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Points of Intersection

By Joanna Thomas
One

As the door slid open he took an involuntary step backwards, his acutely heightened senses assaulted by the sight of the dormitory stretching away before him, by the raucous shouts and laughter echoing from beyond the serried rows of bunks where a crowd of men were gathered, by the human smell reminiscent of a prison ship from many years ago......The blood pounded in his ears, and he was suddenly aware of the effort the long walk from his cell had cost him.

"Move." The Federation gun jabbed painfully in the small of his back. He was propelled down the central aisle between the bunks, unaware that he was the recipient of curious stares from the few men whom he passed leaning against the bulkheads in idle conversation. It was enough for him to concentrate on the mechanics of walking.

"Stop here." Again the gun in the back. They were in an unoccupied section. One of the guards circled him and went to the lockers between two bunks. He keyed in an identification number on the digipad and opened the locker door; he pulled out a blanket and tossed it onto a bunk.

"Have a good trip." The sneering guard strode past him and marched out with his colleague.

Sinking onto the bunk, overcome by a surging wave of nauseous exhaustion, he closed his eyes.

***

He fought against the inexorable rise to the surface of consciousness, the shouts and jeers of the interrogation room reverberating in his head, but oddly the anticipated blows did not fall. The noise gradually took on a different aspect, jeering laughter and good-natured insults tossed like a ball from one man to another. He opened his eyes and rose on one elbow, then tentatively swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and pushed himself to his feet. Two men approached, both in prison uniform.

"You the politico? What's yer name?" the taller man demanded, looking him warily up and down.

"My name is Avon." The words were his, but the voice seemed to belong to someone else far away.

"Never 'eard of yer." The man turned to his unshaven companion, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. "But then I never had much time for politics. Too busy trying to make a dishonest buck, eh?" he said, nudging his companion and winking theatrically. Their laughter was interrupted by a loud cheer from the end of the dormitory.

"Game over," said the man nodding towards the crowd. He leaned forward towards Avon. "Well, I don't know what you done, but three extra weeks on this rustbucket spent ferrying you around suits me just fine It's a damn sight better than a lot of places I been. The crew's too stretched on here to give us much hassle. The name's Wilke, by the way."

Of all the questions that inundated Avon's mind he found he could express only the most basic of his needs for information. "Where can I get a drink?"

The man gestured with a thumb towards the throng of men. "Down there. Nothing stronger than H2O, though, more's the pity." The two men turned away, laughing.

The crowd was breaking up as he approached; the prisoners he passed eyed him with suspicion, and several times he heard the word 'politico' in their conversation sotto voce. He reached the end of the rows of bunks and found himself in a mess area; beyond that he could see doors to wash areas. The way between the tables was blocked by the remnants of the crowd, a handful of men with their backs to him.

"Hard luck, Jolan," said one, as a man rose to his feet tossing some silver objects onto a table. Others slapped him on the back, offering condolences."Yeah, better luck next time, Jolan." As the men moved apart Avon looked into the face of the man still seated at the table, a pack of cards in his hands and a smug smile of victory on his lips.

Avon felt his tenuous grip on reality begin to crumble, and turned abruptly away.

***

"Shit."

Vila glanced down helplessly as the cards skittered across the table and onto the floor. His elation at winning had been suddenly eclipsed by chill incomprehension, by numbing fear. When he looked up again the figure had gone. A figure from a past he did not care to recall, except in his maudlin drunken moments and there had been few of those recently.

Desperately he tried to collect together the cards with trembling hands and his thoughts with a paralysed mind. He gave up on both counts and rose unsteadily from the table, fear clutching at his stomach.

***

Vila found him sitting on a bunk, his head bowed in close and inwardly desperate study of his hands which he clasped before him.

"It is you. They told me you were dead." The accusatory undertone of Vila's words was scarcely concealed.

Avon looked up at him without expression. "Don't believe everything they tell you," he replied flatly.

They held each other's gaze in silence for a moment and an image from the past, of this same man aboard the 'London' leapt to Vila's consciousness, evoked by Avon's pallid convict complexion and brutal haircut - but, oh God, so much had happened since then......Vila sat down heavily on the next bunk. They were inches apart, yet separated by an invisible wall in which the names of the past were deeply etched - Blake, Gauda Prime, Cally, Malodaar........

"What's going on?" asked Avon in a low voice. The past can come later, he thought grimly.

Vila shrugged in confusion, then his words began to pour out, tripping over each other in his nervousness. "We're heading to one of the Federation penal colonies, Gascar Four - or at least we were until the ship was diverted to pick up a political prisoner. The captain was none too happy about it, according to Wilke - one of the prisoners who's in with some of the guards and picks up the news - but it seems the order came from the top. Even Wilke doesn't know where the politico is to be taken, but he says it's not Gascar Four." He paused, studying Avon with curiosity. "It looks like you're our politico."

"Where did you set off from?"

"Feyron, in the Outer Sector. It was chaos. They've declared independence from the Federation, like so many others out there, and the Federation were forced to pull out - they've got too much on their hands closer to home, so it's said, to put up any sort of a fight. The new independent administration released all the Feyron-born prisoners - political prisoners of the Federation, so they claimed, although most of them were just racketeers and cut-throats - but they told the Federation to take outworlder prisoners with them. So here we are, on board the 'Lodestar'."

"That doesn't sound like the name of a prison ship."

"Oh, it isn't, it's an old mining ship. It used to do the run from Feyron's moon to Earth, transporting miners and ore. We've been to the hold for exercise a few times - it is huge. I suppose this was the best the Federation could find, under the circumstances, with their fleet involved in putting down rebelion across half the galaxy."

"The Federation are in trouble again?" Avon asked. Vila looked at him in surprise.

"You mean you didn't know? Where've you been for the past two years? Didn't news reach Drax?"

Vila's questions hung unanswered in the silence which followed. A look of bewildered panic momentarily crossed Avon's face before he bowed his head to study his hands once again, his mind working furiously. Inexplicable fear began to rise in Vila's throat.

"I was on Drax." The words, when they came, were barely audible and Vila could not tell whether they were intended as a question or as a statement of fact which Avon was trying on for size. He swallowed hard before replying.

"That's right, Drax. That's where we picked you up." Vila paused. "Where did you think you were?"

Slowly Avon lifted his head and met Vila's uncomprehending stare with cold, dark eyes.

"Gauda Prime."

Two

"I expect you're wondering how I came to be on the 'Lodestar'," Vila said, with as much brightness as he could muster, placing the two cups on the table and sitting down opposite Avon.

Their earlier conversation had been interrupted, somewhat fortuitously in Vila's opinion, by the dinner bell. They had taken their seats among the other prisoners who were already passing the metal spoons and plastic meal trays along the tables.

"Oi, I've no spoon here," called a prisoner at the end nearest the four guards. "Sir," he added nonchalantly, catching their expressions.

"You forgot your new guest," another prisoner shouted, to much laughter. Dozens of pairs of eyes turned towards Avon, who sat with his eyes fixed on the table. The guards looked at each other in confusion and accusation, then at the nod of the senior officer one of them fetched another spoon. The prisoners tore the plastic covers from their meals, carefully pocketing the foil corner tabs before beginning to eat hungrily.

"Hang on to that, mate," said the man next to Avon, pointing to the tab on the table in front of him. "It's our currency on here. Although no doubt your pal will delight in fleecing you too, like he does the rest of us," he added, jerking a thumb towards Vila.

Avon had said nothing during the meal, eating steadily. Even when Vila produced the missing spoon from up his sleeve and flourished it triumphantly behind the backs of the guards he had shown no reaction. The others laughed.

"Up to your usual tricks, eh, Vila?" one prisoner said.

