cally's gentle strength that could stand up to devastation. It could be enough.

      Carefully, he loosened the bonds that made him a part of the gestalt, maintaining only the routine link-mode, now that he was here. He could still feel the others, but he could not think their thoughts nor feel their pain. It was better that way.

      He hesitated a moment. //Avon, I am coming for you.//

      Suddenly the flames flared up and the face within them held a warning. Avon was aware of him and knew the risks. But Blake accepted them. Bracing himself, he stepped into the fire.

      For the first moments, he could do nothing but react to the bitter coldness. Then a part of his mind pushed it to one side. This was not his physical body, so the physical pain was unimportant. He knew Cally was with him, encouraging him to believe it, and after a few moments, he could shunt the pain aside, still aware of it, but less tightly bound up in it. It became a mere annoyance like a persistent toothache.

      Turning his back on it, he looked for Avon.

      At first he saw nothing but fire, but then the flames seemed to solidify and Avon stood before him, looking entirely normal, if one didn't see the anguish in his eyes. "Blake," he said in a surprised voice, then it grew angry. "Go away, Blake."

      "You can't protect me against my will, Avon."

      "Who suggested I was trying to protect you?"

      "It was obvious. I know you too well, my friend. I know where we are and why we are here, and I think it's time for you to come home."

      "Impossible."

      "Is it? What about my presence here with you. Surely you would have considered that impossible?"

      "Cally and Jabberwocky - the gestalt?" Blake nodded. Avon went on. "It will not work in here, Blake. This is my province. Healing. I am reputed to be a healer. Have you heard the phrase, 'Physician, heal thyself?' It is impossible, Blake."

      "Alone, perhaps. You've already come a long way, Avon. When I consider the man I faced before we reached Star One, I sometimes have to stand back and tell myself how lucky I am."

      "Lucky?" Scorn cut through Avon's voice like acid. "Lucky when I all but killed Tarrant. I can offer you nothing, Blake. Nothing but pain, nothing but death. It is all I have ever given those I - cared for. Or else it was their gift to me, like Anna. She made me kill her, but first she killed the part of me that still lived."

      "Nonsense. Wallow in self pity all you will, but Anna didn't have any more power over her than you gave her. I admit she hurt you, but she's dead now. She's also a convenient scapegoat. It's safer to use her as a talisman, to prevent attachments. But it doesn't really work. So you must work all the harder to pretend you don't care. I know you care, my friend. You've told me in a place much like this. I don't expect you to drop your guard entirely and wallow in sentiment. I rather like your sharp edges and your acid tongue."

      "The more fool you," snapped Avon. But in spite of his determined insistence that Blake leave him, he hadn't turned away and that gave Blake hope.

      "Then we'll call it a given and work from there."

      "It wasn't only Tarrant I shot," Avon went on in a thin voice that held only a desperate determination. "I shot you on Gauda Prime. I failed to save Dayna."

      "If we're to compare faults, I think I can do better than you. Gan's death was entirely my fault. No programming, no misunderstandings. I meant to destroy Star One, to kill millions of innocent people to prove a point. I doubt you can compare with that. Your problem, Avon, is that you are an honourable man, but you don't believe it's safe, so you war against yourself. Do you think I'd come in here after you, if I didn't want you back. Do you think Vila, Cally and Jenna would go into gestalt with me to help if they didn't want you back. The others would be here too but they've other tasks."

      "Protecting this ship, Jabberwocky and Tarrant, I presume," Avon returned sharply.

      "Exactly."

      "Thanks to me."

      "Thanks to Servalan. Damn it, Avon, this is not your fault. You can't always protect us, and you can't always save us, but that doesn't mean you've failed. It means you're human, no more, no less. But in spite of that, in spite of your stubbornness and your touch-me-not attitude, in spite of everything about you that irritates me, I'd rather have you with me. I think we've come too close to pull apart now. It would be like an amputation."

      Avon tensed, and Blake realized with sudden insight that Avon had used the same analogy himself. He felt it too.

      When Jabberwocky deepened the contact, all of them welcomed it. Blake could feel the bright spirit of Vila, Cally's quiet strength, Jenna's fire, and he let it sink into himself, absorbing and giving in one as they submerged their separate personalities into each other. These four knew each other well, so there was no hesitation, only a brief pause to divert energy to Cally, who would lead their quest for Avon. Blake had known all along that he must be there too, and that knowledge went through the gestalt with certainty.

