Absence of InformationBy Victoria Martin
Dayna was aware of the pain in her head before she was even aware of being conscious. It started off as a whisper, somewhere out on the edges of the blackness, but as the blackness behind her eyes became redness and she realised that she had eyes, had eyelids, and that the redness was light shining through those eyelids, the whisper grew to a roar that threatened to blot out everything else. Maybe if she turned her head that would silence it. No! No, that had been a serious mistake. She wondered if she was going to throw up. She hoped not; if just turning her head made the roar that loud, she couldn't bear to think what throwing up might do to it. Maybe if she lay still and closed her eyes - oh, they were alreSady closed. It must be a very bright light out there, to shine so redly through her closed eyes - and now she could hear voices, just beyond the roar. Except that the roar wasn't actually noise, not the sort of noise that comes in through the ears, so if she concentrated, she could hear the voices properly. They were men's voices, uncaringly loud.
"Which one is he, then?"
"I dunno, he must be in here somewhere. There, in the corner, the one in black"
Feet tramped heavily across the floor, passing close by Dayna's head, then one of the men grunted "Bastard!" and there was the sound of a boot colliding with something soft.
"Wasting your time, he's out like a light."
"Oh great, have we got to drag him all the way to the shuttle, then? Here, you take that arm over your shoulder and I'll take this one. Ready? And heave! I hope he wakes up before Splitz leaves, I owe him one."
"I wouldn't worry, he'll get more than that where he's going." The voice was malicious, full of violence, and as the sound of feet started up once again, slower and heavier now, Dayna finally found her perceptions linking up to make a coherent thought.
Ignoring the roar, she struggled to her feet. The blood pounded wildly in her ears and nausea gripped her, but she managed to mutter "No!" and stumble forward. By the door the troopers paused and turned their heads towards her. "Don't you worry about him, girlie," one of them said, "He ain't worth it." They stepped through and the door clanged behind them. "No!" Dayna shouted, "No! No!" and then she had somehow reached the door and was banging her fists against it, screaming more wildly than the blood pounding through her head, louder than the terrible roar in her ears, "Avon! Avon! No! Nooooooo!"
"There's no point," a voice said quietly, when she finally collapsed at the foot of the door, her breath coming in great tearing sobs. It was a very quiet voice, but she heard it in spite of the noises of her own body, her gasping breath, her racing blood and the roar. She heard it because it was inexpressibly familiar.
He was sitting against the far wall. No, sitting was too active a word. He was propped against the far wall, not even quite upright. Now that the door had shut again the cell was dingy, but there was light enough to see that his face was unnaturally pale, except where it was dark with blood and bruises, and his arm was dangling in his lap at a sickening angle.
"You're alive! Oh, Tarrant!" She half ran, half crawled across the room and slumped down next to him. "The others?"
"No." His breathing was ragged and painful; he looked as if he would have liked to sound comforting but lacked the energy even to try. "I think they're dead. I saw them go down. If they were alive, they'd have been dumped in here with the rest of us."
Dayna shifted her attention away from him long enough to take in her surroundings. There were about a dozen people in the room, some lying on the floor, some sitting against the wall. Several of them were injured, although none of them, as far as she could make out, as badly as Tarrant. He was right, it seemed to be some sort of holding cell for the survivors. With an effort of will she stamped on the thought of Soolin and Vila. They were beyond help.
"Avon! We have to do something!"
"We can't. It was always him they wanted, Dayna. Not us. They'll have him halfway to earth by now."
"May he rot there."
It was a man who had spoken, a thin fairish man with a worried face at odds with his venemous tone.
"Deva -," began Tarrant, but Dayna interrupted.
"Halfway to earth in ten minutes? Don't exaggerate, Tarrant. Halfway to the shuttle maybe. There's still time to stop them!"
"Oh come on, you know me. You've even seen one of these babies before." For a moment Dayna fished inside her mouth, as if she had bitten the inside of her cheek and was anxious to assess the extent of the damage, then her fingers re-emerged with a small white chip gleaming between her forefinger and thumb. "Tooth bomb!" She grinned triumphantly and scrambled to her feet, headache forgotten in the rush of adrenaline. "Who else is coming?"
Everyone, it seemed. Galvanised by this display of enthusiasm, the little band of rebels was also struggling up, casting occasional questioning glances at Deva, who strode over to her.
"What's your plan, exactly?"
"Simple. I blow the door off, then when the guards turn up to see what's happened we grab their weapons and make for that shuttle they mentioned. Do you know where that'll be?"
Deva nodded. "There's a clearing not far from here. I heard something coming over an hour or two ago, and that's the only landing spot within walking distance." He saw her expression and added "Look, you can trust me. The Federation have wiped us out, this is my last chance to do any damage, and anyway, if anyone is going to torture your friend Avon to death, I want it to be me. Okay?"
"Okay. Stand clear of the door, please..."
In that confined space, the explosion was hugely impressive. A few of the rebels clutched their ears complainingly, whilst the more enterprising scuttled through the gap behind Dayna and Deva. The guards really should have been better prepared, but they were tired after the exigencies of the day - carrying out a massacre takes less physical energy than tidying up afterwards, but it knocks you out emotionally, especially if it isn't entirely one-sided. Dayna had jumped the first one before he even reached the wreck of the door and the rest were mown down in a spray of laser beams from what had been his gun.
Deva stared at the wreckage in astonishment. "That should never have worked - let that be a lesson to you all, never be at home to Captain Complacency."
"It's just a saying. Never mind. The exit is this way - you lot, get yourselves armed and follow me."
It didn't take long for the sorry remainder of Blake's rebel force to strip the troopers of all the weaponry they could find, but it was long enough for Tarrant to ease himself to his feet and totter after Dayna, still clutching his smashed arm.
"I'm coming with you."
"Tarrant, you're not up to it."
"Can't stay here, though, can I?"
He had a point. The base would be in uproar in a few minutes and he wouldn't stand a chance on his own. Dayna made a virtue of necessity.
"All right, try and stick close to me. If we tie that arm up, do you think you can carry a gun?"
She and Deva wasted a few precious minutes ripping the undershirt from one of the dead troopers to make a sling of sorts. The actual tying up was the worst, and Tarrant nearly passed out in the process, but once it was done he was able to wave a gun about with his free hand in an almost convincing fashion, and the little band of desperadoes set off at a shambling run through the base. Their strategy was simple - shoot anything that moves - and it worked surprisingly well, although attrition had reduced their numbers to about half by the time they had fought their way through the exit. Out in the open, where they could move freely, Dayna and Deva broke into a desperate run, with the last of Blake's rebels some way behind them and Tarrant painfully bringing up the rear. Dayna could have gone faster, but Deva could hardly keep up the pace as it was and they were some way off the clearing when they heard the roar of engines and ground to a despairing halt. The shuttle passed over their heads, the roar changed to a whine and it was gone.