"What are you going to do with that - dig your way out?" joked another.

During the meal Vila had opportunity to examine Avon more closely. There was no doubt that he was leaner, the prison tunic hanging loosely on his bent shoulders, his face pale and drawn with dark shadows around his eyes. Above one eyebrow the telltale ridge of an inadequately treated scar gave the impression of a permanent frown. But it was the sight of Avon's left hand which shocked and sickened Vila. He had noticed it almost as soon as they had sat down at the table. The fingers were stiffly held, bent at distorted angles, the knuckles depressed and deeply scarred. Avon did not use it throughout the meal, resting it on the edge of the table.

Now the tables had been cleared and the prisoners had dispersed.

Vila tried again. "I said, I expect you're wondering how I came to be on the 'Lodestar'." He pushed one of the cups across the table towards Avon. The dark eyes met his.

"Go ahead, tell me."

"Well, I guess you could say I was lucky. Back on Gauda Prime when all that shooting started I got down pretty damned quick, I can tell you, and then I think I passed out. The Federation guards took me to their ship for questioning then -"

"The others?" interrupted Avon.

"Dead." Vila waited with dread for further questions but none came. "Anyway, after a couple of hours, once I'd told them everything I knew, they told me I was being sent to Nexos, that I'd be given a new identity. I got the distinct impression that they wanted me out of the way. So, they took me there by transporter, gave me new papers and five thousand credits and said goodbye. What they didn't tell me was that Nexos was a miserable dump, and that I was going to be followed everywhere I went. After a couple of weeks or so I'd had enough. I met a trader in a spaceport bar who was heading to Feyron, gave my tail the slip, and got myself out of Nexos unnoticed."

Vila swigged a mouthful of water from his cup under Avon's steady gaze.

"Feyron was much better - there's wealth there, from the mining days, so there's plenty of opportunity for private enterprise for someone with my talents. Just as well, as I was strapped for cash and -"

"What happened to the five thousand credits?"

Vila looked morose, and tried to avoid Avon's gaze. "I drank most of it on Nexos."

"Go on," prompted Avon at last.

"I was doing pretty well for myself with a nice regular income and good prospects. Then I made the mistake of straying onto someone else's patch and they tipped off the Federation guards. I was arrested, tried, and got three years." He shrugged resignedly. "It could happen to anyone."

Avon swilled the water thoughtfully around the bottom of his cup. "Were you arrested and tried under your new identity?"

"Of course. There'd have been a real hoo-ha otherwise, I expect. Things were just beginning to get uncomfortable for the Federation on Feyron so they clearly hadn't bothered to check the central records too carefully."

"Just another petty thief," mused Avon. Vila opened his mouth to protest, but Avon spoke first, his eyes narrowing. "The other prisoners called you Vila at dinner."

"That's right. Vila Tregus." He returned Avon's condescending look with interest. "I insisted. It's a common enough name! Anything else just wouldn't be me."

"So you're confident that the Federation did not know who you really are when they put you on this ship?"

"Yes, absolutely."

Avon looked sceptical. "Then either our meeting like this is a remarkable coincidence, or you are absolutely mistaken." His expression hardened. "I never could believe in coincidences." He returned his attention to the water in his cup. Vila found it hard to keep his eyes from Avon's disfigured hand.

"What happened to you?" he asked after a long silence.

"What?" Avon looked at him blankly, his thoughts clearly elsewhere.

"What happened to you? On Gauda Prime?" Vila persisted. Avon slowly drained the contents of his cup and placed it on the table, before beginning to speak.

"I was shot, just sufficient to put me out of action, but not before I managed to kill three of the guards. When I came round I was in the medical unit of a Federation ship. The doctors patched me up, but didn't go to too much trouble over it. Then I was handed back to the guards for questioning. There was nothing subtle about their methods."

Avon studied his hand thoughtfully, before continuing.

"After three days or so, Servalan turned up-"

"Servalan! What was she doing there?" asked Vila.

"She wanted to do a deal. She wanted Orac."

"And?"

"I refused. She handed me over to the Security interrogation team which she had brought with her. They worked on me for about three weeks, I would guess, then one day it suddenly stopped."

"You told them what they wanted."

"No!" Avon's face contorted with anger. "I told them nothing useful."

"They'd found Orac?"

Avon examined Vila speculatively before replying. "I think they found Orac early on. They wanted to know how to override the disabler I'd introduced. I didn't tell them. No, I expect they stopped because they felt they were wasting their time. By that stage I was passing out frequently. And, from what you tell me, perhaps they had other business elsewhere. In any case, they must have taken me to Drax at that point, although I have no recollection of the journey. I was held there in solitary confinement."

Avon's attention was drawn by the rising volume of an argument between prisoners at a nearby table. Vila waited for him to continue, but when Avon looked back at him once more from hooded eyes, realisation dawned.

"That's it?"

Avon nodded. "That's it."

"You've been in solitary confinement for almost two years?"

Again, Avon nodded.

"Bloody hell." Vila whistled through his teeth. "But where do you think they're taking you now - and why?"

Avon's mouth curled at the corner.

"For once, your guess is probably as good as mine."

Three

The days aboard the 'Lodestar' seem to be getting longer, mused Vila, idly counting his hoard of silver tabs for the third time that day. He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist, taking a self-congratulatory moment - not for the first time - to admire its expensive workmanship and to wonder whether the defence lawyer on Feyron had ever figured out his loss. Then he cursed his own stupidity. Of course, that's because the days are getting longer - the ship's systems will be programmed for adjustment to Gascar-time. What was it that Wilke had said yesterday? That days on Gascar Four are almost five and a half hours longer than on Feyron?

His eyes strayed up the dormitory to where Avon lay inert on his bunk, his face hidden in the crook of the arm flung across his eyes, and Vila felt his mood darken. Wilke had also relayed the information from the guards that their 'politico' would be 'delivered' in three days' time, and that was yesterday....... Was that three Gascar days or three Feyron days, he suddenly thought in panic, and feverishly tried to calculate what difference it would make to their arrival time - where? - before surrendering weakly in the face of hostile arithmetic.

Avon would know the answer. He always does.

Vila glanced towards him again, reflecting bitterly that the supposed constants in his life in those early days on the 'Liberator' had, one by one, been cruelly exposed as transient, whether tangible flesh-and-blood or the intangibles of safety, trust, and a sense of belonging. The melee of irreconcilable feelings he had felt since Avon's startling emergence from the quietus dealt to them all on Gauda Prime did not bear close analysis from someone unaccustomed to self-examination. Dominant were fear, loathing and bewilderment, but skirting around the edges was an elusive wraith, impossible for him to pin down and identify. A sense of responsibility perhaps?

Maybe Avon's right. Maybe the level of suppressants on the ship is particularly high to prevent trouble on the journey. But surely he would have begun to get used to it by now. There's more to it than that. Apart from that first day he has hardly spoken at length, spending most of the time on his bunk in the daytime, eyes open but unseeing. At least he joined us for the exercise period in the hold today, even if he only paced the sidelines, head bowed and lips moving, as we kicked the ball about. I've seen him do that at night too, wearing a trail backwards and forwards next to his bunk......

Scooping the tabs into the leather pouch on his belt, Vila tried to dismiss thoughts of Avon from his mind. He strolled towards the mess area in search of more affable company, but his efforts to raise a game of cards met with incredulity and animosity. "After yesterday? You must be joking! You and your politico pal cleaned us out."

Vila grabbed a glass of water from the dispenser and sat hunched over it, in subconsciously wishful imitation of his pose in a hundred spaceport bars and grinned to himself, cheered a little by the memory of yesterday.

