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Rumours of Life part 1 - A Corpse Too Few

By Marian de Haan
- - - 1 - - - With pleasant anticipation he waited while the cell door slid upward. Through the rising gap he glimpsed the prisoner. Unkempt and unshaven, the man sat up slowly, wincing, and gingerly placed his bare feet on the floor. He didn't look like much, yet he had resisted all attempts to get even a name out of him.

Pulling himself up to his full height, he entered. "They tell me you haven't been co-operating."

"No?" the man croaked. "What's the matter? Did I bleed on the wrong bit of floor?"

"Good. Good." Looking down at his prey, who sat with head in his hands, visibly trying to concentrate, he felt the familiar surge of power.

"I'm glad you're pleased."

He ignored the interruption. "I hate to waste my time."

"Don't let me detain you."

Better and better! "I'm a specialist, you see."

"Oh, it's written all over you."

"I specialise in unco-operative prisoners."

"And you love a challenge."

At last deigning to acknowledge the other's comments, he gave the prisoner a predatory smile. "It's good that we understand each other."

Wincing, the man brought his hand up to his neck. "You're name wouldn't be Shrinker, by any chance, would it?"

For a moment he felt surprised - this was against the pattern. "You've heard of me?" His reputation must have reached beyond the confinement of the institution - very satisfactory!

"Ah..." Rubbing his neck, the man winced again. "I knew if I held out, you would show up eventually."

Shrinker began to feel uneasy. What was the man playing at? "That says more for your nerve than your brain."

"You think so?"

"Long before I've finished with you, you'll be begging for death!" Time to shatter the prisoner's hopes: "Don't worry, it's sending all right."

"What are you talking about?"

What a lousy liar this man was! Still, if he insisted on having it spelled out to him: "The implant in your neck."

"I don't know what you're talking about." The fool, persisting in his lies! "There is a homing device implanted in your neck."

"How did you know?"

"We detected it as soon as we picked you up. We've been monitoring it ever since." Shrinker's uneasiness deepened; somehow the man seemed less concerned than one would expect. "It's been sending steadily for five days."

"Five days?" His surprise sounded real. "Is that how long I've been here?"

Shrinker took pleasure in rubbing it in: "Your friends aren't coming."

"Oh, they are. They MUST!"

"An attack on this place would be suicide anyway." Shrinker bent over his victim to press home his point. "Is there ANYONE who thinks you're worth dying for?"

"Not any more," the man whispered. "Not since Anna."

Now they were getting somewhere - one name tended to lead to another. "Anna?"

"Dead. Anna is dead."

The way he spoke the name betrayed a deep affection. Had this idiot decided to perform some kind of heroic deed in his dead woman's honour?

Time to take off the gloves. Shrinker produced his tool of trade. "You know what this is?"

The prisoner eyed it apprehensively. "It's a laser probe."

"It's a laser probe," Shrinker confirmed, licking his lips in anticipation. "Now we're tired of waiting for your friends to come to us, so we have decided to go to THEM." He activated the probe. "You are going to tell me WHO they are and WHERE they are."

"I can't!" The man tried to back away - a futile move as he was already sitting with his back against the wall. "Please, I can't!"

"I'm going to start by burning out your eyes," Shrinker went on relentlessly.

"Please!"

Not showing his satisfaction about having brought the man to grovelling at last, Shrinker held the probe close to his victim's eye. "And you're going to start by telling me your name. Now that's not too difficult, is it?" He let steel creep into his voice: "Who are you?"

"Avon. My name is Avon."

"Avon?" Shrinker frowned - he'd heard that name before somewhere.

"And you misunderstand about the homing device," the prisoner went on, uninvited. "My friends wouldn't come while it was sending..."

A strange wheezing sound made the hairs on Shrinker's neck stand up. Something was wrong...

"But now I've switched it off," the prisoner said.

"And we're here," a new voice added.

Shrinker lashed out with his probe. A hissing started. The smell of burnt tissue filled his nose. The prisoner gasped.

Shrinker felt a shock. The probe slid from his fingers. Gripped by dizziness, he tried to keep his balance. Faces began to dance before his eyes, the faces of his victims. All the people he'd ever tortured were there, cursing him. He tried to speak. Instead of sound, blood surged from his mouth. A deafening roar filled his ears, his brain... Shrinker found himself on his knees on the floor. Suddenly the faces disappeared. A split second before his world blacked out he knew this was the end. A protest against the unfairness of his fate welled up in his throat, but was drowned in the blood.

- - - 2 - - -

Dayna lowered her gun. Ignoring the crumbling man, she hurried over to Avon. Still seated, he'd slumped forward, hands over his face.

"He's alive," Tarrant said, bending over him.

"No thanks to you!" Dayna was surprised to find that she cared.

"Difficult to sustain a two-minute alert over five days." Tarrant took Avon by the arms and hauled him up. "This doesn't look too good. Better get him up fast."

"Tarrant." Avon lowered his hands, raising his head. Dayna felt her stomach contract. One eye was covered in gore. The other was tightly shut. "Shrinker..."

"The man who did this?" Tarrant asked.

"Don't kill him." Avon's voice was a croaky whisper. "He's mine!"

"Too late," Tarrant replied. "Dayna got him."

"Damn!" Avon said, and fainted.

While Tarrant was struggling to hold Avon and get a bracelet around his wrist, Dayna extracted an explosive from her clothes. "Get a move on!"

"Ready." Tarrant raised his own bracelet. "Bring us up."

Dayna hurled the explosive through the open doorway into the corridor. Then she was caught by the teleport effect and found herself back on Liberator.

Vila stood holding out a drink. At the sight of Tarrant supporting Avon's limp form, he brought the glass to his own mouth and downed it.

Cally jumped from behind the console. "What happened?"

"Shrinker got him," Dayna replied.

"Help me get him to the sickbay, Vila," Tarrant said. "Dayna, you keep watch."

"Come, quickly." Cally left the teleport room. Carrying Avon between them, Tarrant and Vila followed her, the latter mumbling that his delicate constitution wasn't up to this.

Dayna went to the flight deck. Disconnecting her gun from its power pack, she thought back to the man she had killed. It had been a natural reaction when she'd seen him hurt Avon. But she could understand Avon's reaction. He'd gone to avenge his woman's death - a debt of honour. She too had a debt to collect...

Dayna plugged the gun in again. Why should Avon be the only one to get his revenge? Servalan was on Earth - Orac had caught a message about preparations for the grand opening of her new residence. They'd discussed it before Avon had set out. Vila had suggested they abandon the plan but both Tarrant and Avon had argued it was the ideal opportunity, as for once Servalan would be distracted from her hunt for the Liberator.

Dayna strode to Orac, placed on the couch. Inserting the machine's key, she said: "Orac, I want you to find Servalan, then put me down as near to her as you can without me being detected."

The machine made a sound as if it was angry at being disturbed. "You want to communicate with her?"

"No." Dayna moved to the storage wall and took an extra power pack. "I want to kill her." She clipped the pack onto her belt. "Hurry up, Orac."

She didn't know how long the others would be tending to Avon. If they got wind of her plan, they'd want to stop her. Her only chance was to be gone before they discovered her intention.

Biting her lip, she waited while Orac buzzed away.

"I have found the requested information."

"Not too soon," Dayna mumbled.

"Servalan is at Residence One, her new palace, where a gala dinner will be held in her honour tonight."

"Right. Make Zen set a course for the palace."

"Liberator is on its way. A geo-stationary orbit just within teleport range above the palace will be established in seven and a half minutes."

"Good." Dayna cast an anxious gaze at the doorway, then picked up the machine and quickly carried it to the teleport room. "Make sure to put me down the moment you can."

"An examination of the plans contained in the main security computer indicates that there is no safe place to teleport within that defence perimeter."

Dayna placed Orac on the teleport console. "Outside the perimeter, then." She checked her bracelet, still on her wrist.

"To cross it undetected would be impossible."

She wasn't going to let Orac's caution rob her of her revenge. "Then put me down at the best place inside the perimeter."

"Very well. I will set the teleport co-ordinates. I would however, strongly advise--"

"Dayna!" Tarrant entered the room. "You are supposed to be on watch. What are you planning?"

"What do you think?" She drew her gun, aiming it at his chest. "I'm going to kill Servalan, and I won't let you or anyone else stop me."

He raised his hands. "You're crazy!"

"And Avon was not?"

"Look where it brought him!"

"I'm not planning a five day wait. I'll be in and out, it'll only take one shot."

"All right." He lowered his hands, taking a tentative step towards her. "I'll let you go - on one condition. I'm going with you."

For a moment she thought she'd not heard correctly. "Why?"

"You think you are the only one with a grudge against Servalan? She's the reason I deserted."

The set of his jaw indicating the matter was not negotiable, Tarrant activated the wall communicator. "Vila, come and take over Dayna's watch. NOW!" He released the button, cutting off the whining protest.

"All right, Tarrant," Dayna said. "But I want to kill her. This is MY fight!"

"Fine by me." He checked his gun, then fingered the bracelet on his arm. "Right, Orac. Put us down as soon as you can."

"As I was about to say, I would strongly advise waiting until dusk."

"Why not full dark?" Tarrant asked.

"Despite all efforts to eliminate this weakness, dusk and dawn remain the human being's most vulnerable times. Therefore, insofar as the security system contains human components it will be at its least efficient at these times."

"How long until dusk?" Dayna enquired, eager to get on with it.

"Twelve minutes."

"We'd better follow his advice," Tarrant said. "A few minutes more won't matter, Servalan isn't going anywhere tonight."

Dayna nodded reluctantly. "All right. How's Avon?"

"He'll live. Cally's with him. Vila was useless, as usual. He's gone to his cabin. He said he was feeling queasy." Tarrant's teeth flashed. "Can't stand the sight of blood."

Dayna snorted. "I'd have thought that only goes for his own." Impatiently she stood waiting until, at last, Orac announced:

"The optimum time for teleport will be in precisely one minute."

"Good." Tarrant moved to the teleport bay. "Let's get on with it, then."

Dayna positioned herself next to him. "All right, Orac. We're ready when you are."

"Teleporting now."

The machine's voice faded. Dayna took in her new surroundings. They'd materialised in an enormous garden. Across a well-kept lawn a building loomed, huge but uninspiring in design. Running towards it, she saw what Orac had meant: the open space provided little to no cover. Reaching some low bushes, she halted - she'd nearly stumbled over the corpse of a trooper. She bent down to check the body.

"He's been shot," she told Tarrant, whose shadow fell over her. "Not too long ago."

"Probably forgot to salute."

"Don't try to be funny!" She looked at the house. More bodies were decorating the lawn. "What's going on here?"

"We must have stumbled upon a revolt."

"You mean someone else is out to kill Servalan?" Discarding caution, Dayna set off at a run. She wasn't going to let anyone else deprive her of the pleasure of killing Servalan!

Vaguely aware of Tarrant coming after her, she reached the entrance. The door stood open. Gun at the ready, Dayna entered. More corpses were lining the wide corridor, but they encountered no living souls.

"Let's try these doors," Tarrant suggested.

Systematically they kicked open door after door, only to find the rooms empty. Dayna was too intent on her revenge to take in the splendour of the furnishings.

They came upon a room from which agitated voices sounded, as if a fierce argument was raging. Tarrant held up his hand, whispering: "I don't hear Servalan in there."

Dayna nodded. "She wouldn't keep quiet." Her eye fell on an open door that seemed to be battered with an axe. "Let's try this one."

They found themselves in a large room full of surveillance gear.

"Must be the security headquarters," Tarrant said.

About to leave, Dayna heard a groan. She turned and saw Tarrant bend over a man who was lying on the floor. The chest of the man's blue uniform was covered in blood. He must be a member of the security team, she thought.

"Major!" Tarrant said.

The man opened a bleary eye. "What?"

"Major," Tarrant repeated in a clipped military voice. "Where are they holding the President?"

The man frowned as if he had trouble concentrating. "I... I think below..."

"In the cellar, of course!" Dayna exclaimed. "The logical place to keep a prisoner."

Tarrant gently placed a hand under the major's shoulder. "If we help you, can you show us where?"

That would take too long! Dayna strode to the door. "It can't be difficult to find."

It wasn't. The next door had a stairway winding down. Every fiber in her body tensing, Dayna softly descended the dimly lit stairs. A last bend, and she was face to face with her enemy.