The frustration was almost unbearable. Dayna let out a howl of fury and sank to her knees. "Shit," said Deva expressively, then clutched at her arm. "Can you hear something?"
"They're catching up with us!"
"Perhaps we can still make it to the clearing. There's a chance our ship will still be there - it's the only landing place around here."
They broke into a run again and stumbled into the clearing well ahead of the others. Yes, the ship was still there! Filled with renewed energy, Dayna raced ahead, taking out the three astonished guards who were playing cards by the entry hatch, doubtless with Captain Complacency as the dummy. Deva was close behind and within seconds he had keyed in the entry code, when the sound of gunfire behind made them spin round. Tarrant was standing at the edge of the clearing, facing into the forest, brandishing his gun with his good hand. There was no sign of the other rebels.
"Tarrant! Come on!"
His voice was faint, so very faint, but she could just hear it. "No chance ... get out of here...", then he raised the gun and fired a volley into the trees. An answering salvo blasted him clean off his feet and slammed him into the ground halfway to the ship, blood spattering the scorched grass in every direction.
"Tarrant!" Dayna screamed, uselessly, but Deva was hustling her inside, preparing the ship for take-off with frantic haste. Part of her was vaguely aware of what he was doing, but she couldn't seem to spare it any attention. Compared with the viscast in her head, endlessly running the same view of Tarrant exploding in blood, of Tarrant's body smashing into the ground, none of what was going on around her seemed remotely important. Vila was gone, Soolin was gone, Avon was gone, and now Tarrant was gone. In one hammer blow she had lost everyone she cared for, for the second time in her life. Oh, she had felt anguish when her father and Lauren were killed, she had felt grief, but she had also felt excitement at the prospect of leaving Sarran, at the brave new world she was about to enter. This time she felt no hope for the future, just a bottomless despair.
The computer was saying something: "Locked on to target."
Dayna raised her head and stared at the screen. Instead of the usual starfield, there was a frozen image of the GP base, blackened and burning.
"You blew it up!" she said, realisation dawning.
"It doesn't make me feel a whole lot better," Deva said grimly, "but at least it should play merry hell with their records. If we're really lucky, the Federation won't even realise we're missing."
"We've got a ship," Dayna said wonderingly, "We've got away from GP - Deva, we can go after Avon, we haven't lost him after all!"
Deva shook his head. "There's no point," he said heavily. "I'm sorry. We can't catch them in this rustbucket, and even if we could find out where they're holding him, he'll be dead within a week. Blake used to talk about him," - for a moment, his voice shook, and in the midst of her loss Dayna recovered enough awareness to recall that Deva, too, had just lost friends. "The Federation know what he's worth. Or will he cooperate?" His voice was suddenly sharp, accusing.
"No!" Dayna shook her head energetically. "He wouldn't do that - he can't trust them and they can't trust him.They'd be too scared he'd double-cross them. And he knows that."
"Well then." Deva's voice was infinitely sad, and Dayna felt a rush of respect for him - here was a man whose leader had been killed, whose friends had been destroyed, and he still found it in himself to feel pity for someone else. But she was in no state to think about anyone else for long. The awfulness of her own situation pressed in on her again, and the tears ran helplessly down her cheeks.
"Here," Deva said awkwardly, and passed her a tissue. "I'm really sorry."
"Where - where are we going?"
"I don't really know. Where would you like to go? The galaxy is our oyster." He caught her puzzled look and apologised again - really, it was a most irritating habit - "It's just a saying, it means we can do whatever we want. I can drop you off with one of the other resistance groups, if you like. Did Avon ever tell you about Avalon, or Kasabi?"
"No." Dayna had crumpled the tissue into a small wet ball and now looked around drearily for somewhere to dispose of it. "I - I don't think I want to go to any resistance groups. I don't think I could bear to start all over again. I don't know what to do." She started to cry, as children do, loud, shameless sobs that filled the whole flight deck. Deva clearly found it dreadfully embarrassing. He sat down next to her and in a paroxysm of awkwardness pressed her head against his shoulder. "Look, I've got a sister on Alderon, it's a neutral planet in the outer worlds, mostly agricultural. I grew up there - it's really beautiful. I go back occasionally, when I need a break. Why don't you come with me there for a bit? Anya will take us in, she's used to putting me up without much warning, and it'll give you time to think about what you want to do next."
At the time, Dayna couldn't even answer, but a few hours later she wandered back onto the flight deck, with a swollen face and red eyes, and said "Deva - about Alderon? Thank you, I'd really like to come."
Of course, some of the credit for that is due to Orac. I would never have been able to salvage the essential components of the teleport without him, and the teleport, for all its current deficiences, has played a major role in my professional success. Without it, it would have taken me years to buy my own ship, and I couldn't have taken so much time off to pursue my own private business, either. Still, when it comes down to it, I don't overestimate Orac's significance; other factors have been just as important. Take luck, for instance. It was sheer luck that I was accidentally included in the pile of corpses that were dumped outside the base, and equally down to luck that they hadn't got around to burning them before the place blew up. And I give myself some credit for being cautious enough to wait till that point before making a run for it, in spite of the unpleasantness of my situation. If I'm entirely honest, nothing that came afterwards was as bad as that, not even sneaking into the silo to retrieve the flyer, nerve-racking though it was. Lying under a pile of dead bodies is definitely at the bottom of my Things I'd Like To Do Again list. Anyway, once I'd got hold of a flyer, I buzzed around the area to see if I could find Scorpio. I didn't have anywhere else to go, and I thought there might be a chance of salvaging a few weapons or at least a change of clothes. What I didn't expect to find was Slave. He was down to his last few power units, but he functioned long enough for Orac to cut in and give me the coordinates for where he was hidden. As I said, I'm not the emotional type, but I must admit that when I held that box of lights in my hands, I felt as if I'd met up with an old friend - a particularly useful, if rather bossy old friend. I'd always suspected Orac of having his own agenda and that day convinced me of it. I was instructed in no uncertain terms to dismantle the teleport and remove the key components, and he seemed positively disappointed that the star drive was smashed beyond the point of salvage. Thereafter, though, he shut up and let me sort things out in my own way. I traded in the flyer and used the cash to get off GP as fast as possible, then I took on a few commissions and saved hard. Orac was pretty helpful, actually - he's a great resource if you want to trace people's movements - and in his spare time I had him listening out for indications that any of the others had survived.