      //It will be you who will bring him out, Blake,// Cally sent to him. //It must be.//

      The others agreed, and Blake let himself be guided by Cally and Jabberwocky. At first they/he could see nothing but confused images, then they melted away and they/he stood on a blasted plain, amid the ruins of a once magnificent city. The lone tower that emerged, damaged but defiant, from the rubble around it stood like a beacon, light oozing from the cracks in its facade.

      //There.// All of them spoke as one, like a Greek chorus. //He's there.//

      //Come.// They drifted across the devastated city and approached the tower, hesitating outside, seeking an entrance. For a moment, the building blocked them, for it lacked doors and windows. Then instinct took over. This was a fortress Blake had breached many times already, and he knew the way in. Without hesitation, the group moved as one, through one of the many cracks in the walls. Curiously the crack was just the right shape to admit them.

      The interior of the black tower was nearly as wasted as the city outside. Smoke shadows danced around a tiny fire, and Blake/Cally/Vila/Jenna drew back in momentary recognition as they sensed their own images before them. Then the shadows drifted forward and touched them and they knew they had found the parts of them that lived in Avon's mind. Though the shadows had no real consciousness there, they knew the territory, and they guided the gestalt around the one tall room, showing them places where hasty and awkward reinforcements had covered jagged holes in the walls.

      //Blocking out Anna, maybe.// The thought seemed to come from all of them at once.

      //Or any pain.// That was Cally, taking the lead. //The fire,// she added. //Come to the fire.//

      The gestalt strode over to the fire and looked at it. Cally//they put out her//their hands and a faint but consistent warmth spread through them.

      //I will touch it,// Cally said and did so. A moment later, she had jerked back her hands but not before the others had felt the agony of the flames' coldness.

      He gave heat but held none for himself. Blake//the others felt the pain of that, and knew that that must change before Avon could be freed. Stepping closer, he looked at the flames, half imagining he could see Avon's face amid them. That was where Avon was trapped.

      //Call him, Cally,// he urged.

      //I will, but you must back me.// She stepped forward again and stretched her hand toward the fire. //Avon, it is Cally. Come to me, beloved.//

      The flames shifted uneasily but nothing else happened. Cally's fear for Avon ran through them all.

      //No.// That was Vila. //It needs more than that, Cally. Don't you see, he's trapped in there. He can't come out on his own. He went in to fight the programming, and stayed to help himself; I'm sure of it. But I don't think he's ever known how to help himself. It's always easier with other people.//

      Blake/the gestalt was certain Vila was right, and not for the first time, he/they felt a surge of surprise at Vila's unexpected depths. //What do you suggest?// he/they asked.

      //Easy. Someone must go in and bring him out.//

      Easy? Perhaps, but they doubted it. It would hurt, and that fact alone would be a deterrent. But the flaming face that was Avon wore a look of total agony, cold and frightened, not entirely aware of them. Perhaps he could draw a little warmth from the shadows that lived here, but they had drawn back now to let their real counterparts do what they could.

      //I'll do it.// Blake tensed to prepare for the ordeal. //It must be me, Cally.//

      She felt his understanding; all of them did. She knew her importance to Avon, but Avon's need for Blake was of another order. //Yes, you must go,// she agreed. //But carefully, Blake. Stay too long and you will be trapped with him.//

      He felt Jenna's fear for him, Vila's worry for them both and Cally's gentle strength that could stand up to devastation. It could be enough.

      Carefully, he loosened the bonds that made him a part of the gestalt, maintaining only the routine link-mode, now that he was here. He could still feel the others, but he could not think their thoughts nor feel their pain. It was better that way.

      He hesitated a moment. //Avon, I am coming for you.//

      Suddenly the flames flared up and the face within them held a warning. Avon was aware of him and knew the risks. But Blake accepted them. Bracing himself, he stepped into the fire.

      For the first moments, he could do nothing but react to the bitter coldness. Then a part of his mind pushed it to one side. This was not his physical body, so the physical pain was unimportant. He knew Cally was with him, encouraging him to believe it, and after a few moments, he could shunt the pain aside, still aware of it, but less tightly bound up in it. It became a mere annoyance like a persistent toothache.

