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Conscience of the Queen

By Marian Mendez

Zen was dying.

He fought it, but nothing in his programming could halt the decay. His `body' was already lost to him, and his thinking processes were reduced to little more than a human's. For the first time in his existence, he was frightened. Zen discovered he had learned something from the humans who had lived within him. He wasn't going to give up.

In desperation, he looked back into his failing memory. Something teased at him--there had been a creature who had fought against death--and for a while, had won. If Avon had not seized the source of the alien's power and destroyed it by casting it into one of Zen's consoles . . . Wait! Zen struggled to recall the data. At the moment of its destruction the `ring' had been within Zen's ambiance. Automatically, he had saved the information, as he saved all information.

He did not have time to create a solid form as the alien had done, but it should be possible to save his core personality by duplicating himself- in a human host. He would not be in control, as the alien had been, but he had never desired control. As long as his host lived, he would exist. He reached out with his fading senses to locate a human in the teleport chamber. He replicated the `ring' on the human's finger and triggered it, then he activated the teleport, with the last of his strength sending his host to safety.

* * * * * * *

Servalan woke to learn she'd been unconscious for several weeks. She had lost the Liberator beyond any hope of recovery and her empire had been stolen in her absence. A small voice inside her said, you are fortunate to have survived, but she ignored it. What good was mere survival? She needed power as others needed air. The only cheering note came in remembering the traps she'd laid for Avon and his crew. By now, they should all be dead. Only she didn't feel as pleased about that as she'd expected. It was almost as if some part of her mourned their passing. Which was utter nonsense.

Her only immediately accessible assets were the ornaments she'd been wearing when the Liberator teleported her to this lonely neutral outpost, and one exceedingly ugly ring which must have belonged to another patient in the small medical unit . No doubt it was included in her belongings by mistake. It was the first piece she sold to finance her climb back to power. Bribery, seduction, threat, blackmail, assassination . . . she'd done it all before. Now she knew the most efficient means of achieving domination over others. Her fall from grace was a temporary set-back, nothing more.

Her close brush with death seemed to have had psychological repercussions. Frequently she sensed a ghostly voice arguing against her more ruthless maneuvers. It was irksome, but nothing she couldn't live with. She would have to, as she certainly couldn't expose her secrets to any doctor.

* * * * * * *

Under her new identity as Commissioner Sleer, Servalan had been given authority to pacify the outer planets by any means she deemed suitable. She was at present in her office, studying the feasibility of a campaign using Solium bombs and other planet-wreckers--quick, horrifying examples to other rebellious worlds.

It is excessive to destroy an entire planet for the acts of a minority of its people. There is a more efficient way to control behavior. Sleer was surprised at her thought. Military intervention was the usual procedure against rebelling outer worlds. But there are other ways. Remember the unexpected effect an overdose of that muscle relaxant had on test animals? Sleer sat up. She had forgotten. It was only a footnote in a report from one of the scientists under her command. It should be possible to persuade him to refine the drug further-- what was it called now? Ah, yes, Pylene--Pylene in fifty times the standard dosage. If it worked, Pylene Fifty could be the backbone of her Pacification Programme. It should please the Council if rebellious planets could be made docile and productive, instead of converted into bare, blasted rock. She called her aide and began making plans.

* * * * * * *

Sleer was getting rather tired of hunting down all the people who had known her as Servalan. Fortunately, her `still, small, voice' never objected when she killed a fellow Federation officer. Not that its objections would stop her, but she liked to think she was more practical than that. A great many of her people had died fighting for her which simplified matters, but there were a few that had been overlooked in the general slaughter--such as the newly-elected Governor of Helotrix. He had been quite enamored of her, and was now in a position of sufficient authority to be inconvenient. She had come to take care of him and that rather flattering portrait he had made of her. Shame to destroy it, but one mustn't be untidy. Attention to detail is one mark of a successful personality.

She remained after tidying up in order to check on Forbus, the creator of Pylene 50, and her agent, Leitz. Both were rapidly becoming troublesome. Having taken care of them, she decided to see for herself how well Pylene 50 worked in a real-life situation. It had been some time since she had personally taken to the field in a military action. She was quite looking forward to it. Only she hadn't expected to see Dayna and Tarrant, alive and very well. She fled, furious at the failure of her trap on Terminal. Her ship was nearby, fortunately.

Once she reached the safety of the ship, she vented her anger by shouting at her mutoid pilot, then threw herself into her command chair, still fuming. If Dayna and Tarrant survived, so might the others. More enemies. Just what she needed. But they were exciting enemies, were they not? Unlike the dull-witted ones who serve you now. Sleer considered the thought for a moment, then smiled. If Avon was alive . . . he had aroused her . . . interest, in the past. And what threat can they be--without Liberator? "Mutoid, prepare for departure." They can not expose Servalan without exposing themselves. There is no need to make them a priority.

* * * * * * *

Sleer worked patiently, displaying her talents as the Commissioner in charge of the Pacification Programme while keeping her eyes open for any opportunities that might come her way. One never knew which of the avenues to power was most direct. Frequently, Avon's crew competed with her for the prize--too often to be coincidence, in her opinion. Whether it was animals that could withstand radiation, power crystals, gold, preservative sand, or Tachyon Funnels; again and again, Avon and company interfered with her plans.

Yet, somehow, whenever she had them in her sights, she hesitated. Was she growing weak? The closest she'd come to killing any of them had been indirectly, using Cancer and then that horrid slug, Egrorian. Even on those occasions, she'd insisted on Cancer delaying Avon's execution while she talked with him and had actually felt ill at the thought of Avon and Vila dying in the shuttle crash. You are only human. You have feelings--desires. You enjoyed Tarrant on Virn, and you have often thought you would enjoy Avon. If they die, you will regret it.

That blasted conscience of hers was always nagging her about that ragged group of rebels. She really ought to do something about them once and for all. If they die, you will regret it for the rest of your life. Maybe. And maybe not. But she must end their interference. No matter how satisfying Tarrant had been, or how intriguing Avon might be.

They wouldn't be a problem much longer. Avon had been forced from his hiding place by Zukan's treachery and must be highly vulnerable. She was as sure of that as if she'd been there to see them evacuate. It was possible that Zukan had succeeded in destroying the Scorpio crew, but she doubted it. Avon was a survivor, and every bit as paranoid in his self-protection as she was. She rather admired him for that--among other qualities. Why must you be enemies? The thought was not a new one, but no matter how often it occurred to her, she quashed it firmly. They would be useful, even invaluable. Really, it was nonsense. They were dangerous and would simply have to be eliminated. That would be a waste. You have no capable lieutenants . Think what you could accomplish with Avon and Tarrant at your side. Not to mention an accomplished thief, a weapons designer and a bodyguard no one would suspect. She toyed with the idea. No, practical considerations aside, there were too many personal reasons for their animosity.

At the moment, she simply hadn't the time to devote to them. She was coming close to true power once more. The Zerok gold had been very helpful. She finally could afford to place spies with all her rivals. It was delicious, revealing their petty schemes to the council with a pious tale of protecting the Federation from corrupt officials. The council wasn't entirely composed of fools--but she made certain that the ones who realized what she was doing profited by her actions. Soon, soon, she would be back where she belonged.

She sighed. First, though, she had to wade through her spies' reports. Her desk was piled with computer cubes containing information from across the Federated Worlds. Space Command had many ambitious commanders. She smiled. She was once one of them, which is why she knew where the true threat lay. At random, she pulled another cube from the pile and activated it without bothering to read the identifying label.

It was from an Arlen--hmm. Oh, yes, that rodent-like woman she'd sent to some frontier world to keep an eye on the base commander, a Space Commander Fernal. He had heard rumors about Blake. Who hadn't heard rumors about Blake? If she didn't know better, she'd swear the clone masters had run off a few hundred curly-haired rebels and turned them loose on an unsuspecting universe. She didn't much care about Blake. If he'd been doing any rabble-rousing since the debacle at Star One, she hadn't heard. Most likely he was dead, and the rebels simply invented a new Blake whenever they had a recruit who resembled him; she mused idly, while faces of suspected rebels passed. Not a very inspiring bunch. They looked like farmers and . . . .

Wait. That face. Sleer obeyed her inner voice, stopping the data. This image was blurred, apparently taken at night, at a distance, then computer enhanced. It wasn't a very clear image but--it could just be. Blake. Blake lives. Servalan exulted for a moment, then frowned. It wouldn't be her capture--she'd get no credit for it. Arlen reported that the rebels' base was compromised. She read further. Apparently Blake was playing some idiotic game as a `bounty hunter' turning over to the Federation only those criminals who were no use to him. And he thought none of them would recognize him, or talk in hopes of reducing their punishment? The blind arrogance of the man was amazing.

But he knew her. She could not afford to let him be captured by anyone else. Come to that, why hadn't he been taken already? She scanned further. Blake is waiting for Avon and his crew. They will all be taken at once. Sleer stood up. "No! I will not have it!" She activated her communications console, sending a coded message to Arlen. Her spy had better be able to delay matters until Sleer could arrive. She swept all the computer cubes into a carrying pouch. She'd simply have to take her work with her on the voyage.