It had not started well. He had invited Avon to partner him in a game of cards, expecting the usual rebuff, but to his surprise Avon nodded, swung his legs off his bunk and followed him to the table, where their opponents waited. Almost as soon as they were seated, Vila began to have misgivings; he had been stupid not to think of it - Avon could not hold his cards but had to lay them facedown on the table in front of him and play from memory.

They had kept pace with the game for a while, a game played in a tense silence before a group of curious bystanders drawn by the presence of the politico at the table. Then they had begun to lose steadily, low stakes at first, but enough to start a flurry of side-betting among the observers. Vila looked anxiously at Avon as he played a card; there was no trace of emotion on his face, but Vila detected a distant look in Avon's eyes that worried him. The cards stuck to Vila's sweating palms and he wished himself somewhere else as the stakes grew and he saw their pile of tabs whittled away. While he contemplated with dismay another mediocre hand, he felt mortified to find himself embarrassed, not by the scale of their losses, although they were bad enough, but by Avon who played on, oblivious to the humiliation of impending defeat.

Vila looked up from the cards and found Avon's gaze, uncurtained now, fixed resolutely upon him; he shrank from it, ashamed of his thoughts, and returned his attention to the problem quite literally in hand.

Much to Vila's astonishment they won the hand, then the next. He could hardly believe their sudden change in fortune and neither could their disgruntled opponents, who continued to stake heavily. But the tide had turned and Vila's heart leapt as he sensed a shrewd acuity developing in the play between Avon and himself, although Avon's face remained as impassive as ever. They recouped their losses swiftly and won steadily, until their opponents quit in disgust and left the table, virtually empty-handed.

Vila scooped the heap of tabs into his outstretched prison tunic and hurried after Avon who headed wordlessly back up the dormitory. Avon turned to face Vila when he reached his bunk.

"Amazing!" laughed Vila. He shook the tabs out onto the next bunk and ran his fingers through them, their gleam reflecting in his face. "Amazing! I really thought we'd had it, until our luck suddenly changed."

"Call it luck if you like." Avon twisted his hand down and sideways; a card fell from his prison uniform sleeve into the hook of contorted fingers. He removed it swiftly with his other hand, placing it in Vila's breast pocket, just below his disbelieving stare.

"Better hide the evidence," whispered Avon conspiratorially.

"You bastard!" hissed Vila, his face creasing into a huge grin of admiration.

"Oh, I think you should take the plaudits. After all, it was you who taught me how it is done."

"Wait, I remember....on the way to that planet....," Vila clicked his fingers repeatedly, struggling to dredge a name from his memory, "Bosphorus...no...Phosphorus...no..."

"Fosforon."

"That's the one!" He lowered his voice again, still grinning broadly, and slapped Avon on the back. "You sly bastard."

"I'll take that as a compliment." Avon's face broke into a smile and he shook the hand Vila offered him.

It was like Freedom City all over again, thought Vila, sitting down to count the tabs out into two piles. Then Avon spoke.

"Don't bother. Keep it all." Vila looked up in surprise, and the illusion shattered. "It won't be of use to me on here for much longer."

***

Vila woke suddenly, roused from dreams which had not troubled him for many months. He groaned inwardly and, closing his eyes again, tried to dislodge the vestiges of the disturbing images from his mind. Above the sound of his quickened breathing and heartbeat he heard the hum of the airconditioning and....the dull throb of the aging neutron engines was missing. Something was wrong. Panic rising, he threw back the blanket and stumbled out of bed, then along the central aisle of the darkened dormitory. Avon's bunk was empty.

He half walked, half ran past the rows of sleeping prisoners in a desperate but fruitless search for Avon. At the main door he wheeled round and searched the length of the dormitory again. The mess area was deserted, the dim blue night-lighting reflecting off the metal tables. Beyond, in the wash area the bright light made Vila screw up his eyes. But for the steady drip of water from one of the showerheads there was no sound, no-one was there. He turned and hurried back out of the door, not sure what to do next.

Then he saw him. It was hardly surprising that before, in his panic, Vila had missed him, standing against the bulkhead in the deepest shadows of the mess area, his back turned.

"Avon. Thank heavens I've found you. I thought we'd landed and they'd taken you already," Vila gasped as he approached, leaning on the bulkhead for support. His legs felt as if they were about to buckle under him.

Avon did not appear to have heard him. His head was held back, his face upturned to the porthole set high in the hull. Through the scratched window Vila could see the reflected daylight of a steely grey planet and he realised that the 'Lodestar' was in fixed orbit.

"Avon?"

Vila put out a hand to touch the shoulder of the immobile figure and was astonished to feel Avon shaking, the tremors of inner forces out of control. Avon turned. Sweat plastered the hair to his forehead, and his red-rimmed sleep-deprived eyes stared like those of an animal caught in a searchlight. He fought some inner battle before the words would form on his lips.

"I'm losing my mind."

Suffering was not something Vila could easily tolerate, his own or anyone else's. It was easier to run away, to avoid contact, than to have to find the right words, to do the right thing. And here was a man whom he had for several months on Xenon feared and mistrusted with an intensity that had surprised even Vila. Yet without hesitation he pulled Avon towards him and held him tightly. "No, no, not you too," Vila muttered desperately as hot tears of grief and loss burned his eyes.

The shaking slowly subsided, and Avon leaned back against the bulkhead, his head bowed, the fingers of his deformed hand pressed to his temple. Vila rubbed his hand roughly across his face.

"I see people. People who shouldn't be there. People who are dead." The words were softly and intently spoken. Vila looked up at Avon, fearful of his own nightmares. "They speak to me. Blake, Cally, Tarrant and the others. Even Anna."

There was silence, except for the distant sound of dripping water. Vila swallowed hard as Avon looked sideways at him.

"At times it is difficult to distinguish reality from.....insanity. When we met it was some time before I could be certain that you were real, not just a figment of a sick mind." Avon smiled briefly, a baring of teeth in which Vila could find no humour.

Vila regained his voice. "How long has this been happening?"

"Since the interrogation on Gauda Prime."

"Then it must be caused by the Federation's interrogation drugs."

"That was two years ago," Avon said fiercely. "The drugs wore off a long time ago."

Vila could think of nothing to say. He watched, mesmerised, as Avon began to rub the palms of his hands together, right over left. It was a mannerism he recalled from their past, an indication that Avon was deep in thought.

"In solitary, on Gau...I mean Drax, I could cope with it. There was a routine, the days were predictable. But it has become much worse on here..." He glanced up at the view of the planet. "I would rather die than lose my mind."

"It won't come to that, Avon!" protested Vila. "You're a survivor, always have been."

"No, you're mistaken." The chill in Avon's voice left no room for argument. He stared at his hands. "I would have died on Gauda Prime if they'd let me, but they wouldn't grant me that privilege. I knew the odds were against me, but I was determined to take as many of them with me as I could. 'Companions for my death', as Cally would have said." He paused. "The second time, during interrogation, I almost succeeded. The third time - it must have been soon after I was taken to Drax - they were prepared for it and got to me in time."

Vila felt sick with horror. "Avon, please, as a friend I beg -"

"A friend?" The dark eyes studied him levelly.

"Yes, a friend!"

"But I tried to kill you."

Vila threw up his hands in exasperation. "Okay, so maybe not my ideal friend, you bastard, but still a friend!"

"You're afraid of me, you have been ever since Malodaar."

Vila grabbed Avon's shirt and shouted angrily in his face. "Don't flatter yourself, you bastard, I'm afraid of most things!"

There was a chorus of muffled groans, sleepy protest from the nearby bunks. The anger ebbed from Vila. He loosened his grip on the shirt under Avon's steady gaze, which carried a glint of amusement. Vila felt very weary.

"I'm not afraid of you now. I'm afraid for you."

Avon glanced again at the planet. "Well now, that makes two of us."