      Turning his back on it, he looked for Avon.

      At first he saw nothing but fire, but then the flames seemed to solidify and Avon stood before him, looking entirely normal, if one didn't see the anguish in his eyes. "Blake," he said in a surprised voice, then it grew angry. "Go away, Blake."

      "You can't protect me against my will, Avon."

      "Who suggested I was trying to protect you?"

      "It was obvious. I know you too well, my friend. I know where we are and why we are here, and I think it's time for you to come home."

      "Impossible."

      "Is it? What about my presence here with you. Surely you would have considered that impossible?"

      "Cally and Jabberwocky - the gestalt?" Blake nodded. Avon went on. "It will not work in here, Blake. This is my province. Healing. I am reputed to be a healer. Have you heard the phrase, 'Physician, heal thyself?' It is impossible, Blake."

      "Alone, perhaps. You've already come a long way, Avon. When I consider the man I faced before we reached Star One, I sometimes have to stand back and tell myself how lucky I am."

      "Lucky?" Scorn cut through Avon's voice like acid. "Lucky when I all but killed Tarrant. I can offer you nothing, Blake. Nothing but pain, nothing but death. It is all I have ever given those I - cared for. Or else it was their gift to me, like Anna. She made me kill her, but first she killed the part of me that still lived."

      "Nonsense. Wallow in self pity all you will, but Anna didn't have any more power over her than you gave her. I admit she hurt you, but she's dead now. She's also a convenient scapegoat. It's safer to use her as a talisman, to prevent attachments. But it doesn't really work. So you must work all the harder to pretend you don't care. I know you care, my friend. You've told me in a place much like this. I don't expect you to drop your guard entirely and wallow in sentiment. I rather like your sharp edges and your acid tongue."

      "The more fool you," snapped Avon. But in spite of his determined insistence that Blake leave him, he hadn't turned away and that gave Blake hope.

      "Then we'll call it a given and work from there."

      "It wasn't only Tarrant I shot," Avon went on in a thin voice that held only a desperate determination. "I shot you on Gauda Prime. I failed to save Dayna."

      "If we're to compare faults, I think I can do better than you. Gan's death was entirely my fault. No programming, no misunderstandings. I meant to destroy Star One, to kill millions of innocent people to prove a point. I doubt you can compare with that. Your problem, Avon, is that you are an honourable man, but you don't believe it's safe, so you war against yourself. Do you think I'd come in here after you, if I didn't want you back. Do you think Vila, Cally and Jenna would go into gestalt with me to help if they didn't want you back. The others would be here too but they've other tasks."

      "Protecting this ship, Jabberwocky and Tarrant, I presume," Avon returned sharply.

      "Exactly."

      "Thanks to me."

      "Thanks to Servalan. Damn it, Avon, this is not your fault. You can't always protect us, and you can't always save us, but that doesn't mean you've failed. It means you're human, no more, no less. But in spite of that, in spite of your stubbornness and your touch-me-not attitude, in spite of everything about you that irritates me, I'd rather have you with me. I think we've come too close to pull apart now. It would be like an amputation."

      Avon tensed, and Blake realized with sudden insight that Avon had used the same analogy himself. He felt it too.

      "No," said Avon stubbornly. "I have nothing to offer you, Blake. There is nothing at the core of me, nothing but this ice. Leave me to it before it freezes you too."

      "This ice is of your own making, Avon, and it's not really you or you could never warm the rest of us. Didn't you see it work, warming us, giving off light and heat, before you came in here? Why do you imagine we bother if there's nothing but ice in here. The ice may cover the fire, but heat escapes anyway. Let it free, Avon."

      Avon grimaced. "You grow more nauseatingly sentimental by the minute, Blake."

      "Then I'll stop. Put it this way, Avon. I plan to stay here until I can take you out with me. If we're to talk of stubbornness, I can outdo you any day of the week. I won't give you up, so you'd better come with me. We can melt the ice together."

      "No!" Panic ran through Avon's voice. "I - need it, Blake."

      "You need me the more." Blake straightened his shoulders and faced Avon head on. "You need Cally and Vila more. You need Hugh and Jabberwocky and all the others. Even more, you don't shirk your responsibilities. They need you."

      "Like Tarrant did?"

      "Tarrant will understand." Blake would see that he did come hell or high water. "After all, I understood, didn't I?"

