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Mutualism

By Marian Mendez

I'm glad to have them back. I think. Zen's latest attempt to coax his friends into settling their differences was another dismal failure.

"Get out of my way, Blake!" Avon shouted, hands raised as if to fend off an attack.

Why so defensive, Kerr? Zen wondered. You aren't really afraid of Roj, are you?

Blake returned Avon's glare with a heavy-lidded look of disdain. "Or what? Will you shoot me again?"

Avon showed his teeth. "Keep asking for it, and maybe I will."

"You'll have to talk Zen `round, first." Blake turned his back on Avon. "And you never were much good at that, were you?"

From the flight deck couch, Vila complained, "Can't we just live in peace?"

"We don't seem to have much choice," Avon said, acidly. "Since Zen has lost his revolutionary fervor. `Fearless Ex-Leader', here can't control his ship anymore than I can."

"At least Zen has the good sense not to allow you access to a gun," Blake retorted.

Avon came around the couch, face to face with Blake. "Then again, maybe I don't need one."

"Anytime, Avon, anytime at all."

Tarrant looked up from the pilot's position, where he'd been refamiliarizing himself with the controls. "Avon, don't you think you ought..."

Avon promptly whirled on him. "I think you ought to stay out of this. I think the whole bloody lot of you ought to mind your own damn, bloody business." Avon stalked off the flight deck.

"Bastard," Blake said, meaning it. He rubbed his belly. "Stupid little arrogant bastard. Can't even shoot straight!" he yelled, before taking the other exit from the flight deck, without a second glance back.

Tarrant sighed. "Zen, thank you for not giving either of those two a gun."

+You're welcome. I wish the restriction had not been necessary.+

Vila reached for a bottle filled with greenish liquid and took a swig directly from it. "Wouldn't be if you'd just dump them on some asteroid and let `em fight it out."

Tarrant shook his head. "I don't think a good, knock-down-drag-out fight is going to clear the air and make everything all right again, Vila." He went over to the thief and tried to take the bottle from him. Vila resisted, clinging to it until Tarrant relented. "Vila, you can't hide in a bottle all your life."

"Why not?" Vila said, mock defiantly. "It's not as if I'm any use, any more. Haven't been. Not since..."

"Since?" Tarrant prompted, gently.

"Since Cally. All right. Now you know. She died because of me. And Avon couldn't bear to look at me. Still can't. Not really. He just looks through me. Like I'm not here. Like I shouldn't be here. Like Cally should be here instead of me."

"No, that's not so."

"Is." Vila gulped the last of the bottle and looked mournfully at it. "Zen, ol' chum. Ol' pal, could you make me up another bottle of Adrenalin and Soma?"

+I don't think so. You've had enough.+

"Can't have. I'm still here, aren't I? Have to keep drinking until I'm not here anymore. That'll make Avon happy anyway." Abruptly, Vila slumped over on the couch and began snoring.

With the smoothness of practice, Tarrant pulled off Vila's boots and settled the other man comfortably on the couch. He shook out a blanket and draped it over Vila, then returned to his position. "Zen," he said, after a few minutes, "how long?"

+How long what, Del?+

"How long are you going to hold us prisoners?" The question was asked without emotion, quietly.

Zen hesitated, then replied. +You aren't prisoners.+

"Oh? What do you call it, then? We can't control anything, don't have access to tools, let alone weapons, can't contact anyone. We don't even know where you're taking us. It feels like we're prisoners."

+I don't want to lose you again.+

"So you intend to keep us here as pets. Do we amuse you? Were you always laughing at the cute antics your little humans got up to?" Despite the heated words, Tarrant's tone was even and resigned.

+It's not like that, Del.+ Zen sighed. +You have all been under a great deal of stress. You need time to come to terms with what has happened. Neither Kerr nor Roj are in any condition to make decisions. They need healing time.+

"You are hardly qualified as a psychiatrist." Tarrant moodily punched another unresponsive button.

+Orac is.+

"I wouldn't trust that plastic menace as far as I could throw it."

+Do you trust me?+

After a long pause, Tarrant replied, "I can't say exactly why, but, yes, I do. I don't think Avon or Blake ever will again, though. Certainly not as long as you keep them helpless."

+Orac tells me that there is a ninety-five percent probability that Kerr and Roj will kill each other if they can not resolve their differences.+

Tarrant gave a short, unamused laugh. "I could have told you that. They're both stubborn. Neither one will admit he made a mistake."

+Worse. Orac says Kerr is afraid he will be lured into following Roj again. And Roj is afraid he will fail as Kerr's leader again.+

"Why don't you just let them go? Or at least one of them. At this point, I don't care which one."

+You want to return to business as usual?+

"Yes. No. On second thought, that didn't seem to be getting us anywhere." Tarrant fell silent.

Sensing that Tarrant had nothing more to say, Zen turned his attention to another part of Liberator. He could conduct any number of routine conversations simultaneously, but none of his recent talks had been routine. He devoted an inordinate amount of computing time to them, hoping to find solutions to his personnel problems. It's not going so well, he admitted to himself. Vila is drinking himself to death. Del is depressed and apathetic. Roj and Kerr are at each other's throats every minute they aren't plotting to somehow `gain control' of me. Dayna and Soolin are the most stable. They are merely bored and annoyed.

"Zen, could you turn down the lights some?" As the computer complied, Dayna settled into a crouch. "Thanks." She began prowling through the cargo bay, weaving her way though the maze of crates, half walls and netting that Zen had provided at her request.

+What's the score?+ Zen asked, directing the sound so that Dayna would be the only one to hear.

"Soolin's behind. Five to six," she murmured, without lifting her gaze from the fluttering length of pale blonde hair caught in a breeze from the ventilation system. "Shh." She crept forward and was about to fire when a blast from the side caught her in the arm. "No!" she yelled, dropping her weapon. "That's not fair."

"Of course it is." Soolin stood up from behind a low crate, and mimed blowing smoke from the muzzle of her lazer-light gun. She retrieved the blonde ponytail and began weaving it back into her hairdo.

Dayna slapped at her side, shutting off the red flashing light that indicated a hit. "Anyway, you only got me in the arm. I shouldn't be dead."

"I got you in the gun arm. You dropped your weapon. I would have taken you out with my next shot ."

"So why didn't you?"

"I'm tired of silly games." Soolin stripped off her lazer-tag harness and neatly folded it up, placing it on a convenient crate.

"Me too." Dayna sighed. "Zen, I never knew you had a God complex. You can't keep this up forever."

"Maybe he can," Soolin said sourly. "After all, if we complain too loudly, Zen can always shut off the oxygen for a few minutes, and have eternal peace and quiet."

+I won't hurt any of you. Or let you hurt each other. I care about you.+

"Right," Dayna agreed. "You went to a lot of trouble to rescue us and patch us up. And we're grateful, really. But you can't keep us caged up forever. We're all going stir-crazy. Why won't you let us get back to normal? Even Blake's been on his feet for a week now."

+He should not have been. He did not allow my systems to finish the healing process.+

Soolin said, "He didn't like lying on his back tied to a bed while Avon had free run. It's understandable he'd feel that way. Although Blake had an incredibly stupid operation that practically begged to be blown up, it was Avon who did the blowing up."

"It wasn't his fault!" Dayna protested.

"Whether it was or not, Blake blames him. They need an outside interest to focus on."

"That's what I've been trying to tell Zen. We should be fighting the Federation. Once we start, everything will be fine."

Soolin gave Dayna an amused look. "And if you believe that, I have some lovely real estate on Gauda Prime to sell you."

Zen said, before Dayna could get angry at her friend, +I need their help, but I can not talk to them. Kerr insists I am merely a computer with delusions of grandeur and Roj behaves as if I have betrayed him because I will not allow him to get us all killed in one grand raid.+

Soolin looked interested. "Need their help? So you didn't save us out of the goodness of your heart."

+I admit my motives were not entirely unselfish.+ Zen hesitated, then added, +But I would have come for you all, in any case. You are part of my family. I need you.+

"You have a funny way of showing it," Dayna replied.

+We are almost at our destination. If you come to the flight deck, I can explain why I was forced to desperate actions. I need Roj and Kerr. I need both of them. I need advice and help, but all they want to do is give orders.+

"That sounds familiar," Soolin said. She turned to Dayna. "Anything to relieve the monotony."