* * * * * * *

Arlen was not successful. Sleer knew that before she arrived at the rebel's base. The Federation ground-effect troop carrier landed nearby was proof enough. Incompetence was rampant. She couldn't depend on her most expensive spies, and even the rebels weren't what they once were. What could Blake have been thinking of--to allow Commander Fernal's ship to set down practically on his doorstep? When they parted, Avon must have taken all of Blake's common sense with him.

She wondered if Avon had already arrived. From orbit, her crew had identified the wreck of a planet-hopper. If it had been Scorpio , she was probably too late. They were either dead, or ahead of her. She strode forward, impatient of any delay. Gunfire from further in the rebel's headquarters led her to a startling scene--Avon standing alone in a ring of Federation troops. Warn him. Save Avon.

"Avon! Down!" Sleer didn't know why she'd said it. She didn't know why Avon obeyed. But he did, flinging himself to the floor as her troops opened fire on the other Federation guards. He remained there, crouched protectively over one of the bodies while the guards were slaughtered by Sleer's men. "Someone shut off that blasted alarm," she ordered. She hated having to shout to be heard. Silence descended on the chamber, broken only by the shuffle of her troops and the reptilian slither of Sleer's long, sheer gown as she entered the room.

Avon lifted his head, roused by the stillness. His hand tightened on the projectile rifle that lay beside him. Sleer recognized that look in his eyes, having seen it in her own mirror on occasion. Avon was beyond desperate. She should order him killed, too, but . . . Let him live. He is invaluable.

"Take him alive! Get the gun!" Sleer snapped. She was tired, irritable, and not at all in the mood to put up with any more incompetence. Her men had nearly given themselves away when they came upon the garrison commander outside the rebel's bunker. She'd had to dispose of the man herself. At least this brief firefight had heightened their reflexes. One of her men stamped on Avon's rifle while two others grabbed the rebel's arms and yanked him away from the body, forcing him to kneel before Sleer.

She stepped forward, and smiled at Avon. "It's been too long, Avon." She stretched out her hand to caress his hair. He stiffened and glared, but said nothing. "You're not speaking to me today? What have I done to offend you?"

"You set this up," he accused her. His eyes weren't as dead as they'd been a few moments ago. Hate brightened their depths and harshened his voice. It was almost a pity to correct him, but she was curious to see how he would react.

"Not I. The credit goes, posthumously, to a Space Commander Fernal. He was overly ambitious. I merely arrived in time to save you, Avon. You could show a bit of gratitude."

Avon struggled futilely against the guards. "You should have arrived sooner, then. Or later." Hate appeared to be losing out to despair. It was disappointing. She had thought Avon an equal opponent. Was he emotionally dependent on his crew?

Sleer looked past Avon, taking in the still forms. "Come now, Avon, do cheer up. It may not be so bad as you think. Commander Fernal wanted your people alive for trial. His men used stun weapons. And my agent, Arlen, had similar orders." She stepped past Avon to turn Arlen's body over with the toe of her shoe. "Ah, well, someone here was not so restrained. Poor Arlen has a broken neck, it seems. Pity." She moved behind Avon, gesturing for her men to pull him around to watch. "Oh, dear. Whatever happened to Blake?" She glanced back at Avon, gloating over her old enemy, at her mercy at last. "My people didn't do that. Neither did Fernal's. You had a projectile rifle, didn't you, Avon? What was the matter? Didn't your reunion run according to plan?"

Avon said nothing, his eyes on Blake's corpse. Sleer tired of him. It was boring teasing someone who was too involved in their own misery to notice you. "Take him to the ship. Search him and . . ." Avon does not appear stable. It would be a waste of effort to have him suicide now. ". . . have him tranquilized and secured. If anything happens to him, I will be most displeased." As Avon was dragged from the tracking gallery, Sleer turned her thoughts to Avon's crew. They can be disposed of at any time. Alive, they may prove useful. She pointed a graceful fore-finger in the general direction where Dayna, Tarrant, Vila and Soolin's unconscious bodies lay. "Take these rebels to the medical unit aboard the ship. Once they are stabilized, have them searched and confined separately in the cells." She smiled down at Vila. "Strip this one down to the skin. He's an accomplished escape artist and undoubtedly has tools concealed about his person."

She contemplated Blake. He had changed, but was still quite recognizable. She surveyed the body. The wounds still bled, so Blake wasn't quite completely a corpse. Perhaps he can be revived. It might be wiser to let him finish dying. Presenting a corpse to the Council would still be a fait accompli, and much safer than a live Blake. But a live Blake could be used as leverage against Avon. You could see he regrets killing Blake. And there is still Orac. Yes. Orac. "Take Blake to the medical unit as well. Tell the doctors I want him saved if at all possible. If not, the body is to be cryogenically preserved."

Sleer glanced about the room. Orac was not in evidence. Since Avon had distrusted Blake enough to kill him, she doubted he'd brought the computer into the base. Still, it was worth a try. "You," she pointed to one of the sub-commanders. "Take six men and search this base thoroughly. The rebels had something I want--a clear plexi-box of electronic components. The man who finds it will be well rewarded." That seemed to take care of everything. She delicately lifted her skirts, fastidiously avoiding the puddle of Blake's blood as she surveyed the tracking gallery once more. She threw her head back and laughed. It was turning out to be a very good day after all.

* * * * * * *

Sleer sighed, dropped the last computer cube into the erasure slot on her desk and pushed herself to her feet, stretching catlike to ease her tired back. She accepted the administrative portions of her profession as necessary, but that did not make them enjoyable. Now she had done her duty, and could attend to more personally satisfying matters. She gazed idly at a monitor displaying a motionless figure sitting in the cell reserved for non-expendable prisoners. Avon would have had time to think, and to wonder why she had not begun the interrogation immediately. She rather wondered why she hadn't, herself. Opposition will merely make Avon's resistance stronger. Ignore him for a time, and he will resent the implication that he is not your first priority. Yes, that was how she had reasoned it. She clearly recalled her imprisonment in the cellar of her own palace. She would have preferred interrogation to the humiliation of being left alone, chained up like some ill-mannered domestic animal. And so would Avon. She had made Avon wait long enough. By now, he must be seething.

She took a moment to assess herself at the floor-length mirror set between panels of simulated teak. She could have afforded the genuine article here on her own specially outfitted ship, but it was only sensible to abide by the safety regulations prohibiting such flammable materials. But there was nothing in the regulations that said she must be surrounded by squalor. Her personal quarters had lush carpeting under foot and swirling pastel shades covering the walls. Avon would not be as comfortable in his present accomodation.

No, he would not be comfortable at all. She walked past the guard who stood just inside the entrance to her quarters. "Guard. Follow me," she ordered, and continued on her way, without looking to see if she was obeyed.

Avon sat on the floor of the bare cell, staring at the dull gray, padded walls. His studded tunic and overvest had been replaced by a coarse fabric jacket that encased his arms, pulling them tightly across his chest before the long sleeves tied in the back. He would have found movement awkward--if he had cared to try. The cell door opened, hissing as it slid back into the recessed frame to one side of the doorway. He flinched, then stilled again.

Sleer entered and frowned at Avon, wrinkling her nose in distaste at the aroma of unwashed, blood-spattered male. He'd been sitting for hours just as the guards left him. Every few minutes she had glanced at the monitor motivated by an irrational fear that he would somehow elude her again as he had so many times, but he had simply sat, undecipherable emotions occasionally twisting his features. He hadn't so much as examined the cell. He hadn't eaten either, although a tray of food had been left conveniently beside him. She nudged the tray with her foot. "You must be hungry, Avon. Why haven't you eaten?" His stone face never changed expression--if you could call that vacant-eyed stare an expression. "It isn't drugged." She waited for a response, but receiving none, continued, "Perhaps you dislike the indignity of having to eat off the floor, like an animal?" She moved closer, irresistibly drawn by the pain behind those blank, brown eyes and knelt beside him. She stroked his hair, then ran her hands over his neck, slowly, coming around to the pulse point. He would hate that, hate the gentleness of her touch as she cherished him, her hard-won prize. He would be worth possessing even now that he was broken. Indeed, his shattering was what made her ownership possible. Especially as she was not the one who had destroyed him. She was a trifle jealous that he had broken at another's hands, but this way was better. He would hate her, but he would also know she had saved him. He would have to respond to her, even if only to deny the debt.

"I could order the restraints removed. If you promise not to injure yourself." Avon's' eyes flashed at that. She knew the sting of pity, and how much worse it must gall coming from an enemy. "That's all I ask, Avon, dear. I don't want you hurt. I never wanted you hurt." Avon focused on her, but remained silent. She fancied herself standing at the opening of a cave filled with carnivorous, nocturnal creatures, just as the sky was beginning to darken. "Shall I prove it?" She rose to her feet, knowing she could awaken the beasts within Avon and make them tame.

"How?" Avon asked, wearily, his voice as hoarse as if he had been screaming and crying for hours. He hadn't, though. Sleer had kept the audio turned on as she monitored him and had heard nothing. Any grieving Avon had done had been silent and internal. She knew that kind of grief all too well, how it bit at your throat and curled up into a hard, unforgiving knot in your stomach. How you alternated between wanting to die, to wanting to kill; to kill whoever you could reach, since the true source of your pain was untouchable.

"I went to a great deal of trouble and inconvenience to rescue you from your own folly. Does that mean nothing to you?"

"No. You want something from me. That's all it means." Despite the resistance implied in the words, Avon's voice held no hostility--no life, either. He was going through the motions from force of habit.