      "You'd forgive your own murderer, Blake."

      "Perhaps. But I'm still waiting. How many other men would have discovered the programming and eradicated it the way you did. How many men would have pulled their shot."

      That startled Avon. "Pulled my shot?"

      "I've seen you with a gun, Avon. You don't miss unless you want to. Think about it." He smiled suddenly. "You're only thinking of excuses now. You want to come with me, and we both know it." He put out his hands to Avon. "Give me your hands."

      Avon hesitated for a long time, as if he knew Blake was asking more than help with his rescue. This was a commitment, a deeper one than he'd promised so far. But there was no way to drive Blake from the coldness of his centre, and he could not let the other man remain trapped. Blake saw all that in Avon's always expressive eyes, and smiled even before Avon raised his hands and, with a resigned expression, put them into Blake's.

      At first, nothing happened. Blake tried to draw Avon from the fire, but Avon seemed rooted to it, a part of it. "Damn you, Avon, let it go," Blake urged under his breath.

      And suddenly Avon smiled, a smile of such warmth and charm that Blake felt a surge of heat run through him. The grip around his hands tightened until it was nearly crushing, and Avon held it as warmth seemed to ooze from him, melting down into the cold green of the flames, touching their tips with gold that slid down into the heart of the fire, until it, too, was golden. The cold green light seemed to burst, shattering fragments here and there, and suddenly the fire was hot around him.

      "This way, Blake," said a voice in his ear, and he opened his eyes as if following directions to find himself back in the chair beside Avon's bed. He could feel the link-mode letting him go, and for the first moment, he felt bereft. Then the still figure on the bed took a deep breath, blinked and opened his eyes.

      "Avon!"

      In response to Blake's relieved cry, Avon sat up easily, favoured Blake with a familiar scornful look and said, "Must you shout in my ear."

      Blake felt a smile starting and sternly called it to order. "Must you endanger yourself without warning us? I'm getting too old for these shocks."

      "Yes, I see a whole new crop of grey hairs." Avon grinned at him, more relaxed than Blake could remember, more at ease with the comfortable banter than he had ever been. It delighted Blake so much that he forgot himself enough to fling his arms around his friend and hug him hard.

      Avon permitted the embrace and even allowed himself to return it briefly, to the surprise of the others, then he pushed Blake back again, though not with any sign of distaste. "I don't remember giving you permission to become maudlin, Blake," he observed pointedly, but the words were amused rather than annoyed. "I should suggest you avoid confusing my good humour with my nature."

      "I won't confuse it," Vila said brightly. "Because you don't have any good humour. Don't I get a hug?"

      Avon regarded him with something like delight, and then, more to astonish the thief than anything else, he leaned forward as if he meant to hug him. Vila jerked back in startled surprise, then his eyes began to twinkle and before Avon could withdraw from the abortive movement, he plunged forward and copied Blake's actions. When he freed the tech, he burst out laughing at Avon's disgruntled expression.

      Avon collected himself easily. Looking around the room, he said pointedly, "Next?"

      Jenna laughed. "I believe I shall pass. I wouldn't want the world to end."

      "As well it might," agreed Avon. He turned to Cally and something passed between them. She did not hug him, but she clasped his hand momentarily.

      "And now," Avon observed, climbing to his feet and reaching for his jacket, "I suggest we deal with the threat of Servalan." His eyes darkened. "She is my responsibility, Blake."

      "Agreed, but I'd like to share it with you. Do we kill her?"

      That startled Avon, and he surprised them all by shaking his head. "I think not. We send her back in disgrace. They may demote her for it, and even if not, we can fight her. I have learned something from this, Blake, how to recognize programming. When we have the opportunity, I will examine the rest of the crew for it. Once freed of that threat, we can go back to fighting her on our own terms."

      "I thought you'd want her dead," Jenna burst out.

      "I do want her dead, but I choose not to kill her. I know her, Jenna, and I understand the way her mind works. That is no small advantage when dealing with an enemy. You may say she knows my mind as well, but she does not know the rest of you. We have her outmanoeuvred."

      "She's still at large," said Dayna from the doorway.

      "Not for long." Avon's mouth drew into a tight line. "Jabberwocky, how drained are you?"

      "Not entirely. I've shut down power in the rest of the cabins and all the storage bays, and now that Tarrant's stronger, I can ease back to normal linkage with him. What do you need?"