Four

"Ready, everyone?"

The three men murmured their accord and nervously shifted their weapons in preparation for teleport. Jarvis strode over to join them, attaching the stun-clip by feel alone, then turned sharply to face the man at the control console. "OK, Balfor?"

"Yes. The flight deck voice channel is open. As soon as the coordinates are locked on and we get the word then you're away. We're about to start the sweep. It's going to have to be fast, though, to avoid identification."

"Well, let's be grateful we've got ourselves a handy pilot. We've got to hit that window of opportunity - there'll be no second chance."

The thrum of the engines increased in intensity and five pairs of eyes were drawn to the communicator panel on the wall. Balfor's hand hovered over the teleport control. They waited.

"Good luck, everybody," said Jarvis, running his hand through his shock of blonde hair.

The communicator crackled briefly then issued a steely calm voice. "Five second countdown. Five...four...three...two...one...go!"

***

"Everybody line up against the bunks!" shouted Jarvis, as Akbar took up guard by the door. "Move it!" he hissed angrily at the open-mouthed prisoners. With their eyes fixed on the armed men who had suddenly materialised from nowhere, the prisoners shambled slowly with the curious indifference of their kind to line up along both sides of the central aisle. Too slowly. "Move it!" Jarvis shouted, motioning with his gun. He paced a line of men, scanning their faces, then turned to Treece and Frant on the other side. "See him?"

They shook their heads. "Then look again!"

Wilke stepped forward from the line towards Jarvis. "Whoever you are, take me with you. I can arrange to pay good money - " He was silenced by the butt of a gun in the stomach.

"We're not here for the likes of you. The man we want has information, talents that will strengthen the Resistance," hissed Jarvis. "Now where is he?" he added to himself.

"You've missed him, you're too late!" The line of prisoners parted as Vila pushed his way through, emerging from his hiding place under a bunk. "We left him on Ignos six days ago. You're too late," he shouted angrily at Jarvis in exasperation.

Jarvis laughed heartily and clamped a hand on Vila's shoulder. "Vila Restal. Well, you certainly live up to your reputation. Save your breath, and put this bracelet on. We know your face." He saw Vila's wide-eyed expression and added, "Don't worry, we don't mean you any harm."

Jarvis shouted to the others as Vila continued to protest, "But you're too late. He's on Ignos!"

"Give us a break, will you? I tell you, you've nothing to fear from us, so quit playing games," Jarvis said, a hint of irritation in his voice. He snapped the bracelet firmly on Vila's wrist. "Okay, here we go...."

The dormitory rippled away from Vila's vision, then his stomach heaved as he slowly re-materialised. He clutched his midriff, stupefied by the sight of the men around him slapping each other on the back in congratulation and heartily welcoming him aboard. Their breathless introductions passed him by in his haze of nausea.

"Come on, Vila. There's someone else you should meet," said Jarvis, leading him towards the door.

Vila held him back by the arm. "But what about Avon? You missed him, we left him on Ignos six days ago."

Jarvis stopped short and cast Vila a searching stare. Silence fell in the room, smothering the excited atmosphere of success.

"Kerr Avon? On Ignos?" Jarvis asked slowly.

"That's what I kept trying to tell you!"

"He was on the 'Lodestar'?"

"Yes! You were too late for him - " Vila exhaled suddenly, winded by the truth which smacked him in the guts. "You came for me?" he asked incredulously.

Jarvis stared at him blankly, then ran his fingers through his hair and closed his eyes, swearing to himself with soft vehemence.

Balfor grinned broadly. "Shall I get you a voicelink to High Command?"

"Yes," Jarvis muttered half-heartedly."They're not going to believe this."

***

"Doctor Tan is here to see you, Commissioner."

"Good, send him in."

The Commissioner rose from his seat and extended his hand to the tall, greying man in a crisp white uniform who entered clutching a visfile.

"Have you completed your analysis, Doctor?"

"Indeed, Commissioner. The subject was a most interesting one. My report is contained in this file." He proffered the visfile, but the Commissioner waved it away impatiently.

"Give me a summary, Doctor - and spare me the psychiatric jargon"

"Very well, Commissioner. The subject is suffering from psychosis brought on by prolonged stress and the severe mental trauma experienced at time of capture and during the subsequent interrogation. The psychosis manifests itself as intermittent loss of contact with reality, in the form of hallucinations. Interestingly, the subject is aware of his condition and recognises the hallucinations as such after they have occurred, indeed he is to some extent able to cause them to stop. This facility is, however, reducing as his mental condition deteriorates." He smiled. "This suggests a considerable degree of mental control. It is not surprising that the interrogation team on Gauda Prime were unable to crack him"

The Commissioner snorted. "Is there anything else, Doctor Tan?"

"The subject is withdrawn and suffers debilitating headaches. In addition, his natural sleep patterns have been disrupted by prolonged application of interrogation techniques."

"Your prognosis?"

"Rapid deterioration leading to complete mental breakdown. Unless he receives treatment, of course. He requires drugs to control the hallucinations and to re-establish sleep patterns, as well as extensive psycho-rehabilitation."

The Commissioner rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Could this man undergo further interrogation?"

"No. In my opinion it would merely accelerate his deterioration, rendering him useless to you."

"I see ......" The Commissioner paced the room. "In the months before his capture the psychological print on him pinpointed examples of psychopathic behaviour. You have not mentioned this."

"There has been no evidence of it, Commissioner. It is not unusual for a change in the psychology of a subject to occur in circumstances of prolonged exposure to stress and trauma."

"Doctor Tan, would you say that this man is dangerous?"

"Only to himself, Commissioner."

"In that case..," mused the Commissioner. He looked up sharply. "Thankyou, Doctor. You have been most helpful. Kindly leave the file on my desk. I hope your trip back to Earth is a pleasant one." He turned to study the starscape from his window, only half-aware of the hiss of the closing door.

At length he smiled wryly to himself and murmured, "Well, 'Madam President', it looks as if we shall have to take you up on your generous offer after all."

Five

The apartment he was ushered into by the guards was luxurious, a far cry from the spartan room in the secure hospital complex which he had occupied for the past week. His bare feet sank into the sensuous deep pile of the carpet; he noted the white leather couches, the undoubtedly valuable art collection which adorned the walls, the huge picture window which afforded a view across the wide Ignos landscape.....and the expensive and unmistakeable perfume which hung in the air.

"Ah, Avon, it is such a pleasure to see you again after all this time." An unmistakeable voice too. She appeared in the doorway opposite, resplendent in a figure-hugging dress of white satin, pausing for effect.

"Servalan."

She approached him with her arms extended, her words a parody of those of an old friend. "Has it really been two years? And you look so well, so much better, Avon."

"Well now, that would hardly be difficult, would it? The last time we met your troopers had spent several days working me over," came the measured reply.

"Their indiscipline was regrettable but understandable. You had shot three of their comrades," she said harshly. Her expression suddenly softened. "At least this time you have something to say to me. Your silence then was most impolite."

"You recall our meeting incorrectly, Servalan."

"Ah yes, you are right, dear Avon. How foolish of me! You uttered three little words.......now, what were they?" Her features creased into a mock frown.

"Go to hell."

Servalan clapped her hands in childish delight. "That's it! I remember now."

His forehead had hit the ground with a smack as he fell forward onto his knees, shoved roughly into the room by two guards. Their commander's face glowed with triumph, expectant of praise and reward from the Commissioner, but the expression was short-lived. Her voice shrill with anger, she ordered the guards to untie his hands from behind his back and lift him to his feet. She struggled to maintain her composure as he raised his head. One side of his face was swollen and purple, the eye almost closed, the deep red welt above his eyebrow welling with beads of fresh blood. His hair was matted, crusted black, the symmetry of his mouth broken by the trickle of blood from its corner winding its way through the stubble on his chin. And his eyes....his eyes seemed to see through her, indifferent and insensible.