It took a while, but eventually he traced Dayna to a neutral planet in the outer worlds called Alderon; she'd gone there straight after GP and seemed to have settled there for good. In fact in less than a year she'd had a child and become co-owner of a large farmstead, so there didn't seem much point in disturbing her peace. That was the only positive identification, though. Someone who might or might not be Vila was active on Freedom City from time to time, but other than that, we drew a complete blank. I suspect Orac looked rather harder for Avon, but he could find no more trace of him than of Tarrant, and eventually concluded that both of them had died on GP. I think he carried on looking just the same - after all, sifting through piles of data was what he was made for, and it didn't matter to him whether the outcome was positive or negative, he just wanted definite confirmation either way. Orac doesn't like loose ends. As for me, I did occasionally wonder if I should check out the possible Vila sightings, but on the whole I threw myself into my work and put my old life behind me. As soon as I had enough money, I rented a ship, and with Orac's help managed to install a functioning teleport. Well, when I say functioning, I mean I never died using it, but it wasn't exactly a luxury model - it was accurate enough on the vertical coordinates, but on the horizontal plane you could find yourself anywhere within 50 metres of where you wanted to land, which meant I couldn't use it to get inside buildings, or even anywhere built up. Teleporting back to the ship worked fine, though, and it got me out of a sticky spot on more than one occasion, plus I saved an absolute fortune in shuttle and docking fees. With Orac and the teleport to give me the edge over the competition, I soon earned enough to buy my own ship and reinstalled the teleport in her, but in spite of Orac's tutoring I still couldn't figure out how to fix the accuracy problem. He never mentioned Avon, but I couldn't help thinking about him and how easily he would have resolved the matter. I suppose in a way that primed me - otherwise I might have sailed through that last job without ever noticing the file.
I certainly wasn't expecting it to have an impact on my personal life when I took on the commission. The target was a high-up in the civil service, who had just been promoted and had decided to celebrate by divorcing his wife for a blue-eyed floozy several decades her junior. The wife, not taking kindly to such disloyalty, gave me the access code to his office along with my usual fee. Under the circumstances it was child's play - if only all clients were that helpful! I waited in the office until he had sat down at his desk, then dealt with him and was about to get Orac to bring me up, when I caught sight of the file that his head was resting on. I suppose it was the curious fact that the document was handwritten that attracted my attention, but what leapt off the page were the initials in the second line - KA. As I said, I had been thinking about Avon only recently, so in a way I was primed; under normal circumstances, I don't believe I would have noticed so slight a clue. It seemed imprudent to stand reading the file in the dead man's office, so I took it back to the ship with me and read it out to Orac, who was distinctly huffy about having to submit to such a primitive means of communication. However, the the first couple of lines shut him up most satisfactorily.
Since the strategy committee is determined that nothing relating to KA should be stored or relayed on equipment using tarriel cells, I've had to set this down by hand, so apologies if it reads rather stiltedly. I ha rdly need add that you should destroy it immediately after reading - I've no particular wish to be identified as a leak to any of the Commissioners involved.
Things have gone pretty much as we predicted. At its first meeting the committee assessed a number of possible interrogation strategies and drew up a priority ranking (as follows) of the information it believes can be extracted: (1) teleport capability; (2) location of Ensor's ORAC computer; (3) mechanics of Plaxton's star drive; (4) data pertaining to resistance groups. Of these, (1) has been given top priority, not only because of its tremendous military potential but also because it's the only item we can be certain KA has full knowledge of. Not only did he spend three years on the Liberator, he was able to reconstruct the teleport system after Liberator's destruction, so he must know how the bloody thing works. The same is probably true of the star drive, although he didn't have as long to reverse engineer it, and of course it's nowhere near as useful, much as these Space Command types like the thought of zipping about faster than everyone else. Of the others, (4) frankly doesn't interest me and (2) seems to involve rather too many variables, since even if it was KA who hid the thing, anyone might have found it by now.
I argued, of course, for a full-on psycho-chemical approach right from the start, since it was employed to considerable effect on Terminal. Unfortunately there were dissenting voices - despite the refinements we have subsequently achieved to the process, it was felt that the Terminal experience might actually forewarn KA, enabling him to guard against the effects. The fact of the matter is, though, that the committee is simply greedy, and eager for quick results - and one must admit that the career prospects for all of us look dazzling, if a functioning teleport can be speedily achieved - so they opted for a low-budget, bog-standard spell at Central Security. Well, of course those bods at CS haven't a clue how to go about things in a case like this. Not that I'm rubbishing CS, by any means - they came up trumps with the accommodation, and if you need a one-word answer to a simple question, they'll do you proud. But the situation here was rather more complex, in fact we had to get in a chap who'd worked on the aquitar project to ask the actual questions, as the CS fellows couldn't even pronounce half of them (must have been quite a blow to their professional pride). Anyway, they got him to co-operate all right, but as you know, KA is pretty resistant to normal measures and by the time he'd knuckled under he was in such a state he couldn't even concentrate on the questions, let alone remember strings of fancy equations. They had to pull the aquitar chap off in the end as well, because he kept calling in sick. Personally I think it was a mistake to involve him so directly in the interrogation procedure, most of these scientific types haven't got a clue about how the world really works and on the whole it's best not to disillusion them. But George had a point when he said someone needed to be there who actually understood the questions. Anyway, the whole approach was cancelled when it became obvious that we were going to kill the goose before it could lay any golden eggs, and Simpson has been charged with pulling in some loved ones, so CS can duff them up instead. Of course that's usually very effective, but I can't see it working with KA. You don't last that long in the resistance if you're the self-sacrificial type.
See you at Sleer's do next week. Will Erma be there? Give her my love if not.
PS I suppose I should give CS credit where it's due - they did get ORAC"s whereabouts out of KA, or think they have. George is assembling a top secret team to go and dig the thing out of its hidey-hole on GP, but I shan't hold my breath.
Not much to report, I'm afraid. Simpson's failed to turn up any relatives or close friends at all, made a complete pig's ear of it, in fact - I know KA is a bit of a cold fish, but I can't believe he doesn't have even a grandmother lurking around somewhere. I suspect someone - and it's not hard to guess who - has been tampering with the computer records, so I suppose this not using tarriel cells idea has something to it after all. Especially since the ORAC machine still hasn't turned up. George's team swear they've been over the ground with a fine toothcomb and haven't seen hide or hair of it, so either KA was lying, or someone's got there before us. Simpson suggested that KA"s crewmates might serve in the absence of family or friends, but all the evidence points to them having died at GP, and we were hardly going to commit resources to chasing halfway across the galaxy in search of someone who's probably dead. George pointed out that, given that KA had been happy to shoot his former leader, it seemed unlikely that personal loyalty was one of his key attributes anyway - sometimes George actually manages to talk sense. Anyway, another meeting next week to decide on the new strategy - of course, we won't be able to start until the effects of this one have worn off, but I'll keep you posted in case the wind finally starts blowing in our direction.