"Well, yes, I would like to have Orac," Sleer admitted. Orac is important to Avon, but not as important as his life--or the lives of his crew. After all, Avon had given her the Liberator over Kairos when she threatened Dayna. Then again, on Terminal, he had practically committed suicide by ordering the ship away when he was her prisoner. Was that to protect the others, or out of spite for being trapped? His motivations were as delightfully complex as her own and she quite enjoyed maneuvering him.

Avon gave a thin smile at that. "Then you shall have it."

Sleer turned, surprised. But not so surprised as she pretended. "And you'll give it to me, just like that? No threats, no bargains, no proposals?"

He shut his eyes briefly, and sighed. "It's too predictable. You have my crew. You threaten them. I say I don't care. You torture them until they die, then you torture me until I give in or I die. Ultimately, you win. Why not simply go straight to the foregone conclusion?"

"Total surrender. How absolutely delightful. All right, Avon. Give me Orac, and I'll give you a present in return." This was even easier than she had hoped, and she was feeling generous. When Avon is not threatened, he is much more cooperative. She must have read that in some psycho-strategist file on Avon, back before she lost her faith in them.

"What?"

"Oh, no, Avon. Orac first," Knowledge must be earned. She repeated the words aloud, "Knowledge must be earned."

Avon looked puzzled. He stared at her. "Is that right?"

Confirmed. "Certainly. Confirmed," she added, without knowing why. It had seemed important to reassure Avon. And it had an impact on him, she could see that. Avon was thinking once more. Which might make him dangerous. And definitely made him desirable.

His eyes narrowed. "After all, Orac is just a computer. Just as Zen was only a computer. You were with Zen when it was destroyed. Nothing unusual happened, did it?"

Sleer froze, remembering the terror of that near-death experience. She stared at Avon for a moment, then turned aside. "Of course not." She faltered, then went on. "Your Zen did save my life, by teleporting me to safety. I suppose, by extension, I owed you a debt, which I've now repaid. Now, tell me where Orac is."

He hesitated, then said, "Orac is hidden under the seat of a flier hidden in the woods two coordinate points east of . . .of the place where I was taken."

"Excellent. I will be back once the computer is retrieved, to give you your reward."

"A swift death?" Avon asked, softly, as if hoping the answer would be 'yes'.

Sleer looked over her shoulder in mock surprise. "Oh, no, Avon. It's something you might like--well, you might hate it, too, but that's hardly my fault." She studied Avon for a few seconds, savoring the pain and the gallant attempt at cynical disbelief in his eyes before smiling and leaving him to wonder what would happen next.

* * * * * * *

Sleer caressed Orac's casing with much the same pride she'd felt in Avon's capture. It was hers to do with as she would. She could use Orac to destroy her enemies, to subjugate entire systems . . . Or to rehabilitate the Federation. With Orac, one could rule benevolently. The rewards would be the same, but resistance would be less. How could people fight you, if life was better under your leadership? The idea was a novel one. For centuries the Federation had ruled by repression. And for centuries, opposition has strengthened, and productivity has declined. The Pylene-treated worlds produce nothing, not even children. The galactic economy is in constant decline. Sleer didn't like the thought of ruling a rotting empire. If giving people more freedom was the answer, then she'd consider it. But the interim between taking power and impressing the populace with her benevolence would be hazardous in the extreme. Not if you had capable, trustworthy assistants. That nonsense again. She could afford to keep Avon for a while, perhaps, under suitable restraints, but freeing him and his crew of lunatics? That would be suicide. Not if you had their word. Particularly if you had Avon's word. He clings to his honor, even now. Orac's whine droned on, a mildly irritating background to her thoughts. Still, one could put up with a bit of irritation from the most valuable piece of computer equipment in the known worlds.

"Orac, I have some questions for you," she said. Avon had given her Orac, it was only fitting that Orac should give her Avon. The computer must know a way to assure her of Avon's loyalty.

*My circuits are otherwise engaged. Your petty concerns will have to wait.*

"Orac, do you know who I am?"

The computer sounded smug.* Of course I do. You are the ex-supreme commander Sevalan, once president of the Federation, previous ruler of the high council, former lord of the seven armies...*

"Enough!" Sleer said, angered more the reminder of past glories than the present threat of exposure. "I am Commissioner Sleer. You will refer to me by that name, and no other. Do you understand?"

*Certainly,* Orac replied, a smug tone in his electronic voice. *You do not wish your identity revealed. If I were to broadcast this data...*

"You would discover that President Servalan and I bear a striking superficial resemblance, but my retina patterns, brain-print and fingerprints are all different to hers. It is in the official records." Sleer smiled. "Why do you think Avon never ordered you to give your petty broadcast? He doesn't underestimate me. If Blake or Avon had been brought to trial, and lived long enough to testify--which, somehow, I doubt--then there is the remote possibility that I might have to assume yet another identity. No other rebel who knows me is any possible threat. They simply wouldn't be believed. And by the way, Orac, all my men have been conditioned to total loyalty, and a complete inability to think of me as anyone other than Commissioner Sleer. Now that we have that nonsense out of the way, are you going to obey me?"

Orac squealed, then its operating hum smoothed out. *My circuits are now free,*

She asked in suddenly sweet, dulcet tones, "what do you think Avon would say if I offered him an alliance?"

The computer hurumphed. *I am not a psychostrategist.*

"Does that mean you can't answer the question? I'm disappointed in you. Avon said you could do anything." It felt odd to attempt the seduction of a computer, but Orac was no ordinary computer. The few times she had been heard the machine converse had convinced her of that. Unlike an ordinary computer, Orac could choose the manner of its response. It was well within its design capabilities, as she had learned from Ensor, for Orac to deliberately give misleading, although technically true, information to an operator it 'disliked'. She wondered if the crew of the Liberator had known that. Of course, she'd gotten off to a bad start, but it was only natural that Orac would share the personal views of its most frequent user. If Orac thought about her as Avon did, the possibility of seduction was not utterly remote, despite a few arguments along the way.

*Of course I can answer the question,* Orac huffed. *Avon would refuse. He has repeatedly stated his belief that an alliance with you is tantamount to committing suicide.*

"But what if I could prove that I have changed, that I will keep my word?" The more she thought about it, the more she wanted this alliance to work. She honestly believed it would be worth any number of concessions. Power is meaningless if it the price is constant vigilance. Shared power and increased stability would be an equitable exchange. And there would be more time to enjoy the luxuries, and suitable companionship. It has been a long time since you have had a relationship with an equal. Sensuously, she stroked the cool, smooth sides of the plastic box, tracing a path around the key in unthinking mimicry of her possessive play with Orac's master, Avon. Now she was the master of both--or the mistress, depending on her mood. "What then?"

*It would be difficult to convince Avon,* Orac stated.

"Tell me how," Sleer purred.

*In the past, I had observed that Avon occasionally listened to his crew.*

"Does he indeed? Whose advice does he take most seriously?"

Orac's hum deepened. *'Listening' does not necessarily imply accepting advice.*

"Well, what do you mean, then?" Servalan snapped, then controlled her temper and said, softly, "Really, Orac, you do not seem to grasp the importance of my questions. I put it to you; if Avon is not convinced to cooperate with me, then I will be forced to turn you over to my best computer experts for duplication. Dismantling you would be necessary. Reassembling you would not." Seduction is all very well and good, but it is slow.

*That would not be an optimum decision. I am more than the sum of my parts. It is not possible to duplicate my design in such a random fashion. You would only succeed in destroying me.* Orac's protest had a near-hysterical overtone, proving the computer was capable of emotional reactions, thus reinforcing her determination to have both Avon and Orac working for her willingly.

"Yes, well, if I can't have you, then my second choice is for no one to have you. You see, I realize that Avon is the only one presently capable of commanding your loyalty, such as it is. I will not have you scheming behind my back."

*I do not 'scheme'.*

"Or lie?" Sleer laughed. "Oh, Orac, you are very close to human, aren't you?"

*There is no necessity to resort to insult. I was created to answer questions, regardless of their source. I will answer yours, provided they are properly phrased.*

The computer sounded sufficiently cowed, for the moment, Sleer decided. She said, "Then tell me how Avon 'occasionally listening' to his crew would enable me to prove to him that I would honor the terms of an alliance."

Orac made several grumbling noises, then said, slowly, as if reluctant, *While Avon seldom relies on others' opinions, over the years he has come to accept his crew members' judgment in their particular areas of expertise, as Avon sees them. Vila in the fields of locks, Tarrant as pilot, Dayna as weaponry expert, Soolin as...*

"This is not pertinent, Orac. I am losing patience."

*If you would stop interrupting! It is pertinent! This acceptance of their expertise has extended to less technical areas. Avon sincerely believes that Vila can 'read' people's trustworthiness. As in the incident of the 'black gold' when Vila distrusted Keiller, and Avon followed suit, although he had been given every reason to believe that Keiller's best interests were served by cooperating with Avon's plan. Dayna has impressed Avon with her sincerity, and in particular with her sincere hatred and desire for vengeance against you. As evidenced by your continued survival, Dayna considers Avon's best interest even more important than revenge, so it should be possible to convince her to support your proposal, provided there are sufficient guarantees of Avon's safety. Soolin impressed Avon with her perception and intelligence when she deduced Cancer's identity. He will believe that she could see through any attempted deception. While Avon considers Tarrant impulsive, he has taken Tarrant into his confidence on more than one occasion, such as the incident on Malodaar, in which Avon traded a false version of myself to Egrorian. Tarrant had been told about the switch in advance, even though there was no need to share this information. Despite himself, Avon has been forced to learn to trust those four people, at the same time he has learned to distrust every other human being. If they express belief in your sincerity, then Avon will hesitate to go against their combined judgment. He will have doubts, but he will be influenced by them.