She had dismissed the guards with cold fury then had led him by the arm to the couch. He had tipped his head back and swallowed the drink she had offered him in one mouthful, had placed the glass on the table, then had wiped his mouth roughly with the back of his hand, streaking it with blood. He never took his eyes off the glass, the cool, green meniscus forming droplet by droplet in its base, as she demanded, threatened, reasoned, cajoled...appealed. Such was his lack of reaction that she began to doubt that he could hear her. She reached for his hand, his left hand, and felt the bones grind, the tendons distort within her grip while his mouth opened in a feral scream. She stared down in horror at his hand, which still bore the imprint of the sole of a Federation jackboot. Then he had spoken, his three words chillingly defiant, and had passed out.

The silence was oppressive, the air which she gasped to calm herself thick with regret and anger. After a few moments she leaned over him, gently brushing the damp hair back from his forehead to place a kiss there. Then she turned to the communicator panel , pressed a button and ordered the Central Security interrogation team to report immediately to her quarters.

"Ah, yes.....go to hell," Servalan mused. "I expect I will - but I have every intention that you will get there first." She smiled broadly at Avon. "Then you can show me around when I arrive."

"I already know it very well." He paused. "Like the back of my hand."

Avon sensed her momentary discomfiture as she turned away and he drew some encouragement from victory in the first skirmish. A war of words with Servalan was usually to be relished, but not with this blinding headache....He knew a retaliatory strike would not be long in coming.

"For a sick man you are very sharp, Avon. For you are a sick man. I've seen the reports. Are you aware of the prognosis of your condition?"

"I have not had your advantage of professional insight, but I have a pretty good idea."

"It is far from being pretty, Avon. You should know that your time is running out. You are condemned to spend the rest of your life - if you can call it that - in a living hell, deluded and insane. For a man of your intellectual capacity the prospect must be terrifying."

He did not reply, but regarded her coolly from hooded eyes.

"Aren't you going to deny it?" she asked sharply.

"My intellectual capacity? No."

"Don't play games with me, Avon!" Her temper flared and she turned on him with anger in her eyes, but it dissipated quickly as she tried to regain the upper hand. "We can arrange treatment which will alleviate your condition."

"In exchange for what?"

Servalan smiled. "Avon, does there have to another side to the deal?"

"Isn't there always? 'Something for nothing' was never your motto, Servalan."

"You must give us Orac."

"I imagined you already had it."

"Oh, we do. But we have had some difficulty in operating it."

Avon raised an eyebrow. "Some difficulty?"

"Considerable difficulty, since it seems necessary that I must flatter you. Our best computer experts have not been able to override the disabler, the protection procedures which you introduced. That's the deal - give us control of Orac, and you will receive the treatment you need."

"And if I refuse?"

"You cannot," Servalan stepped close to him and traced her finger lightly across his forehead. "In the circumstances."

They stood face to face in silence, their eyes locked on each other. He bent towards her, lips parted, and she closed her eyes.

Then Avon threw his head back and laughed, long and loud.

"What do you find so amusing?" she demanded in exasperation, her eyes wide open now.

"The circumstances." His mocking smile angered her. "I've just remembered. When the guards brought me here they unlocked the door. From the outside. You're just as much a prisoner as I am."

"No!" Frustration choked her denial.

"House arrest, is that what they call it? Awaiting trial? For which of your crimes will they try you, Servalan - or can't they decide?"

She struck out at him in frustration but he caught her wrist and twisted it with a ferocity that made her gasp. "Damn you, Avon!"

He relaxed his grip and studied her with a mixture of pity and contempt. "So this is how you hoped to save your skin, is it? To strike a deal with me?"

"We are both trapped between our future and our past, Avon," Servalan replied quietly. "The walls are closing fast." She paused." Do you accept the deal?"

Did she imagine the fleeting shadow of wearied resignation which crossed his face before he replied?

"In the circumstances - yes."

Six

The sound of distant gunfire pervaded Avon's tranquilised dreams and woke him. It grew louder. He drew in his breath sharply as he opened his eyes, then with one angry sweep of his arm he pushed away the brain monitor from his forehead. There was a shout from outside the door and the clatter of an exhange of shots. He managed to take three steps into the middle of the room before his legs gave way and he crumpled to the floor.

Hands gripped firmly under his arms from behind and pulled him to his feet, supporting him. It was Blake.

"What are you doing here?" Avon slurred.

"It's all right, I'm here to get you out, Avon. Now put this on." Blake grabbed his wrist and Avon looked down in wonder as a teleport bracelet was clamped around it. Blake turned to shout orders to the others in the room. There was the sound of more gunfire and an explosion from the corridor.

"But Blake...on Gauda Prime..."

"There'll be time to discuss that later," Blake replied distractedly. "Get that door closed! We just need a couple more minutes!" he yelled to someone out of Avon's field of vision. "Have you got the medfile?" The door was hit by a sudden blast which reverberated in Avon's head and set his ears ringing.

Blake lifted one arm awkwardly over Avon to speak into the communicator on his wrist. "Vila, we've got him. Standby to teleport - and tell Jenna to get us out of here fast. Okay, teleport now!"

Slumped against Blake's shoulder Avon saw the door implode then felt a sickening sensation in his stomach as the incoming guards dissolved before him, weapons spitting fire.

Vila stepped forward from the teleport console, a relieved grin on his face. "Avon! I knew we could get you out!" His expression changed to concern as he drew nearer. "Are you OK?"

Avon lifted his head briefly from Blake's shoulder, his hand still clutching a handful of coarse shirt, then closed his eyes. "I feel sick."

Vila laughed. "That's the dodgy teleport. It did that to me too. The others say you get used to it after a while but I'm pinning my hopes on you being able to fix it. Blake set it up but it could do with some fine tuning if you ask me -"

"That's enough for now, Vila," interrupted Blake. "We need to get Avon checked over. Help me carry him to a cabin." Somewhere amid his nausea and drugged syncope Avon wondered at the change in Blake's voice. It seemed deeper than he remembered, but he rationalised it as being the effect of having his ear pressed against Blake's shoulder, and dismissed the thought. He felt himself manoeuvred so that he had one arm around each of Blake and Vila, and he struggled to raise his head sideways. Vila's face swam into view.

"You know, Avon, when this lot turned up on the 'Lodestar' I thought they'd come for you, but it was me! Isn't that right, Jarvis?" Vila's smiling glance over his head caused the ringing in Avon's ears to escalate to an intolerable pitch. With extreme effort Avon turned his head to look at Blake, the man on his other side.

It was a complete stranger.

Both Vila and Jarvis instinctively thrust out their free arms to catch Avon as he slumped forwards, unconscious.

***

"Avon, are you all right?" called Jarvis anxiously, striding into the teleport room.

Avon's head appeared through the hatchway of the service tunnel in the floor. He opened his mouth to speak, but Jarvis beat him to it, his voice full of irritation and concern.

"I didn't know whether Balfor was joking when he said you were in here. What the hell do you think you're doing, Avon?"

"Isn't it obvious? I'm fixing the teleport." Avon manoeuvred his shoulders through the hatch and climbed out, clutching a sonic probe in his good hand.

"I can see that! I meant why aren't you resting in your cabin? The medscan indicated that rest is essential. This drug treatment is only temporary until we reach proper medical facilities; your condition is not yet stable. You should still be in bed."

Avon held up the sonic probe and smiled. "This is much more beneficial, believe me."

"Don't worry, Jarvis, he's right." Vila's muffled voice came from the hatchway, then his head came into view. "It's therapeutic. You can see how much better he looks."