PS. Who was that charming companion of yours? She raised a few eyebrows, I can tell you. And what a wonderful dress - Sleer's nose looked distinctly out of joint!
Truth drugs! I suppose it was inevitable, but really, I'm starting to ask why I'm on the bloody committee in the first place if they're going to ignore everything I say. Will let you know when we move on to the next strategy - it can't be too long. I take it you'll be in action behind the scenes at the Space Command conference next week? Should see you then, if so.
As predicted, a total bloody waste of everyone's time. I'd laugh if it weren't such a waste of our time as well. When I think how far we could have got with the project by now, if only they'd committed themselves to us straight away! But no, we have to go through this drawn-out process of trying every bloody alternative first. Can I give you a lecture on the drawbacks of so-called "truth drugs"? At least you might listen, unlike the committee. In spite of the popular belief - a belief vigorously encouraged by CS, I might add - that you only have to stick a needle of beconol into someone's arm and they'll warble out anything you ask, there is rather more to the process than administering a quick injection and asking "So how does a teleport system work, then?" Which my dear colleagues eventually figured out, but not before they'd spent a few frustrating weeks banging their heads against a brick wall, whilst I stood in the background and tried not to smirk. The thing about truth drugs is that they make it effectively impossible for a subject to hold back on something specific they're being asked about - it's like being told not to think about pink elephants, the harder you try, the harder it gets. Sooner or later, they can't stand the pressure any longer and have to blurt it out. But ask someone not to think about the first one hundred digits of pi, and they don't have one particular thought to concentrate on. Their minds zip up and down the string, first one number, then another, and they never build up enough pressure behind one particular thought for the dam to burst. Ask someone a general question about how a teleport sytem works and they don't even know where to begin. Which means you have to ask specific questions, and therein lies the rub. I don't know anything about how teleportation works, but I do know damn well that you can't get to there by asking questions from here. The whole point about the damned system, the reason why KA is so hugely valuable to us, is that it's alien technology, we don't even know the first principles upon which it's based. By the time the rest of the committee had figured out the implications, after months of refining the questions, making them more and more precise, so he'd have to answer them, and then realising the questions weren't leading anywhere, I'd stopped smirking and started fuming at the delay. Still, it can't be long now before we get our chance, I'd say they've just about exhausted all the other possibilities. I've taken the liberty of getting Lorre to run up a few scenarios and start interviewing for actors - when we finally get the go-ahead, I want to be able to run with it from a standing start. We should be able to use the same bunch of boffins to brief them, which will save a bit of time.
Still, at least we found out KA was telling the truth about ORAC - "Were you telling the truth about ORAC?" being exactly the sort of question truth drugs do work on.
PS Can you dig out the file about KA"s escape from the London? There might be something useful in there if we're going to construct scenarios on board the Liberator.
Orac got wildly excited when he'd had a chance to digest this. Excited by his standards, anyway. "If the information relating to Avon is not being stored on tarriel cells, this explains why I have been unable to trace him up till now," he crowed. He had evidently been smarting under a sense of inadequacy.
"What do you mean, up till now?" I said crushingly. "If they're not using tarriel cells, then you still can't find him."
"There is a fault in your reasoning, Soolin." Orac has smugness down to such a fine art, it's amazing he's still in one piece. "Now that I know what I am looking for, I can analyse the absence of information."
"Oh, go on, explain it to me, you know you want to."
"Very well. To put it in terms you will understand, I shall be looking for silence where there ought to be noise."
"That still doesn't help. Try telling me without the metaphors."
"If information relating to Avon is being withheld from part of the system, there will be anomalies between data sets."
"And what sort of data sets would these be?"
"I will give you a concrete example, since you appear unable to grasp the concept in the abstract. If Avon is being held in a Federation prison, his name will not appear on any list of prisoners, but the suppliers to that prison will still issue invoices for the full quantity of goods delivered. There will therefore be a mismatch between the number of prisoners presupposed by the invoices and the number listed as held. I shall begin by cross-referencing all data sets relating to the supply of equipment to Federation-run prisons and penal colonies."
"You might start with Central Security," I suggested. "The report did say that they'd provided accommodation."
"My research hardly requires your input, Soolin," Orac said, so testily that I was convinced he had in fact temporarily overlooked that particular detail. Still, you have to hand it to him, it was a sharp piece of reasoning; more to the point, it actually worked. Once he knew what he was looking for, he found all sorts of "absence of evidence", including mysterious gaps in the head of Central Security's official schedule that coincided with gaps in the schedules of various other prominent personages. He also managed to dredge up an old file from a firm that had supplied Central Interrogation with new flooring a few years back, and deduced from inconsistencies between that and the official files that one cell had been expunged from the records. He even managed to work out its location in relation to the other cells in that block. Various other "anomalies between data sets" convinced us both that we had indeed found Avon. Orac was able to assure me that the interrogation compound was not shielded - the technology to do so relied on tarriel cells - so I knew I had a fast way out of there. Unfortunately, what I didn't have was a fast way in. In fact, I didn't have a way in at all - none of my normal methods of gaining access to buildings inaccessible to the general public was going to work here. As I've said before, it doesn't do to overestimate Orac. He's only one in a series of factors that are important to a successful undertaking, and in this instance I could think of only one factor that could possibly tip the balance in my favour.
"Orac, I don't suppose that person who might be Vila is due to visit Freedom City any time soon?"