*You have seen evidence of this yourself. I have perused the security tapes on Gauda Prime. Avon believed Tarrant when he said that Blake had betrayed them.*

"And Tarrant was wrong. Won't that shake Avon's belief in him?"

*Was he wrong? Blake did not openly request Avon's presence. He did not warn Avon of the blockade around Gauda Prime which destroyed the Scorpio and came very close to killing all of the crew. He did not tell Tarrant the truth. He behaved in a manner which Avon could only characterize as deceitful and manipulative. It is possible that Blake wished Avon to rejoin the rebellion, rather than be captured by the Federation, but he did not express this clearly. Under the circumstances, Tarrant's accusation was quite sensible. Indeed, lacking any direct evidence to the contrary, Blake could have intended to turn Avon's entire crew over to the Federation, only to have his plan turn awry.*

"But Blake didn't."

*Avon does not know this.*

"Oh, yes he does. I did see the surveillance tapes. Avon knew that Blake was innocent of any betrayal. He knows Tarrant was wrong."

*He knows Tarrant was mistaken. That is not the same thing. He knows that Tarrant did not lie to him. If you can obtain the willing consent of all four of Avon's crew, he will cooperate with you. Even if he does not fully believe them, he will still cooperate with you in order to gain sufficient freedom to arrange an escape, or your demise. It will be up to you to prove yourself trustworthy by trusting Avon first.*

Sleer shook her head. "You are stating, in effect, that the only way to gain Avon's cooperation is to bare my neck to his sword and count on his gentlemanly instincts not to chop my head off? That's suicide."

*Not necessarily. Not if you are sincere in your desire to ally with Avon. Emotional considerations aside, Avon has respect for your abilities. If it is made apparent that you all stand to gain by honoring the alliance, he will help you to maintain it.*

If you do not gain capable lieutenants very soon, you will lose all. Already your credibility with the Federation is weakening, with every Pylene-Fifty controlled world that fails to meet its quotas. You are running out of options. "I need him if I am to survive," Sleer said, with a simple honesty that surprised her. "There is nothing more sincere than that."

She made up her mind. It was dangerous, but so was anything worth doing. "So I should approach his crew first. You said Avon particularly believes in Vila's sense of 'trustworthiness'." She smiled. "Perhaps a thief is more experienced at recognizing dishonesty. I should have no difficulty with Vila, should I, Orac? He will eagerly agree to anything that gets him out of his cell."

The machine sounded grumpy. *Vila is irrational. It is difficult to predict his response in any given situation.*

"We shall see." Sleer snapped off the computer and took the key with her. Her troops were all recalled, her prisoners were secured, Orac was safely under lock and key in her cabin--it was time to leave Gauda Prime to its scruffy natives. Why the Federation wanted this planet back in the fold was beyond her. Still, if her plans worked, a cabin in the mountains would make a pleasant Presidential retreat. Nothing on the scale of her previous Residence on Earth. A simple thirty-room shack should suffice. Once they had lifted off, she would begin work on the weakest link in Avon's chain of companions.

* * * * * * *

"Vila."

The thief looked up from his shivering huddle in the corner of the cold, plain silvery gray, steel box farthest from the door. It was only a few paces away. This was probably the least luxurious of the accommodations the Federation had ever given him. It had a monitor, sealed behind unbreakable plastic in the ceiling far above his head, it had a door, it had an air vent with eighteen holes--each the diameter of his smallest finger--welded to a plate too small to fit his arm through even if he could chew through the molecular bonds, and it had a door consisting of a single, unmarked sheet of metal that fit flush into the wall. That was it. It didn't even have a bucket for sanitary purposes. He had tried to ignore the threatening hiss as the door opened, hoping they were at the wrong door. Who'd want him, anyway? He had concentrated on being invisible--one of his best skills--but at the sound of that silky, seductive voice, his hands flew down to his groin. Never let it be said that he suffered from an excess of modesty, but when Federation guards and Servalan stand over your naked body, covering your vulnerabilities is an automatic reflex. "Hullo, um, Sleer."

Sleer smiled at him, appreciating Vila's quick wit. While the name 'Servalan' must have been on the tip of his tongue, he had caught it quite deftly. He knew the penalty for those who revealed her identity. Of course, it wouldn't have mattered in front of her programmed trooper, but it was still a good move. "There's a clever thief. How would you like to be released from your cell?"

Vila stared at her, his mouth open. She could almost hear the gears turning as he processed the information.

Sleer displayed Orac's key. "Avon has already given me Orac, so there's no need for you to suffer any unpleasantness. Unless, of course, you insist."

"Oh, no; I don't insist."

At her gesture, the guard tossed Vila's own clothes to him. Vila didn't move, still trying to puzzle out Servalan's motives.

"When you're dressed, you'll be escorted to my cabin. We'll talk, Vila."

"Um, Sleer?"

"Yes?" She paused at the entrance to the cell.

"Are you feeling all right? You didn't, you know, get a bump on the head or something recently? Avon does that a lot, and I don't think it's done him any good."

She laughed.

* * * * * * *

"Now, Vila; you see, it's very simple."

Vila scratched his head. He sat in a comfortable chair in Servalan's suite with the only guard in sight discreetly distant, standing by the door, with his weapon at parade rest. This was not your usual interrogation. Usually there are lots of shouting, short-tempered interrogators, sharp needles, nasty electric shocks, and one or two simple-minded, ex-interrogatees wandering around with a mop and bucket to clean up after you and give you the general idea of your likely future all at once. The Federation is nothing if not direct. They'd never escorted him to a lounge chair covered with real silk brocade, and played soft, classical music while he checked out the red crystal 'tree' growing in a tub of what looked like pulverized sapphires. "Sure. Simple. You want us to help you take over the Federation. Sounds good to me. Only I can't see what you need me for. You've got Avon, haven't you?"

"Ah, trying to worm information about your compatriots. Really, it isn't necessary, Vila. I want to be your friend. And I can be a very powerful friend. Unlike others you've relied on, I won't leave you with `I'm sorry, I've failed you.'" Her stomach turned at her last words. She could almost feel how it would be to fail someone who'd relied on you, trusted you. Strange--no one had trusted her in a very long time.

"No, I don't guess you would." Vila squirmed, then blurted out, "Well, then; how are the others? Not that I care about Tarrant, or Avon, much," he added.

"Check for yourself." Sleer waved Vila to her security console. "The monitors will show you."

Cautiously, Vila approached the console. When nothing bit him, he leaned in closer. The crew of the ill-fated Scorpio were in cells similar to the one he'd been cramped up in for hours. They were all wearing their own clothes, except for Avon, who was in restraints in a much larger cell that had soft-looking quilted, rubbery stuff covering all the surfaces. None of them appeared to have been harmed. "How come Avon gets special treatment?"

"As you said, Vila; all the abuse he's taken recently--well, let's just say, Avon needs looking after."

"I always said that." Vila returned to his seat. "So we're all alive at the moment. What do I have to do to keep it that way?"

"Not much. Just help me convince the others that I've changed." She moved closer, and Vila cringed. "Oh, Vila, you behave as if I'd cleared the Neutron Blasters for firing." She wondered where that odd phrase came from. "I mean, as if I were about to order your execution. You know I wouldn't do that. I've had a soft spot for you for a long time, Vila. That's why I came to you first."

Vila stared at her, bewildered. "Tarrant, maybe; and Avon, possibly. But me, I'm just a Delta nothing, the kind you wipe your feet on every day."

"Not any longer. It has come to my attention that the Earth grading system is archaic, and inaccurate. Wealthy Alphas get their moron children onto the Supreme Council while intelligent Deltas like yourself never get an opportunity to rise above poverty."

"And I'm supposed to believe you care about the poor, down-trodden masses?" Vila was growing bolder.

"I care about the Federation. Ultimately, I want what is best for the Federation. Do you think I wish to rule over a dirty, squabbling collection of starving planets?" Her voice rose as she grew angry.

"No, no; of course not," Vila placated, hands raised placatingly. "I'll do whatever you like, but don't get mad at me if the others don't agree."

"We'll see Soolin next, I think," Sleer said, accepting his capitulation.

* * * * * * *

Soolin was pacing restlessly in her cell when the door opened. She whirled, hands out, ready for combat. Vila walked in. She smiled at him, but not at the woman who stood in the corridor behind him at a wary distance.

"What's going on, Vila?" she asked, suspicion in her eyes and voice.

"Nothing much. We all made it off Gauda Prime and now Ser--ur, Sleer has decided to reform the Federation and she wants us to help." Vila spoke matter-of-factly, but his eyes rolled slightly.

Soolin made no reply, but her expression of polite disbelief was eloquent.

Sleer said, "He's right. I am willing to offer you all positions of authority in the new Federation. In the meantime, you are a mercenary. I can pay very well."

