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Jabberwocky - part 13 - Revenant

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.

Part 11 - Overload

Servalan is now a prisoner of the resistance. Held prisoner on Ryalon, she plots to escape, using old programming implanted in Avon at Terminal and the help of the rogue telepath Witt, whom she used once before to try to steal Jabberwocky. When a programmed Avon shoots Tarrant, he is suspected by his own crew. He is forced to use his developing telepathic skills to heal himself of the programming, and then the crew uses linkage to thwart Servalan's escape.

Part 12 - Lifeblood

Dayna returns to her homeworld of Sarran to visit her grave and learns that three former Federation technicians, Edge, Perren and Tanz, have taken over her old home. Abandoned there by Servalan when she believed Dayna was dead, they are in grave danger because they helped in the construction of Jabberwocky's telepathic linkages - their abilities are tied into knowledge of psi. They wish to join the resistance. But once again, Servalan is in pursuit, nearly destroying Dayna. And Tanz proves that a part of Dayna is very human indeed when she falls in love.


Revenant

The two men stood in an embrasure in an upper level dome office looking down at the plaza below. Both were tall; one spare and one more stocky. The thinner man wore a uniform with enough rank insignias upon it to designate him as someone very important, though his casual expression did not proclaim him the sort that enjoyed revelling in his rank. His hawk face was striking and his narrow, piercing eyes missed little. The junior officers on his staff firmly believed that he could see through walls and hear at vast distances, and indiscretion was not one of their pastimes. When Supreme Commander Sharn Arpel gave an order, everyone jumped - as high as possible.

      The second man was clad in plain, anonymous garb. He was, in fact, a prisoner, as evidenced by the magnetic shackles that bound his wrists. Arpel did not feel endangered but the shackles were for show. If he should question a prisoner privately, he would have guards hip deep in his office unless the prisoner were restrained. Arpel was impatient with the urge his men felt to protect him, especially now, when an important project was about to begin, but he had to give a show of compliance to security measures or there would be talk. Right now, talk was the last thing Arpel wanted.

      "You may sit," he told the prisoner.

      The big man - he was even taller than Arpel - shook his head. "No. Better not. That would look odd, you catering to a prisoner."

      Arpel's fingers curled around the device in his pocket, a squelcher that drowned out all listening devices and recorders in the immediate area, feeding them a string of gibberish. For this plan to work, he required absolute secrecy. "Perhaps you're right." He touched his nose with a long, slender finger in a stroking gesture. "Repeat your orders. We must be certain."

      The programming on this subject existed on several levels, and Arpel had worked carefully with the second set of programmers, with the most skilled puppeteers and psych techs he could find, to learn exactly what it was that Servalan had done with this man before her ill-fated Terminal excursion had stripped her of power that went with the presidency. Sleer now worked for Arpel (or wanted him to think she did) but her explanations need only convey what she wished to convey. Had there been time before the Galactic War, she would have baited this trap herself, but in the chaos succeeding it, the prisoner was misplaced for almost a year, and only found after Servalan had gone off to act as Neutral Arbiter at the Teal-Vandor Convention. Arpel had made the discovery on the suggestion of a junior officer who had been stationed on Luna Base in charge of the minimum security prison at Tranquillity. "I think you might find this of interest, sir," he had said, presenting Arpel with a file cube.

      Arpel had. The enterprising young officer had since been assigned his own ship and flotilla in the outer worlds, away from Arpel's plans, pleased with his promotion and prepared to work hard to back the Supreme Commander to all and sundry. An ambitious lad, he'd bear watching, but Arpel was good at that. Servalan would have had him killed, of course, but Arpel preferred the loyalty of his troops, counting on instinct and a complex network of spies to keep his men honest.

      The prisoner straightened as if coming to attention. "I am to be transported by freighter to the planet Dorsa Prime, where I will secure transport by whatever means available to the planet Ryalon. Once there I will seek out rebel headquarters and ask for Roj Blake. When I see him, I am to respond as programming dictates." He repeated the orders in a monotone voice. Perfect. Arpel shifted position again and rubbed his fingers across the bridge of his nose again. The prisoner's posture shifted subtly, as if he had gone at ease.

      "It will be good to see Blake again," he said. "I hope this plan of yours works."

      "It will work," Arpel said with a smile. "Yes, I know that it will work. Perhaps even better than we both believe."

      "How is Blake?" asked the bigger man. "Have you seen him?"

      Arpel smiled. "A man in my position isn't likely to meet Blake," he replied. "I've exchanged insults with his pilot, Tarrant, over the communicator. But Blake himself? No. I've never seen him. You've heard reports of troubles in the outer worlds. Most of them can be laid at Blake's door. Space Commander Sleer is determined to rid the galaxy of him, of course."

      "There's a rumour in the cells that she's on medical leave?" The big man let a hint of curiosity creep into his voice. He had no cause to love Sleer and would welcome confirmation of that news.

      Arpel didn't give it to him. Though he had a use for this man, he had no reason to confide in him any more than was necessary, and learning that Servalan had been gravely, almost fatally, wounded on an out-of-the-way planet called Murray's World would benefit no one. Knowing Sleer's value to him, Arpel had been as solicitous as possible, as solicitous as she would believe, and had seen to all arrangements necessary for her recovery and rehabilitation. She was not quite ready to return to duty yet, which convinced Arpel that it was time for him to enable this prisoner and run the specified program. It could go wrong, of course, but if it did, he lost nothing and Servalan lost one of her weapons. She had an ample store, of course, but plucking this one away from her amused the Supreme Commander even as it served his own purposes. If it should fail, the blame could easily be placed upon Servalan's earlier programming or even upon the implant. He could understand why Servalan had insisted upon arranging to have it done, but he'd disabled it at a later programming session. The prisoner did not know the device had ceased to function and Arpel saw no reason to inform him of it. It would give the prisoner too much control. Better to let him believe he was restricted by the implant and let him act accordingly. He might discover it on his own, of course, but by then, it would scarcely matter.

      There were other methods to restrain the prisoner, the first of which was the truth of his origin. Though the programmer's initial statement had been met with fervent disbelief, Arpel had insisted upon showing the prisoner all tapes to convince him of the truth. That such tapes could easily have been forged, or that the entire session could have been an electronically induced memory was well known, even by the prisoner, but Arpel kept as many reality checks as possible, knowing the prisoner would function the better when turned loose if he had what he thought was a true grasp of his position, his condition, and his purpose.

      "Rumours are not important," Arpel said flatly. "Sleer lives. That's all you need know. Don't you realize that Blake would be suspicious of any further knowledge? I'd prefer to keep your awareness of current politics at Space Command Headquarters within the realm of prison rumour."

      "But I'm not going to betray Blake," the prisoner exclaimed. "He'll know that."

      "He might know you believe that," Arpel said. "Kerr Avon will be more suspicious, of course but you have been programmed and you know it. Blake would be a fool to trust you. He might trust your intentions, but no more."

      "I know Servalan programmed me to kill Blake," the big man agreed. "Your people disabled that programming."

      "And you are willing to take a chance on that?" Arpel asked, his thin lips quirking with amusement. "Remember, Prisoner, that I am not a rebel. I am not turning you loose to aid Blake's cause."

      "No. What could I do to aid Blake's cause," the prisoner returned. "I'm only one man with no particular skills. I'm not even much use to you. Maybe you did program me to kill Blake. I'm not such a fool that I believe everything you've said to me. But I can't kill him."

      Arpel chose to leave him in his ignorance. "No. Let us hear no more about the Rule of Life. I suspect we are well rid of the Clone Masters. Believe me, you can kill. Blake's clone did, to stay alive, I'm told. You are no different."

      "To stay alive, not in cold blood," the prisoner retaliated. He looked past Arpel at the 'window' in the embrasure. The supreme commander's office overlooked a plaza several levels high, where below, Alpha grade citizens were going about their business. From their perspective, the 'window' was just a wall, but Arpel enjoyed watching the people below who did not know they were under observation, other than by the inevitable cameras that monitored everyone.

      "When do I leave?" the prisoner continued, without waiting for an answer to his remark.

      "Now. Within the hour you will be on the transport. Here are your false papers." He opened his desk and took out a folder that he passed to the prisoner. When the man raised his shackled hands to take it, Arpel leaned over and keyed a button on his desk. A moment later a young officer entered and came to attention.

      Supreme Commander?"

      "You know the plan, Jardeen. Free this man. He is to be sent off Earth. He will not be returning. You know the transport schedule. Escort him to the transport vehicle, see him safely aboard and return here. You are to explain your mission to no one. You are to speak of it to none but myself. If you should be questioned, direct the questioners to me, and show them this." He passed over a docu-cube. "It will clear your way easily."

      "Yes, sir." Jardeen whipped out a magnetic key and triggered open the cuffs. When he removed them, the prisoner rubbed his wrists automatically before taking his papers.

      "Thank you, sir," he said to Arpel. "I am grateful to you for my life." A wry expression flitted across his face at the words, then he allowed the officer to escort him from the office.

      Arpel returned to the window embrasure and stood, tall and spare, looking down at the plaza below, two fingers stroking his moustache. Had he done the right thing? Would his plan work? He would have to wait and see.

      

      "No more diplomatic missions," Vila moaned, shifting closer to the drinks dispenser at the front of the flight deck. "I'm tired of being diplomatic, Blake. This was boring. Can't we take a holiday?"

      "We had a holiday a month ago, Vila," Avon pointed out to him. "I find even Blake's latest schemes for rebellion marginally safer than our attempts at holidays."

      "But look how lucky you were, Avon," Hugh Tiver, the ship's doctor, put in with a cheerful grin. "If you hadn't taken a holiday, you'd never have met our newest crew members."

      "Exactly my point," replied Avon dryly. Although Ven Perren, Roald Edge and Ran Tanz were a useful addition to the crew, Avon was grateful that this latest in a long string of diplomatic missions that Avalon insisted Blake carry out while waiting to see what Space Command chose to do about an all-out attack did not include the three newest members of Jabberwocky's crew.

      An advantage of the new recruits was the possibility of designing and building additional mindships like Jabberwocky. Since the three had been brought back to base at Ryalon, everyone had been working very hard on such a project, including Avon, who enjoyed the computer work immensely. He was using his skills and training and that was always welcome. Avalon had worked with them to assemble a top flight medical team to do the actual transfer when the time came, and Dr. Plaxton, the designer of the photonic drive had been roped in to help.

      When Blake's newest assignment came along, Perren, Edge and Tanz were working quite hard on the new ship and Avalon asked that they sit this mission out since they'd benefit the rebels more here. Dayna and Soolin, who were handling the weapons system for the new ship, had opted to stay as well. Though Kyl's school was in session he'd tried to wangle permission to skip it and come along, but Avon had insisted he stay behind. Kyl had given in rather more gracefully than Avon had expected until Vila had grinned and said, "Your time is past, old man."

      "What is that supposed to mean?"

      "The lure of space pales beside the call of young love," Vila replied, smiling. "Your son's got a girlfriend. Just think, Avon, it won't be long before he'll be old enough to marry - and it won't be long after that before we can start calling you 'grandpa'."

      "You're a fool," Avon snapped and abandoned the subject, but he was sure that Vila remembered it and chuckled to himself about it. Irritated at the thought, Avon put it out of his mind and turned to consider the rest of the crew on the flight deck. They were cleared to take off in half an hour - out bound traffic on Dorsa Prime was always heavy, since it was a transportation nexus for this area of space. Until now, it had remained carefully neutral, and all of Blake's rhetoric had not altered that, but beneath the surface, support for the rebel movement was growing. Blake had opened diplomatic relations between Dorsa Prime and the Ryalon Rebel government, secret relations to be sure, but it was a start.

      Without the 'three musketeers' as Vila irreverently dubbed the newcomers, and without Soolin and Dayna, the crew was reduced almost to the Liberator original group with the addition of Tarrant and Hugh. Right now, everyone was on the flight deck, waiting for clearance. The Federation presence on Dorsa Prime was small, but it was there, and everyone felt a slight edge of tension, waiting here in plain sight like a sitting duck.

      The communications' system crackled to life before Avon could complain about the new crew members any more and everyone jumped. "Open a screen, Jabberwocky," Blake ordered, standing up and moving into position to greet the caller.

      It was Dar Kain, the under secretary to President Mittall. "I'm glad I reached you, Blake. Something's come up that I think you'd be interested in. We have an escaping rebel out from Earth who's looking for a ride to Ryalon."

      "We're hardly a passenger ship, Blake," Avon said in an undertone, knowing Blake would find this hard to resist, but concerned that it could be a trap - and probably was. A spy, either from Earth or from the Dorsa Prime government, could do serious damage if he were turned loose on Jabberwocky. They'd had trouble with sabotage before, from a programmed Soolin, and this would be a stranger with no urge to resist or to protect Jabberwocky or the crew. "It could be trouble."

      "It could be a trap," Vila agreed nervously. The thief was good at protecting himself. He didn't care for threats either.

      "It might be someone who needs our help," Hugh intervened. "Why don't we hear what the man has to say before we make our decision?"

      At Avon's side Cally frowned. Avon turned to look at her, aware from the strength of their bond that something troubled her. "What is it?" he asked in an undertone.

      "I feel this is important, Avon," she replied quietly. "I sense... something familiar."

      //Familiar?// he asked, reverting reluctantly to telepathy. Though he and Cally had worked between them to develop his power, he seldom used it with anyone else other than Jabberwocky and that in link mode. //What do you mean? Is Blake setting us up for problems?//

      //I do not know. I only feel we should go along with this.// She looked worried. Precognition was not one of Cally's normal skills, in spite of the one spectacular bout of it after sustaining a head injury on Terminal. He wasn't certain what she was picking up on now. Being a telepath had its problems and this kind of thing was one of them.

      "You mean he wants to ride along with us?" Blake asked. "Do you know him? Can you vouch for him?"

      "No, Blake," Kain replied. "But he says you can. I'll put him on the screen." He gestured at someone to join him and a man walked into the screen pickup.

      It was Olag Gan.

      "Gan!" blurted Vila, his mouth hanging open idiotically as he gaped at the newcomer. "You're alive!"

      "That isn't Gan, you idiot," Avon insisted, though it was hard to dispute the evidence of his own eyes. "Blake said Gan was dead." He turned to Blake, eyes narrowed. "Or is it possible our fearless leader could have made a mistake?"

      "I didn't make a mistake, Avon," Blake replied, his voice hardening in response to the edge that had crept into Avon's. "Don't you think I made sure before I left him there. He wasn't breathing and I couldn't get a pulse."

      "Hullo, Blake. Hullo, everyone," Gan said, and it was his voice as Avon remembered it. "You didn't make a mistake. The medics say the limiter depressed my systems at the time of the injury and created a condition that simulated death. I'd like to talk to you. There's more you need to hear."

      "Such as where you've been for the past few years and why you have avoided contact with us," Jenna suggested.

      "It's Gan!" Vila burst out, staring around at the others in dismay. "He's alive. Can't we get him back first and ask questions later? If he's programmed or anything we can take care of that. Avon does it very well these days. Come on everybody. Let's have him back."

      While it was true that Avon had discovered a means of eradicating programming through his healing skills, it was also true that he had tried it on no one but himself. He had no assurance that it would work on other people, though Orac could be useful there. A part of him warned against allowing Gan to come on board, but the looks on the faces of Blake, Cally, and Vila made it plain that he would have a serious fight if he tried to insist on it. Tarrant looked as if he were inclined to side with Avon, but then he had never known Gan. Hugh, of course, was sympathetic, but that was his nature.

      Tarrant decided to enter the fray, something dark and suspicious in his eyes. "So that's Gan." He surprised Avon by adding, "I think you'd better have him back. I'd say the odds are pretty good that Servalan had him, and who knows what kind of damage she did. If we've got him, at least we can watch him and maybe prevent any problems before they happen. Jabberwocky can watch him, can't you, Jabberwocky?" The open fondness he felt for his linkmate was apparent in his voice.

      Vila looked at him in slight surprise and grinned approvingly. "See, even Del wants him back. What can go wrong?"

      "Would you care for a list?" Avon asked sourly, but the pilot had a good point, and Avon gave him an approving nod, pausing to wonder when Tarrant had stopped being an annoyance to him and started being an asset. They would have to bring Gan on board, but Avon didn't like it. It made him very uneasy.

      He turned to Blake with a throwaway gesture. "You'll do what you like, as always, Blake. Just let it be upon your head when it inevitably backfires."

      "Isn't it always, Avon?" Blake favoured him with a slightly cutting smile. That was one thing Avon liked about Blake. The man never backed down from a confrontation with him. He might be a great bleeding heart rebel who got into trouble right and left, but he never gave ground unless it was actually warranted.

      Blake turned back to the screen. "Send him over, then," he instructed. "We have twenty minutes before we can leave. You can get him here before then?"

      "Oh yes, we can get him there before then," Kain replied.

      "This should be fun," Jabberwocky put in. "Another new crew member. Maybe we can convert part of the hold for cabins. I feel like I know Gan already. I've met him in your thoughts often. I like him."

      "You would," Avon retorted, but without the spite his words might have held were he addressing anyone else. "Just remember we're going to need your help to determine what kind of trap this is - and mark my words, it is a trap."