Sometimes I wish I'd gone with Kerrill after all. Still, you know what they say, lucky at cards, unlucky in love. Not that I'm that lucky at cards, I have to tip Dame Fortune a wink every now and again, give her a nudge, make sure she hasn't forgotten her little Vila; but then "The lord helps those who help themselves" was our family motto. And I don't think of Kerrill that often, I find it's best not to dwell on the past, especially when it's a past like mine. If I start thinking about Kerrill then I start thinking about why I didn't go with her, and how it all went downhill anyway after she'd gone. And if I don't stamp on it quick, I find myself thinking about what happened after that. It's not all negative, of course. You can find a bright side to anything, if you look at it long enough and hard enough, preferably through the bottom of a glass. Take Malodaar, for instance. Malodaar's one of the things I prefer not to think about, but I learned a valuable lesson there, oh yes, a very valuable lesson. I learned that you can be completely wrong about someone, you can think they're your friend, think they've proved it time and again, no matter what they actually say, and then find out that you matter less to them than a fucking computer. I'll stop thinking about that now, because if I don't, I'll only go on to think about other things I don't want to think about, and some things it's really hard to find a bright side to. I suppose it got me out of the rebellion, so that's something good. But then if I'd gone with Kerrill I'd be out of the rebellion, and a bloody sight happier than I am now. Best not to think about it, on the whole. I've got a big game this evening and I need a clear head for that. That's one of the really good things about being out of the rebellion, I get to spend all the time I like on Freedom City, me and Lady Luck, blowing my not so hard-earned wages and clawing a little of it back at cards. Not that it's all fun and games, nothing ever is. I keep a very wary eye out for Krantor - he's still around, though he's not the king-pin he once was, not since me and A-... not since I cleaned him out. He never really recovered from the dent in his reputation, plus that Klute guy of his had some kind of mental seizure every time he tried to play chess after that, so what with one thing and another, Krantor's someone I don't want to run into. Of course, I've changed a bit since then, I don't think he'd recognise me now. I'll say this for moustaches, much as I dislike them, they're cheaper than plastic surgery. There are quite a few people out there I wouldn't want to recognise me, and as all the people I would want to recognise me are dead, or stuck on a lump of rock somewhere in the outer galaxy, I don't really mind not looking myself. Oh for heaven's sake, what's got into me? I'm not usually this maudlin. Not when I'm on Freedom City anyway. I think I'll start my evening out early, go and socialise a bit before the game. There's a new bar opened that looks quite promising.
Avon had his head deep inside the teleport console, trying to recalibrate a component he generally thought of as Not That Bit Again. Zen had been as helpful as it could allow itself to be in explaining how the teleport functioned, but it had drawn its knowledge of human vocabulary from Jenna's brain and Jenna's brain hadn't encompassed words for fiddly pieces of alien technology. Just then, a voice from somewhere outside the console said "How's it going, Avon?" giving him cause to reflect that there were people on board whose brains encompassed even less than Jenna's.
"What's the matter, Vila? Have you finished annoying everyone else?"
"No." Vila sounded hurt. "I just thought I'd come and help you a bit, that's all."
"You thought you'd come and help?"
"Yes, you know, pass you the probes, that kind of thing."
"How very considerate of you. As a matter of fact, if you could dig out the Tyrrell probe and - pass it - through - ouch!" It happened every single time; whenever he tried to adjust this particular bit, he ended up burning his fingers, but he hadn't yet figured out a more effective method of recalibration than twiddling it. He couldn't suck his fingers inside the console, so he slid out from under it and glowered at Vila accusingly.
"Oh, sorry, Avon. Do you want me to get you something for that?"
"No, don't bother. Look, if you really mean it about being helpful, then sod off."
"Oh come on, I can be useful, really. I've got very nimble fingers. If you tell me what to do, I'll have a go."
Avon stared at Vila. The man might be a fifth grade ignorant but he hadn't realised he was a moron.
"We can't both stick our heads inside there, so how exactly am I supposed to show you what to do?"
"Well, suppose something happens to you? How are we going to fix it by ourselves if we don't know what to do?"
"That's what the repair manual is for," Avon said shortly, and pulled himself back underneath the console, but not before he had noticed the look of alarm flutter across Vila's face. Really, what did Vila think he was going to do? Hit him for not reading the manual? At least it seemed to have got rid of the idiot, perhaps now he'd have a chance to work in peace. But no, no sooner had the sound of Vila's feet faded away, than a new set clumped into the room. In spite of the restricted vision imposed by the console, he could clearly make out the three inch heels. Jenna. All the more reason to stay under here, then.
But Jenna, it seemed, was no more willing than Vila to leave him alone. She bent down and said "Avon?"
"Um, I'm sorry to bother you, but I thought you ought to know that we haven't got the teleport manual anymore."
Avon shot out from underneath the console and in spite of the short notice managed to switch on a prize glare. "What do you mean, we haven't got it?" Jenna withered visibly under the dual onslaught of glare and tone.
"It got wiped in that last power loss."
"It got wiped? How the hell would you know, if I don't?"
"Um, Zen told me?"
"Zen told you?"
Jenna's eyes darted around the room. She looked for all the world as if she knew she was just about to fail a major exam, though Avon doubted she had ever actually taken one. Freetraders weren't big on formal qualifications. Before she had a chance to answer, Blake came in, with Vila trailing behind him. Really, anyone would think this ship consisted of nothing but the teleport room.
"Jenna, could you take over on the flight deck for a moment? Avon, are you busy right now?
Was he busy? It was all too bizarre for words. Avon was accustomed to the feeling that he was the only sane person on a ship of lunatics, but this was going too far. Under normal circumstances, he would not have held back with his opinion, but for once he hesitated. It was all very well announcing that everyone was mad when reason told him they were merely being irritatingly obtuse, but it didn't seem quite the right course of action when for once his doubts about their sanity were genuine. He settled for a small sigh, calculated to set Blake's teeth on edge in its simultaneous imputation of utter superiority and inability to be bothered with explaining things to lesser beings. But instead of rising to the bait, Blake looked concerned.
"Are you all right, Avon?"
Now Avon really felt out of his depth. Uncertain how to deal with a madman - could he perhaps be under some new telepathic influence? But surely they couldn't all be affected? - he bit back the stinging retort that rose naturally to his lips and said mildly "Thank you for your concern, Blake. There is nothing wrong with me."
"Splendid." Blake seemed relieved. "Well, in that case let's get on with the teleport tutorial, eh?"
"Yes." Now Blake seemed surprised. "You know, you agreed to explain to me how it works, in case, well, in case of emergencies. None of us should be indispensable."
"Oh. Oh yes." Now that he came to think of it, he did vaguely remember agreeing to explain to Blake how the teleport worked - but that made no sense at all, Blake knew almost as much as he did about basic maintenance, and as for the principles behind it, it would take him days to explain, and when had Blake ever shown that much interest in anything other than his precious rebellion? The feeling of uneasiness was growing stronger; Avon dealt with it as he dealt with most feelings, by stamping on it hard and trying to proceed rationally. "What exactly would you like me to explain?"
"Well... um... you know I worked on the aquitar project? A big problem there was the inherent instability introduced by the sine wave coefficient - how does the teleport prevent the signal breaking up?"