Her heart beating fast, Dayna took in the picture of Servalan, bruised and chained to the wall. She jumped forward.

"Dayna," Servalan said in a strangely flat voice.

"Yes." Dayna aimed her gun. "I'm going to kill you."

"Yes."

Dayna's finger hesitated on the trigger. This was not right. It was almost as if the woman didn't care...

A sound disturbed her thoughts. Dayna turned. Someone was coming down the stairs. Before she could find somewhere to hide, a woman stepped into the cellar. Small, slim, dressed inelegantly in a heavy grey suit.

The woman eyed Dayna arrogantly. "What are you doing here?"

"I've come to kill Servalan."

"No!" The woman reached into a pocket. "We need her alive--"

Dayna fired. The woman collapsed.

"Splendid," Servalan said. "You have killed the ringleader. Without her, this pathetic uprising will fail."

"You won't be here to gloat." Dayna aimed her gun. The single shot shattered Servalan's chain. "Close your eyes!"

"What?" Servalan lowered her arms. Parts of the severed chain were still attached to her wrists.

"Close your eyes," Dayna repeated. "I want you to experience what my father felt, when you killed him!" All the pain of her loss rose up in her again. "I'll make you suffer, Servalan, before I kill you!"

- - - 3 - - -

Tarrant lowered the dying major. Damn Dayna, why couldn't she wait just for once? Rising, he scanned the room. If this was the surveillance room, there should be a map of the building somewhere. There was, pinned on the far wall. A glance at it told Tarrant the stairs to the cellar must be behind the next door. He hurried from the room.

Descending the stairs, he heard Dayna's taunting voice: "On your knees, as my father was! Keep your eyes closed! Now, can you imagine how he felt? Oh, I'll make you pay, Servalan."

Tarrant took the last steps. At the bottom lay a body of a woman dressed in an ugly grey suit. Her eyes stared into eternity while her face held a faint trace of surprise. Probably one of Servalan's retinue - he'd heard her female attendants were supposed to dress plainly in order not to outshine her.

He stepped into the room. Dayna stood before Servalan, who was on her knees, eyes closed.

"Dayna," he called. "What are you..."

Servalan's eyes shot open. Her arm lashed out. The chain hit Dayna's gun hand. The gun fell from her grip, dangling on its cord.

Tarrant let off a shot. Servalan's body convulsed, then collapsed and lay still.

Dayna cursed, rubbing her hand. "She was mine!"

"You should have taken your chance." He wasn't in the mood for a lengthily argument. "Let's get out of here."

"Wait." She moved to Servalan's body. "I want to make sure she isn't shamming."

"I hit her straight in the chest," he said. "With that charge, she must have died instantly."

"Unless her dress is armoured. Look at those ugly pearls!" Dayna gave the body a vicious kick. "Even the Sarrans have more dress sense."

Tarrant holstered his gun. "Yes, well, you can philosophise about that later." About to activate his bracelet communicator, he turned. Hurried footsteps were coming down the stairs.

"Sula," a man called. "The place is surrounded. We're trapped. What do we--"

Coming into sight, he stopped on the last step. He stared at the body at his feet. "What happened."

This must be one of the rebels, Tarrant thought. His hand went to his gun but he refrained from drawing it. "Servalan is dead."

"Stuff Servalan!" The man, a young readhead, stared at them in horror. "What about Sula?"

"Her?" Tarrant asked, indicating the grey-clad woman.

"Yes. She is - was our leader."

"She tried to stop me killing Servalan," Dayna said. "Servalan killed my father, Hal Mellanby. I had to--"

"Mellanby?" the man exclaimed. "My father fought at Hal Mellanby's side during the Uprising. Del Hob - he was killed. We heard Mellanby escaped."

"My mother died," Dayna told him.

"So many good people perished," Hob junior said. "And now it will happen all over again. Without Sula we're lost."

"How many of you are there?" Tarrant asked.

"Nearly forty in the house. Twice that number in the grounds."

Tarrant grimaced; too many to teleport to safety in a hurry.

"The troopers will crush us all," Hob shouted, his voice betraying rising panic. "We're lost!"

"Not yet!." Tarrant felt a flash of inspiration. "Come with me, to the surveillance room." He took the steps three at a time. Rushing into the room, he went straight to the communication set.

"Attention, Field Commander. This is Del Tarrant speaking, your new Supreme Commander. Withdraw from your positions. Do not attack the house. Repeat, the attack is cancelled. Leave a small party to collect the corpses, the rest of your forces will escort me and my party to Supreme Command Headquarters."

"You've gone mad," Dayna whispered.

"It won't work," Hob said.

"Oh yes, it will." Tarrant grinned. "When she took power as President, Servalan moved Supreme Command Headquarters to the Presidential Palace in the Dome - the centre of government. From SCHQ we're going to march straight into the Palace and take over the government. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. If we can establish ourselves in the seat of power with the backing of Space Command, no force in the world will be able to remove us."

Remembering Cally's remark, not long ago, about heroic rescues being embarrassing when unnecessary, he told Dayna: "Better take off our bracelets. We don't want someone panicking and bringing us up at the wrong moment."

Catching Hob's sceptical look, Tarrant clapped him heartily on the shoulder. "We'll make this revolt of yours succeed!"

- - - 4 - - -

In Liberator's sickbay Cally sat staring sombrely at the sleeping Avon. A regeneration pad, tied over his wounded eye, was doing its job. There were limits even to Liberator's advanced facilities, though - the pad would heal the burns but could not restore the destroyed optic nerves, nor provide the plastic surgery needed to make the eye presentable again. Avon would be blind in one eye, and scarred.

All for a stupid, futile revenge! Shrinker's death would not bring his victims back to life, any more than an act of retribution against Servalan would be able to revive her people.

Sighing, Cally rose. There was nothing more she could do for Avon. Sleep was the best medicine.

"Vila," she said into the wall communicator. "I want you here to keep an eye on Avon."

"I'm on watch," came the reply.

"Then get Tarrant or Dayna to take your place." THEY had agreed to Avon's crazy plan, THEY could deal with the consequences! She was going to her cabin for a long rest.

Impatiently she waited. Why did Vila always have to take so long?

"Cally?" Even the metallic distortion of the communicator couldn't hide the apprehension in Vila's voice.

"What is it?" She made no attempt to hide her annoyance.

"Tarrant and Dayna - they're not aboard."

"WHAT?"

"I think you'd better hear this from Orac. He's in the teleport room."

She strode to the room. Vila retreated to the far wall while she approached Orac.

Cally had no patience to spare. The machine seemed to grasp that, for it was more co-operative than usual. With rising fury she listened to the report.

"How long ago did you put them down, Orac?" she asked.

"One hour and twenty-one minutes ago."

"Long enough for them to get themselves into trouble," Vila said.

Cally reached for the communicator, then thought better of it. "Bring them up, Orac. Now!"

The teleport bay remained empty.

"Teleport attempt has failed," Orac announced after a pause.

"Tell us something useful!" Vila mumbled.

"Why, Orac?" Cally asked.

"They aren't wearing the bracelets?" Vila suggested.

"That seems to be the case," the machine said.

"Marvellous!" Vila commented. "They must have been taken prisoner."

"Can you get a fix on the bracelets, Orac?" Cally asked.

"They are currently in the Cabinet Room of the Presidential Palace in the Dome."

"What?" Cally began to feel very worried.

"That's where they must have brought Tarrant and Dayna," Vila said. "Right in the middle of Servalan's web."

Cally came to a decision. "Fetch me a gun, Vila."

"What? You're not going after them?"

"We have no time for discussion, Vila. Hurry!"

While he went on his errand, she moved to the bracelet rack. "Orac, is there a suitable place nearby you can put me down.?"

"The antechamber to the Cabinet Room is empty of life forms at the moment."

"Good." Cally snapped a bracelet around her wrist.

For once quick, Vila returned. "Do you think this is a good idea?"

"You go and keep an eye on Avon," Cally said, taking the gun he held out reluctantly to her. Ignoring his further protests, she fastened the gun-belt and went to stand in the teleport bay. "Ready, Orac."

The bay dissolved and she found herself in a small room, elegantly furnished but empty of people. It had two doors, one closed, the other ajar. Through the gap she could hear voices; male, suave, cultured, authoritative:

"Just because the military are prepared to accept you as Supreme Commander--"

"For which we have only your word." The voice interrupting the first held a distinct drawl.

"--does not mean, Del Tarrant," the first voice continued, "that we can accept this girl, however pretty she may be, as President."

"She's Hal Mellanby's daughter." This voice lacked the veneer of the ruling class. "We, the People's Council, accept her."

Taken aback, Cally tiptoed to the door; this sounded as if Tarrant and Dayna were engaged in a coup.

"Ah, yes, but you see -- Hob, isn't it?" the drawling voice said, "your People's Council has no legal backing. If, indeed, Servalan is dead, then her powers will convert to the High Council, of which Senator Bercol here is its most senior member."

"Secretary Rontane is right," the first voice (Bercol, Cally guessed) stated. "The fact that the late lamented Servalan appropriated the Presidency in an unlawful manner, should not be regarded as a precedent."

"Indeed not," the drawler (who had to be Rontane) agreed. "It is the High Council's prerogative to elect a new President."

"Right," Tarrant said. "You have thirty minutes to call your members together and convince them to vote for Dayna."

"I insist on unanimity."

Cally smiled to herself; Dayna's voice was full of malicious sweetness.

"This is ridiculous!" Bercol said. "Preposterous! Unprecedented!"

"My dear girl," Rontane drawled. "You have no backing, except for some Delta rabble. On whose authority do you propose to act?"

"On Blake's." Cally pushed wide the door and stepped into the room. Automatically she took in the large table with a dozen chairs round it. The five people standing in a corner turned their attention to her. Tarrant and Dayna looked pleased to see her. The other three merely looked stunned. The red-haired young man in simple grey clothes must be Hob. The others, one dark-haired and lean and the other plump and balding, had the groomed suavity of the ruling class.

"Dayna is acting on Blake's orders." Cally was never averse to adapting the truth when it served her. "She's here as his deputy, to act as Interim-President until he can take on the task himself. In the meantime he expects you to co-operate with Dayna and with Supreme Commander Tarrant."

"This is quite irregular," the lean man (the drawler, ergo Rontane) protested.

"Quite, QUITE irregular," the other (who by elimination must be Bercol) echoed.

"You'd rather be placed against a wall and used for firing practice by my RABBLE?" Hob enquired.

"Blake has both the authority and the backing," Cally said. "At this moment he is concluding his affairs on the Outer Planets..."

Seeing Tarrant open his mouth, she quickly telepathed: //Tarrant, Dayna, do not tell them Blake is missing! We must take this chance to overthrow the Federation! We'll find Blake. In the meantime pretend he's on his way.//

"He'll be here as soon as he can," Cally went on aloud. "I'm to stay here to assist Dayna. Avon and Vila are waiting aboard Liberator to fetch Blake now Phase One has been completed. I'd better tell them that things here are under control." She raised her arm, activating her bracelet communicator. "Vila, wake Avon. This is important."

- - - 5 - - -

Avon woke slowly. With awareness came the memory of his ordeal. For a moment he felt sheer terror, then he caught the familiar soft humming of Liberator's systems. So, they'd got him back on board. Well, Tarrant had SOME uses!

He felt exhausted and vaguely uncomfortable. Not in pain, but as if pain was just round the corner. He opened his eyes. Something seemed wrong with his vision - as if he was looking through a tunnel.

The harsh light made his eyes water. Impatiently he wiped the tears away and came across the pad over his left eye. Of course, Shrinker's laser probe had found its target. Must have done a thorough job.

Vila's worried face came into his view. "You're awake then?"

"An astute observation." Avon turned on his side to lean on his elbow.

"I'll get you a drink." Vila stumbled away with uncharacteristic diligence.

Avon tried to sit up. He managed it at the second attempt. Supporting his head in his hands, he waited for the dizziness to pass.

"Here," Vila said. "Vitamin solution - this will pick you up!"

Looking up, Avon brought his hand to the glass. Nearly missed it - the loss of depth perception. He'd heard about that - it was something one could adapt to.

He drank gratefully, only now realising how dry his throat had been.

"Right, Vila, tell me the worst."

"Cally says not to worry, girls like a fellow with a few scars. Or she would have said so, if she wasn't alien..."