      

      Gan arrived fifteen minutes later and was admitted to the ship by Blake himself, who went down to greet him. Avon, carefully armed, followed. Knowing Blake, he would open the door to anyone without stopping to think whether Servalan and a whole squadron of Space Command's finest were waiting just out of sight with planet-busters. Though he was reluctant to admit it, even to himself, the real reason Avon had come on this mission that didn't need him when he could have been back at the base working on the new mindship computer specs was that Blake was certain to get into trouble without a sensible person to restrain him from his usual idiocies. Avon had a nice, rational excuse all planned in case anyone should pose the question but no one had. Only Vila had looked at him knowingly whenever conversation moved around the project, since Avon was heading up the computer work for it. He knew Edge could deputize for him admirably, at least at this early stage. Edge was one of the top ten computer men in the entire Federation, possibly the top five. Avon preferred to think of himself as the number one computer expert, especially now that Ensor had died, but at least Edge understood Avon when he talked computers ninety-nine per cent of the time. Avon valued a colleague who actually understood his work - if only it hadn't meant that Perren had joined the crew too. The irreverent young psych tech seemed to feel that 'humanizing' Avon was his mission in life and he was happiest when he was spouting smart remarks in Avon's direction or teasing him unmercifully. To make it worse, Kyl had developed a major case of hero worship for him. The only good thing about Kyl's occurrence of puppy love was that it distracted him from trying to emulate Perren's cocky stride and sarcastic witticisms.

      When Gan appeared, Blake would have left the ship to greet him, but Avon grasped his arm. "Bringing him here is bad enough, Blake. You can hardly go out there and make it worse. As well paint a target on your chest."

      "This is a neutral planet, Avon," Blake replied calmly, waving at Gan and gesturing for him to join them.

      "Exactly. Which means all are welcome here - including undercover Federation assassins. Have a little sense, Blake. I know it's an effort."

      Blake grinned at him. "I leave the worrying to you, Avon. You do it so well." These days he didn't attempt to moderate the thread of affection that ran through his voice when he made such remarks, and Avon no longer felt obligated to back away from them. Disgusting but true, he valued Blake and everyone knew it.

      Gan arrived then. "Hullo, Blake. Hullo, Avon." He smiled at them. "I should warn you right off that Servalan had me prisoner. The Supreme Commander found me some time ago and he reports that Servalan programmed me to kill you, Blake."

      "Naturally," Avon responded. "Programming a man with a limiter implant to kill sounds right at the top of the list of Servalan's most probable schemes."

      "I don't know how she did it but she did. They used to give me a gun and put me in a room where they projected holographic images of you, Blake, and I always shot them. It gave me blinding headaches but I always did it. Arpel took that programming away."

      "Let us hope he did it well," Avon replied wryly. "And lock up all the guns."

      "I should have known you wouldn't be glad to see me, Avon," Gan said.

      "The thing of it is that I am rather glad to see you," Avon replied honestly. "And as for programming, we've developed new techniques that just might eradicate it. However, I warn you, I am not prepared to let down our guard simply from a sense of old home week, even if Blake does. We have no guarantees you are really Gan."

      "Why not ask Orac," Gan suggested. "You still have it, don't you?"

      "I still have it," Avon replied.

      "We still have it," corrected Blake. "Come aboard, Gan. Vila is anxious to see you and you can meet some of our new crew. The rest of them are back at our base."

      "Ryalon," Gan replied. "Arpel told me that."

      "Arpel seems to have had quite a hand in your rescue," Avon observed as they entered the ship and sealed the hatch. "I'm not sure why it is, but I find that rather suspicious."

      "I do, too," agreed Blake. "We've heard rumours that Arpel has rebel sympathies but we've never been able to confirm it."

      "I'm not sure you can confirm it," Gan replied. "Much of his scheming was over my head. He let me go but he might have meant to cause damage within the rebel movement. There were puppeteers around a lot, and they did things. I could be a walking time bomb, Blake. I don't mean harm to anyone, but I might not be able to stop. You should know that."

      "I knew it all along," Avon replied. "Blake is not as cautious as I am. You will be watched constantly, even when none of us appear present." He let his mind open to the ship. //Jabberwocky?// he asked telepathically.

      Jabberwocky drew him into link mode. //Yes, Father.//

      //I want you to monitor Gan's actions at all times,// Avon commanded, ignoring the frivolous name Jabberwocky sometimes called him. //He admits to possible programming and I am unwilling to take the risk of leaving him unmonitored.//

      //We'll watch him, Avon,// Jabberwocky returned. //All of us.//

      Slipping out of link mode, Avon turned to Gan. "We'll take you to our medical unit first and allow Hugh and Orac to run tests on you. We'll be leaving for Ryalon immediately, but the tests must begin now."

      "You said you could remove programming?" Gan reminded him. "How do you do it?"

      "He has his methods," Blake replied quickly. "You'll see. There have been many changes since you left us, Gan."

      "I can see that. A whole planet for a base, enough of a rebel movement that you've got Arpel running scared. It does look different. How's Vila?"

      "Vila remains Vila," Avon said, though, like the rest of them, Vila had changed a good deal. Nothing was the same as it had been then, except that he and Blake were still a team, and that Cally, Vila, Jenna, and Orac were there, too. How would one begin to explain, even assuming one should do so? "You'll see Vila after Hugh and Orac check you out," he concluded.

      "Under surveillance, I'm sure," Gan replied.

      "Of course."

      

      Hugh had prepared equipment in his medical unit. He was getting used to testing subjects for various forms of mind control and he had come to the conclusion that, of everything the Federation did, tampering with the minds of its subjects was the worst. There were so many different methods, too, starting with suppressants and working up to mind wiping and programming people to kill. He had heard many stories of Olag Gan, mostly from Vila, but occasionally from one of the others. A certain bleed-through in link mode and even more so in the more intense linkage of the gestalt had made him feel he knew the phlegmatic man who was about to return to them. He had built up an image of Gan in his mind because of it and he knew that in the upcoming testing, he would have to remember that Gan could have no image, except the most superficial one, of him.

      "This way, Gan," Blake said, entering with two men behind him. Hugh had recognized Gan when he appeared on the screen, not just because the legendary Seven were fairly well known among anyone with rebel leanings, but because of his encounters with the others' memories of him in link-mode. He wondered if Blake had explained Jabberwocky's unique abilities to Gan yet.

      Gan came in, trailed by Avon, who tended to act as security chief for them simply because he was more naturally inclined to suspicion than the rest of them. He was wearing a sidearm, something they didn't tend to do once they left a planet behind - and launch had just taken place. Avon wore a slightly disgruntled expression, as if a part of him would have liked to enjoy the general rejoicing but he knew better. In spite of all the changes in Avon for the better since Hugh had first met a cold, gun-bearing stranger on Dayson Prime, he was still suspicious of strangers, and the years that had separated them from Gan and left him in Federation hands had effectively made him a stranger.

      "Gan, this is Hugh Tiver, our doctor," Blake introduced, gesturing Gan forward. The big man smiled easily, engulfed Hugh's hand in a much larger one, and stood back.

      "We didn't need a doctor as badly on Liberator," he said. "We had healing pads that did a great deal. It was only major things, like the time my limiter malfunctioned, that we felt the need of a surgeon."

      "I've heard about the healing pads," Hugh said. "I'd give anything for a chance to study them. They'd make my work a lot easier. This crew manages to get shot and banged up more than any small group has a right to."

      "That's one thing that hasn't changed much, then," Gan replied. "Blake says you're going to run tests to see about the programming they did on me. I know they did it. Arpel admitted it."

      Avon grimaced. "As I suspected, Blake." He gestured for the rebel leader to depart. "I'll wait here whilst the testing continues."

      Blake nodded. "I'm sure it will work out," he said to Gan. "I'll send Vila down later. He's anxious to see you again."

      "I've missed him," Gan agreed. When Blake left, he turned to Hugh again. "Where would you like me?"

      "Elsewhere," Avon muttered under his breath but Hugh ignored him. Those were the kind of noises Avon always made and Hugh knew how far to take them. It seemed Gan did, too, because he showed no upset at Avon's words.

      "Never mind Avon," the doctor told Gan. "Sit here." He inserted Orac's key and pulled the table on which the computer sat closer. "I've rigged Orac with leads that will connect to your pulse points," he said, suiting the actions to the words. "It will monitor you and assess your responses to the questions."

      "Under protest," huffed Orac. "I am not a common lie detector."

      Gan chuckled. "Some things never change, do they, Orac. It's good to see you again, too."

      "Hmpf," Orac replied. "At least you always treated me with proper respect, unlike others I could mention."

      Hugh smiled at that. Orac tended to resent everyone much of the time. Perhaps Gan had been properly in awe of the computer to give it an even greater sense of superiority than it already possessed. "Orac," he said, "I'm going to begin the test." Suiting his actions to the words, he attached electrodes to Gan's temples. "None of this should hurt," he said. "It merely measures your veracity. It isn't that we don't want to trust you. We just can't take the risk."

      "I understand. I knew you'd have to do this, especially when all of you thought I was dead."

      "Subject is equivocating," Orac inserted smoothly.

      "Already?" Avon said, his mouth drawing into a tight line. Hugh realized with surprise that Avon had hoped that the test would prove Gan innocent, or at least controlled against his will, and that this first indication that things were not as they seemed on the surface was another confirmation for Avon that most people intended betrayal. He had learned through painful experience that the Jabberwocky crew didn't intend him any harm and that whenever something went wrong among them it was not that they meant to turn on Avon, but it was something he had not yet learned to extend to strangers. Gan resided somewhere midway between crew and strangers and no matter how much Avon had braced himself against trusting him, a part of him had wanted to. Hugh's mouth twisted sympathetically but he didn't say anything to Avon about it.

      "What are you keeping from us?" he asked Gan. "Orac can tell it, you know."

      "Perhaps he's not Gan at all," Avon replied. "You might check for the limiter implant before you go any further."

      Gan obligingly bent his head forward for Hugh to examine the device. He parted the dark hair and looked. At least through a superficial exam, the big man did have one. "It's here," Hugh said. "Let me test it." Picking up a hand scanner, he moved it over the external section of the device, focusing in. "It's a real limiter, Avon. But - this is interesting."

      "What's interesting?" Gan asked in surprise. Orac didn't call him on that reaction. Even more interesting.

      "This device is non-functioning," Hugh explained. "Someone, and I'd guess Arpel rather than Servalan, had it deactivated."

      "Why not Servalan?" Gan asked in surprise. "She'd programmed me to kill Blake after all. She might have wanted it deactivated so I could do her dirty work and thought it safer not to tell me."

      "You said your limiter gave you headaches when you followed up on Servalan's conditioning and blasted holograms of Blake," Avon retorted. That was interesting. The limiter and programming in conflict could well do that especially if Gan hadn't known they were holograms. Of course it would have been a risk for Servalan because the programming might have driven him to the point where the limiter would have overloaded and killed him. Perhaps she had deactivated it.

      Gan nodded. "If they didn't want me to know about it," he theorized, "maybe that was programming, too. I've thought and thought about it, Avon."

      "Not without undue strain, I'm sure." The sarcasm was slightly milder than Hugh had come to expect for Avon, and it won a quirked smile from the bigger man.

      "I never claimed to be as smart as you are, Avon," he replied. "Arpel didn't tell me the limiter was deactivated."

      "Orac?" Avon asked.

      "Subject is telling the truth," replied Orac.

      "Then what was he lying about before?"

      "Suppose we complete the tests first," Hugh intervened. He suspected that if he could present Avon with complete information first, he stood a better chance of resolving this new crisis and resolving it favourably. At least Avon had learned how to erase programming. It required an effort that he did not enjoy since it involved close mental linkage with the subject, which exposed him to the thoughts and feelings of others and gave them access to his own, but he preferred it to the booby traps that awaited them should a programmed individual gain access to the ship. Gan appeared willing to cooperate. Orac had detected nothing yet to indicate that he was actively working against his former shipmates.

      "Gan?" he prompted. "Tell the truth. Are you still on our side? Given a chance, would you join us?"

      "Of course," Gan replied. "Even without the limiter. I needed to stay with people who could protect me before, but after everything I've been through, I'd rather support Blake and the resistance than give any backing to the kind of people who play games with men's minds. I'm not sure how much help I'd be, but I'll do what I can."

      "And that's nothing but truth, Avon," Hugh said when Orac remained silent. Avon shot him one of those why-should-I-care? looks that Hugh had gradually come to interpret as meaning, yes-I-care-but-don't-make-me-admit-it. Hugh smiled.

      He started a basic medical examination. Booby traps came in many forms, not the least being an implanted disease. That form of weapon had been attempted against Blake and his crew once with an android Avalon. While this might function differently, there was no guarantee that Gan had not been implanted with a virus triggered to become active after a given time. Such things could often be detected with conventional medical treatment - assuming people knew to look. Hugh ran all the tests for such problems, and fed the data to Orac. "Orac, I want you to run DNA comparison tests on Gan as well," he ordered. "We must make sure this is Gan and not a replacement sent in to deceive us."

      Orac hummed busily to itself. Perhaps it had become interested in the experiment. Hugh doubted it had ever developed a fondness for Gan. Orac never seemed fond of anyone, though it might have enjoyed the awe that someone of a slower intellect than Avon would have accorded it.

      "DNA patterns match those recorded in my memory banks for Olag Gan," Orac conceded.

      Hugh had begun to suspect that this would be the case, but his own findings were giving him a new area of speculation. He ran further tests to confirm it, while Avon waited impatiently near the door, one hand never far away from his weapon.

      "What do you think he's going to do, Avon?" the doctor asked.

      "I'm not sure. His limiter malfunctioned once and he nearly killed me."

      "That wasn't deliberate, Avon," Gan defended himself. "You know it wasn't."

      "Had you killed me - without deliberate intent - I should have been just as dead. I have nothing against you, Gan. I merely have something for this ship and its crew. I will not subject them to unnecessary danger."

      "You can undo programming now?" Gan asked hopefully. "I'd submit to that willingly. Though Arpel says you'll want to know why I'm here, so it might be better to bring it out and find out what it is."

      "Or not," Avon replied. "It could all too easily prove fatal. What are you doing, Hugh?"

      The doctor ran a quick comparison study, bringing his data up on the screen, and heaved a quiet sigh. He should have known this would not be easy, but how could he tell Avon, when Avon was so thoroughly primed for betrayal. If Hugh could have talked to Gan alone, he might have got further, but it didn't do to have secrets from the computer tech. Eventually that suspicion might fade entirely, and Perren was working on it, to Avon's annoyance. For now, Hugh's discovery would not please anyone, though it shouldn't mean a disaster, either.

      "When was Gan captured?" he asked. "After the Andromedan War or before?"

      "Before," Avon replied. "Half a Terran year before, I should guess. Why? Should that matter?"

      "I'm afraid it does. Gan, I suspect you already know this but there's a compulsion not to tell us. You're a clone."

      "A what?!" Avon burst out. The gun emerged smoothly from his holster and levelled at the man sitting on the med table. "I should have known this was a trick from the first."

      "Wait, Avon." Hugh grasped Avon's wrist and struggled to bear the gun down. It was not an easy task, but Avon finally shot a cold and angry glance at Hugh and allowed the gun to point away from Gan.

      "Why should I wait?" he asked. "You just said this wasn't Gan."

      "And Dayna isn't Dayna?" Hugh asked seriously. "And don't say, 'that's different,' because in a way he is far more Gan than Dayna is Dayna. We've got a DNA match so he was constructed from Gan's genetic material that makes him a true clone, probably created by the Clone Masters before their destruction. Servalan had obviously worked with them before, as we learned to our disadvantage. Blake's clone is functioning well on the Ryalon base, remember? But he was never a true clone because he was a copy, made to look like Blake and given some of Blake's knowledge, but without Blake's memories. This man has Gan's memories. Since the original is dead, he is Gan for all intents and purposes. It's as if Gan's essence were transferred to a newly constructed body. If the original Gan were alive, we might have a problem, but I'm willing to bet he died there. Maybe not as quickly as Blake suspected, because the limiter could well have depressed his vital signs to the point that they would not be detected without equipment."

      Avon heaved a sigh. "Orac? Is this what Gan was equivocating about before?" he asked as if determined to clear everything up.

      "Well, really!" Orac huffed. "I am scarcely a mind reader. I would gauge the percentage of probability, however, at 87.321%."

      "Did you know you were a clone, Gan?" Hugh asked the big man sympathetically.

      Gan struggled to speak but the words didn't emerge. He looked helplessly from Hugh to Avon and back, but Hugh, who had expected that reaction, nodded with some relief. At least Gan hadn't lied to them about it deliberately.

      "You see, Avon," Hugh said. "He's hardly out to betray us all. I want to run some more tests with Orac now, to determine the extent of the damage, but I would guess that the quickest way to deal with it would be for you to use your healing in linkage - draw in Jabberwocky with Tarrant as control, and, though I don't think you'll like the idea, Gan, we might put you in restraints for the process."

      "I won't object to it on purpose," Gan returned. "I want to get rid of the programming. But I wish you'd hear me out about Arpel first."

      "That's particularly insistent, isn't it?" Hugh said. He keyed several commands into the computer terminal that linked into Orac and allowed them to run. "This should give us further information about the extent of the damage. We're on our way back to base now. I'm going to check for every kind of implant device possible. We know a new kind has been developed that stand up to most standard scans, but fortunately for us, we've had a run in with them before and I know how to use them. I shouldn't think there'd be a point in planting a homing device on you, Gan, because they knew quite well where you were going."

      "They even arranged my passage here and programmed me to go to Ryalon," Gan agreed. "Arpel wants to do what he can to avoid a conflict."

      "I can believe that," Avon replied dryly. "Now that Blake's Cause has gained so many adherents, there is a very good chance the rabble could win. Arpel would prefer to prevent that."