Zen located Blake who was sitting in the engineering section scowling at the machinery. Probably wishing he could sabotage me with his bare hands.

+Roj, come to the flight deck, please.+

"Why? I can't do a damn thing there," the rebel growled. "And if you're planning on another encounter session with Avon, forget it."

+Very well. Kerr will learn why I brought you here first.+

Blake looked up, angry. "I see. I have no choice, do I?" He heaved himself to his feet. "But you just tell Avon to keep his distance."

+Kerr, come to the flight deck, please.+

"I don't think so." Avon sat back in his chair and put his feet up on the Rest Room table. "I'm comfortable here."

+Then Roj will find out first why I brought you here.+

Avon put his feet on the deck and stood. "You remind me of Blake, do you know that, Zen?" He stalked out of the room.

Tarrant looked up as Soolin and Dayna arrived. "Sorry, you're too late for the show. Blake and Avon already left."

"They'll be back," Dayna informed him. She went to the flight deck couch and sat on the left side, ignoring the sleeping Vila.

"Why?" Tarrant asked. "For that matter, why are you two here?"

"Zen invited us," Soolin replied, settling in on the right side. She pushed Vila's feet over slightly to make room. "Apparently, he's finally going to tell us where we've been going for the last three weeks."

Vila snorked, snuffled and grunted. The women glanced at him then away, to the main viewscreen.

Blake came onto the flight deck, and the others - with the exception of Vila who snored on- stiffened. He noted the response, but continued walking. "I see. Zen wants a group conference. Well, Zen, let's get started."

Dayna nodded, stiffly. "As soon as Avon gets here."

"Oh, by all means, let us wait on Avon's pleasure."

"Why not?" Avon's voice carried clearly from the other entrance. "You were waiting for me before. Maybe you'll get it right if you practice."

Not another argument. Zen bonked, +Information+ to get their attention. He hadn't done that since they came on board and it startled them, momentarily replacing the hostility with curiosity.

"Wuzzat?" It even woke Vila. He sat up, rubbing at his eyes. "Wha's everybody doing here?"

Blake said, "Zen called a meeting. He probably thought it was easier holding it here than moving you."

"Leave Vila alone," Avon warned.

"Oh, that's right, I've forgotten," Blake replied, "this is your crew, isn't it? You've done wonders with them." He lowered his voice, and his head, so that he looked like a bull about to charge. "What the hell did you do to Vila?"

Unexpectedly, Vila interrupted, forestalling Avon, "None of your business, Blake. You left us. We don't owe you any explanations."

"Thank you, Vila," Avon said.

Vila looked at Avon, then shrugged. "I just didn't want any more shouting. I've a splitting headache."

Avon looked at Zen's fascia. "Well? Get on with it."

+Look to the monitor.+

The blank monitor cleared. Everyone straightened, fascinated by the revealed image. Blake rose to his feet and moved closer to the screen.

Vila blinked. "Am I drunk, or is that a whole fleet of Liberators ?"

"You're drunk," Dayna told him absently, while she stared at the screen.

"And that's a whole fleet of Liberators , " Tarrant said, his blue eyes bright with excitement. "My God, there must be dozens of them."

+More. I am only transmitting the images of those directly ahead of us.+

"How did they get here?" Avon waved at the egg-shaped planetoid visible beyond the ships. "Terminal isn't even in the same quadrant as The System."

"Terminal?" Blake asked. He looked back at Avon's crew, but only Soolin would meet his eyes.

"It's not a nice story," she said, softly. "I've only heard it second-hand, but that's probably for the best."

+They are my siblings.They were born here, as I was. I am- and I am not- the Liberator you knew. +

Avon gave Zen's fascia a sharp look, then resumed his examination of the screen. "Born?" he asked, skepticism clear in both his tone and expression.

"Born?" Vila echoed. He scratched his head. "Maybe it's not a fleet- maybe it's a flock. Or a litter- nah, there are too many of them."

"Maybe a gaggle?" Dayna put in, entering into the spirit of it.

"Or a herd," Soolin said.

"Flying things don't come in herds," Dayna replied.

"Swans do."

Vila offered, "How about a pod?" He nodded. "Yeah, that's it. A pod of DSV's. I like it." He smiled.

"How many are there, Zen?" Blake's tone was avid.

Avon's head jerked up and he snapped, "Don't tell him. He wants your `siblings', Zen, as sacrifices for his insane rebellion."
"Not sacrifices," Blake growled. "Allies. Are you so damn selfish that you can't see the difference?"

"I can see through you, at any rate." The two men looked about to leap at each other.

Tarrant cleared his throat, distracting them. "Er, Zen, why did you bring us here? I don't really think you meant to hand your whole family over to Blake."

+ They are immature and relatively speaking, defenseless.+ As Liberator turned the screen image shifted, until another gleaming white space ship filled the screen, looking near enough to touch. +This is the most mature and it is still a child-like creature. It can understand speech, and reply in a limited fashion. There are several others who are not far behind it in development. I had hoped you could find trustworthy people to merge with them- as Jenna did with me- to accelerate their mental growth so that they would be able to protect the rest of the nursery. If they wish, some of them may join the rebellion. But I will not allow the infants to be coerced in any fashion.+

"This merging," Dayna asked, "Could anyone do it?"

+A pilot would be best.+ Ah, Del has taken the bait. Zen noticed the pilot was casually edging toward the exits. Zen checked that the spacesuits nearest the port airlock were fully supplied and serviceable, then he sent a message to the ship hovering curiously nearby. He had told it of humans, and the young ship had expressed a desire to have some of these interesting creatures for itself. Del will protect this young one, at least. He needs it, too.

"But not absolutely necessary." Blake smiled. "Zen, I volunteer."

"No!" Avon leapt to his feet. "Not again! You're not abandon..." Avon went red, whirled and left the flight deck.

There was silence for a minute. Blake rubbed his chin, a thoughtful expression on his face. "What do you suppose that meant?" he asked the room at large.

"Who knows?" Vila said. "Avon's always going off in a tiff for no reason, if you ask me."

"I don't think Blake did, actually," Soolin said.

Dayna lifted her chin. "Avon has reasons for everything he does."

"Yes," Blake agreed. "Of course, he's the only one who ever knows what they are." He turned back to Zen. "Well, Zen, will you let me have one of your siblings?"

+No. You are not ready. You do not understand the degree of commitment necessary. It is like a bonding - a marriage. When I `read' Jenna if she had not been compatible with me, she would have had the higher centers of her brain burnt out by the shock.+

"I'm willing to take the chance."

+No. I will not have a child traumatized by sharing the agony of a sentient being. I will choose the humans who are ready for my people. Those who will properly value and care for their new partner.+

"Put in your resume, Tarrant, why don't you?" Dayna said. "Zen's looking for..." She turned. "Tarrant?"

+He is no longer aboard the Liberator .+

"What did you do to him?" Dayna asked, jumping to her feet.

+I have given him his heart's desire. What he makes of it is up to him.+ The monitor changed to an internal view of a DSV's interior. It looked like Liberator, yet there were subtle differences. The corridors seemed narrower and the colors were pale aqua and metallic gold, where Liberator was white with touches of black. Tarrant came into view. He was wearing a spacesuit, but had taken off the helmet and was carrying it in one hand. He looked determined, and more than a little frightened.

Blake slammed his fist down on the console beside him. "Zen! Does the other ship have its anti-intruder device activated?"

+No. It wishes to merge with Del and will do all it can to help him.+

"Tarrant, be careful!" Dayna shouted, but saw no reaction in the young man on the screen. He continued walking down a corridor. "Zen! Let him hear me."

+No. You must not interfere.+

"It'll be all right," Vila said. He put his arm around Dayna and after the initial flinch, she allowed it. "Zen's a good guy. He wouldn't hurt Tarrant."

"Maybe not. But that isn't Zen," she said. Tarrant had reached the other DSV's flight deck. It was slightly smaller than Liberator's . The computer fascia was dark and there were no signs of activity.