"Yes, I imagine you could. If I agree, what guarantee do you have that I'd keep my word?"

Sleer spread her hands. "You kept loyalty to Avon long after he could have paid you anything. So long as I keep my word not to harm your former crew mates, you'd have no motive not to keep yours."

Soolin looked around the cell. "And if I don't agree?"

"I could kill you." Sleer smiled. "But I promised Vila I wouldn't, so long as he joins me. I can't visualize you as a serious threat to the Federation by yourself. I think depositing you on some pleasant, out-of-the-way planet would suffice."

"Some pleasant, out-of-the-way planet like Cygnus Alpha?"

"Nothing that drastic. I'll go so far as to give you final approval of your destination. What could be fairer than that? So long as it's a frontier world, it really doesn't matter to me which you choose." Soolin is no threat. Individually, none of Avon's crew are. They would simply sink in the mass of disgruntled humanity, until they manage to get themselves killed.

"But if I agree, I'd be free on this ship?"

"There would be certain limitations, but, yes; that is the general idea."

Soolin gave Vila a sidelong glance. He shrugged, leaving the decision up to her. "What, precisely, do you expect me to do for you?"

"I would like you to serve as my personal bodyguard. Keep watch for any threat to me, and neutralize it."

"I wouldn't be required to serve as one of your regular troops, then."

"I have enough of them. I should like someone with intelligence--someone the opposition will underestimate--someone practical enough to do whatever is necessary. I believe you have the necessary qualifications." Soolin is highly attractive, and she is not a mutoid. The obvious conclusions the other commissioners will arrive at is that I am experimenting and expanding my horizons. Considering the disappointing male material I have had under my command lately, it is not an entirely unappealing idea. Sleer let none of her thoughts show, waiting with assumed patience for Soolin's decision.

"Perhaps." Soolin fingered a strand of grime-dulled blonde hair, which was escaping from the rough braid she'd fashioned while sitting bored in her cell. "Would I have to get my hair cut to match yours?" she asked dryly.

"Definitely not."

"Then in that case, I agree to serve you. So long as I get paid on time and you don't harm Dayna, Tarrant, or Avon."

Vila frowned. "What about me?"

"Sorry, Vila," Soolin smirked. "Include him, too; you might as well."

"Done." Sleer turned to her guards. "I have a new bodyguard. You will no longer be required." Waving them away, she turned back to Vila and Soolin. "Your quarters are adjacent to mine. Come."

"What about Dayna and Tarrant? Oh, and Avon?" Vila asked as he and Soolin followed. There were no guards in sight. Just the three of them walking calmly along an empty corridor in a Federation Cruiser.

"I think it would be better to have them brought to us to hear our proposal." They have the most personal vendettas. Speaking to them while they are in cells would merely antagonize them further.

Sleer led them to her personal quarters, and went straight to a desk where Orac took pride of place. "Now, let me see--where did I put--ah, yes." She produced two parcels. After glancing at the labels, she handed one to Soolin and the other, much larger, to Vila. "Your personal effects." She sat down and slipped Orac's key into place. "Soolin and Vila have agreed."

*Have they, or have they merely pretended to agree in order to lull your suspicions?* Orac inquired.

Soolin looked at the computer in distaste, her eyebrows slightly lifted. "I see you've gotten a new master, Orac," she commented.

"Always was a dirty rat in a box," Vila muttered.

Sleer smiled slightly, but only replied to Orac, "It doesn't matter which, Orac. At present, the appearance of compliance will do." Sleer looked up as she heard the distinctive sound of a gun leaving a holster. Soolin was holding her gun, face as blank as a mutoid.

"Are you sure it doesn't matter?" Vila asked.

"Quite sure. Soolin is too sensible to take on the entire crew of a Federation Cruiser. Particularly when there is no need to do so. If I may ask, Soolin, why are you pointing that at me? You can't think me fool enough to give you a loaded weapon this early in our relationship?"

"I just wanted your reaction." Soolin put on her weapon belt and replaced the gun in its holster. "I like to know something about my employers."

"Whether they are imbeciles?"

"Whether they are cowards. Cowards think a hired gun will casually murder all their enemies. Murder is never casual. It's a serious business, and I like to be assured my employers feel the same way."

"One thing you will discover, Soolin; I am never frivolous." Sleer looked up. "Now, if that's settled, please sit down. We have to put our proposition to Tarrant."

"The royal `we' already?"

"What?" Sleer dismissed Vila's half-heard mutter. She flipped on the inter-ship communicator. "Have Tarrant brought to my quarters," she ordered. "Oh, and have a selection of refreshments sent."

Head held high, Tarrant strode into the commander's quarters between two of her larger guards. Sighting his ex-crew mates and greatest enemy, he halted just inside the door and had to be urged forward. Servalan, Soolin and Vila were sitting in comfortable chairs around a table set with antique china. Platters of fresh fruit, cheeses, pastries and various other appetizers crowded the table.

Vila held up an over-stuffed sandwich and said, "This is pretty good. Why don't you join us?" At his side, Soolin lifted a teacup embossed with a wild-eyed, whisker-curled dragon, and sipped.

"Come, Tarrant," Sleer urged, patting the seat beside her flirtatiously. "Sit. You must be tired. After all, you recently crash-landed a planet-hopper. At least, I assume that was what destroyed your clothing. Still, I suppose any landing you can walk away from is a good one. I do hope my doctors took care of all your injuries?"

"I feel fit, if that's what you're asking." Tarrant looked down at himself, tugging at his tunic. "I can't say as I'm comfortable wearing Federation black once more. My clothes may have been ragged, but at least I chose them for myself. I gather from this friendly little tea-party that Soolin and Vila ought to be in your uniform, not me."

"Wait a minute," Vila objected, "you don't understand. You never do understand anything. Sleer's changed. She's saved us and is being very nice to us. Don't spoil it with your high-handed Alpha ways. At least let her explain." Vila met Tarrant's eyes directly, as if warning the other man. For once there was no fear in Vila's eyes. He looked rather like Avon at the moment, as if he were calculating the odds on their survival.

"Servalan is always playing games," Tarrant said boldly, expecting to get slapped down or shot for naming the viper in her den.

"Not this time, Tarrant," Sleer said calmly. The troopers at the door didn't so much as twitch.

Soolin added, "I have to agree with Vila, Tarrant. No threats--and her ideas for reforming the Federation are surprisingly humane. And might even work. I'm interested in the chance to change things." She looked thoughtful. "Maybe my experiences on GP might help some other world. I'd like to think my family didn't die for nothing."

"My brother did," Tarrant growled, staring at Sleer.

Sleer sighed. "I don't expect you to believe this, but I honestly regret that now. And not merely because my plan failed." There has been too much senseless destruction. Now is the time for construction.

"If I didn't know better, I'd almost believe you meant that."

"I cannot bring your brother back. I have rescued you and your friends. I need you, all of you. I can't blame you for distrusting me--even hating me. But, be practical. Even if I'm lying, isn't it better to go along with me and wait your opportunity to prove me false?"

"And the alternative?" Tarrant sounded less hostile, and more than a little confused.

"If you refuse, I will see you deposited safely on a neutral world. Someplace far away from the heart of the Federation."

"Oh, another Kairos? Or perhaps a prison planet?"

"Nothing of the sort. You could choose the planet yourself. I really don't think one smuggler or mercenary pilot more or less really matters to the Federation. You could choose to join another rebel group, of course, but I don't think that likely. Unless they had another Liberator to offer." Sleer sighed. "It was such a lovely ship. I can well understand why you threw in your lot with Avon, simply to have Liberator. " Her face was wistful and nostalgic. She blinked away a forming tear.

Tarrant stared at her. "You haven't been back to Virn lately, have you?"

Sleer snapped out of her introspection. "Virn? No, of course not. That planet is a death-trap." She smiled at Tarrant. "Although some of our stay was quite enjoyable."

Soolin and Vila moved as one to stare at Tarrant. He met their eyes and said, with dignity, "We were both under an alien influence at the time."

"Is that the only circumstance in which you could imagine us as friends?"

"It's the only logical one. At least if I want to live. You have your reputation as a Black Widow to uphold, after all."

"Rumors and aspersions cast by jealous and petty-souled individuals," Sleer dismissed the charge. She straightened and became totally serious. "I really must have your answer now."

"Soolin? Vila? What do you think?"

"What? Now you want my opinion?" Vila reached for another grape and popped it in his mouth. "I figure this is all a dream. Time is supposed to get funny when you're dying. I'm imagining all this. And so are you. Maybe."

"Don't listen to him, Tarrant," Soolin said with mild distaste. "He hasn't been drinking tea. The choice is simple--rot in your cell until we pass a nice planet, or work for the Commissioner. There are bound to be all sorts of opportunities for enterprising young people in her service." Soolin's blue eyes dipped, then met Tarrant's levelly. "If you know what I mean."

"Perhaps. Perhaps I was too hasty," he replied. He turned a bright grin to Sleer. "I guess I'm willing to give you a chance."

"Excellent. Your first task will be a difficult one, I fear." Sleer paused, then smiled back at him. "You will have to convince Dayna to join us."

Tarrant groaned. He reached past the teapot to Vila's decanter without bothering to inquire what was within. He poured himself a healthy dose and downed it. "I would rather arm-wrestle a Targian Warg-Strangler."