      "I think it's more than that, Avon," Gan replied. "I don't understand it all and he wouldn't tell me, but he isn't as hostile to Blake as you'd expect."

      "That's an old rumour," Hugh replied. "I've heard a lot about the man and he's hard and tough and not the kind of man I'd care to cross. I never believed he wanted to be a rebel. I suspect he'd be far happier making his reforms from within, but I wouldn't let the fact that he wants to make them give us hope that he'd back us."

      "You appear to have learned some wisdom," Avon put in. "Perhaps from exposure to me." He bared his teeth in a smile that actually held real amusement, and Gan stared at him as if he'd never seen him before. The changes in Avon were bound to surprise Gan.

      The door opened and Vila poked in his head. "Gan? Are you programmed?" he asked warily, coming to a stop in the doorway.

      "He's cloned," Avon said instantly, but his voice gentled ever so slightly as he said it. Vila took a half step backwards, half out the door, his face falling and his eyes widening. "You mean he's not Gan?" he asked in dismay.

      "Of course he's Gan, Vila," Hugh said quickly. "Tell him, Gan. You've got all your memories, don't you?"

      "Right back to the time Vila dropped his weapon on the London," Gan replied. "Hallo, Vila. You're looking good. Better than I remember seeing you, if with less hair."

      Vila put up an involuntary hand and stroked his thinning hair forward to try to conceal its retreat. "You look the same, too," he said. "Losing a bit yourself, aren't you? We thought you were dead." He caught himself as if he had just realized that a cloned Gan meant that the original was dead, but then his face cleared. Maybe he had remembered Dayna. "But we've got you back now. Are you programmed? Has Avon told you how he fixes that? Our Avon's a telepath and so's our ship, and they go into your mind and fix things."

      Gan stared at Vila, then he turned and stared at Avon, who made a deprecating gesture with his hands. Discovering the gun still held there, he looked at it a minute but didn't put it away.

      "Avon a telepath?" Gan asked blankly. "And Cally never knew?"

      "It took many things to make it happen," Vila said easily. "We're all a bit telepathic now, aren't we, Avon?"

      "If you mean that exposure to link-mode and gestalt has triggered latent psi abilities in everyone, then perhaps you are correct, Vila," Avon said. "But if you think you could use them to communicate telepathically to a stranger, then I fear you are mistaken."

      //Can do it to you,// Vila reminded him. Hugh 'heard' it, too, knowing that Vila had accessed link-mode, something that they'd all learned to do. Gan must have picked up a little of it because he stared at Vila, one hand going up to touch his head.

      "Rather like Cally but not as clear," he said.

      "Yes, well, we can celebrate a reunion later, when our work is done," Avon said impatiently. "I'm going to talk to Blake. I'll expect the two of you and Jabberwocky to watch him." He started for the door.

      "Who's Jabberwocky?" Gan asked.

      //I am. Welcome, Gan.// The computer joined in the conversation. //I feel like I know you after all the hours we've spent in link mode. I think you'll enjoy it once it's begun and Avon gets that programming out of your head. Don't go, Avon. I think a link might work best now. It sounds like Arpel has a message for us.//

      "I can just imagine." Avon grimaced and halted in the doorway. "Very well, a quick linkage. Jabberwocky, I suggest you bring in Tarrant as a control, and alert Blake to what we're doing."

      "Shall I come in, too?" Vila asked. "I probably know Gan better than any of you."

      "The fewer the better," Avon replied. "Myself, Hugh long enough to check the medical readings, Blake to analyze Arpel's input, and Tarrant for control. Jabberwocky, if you would." He passed Vila the gun. The thief took it reluctantly, buckling the belt around his waist and drawing the weapon.

      Hugh let the link take him. He had been comfortable in linkage from the first, though not all the crew had fitted as well. Avon had been good at it when he finally unbent enough to stop blocking it out. Dayna had never liked it, and Blake, in his tenure as Jabberwocky's link-mate, had enjoyed it but had not been particularly skilled in it. Tarrant had thrived on it, gaining confidence and maturity through the process and he and Jabberwocky had become devoted to each other. Though Avon still made noises about taking the ship one day, everyone else knew that the link was Tarrant's and likely to stay that way. Hugh had wondered if Avon might choose to take the new mindship that was slowly growing back at the Ryalon base, but Avalon was counting on a military fleet of mindships, and Hugh suspected she would put in a pilot when the time came, possibly Dorn Suliman. Dorn often came aboard when his ship and Jabberwocky were both on Ryalon. He had gone into link mode a time or two and emerged comforted by the knowledge that his father's life was full and happy.

      Tarrant was already in the link. Avon came in coolly. He had a way of presenting himself from the surface only that Hugh had long since learned to see past. Ordinarily Avon was more open in linkage than this, but the threat that Gan presented made a considerable difference. It took so little for Avon to retreat, turtle-like, into his shell.

      Blake was there immediately after Avon. Though he lacked control of the link, he always participated happily once he was in. Now he picked up on Avon's presence and 'smiled' at him. Avon made an impatient gesture, both physically and within the link, but there was none of the animosity that would once have been present in his relationship with Blake.

      Consciously Avon directed the link. //Gan. Let me do the work. I will pull you into linkage.//

      There was a stunned pause, then Gan's mental voice came through, sounding confused and distorted. //Avon? What... where am I?//

      //This is link mode,// Tarrant explained. //I'm Del Tarrant, Jabberwocky's pilot and link mate.//

      //And I'm Jabberwocky.// The ship's mental voice was warm and reassuring. He tended to talk a lot, but he didn't with Gan, trying to reassure him with his tone.

      //Hugh.// Avon directed his mind at the doctor. //Is he responding well to linkage? Any evidence of stress?//

      Hugh checked his monitors. "It seems to be going well," he said aloud, the way they often ran the controls on the flight deck. "I'll withdraw and monitor, but bring me in again if you need me." He knew the real reason Avon had not wanted him in the link for the entire process was that he felt they might require a doctor if anything should go wrong. Reluctantly he eased from link mode and looked around the medical unit. Avon had seated himself beside the bed and reached out to encircle Gan's wrist with his hand. Healing mode needed some degree of physical contact to boost it, especially with someone he'd not been into link-mode with before. He could do it without touching, but it never worked as well. Hugh attached monitoring equipment to Avon's temples, letting a flash of linkage report through Jabberwocky what he'd done and why.

      "What's that for?" Vila asked nervously, shifting the gun from hand to hand and eyeing Avon with suspicion. "He won't like it."

      "He doesn't have to like it, Vila. We're dealing with programming that may be directed at destroying all of us. I want to monitor every step of the process. That way, if something goes wrong, we can have Orac play it back and see how to reverse it."

      "Better take Orac off line then," Vila suggested, pointing at the electrodes. "It won't do us much good if Orac's fried in the process."

      When Vila wanted to he made more sense than most people. Hugh complied, leaving Gan linked only to the medical sensors. "Orac," Hugh instructed, "monitor the medical readings but avoid a deep linkage. We don't know what we're dealing with here."

      "We are dealing with multi-layered programming, some of which is designed to stop other programming," the computer responded crisply. "Olag Gan is extremely dangerous. These tests should not be completed without the presence of Ven Perren, whose training is such that he can counter the results of feedback, and without Ran Tanz, Roald Edge, and Kerr Avon, to rebuild and restructure damaged linkages."

      Hugh and Vila exchanged a very uneasy look, then the doctor reached out to grasp Avon's arm to shake him out of linkage. If the programming were extensive enough to cause damage within linkage itself, it was better to wait a day until they could return at top speed to Ryalon, where the original team could cope with any problems that might arise.

      As he touched Avon's arm, he felt the muscles beneath his hand jump and go rigid as if the man had received an electrical charge through his body. Remembering the way Avon had looked and felt when Hugh had found him sprawled beside Dayna's body, the doctor grasped his shoulders and shook him to try to bring him out.

      Gan cried out, his entire body going rigid and arching as if he'd received a major shock to the entire system. His breathing, which had been loud and harsh during the link process, stopped abruptly as his body slackened. Vila cried, "Gan!" in a horrified voice, and plunged forward, gun falling away, to check the big man's vital signs.

      Under Hugh's hand, Avon slumped and slipped out of the chair to the floor before the doctor could catch him.

      Every light in the room went out.

      After a stunned pause, emergency power came up, bathing the room in an eerie red glow. Hugh used it to snap on the life support system and place it across Gan's chest, watching the force field spread out over him, making him breathe again and controlling the beating of his heart. A screen showed the jagged line that represented his heartbeat, steady and regular under the life support but the line that represented brain activity was depressed. It wasn't as low as it had been for Blake the time Witt had trapped and isolated him within his own mind, but it didn't look promising. A diagnostic schematic lit up on the secondary screen, pinpointing the area of the limiter implant.

      "His limiter overloaded and burned out," Hugh said as he bent to check Avon for signs of life. "It must have been shut down rather than completely deactivated, awaiting a certain trigger." Vila bent to help him and between them they lifted Avon's limp and unresisting body to the second med table. The pulse that fluttered beneath Hugh's questing fingers was almost as strong as normal and Avon was breathing on his own, but when the doctor lifted an eyelid to check his eye, the pupil was dilated and unresponsive to the light.

      "What's wrong with him?" Vila asked miserably, staring down at Avon from the other side of the med table. "He's going to be all right, isn't he? I mean, even if he is a right nuisance, I'd... miss him."

      "I don't know yet, Vila." Hugh activated the second diagnostic. "Look at this. Similar slowed brain activity."

      "You mean - he won't be normal when he wakes up?" The thief's voice was small and doubtful, and his eyes were huge in a face that had gone the colour of parchment. His hand crept out and touched Avon's arm, jiggling it slightly as if in hopes of making the unconscious man wake up.

      The intercom blared to life, scratchy from the power drain. "What's going on down there?" Jenna demanded, her voice full of shock and worry. "Blake and Tarrant just passed out and we can't get Jabberwocky on line either."

      Hugh lifted his eyes from Avon and stared at Vila in horrified realization. "I don't know what happened," he said in response to Jenna's urgent question, "but Avon and Gan are out of it, too. Gan's on complete life support, but Avon is breathing on his own. I'm getting depressed readings on brain activity, like we got the time that Blake was kicked out of linkage by Witt."

      "But what does it mean, Hugh?" came Cally's filtered voice. She sounded as if she had a very good idea of the problem but hoped he would tell her she was wrong. He could almost see her bracing herself for his answer.

      The doctor squared his shoulders. "I don't know what happened but I think the Federation found a way to use Gan's limiter to try to burn out linkage. I don't want anyone to try to go into link-mode or to activate Jabberwocky. Jenna, can you get us back to base on manual?"

      "If I must, but it won't be easy. This ship manoeuvres well, and I've still got readings, but until Tarrant revives, I'm the only pilot, and we're nearly forty hours out of base."

      "Then increase speed to the maximum safe speed and get us there as fast as you can," Hugh instructed. "I think we're going to need our three linkage experts as soon as possible."

      

      

After Blake and Tarrant were brought to the medical unit and installed on emergency couches there, Cally went to work on shipboard diagnostics. After twenty minutes she brought up normal lighting but was reluctant to restore full power in areas where it would not be needed. Life support was shut down in the hold and lower deck areas. She recruited an unwilling Vila to accompany her while she ran her checks, and finally, when everything was done to make sure that the ship was secure, she hauled Vila along to the flight deck, where a grim-faced Jenna looked up from her controls and monitors and asked in a grave tone:

      "Any change?"

      Cally shook her head. "None. Have you been able to access Jabberwocky on the computer screen? You did it before, when we went to Serna after the false IMIPAK."

      Jenna heaved a sigh. "No, there's been nothing. Jabberwocky came on line by himself then," the pilot remembered, tossing her blonde hair back from her face and running her fingers through it wearily. Jabberwocky's controls did not require hands on action, the way delicate manoeuvring had on board Liberator.

      "That was different," offered Vila, heading for the drinks dispenser and programming himself and the two women cups of coffee. "That time, all that happened was that the linkage controls were damaged. As soon as we could restore control, Jabberwocky came back on line." Sheer misery etched itself on the thief's face. "I think this time something burned out. I checked linkage controls already, while you were doing your life support diagnostic, Cally. It looks pretty bad. I think it's going to take someone like Tanz to figure it out." He sighed shakily. "We'd better hope that Tarrant stays unconscious until we get home," he added, his eyes huge and shadowed. "Because if he wakes up and Jabberwocky's gone, I think he'll lose his mind."

      Cally shuddered at the image Vila projected. It had, to a degree, been like that for her when the Auronar were destroyed, knowing that the voices that had always been at the back of her mind were gone, but in a sense this was different. She had been in linkage with Jabberwocky herself when they first acquired the mindship and the warm, immediate, thorough union between herself and the ship had been even more satisfying than any bonding she had experienced amid her own people. She had come to realize that there was as much intensity in it as there was in a partnership bonding, the equivalent of a loving marriage. Lately, she had observed that Tarrant and Jabberwocky's relationship had grown close and comfortable - and necessary. Asking either of them to leave the link would have been an act of cruelty that she was incapable of making, even had she been deprived of her telepathy again and needed it. Jabberwocky loved them all, but he loved Tarrant in that special way that only those in regular telepathic communion achieve. That was why, when Tarrant was in the pilot's chair, the ship manoeuvred better than it did at any other time, though Jenna was as skilled a pilot as Tarrant, perhaps more so. Even without Tarrant in control, the mindship was far better than any other ship in space. Now, though the ship was performing expertly under Jenna's skilled control, it felt different, wrong - empty.

      Vila must have sensed it, too, because he continued in a shaky voice, "Cally, do you think that Jabberwocky is dead?"

      "No," replied the Auron sharply. "He is not dead. I checked that first. His brain is alive and the backup systems still work. The attack was not a physical attack, Vila, but a telepathic one." The moment she said it, she knew it was true, though she did not understand how it could be managed. "I have seen this type of thing before, on Auron, though it is extremely rare. We are trained from childhood that to so violate another with our telepathy is an act of murder."

      "Murder?" echoed Jenna, staring at them sharply as if she hoped she had misunderstood the other woman. "No one's dead, Cally. What do you mean?"

      "To an Auron such an attack could lead to death, Jenna. A violent attack against the telepathic centres of the brain could drive an Auron to the point where she could no longer communicate telepathically. For my people, to be alone and silent is a horrible condition."

      "For your people, yes," Jenna said hastily. "But Blake, Avon, and Tarrant aren't Aurons and neither is Jabberwocky. They haven't been conditioned from birth to need it, the way you were. If - if Jabberwocky can't come back, they'll survive, surely."

      "Blake and Avon might," Vila put in. "I'm not sure Tarrant can survive without Jabberwocky any more - not and be the man he was anyway." He put his hands on his hips and glared at the two women. "There's got to be something we can do for them," he insisted.

      "The only thing we can do is leave them to Hugh and get back to the base as fast as we can," Cally soothed, dropping a comforting hand on Vila's shoulder. The thief had once been Jabberwocky's temporary linkmate and he had never given up the closeness he had felt toward the mindship. Lately he and Tarrant had been getting on much better, too. Between that, seeing Avon, to whom he'd always felt an attachment, collapse before his eyes, and finding Gan only to lose him again, he must be in bad shape indeed. Cally did something she would never have done before linkage, she put her arms around him and hugged him. The old Vila would have made some silly remark about, 'I never knew you cared,' but this Vila simply hugged her back, comforting her even as he accepted the support she offered.

      "I don't know if we can get Gan back, though," Vila said in a small voice. "Hugh's got him on complete life support. He says he'll have to take out the limiter once we get back to base, but it's completely burned out."

      "Arpel must have found a way to shunt telepathic power through it," Jenna mused, a frown wrinkling her smooth forehead. "I should have thought that was impossible."

      "Not if the Federation has started building more mindships," Vila cried, easing away from Cally and starting to pace up and down the flight deck. "Even if they haven't, they know how to link a brain to a control centre. If they've done that, they might have linked Gan to it passively, so that it could control him without his being aware of it."

      "Over such a distance, Vila?" Cally asked in disbelief. "I admit that what you've theorized might work, especially if the limiter could be used to boost it, but surely not this far out from Earth."

      "Why would that be a problem?" Jenna asked, leaning forward to manipulate several toggles in front of her. "Even if they haven't built a complete mindship, if we assume passive linkage, surely all they'd have to do is bring the linked brain to Dorsa Prime. They would guess that we'd run tests on Gan immediately. Perhaps that's even why we had a delay on takeoff, so that they could be sure we'd be here and they could gain our flight plan. Even if we waited, they could follow us. Spies could gain our flight plan easily enough. They wouldn't even need attack us. Can you imagine what a strategic advantage Space Command would have if they had mindships and we didn't?"

      "That shoots down the theory that Arpel is a closet rebel, doesn't it?" Vila asked, running his hand along the railing that surrounded the control portion of the deck in a gesture that was almost a caress. "He set all this up, don't you think? Servalan didn't have Gan after we got Jabberwocky so she couldn't have programmed Gan for it."

      "Unless they are working more closely together than our reports indicate," Cally replied, frowning as she tried to make sense of it. "Our reports on Arpel are very ambiguous and always have been. Tarrant and Hugh have both spoken of him from diverging directions. They both indicate that he has more integrity than Servalan, but we know he isn't actively backing us."

      "Or even passively backing us. I don't like it, Cally," Vila complained. "It's too nasty. Why would he do it? Just to avoid a big battle?"