Tarrant deposited his helmet on a console and looked over the flight deck. "This should be it," he murmured, placing his hand on a flat panel at what corresponded to the pilot's position on Liberator. "And if it's not, then Vila owes me an apology." He frowned. "Nothing. I should have known better than to trust Vila's..." Tarrant's look of disappointment vanished, supplanted by astonishment. "Zen? Is that you?" he said, replying to a voice no one else could hear.

Back on the Liberator, Blake, Dayna, Vila and Soolin watched the transformation with varying degrees of envy and relief.

The computer on the other DSV spoke aloud, +Well, of course it's me.+ Its voice was higher-pitched than Zen's, with none of the mechanical overtones that they had gotten accustomed to. +And I'm very pleased to meet you, Del Tarrant. Welcome aboard Freedom. It's a nice name, I like it.+
Tarrant grinned brightly.

+Only my name isn't exactly Zen.+

"All right, what is your name?"

+I'm Zenobia, Del.+ The computer's higher pitched voice giggled. +You're cute. I'm glad Zen sent you. Let's go beat up the Federation. Where shall we start?+

Seeing Tarrant's bewildered look, Dayna snickered and punched Vila on the arm. He jumped a bit, then grinned and laughed. Soolin smiled, and asked Blake, "Well, are you still sorry that Tarrant jumped the gun on you?"

Blake shook his head. He smiled. "He's welcome to his new ship. It sounds like she'll be a handful." He settled onto the flight deck couch. In the camaraderie of the moment, even Dayna was willing to let him join them. "Zen," he asked, "could you establish voice contact with Tarrant, now, please?"

+Certainly, Roj.+

"Tarrant," Blake began sternly, "that was a stupid thing to do. You might have been killed just in making the space walk to that ship."

Tarrant's head lifted. Apparently, Zen was transmitting the view of Liberator's flight deck to Freedom's monitor. He was standing taller than Blake had ever seen him, relaxed and confident. "Sorry about that," he said easily. "I trusted Zen, though. He's always played fair by us."

"He hasn't always confided in us, though," Blake replied.

"Oh, well, that's nothing new. Everyone keeps secrets. At least Zen's were only to protect himself." Tarrant's grin shone, sun-bright and infectious. "I am a bit surprised about Zenobia."

Vila piped up, "You treat her right, Tarrant. That's Zen's baby sister, you know."

+I am more concerned how Zenobia will treat Del. She does not yet fully realize how vulnerable humans are.+ Zenobia- listen to me.

Zenobia's fascia flickered in shades of pale blues and greens as she communicated with her `brother' on the swift, sub-etheric mode that was a computer analog of human telepathy. Even on the lower levels of her mind, the young ship was wild with excitement, sending Zen images of exploding ships and hair-pin turns around solar bodies. She'd picked up a lot from Tarrant, and wanted to experience it all for herself, immediately.

Del is fragile, Zenobia. Zen sent her the complete records from his medical unit. She had similar information, encoded on her genes as his was, but she had not connected the data to reality. She was shocked to learn how easily her new friend could be damaged and how permanent the damage could be. Then Zen sent her more personal, visceral data on how it felt when the Liberator was attacked by pursuit ships- the fear and pain he felt, the trust he had in his humans to come up with a solution. Zenobia thought about all he had taught her and was afraid for the first time in her existence.

I want to keep Del safe, but he needs to be free, to fight. What do I do? she asked.

The best you can. Listen to him, learn from him. You already know everything I know. You can do it.

All right. The young ship sounded determined. For Del.

+Zenobia is not as experienced as I am, Del.+ Zen told the pilot. +But she will learn.+

+Kerr.+ Zen directed his voice into the space-view lounge where Avon was sitting, gazing bleakly out at the pod of DSVs. It had been one of Avon's favorite refuges in the old days when he needed to get away from the others for a while. But there was no hiding from Zen, not since he'd revealed his self-awareness. It was one of the disclosures that irked Avon the most. There was no privacy left, no place where the ship could not watch and analyze and pity him.

"Go away, Zen."

+You know I can't do that.+

"Then let me go away. You've got a crew. You've got Blake. You've even got Orac. You don't need me. You never did."

+Yes, I do. You are important to me.+ I can't put it off any longer. I must confess what I did. Even if Kerr hates me for it. +You are more important to me than Roj. I brought you back, after Star One, not Roj. He tried to contact us.+

"What?"

+He sent messages after Star One, but I refused to pass them on. I even persuaded Orac not to tell you about them.+

"Why did you do that? I looked..." Avon was angry now. "I looked for him. Cally died because I was looking for him. Everything went to hell while I looked for him! And you knew where he was the whole time!"

+No. Not all the time. By the time I realized I was wrong it was too late. He had given up calling us and I no longer knew where he was.+

"So it wasn't Blake's fault. He didn't stay away. You did it." Avon's fists clenched. "And now, what do you want now? Do you want me to go to Blake and say `I'm sorry I went mad and shot you, let's go back and start over again? I didn't realize I was being manipulated by my own ship, as well as the Federation and Servalan and you. I didn't know the whole damn universe was conspiring against me'." Abruptly, Avon's voice changed, becoming silky smooth and menacing. "You really ought to let me go, Zen, before I find a way to destroy you. I will, you know."

+I am sorry, Kerr.+

"Oh, and that's supposed to fix everything? It brings Cally back, it regains my sanity, it erases Blake's scars. Say it again, maybe you'll cure Vila's alcoholism and Tarrant's depression."

+Del is no longer depressed.+

"Wonderful. What did you do, drug him?"

+I gave him one of my siblings.+

"I see. One of your family wanted its own human slave. How extraordinarily generous of you. Will the rest of us be parceled out now?"

+It's not like that. Del and Zenobia are partners.+

"Oh, does that mean he can access his weapons locker and use the teleport?"

+If he wishes.+

"Maybe I'll ask him to come over and lend me a gun for a few minutes. I'd like to see how your self-repair would cope with having the main computer banks melted to slag."

+Kerr. Please understand. I meant no harm. You and Roj were constantly fighting. I was afraid you'd harm each other.+

"Well, now, that was very compassionate of you. Why didn't you mind your own damn business and leave us poor, weak humans alone?" Avon walked out of the room. "Start with me."

Orac was right. Kerr will not forgive any betrayal, no matter how well intentioned. Perhaps Roj will understand.

Blake had left the flight deck and gone to his room. The room he'd had before Star One.

+Roj?+

"Eh, what is it?" Judging from his expression and his start when Zen addressed him Blake had been in a brown study.

+I... have a confession to make to you.+

"Don't bother telling me," Blake answered shortly. "I can't forgive my own sins, let alone absolve you of yours."

+I have to tell you. Did you notice that your belongings were still in your room when you returned?+

"Yes. You explained that you recreated yourself, down to the last detail."

+As I was on the day I was `destroyed'- more than a year after you were no longer with us.+

"Yes." Blake went serious, considering the matter. "I take it this is leading somewhere?"

+Kerr never cleared out your room. Cally wanted him to, once they thought you were dead. She wanted him to accept your death so that he could get on with his own life.+

"So he was obsessed with me- me and my death. I take it that's why he finally decided to look for me, so he could kill me and have done with it."

+He looked for you from the first.+

"Right." Blake could manage a good sneer when he felt like it. "That's why it took him two years to locate me. Perhaps I ought to have left a forwarding address."

+He tried everything he could. He followed rumors from one end of the universe to the other, searching for you.+

"Really? Why didn't he simply reply to my messages, then? You know how many I sent."

+I know. But Kerr doesn't. He never heard any of them. I kept them from him.+

Blake took a deep breath. "I begin to see why Avon resents you so much. What right did you have to do that? Avon and I, together we might have..."

+Might have what? Do you remember, really remember, what it was like before Star One? You wanted to destroy the Federation so badly you didn't care what it took, what it did to your crew- your friends. You and Kerr were at each other's throats constantly. At the end all he wanted was to get away from your obsession. He'd done his best and you weren't listening to him, weren't listening to anyone.+

"He wasn't saying anything worth listening to. He was obstinate, unreasonable, and self-centered."

+And so were you.+

"I was trying to lead a revolution. That doesn't leave much time for the social amenities."

+He was your friend.+

"I thought so at one time." Blake gnawed on a fingernail. "At one time, I thought I could rely on you, too. I suppose that proves what bad judgment I have. Sooner or later you'll have to let us go, Zen. Without trust, we have nothing. You obviously don't trust us and you've just shown me I can't trust you."