Now it wasn't just his feelings telling Avon something was badly wrong. That Blake should ask him such an unbelievably stupid question triggered all his suspicion neurons at once, and he struggled in vain to find a context that would make sense of it. As he stared at Blake's face, searching in it for a clue as to what had come over the man, he gradually became aware that there was something different about it. At first he couldn't quite pin down what it was, then, as it seemed to come more and more sharply into focus, he saw that it was nothing like Blake's face, that it had no more in common with Blake than brown curly hair and the same general shape. Desperately confused, he looked down at the laser probe in his hand, and as he twiddled it abstractedly, he realised that there was something odd about that, too. It appeared to be made of - plastic? From somewhere very far away he thought he could hear a voice yelling at him, too faint to understand, no, wait, it wasn't far away, it was inside his head - Cally? No, it couldn't be Cally, Cally was dead... Terminal. Something very cold clenched at his guts. Not again, it couldn't be... He glanced round the room and took in the crude mock-up of the teleport console, the stranger standing at Vila's place, the man who wasn't Blake, and suddenly everything melted together and began to spin round him. As the floor sprang up to meet him he could hear the voice in his head shouting, loudly now, "Sine wave coefficient, sine wave coefficient, you must remember!" It was his own voice, he realised, and then a black wave crashed over him.
"Shit, not enough theta-hypnol, better increase the dos-." And that was it.
Bloody hell fire, that'll teach me to start drinking so early in the evening. I'm still not totally sure it wasn't an alcohol-induced hallucination. Yes I am. I knew I had to keep a clear head for the card game, I can't have had that much. No, she was real, all right. Soolin. Bloody hell, who would have thought it? How can somebody do that to you, rise up from the dead and walk into your life and just say "Hi, Vila," as cool as a cucumber? I must have looked a right Charlie, flapping my arms and hissing at her, not the welcome she was expecting at all, but really, anyone could have been listening. You'd think Soolin of all people would know about akas and pseudonyms and whatnot. Still, it was good to see her again, really good, and of course part of me, a little tiny part of me, got all hopeful when it saw her and thought that maybe if she'd survived and I'd survived, there might be a couple more missing-in-actions floating about the galaxy. Not Cally, of course. Or Gan. I knew there was no hope of them turning out to be alive. Or Blake either, come to that. Not after - well, anyway, she did have some good news, really really good news. I'm so pleased for Dayna, somehow I never thought of any of us having kids, but I suppose she's hardly more than a kid herself, she's got her whole life ahead of her. Whereas I can't help feeling that mine's, well - not that I'm that old, but still. Of course, I can't go and visit her now, not when she's found a bolthole - and I thought they were just an illusion! How often did we talk about finding one and giving it all up, the whole resistance thing? Never happened though. And now Dayna's been and gone and done it. A husband and a farm and everything. Good on her. I hope there are a few wild animals that come down from the hills and menace the cows occasionally, she'll get bored if there's nothing to kill. It would have been nice to see her again, though; I was fond of Dayna. She had such a good bum. But it wouldn't be fair. Better not take the risk of attracting attention, and anyway, she might not want to see me. She might want to put it all behind her, like me. So why can't Soolin? She never struck me as the obsessive type before, but I guess it just goes to show, you can never tell what someone's really like. Which I knew already. Frankly, I find it a bit unhealthy, brooding over the past like that. Much better to put it all behind you and move on. She hasn't got a hope of getting him out of Central Interrogation, even if that rat in a bloody box thinks it's found him. The security there is tighter than a warg's arse, and I don't care how nicely she asked, I am not getting involved and that's that. As far as I'm concerned he can moulder in Federation custody for the rest of his life, and the shorter that is, the better. The galaxy'll be a better place without him. No, I am not bitter! And even if I was, I've every right to be. Even after Malodaar I might have agreed - I never wanted to see him again, but I wouldn't have wanted to leave him to Central Security. It was bad enough what they did to him last time. But not after he killed Blake. That really opened my eyes. I'd thought it was just me, that he would have chucked me out of the airlock because I'm basically worthless, because if only one of us could survive, it was better for everyone else if it was him. I didn't like him for it, but I understood. But Blake, he was another matter. Blake was worth more than the rest of us put together, and Avon got narked and shot him. Just like that. He dragged Cally all the way to Terminal and got her killed trying to find Blake, and then when he did find him - ... No, there's no way I'm helping to spring that bastard. He can stay there till he rots, as far as I'm concerned.
I drew a complete blank with Vila. I must say, the intensity of his reaction surprised me. I'd always thought of him as rather a gentle soul, and he certainly had to be the forgiving type to stick with a bunch of people who constantly made him the butt of their bad moods, but I suppose resentment must have been festering away inside him. And I was the surgeon who lanced the boil, judging by the spew of invective that spurted out of him. I could understand him up to a point, given that he clearly still felt loyalty towards Blake, but on the other hand anyone with half an eye could have seen that Avon didn't shoot the man out of malice. I'd have shot him myself, if he'd kept walking towards me when I had a gun aimed at him. But Vila didn't seem to see it that way.
Which put me, frankly, into a bit of a dilemma. I couldn't see any way of getting into Central Interrogation without Vila, and Vila had made it quite clear there was no way I was going to talk him round. On the other hand, I had invested altogether too much in the way of time and resources into this plan to give up just because Vila didn't feel like it. In the end, I decided to rope Dayna in. She knew Vila much better than I did, and he had seemed genuinely delighted to hear she was alive, so perhaps he would respond better to her. I felt bad about disturbing her peace, but I hoped she would see the urgency of the situation, and if she didn't, well, unlike with Vila I had some leverage with her. Of course, I hoped it wouldn't come to that. She'd always seemed quite fond of Avon, insofar as anyone could be fond of him, and I think he was a bit of a father figure for her, in an odd if not quite dysfunctional way, so I didn't think she would let him down now.
Unfortunately, it did come to that. Dayna was thrilled to see me, even more thrilled to hear Vila was alive, and was appalled to hear that Avon had been incarcerated in Central Interrogation for over a year. But not so appalled that she was willing to leave Alderon to try to rescue him.
"I'm sorry, Soolin, I really am, but you must see that I've got other responsibilities now. I can't leave the baby - suppose something happened to me? You don't know how much I wish I could help, and I know you think I'm letting Avon down, but I'd be letting Hal down just as badly if I went and got myself killed."
Apparently she'd nearly called the baby Kerr, except that it upset her husband when she brooded over the old days too much, and anyway she preferred not to be reminded of GP. Well, wouldn't we all - even Vila wouldn't talk about it, except to say that he'd pretended to be stunned and then sneaked out when everyone was distracted - but not thinking about something doesn't mean it hasn't happened, isn't still happening. Actually, it was that cloyingly sentimental remark about the baby that decided it for me. I stifled any regret I felt at turning her life upside down and told her that if she didn't help me now, I'd let the Federation know where she was hiding, and then where would the baby be? It got the sort of reaction I'd expected - tears and recriminations and some truly vicious threats - but she had to give in in the end. She did say something that surprised me, though.