      "Maybe it is to avoid a big battle, Vila," Jenna said with growing excitement. "We're fairly evenly matched with Jabberwocky, though they still have us outgunned otherwise. That's not quite the point. Look at the Andromedan War and the chaos it left in many systems. Some outer worlds still haven't regained full control of their systems and there was wholesale death and destruction when Star One was destroyed on planets that were dependent on it for weather control."

      "And you think that's what Arpel wants to avoid now?" Vila queried sceptically. "Quite a voice for the little people, isn't he, sparing them any nasty battles and the aftereffects?"

      "I think, perhaps, that's what he is doing," Cally mused, concentrating on the problem because it was easier to do that than to speculate on the survival of their own particular crew. "Not because of the little people either, except peripherally. We've always wondered if he didn't want to achieve change from within. He never minded us before because we weren't a major threat before. We were enough of an impetus to keep awareness of a different way of life before that segment of the population who might reasonably insist on it. Who gets the most news reports, or the most accurate news reports on Earth, from what you've told me? The Alpha grades. Mostly it doesn't matter because the Alphas have the most privileges anyway. Those in charge seldom consider changing the status quo. But the knowledge that Blake is out there fighting for people's rights is bound to make some people think. It needn't be many people, just enough to make it easier for Arpel to initiate his changes within the system. The more people are given, the more they expect. Expand their consciousness enough and they will start demanding their rights - but not if there's a major battle. For one thing, it will pull everyone together - as the Andromedan war did for us. It made humanity fight together, us and the Federation side by side. A major battle will turn the average Federation citizen against Blake and the rebel movement."

      "So that's why he destroyed us, to support us?" Vila stared at her as if she'd lost her mind, then he frowned as he pondered it. "Well, maybe. But it puts him in the same category as Servalan. One of those end-justifies-the-means types." He grimaced. "We're all like that, aren't we? Even us. Where's the difference, then?"

      "The difference is that we don't mind-wipe people to get our way," Jenna said sharply. "We don't program people to come in and kill their friends. We don't feed suppressants and Pylene 50 to entire planetary populations. Blake has a great dream. I've always wanted that, to be able to dream like he did, but I never could. Yet that doesn't stop me allying myself with him. Maybe this is the only way Arpel can ally himself with us and still hold enough power to keep making his own changes." Her mouth twisted in a nasty grimace. "That doesn't mean I wouldn't blast him if he teleported on board right now." She leaned over and pushed the comm button. "Hugh? Jenna. Any change?"

      "None. They're all still unconscious and in the case of Blake, Tarrant and Avon there's no physical cause for it. Gan's condition is beginning to stabilize but I'm going to keep him on complete life support until we reach the base. I might even put him in stasis." He hesitated, then the filtered voice continued. "Have you been able to access Jabberwocky?"

      "No," Jenna replied. "Only to determine that he's physically alive. We've some theories about what might have happened. Should one of us come down there and brief you?"

      "I'll go." Cally started for the door. "I'm too restless to merely wait here. Vila, put up the extra range detectors and see if we've got anyone on our tails."

      "You think they'd attack us en route to base?" Vila's voice rose in alarm as he spun to stare at her. "We can't fight..."

      "We can fight manually," Jenna replied, "though with only four of us it wouldn't be easy. But I sent a communique to base, and Avalon is sending out a flotilla to meet us. We'll rendezvous in fifteen hours."

      Vila hunched in his shoulders and looked at the main screen as if he expected to see a squadron of pursuit ships ringing Jabberwocky. "Fifteen hours are a long time to be out here on our own," he said.

      

      Cally stood in the door of the medical unit and looked around the room, her eyes lingering longest on Avon's still form before coming back to the doctor. Hugh, an impatient expression on his handsome face, was studying a readout on the main diagnostic screen. In the primary bed, Gan was on complete life support, but Avon, Blake, and Tarrant were connected to diagnostic boards with electrodes. Tarrant had a double set, perhaps because the threat to him was greater as Jabberwocky's link partner who had been forced out of linkage. The results of such happenings had been seen before and it was better to take no chances. Hugh entered data on another computer using a keyboard, checked readings again, and made a circle of the room, examining every man by sight and by readings, pausing here to take a pulse the old fashioned way by hand, stopping there to lift an eyelid and study the eye thus revealed. When he turned from Avon, whom he'd monitored last, he finally noticed Cally standing there. In response to the stricken look on her face, his own filled with sympathy and he came forward to embrace her.

      "I wish I had some good news for you, Cally," he told her in a gentle voice, stroking her hair with one hand. "But nothing significant has changed. I'm just beginning to get stronger brain readings on Blake - the only sign of progress I've found so far. It's not enough to indicate he'll return to consciousness any time soon, but it gives me hope that the same will happen to the others eventually. Except for Gan, their life signs are strong. They'll come out of it." Had Cally been psi blind she would still have 'heard' the 'I hope,' that Hugh very carefully failed to add.

      "Why Blake in particular?" Cally asked, easing from the comforting grip. "Is there some reason you'd expect him to come back first?" When he freed her and turned back toward the diagnostic screen, she followed him.

      "I've been running lots of tests over the past few months," Hugh explained, rubbing his chin in his hand. "All of them regarding linkage and why it works better for some people than it does for others. At first I theorized psychological reasons. Dayna hated it from the beginning. She didn't even like the concept of it. I'd wondered if that might not be because she grew up with such an isolated lifestyle. The only people she really interacted with were her father and her sister Lauren. But that may not be it, because Dayna had close, intense relationships with them. She can become close to others, though perhaps she prefers it in limited doses. Blake likes linkage but he didn't manage it well when he was Jabberwocky's linkmate, though he hardly had a fair chance. I think that what happened with Witt affected him, so that now, though he likes it and goes into it with enthusiasm, a small portion of him holds back. I can't see any particular patterns involving class distinctions, either. Avon held back at first because that's his nature, yet he has great capabilities. I think it's a combination of many factors, Cally."

      He punched up some data on the screen. "I've been running tests to determine if it has anything to do with psi ability. Tarrant doesn't have much yet he has an aptitude for linkage. Part of that is because the link is designed for a pilot, but all that need mean is that it work smoothly in flight. Yet Tarrant's gone beyond that."

      "He loves Jabberwocky with all his heart," Cally put in, gazing down at the unconscious pilot. He looked so incredibly young unconscious that it was hard to believe he'd graduated from the academy, been a space captain, deserted with Dorn Suliman, and lived a life as a mercenary before he'd come aboard the Liberator. His face was slightly flushed now and his curls were tangled. There was no expression on his face at all, and he lay completely unmoving, his breathing slow and regular as if he were deeply asleep. If the link could not be restored, would Tarrant wake up insane? Would he gradually become hardened and cold, as Avon had been for a time? Would he survive at all?

      "I know." Hugh sighed. "I hate this, Cally. There are times when I think Avon's right, to let yourself care for someone is a foolish risk. I can't help them." He slammed a fist on the table beside the keyboard. "I don't know how to help them. I'm a doctor. I'm supposed to be able to help them."

      "You are helping them," she said gently, resting a slender hand on his stiffened shoulder. It wasn't like Hugh to give in to despair. He was usually the voice of hope for the rest of them. "Tell me about the tests you've been running," she urged in hopes of distracting him from any kind of self-blame.

      "I've tried a few things," he said obediently, though his heart wasn't in it. "I ran tests on chemical reactions, I did personality profiles, I checked psi ratings, electro-metabolic studies, anything I could think of. I don't believe there is any one answer. With Blake, I think the problem comes out of his original programming. They took his memories. Subconsciously, he clings to the memories he has now, afraid he'll lose them again, the way he nearly did when Witt forced him from the link. It's not a serious problem or he couldn't function and he may gradually come out of it on his own. Perren could work with him on it if Blake wanted it badly enough. I think it limits the amount of himself that Blake can give openly to the linkage. He gives wholeheartedly - but he holds a small grain back, and that one grain is enough to keep him from committing himself completely. He doesn't even know he's doing it, I shouldn't think."

      "But surely Avon must do that to a far greater extreme," Cally argued. "Yet he functions well in the link."

      "He functions well - at his choice. I think the reason Jabberwocky has always said that Avon was not ready for link is because he knows that. You've seen Avon erect his walls the minute he comes in. Even now that he's more comfortable with all of us, even after he's partially healed himself, he still exerts control, but the difference between him and Blake is that he knows he's doing it and chooses it consciously. The day he realizes he doesn't have to block Jabberwocky and the rest of us out, that's the day he'd be ready for linkage." Hugh smiled sadly, casting an affectionate glance at the comatose computer tech. "With Avon, though, the day that he's ready will be the day he knows he doesn't need it as he thinks he does. He'll never be Jabberwocky's linkmate." He winced as he heard himself but didn't say anything to call attention to his slip. "I haven't worked out any consistent measurement for a link factor that could determine who would fit best in linkage. That doesn't matter right now. You said you had an idea what might have happened?"

      "Theories. That the Federation has developed its own mindship and used Gan's limiter as a booster to short out the link - something like what Witt did to Blake, only over a larger scale."

      Hugh stared at her in surprise, then he nodded thoughtfully. "You could be right. The link is shorted out. But that's not exactly it, though. If so, we'd have Jabberwocky linked to someone else or at least printing out communication on the screen. What they did was use the limiter to burn out the link - and Gan with it. He was always considered expendable by the Federation. A piece of bait, no more." Anger crept into his voice again.

      "He's not dead?" Cally asked, glancing uneasily at Gan.

      "I don't know. I can maintain him but I don't know if there's much to maintain. We're going to have to take the limiter out when we return to base before we even consider anything beyond complete life support. The new medical team can help with that. I'd prefer to keep him unconscious until then. It may have taken him harder than otherwise because he's a clone." When Cally made a quickly arrested gesture of surprise, Hugh grimaced. "I'm sorry to break it to you like that. I forgot there hadn't been time to tell you. We'd just found out, but he is Gan. He has his memories and his DNA material." He raked fingers through his curly hair. "I think what happened is that the Federation found a way to boost something into the linkage - whether they have another mindship or disembodied brain or whether they were using standard telepathic linkages, what they did was overload the link and burn it out. I don't know if it's burned out permanently or not." He sighed. "I need to establish monitors on Jabberwocky. That can't be done here. All I can tell from here is that his brain is alive and that the backup systems are functioning. I have to go to the central core for anything more. I want you to stay here and monitor them. If Tarrant should start to awaken, hit this button." He pointed it out. "It will key in a sedative. I want him sedated until we reach the base and can turn him over to Perren. Of anyone, Ven's best equipped to deal with Tarrant when he comes out of this."

      "Is he showing signs of waking up?" Cally asked, studying the individual monitors that were flagged with each man's name and readings. Blake's brain activity rating was the highest, but Avon's had grown fractionally since her arrival, though that might have been wishful thinking.

      Hugh checked the readings himself. "No, there's been no significant change. I doubt Tarrant will wake up while I'm gone. If Blake should start showing signs of returning consciousness, contact me immediately. I shouldn't be gone more than an hour."

      When he had departed, his arms full of medical and monitoring equipment, Cally dragged up a chair and positioned it by Avon's side in a place where she could see the diagnostic monitors. Carefully, to avoid dislodging the electrode attached to the back of his hand, she curled her fingers around Avon's and squeezed gently, her eyes on the screen. The touch produced no response, so she tried a gentle telepathic contact. //Avon. I am here. Sleep now, but know I will be with you when you awaken.// The bars on the screen stirred faintly and settled back again. It proved something of him was left, but it need be no more than an automatic reaction to a stimulus. Such readings did not measure the intellect, anyway. They were more apt to signify the depth of unconsciousness.

      Reaching out with her other hand, Cally stroked Avon's cheek. His skin felt cool to the touch. Sighing, she pulled her hand away. Close as she and Avon had become, she felt the touch was almost a violation of his privacy. She had chosen a prickly and difficult man to love, and with that love came a tightrope for her to walk between respecting the part of him that craved isolation and trying to urge the complete and caring man within to emerge from the shadows.

      It didn't do any good to think of that now, when she didn't know if she would ever have him back. Composing herself with an effort, and keeping her grip on his hand, she began to sing softly, an old Auron lullaby, pitching her voice just loud enough to make it audible to any of the unconscious men, should they rouse enough to hear it, as she waited for Hugh to return or for someone to arouse, whichever came first.

      

      Vila heaved a great sigh and stretched, his whole body arching and going taut a minute before he relaxed again and sat down, knuckling his aching eyes with his fists. The screen was starting to blur before him. Flight computers were nowhere near as efficient as Jabberwocky or Orac. Jabberwocky was out of it - Vila, who loved Jabberwocky wholeheartedly, shivered at the thought that they might not get him back - and Orac was needed in the medical unit to monitor the unconscious members of the crew.

      Jenna had to put all her concentration into navigation. The flight computers were good enough to handle it for short stretches, but Jenna didn't trust them for long periods. She was all over the flight deck, checking a reading here, making an adjustment there, her face shuttered and grim. She wasn't given much for casual chit chat at the best of times, and Vila's usual method of distraction, to be as annoying as possible and complain about anything and everything, had never worked well with Jenna. These days they got along better - since the advent of Jabberwocky, everyone in the crew got along better - but Vila couldn't help wondering if Jabberwocky were gone for good, and, if so, would they revert to the abrasive and distant bunch they had been before link-mode.

      It was Vila's job to monitor for possible Federation ships and to stand by the weapons' array. Thirteen hours out from Dorsa Prime and over three hours before possible rendezvous with the rebel flotilla, there were other ships on the screen from time to time, but none of them were paralleling their course. He'd mentioned that to Jenna several times and finally she had grown impatient and snapped that there was no need to follow; the deed was done.

      "Maybe they don't know that?" Vila suggested in a small voice.

      "If they've got another mindship or anything comparable, they'll know," she replied. "They would have known when to feed in the overload or whatever it was. Once Gan's limiter wasn't receiving any more, they would be sure they'd done their work. They've probably already got a report from their spies on Ryalon."

      Vila didn't like the idea of that. Spies in the one place they could feel safe was not a happy thought, though they knew it could happen. The ship was a sitting target out here alone and damaged, but no one had attacked them. He couldn't help wondering if that meant their theories about Arpel were right, that he didn't want to destroy Blake, merely prevent a war that would unite the Federation against him. It seemed awfully convoluted reasoning. More likely the Federation didn't want to pursue them too closely into Rebel territory. He'd said so to Jenna, who didn't appear to derive very much comfort from the thought. Of course she was worried about Blake, but she wasn't the only one who had reason to worry, after all. Vila sighed again.

      "If you're going to keep doing that, could you go somewhere else?" Jenna demanded.

      Vila raised his eyes to her face, putting on his most stricken expression, and Jenna heaved a sigh of her own and made a quick, throwaway gesture with her left hand. "I'm sorry, Vila. I know how hard this is on you, too. That look on Hugh's face when he came back from the central core didn't help."

      "He says Jabberwocky's alive," Vila said. "He says he can get us communication once the flotilla gets here." With a shiver he tried not to dwell on the worst case. If Jabberwocky were conscious and aware but trapped inside his mind alone, would he come out of it sane? Vila hoped Jabberwocky was unconscious like the other three and that he wouldn't revive until linkage could be established. Hugh was keeping Tarrant deliberately sedated, though he was prepared to let Blake and Avon come out of it naturally if they revived before rendezvous. "Pity Avon's lying down on the job," he added. "If anyone could get through to Jabberwocky, he could."

      "He can hardly do it if the telepathic linkages are burned out, Vila," Jenna reminded him. With an exasperated snort, she turned several dials. "I'd forgotten how annoying it can be to pilot a ship without linkage. So many things that need doing - when in linkage, I become the ship; I take it on like a second skin, and I'm literally soaring through the void, feeling the cold of space on my hull, seeing everything out there where it's dark and huge and bright. Don't you feel that when you link?" Her eyes held rapture at the memory. Vila had never heard her sound so poetic. He hadn't thought she had it in her. Maybe she didn't dream Blake's kind of dreams, but she was a dreamer in her own way. Perhaps everyone was, if you peeled away the surface and got down to the essential person inside.

      Vila shivered, not too delighted at the thought of her description. It felt too much like being cast adrift without a space suit. "Wouldn't like that," he confessed. "Space makes a person feel small - insignificant. I'm happy to be doing my bit through the link. I never took it that way, becoming Jabberwocky. I've done the reverse, though, let Jabberwocky be me - feel what I felt. When you haven't a body, there's no other way to experience - certain things." He grinned at her knowingly and winked.

      Jenna returned his grin, her mouth twisting wryly. "I can imagine. Typical, Vila. Still, I'm glad you gave him the opportunity, especially if..." She let her voice trail off. Especially if he dies, thought Vila, wrapping his arms around his chest and turning his eyes determinedly back to the screen. "At least Hugh thinks that Avon and Blake will be all right."

      "And Gan?" Jenna fell silent a moment as she adjusted the flight program. "We're not getting answers there, are we?"

      "How can we get answers? I think we need someone more skilled in the use of limiters than Hugh is. I wonder if Tanz knows anything about them."

      "Surely not." Jenna lifted her eyes in surprise. "I can't picture Tanz ever hurting anyone - though I know that's foolish. The Federation sometimes gives no choice."

      "Well, he might know theoretically. It makes it harder that Gan's a clone," Vila said.

      "We're becoming a strange crew," replied the pilot. "Telepathic linkages when most of us aren't telepathic. The gestalt state. Dayna's an android now and Gan's a clone. One of us doesn't even have a body." Momentarily satisfied with the readings she leaned back in her chair to stretch the kinks out of her shoulders and ran her fingers through her long, blonde hair. "Yet, the funny thing is, until this happened, I couldn't remember being happier. Blake and I - well, you know we're together. Even Avon's turning human. I can't remember the last time you acted the coward or the fool and meant it. The rebellion's gaining strength. I actually thought we might win. Now, I don't know."