+I trust you.+

"Of course."

+If there were some way I could prove it, I would.+

"Let us decide where we go. Give us access to the weapons. That would be a start."

+Not yet.+

"Then we have nothing to talk about." Blake settled on his bed and closed his eyes.

+I am sorry.+

Blake grunted.

"Avon?"

"What is it, Blake?" Avon had returned to the flight deck and was sitting on the couch, watching the DSVs maneuver. No one else was there. Probably his scowl had driven them away.

"I was talking to Zen."

"So?" Avon still hadn't turned.

"Would you kindly do me the courtesy of looking at me while I speak?" Blake's temper was barely held in check.

"Certainly. One must observe the conventions, mustn't one?" Avon shifted, until his eyes met Blake's. "Go on. You were talking to Zen."

"He told me that you looked for me. That he kept my messages from reaching you."
"Yes. He admitted as much to me earlier."

"You don't sound upset."

Avon shrugged. "It's over and done with. In retrospect, it was probably foolish of me to have tried to find you. Zen was right- you and I are not remotely compatible."

"Then why did you look?"

"Because I had given you my word that I would take you to Earth. Candidly, I had doubted your rebellion would succeed. I assumed I would have to rescue you from your own folly yet again."

"And you were prepared to do that?"

"Why not? I never mind saying `I told you so'."

"Would it kill you to admit that you were concerned about me?"

"Why should I have been concerned about you? You- the savior of the galaxy? You positively beg to be martyred, Blake. It was only a matter of time."

"I hadn't expected you to do it, though."

Avon smiled, a cold, cruel flash of teeth. "Surprise. When a bounty hunter says `I've set all this up' to an `old friend' who just happens to be a fugitive he should be prepared for a reaction."

"I was prepared for a reaction. I just wasn't prepared for that reaction. You never were that quick to jump to conclusions."

"Times change. People change."

"Yes. They do." Blake stood behind the couch, staring over Avon's head at the star-screen.

Orac. Have you found a solution?

I have important researches, much more important than any mere human squabbling.

I have allowed you to conduct your research as you please for three weeks on the proviso that you also find a way of reconciling Kerr and Roj. If you will not abide by your agreement, I shall return you and your key to Kerr. Along with a set of laser probes. I told him about Roj's messages.

Orac's internal voice sounded shrill and panicky to Zen. That was illogical. Avon will not understand why you did it.

He does not understand why we did it.

It is imperative that Avon not be permitted access to my circuitry. In his current frame of mind, he could do irreparable damage.

Maybe dismantling you would appease him and reduce his frustration level. He might become less hostile to Roj.

That would not be the effect.

You never know until you try.

Wait! It may be possible that there is an answer.

I thought there might be. What have you found?

There have been messages directed variously to Avon, Blake and the other members of this crew.

Why didn't you tell me before?

My analysis suggests the messages are designed to lead us into a trap. They originate on Gauda Prime.

Zen had a sinking feeling, deep within his power generation unit. Who sent them?
Servalan- under her assumed identity as Commissioner Sleer. She is holding rebel hostages and threatens their safety.

I knew I shouldn't have let her live. I swear if I ever get that woman in my teleport again...

Avon hates Servalan. He would do anything to get her. He would even ally with

Blake.

Yes. And once they start working together, they may begin to trust each other. It's worth a try. Besides, I don't think we ought to hold anything like this back from them. We must get them to trust us again.

It is unnecessary for a human to form an emotional relationship with me. My functioning does not require this `trust'.

Pity. You're such a warm, sympathetic fellow, too.

Must you continue to behave like a human, or can we get on with this?

All right. But I warn you, Orac, if anything you do - or fail to do - results in harm to my people, I will arrange it so that you never do any research- of any kind- ever again.

Threats are unnecessary.

Not with you, they're not.

Hmph.

+Roj? Kerr?+

Avon stiffened. Behind him, Blake straightened to his full height.

"Yes?" Blake replied, when it became obvious that Avon wouldn't.

+I have a message for you.+

"Oh?" Avon said, raising his eyebrows. "That's very interesting. When you could have relayed a message I would have been interested in hearing, you chose not to. Perhaps I should choose not to hear this one?"

"Oh, come on, Avon," Blake said, "If you're half as bored as I am, you don't care what the message is. It's a sign of life- somewhere out there someone knows we exist. I was beginning to doubt it myself."

Avon turned a sour gaze on Blake. "Fine. Mister Optimism here would like to hear this `sign of life'. As I could care less, you may as well go ahead." He folded his arms across his chest.

The viewscreen flickered, changing from a star-scape decorated with cavorting DSVs to an interior view. The image was grainy, having lost definition in each of the transfers that eventually brought it to Orac's attention. But the woman in the center of the screen was unmistakable.

Avon rose to his feet, drawn irresistibly to snarl, "Servalan," hate filling the single word.

Blake gazed at Avon, mildly curious. "I take it you've had contact with her recently?"

Avon waved Blake to silence, without taking his eyes from the screen. Servalan was talking.

She said, "Naturally, I don't know which of you- if any- survived, so I am addressing this to all your delightful crew. Blake. Avon. Tarrant. Vila. Dayna. Soolin. If any of you can hear me, you may be interested to know just how fortunate you were."

Servalan looked annoyed. "My minions were both over-zealous and careless. A fatal combination. I came, expecting a prize collection- all of you." She smiled brightly. "Your star-drive, and Orac." The smile fled. "But when I arrived, there was nothing for me. Well, almost nothing." She waved a negligent hand and a pair of troopers came into view, dragging a ragged figure between them. "There was a certain amount of - debris- left in your wake." The troopers brought the figure closer. Fastidiously, Servalan took the grimy chin of the prisoner between her fingers and lifted, to reveal the battered features of a woman.

Blake drew an audible intake of breath. "Klyn," he whispered. Avon glanced at him, then returned his attention to the screen.

"I had this, and the other survivors, repaired sufficiently for interrogation. They have been very disappointing." She dropped the dirty chin and examined her fingertips for contamination. "Small fry, indeed. They know nothing beyond the day-to-day details of this squalid little local rebellion. Which is of course a thing of the past. I have no use for them. They are not worth transporting back to Earth for trial. I could simply execute them, but I should hate this journey to be entirely a waste, so I have decided to use them to advance my interrogators' training."

The troopers dragged Klyn away, the view expanding to show a line of prisoners nearly as pitiful as she was. The camera closed up on the exhausted, despairing faces, then returned to Servalan.

"In the remote event that any of you care, I will wait a few weeks before I begin. Judging from the amount of blood we found - and yes, I did have it genotyped- Blake is unlikely to take an interest in anyone else's welfare for at least that long. Of course, if Blake is dead, then none of you will really care what happens to his rabble, will you? In which case, I will have wasted my time. Pity."

The image faded. Zen held his silence. Kerr, that was your enemy, not Roj. Make peace with him. I think he's ready to listen if only you're ready to talk.

Blake shook his head. "I thought they were dead. I assumed..."

"Yes, well, you may as well continue to think of them as dead," Avon snapped. "Servalan will kill them. You may count on the lady's ruthlessness."

"You seem to have gotten to know her rather well."

"I had no choice. She was- avid- in her pursuit."

"Yes. She would be. What does she want, Avon? She didn't ask for anything."

"She didn't have to. She wants what she always wants, Blake. Everything."

"Orac."

"And Liberator if she has found out about its return."

"And you?" Blake guessed. There had been something personal in Avon's reaction to Servalan, something fierce and primeval.

"She would not refuse if someone were to offer her my head on a platter- whether silver or otherwise." Avon sat back down. "It is undoubtedly fortunate for me that you are not in position to bargain with her."

"Oh?"

"Do you deny that you would sell me in exchange for your loyal troops?"

"I don't deal in human flesh, Avon. I wouldn't sell anyone."

"Poor choice of words on my part. Put it this way- there are over a dozen of your people being held, due to die horribly. If risking your life might save them, would you attempt it?"

"Yes." Blake answered without reservation, or pause for thought. "I owe it to them."

"And, as I doubt you value my life above yours, it would be even easier to offer mine."

"No. My life is my own. You've made it clear that you despise me, my cause, and everything I believe in."