      "I need to lure her here."

      "Avon, you can't!" Blake burst out. "It's too risky."

      "You think so? We can still use the gestalt, and by all accounts, she only has Witt with her. He may be a powerful telepath, though Cally says he hasn't entirely regained control, but I doubt he could face us in gestalt, even if Servalan has warned him about us."

      "If we pull off the guards, she'll know it's a trap."

      "Perhaps. But we won't pull them all off, just some of them. Tell Avalon the programming is gone and that we're capable of resuming control of our ship. Have her leave a few guards at the main airlock. I rather suspect it won't take Servalan long to come in one of the other airlocks. She knows this ship."

      "Too well, surely," Jenna said, concerned.

      Avon strapped on his gunbelt, opened a drawer and took out a gun to replace the one he'd turned over to Soolin, and checked its charge. "But we'll need to link so that we can protect Tarrant in the link. If Witt tries to take over again, Tarrant couldn't fight him - but Witt couldn't fight the gestalt. Jabberwocky will monitor the airlocks and the moment Servalan arrives, we'll link."

      "That sounds like it will work," Blake agreed. He was happy to see Avon doing something constructive, taking charge, planning Servalan's downfall rather than wallowing in guilt over shooting Tarrant. Avon had once remarked that he knew nothing of guilt but what he'd read of it, but Blake knew better. Avon was inexperienced, surely, but he felt it, had felt it when he believed Anna had died for him, when his wife and son had disappeared, when he'd shot Blake, when he'd failed to save Dayna. It was simply that he'd always pretended it wasn't real, that it didn't matter. Now he could not pretend any longer. Blake found himself hoping that the melting of the ice had not taken all of Avon's shields with it. He liked Avon prickly.

      "It's my plan, Blake," Avon returned. "Of course it will work." He caught Blake's eye and a look passed between them. Blake grinned, realizing how easily understanding had flowed back and forth.

      Things were going to be interesting from now on.

      

      

It was quiet on the flight deck. Everyone was there but Hugh, Soolin and Tarrant, and Soolin had just checked in to report that all was well and that Tarrant was showing the first faint signs of consciousness. That sent a flurry of relief around the flight deck, only Avon displaying an impassive face. Vila watched him surreptitiously, noting that while Avon revealed no overt relief, a muscle bunched briefly in his jaw and his shoulders eased their tensions. Old Avon had been worried about him, and he'd let it show. For him that was as good as a declaration.

      Sensing Vila's eyes upon him, Avon turned, studied the thief through narrowed eyes, then favoured him with a dark scowl. Vila returned it a moment, then, unable to hold back, winked. Startled, Avon held the scowl a moment longer, then he said sternly, "Vila, you seem to be getting out of hand."

      "Trying to," Vila agreed. "Don't you like it?"

      "No," said Avon unconvincingly.

      Dayna chuckled, winning a scowl of her own. Vila turned to study her, worried that she was still holding Tarrant's injury against Avon. But Dayna's eyes held amusement, and when she saw Avon glare at her, she beetled her brows at him and returned it full measure.

      "Your face will set that way," Avon said in the annoyingly dismissive tone that he used to irritate people. It worked now.

      "Avon!" Dayna burst out furiously, only to stop when he gave her a devastatingly sweet smile that threw her off her stride completely.

      Turning to Jenna, she remarked, "I think he's worse than ever."

      "Certainly more unpredictable," Jenna agreed. "I'm planning to enjoy it."

      "I shouldn't count on it," Avon began only to fall silent when Jabberwocky said quickly, "Someone is at the aft hatch."

      "Servalan?" asked Blake sharply.

      "Servalan. She knows the control sequence."

      "Let her in, but make it difficult for her," Blake instructed. "All right, everyone. Time for linkage."

      Jabberwocky pulled them all in, one at a time, even Dayna, and though there was still the faint alien trace created by the android body, the essence of Dayna came through, though fainter than the others. Vila let himself slide into the linkage with practised ease - he knew he was good at this - and identified his comrades easily, startled momentarily at Avon, who was far more open than usual. Perhaps he had managed to heal himself with Blake's help. He had certainly been more fun since he'd come out of it.