"Why are you so concerned about Avon, anyway? What happened to "I don't give my allegiance, I sell my skills"?"
"I don't give my allegiance, not in a business relationship," I returned coolly, "but if I choose to give it, it's nobody's affair but my own." Perhaps I wasn't actually all that cool, come to think of it. But it was a good question. Why did I feel so strongly that I owed Avon something? I suppose when it comes down to it, it's because I did owe him. Dorian had been something in the way of a safe house (now there's an irony...) and if I'd had to leave Xenon then, I'd have been in a nasty situation. Avon never said anything, but he accepted me on Scorpio when he took it over, and because he accepted me, the others did too. Oh, I'm sure he had Orac check me out, he'd have been a fool not to, but he never asked me any awkward questions about how I'd ended up on Xenon, or what I'd done before. And he took me seriously and respected my opinion, even though he wasn't paying for it. I suppose in a way he was quite similar to me - he kept his mouth shut and got on with his life, and while you could see he was carrying baggage with him, he never made an issue of it. No, I felt I owed Avon a lot, and the idea that I might just leave him to the Federation when I had the means to get him out was repugnant. Besides, I needed him to fix the teleport. And if Dayna didn't share my priorities, that was her tough luck, because I wasn't going to give her any choice in the matter.
Avon had just finished running a data-check on the radiation levels in the neutron blasters when Blake walked onto the flight deck. Blake - damn! He'd promised to go over the workings of the teleport with him, and knowing Blake he'd want to cash in that promise right now.
"What is it?"
"Have you finished? Because I rather thought we might go over the teleport, if you're free."
I should start up as a fortune teller, thought Avon glumly, and It would be nice to be wrong about things, just occasionally. What he said, however, was "I can think of nothing I would rather do," and hoped that he had managed to inject sufficient sarcasm into that obliging phrase.
Blake winced slightly - good, the sarcasm level must have been adequate - but said "Jolly good, shall we get on with it, then?" so there was nothing to do but go over to the computer console and begin the lesson. It was actually less painful than Avon had expected. He rather enjoyed lecturing Blake, although from time to time a vague feeling that he was being led by the nose crept over him. Surely he remembered explaining this bit to Blake before? But Blake just sat there, wholly focussed on the computer screen, an expresson of intense and rather ridiculous concentration on his face. It was so intense that Avon felt his discomfort increase - was Blake trying to make him look like a fool? Surely he'd explained this before, when he first realised that the process involved exchange of matter, rather than mere transfer? Disconcerted, he broke off, and Blake glanced up at him.
"Do go on, it's fascinating."
"Yes, well, I'm sure you can work out the implications for yourself."
"Now you're flattering me. So you need to establish a two-way signal? And how do you stop it from breaking up?"
"It doesn't break up." He glared at Blake. "Why should it? We aren't dealing with a sine wave here -" .Something prodded his memory. Something important. To cover his distraction he bent more closely towards the screen, but he could already see that the computer was no more than a box with a perspex cover, and he knew, when he turned back to face Blake, that it wouldn't be Blake sitting there.
"Are you all right, Avon?" The man's voice was all heart-felt concern, but it wasn't Blake's voice, wasn't even all that similar.
"Fine, I was just, er, just distracted by a potential problem with the signal that's just occurred to me. I'll have to think about that afterwards. All right, what was the question? Something to do with the signal?"
His mind was racing furiously. Something must have triggered this sudden emergence from the dream state - of course, the sine wave, now he remembered "Blake" asking about it last time. That had been such an irrelevant question, a problem that had bedevilled the aquitar project but played no role in the Liberator's teleport system, that the illusion had been unable to survive the sense of dissonance it provoked. And he had somehow managed to preserve the memory of that trigger word into this new dream, and once again it had broken the spell. It was unlikely that it would occur again, though - he would have to try to create a new trigger word, one that was bound to come up. Well, that wasn't difficult, given the obvious direction these hallucinations were taking. Teleport. That ought to do it.
"Blake" was asking another question, and Avon considered it carefully, stalling for time to create a plausible but misleading answer. There was something almost enjoyable about the challenge - to construct a Theory of Teleportation, convincing but unviable, entirely on the spur of the moment. He wondered how much science "Blake" knew, or whether his answers would be relayed to a more qualifed team for assessment. That was his great advantage, of course - no-one, apart from himself, was remotely qualified to assess the information he would provide. Well, himself and the real Blake. Another trigger phrase - a whole set of new memories rose out of the shadows in his mind, the sounds of gunfire and the smell of blood, and he had to fight to keep concentrating on his answers, pushing the appalling visions back into the obscurity they had come from. And all the time, at the back of his mind, he was repeating to himself over and over again "Teleport. Teleport. Teleport..."
By the time we reached Freedom City, Dayna had done some serious thinking, and had pretty much changed her mind about the whole enterprise. I think leaving the baby was the hard part; once she'd got that behind her and had had a chance to remember her old life, and especially GP, it rekindled her fighting instincts. So I left it to her to go down and talk to Vila, while I stayed up on the ship and tried not to wonder how she was getting on. They were up talking half the night, but at last the call came through, and I teleported them up.
"Hi, Vila. I'm glad you changed your mind."
"Yeah, well, I never could resist a challenge. Um, Soolin? You know that if they've had him for over a year, there might not, well, there might not be much left to rescue?"
"Yes," I said, "I do realise that. And if that's the case, then I'll kill him. But either way, I'm not leaving him to the Federation. Do you understand?"
Vila looked a bit shocked, but he shrugged and said "Up to you. I'm just opening the locks," and we left it at that.
In the end, it was a very simple operation. It was a bit of a hike to the interrogation facility from where we landed, especially since it was pitch dark, but that gave Orac plenty of time to fiddle with the computer end of the security systems, and Vila did a magnificent job on the locks. We found the mysterious non-existent cell at the end of a corridor behind a steel door - Dayna and I dealt with the guards at both ends - but after Vila had opened the final door, he refused to come in with us. "I said I'd get him out for you, but it doesn't mean I want to see him," he said resolutely, and had Orac teleport him back to the ship. Dayna got a bit emotional when we actually entered the cell - I don't know exactly what she was expecting, but it all looked perfectly comfortable, if a bit spartan. There was even a rather elderly-looking computer on a desk, and a couple of doors leading off the main room suggested relatively extensive facilities. We found him in the bedroom, fast asleep. He didn't even wake up when we came in, which worried me a bit, but when Dayna bent over him, he opened his eyes. I don't know about her, but I must admit I was expecting a bigger reaction than we got - he looked surprised for a moment, but not very surprised - and when Dayna tried to give him a hug he backed right off and glared at her. I think she was slightly offended, but she covered it by handing him a teleport bracelet. He gave it a look which I thought frankly bizarre under the circumstances, a kind of weary, here-we-go-again look, and then that shutter came down over his face and he put it on and just stood there, waiting.