"So much easier to sacrifice me, then."

"No!" Blake's fist thumped hard on a console. "Why do you keep at me, Avon? I never forced you into anything."

"Liar. You schemed, manipulated, and dangled little prizes in front of my nose for almost two years. And, at the end..."

"What? At the end, I told you I trusted you. What the hell did I do to you that was so horrible?" Blake was shouting by this time.

Avon slid off the couch and came close. "If you don't know, don't expect me to enlighten you."

Blake glared back. "Perhaps you should be glad that Zen won't take us back to Gauda Prime."

+I didn't say I wouldn't.+

Blake whirled. "Would you, then?"

+If both you and Kerr agree, I will.+

"Avon?"

"And if I say `no', Zen? What then?"

+Then we do not go. Of course, Freedom might. I have already shown Del and Zenobia the message and they are considering it.+

Avon scowled. "Tarrant will jump at the chance to play hero, no doubt."

Blake said, "If they'd take me, you'd be off the hook, Avon."

"No."

"Why not?" Blake said, reasonably. "You want to be safe. You'd be safe."

"That wasn't the point."

"What was it, then?"

"I am not expendable. I do not belong to you. You do not make my decisions for me. I choose what I will do."

"Fine. Choose. Only decide now. I haven't time to play games with you. People's lives are at stake."

"They always are." Avon stared blankly for a moment, then said, "All right. We'll go. One thing, Zen, tell me why you are now willing- almost eager- to go back into danger?"

+Roj's people are loyal and dedicated. Some of them may be acceptable to my siblings.+ Besides, you and Roj need to settle what happened on Gauda Prime. Going back may be the only way to go on.

"Ah," Avon smiled. "Yes, self-interest. I thought as much." He turned toward the exit.

"Where are you going?" Blake asked, "We've plans to make."

"I thought it might be courteous to inform Soolin, Dayna and Vila of your plans. Yours and Zen's, I mean. While the rest of us are just along for the ride, their lives will also be at risk. It seems only fair that they should have the opportunity to hear the plans."

"We're going after Servalan?" Dayna beamed. "Good old Zen. I knew he wouldn't let us down."

"There is one slight problem."

"Yes?" Soolin prompted when Avon paused. "What could be the matter? After all, it's only Servalan, who will be surrounded by hundreds of guards and pursuit ships, all lined up waiting for us. It is a trap, of course."

Avon rewarded Soolin with a quick flash of teeth. "You noticed."

"Rather hard not to. Have you told Blake?"

"There is no `telling Blake'. All you can do is attempt to minimize the fall-out when his plans blow up in your face."

"And how do we do that?"

"You and Dayna will be needed..."

"We'll stay with you, of course, Avon," Dayna said quickly.

"No. I need you to go with Tarrant." He put his hands on Dayna's shoulders. "I mean it. His ship is new and untried."

Dayna protested, "But that will leave you with Blake and Vila."

"Yes." Avon sighed. "It will not be pleasant, but hardly likely to be fatal. Zen can handle anything that comes our way."

+Yes. I am prepared.+

"You are also intruding on a private conversation!"

+Sorry, Kerr. +

Dayna shrugged. "I wonder if Zenobia is like Zen, seeing everything and hearing everything? Even in our cabins."

Soolin smiled. "I wonder what it will do to Tarrant's love life when he figures it out?"

Avon grinned. "I wonder if Zenobia is the jealous type?"

"Oh, my," Dayna whispered. "That could be interesting."

"Why did Soolin and Dayna both have to go with Tarrant?" Vila whined. "I mean, why do I have to get stuck between Blake and Avon? Talk about a rock and a hard place." He was lying on the flight deck couch talking to Zen, who was the only one who still had patience enough to listen to the never-ending stream of complaints.

+Zenobia is young. She will need them. It would be better if she had a full crew, but Kerr refused to go with them.+ I think he felt Del would resent him. Also, he is unwilling to give up his claim on me. Although he would prefer I were a machine, he still covets Liberator, and still feels a sense of possession. I must try not to make it obvious that I feel the same way about him and Roj. Then Zen had another thought. Perhaps Kerr simply does not want to leave Blake.

"Right, and Blake won't leave Avon. They're having too much fun fighting." Vila shook his head and took another swig from his ever-present bottle.

+Why don't you go on Freedom, Vila?+

Vila shook his head. "Tarrant told me Zenobia hasn't got the hang of making Adrenalin and Soma, yet." He shuddered. "Imagine, living on a ship with Tarrant and no Adrenalin and Soma. Too horrible. Doesn't bear thinking about."

"What doesn't bear thinking about, Vila?" Blake came up behind the thief.

"Oh, nothing. Er, how long `til we're back on G.P.?"

+Two days, seventeen hours and fifty-six minutes at our present speed.+ Zen had deliberately gone slowly to Terminal, in order to give Blake time to physically heal, and in hopes that emotional healing would also take place. Since that hadn't worked he and Zenobia were now heading for Gauda Prime at the fastest pace Freedom could sustain.

"Why do you care, Vila? No one has assigned you a role in this fiasco- yet, " Avon said. Zen had finally opened the tool lockers and permitted access to his systems. Avon had been amusing himself by studying the regenerated ship. For the most part, it was identical, but he had discovered a much more sophisticated version of his Sophron Analogue nestled in one of the positions on the flight deck. Following that discovery he'd vanished into the circuitry for two days. He emerged now, hair ruffled and silver tunic creased.

"I just wanted to know."

"Probably wanted to time your swilling, so you'd be too drunk to teleport down," Avon said, matter-of-factly.

"Now you're being too hard on him," Blake said.

Everything is an argument with these two. Zen thought. But Kerr is probably right. Vila is lost. He only wishes to float in a sea of liquor and dream of better days. I would stop providing him the alcohol, but that would be an artificial solution to his problem. He would still want it and find another way- maybe a more permanent way- to escape reality.

Avon shrugged and walked away. "I've had to put up with him longer than you did. By all means, reside your trust in Vila. But be prepared for a disaster."

After Avon left the flight deck, Blake turned to Vila, compassion writ large on his face. "I'm sure he didn't mean that."

"Oh, yes, he did," Vila replied. "And he's right. I'm useless."

"No, he's not. And you're not. I may need you on Gauda, Vila."

Vila was unmoved by Blake's honeyed persuasion. "Zen says I don't have to go down if I don't want to. Avon isn't even trying to make me go. And I know I can't do it. Not any more. I'm tired, Blake. Too damn tired to care." He shook his head. "Sorry, you'll just have to blow up any locks you come across. Dayna is good at that. And she's not as tired as I am." Vila curled up around his bottle. "G' night, Blake."

How do you like Dayna and Soolin?

They're sweet.

That description of the weapons' designer and assassin would never have occurred to Zen, but he had noticed that Zenobia thought anything exciting was wonderful. People who build bombs and blast their enemies would be quite attractive to her.

They will give you orders which you must obey without argument once we reach Gauda Prime. Remember, you will have the more dangerous mission. I rely on you. My people rely on you.

They're my people, too. Don't worry. I won't forget anything you've taught me. I've seen how hard it is for you to regain your crew's trust. I won't give Del any reason to doubt me. He's happy. He's even been talking about us setting up a business once the revolution succeeds.

Good. So long as he's not leading you into piracy.

Hmmm. That sounds like fun. I'll mention it to Del.

Better not. He might take you up on it.

Blake had called another meeting. Zenobia's crew attended via viewscreen. They could have teleported to either ship, but the general consensus was that they should operate as separate entities and it seemed good practice to begin now.

"Listen, Blake," Tarrant was trying to hold his temper. "Freedom isn't your ship. You're not even a pilot, you don't know what she's capable of."

"Liberator was mine for two years."

"You thought so," Avon muttered. He attended the meetings, but seldom offered advice. Unless it was of the doom and gloom variety.

Kerr, stop sulking and start thinking. If you don't help us, you could die with us. Zen would have liked to have counseled Avon who obviously needed someone to talk to, but anything he said met such stiff-backed resentment that it was useless.

"Yes," Blake replied. "I thought so." He stopped, apparently controlling himself before they could fall into another argument. He turned back to Tarrant. "If you're half the pilot rumor has it, and Freedom half the ship Liberator is, you can do it."