"Yes, Vila, I get the message. Now give me the facts."

"You're sure you don't want to go back to sleep? You should rest, you know..."

"The FACTS, Vila!"

Vila activated the medical computer. "You'd better hear it from the expert."

Avon listened to the impassive voice.

"So," Vila said when the machine had finished its analysis, "you're down to one eye and will need a good plastic surgeon."

It was a fair summary of the computer's medical jargon. Avon gave Vila a sour look. "Just spare me the Travis jokes."

"Did you hear me utter one?" Vila was all righteous indignation. "Not one thought of him entered my head. Just because he was a dark-haired bastard like you... Anyway, I'm sure you'll look much better in an eye patch than he did."

Vila's prattling was strangely reassuring. As long as that went on, things were manageable. Avon held out his empty glass. "Get me some water. Iced."

While Vila complied, Avon took stock of his clothes. The prison coverall was replaced by a comfortable suit of a smooth, black material that had a wide V-shaped band in colourful glitters over the chest. Idly he wondered who had selected it - Vila probably.

"Where are we heading?" he asked when Vila handed him the drink. The others were conspicuously absent. Perhaps they'd just wanted to leave it to Vila to impart the bad news, but it was equally possible that Tarrant had made use of Avon's absence to talk them into some hair-raising enterprise.

"We're still in orbit." Vila's manner suddenly became shifty.

"Around Earth?"

"Yes."

"Why? Where are the others?"

"Remember, Avon, it's not fair to shoot the messenger."

"Vila!"

"They've gone to deal with Servalan."

"WHAT?"

"Don't blame me! Dayna had the idea to follow your example and go for a spot of revenge. Tarrant went with her. When they didn't come back Cally went down to look for them."

"Marvellous!" Of all the stupid things to do! The last thing he was fit for right now was a heroic rescue. "How long ago was this."

"Cally teleported just before you woke. According to Orac's fix their bracelets are in the Dome, in the Cabinet Room of all places, would you believe it?"

This didn't sound good. "They must have been taken prisoner."

"That's what I said." Vila nodded vigorously. "But Cally--"

He was interrupted by Cally's voice through the open channel that was relayed into the sickbay: "Vila, wake Avon. This is important."

Avon reached for the button on his couch. "This is Avon."

//Avon, Vila, don't say anything rash. Just listen and confirm.//

"Avon, you can tell Blake his plan has succeeded. Servalan is dead. Tarrant is confirmed as Supreme Commander and the High Council is about to elect Dayna as Interim-President."

Avon caught Vila's stupefied expression. Must be a mirror of his own.

"But it's important," Cally's voice went on smoothly, "that he takes up the presidency in person as soon as he can."

//You'll have to find him, Avon. We can hold the fort for a while, but our bluff won't hold indefinitely.//

"Right, Cally," Avon spoke into the communicator, "we've got the message."

"Tell him to leave his projects on the Outer Planets. He's needed here."

"Confirmed." Avon felt as if in a dream.

"Out." A click announced her breaking off the connection.

"You got that?" Avon asked.

Vila nodded. "Does it mean they not only killed Servalan but took over her power?"

"Apparently." Avon was trying to sort the facts in his mind. "It was foolish of Servalan to leave the position of Supreme Commander vacant."

"She didn't want anyone else to hold that position," Vila observed. "So she combined the job with the presidency."

"Yes, but it left the position ready for someone else to step into."

Vila shrugged. "Tarrant's welcome to it. As long as he has the whole of the Space Fleet to bully around he won't bother with me. But what are we going to do about Blake?"

"Find him."

"But we spent three months searching for him, and Jenna! Every rumour Orac caught has led to nothing."

"So we'll have to search harder." Avon slung his legs over the side of his couch, then had to hold on to it as his world began to spin. Grimacing, he waited for the dizziness to subside. No way was he going to make it to the flight deck. "Fetch Orac."

By the time Vila placed the machine on the couch, Avon had regained his equilibrium. "Orac, I want you to find Blake."

"That task has already wasted more of my resources than can be considered reasonable."

"And it is going to occupy all your resources until you find him!" Avon was in no mood for discussions. "You must have caught some more messages - more rumours of his life..."

"Rumours galore, but none of them can be true, because --"

"Then try Jenna," Avon cut off the protest. "She may know where Blake is. See if you can find her location."

The answer came so quick Orac must have had the information ready. "A recent increase in space traffic, together with signs of smuggling activity, centred on the planet Pipa in the seventh sector, indicates the employment of a capable and daring pilot. Since the Andromedan War severely diminished the availability of spacecraft and pilots, chances are the pilot in question is Jenna Stannis." "All right, Orac," Avon said. "Instruct Zen to set course for Pipa, at the fastest possible speed without draining the energy banks."

"I have done what you asked," Orac said.

"Flight time?"

"Six days, one hour and forty-seven minutes."

Avon grimaced. He hoped that would be long enough for him to recuperate.

- - - 6 - - -

"Gemma."

She frowned on recognising the man walking towards her through the departure gate leading to her spacecraft. What had Rosco been to the ship for? The case of dried limbex glands she would smuggle to Corazon along with the legitimate cargo of machinery, had already been stowed away safely. The Corazoni, who used the glands in a virility-enhancing potion, were prepared to pay a fortune for them. The hunt for the Limbex, a kind of gazelle native only to Pipa and impossible to breed in captivity, had severely endangered the species. Prohibition of its capture and trade had driven up the price of its glands and made it a profitable commodity for smugglers.

Jenna wasn't concerned about the fate of the limbex population. They were for the chop anyway; if she refused the trade, Rosco would find someone else to do it.

"Rosco, what the matter?" she asked when they had come eye to eye. He was short and overweight, nearly bursting out of his shiny brown suit embroidered with the small seahorse-like creatures that were Pipa's national emblem.

"A change of plan." He had a rasping voice. "You've got two passengers, I've just taken them to the ship."

"But the Silver Lily is a freighter," she said. "She's not allowed to carry passengers."

"They're listed as Second Pilot and Navigator. You know the Lily's flight deck is equipped for three. It's all above board."

"I bet it is!"

"They need to go to Corazon in a hurry. The next passenger flight isn't until next week. I'm doing them a favour."

"For a large fee, no doubt."

"You'll get your share." He gave her the kind of smile she resented. "Don't worry, Gemma, they're civilised men. It will be nice for you to have company for a change. You must get lonely, on those long trips on your own."

"Not at all." In fact she found it soothing.

Her gaze fell on a bulge in the chest of his suit. An oblong form, about ten by fifteen centimetres. "What have you got there?"

"That's none of your business!"

But she knew what it must be. "It's the case with the glands. You took them away!"

"Not so loud." He took her by the arm, casting a nervous glance over her shoulder.

She turned. The gate was empty, as was to be expected. This bare, functional tube only led to the Silver Lily.

"I think those men are undercover custom agents," Rosco whispered. "That's why I took the consignment away."

He must have done it right under their eyes; no-one could accuse Rosco of a lack of audacity. She smiled grimly to herself - he was the founder and chairman of the 'Save the Limbex Trust', the reason his ship had not been under Custom scrutiny before.

"You think they're on to you at last?"

"No, I think they're suspecting YOU." His smile was sickly sweet. "So let them search the ship and find nothing."

"And what am I to say to your agent on Corazon?"

"He'll get the consignment on the next delivery. I'll send him a message, in code, of course."

"All right." It all sounded plausible enough. "I suppose I'll survive four days cooped up with a couple of custom officers in disguise."

"That's my girl." He patted her on the cheek, making her long to whack him squarely in the face. While she was still contemplating this pleasant prospect, he hurried away, disappearing through the exit to the spaceport.

She resumed her way thoughtfully. Maybe it was time to look for another job. Since the Andromedan War, pilots were in great demand. But she wouldn't find another spacecraft like the Silver Lily. Through the transparent construction material of the tube she could see the ship. Its name was aptly chosen - with its small cockpit atop six tapering holds the craft was reminiscent of a flower. It was one of the few ships to come out of the War unscathed. She suspected it had not been in it at all. Rosco claimed he'd bought the craft after the War, but she wouldn't put it past him to have conjured it away when all spacecraft were commissioned to fight off the Andromedans and fabricating some false purchase papers when it was safe for the craft to reappear.

The end of the tube gave on to the Lily's air lock. She entered the lock and closed the outer door. Waiting for the system to complete the sealing procedure, before which the inner door could not be opened, she took a look through the small window into the craft. The air lock gave straight onto the flight deck. From where she stood, she could only see a pair of booted feet resting up on a console. Their occupant must be lounging in the navigator's seat. A hand came into her view, holding her special bottle of Vilurian Delight.

A click announcing the unlocking of the door, she pushed it open and stormed onto the deck. "Give me that wine! What do you--"

She nearly dropped the bottle seized from his hand. "Vila!"

He grinned at her. "Hello, Jenna. We thought it was time to drop by."

"How did you find me?"

"Orac did," a familiar voice behind her said. "It wasn't too difficult."

She turned, getting another shock at the sight of the eye patch on the arrogant face. "Avon. What happened to your eye?"

"A miscalculation. We've got no time for irrelevancies, Jenna. Do you know where Blake is? We need to find him."

"Why?" she asked, taken aback by the urgency in his voice. "Are you so desperate to stab him in the back?"

"He's needed on Earth, Jenna," Vila said. "The revolution's started but Cally reckons we need Blake to pull it through."

The pain of life's bloody irony stinging her heart, she listened to his tale.

In full swing, Vila began to traverse the tiny space behind the three flight deck seats. "And so you see-- Ouch!" He hopped on one leg, then bent down. "Stupid place to dump a cylinder. You should keep a tidier ship, Jenna."

"I do keep a tidy ship." Pushing Vila out of the way, she looked at the offending object. It was black, cylindrical, about twelve centimetres long. She was sure she'd never seen it before. Picking it up, she noticed a timer attached to the end that had been out of sight. While she watched the count went down to 17, then 16...

"It's a bomb," Vila exclaimed.

"Get it out!" Avon shouted.

Jenna ran to the airlock. The inner door was still open. She tossed in the cylinder. On her heels, Avon pushed the door shut.

"Will it hold?" Vila asked.

"We're about to find out," Avon said.

"Rosco!" Jenna breathed. She was going to make him pay for this!

No explosion came. Jenna let out her breath. Then through the window she saw a diffuse mist rise inside the airlock. Very quickly it filled the place, fogging up the window.

"It was a gas cylinder," Avon said.

Jenna went to check the reading on her console. "Meta-zygmitholon. That kills in seconds."

"I hope that seal is tight," Vila observed.

"Of course it is," Avon said. "The ship wouldn't be space-worthy otherwise.

Jenna clenched her fists. "But why?"

"Attention, Silver Lily," a voice came from the open channel. "This is the police. We know who you are, criminals wanted by the Federation. We've surrounded your ship. Come out one at a time, with your hands above your heads."

"There's your answer," Avon said.

"Rosco must have recognised you," Jenna reasoned.

"Or he recognised you when you applied for the job," Vila said, "and waited to see whether any of your friends would turn up, so he could hand us in all together and treble his bounty. We've got a million Credits apiece on our heads, remember."

"But he didn't want me to fall into their hands alive." Jenna now saw the scheme with glittering clarity. "He wouldn't expect me to keep quiet about his affairs. I know enough to get him a life sentence on a penal colony."

"Makes sense," Vila remarked. "Dead or alive, the Wanted-posters say. He'll get the bounty for our capture anyway."

"You have three minutes," the voice warned. "Then we'll open fire on the ship."

"Give her a bracelet, Vila," Avon said. While she took it, he activated his communicator. "Orac--"

"Wait." Jenna strode to the main pilot console. Frantically she began to type a sting of codes into the computer.

"Stand by to bring us up, Orac," Avon instructed.

Her heart bleeding for the beautiful ship, Jenna pressed the 'execute' button, then activated the speaker to the open channel. "This is the Silver Lily. I've set the self destruct. The ship will go up in four minutes. You'd better evacuate the place quickly!" She turned to Avon. "Ready."

"Now, Orac," he said.

Nothing happened. Jenna was aware of the seconds ticking away.

"Orac!" Avon thundered.

"'Now' is not an instruction."

"Get us up, you useless machine!" Vila shouted.

"Teleport, Orac," Avon said through clenched teeth.