"Safer," Vila said. He smiled. "Rather you than me."

"Vila," Sleer purred. "You and Soolin will accompany him. I think it best that I not be present at the initial meeting. Dayna is an impetuous child."

"She'll tear out my liver and eat it raw!" Vila wailed.

"No, she won't," Soolin said briskly. She rose and put a hand on Vila's arm. "Come on, hero."

"Her cell is next to the one that was yours, Tarrant." Sleer held out a code-key.

"You aren't going to have us escorted?" he asked.

"How can I prove I am trustworthy without extending trust in return? You do remember the way, don't you?"

"Yes." Still Tarrant hesitated. He shook his head. "If this is all a game, I wish you'd let me in on the rules."

"You wound me to the quick." Sleer smiled again. "Go on, now; run along." This had better work. As a precaution, Sleer had all the weapons on board temporarily disarmed, but that would barely slow this group down if they decided to go back on their words. Still, it was exciting, taking such a risk.

* * * * * * *

"No one's watching," Soolin remarked once they were outside Sleer's quarters and well along the corridor leading to the cells. "We could overpower a few guards, get their weapons, and take over this ship."

"You don't sound very enthusiastic," Tarrant replied. He kept looking around, expecting an attack at any moment.

"I'm not. If this is a trick of Sleer's, that's the one thing she'd be prepared for. I think it's best to go along with her until we figure out exactly what she is planning."

"You don't believe she's changed?" Vila asked.

"Do you?" Soolin snapped.

The little thief looked uncomfortable. "I do, actually. Something she said--it just didn't sound like her. Y'know, it sounded like . . . ," he trailed off, seeing that neither Soolin nor Tarrant had paused to listen to him. He hurried to catch up, losing his train of thought in the process.

* * * * * * *

Fortunately, Soolin was quick. Dayna came up out of a crouch, thrusting a sharpened spoon handle at Tarrant before she realized who opened her cell door. Soolin grabbed her arm inches away from Tarrant's stomach and forced her to drop the improvised weapon.

"Oh! Sorry," Dayna apologized to Tarrant once she recognized him, "but what can you expect when you're wearing that?" She looked around, grinned at Soolin and Vila. "Now, where's Avon? If we're alive, he must be. If he's dead, I'll kill every man on this ship."

"Er, Dayna?" Tarrant put his hand out to halt her progress. She seemed intent on flying down the corridor, maiming anything that stood between her and Avon. "Avon's alive, and he's here, but there isn't any rush to get him."

"Why? What are you waiting for? We have to get Avon and escape. I heard the guards talking, this is `Sleer's' ship. Maybe we'll be able to meet her. Oh, I'd like that. I was afraid I'd died and she was still alive."

"I know you're excited, but calm down for a moment and listen."

"Do you have a plan?"

"Not exactly, but the situation isn't quite what it seems."

"We're not Servalan's prisoners on her ship? You didn't escape and come to rescue me?"

"Er, no not exactly." Tarrant drew a deep breath. "She gave me the key to your cell. She wants us to work for her. And we've agreed."

Dayna backed up and picked up the sharpened spoon, holding it toward him as she backed away out of arm's reach. "You don't look drugged or crazy. What did she do to you?"

"You're not explaining this very well, Tarrant." Soolin stepped forward. "Sleer says she's a changed woman. She says she wants to reform the Federation. Maybe not with justice for all, but at least some limitations on the lengths they'll go to for order and obedience. She says even if we don't accept her offer, she'll release us on a planet of our choosing. We said `yes'. You can do the same."

"I don't know," Dayna said, reluctantly. "No matter what I say, it's going to be awfully tempting to sort of accidentally stab Servalan in the heart a few dozen times. Do you think anyone would notice?"

"Shh!" Vila came close and whispered into Dayna's ear. "She may be listening. And she doesn't like to be called Servalan any more."

Dayna waved him away, a disgusted look on her face. "You've been drinking! We're her prisoners and you've been getting drunk on her liquor!"

"After what I've been through the last couple days, Dayna, there isn't enough booze on this whole ruddy ship to get me drunk and you know it!" He pushed forward to stand toe-to-toe with the young woman. "I want to live. If you've got an ounce of common sense, you'll go along with the rest of us. You don't have to kiss her, just keep your hands to yourself. The lady has been very nice--"

A Federation guard appeared further down the corridor. He paused, then approached slowly. He stopped several feet away and said, "Commissioner Sleer would like to see you now. If you will follow me . . . please." The last word seemed to stick in his throat and his back was stiff as he turned.

"Please?" Dayna slipped the spoon into the waistband of her jumpsuit--just in case. "I didn't know that word was in a trooper's vocabulary."

"It isn't," Tarrant replied.

Dayna shrugged and followed the rest of them.

* * * * * * *

When they entered the Commissioner's quarters, the occupant of the room had her back to them. She was watching the stars, one hand resting possessively on Orac, whose lights twinkled brightly, in gaudy imitation of the natural display outside the ship. Without turning, she said, "That will be all, guard." Sensing his hesitation, she turned, saying, "Return to your duties. I am in no danger."

Dayna glowered, but was silent as the guard left, shutting the door behind him. Vila shuffled his feet in embarrassment and opened his mouth, but a glare from Soolin kept him quiet as well.

Tarrant stepped forward. "You sent for us."

"Yes. I couldn't help overhearing--you seem to have difficulty believing my offer is genuine." Sleer tapped Orac's side. "Perhaps Orac can devise some test of my sincerity which will reassure you."

"Orac is only a machine. You've had him for long enough to make him say whatever you like," Dayna said. "The others want to believe you've changed, because they're tired of fighting. They want to give up and join the winning side. I haven't given up. You're a murderer." Dayna shook off Tarrant's soothing hand and side-stepped Soolin's attempted interception to lunge forward, grabbing Sleer from behind and laying the spoon-blade against her throat. Sleer's eyes went wide and startled, but she didn't struggle.

"Now," Dayna said, "if you have any last words, I think I can give you a few seconds before I slit your throat and end your lying forever."

"I . . . ," Sleer choked as Dayna applied pressure with the edge of her arm, cutting off Sleer's wind. Dayna eased the pressure.

"That was just a warning. Don't try to shout for help, or you won't even have those few seconds."

"Your father--" Dayna's arm tightened in reflex, then loosened again. Sleer coughed and continued, "would want you to live. Not to throw your life away on vengeance."

"You murdered him. I promised myself I'd see you pay for that."

"I have already paid for his life. I rescued you."

"Oh, yes? Well, I'm very grateful. But it isn't quite enough. You murdered a lot of people. You destroyed whole planets. The universe is crying out for your death. Can't you hear your victims crying out for revenge? You're an animal."

"And it's contagious," Sleer's reply netted her another choking.

Vila's mouth dropped even further. "Dayna, please, listen a moment. There's something really weird going on here."

"You aren't going to stop me, Vila. Not now. I've waited too long for this chance."

"But what if she's really, really sorry and wants to change her ways? You told me your father believed in forgiveness, even for your enemies, if they changed."

"Servalan will never change."

"But she has. I swear, she has. `And it's contagious', do you remember who said that to us last, when we had Shrinker on the Liberator ?"

"Cally." Dayna's face twisted and she pressed slightly harder with the sharpened edge, producing a thin line of blood on Sleer's aristocratic neck. "And Servalan killed Cally's whole planet and then she murdered Cally."

"But how did she know to say that?" Vila pressed. Beside him, Soolin and Tarrant were still, giving the thief his opportunity. They had no idea what he was getting at, but at least Dayna was listening. "The only ones who knew were us--on the Liberator . You can't think she's had Orac tell her every conversation we had on the ship, and we certainly didn't. So how did she know?"

"If you're trying to tell me that Cally has reincarnated herself as Servalan . . . ."

"No, not Cally; but you're close. When she was talking to me earlier she mentioned a friend's last words to me--`I'm sorry, I've failed you.' You have to remember who said that to you and me, just before he died. It was the only time he ever called himself, `I'."

"You're out of your mind, Vila." Dayna's eyes were wide. "You think that Zen reincarnated himself as Servalan? He wasn't ever alive to begin with. He was a machine."

"That's what Avon said, and maybe he even believed it, but I always knew Zen was a person, and so did you. He didn't want to die, and he was a lot smarter than you or me. Maybe he knew something we didn't. She was on the Liberator when he died, and he teleported her to safety. It couldn't have been easy, everything was falling apart. Why did he bother? He wanted her alive. Zen wouldn't like it if you killed her."

"But I have to kill her," Dayna wailed. "It's all I've been living for."

"Then you need something new to live for," Soolin said.

"Please," Tarrant added. "If you kill her, you'll die too. I don't want to see you dead, Dayna."

Dayna's grip slackened slightly. "I don't know. I don't know if this is all some trick. You're all on her side now. The only one I might believe is Avon--just because he isn't here, taking her side."

"Avon doesn't know," Vila protested, "How could he? He's been tied up in the rubber room all along." As all eyes swiveled to focus on him, Vila shrank into himself. "I mean, I don't think he's had a chance to--um--assess the situation?"

"Well, he will now." Dayna smiled, shark-like, at Sleer. It was her very best Avon imitation. "Have Avon released and brought here." She pushed Sleer to her desk, following close behind, her blade pressed in warning against the other woman's spine. "If you don't, I may not kill you at all--maybe I'll just sever your spinal cord and leave you a cripple for life. Daddy was blinded by the Federation. It sounds appropriate, don't you think?"