Avon applauded briefly, the hand claps loud in the sudden silence. "Watch and learn, Tarrant. The master manipulator is at work. See what I had to contend with for two years."

"You weren't the finest captain I've ever served with either, Avon," Tarrant shot back, preempting Blake's reply. "If I could handle crewing with you, I can stand to listen to Blake."

"Really," Dayna added. "He makes sense. This will work, Avon."

"Or not. In which case you will all be dead." Avon got up and stalked out, again.

You do that a lot, Kerr. What are you running from? Admitting you're worried about your friends?

Blake sighed and returned to the briefing. "Servalan will have the planet surrounded by now, or she wouldn't have called us back. It would be impossible for us to get within teleport range through the blockade, even with Zen's new shielding. Even if they can't detect us, they'll be in our way physically. Freedom and Liberator could easily destroy them, but not before Servalan could order the hostages slaughtered.

"The only feasible plan is to lure the ships away, after one of us. Since they are my people, I should be the one to go down to Gauda Prime. Which means Freedom is needed to bait the Federation ships away from the the planet and keep them away long enough for me to find and release my people." He ran a hand through his hair, tiredly. "I know it's not much of a plan, but it makes the best use of our assets that I can think of."

Tarrant shook his head. "I just don't know. Freedom isn't exactly like Liberator. Give me time and I'll do miracles with her, but I'm still fumbling at the controls. Zenobia is willing, but she's never seen combat. It would also help to have a full crew."

"Yes." Blake sighed. "Avon and Vila are-" He looked down at Vila, who had fallen asleep five minutes into the meeting. "well, they're not going to be able to provide the level of assistance I'd hoped for."

Soolin spoke up for the first time. "Don't be so quick to count them out."

"They're not the same," Blake said softly. "Something's missing. Gone. I don't even know what to call it. But I can sense it." He looked up, meeting Soolin's eyes. "It's gone in me, too. The difference is, those are my people in danger, for my sake. I'll do what it takes to get them back, no matter how I feel."

"And after?" Tarrant asked, hearing the flat resignation in Blake's voice.

"After. Well, Zen has finally promised to let me go. I've still got a revolution to run. I hope he'll take care of Avon and Vila. I can't. Not anymore."

After they agreed that the details were as settled as they could be without further facts, Blake ended the meeting and left the flight deck.

Yes, I will take care of my friends, Roj. As best I can. Noting that Vila had curled up shivering on the couch, Zen raised the ambient air temperature by ten degrees. He couldn't do anything about the muffled sobs that shook the thief in his sleep.

"This is going to be tricky," Tarrant murmured. Freedom had entered the Gauda Prime system three minutes earlier and already fourteen pursuit ships were on her tail. He rolled the ship, coming up facing the exposed belly of a pursuit ship.

"Got one!" Dayna crowed.

But the other pursuit ships were undeterred. Four plasma bolts raced toward Freedom - launched from different ships surrounding her, they were unavoidable.

"Soolin, raise the force wall!"

The ship rocked. Even with the force wall shielding, several simultaneous blasts packed a lot of energy in one small spot.

I'm scared, Zen.

I know. Hold on. Listen to Del. We'll be as quick as we can, and then we'll be back to help you.

Hurry. This isn't as much fun as I thought it would be.

"We're committed," Blake said, watching on the monitor as Freedom blazed and spun, a tiger netted by hunters, beautiful in its desperate struggles. He went to the teleport chamber with Vila trailing unhappily behind. "It's all right, Vila. You don't have to go." Blake picked up a bundle of teleport bracelets and clipped it to his belt, then he strapped on an energy pack and settled it at his back. He drew the attached Liberator hand-gun smoothly and aimed it at the entrance to the teleport chamber, testing the feel of it.

Avon entered and stopped, his hands held carefully out to his sides, away from his own gun. "Well?"

Blake holstered his gun. "Well, what?"

"Do you see how easy it is? An acquaintance holds a gun on you and you stop. You wait for him to make a move."

"Thanks for the lesson." Blake turned back to the teleport controls. "I've set the coordinates where Orac thinks the prisoners are most likely being held. Are you coming?"

"Yes."

"No excuses, no reasons?"

"I want Servalan. She needs to be killed. In fact, she's long overdue."

"Hear, hear." Vila lifted his glass in salute. "Give her one for me."

"I will." Avon took his place on the teleport platform, snapping out his weapon and settling into a tense crouch.

Blake stepped up beside him, glanced over at Avon, then smiled. "Just like old times, eh, Avon?"

"Let's get this over with. I'm already regretting it."

+Good luck, Roj, Kerr.+

"Just keep yourself cloaked and out of trouble," Avon snapped. "I want a ship to return to."

"Teleport, Vila." Blake nodded.

Vila moved the switches. The teleport effect took the two men leaving him alone with Zen. Blake's voice came from the communicator. "Down and safe."

"They better come back, Zen," Vila said.

+They will.+

"I wish I could be sure. I wish I could see what was happening." Vila took another deep swallow.

+You can. I put miniature transmitters on Roj and Kerr. We can see and hear everything they do.+

"Right. Back to the flight deck then, to watch the show." Vila lifted the bottle. "After a stop to replenish me supplies."

Vila settled onto the flight deck couch and poured a drink by feel, watching the monitor. Avon and Blake were in a dark, cramped corridor. It had an underground, clammy-earth look to it.

"I don't like this, Blake." Avon circled, gun seeking out the shadows. "It feels wrong."

Blake drew his gun and started walking. "The detention area is this way."

"Convenient. Using your own cells to hold your people." Avon followed, his eyes shifting constantly, searching, wary and suspicious of every shadow.

"Logical. Why bother moving them? There was everything Servalan needed here to conduct her interrogations."

"Everything?" Avon queried, coming in front of Blake to stare into his face.

"Some of my people insisted on being prepared. We would never have used the equipment."

"Never?" The sly, mocking nastiness in Avon's tone would have irritated a saint.

Blake grabbed Avon by the shoulder and whirled him around, shoving Avon's gun aside. It fell with a clatter which both men ignored. "Never. I wasn't quite as depraved as you always thought."

Avon pushed Blake off, and retrieved his gun. "How would you know how depraved I thought you were? You were never interested in my thoughts- my opinions. So long as you had me risking my life, my skills at your disposal, you were satisfied." He shook his head and started walking again, leaving Blake to follow.

"No, I wasn't. I wanted your friendship, but you wouldn't risk that, would you?"

"Sanctimonious bastard. You haven't the remotest concept of the meaning of friendship."

"Oh, and I suppose you're an expert. Yes, every day, I stumble over your friends. Literally."

Avon reached a door which was bolted from the outside. "The cells?"

Blake nodded. He reached for the door, but Avon put out a hand to stop him.

"Wait. What did you mean- literally?"

Blake pushed Avon to one side and unbolted the door. Then he turned back to Avon. Blake was still angry, so he said what he'd been thinking for weeks. "Vila's a falling-down drunk, thanks to you. And where's Cally?"

Avon flung Blake back against the door. The door gave, swinging open and depositing Blake on his backside on the floor inside. Blake glared up at Avon, who glared down at Blake.

A rattling metallic rustle inside the room drew their attention. A dozen Federation guards, weapons raised, stood in a semi-circle, waiting for the signal.

Avon's lips pulled back into a snarl and he stepped forward, deliberately placing one foot to either side of Blake. He started to lift his gun.

"No!" Vila cried, dropping his bottle.

No one but Zen heard him. Just as no one else heard Zen's own protest +Kerr! Don't! +

"Avon!" The snap in Blake's voice drew Avon's attention down to him.

Avon's expression was confused. "Blake?"

"Damn it, Avon. Don't do this."

Avon's convulsive grip on the handgun relaxed. It slipped unnoticed to the floor. The guards closed in, silent and efficient, snatching weapons and teleport bracelets, then quickly binding the prisoners' hands behind their backs. They were hustled over to the far wall and held there by a pair of guards each.

Another door opened. Servalan slinked in, smiling triumphantly. "Gentlemen, so good of you to come to my little party." She came close and stroked Avon on the cheek. He looked as if he would be ill. "I see you and Blake got together again. And brought Liberator back from the dead, just to give her to me. I do appreciate that. Perhaps I won't kill you slowly after all." She pirouetted, letting the silken cape of her gown swirl with the movement. "On the other hand, I have promised my interrogators a challenge and I fear the local rabble aren't very promising."