      //Naturally, Vila. My one aim in life is to provide fun for you.// The sarcasm was heavy, but Vila only chuckled. He could come to love this. Nothing could change Avon's sharp tongue or his quick mind, but if he let himself enjoy their verbal dues openly, the game would become a much greater challenge. When this was over, Vila decided he must plan a whole new campaign to get under Avon's skin.

      //You'd dare?//

      //Any time.//

      The gestalt firmed up and this time Jabberwocky had a more complete part in it. That would be necessary to protect himself against a psychic attack. Even if Witt's telepathy hadn't resumed its fine control, it was still a powerful thing. They'd need this.

      Soolin and Hugh were drawn in too, distance being no limit as long as they were on the ship. A faint ghost echo touched them all and they realized it was the semi-conscious Tarrant, not really a part of the gestalt except that as Jabberwocky's link-mate, he was always present in the computer's mind. The group directed strength at him and felt his awareness sharpen. In gestalt like this, he was able to absorb the knowledge of what was happening, so no explanations were required.

      As the moments passed, Blake sent a quick order to Jabberwocky. //Seal off the passage to the medical unit. I won't have her taking hostages.//

      They all felt Jabberwocky's response.

      Avon's gun crept into his hand and all of them could feel the skill in his grip. Dayna, too, chose to take her gun out, withdrawing to the corner of the flight deck furthest from the door, near the drinks dispenser. As if choreographed, the rest of them rose and lined up to await the arrival of their greatest enemy.

      Through Jabberwocky, they could all monitor Servalan's progress, watching her creep along the corridor toward the flight deck, Witt at her back. The double agent looked sharp and alert, as he had done before Jabberwocky had all but wiped his mind, though the fine edge of his control seemed missing. Yet Servalan had trusted him with a gun, and had no hesitation in turning her back on him.

      Because of the power-down, the corridors were dim, lit only with emergency power, and Servalan progressed slowly, starting at shadows, peering into opened doorways and hesitating beside closed ones. The air of menace and power that radiated from her was unmistakable.

      //I'd like to disarm them,// Blake sent to the group. //They're outnumbered, but I don't intend shooting them out of hand. Could we gas them in the corridor, Jabberwocky?//

      Everyone felt the computer's regret. It wasn't possible. Power was too low for that. To do it, he'd need to drop the gestalt and it was necessary to protect Tarrant and the link.

      Servalan hesitated just outside the flight deck, beyond their line of sight. "Is the ship deserted?" they heard her ask Witt.

      "No, my lady. They are here. I sense them."

      "I wish you sensed them more accurately. Where are they?"

      "Somewhere nearby. I can feel great power."

      "Great power?" she echoed. "They do not possess great power. Cally is the only real telepath on board. Their ship can boost them somewhat, I believe, but no more than that. Your detection is faulty."

      "But I've never claimed it wasn't, my lady. I have my mind, but my telepathy runs out of control more than it obeys me. I warned you of that. You know I serve you, always, but I cannot do what I cannot do, even for you."

      "Then you're worthless to me. The flight deck is here. Go first and check it out. Go on, now."

      "I am worth far more to you than as a target, Servalan." His voice sharpened as with betrayal, and the group felt his telepathy settle into slightly tighter control, though it was still jiggling all over the place, bouncing around the edges of their unity, unable to break through. The only difference was that now he had pinpointed it and knew where most of them were.

      "Go, you fool. Do you think to disobey me?"

      "You haven't been president for some time," he snapped at her. "You might remember your place."

      The sharp crack of sound that followed could only be a slap. Amusement ran through the gestalt and was wiped away as quickly as footsteps neared the flight deck.

      Witt had his gun ready, but the instant he appeared in the doorway, the gestalt, under Cally's direction, sent a message to him. "Drop it." The force behind the order was so strong that he had obeyed it before he realized it and Blake was momentarily reminded of Vila doing much the same thing back on the London.

      But then Witt advanced, beaming, relaxing slightly when the bulkhead was between himself and Servalan. "I've brought her back to you," he announced in an undertone. "It's over to you now, though I expect she will try to run." He opened his mind to them, showing them nothing more than bright innocence, the same unguarded warmth he had displayed after Jabberwocky had loosed the ship's full power upon him.