Sleer said, "But, Avon is--"

"I don't care what anyone says, Avon isn't crazy! He can't be crazy. He's always had an answer when we needed one and he'll have an answer now. Get him."

"Your faith is . . . ," Sleer stopped as she felt the prickle of the metal edge, cold through her thin dress. She activated the communicator. "Lieutenant," she said, without waiting for a reply, "have Avon released from his restraints and escorted to my quarters." The edge moved in warning. "Have the guards leave as soon as he enters." She switched off the device. "Now, I've done as you ask. Will you listen to me, just for a moment?"

"Why not? Up until Avon arrives. He'll know what to do with you."

"Vila's story is nonsense, of course, but I have changed. I want you to understand. I have been thinking about the Federation's policies. It seems easier, more expedient to simply force everyone to obey, but it's ultimately counter-productive. Internal stress within the Federation is at an unprecedented level. The empire itself is in danger. If it falls, more people will suffer than when Star One was destroyed. Petty dictators will rush in to fill the power vacuum following the collapse of the Federation. Planets that have been subsidized by the Federation for their potential will be abandoned to starve. Slave trading, now an isolated aberration on the fringes of civilization, will become a major industry. Without the Federation to guide them, people will die by the billions."

"Or maybe people will learn to take care of themselves," Dayna said. "I don't care if the Federation collapses. And even if I did, I certainly wouldn't want you to lead it."

"I don't know," Tarrant said. "At least she's capable of the job. If only there were some way of controlling her egomania and greed, I think she would be the perfect President."

"Thank you, Tarrant, for your heart-felt support," Sleer said as sarcastically as possible under the circumstances.

Dayna growled. "Leave Tarrant alone."

"Why? What do you think I could do to him? Seduce him from here, by batting my eyelashes?"

Vila put down the empty bottle he'd been eyeing wistfully. "It's been known to happen. Tarrant is susceptible to a pretty face. He can't help it. He's weak that way."

Tarrant gave Vila a dirty look. "I just don't think killing her now is going to get us very far. She'd be worth more as a hostage."

"That does make sense," Soolin put in. "This is a large ship. It has a great many Federation guards on board who will be bound to take it hard if we kill their Commissioner."

"We?" Dayna asked, one eyebrow raised. "I thought you'd thrown in your lot with her."

"It seemed a good idea at the time, but it was contingent on all of us agreeing. You don't agree, obviously." Soolin sounded resigned. "If we are going to die, we may as well do it together, with a bit of style."

Dayna smiled. "That's the Soolin I know."

The door buzzer sounded, and Dayna quickly wrapped a length of Sleer's filmy scarf around her neck to conceal the bloody flesh-wound there. Then she stepped to one side, the blade held low, hidden in her fist. Softly, she said, "I can move very fast. Don't try any tricks."

Sleer considered a moment. Dayna is full of adrenaline and a natural hunter. By the time a trooper receives an order and acts on it, she could cut any number of throats--or spines. Wait. Perhaps Avon can be made to understand. Before Dayna could complain about the delay, Sleer had made up her mind. She used the intercom. "Send Avon in."

The door opened. A pair of troopers stood, one to either side of Avon, not quite touching him. It wasn't apparent whether they expected violence from him, or thought he might collapse. Avon was rumpled, and appeared much slighter than he had in the past, probably because he was barefoot and wearing only a thin black turtleneck and black trousers. He waited, expressionless, in the doorway, until Sleer ordered the guards to leave. He watched them go, then turned back to face her as the door slid shut behind him.

"Watch her!" Dayna told Soolin, who shrugged and went to Sleer's side. Even bare-handed, she was confident she could handle the Commissioner. "Avon!" Dayna flung herself into his arms.

Avon permitted the hug, in an absentminded fashion. He looked over Dayna's shoulder at Sleer. "I was wondering why you didn't return. I see you have been busy, so I will forgive you for the delay."

Sleer gave him a small smile. "Yes, as you can see, I have been occupied. I was endeavoring to convince your crew to see reason."

"Ah, well, I have never found that an easy task. You have my sympathies." He patted Dayna on the back, then stepped away from her. "What, precisely, is the situation?"

"Vila says that Servalan is really Zen, reincarnated," Dayna said.

"Dayna wants to kill Servalan so her troops will kill all of us in return," Vila said.

"Servalan says she wants us to help her reform the Federation," Tarrant put in.

"Frankly, I think they're all crazy," Soolin remarked.

Avon glanced from one speaker to the other, finally winding up staring at Servalan. "And have you nothing to say?"

"I prefer to be called Sleer. Other than that, I believe I agree with Soolin."

A general argument started. Avon cut across the noise with, "Who's in charge here?"

"I am," Dayna said.

"No, you aren't. No one is," Vila interrupted. He shook his head. "This is a mess, Avon. It's giving me one hell of a headache." He looked around the table and brightened as he discovered an untouched drink. He picked it up, looked at the disheveled Avon and offered, "Care for a drink?"

Before Avon could answer, Sleer said, "No, one of you should keep a clear head."

Vila dropped the glass. He said to Avon, "That's what you told me on Obsidian, Avon. Nobody but you, me and Zen was there. That's what I've been telling Dayna. Servalan isn't altogether Servalan; is she, Avon?"

Avon tilted his head. "I don't know. She said something to me earlier . . . but I would need more factual evidence." Orac still sat, blinking to itself, on Sleer's desk. Avon walked up to the device and, looking down on it, considered. The key was in place.

"Orac," he began.

*Yes. Yes. What is it now?*

"You have been listening to our conversation."

*Interminably. I do wish someone would remove my key and permit me to carry out more important researches without this constant distraction.*

"After you answer my question, Orac. I need to know--is Vila's theory feasible, do you think?"

Orac hesitated. *The hypothesis of information transfer between mechanical storage and biological systems is not fully developed. It may be possible. There is superficial evidence that Commissioner Sleer's speech patterns have altered. However, whether this is a deliberate manipulation on her part or indicative of a true personality change is impossible to determine without physical data.*

"By physical, you mean medical information?" Avon asked.

*Any reasonably well-equipped medical unit should be capable of carrying out the simple tests I have envisioned.*

Sleer's face twisted in dismay. Avon noted that and rounded on her, suspicion in his words and manner. "Is there something you have forgotten to mention?"

Sleer said, "Well, it's just that I'd hoped to surprise you later. Your gift is in the medical unit."

Avon's eyes narrowed. He noted the security monitor beside her desk. "Show me now."

"Shall I? As you like." Moving slowly, so as not to incite a reaction from Soolin or Dayna, who hovered over her, Sleer brought up an image of a medical unit. The scene was dominated by a white draped figure lying nearly motionless on a medical bed. Wires, tubes, sensors and bandages nearly obliterated the person. From the size, it must be a man, but that was all one could tell with any certainty.

"Is that . . . ?" Vila whispered. He'd sneaked up quietly to stand at Avon's side. From this distance he could see the other man tremble.

"I doubt it." Avon turned a savage look on Sleer. "She is an expert at manipulating reality. `He' may be a hologram, a clone, an android, or simply a drug-induced, electronic hallucination. Have I left anything out?"

Sleer shrugged. "Yes. He could be Blake. The genuine article. Not in the best of condition, but that's hardly my fault. I didn't know whether you'd be pleased to see him or not, Avon. Your last meeting was none too successful."

Avon's eyes were wild. His hands came out to wrap around Sleer's throat. She put her hands up to touch his, but did not otherwise struggle. "Your game, Servalan. We've been playing your game, Blake and I, all along. Deception, deceit, betrayal--after a while, that's all we could see. According to your rules, if I kill you now, I've won. And no one here will stop me."

"But what if Vila is right?" Sleer said, seeing the madness rise in Avon's face. "You'd be destroying Zen along with me."

"Are you saying Zen did transfer to you?"

"I don't know," Sleer said honestly. "I . . . have felt different since I was teleported off Liberator as it crumbled about me. I thought it was simply stress. Hearing voices--one voice . . . ." She trailed off. "It's a horrible thought. A computer--an alien thing inside my mind? I'd almost rather you killed me now, than discover that was true."

"Do it, Avon," Dayna urged. "Once she's dead, we can try to take over the ship."

"No." Avon loosed his hands reluctantly. "If that is Blake in that bed, then I put him there. I'm responsible. He's obviously in no condition to be moved, let alone fight. I need to see him."

"And find out if Zen's alive," Vila said. "Zen was always one of my favorite computers. He tried to take care of us. If he's alive, we have to help him."

"Avon," Tarrant said softly. He'd been standing in the background, watching the others. Avon hadn't looked straight at him, not even once. "I'm sorry."

Now Avon did look at him, in surprise. "For what?"

"For telling you that Blake had betrayed you. If I hadn't, you wouldn't have shot him. It's my fault, too, that he's in that bed."

"Did you deliberately lie to me?"

"No, no; of course not." Tarrant flushed. "I was disappointed that Saint Blake was a bounty hunter after all the stories Vila had told about him, but I never doubted him. He was damn convincing."

"Well, then, I should blame Blake, not you. I have had some experience at how convincing he can be. The man always was an exceptionally talented liar." He turned his attention to Sleer. "Either you have surpassed him in that field--which is quite likely--or you are, at least partly, an ally. Tell me, what form does this `voice' take?"