      "We're none of us dead yet, Jenna," Vila reassured her. "Help's on the way, and we know the rest of the team is on the first ship. It's going to be easier when they get here."

      "I hope you're right," Jenna said gravely. "I really hope you're right."

      

      Soolin was by nature a cynical woman, and until she had met Roj Blake, she had never let anyone get to her, but meeting Blake and his crew, becoming friends with them, getting to know a man like Hugh Tiver, who openly admitted friendship, had gradually worn down Soolin's armour until she learned to trust the Jabberwocky crew. There were times, like now, that she rather wished she hadn't.

      The message had come to the base while she and Dayna were working on the weapons' relays for the new mindship, and Avalon had called the two of them and the three psi experts, Perren, Edge, and Tanz to her office and suggested they go along with the flotilla being sent out to rendezvous with Jabberwocky. "You three might be vital to Jabberwocky's survival," she had pointed out to the three men.

      "Gosh, yes, we have to go," Tanz cried in alarm, his face readily revealing his distress. "It sounds like a case of psi burnout to me. What do you think, guys?"

      "We don't know what's happened yet," Edge replied, always practical, "but it appears that with the arrival of Gan, the Federation found a way to attack Jabberwocky from within. I can run some scenarios on the way to save us time. When we get there, we'll choose the most likely of them."

      "It sounds like there may have been too much psi feedback in the link," Perren agreed. "That could burn out Jabberwocky's link centres and it would certainly stun anyone in linkage with him."

      "Not kill them?" Dayna asked hopefully. "We've had a few link problems before, people being thrust from linkage. None of it really hurt Jabberwocky's ability to link before. Of course, if he didn't have a linkmate, it affected him."

      "It would," Tanz said sympathetically. "The system is designed that way. Once Jabberwocky has formed a permanent linkage, he needs it."

      Perren nodded in agreement. "The Federation made us design the system that way. It was to prevent the ship's brain from going rogue and taking off on its own. After the money the Federation put into the project, they didn't want to risk losing it, and that was one way they thought it could happen. Since the ship was a conscious entity, they made me design in a dependency factor. Until permanent linkage was made, the ship wouldn't react to it, but once it did, it needed a linkmate."

      "I wondered about that," Dayna said. "When we first got Jabberwocky he seemed happy and functional without someone in the link, but after he'd been in the system, he couldn't take it to be without a link. Vila said when Vangam took over Tarrant and knocked him out of the link that Jabberwocky could barely function and needed to pull Vila in before he could do anything to fight Vangam."

      "What about the return dependency?" Soolin asked coolly. "Tarrant seems to need the link as badly as Jabberwocky does. Is that something you designed, too, Ven?"

      "No," Perren said thoughtfully, his brow wrinkling as he considered it. "I couldn't design something for an unknown pilot. The link, when it works best, is extremely pleasant, though. A dependency might form from the pilot's side, in much the same way as a person forms a drug dependency, except that there's no real chemical addiction. But what you're talking about is involuntary separation, and that is bound to affect all concerned. I'm worried about Tarrant. Apart from the dangers of an involuntary severing, he's really close to Jabberwocky. If we can't repair it, it'll hit him as if he's lost his closest friend. Besides the link, that never feels great." He glanced at his two best friends, who seemed to understand exactly what he was talking about.

      "What about Blake - and Avon?" she persisted. "What will happen to them? Will it hit them the same way?"

      Perren frowned and shook his head. "They'll probably wake up with symptoms that imply an 'emotional' concussion. It'll take a day or two for it to wear off, though Avon might want to try using that super brain of his for healing. I wish I could figure out how he does it. I never met anybody less likely to be a psi healer than Avon."

      Soolin nodded. "Could he heal Jabberwocky?"

      "If anybody can, it'll be Tanz," Perren replied, shaking his head. "I think we're talking physical burnout here. Remember, Jabberwocky's psi functions are artificially enhanced. I think we may have lost those links."

      "You built them once," Dayna suggested hopefully, standing beside Tanz and touching his arm. "Can you redo them?"

      The young engineer slid his arm around her shoulders. "We won't know until we see them. Then I'll have to do the work. What I'm really afraid of-" He gulped and glanced around miserably. "What I'm really afraid of is that the damage might be so great that he isn't Jabberwocky any more."

      Now as she stood on the flight deck of the flotilla's flagship staring at the viewscreen, Soolin remembered that conversation. It was only ten minutes until they could teleport over to Jabberwocky, and she and her companions had gathered here, waiting for someone to teleport over with bracelets for them. They could reach the ship faster that way. None of them wanted to wait.

      Soolin was annoyed with herself. She considered herself Blake's bodyguard yet she had allowed him to go on a mission without her. Though it had seemed standard and her help had been needed on the new mindship, a vessel that was nearly ready but for the actual implanting of the human brain and the installation of some redundancy systems, that could have waited. Blake had insisted she stay, though, knowing the Federation might yet choose to attack them, and feeling a need to prepare the second mindship as quickly as possible. A brain donor had been located, a man who lay in a ruined body in the hospital in Ryalon City and who had given telepathic approval to the process, since he was unable to communicate in any other way. His brain lived but he could neither speak, see, or move. A link with Jabberwocky had been enabled, and afterwards Jabberwocky reported that the man was overjoyed at the thought that he could have a new kind of life. Perren had been working with him as much as possible.

      Yet Soolin still felt she should have been with Blake. Of all the people she'd met, Blake had touched her the most. For a time she had believed herself in love with him, but she had always known that while Blake loved her it was not in the way she would have liked. It was hard to let go of that dream without letting go of everything she'd learned from Blake, but she was managing. Perren had helped her there. She and the irreverent young man had spent some time together, casual and friendly time, and had reached the conclusion that they were not suited to each other except as friends. Being with someone who could be frivolous at the drop of a hat was new to Soolin, and if Perren had given her anything, it was the ability to play. She had lost that years ago, had felt she'd never been a child, but Perren had released something inside her and made her feel more free than she had in her adult life. If they hadn't driven each other crazy, it might have been a happily-ever-after ending, but it didn't work. Both of them had quick tempers and it took little to start them off. Besides, Perren was too tied up with his two friends to allow someone to penetrate the inner circle. Soolin had opted for friendship and was glad of it.

      That made her think of Hugh, her first and still closest friend. Lately she'd spent less time with him than she had at first, and as she stood here now, watching the star field, her thoughts lingered on him, imagining him trying to cope with a situation that was beyond his training and experience. He'd do his best, of course. He always did. For the first time she found herself wishing she was there to help him.

      "Teleporting now." Vila's filtered voice cut across the flight deck, and he materialized in front of them, both hands full of bracelets. Soolin and the others crowded around to take them while the captain of the flagship arranged flight patterns with Dayna over the communicator. As soon as everyone was wearing a bracelet, Vila hit the recall button on his. "Bring us across, Cally," he instructed.

      Cally looked strained and tired, and when Tanz asked anxiously, "Have they awakened yet?" she shook her head.

      "No, though Blake is showing signs of it. Come quickly. I want to see what you can find out."

      "I'm going to check the linkages," Tanz offered. "Edge, you'd better come, too, for the computer relays."

      Cally nodded. "Vila, go back to the flight deck. Jenna's going to need another pair of hands."

      "That's what I'm best at," Vila muttered. "Another pair of hands. Dayna, come with me. We could use two people on the weapons' relays in case the Federation tries anything."

      They headed in the direction of the flight deck. Tanz and Edge set off toward the computer crawlways, and Perren and Soolin fell into step with Cally, heading for the medical unit. There was really nothing Soolin could do there - she might be more useful on the flight deck - but her feet turned her automatically in that direction.

      Perren shared a crooked grin at her. "He'll come out of it," he said.

      She stared at him in surprise before she realized he meant Blake. That surprised her all the more, that she hadn't been thinking of Blake, other than the normal worry one felt for a crewmate and the irritation with herself because she had not gone on the mission. Had her brief liaison with Perren managed to put her feelings with Blake into the proper perspective after all? If so, she was glad of it.

      The sight of Blake unconscious nearly undid all her good intentions, but even more than that, it was the drained, exhausted, helpless look on Hugh's face that stung her. She stood in the doorway while Perren conferred with him over the brain patterns and showed Ven comparison charts, both men serious. Though Perren often presented a flip, casual appearance to the world, there was a more serious man inside who cared about people and who went out of his way to help those in trouble. He didn't just imagine big dreams, either. He dealt with problems right now, in the real world. She liked that about him. Hugh, she realized, was the same way. Other people might dream of saving the galaxy, but when someone was hurt, Hugh was right there.

      "Psi burnout," Perren said in a low voice, looking around the room, pausing to study Avon for a moment, a frown on his face. Maybe he'd been drawn to Avon because, of all of them, Avon might need a psych tech most, though Soolin didn't think that was why. She thought it was because Perren understood and appreciated the dry humour that Avon employed so wickedly, the humour that often went right over the heads of those around him.

      "Is it bad?" she asked.

      That made Hugh look up quickly. He hadn't noticed her until now but when he saw her, his face warmed. He came to her quickly and put his hands on her shoulders. "We'll save them somehow," he promised her.

      She smiled at him. "I know. What can I do to help?"

      "I'm not sure yet. Ven?"

      Perren had gone back to the screens and was pondering them. "We can bring Avon and Blake out now if you'd like. It will need an injection of corti-stim. They'll stabilize almost immediately, I should think."

      "That would work," Hugh agreed. "I just wasn't sure what kind of side effects they'd have from being in linkage at such a time."

      "They'll have massive headaches," Perren replied. "And the aftereffects of the shock. Corti-stim will deal with the latter. You can medicate for pain, too, but I'd as soon not until I talk to them. Avon should be able to help us here because he's a telepath and he might have some insight into what happened. Of course getting him to talk about the link won't be easy. He doesn't open up much."

      "He'll need to, this time," Hugh replied without hesitation. With a squeeze to Soolin's shoulders, he turned back and set up the injections. At Perren's nod, he injected Avon first and then Blake, then stood back to await the results. Soolin went to his side and waited with him, causing a startled expression to appear in the doctor's eyes.

      Blake came out of it first, groaning and putting his hands to his temples. He opened his eyes, squeezed them shut immediately as if the light hurt them, and rolled over on his side, curling up in a fetal position. Hugh started toward him, touching Blake's arm and calling his name.

      At that, Blake slitted his eyes open and peered up at the doctor. "Hugh?" Slowly he uncurled himself and sat up, and Hugh steadied him until he had his balance. His hands went back to his temples, massaging them tenderly as if afraid a heavier pressure would make his head explode. "I've got a hell of a headache," he said.

      "I'm going to give you an adrenalin and soma injection, Blake," Hugh replied and suited the action to the words. "That should ease it shortly, but you've got psi burnout."

      "It will take time for the headache to go away completely, Blake," Perren said, stepping forward. "But the injection will make it bearable."

      Blake squinted at him in surprise. "Perren? You weren't here before, were you?"

      "No. We rendezvoused with you just now. The Federation used Gan's limiter to attack the link."

      "They did what?" Blake glanced around, saw Avon just beginning to stir, Tarrant lying unmoving and Gan under life support. "Are they all right? I felt the attack. It was like a knife in my head, full of fire. Then everything went away and the world exploded. Jabberwocky, are you all right?"

      When he got no answer, he turned an alarmed look at Hugh. "Did we lose the link? How soon can we get it back?"

      "Right now we're not sure we can get it back," Perren replied. "Tanz is checking linkages and Edge is running down the computer part of the problem. We know Jabberwocky's alive but that's all we know so far. I'm not sure Avon could reach him, even telepathically. Cally's tried, I'm sure." He cast a questioning look at Hugh, who nodded.

      "I asked her to try. She's done it off and on since it happened. Without the link, she's limited to her usual Auron abilities, which means she can't receive from him. All that might mean is that the link he uses is defective, though. He might be able to hear her."

      "He 'hears' us through the computer feed and the psi link," Perren said tightly. "Though he might hear Cally. We didn't really have much in the way of telepaths to work with while we were setting up the designs. She should keep at it in case he can hear her. Otherwise he's been coping with sensory deprivation as well as the loss of his linkmate, and the mental trauma isn't going to be much good to him."

      "You mean he could go mad?" Blake asked unhappily. As the injection worked, he appeared more functional. With a show of determination he got up and went to Avon, bending down to touch his shoulder. "Avon? Can you hear me?"

      "I'd appreciate it if you didn't shout, Blake," Avon replied in a voice tight with pain. Hugh gave him his adrenalin and soma injection and gradually his taut body relaxed and he risked opening his eyes. Seeing Blake standing over him, he drew his mouth into a tight line and said, "I told you it was a trap, Blake. I heard Perren say that we might have lost Jabberwocky completely and I have to say I agree with the possibility. I felt that attack. What did they do, pass it through Gan's limiter?"

      "Exactly," Perren replied. "They thought stopping Jabberwocky would be the best way to stop us. I don't know what they intended, but this" - he gestured around the medical unit at Tarrant and Gan - "seems to be fairly effective. They always did go in for overkill."

      "Are they alive?" Avon asked as if it didn't matter. His eyes were dark with the concern he would not voice aloud.

      "Gan's on total life support, but I think he'll live if I can remove the limiter," Hugh replied. "That's for the medical team on the base. I don't dare bring him to consciousness now because the limiter burned out, too, and I'm not sure I'd be able to control the pain. You can see him reacting to it, even in life support." He pointed at the large man and Soolin stared, realizing that his muscles were taut and that every so often he twitched slightly. He'd be in agony if they brought him out of it.

      "And we know what state Tarrant would be in," Avon replied.

      "Can you heal him?" asked Blake.

      "Perhaps." Avon frowned. "I assume the Federation found a way to patch into link mode."

      "We think they might have designed another mindship, or at least set up a disembodied brain capable of the link and tied Gan's limiter into it," Hugh explained. Soolin saw awareness in Avon's eyes as he pondered the problem.

      "I hope that doesn't mean the other brain has found the pattern of our linkage."

      Perren shook his head. "No, Avon. Even if they had, they couldn't come into the link without our awareness, not without a booster like the limiter. Without Gan in linkage with a functional limiter they shouldn't be able to drop in uninvited again. I'll get Tanz to design a fail-safe to prevent it. He loves coming up with gismos like that."

      "That's all very well," Blake said, pulling himself together with a visible effort. "But I feel like I've had part of my insides ripped out and I'm sure you do, too, Avon. It's just as well you've sedated Tarrant, but what about Jabberwocky. Can you sedate him, too? Is he conscious and unable to communicate? Is he even alive?"

      "He's alive," said Hugh. "I can check for that. I can't even imagine what it's like for him with such complete isolation when he's accustomed to having someone with him always."

      "We'll need to give him a linkmate quickly," Perren said thoughtfully, a frown wrinkling his brow. "Once Tanz gives us a report on the psi linkages we can decide how to handle it."

      "I hope he doesn't take very long," Hugh muttered. "I'm not sure how long anyone could handle that."

      

      Tanz was fairly quick with his report. Half an hour later he appeared in the doorway of the medical unit and looked around, smiling when he saw that Blake and Avon were conscious and functional. Avon, who didn't believe in meaningless smiles and who found Tanz and his boundless enthusiasm even harder to take than Perren's irreverent comments, grimaced. "I presume you're ready to give us a report."

      Cally entered behind him. "I've been assisting him to assess the link, Avon," she replied. "I'm pleased to see you awake again."

      "I'm rather pleased with that myself. What have you learned? Is Jabberwocky repairable?"

      "You make him sound like just a computer," Tanz objected. "If he were, it would be a lot easier. Edge is rerouting the main computer linkages now. He says it will take another ten hours to do an adequate job and several days back at the base to check everything and make sure it's functional again. He'll have the emergency work done by the time we're back at Ryalon. It's a good thing he's here. He really knows those programs."

      "The rest of us are not ignorant of them," Avon said coolly.

      Tanz flushed slightly. "I didn't mean that. I know how good you are. We just think there's another job you could do better." He shot a sideways glance at Perren, who had popped in and out of the medical unit, checking with both his team mates and talking with Cally on the flight deck before he recruited her to help him.

      "Tanz is right," the psych tech said. "Cally has been trying to communicate with Jabberwocky. Without the psi link functioning properly she hasn't been able to elicit a response, though. We don't know if Jabberwocky can hear her or not."

      "I feel certain he can," Cally said in gentle tones. "I know Jabberwocky well now and though he cannot respond to me in his present state, I feel an awareness. He is alive and I think he is conscious." Her face showed her distress. "I can hardly imagine his state of mind. I know how it would feel to an Auron to be blocked from all external stimuli, especially telepathic contact. Since he lacks a physical body, the mental contact has replaced what he can't experience any more. I fear he will go mad if we can't repair things quickly."

      "There's the problem," Tanz replied. "It's going to take us some time to replace all the burned out circuitry that boosts Jabberwocky's psi ability. Cally can help by communicating with him, but even she must sleep."

      Perren grinned and turned to Avon with that irreverent grin the computer tech had come to distrust. "Kerr, old man, have I got a deal for you."

      Avon bit his bottom lip before he could insist that he preferred to be addressed as Avon. He'd tried that before and it only made the younger man come up with more outrageous nicknames such as 'Brain of the Century', and 'Mr. Computer'. The only way to deal with Perren was to remain calm and act as if anything he did was beneath Avon's dignity. Occasionally it even worked.