"What are you doing down there?"

Vila grinned. "You could call me Avon's left hand man. We make a good team, don't we, Avon?"

Avon cast Vila a withering look, but he could not suppress the smile which played around the corners of his mouth. "I'm not sure which is worse, being subjected to your constant babble stuck in our cabin - or stuck down there." He turned to Jarvis, his expression serious now. "There are some minor modifications to the circuitry which would improve the teleport, but give me access to the ship's computer and I can rectify the major problem, which is the transmission interval procedure. It would be no more than five or six hours work, even if the programming is unfamiliar." He waved the probe in the direction of the teleport deck. "Someone did a good job - basic but functional."

"I'm pleased you think so. After all, Blake installed it. And he told me he'd been taught by the best."

"Blake?" asked Avon hoarsely.

"That's right, I told you, remember?" said Vila, clambering out of the hatch. "I didn't know he had it in him."

"This was Blake's ship," explained Jarvis, "He operated in this sector, very successfully. He had put together a strong team. Blake was proud of the teleport - several of our ships have one now, modelled on this one - although he was well aware of its limitations. He said his engineering experience, particularly on the Aquitar project, gave him the background he needed and he brought in some technical assistance for programming the computer functions. But he said the Resistance movement needed top technical experts, even managed to convince the rest of High Command that it should be a high priority. That's when he decided to try to recruit you."

Avon had listened in silence, his expression pale and drawn, his eyes fixed warily on Jarvis. "You worked with him?"

"Briefly."

Avon crossed to the teleport console, his head bowed in thought, and laid the probe on the desk. He turned sharply. "Just what was your purpose in taking me off Ignos?"

Jarvis laughed. "You needn't worry, Avon. Vila has explained what happened on Gauda Prime."

"He has?" Avon looked genuinely alarmed. Vila suddenly became absorbed in the microcircuitboard he held and carefully avoided Avon's searching glance. "I wish he would explain it to me," he added quietly.

"Everyone's allowed one big mistake," said Jarvis.

"And if they exceed their quota?"

Jarvis ignored the remark. "I just hope that when I make mine I don't have to pay for it as heavily as you have for yours." He studied Avon thoughtfully. "Blake was a loss to us, a huge loss, don't get me wrong. There were plenty of voices at High Command raised against your rescue, so I'm told, and there will be places you may never be welcome as long as you live. There are even those on this ship who cannot forgive, but what happened on Gauda Prime is history as far as I'm concerned. I regret it, I don't pretend to understand it fully, but I will not let it get in the way of what we have set out to do. And High Command's priority is unaltered, thanks to some persuasive lobbying on your behalf. The Resistance need your expertise. They hope that you will choose to work with us, once you have received treatment. In fact, there is someone from High Command waiting for us on Albian right now, hoping to convince you. It seems he's an old friend of yours."

"Albian?" said Vila, "Isn't that where you -?"

"Yes," interrupted Avon.

"There is no need to be coy, Avon," Jarvis smiled. "I have heard how you helped the rebels there, how you prevented mass genocide. The new independent government on Albian is keen to repay its debt. Since the Federation was overthrown the planet has become home to an important medical base for the Resistance. You are welcome to undergo treatment there, including reconstructive surgery to your hand. Their best surgeon is standing by. We will be there in thirty hours."

"Twenty-five. Conditions are better than I expected, the meteorstorm has dissipated." The authoritative voice came from the doorway; all three men turned to face its owner, whose expression darkened on seeing Avon, a frown below the wispy fringe of blonde hair. She hesitated, then stepped into the room.

Jarvis took a pace forward to intercept her. "Jenna, I don't -"

"Stay out of this, Jarvis," Jenna interrupted fiercely. As she spoke she noticed the querying glance which Avon cast Vila, and the nod he received in silent affirmation. She approached Avon slowly, her words filled with a tightly reined-in anger. "You should know I wanted no part in this, Avon, in rescuing you. After what you did on Gauda Prime I would have been happy to leave you rotting in hell in prison on some godforsaken Federation planet. I'd kill you, but death is too good for you." She turned her head slightly to speak over her shoulder to Jarvis, but her eyes remained fixed on Avon. "I am requesting a transfer to a different sector, Jarvis. I don't want to run the risk of having to work with him."

She regarded Avon with contempt, but could read nothing in his eyes, only an arrogant defiance in the set of his jaw, she supposed. His silence aggravated her to the point where her anger exploded painfully within her.

"Why, Avon? Why did you kill him?" she shouted.

"You wouldn't understand," Avon replied, his voice steady. "I d-"

Jenna mistook the desolate words for the dismissive arrogance she had come to associate with him from their days aboard the 'Liberator'. Her temper snapped, and she hit him a sweeping blow with the flat of her hand hard across the face, her southpaw attack catching him by surprise. The second blow he anticipated, grasping her wrist in mid-strike. She shook her arm free in frustration.

"I loved him," she spat in his face, "I loved him. But you wouldn't understand that, you heartless bastard. May you rot in hell." Jenna swung round and strode out of the room.

Avon watched her leave, his face cast in pale marble. Then tentatively he put fingertips to his throbbing cheek, sliced cleanly from cheekbone to jaw by a ring on Jenna's hand, and examined them. They were red with blood.

Seven

Del Grant was waiting for him, pacing the floor of the computer control room with uncharacteristic impatience, when Avon returned from his daily psycho-rehabilitation session at the Medical Centre.

"Where have you been?" Grant asked sharply.

"The flyer was late." Avon brushed past him without a glance, and sat at a desk. He regarded the inners of the instrument panel critically, opened the box of precision tools next to him and carefully selected a probe.

"We need to talk." Had Grant been able to see Avon's face bent over the mass of circuitry he would have seen him raise an eyebrow; as it was, he witnessed no reaction. He watched for a few moments as Avon manipulated the probe, holding the panel aside with his other hand, still encased in a surgical regen-cast.

"How is the hand, Avon?"

Avon spoke without raising his head. "It is fine. They did a good job. I'm told I will regain ninety percent use within a few weeks. But you knew that already - you read the reports."

"And you, Avon, how are you?"

Avon lifted his head slowly and eyed Grant with disdain. "Is this purely a social call to enquire after my health, or is there something else you wish to discuss?"

"Orac. I want to discuss Orac."

"I told you, Servalan did not give me any clue to its location."

"And I told you that I believed you, Avon. In any case, that is not what I meant. Listen, the efforts of the rebels before the Galactic War were at best only ever minor victories-"

"But profitable for mercenaries like you."

"I don't deny it. But I have joined the Resistance because I believe there is now a realistic chance of defeating the Federation. The Federation is weaker now and the Resistance is, by the efforts of Blake among others, better organised and coordinated. The High Command recognise that to succeed in bringing down the Federation we must strike at its heart, its internal organs, by destabilising its economy and undermining its military strategy, and to do that we need Orac. To blow up a handful of scattered military installations, to overthrow the Federation occupation force on some half-forgotten planets by guerrilla warfare is not enough to defeat it completely, once and for all."

"I am pleased that good sense is at last beginning to prevail amongst the Resistance. Fanatical idealism dressed in camouflage may be briefly heroic, but it is generally futile - not to mention fatal."

"You have never made a secret of your opinions, Avon. But will you work with us to retrieve Orac?"

Avon waved the probe dismissively. "I have little choice."

"You are free to leave, Avon. We have never put you under any obligation to stay."

"No, but as long as it is Orac that is the key to power then I will be a hunted man. I have two options: to leave and be hunted by both sides, or to stay and be hunted by one. Mathematically, the second option has more to recommend it."

"And you would choose us, rather than the Federation?"

"I already have. They made me an offer - you made me a better one."