The Lily's cramped flight deck dissolved and Jenna stood in Liberator's teleport bay.

"Zen," Avon shouted, running to the flight deck. "Execute standby course. Maximum speed."

Jenna followed him, Vila bringing up the rear. Automatically she went to her old position. Sitting down at the main pilot's console, she quickly checked that Zen was executing the instruction.

"Jenna," Avon said, "do you know where Blake is?"

Ignoring the pain in her heart the question brought, she eyed him coolly. It was his fault she lost her ship; she might as well extract payment while she had the chance. "What's in it for me?"

His lips parting in a slight smile, he nodded at her position. "Your old place at Liberator?"

She knew it was the best offer she would get. "All right."

"Glad to have you back," Vila said. "Your successor wasn't exactly a success."

Anger about someone else at the helm of Liberator struggled with curiosity. "You found another pilot?"

"Yes, but he's currently engaged elsewhere," Avon replied.

"Appointed himself Supreme Commander," Vila said. "They'll probably kick him out at the first opportunity."

"Where is Blake, Jenna?" Avon asked.

She drew a deep breath. "Blake is dead. He died four months ago on Jevron."

- - - 7 - - -

For a moment Avon's world threatened to black out. He pulled himself together. It should not hurt. The lack of any trace should have prepared him for this.

"You're sure?" he heard Vila ask.

Jenna nodded. "I saw his dead body, and his cremation."

"What happened to him?" Avon asked, forcing the words from his mouth.

"His capsule was picked up by a ship bound for Jevron--"

"Of course!" Suddenly Avon saw the misunderstanding: "It was Jevron, not Epheron!"

"What do you mean?" Jenna asked.

"When I regained control of Liberator," he remembered the tense situation with Clegg's death squad, "Zen reported that Blake's last voice transmission indicated he was on his way to Epheron."

"But that's in the Lauritol system," Jenna exclaimed. "Nowhere near Jevron!"

"Yes," Avon said. "The transmission must have been unclear."

"You mean Blake said Jevron but Zen picked it up as Epheron," Vila clarified.

"It seems a logical explanation." Avon smiled grimly at the irony. "We've been searching in the wrong place right from the start."

Vila gave Zen's fascia a dismal stare. "I've always said computers are useless!"

"Anyway, the ship got attacked and Blake was severely wounded," Jenna continued her story. "The ship managed to limp into its home port and Blake was taken to a hospital but he died of his wounds."

"How did you find him?" Vila asked.

"Purely by coincidence. I was picked up by a cargo carrier bound for Morphennial. It was an old, slow ship and we didn't make much progress. Then we got attacked. In that tub we stood no chance. I managed to get into a life capsule but in the chaos I lost my bracelet. I was picked up by a rescue ship - the same ship that had picked up Blake, they'd patched it up and sent it out again. Quite by chance a member of the crew mentioned they'd had the famous Blake on the previous trip. As soon as we landed, I went to the hospital, but I was too late." She reached under the bodice of her red-and-gold flight suit. "I spoke with the doctor who attended him. She gave me this."

Avon recognised the object. It was the silver medallion Blake had worn, complete with its black thong.

He turned to Orac. "Why did you miss this, Orac?"

"I did not miss it. You were asking for rumours of Blake's LIFE. Besides," the machine went on while Avon fought the urge to smash its light-bulbs one by one, "I was about to tell you why the rumours could not be true, when you interrupted me."

"You should recycle him, Avon," Vila said. "He must have SOME useful parts."

"What are we going to do now?" Jenna asked.

Avon had already considered that. "We implement the contingency plan."

"What contingency plan?" Vila asked. "You didn't tell me you had one."

Avon gave him a cordial smile. "I didn't want to worry you."

As expected, that served to get Vila truly worried. With satisfaction Avon saw his face drop.

"What is the contingency plan, Avon?" Jenna asked.

"If we can't have Blake, his clone will have to do."

"Clone?" Vila echoed. "What clone?"

"What do you know that WE don't, Avon?" Jenna's face was full of suspicion.

"You remember that mysterious message we received, right after the IMIPAK fiasco?"

"You mean from the woman, Rashel she said her name was," Jenna confirmed.

"All she said," Vila cut in, "was that she would guard the weapon and Servalan was no longer a threat because she was marked too."

"Not much of a reassurance," Avon said. "That whole fiasco seemed an odd kind of trap, so I had Orac do some research. It found that shortly before Coser made his escape, Servalan had ordered two clones of Blake from the Clone Masters. One of the clones was killed by Travis, the other was sent to Coser's refuge. The idea was that Coser would want to hand over the IMIPAK weapon to the man he thought was Blake."

Vila looked sceptical. "This was all in the files? Just like that?"

"Of course not. Orac found an order for the release to the clone masters of a sample of Blake's DNA. Another file contained the mandate, signed by Servalan, for payment to the Clone Masters for two identical specimens. And Orac managed to intercept part of a message from a psycho-therapist commissioned by Servalan to set up the trap. He warns her that Travis will become unstable now he's killed the Blake clone. Put together, all this can lead to only one conclusion."

"You mean there's another Blake out there?" Vila said. "Why didn't you tell Blake he had a twin?"

Avon treated him to a supercilious smile. "He'd have wanted to pick him up. One Blake on Liberator was quite enough."

"Could have been worse," Vila mumbled. "Servalan could have landed us with a clone of YOU!"

"You think the surviving Blake clone is still there, on the planet, Avon?" Jenna asked.

"It seems unlikely he and the woman got the chance to leave," he pointed out.

"So all we have to do is go to the planet and pick them up," Vila said brightly. Then his face fell. "We can't go there, Avon. You're marked by that IMIPAK thing. All they have to do to kill you is press the trigger."

"That's what they think. I'm no longer at risk." Avon gave him a disdainful stare. "You don't imagine I'd be prepared to live under such a threat for the rest of my life? As soon as we'd left that planet I made the medical computer do a check. It found some of my body cells were destabilised - 'an unstable molecular potential' is the technical term. It was only a small spot, presumably the place where I was hit, and nothing vital was affected. I had the regenerator remove the affected cells and replace them with healthy ones. The operation needed only a local anaesthetic and took less than five minutes."

"And you didn't tell Blake and Gan?" Jenna's eyes blazed at him. "You let them carry on with the affliction, thinking there was nothing they could do about it?"

Folding his arms, Avon leant back in his seat, savouring the moment. It was a long time since he'd managed to cause so much annoyance in such a short time. "Well now, all they had to do was ask."

He saw no need to tell them that, in fact, he had provoked Blake into asking. Blake and Gan had wasted no time taking the treatment. It wasn't his concern if Blake had omitted to set the minds of his followers at rest.

Avon consulted his console. "Zen, set course for the planet Desolation." That was the name the Federation personnel of the abandoned base had given the planet, according to Zen's databanks.

"You're forgetting something," Jenna said. "The proximity mines orbiting the planet."

"Yeah." Vila visibly paled at the recollection. "They nearly blew us out of the sky last time."

Avon wasn't worried. "They're too small to do much damage. We'll approach at low speed, so Zen's sensors can spot them. You're better stay aboard to deal with emergencies, though, Jenna. Vila can come with me to the surface."

"Oh no!" Vila shook his head. "I'm not going. I absolutely, categorically refuse! No need trying to make me change my mind. I'm NOT going! That is final!"

- - - 8 - - -

The sharp tones of the alarm penetrated Rashel's sleep. Reluctantly she rose from the makeshift bed. It was in one of the storerooms - the living quarters they'd shared were now out of bounds.

Her body hurt; she had to force her tired legs into motion. The skirt of her slim black dress no longer fitted over her swollen belly. She'd been forced to let out the side seams. Now the loose front and back parts were flapping against her legs at every painful step she took.

On abandoning the planet, the Federation had left some rations but nothing that could be used as clothes. She'd tried to use the local long grass stems for weaving, but after a while the fabric rotted away, causing a dismal stench. So they had to make do with the clothes they stood in.

She checked the location of the alarm. He had built a clever system, putting a string of detectors around the complex. The disturbance came from the path leading to the main building. She picked up the IMIPAK gun, never far from her reach, and fingered the trigger box in her pocket. Leaving by a backdoor, she made her way to the path, keeping in the shadow of the buildings.

There they were. Two men. The bleak sunlight was reflected off the silver tunic of the first man. The other was dressed in a plain, russet jacket. Her heart missed a beat. The man in the front was wearing an eye patch! This must be the one who had been with the evil woman who'd tried to kill them. Rashel took the trigger from her pocket and pressed the button.

The man walked on, cautious but steady.

This must be a different man, then. A different patch too, she now saw. This one was fastened with strings round the head, not glued on like the other's.

But she couldn't take any risks. Trying to still her trembling arms, Rashel aimed the gun. She would mark them before confronting them.

The first one was easy, she saw an orange dot flash up on his chest. Unaware, he walked on. His companion was more difficult to hit. Moving furtively, he kept on the other's heels, partly covered by him from where she stood. Only when they had passed her did she get a clear aim. Her dizziness worsened and she found it difficult to focus. At last she managed to hit him.

Clutching the gun under her arm, she took the trigger box into both hands. "Stop!"

They halted, looked around, then changed course and began to approach her.

"Stop," she repeated. "You are both marked. If I press this button, you'll die."

The second man stopped. The first moved on, steadily nearing. There were only twenty metres between them, fifteen, twelve...

"Stand still!" she shouted. "I don't want to kill you but I will."

He walked on. Step after step. Ten metres, eight, seven, six...

Rashel pressed the trigger.

- - - 9 - - -

Realising he was still there - and Avon was still walking on - Vila heaved a sigh of relief. Another of Avon's gadgets had actually worked! Onto his gun belt was clipped a device that was creating a small force field round his body. Avon was wearing another. The force fields had absorbed the IMIPAK beam, preventing it from making contact with their bodies.

He hurried to Avon, who was taking the IMIPAK gun and trigger box from the dumbstruck woman. She was not much to look at. Unkempt, worn and bloated. Her hair hung in thick, dirty strands from her head, as if it hadn't been washed for a long time. Beads of sweat were glistering on her face.

"Take this!" Vila found the gun thrust into his hands. Avon dropped the trigger box into his pocket, then took the unresisting woman by the wrist. "Where's Blake? Take us to him!"

She listlessly waved her free hand at what must be the main building.

"You first," Avon told her. He held her in front of him like a shield. Vila understood his move - if the clone was lying in wait, he wouldn't be able to shoot Avon without hitting the woman.

Carefully keeping behind Avon's back, Vila followed them inside. He was caught by a pungent smell. It nearly made him gag. The woman led them through a corridor. At the far end a soft light came from an open door. The smell was getting worse. Vila had to hold his free hand over his nose.

The woman stopped at the doorway. Avon pushed her through, then followed, his gun poised. Suddenly he halted and cursed. Nearly bumping in to him, Vila took a look over Avon's shoulder.

The light was enough to show the form of a man lying on a bunk. The mass of curls was still recognisable, but the face...

Realising what the stench meant, Vila turned and ran, gagging. Outside, he was thoroughly sick.

"Vila!" Turning, he saw Avon had followed him out, dragging the woman along. She hung limp in his arms. Must have fainted. Vila couldn't blame her.

"Give me a bracelet," Avon said.

Vila stared at him. "You're not planning to take HIM up?"

"No, her."

Well, he supposed not even Avon could be callous enough to leave the woman behind. Vila extracted a bracelet from his pocket. Placing down the gun, he clamped the bracelet over the woman's wrist.

"Don't forget the gun," Avon said.

Vila picked it up. Awkwardly supporting the woman, Avon said into his bracelet: "Three to come up, Jenna."

The next moment they were back aboard Liberator.

"What happened?" Jenna asked, rising from behind the console. "Did you find him?"

"He's dead," Vila told her. "Dead and decomposing."

"Help me get the woman to the sickbay," Avon said.

Reluctantly, Vila took the woman's legs. "This isn't doing my back any good, you know."

Jenna went with them. "How did he die?"

"In his bed, by the look of it," Vila said, panting.

"Maybe from the same illness the woman is suffering from," Avon suggested.

"She looks far gone," Jenna commented, holding open the door.

"Yes," Avon said, "but we might be able to save the child."

"Child, what child?" Vila asked, straining to help lift the woman onto the medical couch.