      "I can just imagine," he said scornfully. "What is it I am to do now? Create a miniature universe? Teach Blake to think before he acts? Remember, even I have my limitations."

      "He admits it," Perren said gleefully to Tanz, which made everyone in the room smile, even Cally. Avon bestowed a cool look upon her, but her eyes twinkled at him undaunted.

      Perren struck a pose. "Avon, my good friend, I'm about to give you your heart's desire. I want you to become Jabberwocky's link mate."

      That was the last thing Avon had expected and he drew back his head in surprise. "I find that rather unlikely."

      "You're a telepath," Perren reminded him as if he might have forgotten it by accident. "What's more you're not an Auron telepath. You don't like it when I want to work with you but I've picked up enough to know that you're good at it, when you let yourself be. Tell me this. I've seen you and Vila scheming without anyone else the wiser. I can tell when someone's using telepathy - my job's made me sensitive to it, not that I'm not a sensitive guy to start with - and I know when you set up one of those pranks you pretend you've nothing to do with. When you telepath to Vila, you can hear his replies, can't you, although he's not a telepath?"

      Avon looked down his nose at the psych tech. He preferred to keep such things completely private, though having Vila as a co-conspirator was hardly the way to guarantee secrecy. "When I use my telepathy, I can read responses even when the person with whom I communicate is not a telepath," he replied stiffly to remind Perren that he was prying, not that the man would care. "Depending on the person's inherent psi ability, some communication is clearer than others. It is not a subject I have researched in depth. I have never enjoyed being a telepath."

      "Then here's your big chance." Perren gave him one of those smiles people use when offering to sell someone illicit Alpha Status or the ownership of one of the domes or when trying to tempt children away from safety with candy. "I want you to use your telepathy, go in and form a link-bond with Jabberwocky, and use it to keep him sane until we can restore status."

      Avon stared at him in surprise, partly because, once voiced, the solution was obvious, and partly because he realized that such a plan would give him what he'd claimed he'd wanted from the beginning, the position of Jabberwocky's linkmate.

      "Assuming I do so," he said smoothly, looking around at the assembled party that included Blake, Cally, Hugh, Soolin, Tanz and Perren, "what guarantees do you have that I won't retain it when the crisis is over?"

      Perren grinned knowingly. "I'm not worried," he said.

      "Neither am I," agreed Blake with a warm smile on his face. This was becoming annoying.

      "Perhaps you should be." Avon tried a tentative mental prod to see what response, if any, could be attained. //Jabberwocky? Can you hear me?//

      There was no immediate reply, then, very faintly in the back of his mind, he felt a presence, not a conscious reply but a lost, seeking 'something' that reached out to him the way plants respond to the stimulus of light. He suspected this was what Cally had felt when she had tried to reassure Jabberwocky that he was not alone.

      Alone? That was perhaps the crux of the matter. If Avon went into a full telepathic state, achieved contact, and formed a link-bond that usually required the equipment Tanz had yet to repair, he would be exposing himself to a constant mental contact that, to save Jabberwocky, he must make as open as possible. It went against his nature so completely that he nearly refused to consider it at all. What would it gain him to do it? The others would expect him to bow out of the link when everything was repaired, when Jabberwocky was well enough to maintain a proper distance, just when Avon would start to find the link most satisfactory. He had long insisted that this was his ship and that the link, too, should be his, giving him the control, the power that was needed for the security he valued above all else.

      Cally smiled at him. Well, perhaps not above all else, he thought, somewhat disgusted with himself for allowing these people to matter to him. Even Blake was looking at him with a warm and knowing look - and when had he given Blake the right to do so? When had he stopped erecting barriers at each tentative approach? When had he lowered his guard so much that he even, occasionally, found amusement in Perren's cocky repartee? Avon was disgusted at himself. Better he had never tried to heal himself. He had been far safer before.

      Inside his head he could still feel Jabberwocky's lonely mental touch, and with an exasperated snort, he nodded abruptly. "Very well. I give you no guarantees. Tarrant became Jabberwocky's linkmate via the back door. Perhaps it shall be the same this time. I shall require no distractions whilst I form the link. Some of you, go away."

      "I'll go," Tanz volunteered. "I've got to start redoing those links. Blake, can you help me? You're the only one I know that can make sense of them."

      "Thanks, partner," Perren teased him, and Tanz grinned back quite happily. Blake nodded and the two engineers headed away together.

      As soon as they were gone, Cally went over to Tarrant's bed and sat beside him. "I'll attempt a mental reassurance, shall I, Hugh?" she asked.

      The doctor nodded. Wearily he knuckled his eyes and stretched his back. Soolin slid up to his side. "You should rest, Hugh," she urged him.

      Avon lifted an eyebrow at her tone. Once he would have paid it no mind since it didn't involve him but now he heard a note in her voice that was usually directed toward Blake. Shooting a curious look at Perren, who had seemed close to the blonde woman of late, Avon noticed a satisfied look in his eyes. The man was nine parts puppeteer, Avon decided sourly. Half pest, half Machiavelli, altogether trouble.

      "I don't feel the need for an observer," Avon informed him coolly.

      "Good thing what you need isn't my first concern," Perren replied. He went to the readout screens that monitored Tarrant and Gan and began to scan them. "I have my own work to do."

      "Excellent. Then I shall do mine in my own cabin." Avon stalked out of the room, half annoyed, half triumphant.

      The link at last. He had wanted this from the beginning, not in the ways that the others had wanted it; Cally to restore her telepathy when she was shattered after Terminal, Blake to reunite the crew and make them a team, and Tarrant because he wanted to fly the ship with the power of his mind. Avon didn't want to fly or form a team, and the last thing he wanted was to boost his telepathy. He wanted Jabberwocky because the ship and the link had been meant for him from the beginning, because it was his rightful place. With the link, he would be so secure that no one could touch him...

      Then he remembered Tarrant, lying pale and silent in the medical unit. There had been no security for him, only disaster and an isolation that might break him. Tarrant used the link to control the ship in space but he had formed an emotional dependency that Avon meant to avoid. The pilot loved Jabberwocky, perhaps better than anyone in the universe. He'd let Dayna go because of it. Avon was not unduly concerned with Tarrant's love affairs or lack there of, but he valued the pilot's response as an example of how best not to link. When he finally united with Jabberwocky in a deeper bond than link mode or gestalt, he would control the link for his own purposes. Those who had preceded him had taught him how not to link.

      Safe in his cabin, Avon composed himself by lying on his bunk and closing his eyes. He sent out a tentative feeler, probing into the emptiness that still lingered in the back of his mind, seeking the heart of awareness there. //Jabberwocky.// He sent the name stabbing ahead of him like a blade, sharp and clean and bright. Though he had not enjoyed refining his telepathy, he had finally convinced himself that it gave him an advantage he would not have had otherwise and he had worked with Cally to develop it to its fullest potential. The experiences in the healing mode had helped, too, and would assist him now. Jabberwocky was certain to need at least a degree of healing.

      //A-avon?//

      He hadn't expected the response to be so thin and faint, but he heard it and he used the abilities he had not wanted to boost it. //It is I, Avon. I expect a response. We've been temporarily cut off, and until repairs can be made, it becomes necessary for us to form a link bond. Do you understand me?//

      //Tarrant... Where's Del?// The question held a frantic edge that made Avon picture the computer trying repeatedly to get a response and failing. For all he knew, Tarrant could be dead.

      //He is sedated until we can restore the link,// Avon replied.

      //Del? Where are you?// Avon was not making an impact. Jabberwocky sounded confused and lost, but perhaps anyone would who had endured fifteen hours of sensory deprivation. The most obvious solution was a healing interaction, and it was almost with relief that Avon slipped into the healing mode. Though he had never enjoyed being a healer and never would, it was familiar to him, something he could do that the others could not, and he had encountered worse problems than what he now heard in Jabberwocky's mental voice. Boosting himself into the proper state of mind, Avon let himself drift through the maze of passages that led the way into Jabberwocky's self, pausing at the entrance to the hidden valley where Jabberwocky's inner fire burned.

      When Avon had been here before, it had looked a wasteland, scorched and blasted as if a war had been fought here. By the time Avon had left that time, green was beginning to show around the edges of the ruined trees, and the fire was blazing hotly as Jabberwocky came to terms with himself in his present state.

      This time, the valley looked like a drought had swept through. Tree branches hung limp and dry, the leaves beginning to curl and brown at the edges. The once-proud hedgerows were brown with despair, and Avon felt as if he had stumbled into a world that was just ready to die.

      Walking forward carefully, picking his way between fallen branches and piles of dried-up leaves he made his way to the flames and stretched out his hands. The fire was hot but it didn't offer warmth. It was not like the fire in Avon's centre that gave heat but kept none for itself. This fire was raging in a desperate attempt to warm distant surroundings. Jabberwocky was looking for Tarrant, looking for any of them, frantic to end the aloneness. Sensory deprivation could drive a man to madness. There had been a prisoner on the London{kern 0 50} who had endured that form of torture, according to Vila, who had claimed to have been in the next cell. The man seldom spoke. He sat alone, staring at nothing and if someone came too close or an abrupt noise startled him, he would jump and flinch, cowering away from their presence. Avon had viewed the man with contempt and without pity, but that had been a long time ago. Now he stood at the fire, letting its warmth heat him through, drawing it into himself as if it were an offering.

      Jabberwocky's voice echoed in his mind, calling for Tarrant from time to time, and Avon spoke calmly and patiently as he let the heat touch him, explaining again who he was, why he was here, what had happened. Just when the heat was becoming overwhelming, he heard his name again.

      //Avon?//

      //Naturally. Who else would be here.//

      He felt a shudder run through his body and knew it to be Jabberwocky's reaction being transmitted to him. Not a comfortable sensation. Did that happen often in the permanent link? Suppressing his discomfort, Avon did something he found incredibly hard to do. He opened himself up to Jabberwocky, allowing the computer to see him as he really was. Though he'd experienced this much contact in the gestalt it seemed harder now, perhaps because it was the centre of Jabberwocky's focus and in the gestalt there was always an external purpose. Presenting himself to the computer, Avon braced himself and waited.

      There was a startled silence, then the voice in his head sharpened into clarity. //Avon! You're here. You're ready for linkage.//

      //As I have claimed from the beginning.//

      //And I doubted until now.// There was a faint sensation in his mind that might have been a chuckle, then Jabberwocky sent him a mental sigh. //Tarrant's all right?//

      //He will be, once Tanz and Edge finish replacing all the burnt out linkages and we revive him. Not that I'm entirely certain I want to let him have you. I have always felt this is my ship.//

      //No one doubts that, Avon,// Jabberwocky replied. //But Tarrant's my partner. You're my friend and I'll link with you...//

      //But you would choose Tarrant?// Avon frowned. //Hmm. Perhaps there is a major fault in the entire system for your judgment to be so flawed.//

      That made Jabberwocky laugh, the sound a delightful tickle in Avon's head. //Can we link, Avon? I linked with Vila once and it was wonderful. This will be, too. I'd link with any of you but I've always wondered about you.//

      //Not surprising.// Avon hesitated. //Will you initiate linkage or must I?//

      //You must begin. I can't initiate linkage without the boosters. Open your mind and imaging us blending. Once it has begun, I'll do the rest.//

      Avon grimaced but complied. It was worth it to save the mindship. He pulled the consciousness he felt into a closer union and suddenly it was as if he had become Jabberwocky, feeling the ship's abilities, learning how it felt to control so many systems, a sensation of power that Avon found to his liking, knowing that with a thought he could run every function on the ship, that he could touch the minds of any of the crew. He saw them as Jabberwocky perceived them and realized that the ship was very perceptive, able to look past the surface idiosyncrasies, their frailties and petty irritations and see the men and women beneath. Link mode did that, making it possible for a degree of trust that would normally have been out of the question. Even Avon had felt it since coming aboard. He let it sweep through him, seeing Jabberwocky's hopes and dreams, his deep love for his permanent linkmate, his affection for the others, his fears about the current crisis and the worry that it would not be put right.

      Then the link swung the other way and instead of being Jabberwocky/Avon, he was Avon/Jabberwocky and the ship knew him more fully than ever before. Once, long ago on another ship, Jenna had proclaimed that there was a peace in being fully known, but Avon had never agreed with that. Oddly, now he understood it just a little better than he had before. It was still not his preference, but it was not unbearable either.

      Warmth crept into the link, Jabberwocky's caring for him and his admission of caring in return, safe within the privacy of the link. Then the intensity of the moment banked down and Avon blinked to awareness, feeling a strange, warm sensation in the back of his mind, the knowledge that he was not alone.

      "Jabberwocky?" he said, testing the link.

      //Here.// The answer came immediately without the slightest effort. //I feel strange, Avon. I can only see through your eyes and feel what you feel. Take me to the medical unit. I need to see Tarrant and reassure myself that he will be well.//

      "Can you communicate with the others?" Avon asked.

      //I can speak with your voice if you step aside and allow it,// Jabberwocky returned. //It would temporarily suppress your own ability to communicate. It need not be necessary,// he added quickly, instantly aware of Avon's revulsion toward the idea. //And I'd keep it short if it was.// He sighed. //Is the ship in danger?//

      Avon explained everything he knew about the attack, how it had been triggered through Gan's limiter and what it had done to himself and Blake. As he filled Jabberwocky in, he headed for the flight deck, anxious to see what progress had been made.

      Jenna looked up in surprise when Avon came in. She, Dayna, and Vila were holding down the fort. "Avon. I thought you were to work with Jabberwocky."

      He bared his teeth in a smile. "I've finished. I am now Jabberwocky's linkmate."

      Vila's eyes widened. "I never thought it would happen," he said. "Can Jabberwocky talk to us?"

      Avon nodded. "Should it be necessary. How far are we from the base?"

      "Another dozen hours," the pilot replied, tossing her hair and stretching her arms out in front of her. "I'd give anything for computer ties to Jabberwocky right now. I'm asleep on my feet."

      "Blake is going to spell her in half an hour," Dayna said. "By then Tanz will have done enough with the links that I can fill in for Blake. He says it will all be fetching and carrying then, and I can do that better than anyone."

      "And you prefer the company," Vila replied knowingly.

      Blake arrived then. "Avon!" he burst out. "Where have you been? It's been several hours. Have you done it?"

      Surprised, Avon considered it. He'd had no idea of time in the healing mode. Sometimes it seemed short and was actually long and sometimes the reverse was true. "I am linked," he admitted. "As I should have been all along."

      //Not true,// Jabberwocky said in his head. //I knew you weren't ready before. I think you are now, but it isn't really right for you. You fit like tight shoes, Avon.//

      //And Tarrant's better?// he asked telepathically, projecting surprise and disbelief.

      Jabberwocky replied with a feeling of satisfaction that tied itself to Tarrant. Odd that the pilot would be so good at this, but when it came down to it, the link was made for a pilot. Jenna would perhaps be acceptable. She'd mused idly about becoming link mate for the new mindship but it wasn't decided yet. Blake was reluctant to split the team, and it might be to their advantage to develop a new crew with its own bonds and loyalties. Perren, Edge, and Tanz intended to spend some time with the new ship at first, but remaining outside linkage, monitoring the results of the new tests. Someone said that Dorn Suliman, Jabberwocky's son, had expressed an interest in the project. Lately he'd become a full member of the resistance, bringing his Andromedan ship to the cause, and visiting his father whenever it was feasible. Jabberwocky liked that.

      //Very much,// agreed the ship. //Family's important. Kyl taught you that.// He hesitated then added, //No, perhaps it was Blake, Cally, and Vila who taught you that.//

      Avon considered it. Family. He remembered valuing the concept before Kyl's mother had died, and after that he'd tried to believe it meant nothing, another sentimental attachment that made a person weak and vulnerable. Oddly, this family he had been surrounded with on Jabberwocky hadn't created weakness among then. Blake, who could be sentimental at the drop of a hat, wasn't remotely weak. Sometimes Avon thought he'd never forgive Blake and the others for the changes they'd caused in him.

      //And sometimes you don't know how you'll ever thank us,// Jabberwocky said complacently. //Don't worry, Avon, I'll never tell.//

      //See that you don't,// he instructed and sat down on the forward couch. He wasn't sure he would ever get used to this. As he thought of it, something twinged in the back of his head, a twist of unexpected pain. He put up a hand to rub his neck, wondering if permanent link mode was always so difficult. As he did it he felt something begin to uncoil itself from the link, something dark and sinuous and dangerous, and he let himself sink into the healing mode as he recognized it for what it was. Programming.

      "Blake..." he gasped before the darkness attacked him and made him lash out viciously at whatever surrounded him. He felt his fist connect against something solid, heard a cry of pain. Then he was fighting for his life. The others erupted around him, Dayna in the lead. Her android strength should have pinned him down but the thing inside his mind had twisted itself through the link and it gave him the strength to fling her off. He backed away from them, crouching into a corner, a feral growl emerging from his mouth.

      Healing mode. Avon knew how to fight programming. He had done it before, when he had been programmed by Servalan. Shutting away the chaos of the flight deck, he sank deep within his mind and started to stalk the shadows.

      

      "How is he?" Soolin asked when Cally turned away from Tarrant and rose to walk around the medical unit. Hugh had, at their urging, gone to rest, and Soolin had decided to stay here. She didn't like the sense of menace Gan projected, as if something nasty was still lurking inside him ready to jump out if anyone lowered their guard. Since Cally felt she was making some progress with Tarrant, it was wise to leave her here, but not unguarded. Everyone else was safe, or as safe as they could be with Jabberwocky off line and only one flotilla to protect them, but Cally might be endangered. She had explained that once before when the limiter malfunctioned, Gan had been placed in restraints but he had convinced Cally, who believed restraints barbaric, to release him. The result had not been pleasant. Until Hugh returned or they reached base, Soolin felt her job was here.