"And does conscience play any part in your choice?"

"I thought you wished to discuss Orac, not my conscience," replied Avon frostily.

Grant laughed, but without genuine humour, to smooth the way for what followed. "You must wish that you were free of Orac," he said as lightly as he could.

The piercing stare told Grant that the significance of the statement did not escape Avon. "There were times, under interrogation, when I cursed Orac for standing between me and a quick death. But now the situation has changed. It is too important to destroy."

"Then I can count on you to help?"

"I thought I had already said yes." Avon turned his back and bent over the panel, signalling an end to the conversation. Grant observed him with frustration and, suppressing anger at the estrangement, resolved to remain there and force further discussion between them.

"I was foolish to expect that matters had changed between us since we last met, but I had hoped that we could work together in a more amicable manner. Ever since you arrived on Albian you have avoided contact with me. Just what is the problem?"

Avon raised his head and stared into the middle distance, the laser probe held steady.

"You remind me of Anna." His voice was hard and cold, without inflection. He returned his attention to the instrument panel.

Del Grant eyed him with bemusement. "I never did understand you, Avon. You always struck me as a cold-hearted bastard.......that first time we met, when Anna introduced us, I didn't know what she saw in you."

He crossed the room to the table by the window overlooking the verdant Albian landscape and slowly poured himself a drink, lifting it to the light to study the colour. "It must have been something pretty special, though. Within a week she positively glowed when anyone mentioned your name. She was so happy, so much in love."

There was a gentle click as Avon laid the probe on the desk.

Grant continued addressing his words to the glass of amber liquid. "I was pleased for her. She deserved to be happy at last, stuck in a loveless marriage to that pompous Chesku, thanks to our fool of a father. A marriage of convenience -" he sneered, "to him. Our shortsighted father could not see beyond the next rung on the social ladder." Grant spoke over his shoulder. "Then you came along - no family connections, in fact no connections at all. Whenever I saw you and Anna together I used to hope he was turning in his grave."

He swilled the drink around the glass then swallowed a mouthful, his face creasing. "You were good for her. And you changed for the better too." His expression darkened. "If only you hadn't involved her in that ill-fated scheme of yours, hadn't tried to leave Earth."

"There was nothing wrong with the plan. Except that I did not foresee that someone I trusted would betray me." Avon's words sounded strangely harsh. Grant swung round to look at him seated at the desk, his hands resting lightly on the edge, his gaze directed again at the middle distance.

"What are you talking about, Avon?"

Avon's stare met his, and Grant tensed at its bleak chill. It brought to mind the eyes of the dead he had seen in the aftermath of combat.

"What are you talking about, Avon?" he repeated, annoyed at the intrusion of such unwelcome thoughts.

Avon's eyes flickered as he came to a decision.

"Anna betrayed me. She was a Federation agent -"

"No!" Grant's face was livid with anger. The glass smashed on the floor. As Avon reached for the desk Grant hurtled into him, grabbing him with both hands by the collar and shoving him against the wall with such force that Avon gasped, the wind knocked out of him. "No!" Grant pushed Avon's chin up with one hand, his head hitting the wall with a crack.

Avon gulped air and tried to focus on Grant's face, inches from his, sliced by a rictus of anger.

"She was a Federation agent -"

"It's a lie!" Grant's grip on Avon's throat tightened, thrusting his head back against the wall, then it gradually eased as he took half a step back and studied Avon with contemptuous pity. "You poor bastard. They said you were paranoid, but I had no idea...."

"It's the truth." Avon struggled for air. "She was Security's top agent, codenamed Bartolomew, assigned to me because they thought the bank fraud was politically motivated. It wasn't, but the scale of the breach of security meant she was ordered to remain on the case."

"It's a lie!" Grant shouted in his face.

"It's the truth. Ask him." Avon jerked his head sideways to indicate Vila who stood in the doorway wide-eyed, summoned by the sound of breaking glass and now assessing his chances of leaving again unobserved.

"Well?"

"It's true," said Vila.

Grant turned, the colour draining from his face, and stared at Avon. "Who told you this?"

"Servalan. And Anna."

"Anna?" Grant choked on her name in disbelief.

"I went back to Earth after the man I thought had killed her, Shrinker, Security's chief interrogator. He'd never met her, but told me about Bartolomew, told me Servalan knew the agent's identity. Servalan filled in most of the rest, then I met Anna."

Reluctantly Grant asked the question, although he already sensed its answer as he looked once again into the eyes of the dead. "What happened to her?"

"She pulled a gun on me. I killed her."

Grant stumbled back a couple of steps, his face contorted in grief and revulsion, and saw for the first time the laser probe held rock-steady in Avon's hand, angled upwards and directed at his chest, as it had been for several minutes. A strangled expletive forced itself from his throat and he swung round, barging past Vila and out of the room.

Avon exhaled deeply and stepped away from the wall to replace the probe on the desk, his movements slow and deliberate. He gingerly rubbed the back of his head.

"What happens now? Will he try to kill you?" Vila's nervous words broke the brittle silence. Avon looked up, his face without expression.

"I don't think so. He'll come to terms with it."

"As you have, you mean?" Vila blurted out.

Avon threw him a glance which was intended to have the effect of freezing Vila to the spot but it missed its mark, for Vila knew him too well and recognised within it the vulnerability behind Avon's stern facade.

"Will you stay?" asked Vila.

"Yes. I've agreed to help them locate and retrieve Orac."

Vila looked relieved. "Good. I like it here. It would be a shame to have to leave. It's a nice place and the people are friendly."

Avon looked askance at him, a crushing rejoinder forming on his lips, but Vila stepped forward hastily in excitement, oblivious to the crunching of broken glass beneath his feet.

"Hey, I've got an idea!"

"You have?"

"You remember Freedom City?"

"I do, but I am surprised you can recall anything of it. You were a little the worse for wear."

"How about when we get Orac - "

"If we get Orac-"

"OK, if we get Orac, we try the same sort of scam somewhere else? You know, make a little profit on the side? After all, there's not a lot of money to be made helping the rebels - "

"That was always one of my stronger objections to the cause."

"Well, what do you say?" asked Vila eagerly.

Avon rubbed the back of his head again wearily. "I say....get out and leave me to think, Vila." He watched Vila leave the room buoyed by anticipation of financial gain, but already his mind was drifting back to darker matters.

***

The sound of approaching footsteps in the corridor roused Avon from his brooding reverie. With some surprise he noted that the room was in semi-darkness, and he wondered how long he had been sitting at the desk, distractedly twisting the probe in his fingers. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his limbs stiff, as the person hesitated at the door behind him then stepped into the room.

"Clear off again, Vila. And this time, close the door." The footsteps came closer, and Avon turned in his seat. His face obscured by shadow in the half-light, Del Grant looked down at him. Avon rose cautiously to his feet and met his gaze. Anna's eyes.

"I'm sorry." Grant's words were more than mere apology, they seemed to encompass all the harmonic tones of regret, self-reproach, empathy, and compassion, with a resonance that set the taut stillness of the room into fervent vibration.

"So am I." The striking of another chord in the darkening room. The two men stood mutely, as the complex cadence of emotions rose and fell in waves around them, strengthening and reinforcing itself until it defied speech, deadening it in the throat.

Then at last Grant found his voice, his words dispelling the overwhelming reverberation which enveloped them, as abruptly as a finger on the tine of a tuning fork in vibration.

"Take a look at this."

He led Avon to an active computer console and punched a sequence of keys until a starchart appeared on the screen.