      It was Cally who questioned him, quickly so that Servalan might not fear the delay. //His loyalty has shifted,// she relayed to the rest of them. //She meant to use him, and he suspected it when she was first brought here. He cares for her, though he fights the attraction. But he will not back her now. He has stayed with her to protect the people of this base, who have been kind to him.//

      //Should you believe that, I have an abandoned planet named Terminal to sell you,// Avon remarked.

      //It is true. He is not blocking me, Avon. I would know the difference.//

      "Witt!" called Servalan. "Have you found anything?"

      "I've found the control panel to link you to Jabberwocky, my lady," Witt cried, motioning for them to conceal themselves. "They are not here. The computer is here. I can sense it and almost talk to it. For you, I will talk to it, my lady."

      "So you will." She swept onto the flight deck, and they saw her from Jabberwocky's perspective, concealed as they were behind consoles and seats. "At last," she breathed, standing in the entry, looking about the room. "This ship is mine again. I know you can hear me, Jabberwocky. Ridiculous name. I am Space Commander Sleer, soon to be Supreme Commander when I finish demonstrating that fool Arpel's incompetence to the Council. I will treat you well and together we will take power. You will like that, will you not?"

      "You fascinate me," Jabberwocky said aloud, playing along with her for the moment. "We have met before, on Dayson Prime, when you worked for Major Weed. I sensed your strength even then. These rebels can't really appreciate me, but I know you can. I'll sever the link for you. Come and put your hand on the glowing green panel."

      Servalan plunged forward triumphantly, her eyes upon her destiny. When she would have put out her left hand, Jabberwocky said, "No, the right," and she was forced to lay aside her weapon. A moment later, her hand landed there, and the suction began.

      "What is it?" she cried out in some alarm, trying to jerk free.

      "A trap," breathed Avon, rising up behind her and pressing the point of his gun against the back of her neck. "Ah, ah, leave your gun alone." He swept it out of the way with his other hand.

      "Avon, I should have expected you." The gestalt felt her tense muscles relax. Though she was not linked, they felt her through the link-panel. "I knew you would not let me down, my dear. You shall be my consort."

      "I hardly think so," replied Avon with withering scorn. "So that was the trigger phrase. It will no longer work. Bring up the lights, Jabberwocky."

      They came up at once and the gestalt dissolved, freeing the computer to distribute power more easily. "Did I do it well, Avon?" Jabberwocky asked. "Don't you think I'd make a superb double agent? That was fun."

      Servalan spun round in fury to lash out at Avon and one long-nailed hand actually grazed his face before he caught her wrist and twisted it behind her back. The sight of the others rising to confront her, all of them armed, changed her mind about struggling and she stood there quietly, putting on a demure expression that barely masked her rage.

      "Check her carefully for weapons," Avon instructed Dayna, who complied quickly and thoroughly, discovering only one, concealed in a band around her ankle. When that had been removed, Dayna secured her wrists in a pair of cuffs and put another on her ankles.

      "What about him?" Vila asked, gesturing at Witt.

      "He means us no harm, but perhaps he has some programming too," Cally observed. "We'll check it later. In the meantime, Witt, we'll restrain you, for your own protection."

      He nodded in acquiescence and allowed it to be done.

      "Rather an anticlimax, Blake," Avon said brightly, then he passed his gun to Dayna and strode off the flight deck without looking back.

      "Well, he is touchy," Servalan murmured with ill-concealed amusement.

      "Shut up, Servalan," Blake, Vila and Jenna chorused automatically as Dayna started to lead her away to the cells.

      

      

Tarrant roused slowly, painkillers dulling the ache in his gut, blurring his mind. He had a vague memory of gestalt linkage, and it must have been real because he knew what had happened to him, Servalan's programming, forcing Avon to attack him, her stealthy boarding of the ship and subsequent capture. There was even something about Avon using his healing gift to remove the programming. A useful gift, if so. Cautiously, Tarrant let his hand creep toward the injury to investigate it, only to have a hand close around his wrist and halt him.

      "I shouldn't," a familiar voice urged him. "You wouldn't care for the result."

      "Avon. Did you shoot me?" Tarrant asked. Odd he should feel no resentment, but perhaps that had been resolved in the gestalt as well. Besides, it was Servalan's game, not Avon's choice and that made the difference. He hated Servalan and wouldn't make Avon pay for her actions. Sometimes Deeta's memory was all too vivid, his death through a different kind of linkage. That had been Servalan's fault. He wouldn't give her a victory, not for any reason.