"Look at her bulging waist." Avon took a scanner and held it over the woman. "She must be pregnant. If we can't have Blake OR his clone, his child might do."

"You're crazy!" Vila stared at him incredulously. "Don't you know children take time to grow? We can't afford the waiting!"

"The child may serve as figurehead." Avon addressed the medical computer: "Diagnose."

"The patient is in a terminal state of paratoxidomoxis."

"What's that?" Vila asked.

"An illness caused by the ingestion of water polluted with the droppings of the mutated brown rat."

"Their water supply must have been contaminated," Avon observed.

"Can it be treated?" Jenna asked the computer.

"In the initial stage, yes. This patient is beyond recovery."

"What about the child?" Avon asked.

"The question is not clear."

"The child in her womb," Avon said. "The foetus."

"The patient is not pregnant. The bloating of the abdomen is caused by the paratoxidomoxis."

Vila felt vaguely relieved; it wasn't hard to guess who'd have been pressed into changing the nappies.

Suddenly he was hit by a disquieting thought: "What about us? Are we infected by this paro-what's-its-name?"

"You didn't drink any water down there, did you?" Avon said.

"No, but it might be contagious." Vila now felt thoroughly worried. "I've touched her - suppose I caught her germs."

"The infection can only be caught by the ingestion of polluted water," the medical computer stated in its dispassionate voice.

"That's all right, then." But he didn't feel all that reassured. "Maybe I should take a scan..."

"Shut up," Jenna said, her eyes on the woman. "I think this is the end."

Uneasily, Vila looked on while the woman's breathing became weaker until, very soon, it stopped.

"Life is extinct," the medical computer pronounced.

- - - 10 - - -

Touched by the woman's quiet demise, Jenna turned to Avon. "What are we going to do with the body?"

"Return it to the planet." His voice sounded even harsher than usual.

She frowned. "Shouldn't we give her a decent burial or cremation. And him too?" She realised she was carefully avoiding to use the clone's name.

"I'm not going back there!" Vila backed away from them in alarm. "I'm not going to touch that corpse. If you want to bury him, you can do it yourself!"

"I suggest we teleport her down," Avon said, "then make Zen obliterate the area."

"Seems a waste," Vila mumbled, apparently hit by a new thought. "We could sell him to the Federation and cash the bounty. They wouldn't be able to tell it isn't the real Blake, would they?"

Jenna could hardly believe her ears.

"You'd want to SELL his corpse?"

He lowered his eyes. "Well, the Wanted-posters say 'dead or alive', don't they? It seems a waste to destroy a million Credit corpse."

Avon turned from putting the scanner away to stare at Vila. "He has a point."

"What?" Jenna flared at him.

"I don't propose we try to sell the clone's body," Avon said. "What I mean is, why didn't the Jevroni claim the bounty for the real Blake's body?"

Jenna's outrage subsided. "Because they're decent people?"

"So they didn't shop him while he was alive," Avon said. "But what difference would the manner of the disposal of his body make? Even if they're secret supporters of the rebellion, the selling of Blake's corpse could have provided a nice sum for the good cause."

She saw his point. "Blake would have appreciated the irony."

"And why," Vila joined in, "cremate the body, destroying the possibility of a later claim?"

"Maybe," Jenna suggested, "the Jevroni didn't trust the Federation to pay up."

Avon strode to the medical unit's exit. "Let's consult Orac."

For once Vila was quick to follow him. Jenna cast a last, sad look at the dead woman, then she went after them.

When she reached the flight deck, Avon had already activated the computer. "Orac, see if you can tap into the Jevroni central administration computer and find out who signed Blake's death certificate."

The machine buzzed, then spoke: "The death certificate is signed by a doctor Phareen."

Jenna recognised the name. "That's the doctor I spoke with at the hospital. She gave me his medallion."

Avon nodded. "The Federation might be able to cheat an unimportant Delta out of the bounty money, but not a Doctor at a reputable hospital. They would have had to pay up. Now, the only logical assumption to draw from that is that they didn't have Blake's body to sell."

"You mean he could still be alive?" Vila exclaimed.

The glimmer of hope that had risen in Jenna died out almost at once. "But that's impossible! I saw a viscast of the cremation. The doctor told me they routinely make one in the case of the death of a foreigner, to show to the relatives." Again she could hear the woman's soft, caring voice: "To help them come to terms with their loss."

She found Avon's face close to hers, his one eye burning into hers. "But did you see his body being burnt?"

"No, the coffin was closed when it was conveyed on a belt into the oven, along with a row of others." Jenna refused to let hope take hold of her again. "But the viscast also showed his body being enshrouded, and laid into the coffin. It was Blake, definitely!"

Avon turned back to the computer. "Orac, see what you can find about the cremation procedure on Jevron. Would it have been possible to fake someone's cremation?"

The reply came at once. "For someone in possession of a death certificate, certainly. In fact," Orac now sounded smug, "I have ascertained that on the relevant day, an irregularity has indeed taken place at the Holbain City crematorium, that serves the hospital Blake was transferred to."

"We're listening, Orac," Avon said.

"According to the files, 33 bodies were brought in for disposal that day. The cremation is done by a special process, that uses a set amount of energy to bring a body into combustion. Once the burning has started, the body's own components will keep it burning..."

"Orac," Vila said, "spare us the details, will you."

"Since the energy needed for the initial combustion is the same for each body," Orac continued, "it is possible to calculate the number of disposed bodies by the amount of energy spent. I have accessed the relevant data. Although on the date in question 33 bodies have been registered as having been brought in for cremation, the quantity of energy used indicate that only 32 disposals have taken place."

"One corpse too few," Jenna whispered.

"I said he couldn't be dead," Vila remarked.

"No, you didn't," Avon said.

"Well, not out loud, maybe, but--"

"Shut up," Jenna told him.

Face set in sulking, Vila dropped down on the couch.

"Aren't any checks made, Orac?" Avon asked.

"According to the procedure, a copy of the death certificate must be delivered with each corpse."

On his couch, Vila frowned. "You mean they're still working with PAPERS?"

"Many offices do," Jenna said. She had come across it often in her dealings with customs. "Computerisation does have its drawbacks, not the least that the merest power failure brings down the whole system. And computer files are far more open to manipulation than papers. So on many worlds a form of paper is still used for official documents."

"These copies," Orac went on, "are collected and brought to the office, while the bodies are placed on the conveyor belt."

"So, presumably," Avon said, "it is possible for someone to add a death certificate copy to the pile in the office without delivering an accompanying corpse."

"That is my conjecture."

Jenna could believe it. "As long as the cremation fees are paid and their amount tallies with the number of certificates, I bet nobody will bother to count the coffins."

Vila jumped up from the couch. "So the cremation could have been a sham."

At last Jenna dared to let her hopes flare up. "And Blake could still be alive."

Avon nodded. "I think it's time for a serious talk with this doctor Phareen."

"You think she's behind it?" Jenna recalled the woman's quiet sympathy. "I can't believe that."

"She provided the death certificate," Avon said. "And that seems to be the only existing piece of hard evidence for Blake's death. They can have shammed the enshrouding and filmed a random coffin to show to the grieving followers."

Jenna shook her head. "But she was so kind, so SINCERE!"

Vila scowled. "She's a doctor, isn't she? They're able to tell you with a straight face not to worry, you're fine - while knowing you're at death's door!"

"Orac, does this doctor have a speciality?" Avon asked.

"She is listed as an orthopaedist, specialising in spinal injuries."

"Good." Avon gave the machine a brief smile. "Hack into the hospital computer and book me an appointment - in the name of Chevron."

"Do you want me to come with you?" Jenna asked him.

"Better not. I imagine I'll be able to deal with her on my own."

Jenna looked at his face set in grim determination. "I don't doubt it."

- - - 11 - - -

Through the partly open door Avon could hear a woman's voice. "What do you mean I've got another patient? I'm finished for the day."

"He's registered in the central computer, doctor." This was the voice of the pretty girl who had showed him into the waiting room.

"This is inconvenient," the doctor said. "You know I want to be home in time." An audible sigh. "All right, show him in."

The girl did so, smiling apologetically at Avon. He heard the door being closed behind him.

Doctor Phareen was a small, plain woman. Probably in her early forties, Avon estimated. Her mousy brown hair was cut short and she wore no makeup. Her handshake was firm, though.

She waved at a chair in front of the large desk that was empty but for a computer. "Sit down, mister..."

"Chevron." Avon remained standing.

The doctor hesitated for a second, then sat down at her desk. Behind her attitude of brisk professionalism she seemed tense.

"I'm an orthopaedist, mister Chevron." She eyed his eye patch. "You may be more in need of an oculist or plastic surgeon."

"Oh, it's you I want, doctor." Avon leaned over the desk. "I'm looking for an acquaintance of mine. His trail ends here."

"As the hospital serving the spaceport, we get many foreigners here." Her face and voice changed to gentle sympathy. "What's his name?"

"Blake. Roj Blake."

"The famous revolutionary." She jumped up. "I know who you are. Kerr Avon, one of his followers on the Liberator. The eye patch threw me."

"It has been recently acquired." Avon was about to refute the notion that he was anyone's FOLLOWER, but shrugged it off. Let the woman think what she liked.

"Do you want me to find you a doctor?"

"That has no priority right now. Finding Blake has!"

She took his hands. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Blake was here, but he died. His woman came a few months ago. I gave her his only possession, the medallion he wore when he was brought in here." Her grey eyes, staring into his, were full of sympathy. "We made a viscast of his cremation. I can arrange for you to watch it."

"Don't bother!" Avon pulled his hands free and took her by the wrists. "We both know the cremation was a fake! Now where is Blake?"

"Please, not so loud." She swallowed. "You are right, we feigned the cremation."

Avon let go of her wrists. "Why?"

She rubbed her left wrist. "Me and my friends, we're secret supporters of the resistance movement. When Blake was brought in, we feared someone would warn the Federation. The bounty money is a temptation. So we decided to arrange his death. And it worked. By the time rumours of Blake's whereabouts reached the Federation, it was all over. The president herself came, and we showed her the viscast. She wasn't suspicious."

The doctor must have put on a good bit of acting, Avon reflected. But then, she'd managed to hoodwink Jenna also!

"Why didn't you tell his woman?"

"That was what Blake wanted. No-one must know. Otherwise, it would all have been for nothing."

Very sensible, but not like Blake. One would have expected him to want to set the minds of at least Cally and Jenna at rest. "Where is he now?"

"I don't know."

"I don't believe you."

"It's the truth. He was hiding in my house, recuperating from his wounds. My friends were arranging an escape route for him. Then, one day when I came home from my work, I found him gone. He'd left a note thanking me, and telling me that he'd arranged his own getaway."

"Did he tell you how?"

"No. The note said it was better I knew nothing about his plans." She snorted. "Some gratitude, considering I risked my career and reputation for him, not to mention a jail sentence, signing a false death certificate!"

"So you have no idea where he went?"

"Earth. I'm sure he was planning to go to Earth. His mind was full of that."

It would have been. Avon remembered Blake's outburst when they were discussing enlisting the help of the Terra Nostra: 'Earth is all I care about!'

"What about your friends, doctor? Could they have helped him behind your back?" "No, they were as angered by his initiative as I was."

"Do you know of anyone else who might have helped him? Someone he could have met at your place?"

"No, he was to keep in hiding when anyone called."

But Blake never did what he was told. Avon sighed. It was clear this woman could not help them any further. "Thank you, doctor."

She looked uneasy. "You won't betray me - about the death certificate?"

"No. You have my word." He smiled at her. "There was a clone of Blake on the loose. He'd dead now, and his body has been vaporised. If Blake ever does resurface as himself, we can say it was the clone you made the death certificate out for, in good faith."

She gave a deep sigh in apparent relief. "Thank you." She moved to hold the door open for him. "My assistant will escort you out."

"Thank you, but I can find the exit by myself." It wouldn't be expedient to attract suspicion by teleporting up under the assistant's pretty eyes!

"I'm sorry, mister Chevron, it's standard procedure after consulting hours." Well, he thought, stepping from the room, at least she'd remembered to use his assumed name.

The assistant was apologetic too. "Nothing personal," she assured him, while briskly escorting him through the hospital's spacious corridors. "It's just that we've had a spate of thefts lately. You won't believe what things get nicked: stethoscopes, bedpans, scanners, a few months back even a whole life support unit got missing! I mean, what would a layman want with a stethoscope?"