      "I think he's aware of me but he is resisting," Cally replied. "There is a dependency in the link - Perren probably could tell if it were intentional or not. I felt it myself when I gave Jabberwocky away, but I knew I must do it. Tarrant has been with him far longer than I was."

      "He's not a telepath, though," Soolin argued. She found link mode useful, though it didn't give her the emotional rush that some of the crew felt. When she had felt so strongly about Blake, she had enjoyed the sense of closeness to him link mode had produced, but she had put that behind her now. She doubted Tarrant would have enjoyed the link for a sense of closeness to Dayna, who was even more resistant to the process than Avon had been.

      "That doesn't enter into it," Cally said. "They are bonded. Why do you think he never really pursued Dayna? It wasn't that she's an android. It was that Tarrant already had something that mattered to him more. A non-telepath might never understand it but it is the strongest link a telepath feels. Avon and I have it through our joint telepathy."

      "But I thought you and Avon..." Soolin paused.

      "Humans always measure such bonding by sex," Cally said with a smile. "People can become lifemates without a sexual relationship. Telepaths have done it for centuries. I have suspected for a long time there is a kind of non-telepathic bond that draws Avon and Blake together, a pull that is stronger than anything else to either of them, yet it is not a sexual bond."

      "Doesn't that bother you, that Avon and Blake have such a closeness?"

      "No, because what Avon and I share is uniquely ours. I wouldn't spoil it with greed for something I will never have - and don't want."

      "If that's a lesson, you're too late. Whatever I felt for Blake - I'm not sure what it was - well, a part of it is still here, but I think it's the part that wants to dream the way Blake does and I never will. I never met an idealist before. I've learned a lot from Blake, but now..."

      "Perren?" Cally asked.

      Soolin shook her head. "No, we'd wind up strangling each other in a month."

      "Hugh." Cally smiled. "Does he know?"

      "He knows he's my best friend. I'm not sure what should happen next." Soolin let out her breath in a sigh. "Maybe he got tired of waiting."

      "I should doubt that very much." Cally looked past her and Soolin spun around to see the doctor standing there, his eyes alight with affection.

      "Perhaps I'll check on Avon and the link," Cally said and walked past them. Soolin scarcely noticed her leaving. She walked forward into Hugh's outstretched arms and they closed around her tightly.

      

      Gan stirred fractionally, his fingers closing into fists. A flicker of light played across his body and faded away, a brief shimmer that might have been a reflection. The burned out limiter made one faint hissing sound.

      Slowly Gan sat up. Across the room, Hugh and Soolin sat side by side, talking quietly, and neither of them noticed the movement until the leads that connected Gan to the sensor array came loose and alarms rang out, filling the medical unit with so much noise that Tarrant shuddered and jerked and for a moment his eyes opened. He sagged back against his bed, quivering with reaction, only partially conscious and looking as confused as might be expected from someone who had been ripped from linkage.

      "Gan!" cried Hugh, jumping for an injector he could use to sedate the bigger man, but Gan ripped away the rest of the leads, pushed the life support board out of the way and staggered to his feet. His face held a combination of expressions, pain being the predominant one as he clutched his head in his hands, but beneath it, fierce alarm waged a war with a cold, evil look that sat uncomfortably on his usually pleasant face. Whatever had caused the overload in the system was still active. A secondary backup limiter that Hugh had failed to detect? If so, it must be highly shielded. Hugh had heard of such things, which used a micro-technology that paralleled that used for cloaking ships. It flowed scans around whatever was meant to be hidden, in much the same way that the transmitter implants had been concealed on the three new crew members, enabling Servalan to track them. This was clearly a refinement, either that or the limiter had been designed in completely separate, shielded sections. Maybe a secondary had just kicked in.

      "We knew he was programmed but we didn't do anything about it," Hugh cried as he dodged Gan's big fist as the man dashed the injector from his hands.

      "Get out of the way," Soolin yelled, her gun in hand.

      Hugh saw it and shook his head. "I don't think he can take the stun. Don't fire."

      "Who said anything about stun?" she demanded.

      "Damn it," cried Hugh, ducking beneath a flailing fist. "Blake wants him alive. None of this is his fault."

      "That'll hardly matter if he kills you," she yelled at him. "Damn it, Hugh, will you just get down!"

      A loud groan from behind her made her jump, afraid a second invasion was beginning, but this one came from Tarrant. The pilot was sitting up, looking around him in blank confusion. There was a hollow emptiness in his eyes that Soolin had only seen once before, in the mirror when she realized her family were all dead. Cally had been right, she realized in the instant before she turned back to Gan. Tarrant and Jabberwocky were bonded.

      Gan had done something to Jabberwocky.

      She felt Tarrant realize it, a carry-over from the gestalt, perhaps, and the hairs rose on the back of her neck at the way his face twisted furiously as he pushed himself erect. "Hugh!" she called a warning. "Tarrant's awake."

      Gan's fist caught Hugh in the middle of the back and he went down like a stone. When she cried his name, he jerked his head up and rolled sideways just in time to avoid the foot that stomped down onto the place where he'd been a minute before. "Talk to him," he panted. "Make him listen to you."

      "Talk to him?" she echoed in disbelief. "He's programmed. He's a zombie. I don't think there's anything awake in there."

      Tarrant staggered to his feet, fumbling clumsily for balance like Vila after too much adrenalin and soma. "Kill him," he breathed. "I'm going to kill him..."

      "No you're not, Del!" Hugh had found his feet again, and had come up with the hypospray. "Let me stop him. It's not his fault."

      "He killed Jabberwocky!" Tarrant cried, his stricken tones stabbing through them like a knife. "Don't stop me, Hugh. I have to do it." There was so much pain in his blue eyes that he looked like a stranger, a cold, resolute stranger who was prepared to do anything to get revenge. He started stalking Gan, his face wary, his hands braced to strike blows.

      Soolin raised her gun. This was her job, protecting them all, protecting Hugh. The doctor saw her, though, and jumped in front of Gan, stretching out his arms to shield him. That was his job, saving lives.

      "Jabberwocky's not dead," he called to Tarrant. "The telepathic linkages are burned out. Tanz is fixing them right now. Avon linked with Jabberwocky to keep him sane until they were repaired. He's a telepath. Ow!" He flinched as Gan hurled a small clipboard at him and it bounced off his shoulder.

      "You're lying," Tarrant cried. "He wouldn't take Avon." He charged at Hugh and tried to wrestle him out of the way. Gan grabbed them both and shook them as if they weighed nothing at all while Soolin tried to fire. She still couldn't get a clear shot. Frantically she edged sideways and hit the intercom. "Somebody help!" she cried. "Gan's going berserk down here."

      "Avon's going berserk up here!" screeched Vila in reply. "Hugh, maybe you'd better dose the whole ship with tranquillizer gas. Whatever Gan did, it's in the link."

      "Jabberwocky," gasped Tarrant, his face devoid of colour. He sagged back, clutching his head. "Feel it," he panted. "Something nasty. Not really here, but I remember. When it hit us, it went slithering into the link and pushed me out." Gan flung him across the room and he crashed into a bulkhead and slid down it unsteadily, putting out both hands to break his fall.

      Gan wrapped his arm around Hugh's neck and held the doctor in front of him like a shield. A horrible anguish twisted his face and he struggled to speak. "Don't want... to hurt you... Can't stop. The pain..."

      "The limiter?" Hugh gasped breathlessly. His face was starting to turn a funny colour.

      "You're choking him," Soolin burst out. "I'm going to have to shoot."

      "You'll kill Hugh." Tarrant pulled himself up again, even more unsteady than before. Against the whiteness of his face, a scraped place stood out vividly against one cheekbone, marring that side of his face. He looked confused and miserable and Soolin didn't think he could back her. With a groan, she raised the gun, adjusted its setting and fired. Gan's grip on Hugh loosened and both men collapsed to the floor.

      With a distressed cry, Soolin flung herself forward and knelt beside them.

      

      It was dark in the hollow places within Avon's mind. He let himself sink deeper and deeper, searching out the stark tower at his centre. With that at his back, he would make his stand. Laughing, the strands of smoke pursued him deeper and deeper into his mind, to the place where he had trapped himself once before. He felt something at his back and glanced over his shoulder just once. The tower stood there, but it was changed. The healing he had attempted to perform on himself had widened the gaps in the walls, creating a latticework effect - and making it possible for the shadows to weave their way around the tower, through it, and out again at his back. There was nowhere to stand, nothing with which to support himself. He felt Jabberwocky with him, knew the computer mind would back him if he could, but was certain he couldn't. The shadows had transferred from Gan to Jabberwocky in the link mode, hiding themselves deep within the computer's psyche, waiting, always waiting for someone to come in and bring him out, giving them a new target. Avon realized that had anyone but a telepathic healer attempted to join with Jabberwocky again, they would have been absorbed immediately. If they had been forced to wait until Tanz could re-establish his connections, Tarrant would have been devoured and the smoke would have drifted through the linkages he would have been forced to make until everyone in the crew was swallowed up.

      Now it was up to Avon to take a stand in the kind of battle he had only fought once before. That had been different, though. Servalan's programming had been passive. This was a nasty sort, prepared to go out and snag anyone passing by and twist them with it.

      Something touched his shoulder. He didn't know if it were here inside or out in the real world, but he hunched in closer upon himself, wishing for the fire that powered him, and he felt himself shift into the flames. With the strength his core gave him, he lashed out at one of the tentacles, caught it. It shrivelled up and turned to powder before his eyes.

      That made the other strands angry. They bunched around him, howling with a furious rage that battered his eardrums. He pressed his hands against the sides of his head and lashed out repeatedly. The more strands he seared the more seemed to gather around him until he felt as if the darkness would swallow him up.

      In the midst of that darkness lingered one spark and he stretched out his hand for it, capturing it in his palm. Drawing it close to him he looked down at it and knew it for the spark of Jabberwocky's essence, untouched by the shadows.

      Suddenly Avon smiled. His mind touched Jabberwocky's in the total union of the link and he reached down carefully and plunged the spark into his own fire. It flared up brightly, making the remainder of the shadows shrink away from the heat that sizzled from the crackling flames.

      //Together, Avon!// exulted Jabberwocky in his mind, his voice as bright as a bugle. Avon allowed himself to sink into total union, and between them they forged a lance of energy and fire that shot out and incinerated the shadows one by one until every one of them was gone.

      Silence lay upon them. Avon blinked, then, with careful deliberation, he stretched out one foot and stepped free of the fire, pulling Jabberwocky with him. For an instant an image glowed before him of a man, tall and dark haired, very much like Dorn Suliman in appearance, and he knew he was seeing the likeness of the man Jabberwocky had once been. Thorm Suliman, real and momentarily solid, gave Avon a cocky grin that brought dimples like his son's to his cheeks, then the image crystallized into a spark again and together they drifted away from the gleaming tower back to the flight deck.

      Avon opened his eyes and blinked up at the stunned faces of Blake and Cally as they bent over him, alarm in their eyes.

      Slowly he straightened up, brushing himself off and pulling his clothing straight. His eyes caught first Blake's, then Cally's, and he smiled at them, looking past them to Vila, who was gaping at him as if he were a stranger, and beyond him, Perren, his green eyes bright with interest. Jenna, a determined look on her face, was fixed at the controls.

      "Blake," Avon said by way of greeting. "The Federation left us another present. Programming."

      "Transmitted through the link?" Blake echoed in disbelief. "That isn't possible. Is it?"

      "It's more than possible, Blake." That was Jabberwocky coming through and Avon saw them all realize it. Much more comfortable with the idea than he had been earlier, Avon 'stood back' and let the ship talk. "I never even knew it was there. When Gan linked with us, I could feel it, and it was nasty, but when Avon brought me out of the dark I didn't know it was still there or I would have warned him about it. I don't like nasty things like that messing with my link mates."

      Avon grimaced. "Jabberwocky's right," he agreed. "Whatever the Federation did it was particularly nasty. Fortunately I had already learned how to eradicate programming."

      "Now that you've eradicated Jabberwocky's," Perren interjected, "I think we'd better get down to the medical unit. Soolin said Gan was going berserk down there."

      "There must be a connection," Cally said as they hurried for the door, leaving Jenna to arm herself and maintain the ship's controls. "However they did it, either Gan's reviving triggered it in Jabberwocky, or drawing Jabberwocky into the link triggered it in Gan."

      "At least he's alive," Blake said.

      "We don't know that," Perren put in, a gun in his hand already. Of the three scientists, he was the most comfortable with a weapon, but Avon noticed that he seemed less sure of its use than Blake did with the gun he held. "He may be acting entirely on programming and collapse again when it's gone."

      They burst into the medical unit, guns at ready, Avon and Blake in the lead, trailed by Cally, Vila, and Perren, and all of them stopped dead, stunned at the sight that greeted them. A shaky and battered Tarrant stood holding Soolin's clipgun in his hand covering Gan, who lay on the floor unmoving, while Soolin, her face stricken, knelt over Hugh, who was sprawled limply beside him.

      "What the hell happened?" Blake demanded, pushing forward to help her, checking Hugh's pulse for life signs. He added quickly, "I think he's just stunned."

      She looked up briefly. "Gan was choking him. I had to stun them both."

      "He'll be all right," Cally insisted as Blake picked up the doctor and deposited him on an auxiliary couch. "One of you check Gan."

      Avon found his eyes going to Tarrant, feeling Jabberwocky's wistful longing surge through him at the sight of his permanent linkmate, but there wasn't time for a thorough reunion. Avon touched Gan's shoulder, questing out with the healer instinct. "He's alive," he said. "But I suspect the programming still exists."

      "Can you eradicate it, Avon?" Perren asked. "Should we sedate him again until you can rest? You look like you've had ten rounds with the Federation heavyweight champion."

      Avon felt like it, too, but he shook his head. He wouldn't rest well knowing there was a time bomb waiting to blow up and destroy them. "If we don't want a repeat performance, I should act now," Avon decided. "Jabberwocky? Can we take him?"

      "Jabberwocky?" blurted Tarrant, surging forward to grab Avon's shoulder, spinning him around. He stared at Avon with a combination of fierce resentment and desperate hope. "Is he alive?"

      This time, Jabberwocky didn't ask Avon's permission to take over. He made Avon surge forward and encircle Tarrant in a hug. When he spoke, it was still Avon's voice but the inflection was enough like Jabberwocky's to light up the pilot's bruised face. "I'm here, Del. I'm coming back as soon as the links are mended. Right now I have to help Avon save Gan, then I'll come back and we can talk." Avon felt Tarrant's arms come around him and hold him tightly, then the pilot collected himself and stepped back with a slightly embarrassed smile, and Avon was in charge again.

      "Yes, well, we needn't try that again," he said wryly wriggling his shoulders as if to adjust the fit of himself within himself. "Cally?"

      "Yes, Avon?" She left Hugh to Soolin and came to stand beside Avon. "Can you heal Gan?"

      "I must try. Our other options are killing him instantly, which I'm quite certain Blake will never permit, or learning to live with massive bruises. I want you to back me in a light telepathic contact. If I tell you to withdraw, do so, but be prepared to bring me out if you must."

      She straightened herself, squaring her shoulders. "I will do so."

      "Be careful, Avon," Blake urged, clapping a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I don't like the risk of this."

      "It's hardly as severe as you believe, Blake," Avon replied, though he found himself gratified by the concern in Blake's voice. "Jabberwocky and I can work as a team. It's one of the advantages of linkage, as I'm sure Tarrant will confirm."

      Tarrant's eyes narrowed. With a show of his usual spirit he said tartly, "I didn't expect you to enjoy it, Avon."

      "Ah, but you are not always right, are you?" Avon bared his teeth in one of his patently false smiles.

      "Jabberwocky's right. He says you're not ready to be his partner."

      Jabberwocky came through again, turning Avon's smile into a more natural one. "He's closer than I thought he was, Del."

      "I don't know about you, but I don't like this," Vila said, staring at Avon. "I keep thinking I should look around for someone else talking."

      "No one asked you to like it," Avon returned. "What matters is that I do. Give me room, Vila. This could be dangerous."

      "Just bring Gan out of it," Vila urged in a small voice. He scuttled over to stand in front of Tarrant, propping hands on hips. "Look at you. You're not fit out without a keeper, you great idiot. Sit down before you collapse and give us someone else to pick up off the floor."

      Tarrant grinned at him in delight. The knowledge that Jabberwocky had survived was rapidly allowing him to regain his equilibrium. Avon wouldn't have considered concern from Vila to complete the job, but it seemed to help. Just as well. It might distract him from the risks to come, though Avon doubted it.

      He heaved a sigh and let himself meld with Gan. The unconscious man was aware of him beneath the surface, and Avon could feel the part of him that was Gan, recognizing him and urging him on. So Gan had survived - or at least would survive if Avon could win this last battle. Clone or not, Avon felt a sense of the 'real' Gan, just as he had in the original link mode before the programming had kicked in.

      The shadows came to meet him as he sank into the link, and he tightened the bond with Jabberwocky, calling up fire to throw from his fingertips. Together telepath and disembodied brain found the way to repeat their earlier attack, hunting down and incinerating each shadow. As more of them were wiped away, the essence that was Gan tried to help them, clumsily signalling another shadow for them to destroy, trying to offer them additional strength. Avon drew on it gratefully; he had learned how to do that in the gestalt and he was grateful for it now. When this was over, he might sleep for a week.