      "As it happens, I did."

      That made Tarrant open his eyes. Avon sat beside his bed, and when Tarrant looked at him, he released his wrist. There was a wary defiance in his face as if he had come here expecting to be berated, but Tarrant knew he couldn't do it.

      "I should have thought you were a better shot," he remarked. Inside his head, he felt Jabberwocky's warm approval for his words, and that eased a little of the pain. "She didn't quite have you, did she?"

      The tension eased a little in Avon's face. "Not as thoroughly as she would have liked. A pity I couldn't have turned it in her direction."

      "A great pity," Tarrant agreed. "Yet you let her go."

      "Oh, hardly that, Tarrant. Hardly that. If Arpel is becoming ours, think how hard her road will be when she returns. And even harder if he isn't ours, I should think. She's failed yet again. She went haring off after us without notifying him when she heard we'd gone to get Dayna's body. She wound up captured and she's forced him to trade two of our people for her. Even if they're programmed, we can reverse it now. So she's been too costly. She may think to discredit Arpel, but she's had a major setback." He leaned back in his chair, looking very pleased with himself and a lot more relaxed than Tarrant could remember seeing him.

      "A pity we can't watch her struggles," he observed, watching Avon carefully.

      "Yes, isn't it." He rose. "You seem yourself again. I have better things to do than sit at your sickbed."

      "I'm sure you do. How long have you been there?"

      A twinkle lit Avon's eyes. "That," he said, "You will never know. Go to sleep. Hugh wants you to rest."

      "I know the drill. Someday I'll work out a means of avoiding being shot by mistake." He closed his eyes before Avon could make some remark about meaning it the next time, and waited until he heard the other man cross the room quietly and the door slide shut. Then he opened himself to Jabberwocky and let himself drift to sleep secure in the familiar linkage.

      

      

Two days later, Servalan left Ryalon on Dorn Suliman's ship. They'd kept Servalan on board their ship until Dorn's arrival, doubting the security of Avalon's systems. Avon and some of her best techs had been debugging it and expected to have it back in order in another few days.

      Dorn greeted everyone cheerfully, even his father, though he referred to him as Jabberwocky rather than Father. Everyone was present, even Kyl, when he arrived, and the mood on the flight deck was pleasant. Tarrant, allowed up for an hour, was ensconced on the forward couch, a blanket over him.

      "Things are never dull around here, are they?" Dorn remarked, then he fell silent, staring in wide-eyed disbelief at Dayna. "You - I - you're dead."

      She grinned. "I was. Not any more. It wasn't your fault, you know, not really." She went forward, smiling. "I'm an android, but I'm Dayna too."

      "But - how -"

      "Thanks to your father and Orac," she explained. Avon stepped in quickly and described the process in layman's terms while the young smuggler stared.

      "Incredible," he remarked at last.

      "Well, we think so," Blake told him.

      "Things really are never dull around here," Dorn said at last. "You don't suppose next time I'm in port I could come along on a mission with you. My men could use a break occasionally." He turned to Blake first, and Blake nodded. "I don't see why not."

      "Great." He hesitated suddenly, turned toward Jabberwocky's main fascia and said, "What about you? Is it all right with you if I come with you... Dad?"

      For a moment, Jabberwocky was actually speechless, then he laughed delightedly. "Why not," he said. "It will be such fun."

      "Fun," said Avon with mild sarcasm, "being our main goal in life."

      "It is fun here," Vila reminded him. "Even better when Servalan's gone."

      Avon shrugged with a display of impatience. "To each his own. I personally prefer more restraint."

      "Restraint," scoffed Vila delightedly. "Who was it who put that water bag over my door last night, I'd like to know."

      "Tell me when you find out," Avon urged him, but the cool expression on his face fooled no one. Vila had pestered him all the previous day and everyone thought he'd got what he deserved.

      Avon sought out Blake's eye across the flight deck. He didn't speak, but Blake saw something in Avon's eyes that he'd seldom seen there before. Peace. It was enough.

      "Come at your own risk," Blake said cheerfully to Dorn. "This may be my ship, but on its best days, it resembles a madhouse."

      "I like chaos," Dorn said cheerfully.

      Avon turned and regarded him sceptically. "Then you are certain to find it here," he said.

      

      

      


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