"Bring us up," I said, and turned to see how Avon would react to freedom. The funny thing was, he didn't. He had a remote, wary expression on his face, as if he was listening out for something that none of the rest of us could hear. That look never left him and it became increasingly unsettling over the next few days, especially since it was coupled with a curious passivity. I can't think of a single occasion when he took the initiative about anything, he just sat there and waited for us to tell him what to do. If you spoke to him, he answered, but with a disconcerting delay, as if it was taking him ages to process what he heard. I did ask him if he would have a look at the teleport - I thought having something to do might help him snap out of his detached state - but he merely said politely that he was very tired after being rescued and would I mind if we waited a bit? This was so utterly unlike Avon that Dayna started worrying that it wasn't him at all, but an android (heaven knows where she got that idea from). It was completely absurd, as Orac's analysis of the teleport data showed, but it did at least have the virtue of convincing Vila, who had been lurking in his cabin since we got back, that he'd better take a look at Avon after all. When he walked onto the flight deck it provoked the first spontaneous reaction we'd had from Avon, a burst of astonished laughter. Vila was deeply offended and stalked off again, but his curiosity had been provoked and he couldn't resist coming back. It didn't make him feel any better, though, because Avon kept stealing sideways glances at him - no matter what else was happening, he couldn't seem to keep his eyes off Vila, although if he noticed any of us watching him, he immediately looked away. I could tell it was getting on Vila's nerves, and in the end he said tartly "If there's something you want to say to me, Avon, you only have to ask."
Avon looked startled, hesitated, and then said "There isn't anything."
"Well, why isn't there? You've just been rescued from Central bloody Security by three people you thought were dead - and you can't think of a single question? I can suggest a few. How about "How did you manage to escape from Gauda Prime, Vila?" How about "Where's Tarrant? How come he's not here?" How about "Did Blake survive, too?" No, Avon, he didn't, thank you for asking, you did too fucking good a job on him, and no, Tarrant didn't make it either, and all the rest of us have left good lives behind to come looking for you, you ungrateful bastard."
At this point he appeared to become aware of the shocked silence on the flight deck. Avon was staring at him, his face completely drained of colour, and Dayna looked as if she wanted to either cry or kill someone. Vila's face was a picture as it slowly dawned on him that he had an enthralled audience for his worm-turning act, but he rallied magnificently.
"Come on, Avon, I'll take you on a tour of the ship, and we can continue our little chat in private. Aren't you curious to know where you are? Or where you're going? What's the matter, Avon? Afraid? Come on now - you know you're always safe with me."
Well, he jumped about two foot, as if something had just stung him on the bum. "Ha!" I thought, "that's given you a taste of your own medicine," but then his face split into this extraordinary grin, not one of his scary ones that make you start looking behind you in case the universe is about to stab you in the back, but a genuinely happy smile.
"Well now, Vila, why shouldn't I be safe with you?" he said, still grinning like an idiot. That was when I lost it. Again.
"You complete bastard," I yelled, "I don't know why I bothered to come and rescue you. I've had it up to here - the next airlock we pass, you're going out of it, and I'd like to see anyone try to stop me!" I suddenly realised I was waving my fist around in front of his nose, which isn't a good idea with Avon, but he didn't even grab my arm, just blinked a bit. His face had lost that funny expression, sort of distant, that he'd had ever since he came on board, and for the first time I got the impression that he was looking at me, really looking at me.
"When are you going to shave that ridiculous moustache off?" he said.
And that's why Soolin let me finish off the story, as a kind of reward. It turns out he hadn't known for sure until then that we weren't all part of some kind of drug-induced hallucination to get him to tell the Federation how the teleport works. He'd thought maybe it was real this time, because they'd never used Dayna and Soolin before, and because Tarrant wasn't there, and I looked so different - apparently I shouldn't have looked different in the dream, just when he woke up out of it - but he couldn't be sure. And he hadn't dared to say anything, in case it was a dream, and he was afraid once they realised he could wake himself up, they'd increase the dosage so he never escaped from the dream again. It was me reminding him of Malodaar that convinced him it wasn't all an elaborate hoax to get him to cooperate, because he was quite sure that he'd never have told anyone what he said to me. The way he explained it, I got the impression that one reason why he was so sure he would never have mentioned it was because he was, well, ashamed - as he bloody well ought to be, but still, you can't bear grudges forever.
I wasn't sure what would happen after that. Dayna wanted to go home to Alderon and her family, of course. She said it had been fun to see us again but now she was looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet, with nothing more dangerous to worry about than a dirty nappy. Avon was obviously going to want to have a crack at the Federation - he's someone who can bear grudges forever, and anyway I could see that after recent events he badly needed to blow something up, if only to restore his sense of self-esteem. I was afraid there would be an almighty row over who got to keep Orac, but it turned out that Soolin had no objection to putting her ship, her teleport and her skills at the service of the resistance, so long as she was able to keep earning money on the side. That was hardly a condition that was likely to alienate Avon. In fact he said "I have a few ideas about that myself," and then they both turned and looked at me.
I was tempted, I must admit. I hadn't half missed the teleport over the last year or so - it would be nice to be able to waltz into the bank of my choice, without having to worry about security guards and other unpleasantnesses. On the other hand, I wasn't dead keen on going back to manning the neutron blasters and getting dumped on every time anyone was in a bad mood. So in the end we struck a deal. I'm now in semi-permanent residence on Freedom City and they come and get me whenever they need my specialist skills, on a percentage of the profits basis, obviously. Occasionally I get caught up in a little extra-curricular activity, but that doesn't happen as often as I was afraid it would. In spite of the Zukan debacle, Avon is still convinced that politics is the only way forward, so he spends a lot of time on the outer worlds trying to persuade neutral planets to join a Mutual Protection Alliance. It must be getting somewhere, as I heard someone in a bar the other day suggesting that Freedom City ought to join (that'll be the day!).
Dayna said if I come within 100 spacials of the bank of Alderon, she'll blow my head off, so I think one day soon I'm going to have to make a trip there. I never could resist a challenge.
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