      The last shadow was the strongest, giving Avon a sense of Servalan, who had been the first one to interfere with Gan's mind besides the original implanters of the limiter. Avon's strength was nearly gone but he found the ability to battle it with Jabberwocky's help. Together they charred it and drove it away, then there was no longer any reason to stay in healing mode and Avon emerged from it with considerable relief. He had never used it as much as he had done today, and for the first moments the room swayed around him.

      Blake gave a cry of alarm and jumped for him. Between them Cally and the rebel leader guided him to a couch and made him sit down. Cally scanned him.

      "How is he?" Vila asked when she lowered the instrument.

      "Fatigued, as all of us are."

      "And Jabberwocky?" Tarrant asked.

      "If I could do it, I'd power everything down right now," Jabberwocky replied in Avon's voice. "Avon, I think we should go to sleep now."

      Avon resisted a moment more as Vila and Tarrant lifted Gan between them and put him back on his bed. He was breathing slowly and steadily on his own. Going to him, Cally ran her instruments over him again. "I think the limiter must come out, but I can detect no signs of distress beyond that. He will awaken with a grave headache, I fear. I hope Hugh will be awake by then."

      "Hugh's awake now - and regretting it," the doctor said, sitting up and looking around. Soolin stretched out her hand to him and he clasped it.

      "I had to stun you both," she explained. "He would have killed you."

      "It seems to have worked," Hugh agreed, massaging his forehead. "I didn't enjoy it but there wasn't much else you could have done. Is everyone else all right?"

      "For the moment," Perren said irrepressibly. "Or at least they will be after a dozen hours sleep."

      That was the last thing Avon remembered before he took Perren's advice.

      

      Tarrant frowned at he sat at the control position on Jabberwocky's flight deck, his hand pressed against Jabberwocky's physical link point. Though the computer was still linked to Avon and the ship was finally grounded at Ryalon, Tarrant had been forced to wait here until Tanz and the team of experts he had hauled in from the base had completed the final tests of the new linkage circuitry. Edge had finished the computer backups before landing, and Jabberwocky could control the ship again. Tarrant had watched all the processes hungrily, anxious to restore the status quo and return the link to the person who was meant to have it: himself. At least he could feel Jabberwocky in his head again, and if being restricted to sitting here was what it took to keep it up, he was prepared to do so.

      Avon had slept most of the way back to the base, which meant that, at first, there was no way to communicate with Jabberwocky. Tarrant grew increasingly frustrated with each minute of delay, pacing the flight deck and complaining to anyone who might listen about the fact of Jabberwocky's continued isolation while Avon slept. He replaced Jenna at the pilot's position and sent her off to have a much needed rest. Handling the controls of Jabberwocky without linkage felt strange, the ship unresponsive and sluggish. Tarrant knew that was an illusion though. Even out of link mode the ship was nearly as responsive as Liberator at its best. Tarrant told himself he should be glad of a chance to practice his skills and not rely upon the internal fluency Jabberwocky gave him, but it didn't help. He felt lonely and isolated, even from the rest of the crew, and he worried about Jabberwocky's state. Even Vila, who had been a temporary link partner of Jabberwocky's once before and who understood better than anyone but Cally what he was going through finally grew impatient with Tarrant's dark mood and withdrew to a corner of the flight deck, catching the eye of the brown haired psych tech and motioning him into the fray.

      "He's not isolated now." Perren seemed to have attached himself to Tarrant, and the pilot, who realized why the psych tech was lingering nearby, tended to resent his presence. "He's linked with Avon and even in sleep the bond doesn't break. Jabberwocky isn't isolated while you sleep, is he?"

      "No, but he can access the rest of you, and tie into ship controls. We don't have to rely on this cumbersome backup system to make sure everything is working. Are you sure it won't damage him to remain in linkage to Avon while he sleeps?"

      Perren favoured him with a cocky grin. "Hey," he said cheerfully. "Am I sure? Of course I'm sure. I know more about how Jabberwocky works than anyone." He shook his head abruptly, a stubborn lock of brown hair falling forward onto his forehead. "No, let me rephrase that. I know more about the reasons for the way Jabberwocky interacts than anyone. You know him best. Cally says you have what amounts to an Auron bond. When Tanz and Edge and I were in the link, we felt a little of that. We're family, the three of us. You and Jabberwocky are life partners."

      "Avon won't think so," Tarrant said darkly. "He's always wanted Jabberwocky. Suppose he doesn't mean to give him back?"

      "What would you do in that case?" Perren wondered, leaning against the railing and propping his chin against his hand.

      "Avon will give him back," Tarrant concluded. "Jabberwocky will insist. I think I might remind Avon what happened when Jabberwocky forced Witt from linkage." His jaw traced a hard line. Then, reluctantly, he found a smile. "He'll give him back," he concluded positively.

      Perren had lingered without saying much more, leaving Tarrant with the uncomfortable feeling that he was being observed, charted, measured. It wasn't until Tanz and Edge had arrived on the flight deck, the blond computer tech looking as mussed and harried as Tarrant had ever seen that calm man appear, and Tanz wearing a delighted face, that Perren backed off.

      "Computer linkage is complete," Edge explained. "I've done twelve back up checks and everything is running perfectly. Allow me." He stepped forward to the green panel that was Jabberwocky's main flight deck access and keyed in several control toggles beside it. It lit up immediately. At once the lights brightened all over the flight deck and power flowed through the ship. It felt like Jabberwocky again.

      "Can I link now?" he asked eagerly.

      Tanz shook his head. "Not yet. The psi links are more temperamental than the computer ones. I've replaced everything, but I want to run more tests once we're grounded and all facets of ship function aren't depending on what we do."

      Tarrant's face fell. Seeing it, Tanz took pity on him. "You could reach Jabberwocky through the panel, though. Put your hand on it."

      Remembering how he'd done this once before, when Soolin had planted an explosive in the communication grid, he reached forward happily and slapped his palm against the panel. Immediately he felt the suction that meant it was active, and the hollow emptiness inside his head fled away as Jabberwocky's familiar presence returned, reaffirming their link. Tarrant's world righted itself and he glanced around the flight deck, smiling at everyone.

      Vila jumped up, leaning over Tarrant's shoulder and putting his hand beside the pilot's. "Hi, Jabberwocky," he greeted.

      "Hello, Vila." The words spelled themselves out on the main screen. Vila gave a whoop of triumph and stood back.

      "Can you hear us now?" he demanded.

      "Of course I can hear you. I'm not deaf. Edge has re-attached all the computer linkages. Incidentally, in case no one has noticed, we are nearly ready to land. I suggest someone contact the base immediately." Tarrant heard Jabberwocky's amused tones in his head, and everyone else on the flight deck knew him well enough to appreciate it. They burst out laughing.

      

      Blake had returned to Ryalon base after landing, taking Hugh with him. Right now, he was meeting with Avalon, the three techs and a team from the base were running final checks on the psi links, Gan had been transported to the base hospital to remove the limiter and run additional tests, Soolin had resumed her bodyguard function and vanished in Blake's wake, gun strapped into place, and Vila had sprawled out on one of the forward couches, his feet propped up, a glass of adrenalin and soma in his hand. He hadn't touched it in a long time and from the way the glass tipped sideways, almost ready to spill its contents onto the deck, Tarrant suspected he was asleep.

      "I should have expected to find you here."

      At Avon's cool tones, Vila bestirred himself enough to straighten his glass, and his eyes slitted open for a second before he closed them again. This was one conversation he didn't want to be a part of.

      "Where else would I be?" Tarrant asked as coolly. "This is my proper place."

      "I have long maintained," Avon replied, "that Jabberwocky should be mine."

      "Jabberwocky himself disagreed with you," Tarrant replied. He quested in his mind for the ship but received only a complacent chuckle. Jabberwocky was prepared to enjoy seeing this game played out.

      "That was before I experienced the link," Avon returned. "My healing talent combined with Jabberwocky's own particular skills made us an unbeatable team. I think you should consider that before you begin making demands. Which of us do you believe will serve this ship best?"

      Vila scooted into a sitting position, winning one swift, sideways glance from Avon, whose forehead wrinkled briefly. Vila's mouth stretched into a broad grin but he didn't reply. He'd explained once to Tarrant that although he was not a telepath he could make Avon hear him when Avon was thinking about it. Maybe he'd done it now. He raised his glass and took a small sip, then his eyes moved back to Avon and Tarrant. He lifted one eyebrow and waited, prepared to be amused by it. The old Vila probably would have gone for cover, but this one wasn't moving. He didn't run for cover any more, not with his friends.

      "It should be obvious to anyone, even you, Avon, that Jabberwocky and I are a team - just as you and Blake are a team."

      That made Avon frown. "Jabberwocky," he said. "Inform Tarrant if you believe I am ready for linkage."

      //He is,// Jabberwocky said in Tarrant's mind. //I didn't think he was ready for me, but he is.// A chuckle ran through the link that Tarrant was almost entirely certain was Jabberwocky - but not quite. There was a sardonic edge to it that more aptly fit Avon's darker nature. //It was fun, being bound to him,// Jabberwocky continued, //but I'm ready to come home now.//

      "You see," Tarrant told Avon, standing braced and tall to confront him, his hand still flat against the screen.

      For a long time, Avon was silent, then he raised his eyes to Tarrant and looked at him compellingly. "I have come to the conclusion," he said, "that linkage does not serve my best interests. When repairs are complete, Jabberwocky will return to you." He turned and walked off the flight deck while Vila stared after him, wide eyed.

      On the screen so that Vila could read them, Jabberwocky spelled out his opinion of Avon. "He was never as ready for me as he was when he agreed to let me go."

      

      "I'm worried about Avon," Vila said in an aside to Tarrant two days later. The psi links had proven fully functional and Jabberwocky was back where he belonged, to the relief of the entire crew. The ship functioned normally again, though the base team were still running tests on every circuit they could find.

      When Gan's limiter was removed it had been discovered that a secondary miniature addition had been made to the device. It was inactive until triggered by the advent of link mode, and once that began its function was to transfer programming from one mind to another. The intensity of the program had burned it out before it could do more than pass the beginnings of the programming to Jabberwocky. Everyone else had been knocked from the link so quickly that no additional programming had been found, even after Avon ran his own peculiar tests to discover them.

      Gan was given a clean bill of health. Blake had insisted he join the crew and only Avon appeared wary of his proposal. All of them had visited the big man in hospital and they liked him. Tarrant wasn't sure how useful he would be, but now that the limiter was gone, he could give them another gun. He was due back at the ship at any moment, and Blake had dragged Avon and Jenna along with him to bring him home. Blake was delighted. Except for Zen, he had managed to reassemble the original Seven.

      //If we're not careful, we'll be out near Terminal scanning space for pieces of it to reassemble,// Avon had remarked sardonically to Jabberwocky. He had taken to doing that since giving up the link, dropping into link mode long enough to add a dour comment from time to time, and Jabberwocky liked it, often giving him away with a delighted burst of laughter.

      "Worried about Avon?" Tarrant asked lazily. The two of them were alone on the flight deck. Hugh and Soolin were off together somewhere, and Jabberwocky had told Tarrant delightedly that it was about time the two of them had realized they were a pair. Through Jabberwocky, Tarrant knew that Cally was working with the three psi experts in the main rest room, going through some telepathic tests. They were thrilled to have an Auron to work with, even more so when Cally confessed that the Auron children who had been rescued and taken to Kahn were doing well. Tanz wanted to go there immediately, and Avalon had assigned a Kahn mission priority, once an assessment had been made on the purpose of the attack on Jabberwocky.

      The theory the crew had proposed originally, that Arpel had done it to stop a rebel attack without making Blake either a martyr or the enemy in a genuine war might have some merit, though Avon insisted that there was no more to it than an attempt at the strategic removal of the rebellion's best weapon, its one and only mindship. "It gave us some advantage," Avon concluded, "for now we know the Federation must have something comparable, either a mindship of their own, or a disembodied brain connected to similar psi linkages. I theorize that Gan was its linkmate, though programmed not to know it. That was how he could activate the programming when we formed our link."

      Jabberwocky thought that made sense. The crew had kicked around theories for hours, but without speaking to Arpel directly there was no means of assessing the man's motives.

      Vila nodded. "Worried about Avon." He stretched his feet out in front of him lazily. "Jabberwocky's addictive. You know it better than anyone, but I was in it once, remember, when Vangam tried to take over the ship? I missed it when it was gone. Course Avon's a hard one, even now that he's more human. He might not have liked it as much as we did."

      "He never wanted it for the actual link," Jabberwocky said aloud. "He wanted the power and the security he thought would come with it. Though he was not entirely comfortable within it, he functioned well. A part of him liked it very much."

      "Yet he gave it up," Tarrant mused.

      "The link does create honesty between partners," Jabberwocky reminded him. "Avon knew that you and I belonged together. Yes, he's finding the adjustment somewhat difficult, but not as much as you did, Vila. With his telepathy, though he pretends not to like it, he can form brief links whenever he feels the need. He will survive. He must pretend that he is still waiting for his chance at permanent linkage though."

      "You don't think he'll volunteer for the other mindship?" Vila asked, somewhat alarmed. Though Avon could be difficult, Vila was fond of him in his own way, and Tarrant was sure he would miss him. If it came to that, in his own way, Tarrant might miss him, himself.

      He shook his head. "Not with Blake here," he replied. "Besides, I think the gestalt has pulled us all so close together that we've become a part of each other. Like that character said in Cally's dream way back before we got Jabberwocky."

      "At least Cally's dream didn't really come true," Vila said thankfully. "Some of it happened but none of it happened the way it did in the dream." His eyes widened in alarm. "You don't think any of that is still out there waiting for us?" he demanded.

      "It might be fun," volunteered Jabberwocky, winning a sour look from Vila just as Avon, Jenna, Blake, and Gan walked onto the flight deck.

      "Gan! You're home," Vila cried eagerly, jumping to his feet. "Welcome to Jabberwocky."

      "Yes, welcome, Gan," Jabberwocky put in. "We scarcely got to meet before but there was enough of a link to know we can get along."

      "They tell me I was in another link before," Gan replied. "Arpel programmed it. He wanted to destroy all of you, I think."

      "No, I think he wanted to slow us down until he could get his own mindship ready," Avon argued. "Someone, either he or Servalan intended that Jabberwocky be damaged or destroyed, and I'd argue for Arpel, since Gan was his prisoner last and since he sent Gan to us. Blake, I think we should consider sending the man a return present, preferably complete with high explosives."

      "Can you still sense your original link partner, Gan?" Jabberwocky asked.

      "No. I don't remember him at all, not consciously. Your man Perren hypnotized me and found that it was a ship linkage, but it wasn't finalized like Jabberwocky. It can be transferred to large enough ships, though it requires extensive link work. Arpel was mad at Servalan because she'd let people get away who might have made it work better. It won't be completely on line for six months."

      "Then that gives us six months to prepare for it," Jenna said practically. "We'll have our second mindship done before then. What do you think, Blake? That space battle all of us have been expecting?"

      "I don't think Arpel wants that." Blake replied.

      Gan nodded in agreement. "I remember the plans that Arpel let me know about. He asked me to come here and try to set up an opening for peace negotiations. That's what I kept trying to tell Avon and the doctor before the link. I thought he really meant it, but I could have been wrong." He touched his head regretfully, no doubt remembering the mental attack and wishing he could have handled it differently. "I really hoped he meant it, that he wanted to work with us to make his changes and prevent a war."

      "Peace negotiations," scoffed Avon. "Should we believe that, he's got an unused planet named Terminal that he'll try to sell us. I don't trust any plans for a peace initiate, Blake, and you'd be a fool to consider them, especially since he nearly destroyed us."

      "I know, Avon. I don't trust him for an instant. But that doesn't mean he might not want peace." Blake looked wistful for a moment. "A long, drawn out war is going to kill a lot of people. If we could find a way to work around that without compromise..."

      "You won't," Avon replied firmly, but not without sympathy.

      "I don't trust him," Vila put in. "He's too sneaky. Even if he wants peace, he's got to know we're not going to listen next time. Peace negotiations, I ask you."

      "He chose the easier way to try to neutralize the threat," said Jenna coolly. "Attacking us. He was quite certain we wouldn't start actual fighting without Jabberwocky. I think Gan was supposed to tell us that first, to lull us into a sense of security, and then when we tested him through the link the booby trap would be triggered." She frowned, thinking it through. "The funny thing, Blake, is that he still might want to make peace with us. Even if he's Supreme Commander, he has to answer to the council and he can't let it look like he's wishy washy about destroying us. Either way he covers himself. I think he's as sneaky as Servalan."

      "Speaking of Servalan, Gan tells us something else I didn't want to hear," said Blake. "Servalan is still alive."

      "I never doubted it," Avon responded, his mouth drawing a taut line. "Next time we see her, Blake, you must forget your scruples and allow me to finish her off."

      "Perhaps," Blake temporized. "Meanwhile, we've a new crew member to settle in and plans to make. The Federation is not going to let up on us. If Arpel's scheme is as convoluted as some of us would like to think, he may continue to wage war from within. If not, we have a very powerful enemy."

      "But we have the best ship in either fleet," Tarrant said fondly, reaching into his mind and touching Jabberwocky with open affection.

      "And the best crew," agreed Vila. "Drinks, everybody?"

      "Some of the best crew," Avon returned with a sharp look at Vila, who winked at him cheerfully and started to hand out glasses.

      


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