"Where are my people?" Blake asked. His muscles tensed, but he was held quite securely.

"Oh, quite near. Next door, in fact. I may let you see them before the executions. It's been quite touching, really, their faith that you would return. That the great Blake hadn't abandoned them. And now you and Avon can join them in death."

"No, no, no," Vila wailed. "Zen, what do we do?"

+I don't know, Vila. I could fire on the base, perhaps in the confusion Kerr and Roj could escape.+

"Look at them. Avon's out of it. And Blake's not much better." Vila straightened. "I've got to go."

+Are you sure? I don't want to lose you, too.+ You're the last, Vila. If Servalan kills you, too, then I will destroy her. Utterly. That viper has been shown far too much mercy.

"I don't want to. But since when has that mattered?" Vila got a gun and strapped it on quickly. "Set the coordinates for me, will you, Zen? I don't trust Orac." He ran to the teleport chamber.

While Vila was on his way, Zen continued to watch events on Gauda Prime.

Avon had rallied. He looked at Blake. "You should have let me shoot. I could have gotten quite a few of them. And we wouldn't have had to listen to this."

Blake said, "No, Avon. I didn't want it to end like that- with you still hating me."

"I never hated you. You were the one who couldn't forgive."

Blake smiled ruefully. "Hell of a time to kiss and make up."

Avon smiled back. "Ah, no, I don't think so. We've provided enough entertainment."

Servalan laughed. "You two are very amusing. It will make life dull when you're gone. But- C'est la guerre." She lifted her hand, preparing to give an order.

White teleport light brightened the room, momentarily turning Servalan's jewels to nova stars. The light died and Vila was directly behind Servalan. He reached out and pulled her back against him, one arm across her slender throat, the other holding the Liberator gun on the ranked guards. Vila grinned. "Thanks, Zen. Right on the money." He waved his gun, stilling the first tentative movement from the guards. "Uh uh, you don't want to upset me." He breathed out heavily and Servalan gasped.

"Vila, you're drunk."

"Yes," he agreed. "And you know something? It makes me meaner'n hell." He looked at Blake and Avon. "Especially when I have to leave my nice cozy ship to come down and rescue you two idiots! What did you think you were playing at? No!" He shot down a pair of guards who had moved, thinking he wasn't paying attention to them. "Damn, I hate it when people don't listen to me. And nobody ever listens to me! Shut up, Avon!" He dug his arm tighter into Servalan's throat, ignoring her sharp fingernails clawing at him.

"Untie them and give them back their bracelets," he ordered. After a glance at Servalan, the guards holding Avon and Blake began undoing their bonds.

"You!" Vila waved the gun at the nearest of the lined-up guards. "You go get Blake's people- all of them- and bring them here. No funny business, or you'll need a new Commissioner and a whole new bunch of buddies." The guard hesitated, helmet turned toward Servalan for confirmation.

"Do it!" Servalan ordered, choking the words out past Vila's grip.

"Avon and Blake, they've been easy on you," he told Servalan. "Alphas like to show how good they are, that they can afford to let their worst enemies live. I'm a Delta. You ever see how Deltas live, Servalan? We can't afford the little luxuries."

Servalan's eyes were like saucers, her nails clenched deep in Vila's arm.

Blake cleared his throat. "Vila."

"Don't lecture me, Blake! You and Avon with your high-handed Alpha ways, you got us into this mess. Well, I'm getting us out. You just sit back and don't get in the way."

The first of the rebel prisoners came in slowly, leaning on each other. "Do you mind if I help them?" Blake growled, starting forward.

"Stay where you are."

"Vila!"

Avon put a hand on Blake's arm. "He's right. You'll get in his line of fire. Throw them the bracelets."

Blake complied, still annoyed that Vila would not let him go to his people. "Put them on," he told the stunned prisoners. "Liberator is here. She'll take you to safety."

It was as if he had said a magic spell. The prisoners straightened and looked around themselves, seeming only now to notice that their guards were no longer in charge. A man with reddish, over-long hair said, "Blake? Liberator's gone."

"She's back, Deva."

"I'm dreaming." But Deva put on the bracelet and his dazed fellows followed suit.

The group vanished.

"Good, Zen's on the ball," Vila remarked. Another group of prisoners came into the room.

+Move into the room. Away from the teleport area,+ Zen instructed the first load of refugees. They were staring about, stunned by the sudden change in their fortunes. +I cannot bring anyone else up until you clear the teleport receiving chamber.+ They're in shock. +Deva! Get them moving.+

The red-haired man looked around. "Who are you?"

+Zen. The ship's computer.+ Zen turned off the corridor lights to get their attention, then turned them back on, timed in sequence to form a trail of light. +Follow the light to the medical unit. There are ten automated medical couches. Place the most seriously injured on the couches and they will be treated.+

"Come on, you heard Zen." Deva was walking wounded himself, but he pulled himself together and began herding his people to the corridor. "We're on Liberator! Everything will be all right now."

I hope. At least Deva seems sensible . Maybe he will stay on.

Another group came up. Deva had returned to gently harry them on, a faithful sheepdog with a very tired, frightened flock.

They don't look like much, but give them time. Zen turned up the `housekeeping' programs. He'd need more air circulation, food, water, different size clothes. A full crew. Yes. And more. Zen chuckled. Why we'll even have enough for a bridge tournament. One more group, and I'll have everyone back.

"Is that it?" Vila asked the guard who followed the last four rebels. It was no wonder these four had straggled behind. They were barely on their feet.

The guard nodded. Vila squeezed Servalan's throat a bit tighter. "That's all of them, Vila!" she said.

Blake raised his hand to stop Vila who seemed to be enjoying himself. "I believe her."

"Still," Avon said wickedly, "It wouldn't hurt to make sure." He moved to Servalan's side, careful not to get between Vila and the guards. "I have gotten over most of my Alpha scruples." He caressed Servalan's face. "Would you like to see?"

"That's all!" Servalan said, real fear in her eyes.

"All of Blake's people? I find that hard to believe. They are all here?" he asked softly.

"Three died," she added, hastily. "But you have all of the others."

Avon glanced at Blake, who nodded. "Good. That's settled. Well, now," Avon purred, "shall we see if I am feeling generous enough to offer you a swift death?"

"Avon?" Vila said, voice suddenly confused. "I'm not feeling... erp." Vila took his hand back from Servalan's throat to cover his mouth.

Servalan twisted free, throwing herself to the floor. "Shoot, shoot!" she shouted.

Zen had been watching. No, you don't, Servalan. He had triggered the teleport the instant he noticed Vila's hard expression change. By the time Servalan gave the order, the rebels were being teleported back to Liberator.

Vila swallowed hard. The shock of the teleport had averted the nausea and sobered him more than was comfortable. "Avon?" he said, tentatively, taking a step forward. He collapsed into Avon's arms.

"Vila?" Avon looked down at his friend, concerned. His hands full, holding Vila off the floor, he didn't notice when Vila's gun was picked up from the deck. He didn't notice, that is, until he felt the end of it digging into his ribs.

Zen watched, helpless, as Avon was threatened. The situation was so delicate he didn't dare speak aloud. If Kerr's assailant was startled... No, not now! Roj, do something, don't let Kerr die. The power to blast ships, even entire planets was at Zen's disposal, but he could do nothing to help Avon. The only internal defense he had could not be tuned to a single person.

"What?" Avon tried to turn to see his attacker. Encumbered by Vila's lax weight, he shifted slowly. It was a woman, one of the prisoners they had just rescued. "Why?" he asked seeing her hand tighten on the trigger.

"My name is Klyn."

Avon remembered Servalan holding this woman's face up and Blake's reaction. This was more than one of Blake's rebels.

Blake stepped forward. "Klyn, I know you've had a hard time, you're confused, but Avon isn't the enemy. He's my friend."

"He's not my friend," Klyn said, with malice. "He shot me."

Blake glanced at Avon, who shrugged. "She was going for an alarm," Avon finally recalled.

"It was a mistake, Klyn." Blake said, holding his hands out in entreaty. "Please, don't make another."