Probably someone of the staff doing some side trading, Avon thought idly. With relief he saw they'd reached the exit. He thanked the assistant and left the building. Jevron's hot, humid climate fell on him like a wet blanket. The few people about took no notice of him. Avon quickly turned the corner of the building. Seeing the alley deserted, he asked for teleport.

"Well?" Jenna asked as soon as he had rematerialised.

Vila eagerly rose from the teleport console. "Did she tell you where he is?"

"She doesn't know." He quickly put them in the picture.

When he'd finished, Jenna asked: "How do we set about finding him?"

"We return to Earth, following the most direct route. On the way we'll stop off at the appropriate places to see if we can find any trace of Blake."

"And if we can't?" Vila asked.

"Then we'll consult Cally." Avon was clutching at straws now. "Maybe she will be able to pick up a vibe about him."

- - - 12 - - -

Still fuming, Tarrant entered his private chambers in the Dome's Space Command Headquarters. Those blasted Fleet Wardens! Never mind they lost eighty percent of their fleet, they were still eager to go out and play soldiers with the remainder! He'd have to find something to occupy them soon...

He slammed the door shut, then stopped in his tracks. Vila was lounging in a chair with a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. Avon, wearing an eye patch, sat at the small desk, working the computer.

It was the last straw in a tiring day. Tarrant strode to the computer and switched it off, then went to retrieve the bottle. "What are you doing here?" he asked, snatching the bottle and glass from Vila's hands.

"That's no way to treat a guest," Vila protested. "You shouldn't keep this excellent stuff to yourself."

"It's called Head-basher." Tarrant eyed the level of the bottle. "You'll soon find out why." He turned to Avon, who swivelled his chair away from the computer, looking quite unabashed. "Have you found Blake?"

"No. The last confirmed sighting we have of him was on Jevron. We have reason to believe he set out for Earth, but we haven't been able to pick up his trail." Avon sounded tired. "How are things here?"

"Manageable, if only just."

"You mean they haven't kicked you out yet?" Vila said.

Tarrant ignored him. "The Fleet Wardens are eager for action."

"That's what they're trained for," Avon remarked. "Though one would expect them to be still licking their wounds from fighting off the Andromedans."

"Not them! I'll have to find something to do for them quickly, otherwise they may decide to overthrow the interim government just for exercise!"

"Then you'd better give them some action," Avon said.

Tarrant glared at him. "What do you suggest? I start a small war?"

"Why not send them out searching for Blake?" Vila said.

Tarrant felt the familiar irritation. "As stupid suggestions go, that one is in a class all by its own, Vila!"

"Just because the idea isn't yours--"

"It IS a stupid suggestion," Avon said. "So shut up, Vila!"

"Seriously," Tarrant told Avon over Vila's muttered protests, "we'll have to find them a suitable project."

"What about sending them on some major manoeuvres?"

Tarrant shook his head. "They'll have to have some kind of target. Something big to hunt down..." His voice trailed off as an idea formed in his mind. "Terminal, that might do!"

"What?" Avon asked.

"Don't tell me you've never heard of Terminal? It was an experimental artificial planet, created some four Centuries ago. Originally positioned beyond Mars, it got slung out of orbit and vanished. It's supposed to have broken up, but some large chunks must be still be drifting somewhere." The more he thought about it, the more viable the project seemed to become. "Terminal is the ideal target for a locate-and-destroy mission."

- - - 13 - - -

Dayna had equipped the smallest of her set of rooms in the President's suite as her workshop. She liked to retreat there and work on her inventions. She shared the rest of the suite with Cally, but each respected the other's privacy.

She was trying to get an especially tricky circuit into place when she caught a familiar sound coming from the main room. Quickly she lay down the chip and left her workshop, carefully closing the door behind her.

"Avon! Vila!" Watching their forms solidify, she was surprised to find that she was actually glad to see them.

"Hello, Dayna." Vila immediately made a beeline for the most comfortable chair around. Avon remained standing.

"You look better than the last time I saw you, Avon," Dayna observed. "The eye patch suits you." For a moment she thought to detect a glimmer of cold amusement in the one, dark eye. "Have you found Blake?"

"Not yet."

"How are you enjoying being Interim-President, Dayna?" Vila asked, his gaze roving over the spacious, richly furnished room.

"It's great. Everyone does what I tell them and I can leave all the boring work to Cally, my Special Advisor." She grinned. "Oh, I know I only got the position because they won't accept an alien as Earth's President, even Interim. So Cally does all the hard work and I get the credit."

"But you're too young for idleness," Vila said, casting her an engaging smile. "I could take over if you want."

"Who says I've been idle?" Now she felt obliged to defend herself. "I've been touring the academies, making an inventory of the state of affairs in the world of science. You know, quite a lot of the older scientists remember my father. They spoke very well of--"

She broke off at the buzzing of the doorbell. Taking a peek at the intercom camera, she sighed. "It's that bore, Jarriere - Rontane's messenger boy."

"He must not see us," Avon said. "Nobody knows we've returned and I want to keep it that way."

Seeing him head for the workshop door, she quickly guided him to the door of her bedroom. "You can hide in there." She didn't want them in her workshop, not with the amount of explosives stocked there; Vila might accidentally set something off!

When they'd softly closed the door behind them, she went to open the main door.

Jarriere stood holding a thin file. "The Space Command update, Ma'am."

As usual his lovesick-puppy-gaze managed to irritate her. "Couldn't it have waited until tomorrow?"

The rebuke caused a sheen of hurt in his adoring eyes.

"Oh, all right." Dayna took the papers from him. He managed to brush her hand in the process. "Good night." She stifled the urge to slam the door in his face. Instead, she pushed him gently from the doorstep. "See you in the morning, Jarriere." She firmly closed the door. The file she dropped onto a settee; Cally could take a look at it tomorrow.

"It's all right," she said, opening the bedroom door. "The idiot has gone."

"Idiot?" Vila asked.

"Jarriere, the new Presidential Private Secretary. He's absolutely useless! Why Rontane has ever engaged him is beyond me."

"I think I know the name," Avon said.

"Secretary Rontane, he's the Head of the Civil Service," Dayna explained.

"No, I mean Jarriere. He's Dame Jarriere's son, isn't he?"

Dayna shrugged. "I wouldn't know, but whoever she is, she has my sympathy."

"Dame Jarriere was quite a personality in her days," Avon said. "She must be in her seventies now, but I wouldn't be surprised if she's as powerful and influential as ever. The sort one crosses at one's peril. Rumours go even Servalan didn't dare to thwart her."

"What's so special about her?" Vila asked.

Dayna sat down in the chair earlier vacated by Vila. She wasn't in the least interested but realised she was going to hear it anyway.

"Nobody knows. She's never held office, but is supposed to have exercised a lot of influence on the Federation's affairs in the background. She has all the right connections." Avon seemed slightly amused. "Dame Jarriere has a reputation for shrewdness. She also suffers from an overdose of single-minded stubbornness, and a blindness to the limit of her son's capabilities. She's been trying to find him a suitable position ever since he got kicked out of the medical profession for blotching too many operations. If Rontane found himself confronted by the choice of employing Jarriere or facing the Dame's wrath, one can't really blame him for choosing the first option."

"Messenger boy to Rontane, that doesn't sound like much of career," Vila observed.

"No." Avon began to look pensive. "She must have an ulterior motive. Perhaps it's an attempt to manoeuvre him into a position from where he can grab the Presidency."

"Just let him try!" Dayna laughed, relishing the prospect. "I can push him over with one hand tied behind my back!"

- - - 14 - - -

Cally looked at her drawing. No, it wasn't right. The scene was as she remembered, the perspective and colours absolutely correct, yet the picture lacked life. Listlessly she began to put her pencils back in their case. It was no use, Auron was dead and she was unable to resurrect even its atmosphere.

"Cally." The voice was only half penetrating her occupied mind.

"What is it?"

"Well, it looks like a door. And it's closed."

"Avon!" She jumped up, only now recognising the voice. Hurriedly she unlocked the door and let him in. The sight of his eye patch brought back the memory of that dreadful moment, when Tarrant and Dayna had brought him up from the cell.

//You look tired.//

He gave her a brief smile. "You didn't give me much time to recuperate."

"Are you alone?"

"Vila's returned to Liberator, he felt a headache coming on."

"I mean, have you found Blake?"

"No, we have a trail but it's gone cold." He walked over to the table. His movements were sure and he didn't bump into anything, she noticed. He must have adapted quickly to the loss of perspective, but then he would. "We did find Jenna."

"That is good." She felt her despondency lift a bit. "Where is she?"

"On Liberator, being distinctly unsympathetic to Vila at the moment, I would guess." Avon picked up the drawing.

"A sketch of a place I used to know," she felt obliged to explain.

"Auron," he said, putting the paper down again.

"Yes, Auron. And it's pointless to think about it. I'll never see it again."

"That's why you've been locking yourself away in here?"

"That's why." She shrugged, trying to rid herself of her depression. "I'm all right."

She found his hand on her arm. "No, you're not. But you will be. Regret is part of being alive. But keep it a small part."

"As you do?" she challenged.

Another smile, this time with a hint of self-mockery. "Demonstrably."

He led her to the enormous, disgustingly ornate sofa that stood against the wall. She had been avoiding touching it, up to now. Dayna relished using Servalan's furnishings but Cally found the idea unpleasant. For her own use she'd selected some simple pieces of furniture from what must have been a servant's room. The only reason the sofa was still there was that it had proved to be too heavy to remove.

He sat down at the other end of the sofa, leaving room between them for at least two more people. "Tell me about the situation here."

Grateful for the distraction, she obliged.

"It's a delicate balance. We're dealing with five factions now, apart from the military. The only reason we haven't had any bloodshed yet between them, is that they're about equally strong. The rebel groups on Earth have accepted Dayna as their representative, mainly on the strength of her father's reputation. She also has gained the backing of the academists and scientists, some of whom have worked with her father. They hated Servalan because of her habit of executing scientists who failed to meet her demands, and are grateful to Dayna for ridding them of her."

"Presumably they also expect Dayna to be open to their demands for a larger budget and more freedom of research," Avon said dryly.

Cally nodded, continuing: "The only thing the hopelessly divided rebel groups of the other Planets agree on, is that they won't accept Dayna."

"I'd have expected them to go for independence," Avon said.

"They can't afford it, now the War has destroyed most of their resources. They demanded a place for each and every one of them on the Council. I made clear that was impossible. They have now crystallised into two groups, each with their own representative. They're both old acquaintances."

He raised his eyebrows. "They are?"

"Avalon is one of them"

"Ah, the poor but honest idealist," Avon commented. "I suppose she was the choice of those rebel groups she worked for?"

"Yes, and she's been active on quite a few planets." Cally gave him a wary smile. "The others have chosen Del Grant."

"Who charges them for the privilege, no doubt," Avon mumbled.

"A complication is that Avalon and Grant can't stand each other," she continued. "Grant's patronising manner riles Avalon. She also despises him for being, as she calls him, a mercenary and opportunist. Grant retaliates by calling Avalon a mindless idealist and political lightweight not fit to serve on the Council."

"A rather inaccurate assessment," Avon said. "As idealists go, Avalon has shown more common sense than most."

Cally smiled to herself. During Avalon's stay on Liberator Avon had studiously kept himself out of their conversations. Apparently that had not prevented him from taking his measure of her. "Yes, she has a practical and even-handed approach to problems, which is something we sorely need in the Council."

"What about the other factions?" Avon asked.

"They are both representing the establishment. One consists of the members of the former government, led by Senator Bercol. Servalan's purges haven't left too many of them alive."

"And we can assume the survivors to have also been on her death list." Avon observed. "They must be all too aware that her timely demise was their salvation."

"Exactly," Cally agreed. "For that reason they're willing to give the revolution a chance, and are more supportive than expected. The same goes for the last faction, the Civil Service, under Secretary Rontane. Of course they're supposed to be loyal to whatever government is in power, but I suspect they could make the running of the Federation very difficult, if they'd choose."

"Oh yes," Avon said. "They are masters at CREATIVE OBSTRUCTION." He leaned back, stretching his booted legs. "Presumably they consider any regime to be better than Servalan's. I know Bercol by reputation. He's considered a survivor, and the fact that he's pledged allegiance to the revolution must mean that he considers you to be the winning side. I imagine the same goes for Rontane."