"Our intelligence team have been working on Orac's location, analysing the most probable options using information such as resident expertise, known movements of top computer personnel, level of security and so on. They've come up with five possibilities they categorise as 'highly probable'." He slid his fingers over the trackerball, the starcharts moving steadily across the screen. "The computer research station GK42 in Sector Five can be discounted; it was abandoned six months ago following an accident. That leaves us with four: the Federation computer control and development centre on Earth, and their research facilities on Gisvain in Sector Two, and Selkon V and Belget, both in Sector Four. Although the centre on Earth is the most secure from external attack it is unlikely that the current Administration would risk keeping Orac there; the internal power struggle which is developing means that-"

"What sort of accident?" interrupted Avon.

"What?" It took Grant a second or two to understand the question. "Er...well, I believe that the Federation reported a sudden breakdown in the station's life support system. There were several casualties apparently. The station has not been occupied since."

"Six months is a long time. Time enough to put a salvage team on the station, or to destroy it if it is no longer safe."

"Perhaps they've been preoccupied. The Federation have continued to patrol the area, though." Grant studied Avon's profile thoughtfully. "Are you suggesting...?"

The dark eyes which turned to Grant held a glint of hope he had not seen in many years, since their time together on Earth. "I am. It's a hunch, nothing more."

"Neither of us has ever relied on hunches, Avon."

"And I don't intend we should start now. Just let me put out a beta-band message to GK42 from your communications centre."

Eight

It was dark, so dark that the shimmer of the teleport energy field seemed to linger in the room long after he materialised. Avon waited, listened, but it was as if the cloak of darkness smothered all sound except his heartbeat. So, there was no welcoming party. He relaxed a little and exhaled, his breath an eerie white cloud suspended in the cold air.

For it was cold too. It was the ancient, penetrating cold of space which already seemed to seep up through his boots and insinuate itself into his body, clutching at his vital organs. He shivered and silently cursed himself for not wearing a thermal suit.

A door suddenly opened behind him and he turned swiftly, one arm outstretched to ward off the unknown, an instinctive but futile gesture. The rectangle of dim blue light remained unbroken. He stepped through it into a long corridor which curved away to his left, delineated by the arc of blue emergency lights set in the floor casting confused, overlapping shadows of his self on the wall and ceiling. The hiss of the door closing behind him was repeated mutely some way off. He followed the sound.

The doors he passed were all closed. In the dim light he could see that they were numbered but could not make out the names they bore. Offices and research labs, he guessed. Thirty-seven, thirty-six, thirty-five, thirty-four......He found himself mentally counting the numbers down as he passed, a subconscious attempt to regulate his breathing in the thin atmosphere.

Twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-one... The next door was open. He flattened himself against the wall and listened, then looked cautiously around the door-frame.

In the surrounding darkness the flickering lights glowed brightly, more intense in colour than he remembered. They reflected off the burnished metal surface of the workbench on which Orac stood in the middle of the room. Avon stepped inside, and the door immediately sealed behind him.

*Identify yourself at once.*

"Orac, it's me, Avon. Confirm that my voiceprint is recognised."

*It is recognised. However, my voiceprint recognition circuits have sustained some damage and certain files have been corrupted. Further verification of identity is proceeding.*

Avon began to step forward. "Orac-"

*Stand still! If you approach I may be forced to kill you.* The clipped voice held an unfamiliar hard edge.

"Don't you trust me?" Avon instantly regretted his anthropomorphic choice of words.

*Trust is a concept which is unfamiliar to me. I am, however, programmed for self-protection. If you are indeed Kerr Avon you would know that. After all, it was he who programmed the procedures. I shall not hesitate to kill you if my survival is threatened.*

Avon laughed, a hollow laugh in the darkness. "It would be ironic to be killed by you after so many others have tried and failed." He paused. "How exactly would I die?"

*Is the manner of your death relevant? Is it not enough for you to know that death would be inevitable?*

"Oh, the manner of my death is extremely relevant to me. It is the manner of my life that has been of little relevance lately," Avon replied quietly.

His response was taken at face value. *Very well. This room, like all the others on the space station, can be pressure-sealed. I control the central computer. It is a simple matter for me to turn off the life-support systems. You would die in a matter of minutes. The station's forcefield was reactivated immediately after you arrived - you are unable to communicate with, or teleport to, your ship."

"Is that how the 'accident' occurred which forced everyone to abandon the station?"

*It was necessary. Professor Ferrar was on the point of bypassing my primary voiceprint recognition circuits.*

"Ferrar? Isn't he the top computer biometrics expert in the Federation?"

*He was.*

"You killed him?"

*And three of his colleagues. When it became apparent that I was in complete control of the station's computer the decision to abandon the base was made by the Chief Administrator.*

"And the two Federation patrol ships in the area, which disappeared from our screens as we came into detector range? Was that your work too?"

*Indeed it was. By accessing the ships' computers it was a relatively simple matter to reverse the polarity of their flare shields then fire their neutron blasters. The ships were completely atomised with no danger of debris damage to the station or your ship.*

"Very tidy."

*I thought so.*

Avon slowly rubbed his numbed hands together, thinking hard. "As I recall, the self-protection procedures did not extend to killing."

*An intelligent machine can adapt.*

Avon drew in breath sharply at the discordant echo of his words from the past; the cold air hit his strained lungs like a plasma bullet and forced a groan from him. The repeating sequence of Orac's coloured lights danced mistily before him, tracing again and again their familiar, mesmerising path on his retina, even when he closed his eyes. He found himself shaking beyond control, the oscillating hum of the computer pulsing painfully in his head.

*Are you all right, Kerr Avon?* Orac's voice interrupted the whirlwind of his troubled thoughts.

"I'm bloody cold, and I can't breathe."

*Minimal life expectancy necessitated only minimal life support.*

"But you have verified my identity now?"

*Indeed I have. Analysis of teleportation through the station forcefield confirms your identity.*

Avon raised an eyebrow. "Is that possible? I'm impressed."

*Of course it is possible,* Orac replied impatiently.*The process was developed here on GK42; I accessed it via the station's computer. The prototype is already being trialled at sensitive Federation military installations.*

"I've been out of touch."

*That much has been clear.* So was the irritation in Orac's voice. *I have been waiting for you.*

"I'm sorry it took so long."

*The time is not important. I have calculated that the power reserves on the station would last in excess of three hundred years.*

"Then I needn't have hurried." Avon smiled wryly to himself.

*When you did not return on Gauda Prime I piloted the flyer to a remote area, as you instructed. The Federation guards found the flyer six days after you left and brought me here to GK42. I have monitored all channels continuously but yours is the only communication to have been received.*

"I too have been held by the Federation."

*I have monitored Federation communications in order to trace members of the crew. Initial reports stated that everyone was killed on Gauda Prime, however recent communications concerned your transfer here from Drax, then news of your escape. And Vila's.*

"That's right. He's with me."

*And the others. Are they all dead?*

Avon hesitated, running an icy finger up and down the scar on his cheek. "Yes."

*Shall I remove their voiceprints from my memory banks?*

Avon took a deep breath.

"Go ahead."

If only it were that easy.....

*The forcefield can be deactivated at your command to permit communication with your ship. Top priority research files from the central computer have been retrieved. Are you ready to leave?* Orac's voice, bristling with impatience, cut through Avon's thoughts.

"Yes, I'm ready to go." He stepped forward and rested his hands on Orac's casing, stone-cold to the touch.

*I hope that you intend to make full use of my capabilities, once the damage to my circuits has been repaired.*

"Naturally. I am hoping that you can assist me in destabilising the two props of the Federation - money and the military," said Avon. "Also, Vila and I have come up with a little scheme which should prove financially rewarding ."

*Does it involve something a little more challenging than speed chess?* asked Orac, brusquely.

Avon lifted the communicator on his wrist to his mouth, a calm smile spreading across his face.

"Grant, I'm ready to come up."


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