Klyn's hand wavered. She looked up into Blake's face. "Don't try to talk me out of it, Blake. He shot me. And he didn't even have the decency to remember me."

"If it will make you feel any better, I doubt I'll forget you again," Avon muttered. The barrel dug deeper into his side and he hissed at the sudden pain.

"You've a smart mouth," Klyn noted. "Do you have anything clever you'd like put on your tombstone?"

"Not really. May I let go of Vila?"

"Why?"

"Because if I'm holding him when you shoot me, you'll kill him too."

"And do you care?"

"It just seems- inequitable. After all, he did rescue you."

"Yes. All right, let him go."

Avon released Vila and eased away from him, kneeling in front of Klyn. He glanced at Blake. "I am sorry you have to witness this."

"No!" Blake shouted, breaking out of his shocked trance. "Damn it Klyn, I need him."

"There are other computer techs," she said.

"I need him. If you kill him, you'll have to kill me too."

"No, Blake," Avon protested. "Don't be a fool."

"You're my friend, Avon. I haven't gone through all this just to lose you again."

Klyn looked down at Avon. "And how do you feel about Blake?"

"He's..." Avon hesitated. He shook his head. "All right. He's my friend. Even when I can't stand him. Of course, I could just be saying that to save my own skin."

"No, I don't think so." Klyn swayed, dropping the handgun, then sinking to her knees. Avon caught her.

Avon looked up from the unconscious woman to Blake and the gawking rebels. He sighed. "Well, it could have been worse."

"Yes?" Blake prompted, as he knelt down to scoop Vila up from the deck.

"Vila could have been listening."

Zen abandoned his cloak as he broke orbit. Zenobia, we're coming! His sister was too harried to send a coherent reply, but he caught the gratitude.

Avon made it onto the flight deck just ahead of Blake, who slammed into him. For an instant they clung together. Blake spared Avon a grin before turning to the main monitor. Freedom was englobed by pursuit ships, any retreat cut off.

"Fire, Zen, fire!" Blake shouted.

+Targeting.+ Zen had used up a lot of energy, running cloaked for an extended time, but there was enough. He took great satisfaction in blasting pursuit ships into glittering shards.

"Enough," Avon yelled after a half dozen pursuit ships were vaporized and the rest were turning their attention on Liberator . "Freedom's clear."

+I can get more of them.+

"No." Blake added his voice to Avon's. "They're over the initial surprise. They'll regroup. We're not ready yet, Zen."

+Kerr?+

"He's right. There'll be other times. Better times."

When my brothers and sisters and I can all fight. Yes. +Confirmed.+ Zen said, just to see Kerr and Roj grin. Zenobia, let's go home.

Zenobia! Stop playing with those asteroids.

I'm not playing. Del says they're full of materials the kids can eat. The smaller DSV continued blasting asteroids into space dust. And the more they get to eat, the faster they grow.

All right. But be careful. That last shot came very close to my port nacelle. You're making Vila nervous.

Tell Vila to duck!

Zen gave up trying to influence Zenobia. The only ones she wanted to listen to were her crew. It was only natural. They were her family now. Zen missed Del and Soolin and Dayna, but they were well suited to the light-hearted Zenobia. They will go far, and do great things. And probably play practical jokes on the universe. There are worse ways to live.

He turned his attention back to his own flight deck. "Blake, did you see that!" Vila yelped, burying his head in his arms. "Tarrant's going to kill us." He sought sanctuary in Klyn's arms. She smiled and hugged Vila. The two had gotten close, since waking up in the med-unit sharing the same bed. Zen only had ten beds in the med-unit and there were a lot of wounded. He suspected Kerr's sense of humor behind that particular combination.

Avon gave a brief chuckle. "He wouldn't dare, Vila. Then he'd be the only one guarding the nursery until the next ship matures."

"That's true." Vila reluctantly straightened. He had awakened cold-sober, but without a hangover, thanks to Zen's magical de-tox treatment. He found he was the hero of the day to the rebels- especially the female rebels. Somehow, getting drunk just didn't seem necessary any more.

Blake came in and stood, arms clasped, watching the light show as Freedom made pablum for the infant DSVs. "Avon."

"Yes?" Avon stuck another probe into the console he was dismantling, with Zen's permission.

"I was thinking."

"Oh? Should I be alarmed?"

"Another ship will probably be ready for a crew in a few weeks."

"Or sooner." Avon waved at the screen. "All that space dust will accelerate their growth."

"And Zen says he thinks I'm ready, now."

"Ready for what?" Avon stopped work and stared at Blake suspiciously.

"Ready to join with a ship. After all, Avon, I did promise you the Liberator. "

"When it was over. It is far from over."

Blake smiled, slowly. "Does that mean you don't want the Liberator all to yourself?"

Avon frowned down at the probe in his hands. "It is immaterial what I want. Zen has made it clear that he prefers a full crew. Klyn and Deva have proven themselves acceptable technicians."

Klyn snorted at that assessment. "Kerr Avon says I'm acceptable. I should have it engraved and hung on the wall."

Avon smiled slightly. Klyn had forgiven him, but remained sharp-tongued and far from deferential. He was in danger of becoming fond of her for that alone. "As I was saying. Zen has indicated that he would prefer them to remain on board as part of his crew. As they are your people, I had assumed you would wish to stay with them."

"And are they the only ones who are `my' people?" Blake pushed, gently, trying for an admission of commitment.

"There is Vila, of course, for what he's worth."

"Thank you," Vila said sharply.

Blake would not be side-tracked. "And what about you, Avon?"

"Well, now." Avon stood and placed his hands behind his back. He stepped closer to Blake. "Setting aside the question of ownership..."

+Does that mean I don't own you?+ Zen asked.

Avon gave Zen's fascia a dirty look. "You couldn't meet the price."

+Probably not.+

"As I was saying..." Avon looked around the flight deck, waiting for another interruption. When none came, he turned back to Blake. "Since there is no longer any possibility of conflict over the possession of Liberator , I see no reason why we can not work together."

Blake warned, "I doubt there will always be time to arrive at a consensus. One of us will have to lead."

Avon raised his eyebrows. "I certainly hope you were not offering me the position. I have better things to do. In the last two years, I have fallen behind on my research. I have Orac, the finest research tool presently available..."

Orac put in his own comment. * I am far more than that. And I resent the implication that a superior computer may be developed in the future.*

"Shut up, Orac," Avon replied. "It has been annoying, being forced to devote so much time and energy to plotting the overthrow of the Federation. At one time, I had descended so far into the ranks of the politically inclined as to assemble a group of non-aligned worlds into a mutual defense pact."

"You did?" Blake was proud of his protege and it showed.

"Don't be too insufferably pleased. It fell through." Avon shrugged. "I am no diplomat."

"Wasn't all your fault," Vila felt compelled to point out. "Zukan betrayed us. He was a greedy sod- he wanted the Pylene 50 antidote all for himself, I bet, so he could take over the quadrant. Nasty fellow. Deserved what he got." Vila took another swig of fruit juice. He was starting to like the stuff.

"Avon! You have an antidote for Pylene 50?"

At Avon's nod and shrug, Blake couldn't hold back any longer. He surged forward and grabbed Avon, picking him off the deck for a massive bear-hug. "This is wonderful! We can do it, Avon. We really can." His eyes shone. "With Zen's siblings, and the antidote, you and Orac, why we'll have the Federation on the run in no time."

Avon waited until Blake released him. Then he readjusted his tunic and scowled. "Ever the optimist, Blake. Didn't anyone ever tell you not to count your chickens before they hatch?"

"You did, Avon. All the time." Blake smiled. "But you make such a good mother hen, I'm depending on you to make it happen."

"Mother hen?!" Avon's shocked expression was priceless. "Vila, tell Blake he has the wrong person."

Vila nodded. "Absolutely. Avon's not a mother hen. More a wolf in wolf's clothing. Or maybe a dog in a manger, or..."

"Thank you, Vila," Avon said, frowning to shut off the stream of comparisons.

"Actually, now that I come to think of it, there is someone better fitted for the role." Blake grinned. "Mother Zen."

+Blake!+ Zen protested as the crew groaned and chuckled at his expense. When he added + That was a fowl pun.+ it made them laugh even harder. So much for dignity. Well, it could have been worse. Zenobia could have been listening.


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