"Survivors indeed," Cally said. "Did you know that both Bercol and Rontane nearly died in Blake's attack on Space Command HQ? They were attending Travis's trial. The only reason they weren't caught in the attack was that they were late when the court reconvened for the sentencing. Just then, the voice print recorder broke down and the guard refused to let them into the Courtroom. I gather they were still arguing it out with the guard when the attack took place. All those in the Courtroom died."

"Except for Travis," Avon said. "It's ironic, isn't it? If Blake had chosen another target, Travis would have been sentenced and neatly executed by his own superiors."

Cally felt in no mood for a game of what-might-have-been. "Personally, I'd prefer to send them both to Cygnus Alpha, but they're too powerful and influential to ignore. The only way to keep them on our side is to give them a role in the new government."

"A very practical decision. With their support, and that of Space Command, you may pull it through even without Blake."

"No, Avon." Cally knew her limitations. "We NEED Blake. Dayna is too young and inexperienced. I'm hardly tolerated, being an alien. Tarrant has trouble keeping the Commanders in check..."

"I spoke with Tarrant. That problem is solved, for the immediate future."

"Even so, we can't hold on to power indefinitely." Cally fought her despair. "If Blake doesn't come soon, Bercol will take over with the help of his chum Rontane. Then it will be back to the old regime - oppression, intimidation, machination."

Avon held up his hands. "I get the picture, Cally."

"We need Blake," she repeated.

Avon rose. "That's why I'm here, in the hope that you will be able to help locate him."

He began to walk up and down the room, telling her of their actions.

She listened attentively. It seemed they had left no stone unturned in their quest.

"So he must be stranded somewhere between here and Jevron," Avon finished.

"No," Cally said. "If he'd been on his way, he would have turned up by now. It's more than four months since his alleged death, isn't it? And rumours of the situation on Earth must be flying through space by now. If he was free, he would have come forward."

She rested her head in her hands, concentrating hard. "I feel he must be... he IS still tied to Jevron. It's there we have to search for him."

Avon rubbed his hands in thought. "Well, logically the fact we can't find any trace of him anywhere else makes it plausible he's still on the planet."

"That doctor," Cally said, trying to bring her hunch into focus. "She may know more than she told you."

He frowned. "She sounded sincere."

"She also sounded sincere to Jenna." Cally now felt certain of her hunch. "But that was a pack of lies. Her second story could be equally false."

"If she fooled Jenna," Avon said, and Cally saw him accept the logic, "she may also have fooled me. You're right, Cally, we need to visit the doctor again! Not at the hospital, where she can cry for help. Orac can find out where she lives. We'll go and see her at her home, when she's alone. And this time I'll get the truth out of her!"

"I'll come with you," Cally offered. "I may be able to gauge whether she's lying."

"Can you be missed here?"

"For a while." She took her teleport bracelet from her pocket.

"Then come." Avon's hand went to the communicator button on his bracelet.

While clasping the bracelet round her slender wrist, Cally telepathed: //Dayna, Tarrant, listen! I'm going with Avon to find Blake. Carry on as if nothing has happened. I'll be back as soon as I can.// She turned to Avon. "Ready."

"Bring us up, Orac," he said.

Within a second she found herself on Liberator. Orac was buzzing away on the teleport console. Nothing seemed changed since she had so hurriedly left, weeks before.

But something HAD changed: Jenna was back. Cally went to the flight deck, eager to greet her.

- - - 15 - - -

The clock was ticking away the seconds with relentless regularity. It was an old-fashioned clock, circular with large dials and clear numbers on the face. She'd hung it so he couldn't avoid looking at it. A fine piece of torture. As were the two calendars, at each side of the clock. They too were of the old fashioned kind, blocks of papers -- they liked things traditional on Jevron. One calendar denoted the Earth year, the other the Jevron cycle. The letters on both were large enough for him to read. Each morning she would tear off a page from the calendars, occasionally skipping the Earth one to synchronise the shorter Jevron day again with the standard Earth time. It was the first thing she did when she came to tend to him.

Not able even to clench his fists, he fumed in frustrated rage. He longed to shout out his frustration, but even that relief was denied him. Each morning she treated him to a dose of mutovapour, that affected his vocal cords, reducing his voice to a whisper. Each dose lasted exactly twenty four hours. She was very meticulous, a conscientious doctor for her patients. And Blake was her pet patient. She tended to him, cuddled him, and kept him paralysed, attached to this life support machine.

His most ardent admirer, she called herself, intent on keeping him safe from the world.

He was in a back room off her living room. She kept the blinds on the single window closed all the time. From the fact that the sounds of passers by seemed to float up to him very faintly, he deduced he must be in one of the upper stories of a flat. He'd asked her once how she'd managed to get him and the life support machine in without anyone noticing. She'd replied the building was attached to the hospital, to provide the staff homes near their work. It was served by the hospital lifts, and she'd transferred him during the dead of the night. Blake had been sedated, he'd fallen asleep in the hospital and woken up in this room.

More than four Earth months he was lying here now, helpless, paralysed, at her mercy. Hating her, yet worrying when she was late coming home, fretting that something had happened to her and he would be left here unattended to die.

He'd been convinced the others would find him. Avon, Cally, Jenna, Vila, they couldn't all have died. Then one day she had returned from her work and told him his woman had been to enquire after him. He'd gathered she meant Jenna. She had taken great pleasure in describing in detail how she'd hoodwinked Jenna, convincing her of his death.

Refusing to give in to despondency, he'd set his hopes on Avon. Surely he'd not fall for the sham of his cremation.

Avon had not. Two weeks ago she'd told him how Avon had come to her surgery and accused her of faking his death. Gloating, she reported how she'd switched to what she referred to as Plan B, convincing Avon that Blake had left the planet for an unknown destination. Blake could hardly believe that Avon had fallen for it, but obviously he had. Now only Cally was left to pin his hopes on - if she was still alive. Vila would be too idle to go looking for him. If Vila had survived the war, he'd either be clinging on to Avon, reasoning this would be his best guarantee for an easy life, or he'd gone back to his former life of thief and lock-picker.

Blake smiled grimly to himself. Vila might even be in jail again, caught red-handed while emptying someone's safe.

At least he now knew that Avon and Jenna were alive. The doctor had mentioned a curious detail: Avon had been wearing an eye patch. What could have happened to him? Or had it been just a clumsy attempt at disguise? No, Avon would have made a better job of that...

He tensed on hearing the front door being unlocked. Then he heard her enter the living room and put away her things. All familiar sounds, he'd got used to the sequence. Right on cue she entered his room.

He suffered her ministrations in silence, the cleaning, feeding, all the messiness. When that was over she would sit at his bedside, talking to him or reading. His lack of response seemed not to deter her.

She had just settled into reading him a nauseating romantic lovestory of the kind he detested, when the doorbell rang. This was an exceptional occurrence; she never had any friends or relatives visiting. Blake doubted she possessed any.

Putting down her book, she rose from her chair. "I won't be long. Don't run away." Giggling at her joke she left the room, closing the door. It was only a flimsy door and Blake was able to hear her answer the front door.

Indistinct sounds, then familiar voices.

"This time we want the truth, doctor!"

"Yeah, the TRUTH!"

"The WHOLE truth."

"I'm from Auron. I can feel it when you lie!"

His heart leaped. Avon, Vila, Jenna, Cally. He tried to call, but his whisper didn't reach beyond the room.

Avon and Cally took up the questioning. Blake listened to it in grim satisfaction. They were a good team, driving his tormentor into the corner with cold efficiency.

Yes, she'd been lying, doctor Phareen confessed. Yes, she knew where Blake was. He'd been severely wounded, was convalescing at a secret place, outside the town.

This must be Plan C. She probably had them prepared all up to Plan Z. The lies came out glibly but convincingly. She held out for just the right time before agreeing to take them to his hideout. What an accomplished liar she was!

They couldn't fall for it. Not again...

They did.

Helplessly he heard them accept her offer.

DON'T! IT'S A TRAP! All he could manage was a pitiful whisper.

They couldn't leave him here! He had to warn them.

Desperately he tried to think of a way to make a noise. If only he could move an arm, a leg! He could sweep the vase of flowers from the bedside table. But his muscles refused to obey his thoughts. What then? He tried to whistle. In vain, the air passed his lips silently.

His heart sank. No, he refused to give in! There must be SOMETHING he could do... Wait a minute! The life support machine must be equipped with all kind of sensors. If he held his breath for long enough, it might set off an alarm.

He took a deep breath and held it. The dial on the clock seemed to slow down as he counted the seconds. One minute, one-and-a-half, two... He had to let go of his breath. Again he tried. In the other room the visitors seemed only to be waiting for the doctor to put on her shoes and raincoat.

His lungs were beginning to burn. Red blotches appeared before his eyes. With desperate determination he persisted.

The sudden din was ear-piercing. On the brink of passing out, Blake let out his breath.

The door was kicked open.

"What the HELL..."

//Blake.//

Avon and Cally appeared in his view, guns drawn. Jenna and Vila followed.

"Blake," Jenna exclaimed.

"Don't touch him," the doctor shrieked. She stormed in, throwing herself on him. Avon's hand came down hard on her neck and she slid to the floor.

Blake gave him a hard stare. "You took your time getting me out of this mess."

Avon raised his eyebrows. He wore the eye patch with style, some part of Blake's mind noticed irrationally. But then, Avon could wear anything with style.

"What makes you think we'd want to have you back, Blake?" But the harsh voice couldn't quite hide Avon's emotion.

Jenna gently lifted his wrist and clasped a bracelet round it. "Let's get you up to Liberator."

"No, Jenna." Cally placed a hand on her arm, arresting the motion to contact the ship. "We don't know if he'll be able to stand the teleport stress."

"I will," Blake whispered. "There's nothing wrong with me - it's her treatment that keeps me paralysed. When that weans off I'll be fine."

"You don't know that!" That was Vila, of course - ever prepared for the worst!

"You'd better be right, Blake," Jenna said.

"We need you on Earth," Cally remarked, adding silently: //Alive.//

Vila nodded. "That's right, Blake. The presidency's waiting for you. While you've been letting yourself be pampered here, we have done your job for you and brought down the Federation."

"Actually," Avon said, "Cally did that, while Vila lay snoring."

"Snoring?" Vila flared up. "I was wide awake, keeping an eye on you. Someone had to, to prevent you from doing something stupid and losing your other eye too."

"Avon," Blake whispered, doggedly concentrating on the thing in hand. "Take me up."

Seeing Avon hesitate, Blake gave him his most commanding stare.

The one dark eye in the unreadable face stared back.

Blake held his gaze.

At last Avon turned to the others. "Cally, Jenna, you go up first. Get a trolley and the necessary equipment to the teleport room, so we can rush him to the sickbay if necessary."

"Thank you," Blake said. It came from the bottom of his heart. They all knew it was for more than just getting him up to Liberator.

Vila airily waved a hand. "It was nothing."

"You have seven days to get fit, Blake," Avon told him. Suddenly a glimmer of humour shone in his eye. "That's one more than I had."

- - - 16 - - -

Jarriere sat admiring Dayna's profile. From his place at her side, he had a perfect view on it. How gorgeous she looked. Ah, she was so different from the other women he knew! He had not yet managed to make a date with her, but that made her all the more desirable.

Rontane, seated at his other side, leaned over to him: "Have you switched on the tape?"

"Yes." Jarriere again checked the recording equipment. As the Interim-President's Private Secretary, it was his task to make sure the minutes were taken properly. Rontane had told him that in the ancient times all what was said had to be written down by hand. Jarriere thought that difficult to believe - surely nobody was able to write that fast. But maybe the Councillors talked slower in those times.

Dayna opened the meeting. They were seven, seated around the large round table in the Cabinet Room. Dayna was presiding, with Jarriere at her right side, then Secretary Rontane and Bercol, the smug ex-Senator. Cally's place, at Dayna's other side, was empty again. Her absence was conspicuous because until a fortnight ago the Auron had been present at all meetings.

Avalon was in the next seat, then Grant. Tarrant closed the circle, seated as he was right opposite Dayna, between Grant and Bercol.

Initially, Rontane had objected to Tarrant's presence, stating that traditionally the Supreme Commander had no seat in the High Council. Dayna had told him bluntly things had changed, in case he hadn't noticed. Rontane had been quite put out, to Jarriere's delight. He didn't like the way Rontane was forever telling him what to do.

Bercol cleared his throat. "Are we going to get," he enquired smoothly, "an explanation for the prolonged absence of the Interim-President's Special Advisor?"

"No," Dayna said.

"With respect, Interim President," Rontane drawled, "this may lead to wild speculations."

"Then it is your task, Secretary," Avalon observed sweetly, "to allay them."

"I think we should be more concerned about BLAKE's prolonged absence," Grant remarked. "For more than six weeks now we've been told his arrival is imminent."

"He'll come when he's ready," Dayna said.

"I think it's time," Grant continued, "to face the possibility that Blake will NOT return. We should start considering other suitable contenders for the presidency."

"With yourself as prime candidate, presumably," Tarrant said, nastily.

"Never!" Avalon said. "My people wont accept a mercenary."

"Mine won't accept YOU," Grant shouted. "We've SEEN the disastrous consequences of a woman as President!"

Jarriere looked at Dayna. She was eyeing Grant as if she was about to challenge him to a duel.

"You'd better watch your words, Grant," Tarrant warned.

Grant turned in his chair to face him. "You keep out of this! Space Command has no say in the affairs of state. Especially not when led by a deserter!"

"I know what's niggling you," Tarrant replied. "You're jealous because you didn't make it into the Federation Space Academy! You can't stand the fact that I'm Officer material and you are not. Every time you see me it hits you harder, doesn't it? I'm younger than you, faster, better. I've made a success of my life. But you? I've heard about your failure on Albian. You couldn't prevent the Federation priming their bomb, could you? If it wasn't for Avon, your corpse would be rotting somewhere on Albian's polar region."

"Corpses don't rot in polar conditions," Jarriere mumbled. "They get frozen."

Nobody took any notice. Grant's head had gone red. He was shouting at the top of his voice, vituperating Tarrant. Avalon came to Tarrant's defence. Tarrant threw in a few more taunts. Bercol observed that this was what happened when one allowed the rabble onto the High Council. Rontane's calls for order were drowned in the din.

Jarriere sat enthralled; he liked a good shouting match, especially one that didn't involve him. This job might turn out to be entertaining after all.

Dayna roared for silence.

The fracas went on.

Dayna tossed a small cube onto the table. It landed at the centre, causing a flash and crackle.

"That was one of my inventions," Dayna said into the sudden silence. She produced a small, cylindrical object not unlike a laser probe. "This is another. When I aim this and press the button, it will spray a whiff of mutovapour onto the target. As its name implies, mutovapour affects the voice. A dose of this is enough to render a person mute for six hours."

Jarriere stared at her in deep admiration. What a woman!

Dayna regaled her audience to a broad, ominous smile. "I will use this on anyone who keeps on talking when I call for silence. Now, each member gets two minutes speaking time."

Bercol flapped his hands in protest. "That's preposterous! Unheard of."

"With all due respect, Interim-President," Rontane said, "this is no proper way to conduct a meeting."

"It is MY way," Dayna told him. Her dark eyes targeted Grant. "And I don't want to hear any more comments about female presidents."

Grant squared his shoulders. "Two minutes is more than enough for what I have to say..."

Jarriere sat up - what was that noise?

The others seemed not to hear it.

"You promised us Blake," Grant went on. "So where is he? WHERE IS BLAKE?"

"Here," a new voice said.

Jarriere stared at the corner of the room, where a white fog had appeared, rapidly consolidating into five people. So this was how a teleport manifestation went. Amazing!

He recognised the man in the centre. Blake looked older and thinner than when he had appeared on the Federation viscasts to renounce his opposition, but the distinctive face and dark curls were unmistakable. Flanking him stood two other men, very close to him as if they were discreetly supporting him. One, dressed in black and silver, had dark hair and an eye patch covering part of his arrogant face. The other was smaller and fairer, with a shifty manner. Cally and another woman formed the outer flanks. Jarriere studied the strange woman with curiosity. He prided himself on having an eye for female beauty, and this blonde was a smasher. Not that she could compete with Dayna, of course...

Blake stepped forward. "Avalon, Grant, good to see you." To the others he said: "I'm Blake. You may have heard of me."

Jarriere felt an irrational urge to burst out laughing.

- - - 17 - - -

"Now that's not fair, Blake," Vila protested. "I've always wanted to be Vice-President. I think the job would suit me."

"Exquisitely," Avon said. "Lots of perks and no work involved."

Vila glared at him. "I bet he's not going to make you Governor of the Federation Banking Cartel."

They were facing Blake over his large desk in the President's Office Room. Elected President by the High Council, Blake had spent the past week composing his government. Vila had been kicking his heels, impatiently waiting for his appointment.

"Well, Blake?" Avon said.

"I'm sorry, Avon. Your criminal record rules you out for a government post, as does Vila's. I can't begin my tenure by breaking the rules."

"Those rules don't seem to apply to Jenna," Avon observed. "I understand you appointed her Minister for Trade and Transport."

"Jenna was convicted for helping the revolution, providing weapons to rebel organisations."

"Ah, is that how you choose to interpret her smuggling activities." Avon produced a cold smile. "And you've given the Foreign Office to Cally. Isn't there a rule banning Aliens from holding government posts?"

"No, there isn't," Blake said. "And who would be better suited to negotiate with aliens than an alien? As I told Bercol and Rontane, this makes Cally the ideal Foreign Secretary."

"They must have been dumbstruck by your mastery of logic," Avon mumbled.

Vila tried to visualise the scene; he wished he'd been present. Idly he wondered how long it would take Blake's new team to realise that arguing with him was no use; they'd end up doing what he told them anyway.

"I heard you made Bercol Chancellor of the Exchequer." Avon's voice held the careful neutrality that managed to convey a load of meaning.

"I need his support."

"Yes, it's a sensible move. It shows the old members that you intend to be..." Avon gave a mocking smile, "REASONABLE and are not going to subject them to mob rule. I take it you decided to keep on Rontane as Head of the Civil Service for the same reason."

"Yes."

Vila wasn't interested in what perks the others got. "But what about me?" Blake leant back in his large chair. "As I said, the President can't appoint criminals in Government posts."

"Depending on your definition of the word criminal," Avon said.

"Yeah," Vila was quick to agree. "I'd say the previous regime was full of them!"

"CONVICTED criminals," Blake corrected. Suddenly he grinned. "But there are no restrictions on who he can appoint as his Special Advisors."

"Special Advisor..." Vila tasted the words on his tongue. It sounded good - very important. "I like that."

"Does it carry a fee?" Avon asked.

"It does," Blake said, "for services rendered."

Vila's elation shattered like a soap bubble. "You mean we'll have to WORK?"

"Blake seems to be under the impression you might be capable of work, Vila." Before he could react, Avon addressed Blake: "What about Liberator?"

"It is yours."

"Ours," Vila said. "I have as much right to it as he has, Blake."

"I'm sure Avon will be glad of your company, Vila"

Unsure whether he was being taken, Vila stared from Blake's beaming features to Avon's inscrutable mien.

"Orac?" Avon enquired.

"Orac is mine." Blake was serious now. "I need him here."

"Good," Vila commented. "I'll be glad to see the back of that useless heap of spare parts!"

"Orac has already unearthed some important information.," Blake said. "He has found that Servalan has been siphoning away large sums of money. Unfortunately, Orac has not been able to find where they went."

"I've always said he overrated himself," Vila mumbled.

"She must have laundered the money into bank accounts on neutral planets," Avon said. "Most of their computing systems don't use Tarrial cells."

"Exactly." Blake nodded. "And that's where you come in, Avon. I want you to find those accounts and retrieve the money."

Vila turned to look at Avon, who sat very still. "Must be lots of money."

"Huge sums," Blake affirmed. "Millions of Credits."

"Well now," Avon said slowly, "I might want to take up the challenge - for half the amount retrieved."

Blake shook his head. "Out of the question!"

Avon's smile was nasty. "Now you've put the idea to me, I could go and rob her accounts and keep all the money."

"I'm on," Vila said, adding quickly: "You'll need me to open the safes for you, Avon."

"Five percent," Blake said.

"Twenty five," Avon demanded.

"Ten," Blake offered.

"And another ten for me," Vila said quickly. He wasn't going to depend on Avon's generosity.

"Fifteen percent," Avon said. "Ten for me and five for Vila."

"Now that's not fair," Vila began. But his voice trailed off. He knew he wouldn't get a better deal. Besides, once inside a bank he could always do some private pilfering.

Blake held Avon's gaze. "All right, fifteen percent."

Vila suddenly knew this had been his target all along; Blake knew exactly how to handle Avon.

"We won't be able to do it without Orac, Blake," Avon said. "We need him to operate the teleport. It will be inconvenient if we can only leave the ship one at a time."

Blake shook his head with an air of decisiveness. "I'm sure you'll be able to build a remote control - or to reprogram Zen to do the job." He stood. Vila found himself automatically following his example.

Avon remained seated. "Even if Orac can't penetrate the banking systems, I may need it for other purposes."

"We will instruct Orac to contact Liberator at set times. You can tell him what you want him to do, and he can send you the data." Blake walked to the door.

"All right." Avon rose.

"When will you leave?" Blake asked, holding open the door.

"At once." Vila was eager to start on the money hunt.

"We'll wait for the inauguration ceremony," Avon said. "After all the trouble we had finding you, Blake, I want to see you being sworn in as President."

Inauguration ceremony, that sounded like a party. Bound to be lots of drinks. Vila grinned. "Yeah, we wouldn't want to miss that, Blake!"

- - - 18 - - -

Silently Avon slipped from the conference hall. Blake's inauguration was as boring as he'd feared. The ceremony itself, with Bercol as longest serving member of the High Council taking the oath from the new President, had been gratifyingly brief but the congratulatory speeches were set to take up the whole afternoon.

"Avon," came a whisper from behind him.

He stopped and turned, seeing Vila hurry through the corridor to catch up with him.

"I saw you leave," Vila said, while they walked on briskly. "Don't fancy the waffle either, do you?"

"No, but I thought it would appeal to you, as you're such an expert at it."

"Oh, thanks!" But Vila's indignation didn't sound real. "I'm going to the kitchens. They should be empty, the staff are all at the ceremony. They say the President ousted by Servalan was something of a connoisseur. He must have kept a well filled cellar. I doubt Servalan can have drunk it all, and good wine's wasted on Blake." An endearing smile appeared on his face. "We could move some of the crates to Liberator."

"Why not." Avon had his own plan; it would serve him to have Vila occupied elsewhere. "I take it you have your remote teleport control with you?"

"Of course I have. And my 'bag of tricks'." Vila dangled some tools in his pocket. "They say the place is kept locked." He snorted. "That won't be a problem."

"No." Avon wished he would move on.

"He was supposed to be a lover of ice cream too." Vila winked at him. "Kept a freezer full of the stuff, they say. Servalan won't have touched it - the only thing she hungered for was power. Why don't you come and take your pick?"

"Well now, I just might." There would be time for that, after he'd finished his intention. Avon made a vague gesture at the door of a nearby convenience. "You go on ahead, Vila. There's something I have to do first."

Vila grinned. "Right ho."

With relief Avon saw him head off purposefully into the direction of the kitchens. As soon as he had turned the corner, Avon tiptoed along the palace's corridors until he reached the door to the president's suite. This was also locked, but on an earlier visit Avon had made a note of the combination. He punched in the code, slipped inside, closed the door behind him and went straight to the machine buzzing away on a side table.

"Orac."

"What is it?"

"Your usual amiable self, I hear. I have a task for you, Orac. A task you will not discuss with anyone but me." His revenge on Shrinker had lifted part of the guilt about Anna's death from his shoulders. For the first time since the fateful day he set out to buy the exit visas, he'd been able to think with a clear mind about the events leading up to the disaster. And they did not add up! Somewhere, something was missing; a vital clue he was determined to find.

"Orac," Avon said, "I want you to hack into Central Security's main computer. Crack the codes and penetrate the files. I want you to find everything about the investigation into my banking fraud."

"Are you looking for something particular?"

"Yes. I want to find the name of the person who betrayed me." He thought he'd been meticulously careful. But someone must have got wind of what he'd been up to, someone who had then alerted Security.

"I want you to find that person, Orac. Find me the name!"

- - - the end of part one - - -


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