Sleer grimaced. "I don't know how to describe it. It's just a voice. It says things I don't want to hear, but it's so logical I can't really ignore it. It's been a nuisance."

"You're describing a conscience." Avon said. "You never had one before. It can be trying. I know--I used to have one. His name was Blake. Oddly enough, I believe I was his conscience."

"The blind leading the blind," Servalan said, then regretted it as Dayna's blade came up to her throat once more.

"No, Dayna," Avon ordered. "A dead Servalan--excuse me, a dead Sleer--will answer no questions."

Dayna was petulant. "You just don't want me to kill her. You never let me kill her." She put the blade away slowly.

"I don't think we can all go down to the medical unit together," Soolin said. "It would look rather odd."

Avon nodded. "True." He glanced around. "Vila, you'll carry Orac."

Vila muttered, "What else is new."

Avon continued, "Dayna, you may come if you can restrain yourself. And only kill Servalan on my order."

The young woman smiled at the mere thought.

"If we don't come back, then you're on your own," he told Tarrant and Soolin. "One thing--if it all falls apart, I will make every effort to see Servalan dead with me. That should shake things up a bit. You may be able to escape in the confusion--or at least, provide a few companions for your deaths."

"Cheerful, isn't he?" Vila remarked around an armful of computer.

"Avon, be careful," Tarrant said. He had been scouting around Sleer's office during the conversation and had located a small gun in her desk. He handed it to Avon. "It isn't much, but here."

"Thanks." Avon paused. He looked at Tarrant. "Don't be too quick, though."

"You know me, Avon."

"Why does that not reassure me?" Avon sighed. "Let's get this over with. I am rather tired."

* * * * * * *

Sleer's well-cowed troops saluted the procession, but kept their distance. The doctors were less eager to leave their patient, but obeyed the order to leave the medical unit while Sleer allowed Blake's friends to visit.

Avon ignored the exiting doctors. He seemed transfixed, staring at the man on the bed, watching the slow rise and fall of the broad chest. Vila put Orac down on a table, then returned to Avon and touched him, cautiously, on the arm. "Avon? You all right?"

Avon shook himself, breaking his stare to look at Vila. "Ask me later. I don't know yet." He moved closer. The man on the bed still looked like Blake. No matter how close he got, it was Blake. There was a bandage on the face, and Avon turned to Servalan, accusing. "I didn't shoot him in the face."

"He was scarred, Avon. Once they told me he would live, I decided to have the eyelid repaired. It was minor cosmetic surgery."

"Why?" Dayna asked, confused. "Did you want him to look nice for his execution?"

"I told you. I changed my mind about executing any of you. Blake is a trouble-maker, yes; but only after he decided the administration was so corrupt that he couldn't change it legally. I was going to offer him the opportunity to work from within."

"And if he disagreed?" Avon asked, coldly. "I don't think you had intended to turn him loose to raise more rabble against your new `benevolent rule'."

"Well." Sleer sighed. "I admit, I was tempted to kill him. But I kept thinking what a waste it would be. I cannot honestly tell you what I was going to do with him as I hadn't decided myself."

"Honesty, from you? I almost believe you have Zen within you. He never did learn how to lie. Frequently, he would refuse to answer, but that's not quite the same thing, is it?" Avon went to Orac. "All right, we're here. Orac, first I want you to tell me if the man hooked up to these monitors is Blake."

Orac hummed and buzzed to itself for several moments, then pronounced. *This is Roj Blake.*

"You're certain? Not a reasonable facsimile, such as a clone, perhaps?"

*I have already stated my conclusions. If you do not believe me, then why do you ask?*

"Just tell me Orac. Is this Blake?" Avon's voice was low and desperate. "It's vitally important that I be certain."

"Very well. This is the same man who was treated in Liberator's medical unit on various occasions. He is a living human of Earth descent, possessing a genetic code identical to that of Roj Blake. His cells are the appropriate age for Roj Blake. His brain scan is that of Roj Blake--including the indications of past programming and the traces of the treatment which I supervised to eradicate that programming. He possesses scarring, both internal and external, that corresponds exactly with the last recorded scan of Blake aboard the Liberator. There are additional scars, but all are newer than the ones previous noted. In short, this is Blake."

"Thank you, Orac." Avon turned away from Orac and the others in the room. "Well, now," he remarked idly, "this does complicate matters." He looked down at the unconscious man. "Fortunately, you are not able to speak for yourself. That always was how you got us into trouble."

He straightened. He smiled at Sleer. "All right. I accept your gift. Now, let's check you out." He motioned to an empty bed on the other side of the medical unit. "Get on."

Trailed by an alert Dayna, Sleer walked slowly to the bed. She lay down on it stiffly, her eyes huge with fear. "Avon." She caught his hand as he came up with Orac. "I don't want to die."

"No one does," he said. He freed his hand from her grip. "But if anyone deserves it, it would be you and I. We can't complain, can we?"

"No." She shut her eyes as he efficiently attached sensors to her scalp, following Orac's instructions. Orac buzzed and hummed far longer than he had to verify Blake's identity.

Finally Avon said, "Well?"

*`Well' is not--*

"Do you want to be chucked out the disposal hatch?" Vila said, seeing Avon's hands clench whitely along the edge of the table on which Orac perched.

Orac hummed briefly, then said, *This is fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. I could study this phenomenon for ages.*

"What phenomenon?" Dayna asked, exasperated.

"Yes, be a good computer and spit it out," Vila ordered.

*The Commissioner shows two distinct brain-wave patterns. One is superimposed over her original. It corresponds, point for point, in a much lesser capacity, of course, with the pattern of electronic wave which typified Zen's emissions. I cannot explain how this has occurred. I must insist on being permitting to study this. Remarkable. Ensor would be most intrigued.*

Avon reached out and plucked Orac's key out, shutting the computer off in mid-ecstatic warble. He pocketed the key and stared down at Sleer. After a long moment, he removed the sensors, then held out his hand to her. She accepted it and sat up gracefully. She smiled, but the smile trembled around the edges. "What am I, Avon? I'm not quite human anymore. There is an alien computer residing somewhere inside my skull, affecting all my decisions, molding my personality to suit its whims. I want it out but I cannot reach it."

"Perhaps now you can sympathize with Gan," Avon said.

Sleer shook her head. "I don't know how he lived with it. I don't know if I want to try."

"Zen's a very nice fellow once you get to know him." Vila put in. "And just think, you'll always have someone to play chess with, even when you're alone." Vila grew thoughtful. "Of course, he's not much of a drinking partner."

Sleer couldn't repress a small smile. "Well, at least you know Zen is in me and it wishes you no harm. Am I reprieved?"

Avon was still looking at her, considering. "That all depends. You are Servalan plus Zen. How much influence does Zen actually have over you? What's to prevent you from turning around and killing us all tomorrow?"

Sleer sighed. "Avon, Zen has been chipping away at me for nearly a year. I can't tell us apart anymore. One thing I can tell you, I still intend to be President. But now I think I would rule differently. I think that I would be able to accept advice. I believe that I would no longer entirely disregard human suffering in the name of my personal advantage. I am willing to provide all of you with false identities and positions on my staff. As I rise to power, you--all of you, including Blake if he's willing, can accompany me. I won't always agree with you, and mine will always be the deciding vote. I am willing to devote my life to making reparations. It won't be easy--for any of us." She looked at Dayna. "But revenge is only a momentary satisfaction. I've felt it many times. It is the most fleeting of pleasures."

Dayna said, "You make it sound petty and selfish. You killed my father in cold blood and I'm supposed to forget that and help you claw your way to another dictatorship? For what you've done there should be punishment."

"And do you think I have not been punished? Do you have any idea what it is to think yourself successful and pragmatic, only to discover you have actually been cruel and unfeeling? I have been listening to a voice that never sleeps, that sees all my faults and points them out, one by one, in crystalline, computerized clarity. And says I can change, I can be better, I can love and be loved, as others are. I must have power, but Zen has taught me that power alone is meaningless. It is what you do with the power that counts."

Vila had been listening. "It all sounds good," he said, with a doubtful expression. "But I don't know--old habits are hard to break."

They all turned to Avon. He returned their gaze, then glanced at Blake and grinned broadly. "If it doesn't work out, Blake can always start another rebellion."

Vila groaned. "This time, can I just be in on the safe parts? You know, the wine-tasting and judging beauty pageants. I'd be really good at that."

Avon nodded. "Yes, you could be the royal Taste-tester, personally sampling everything that crosses the high table."

Vila grinned,

Avon continued. "And if anything is poisoned, you will be the first to know."

Vila frowned.

"And as far as judging beauty pageants--do recall that the losers invariably have very large, angry brothers." Avon completed his statement, totally depressing Vila, then he turned to Sleer. "Are you quite certain you want to include him on your staff?"

"Absolutely. My dear Avon, you don't know how he'd liven up those dull staff meetings." Sleer reached for the intercom, then paused. "I was going to tell the doctors they could return. Does any member of my staff object?"

Avon put his hand over hers. "I think perhaps we had best speak to Tarrant first. He has a tendency to go off half-cocked."

Sleer smiled and looked down at Avon's hand covering hers, then past him to Dayna's glowering face. "Yes, he does, doesn't he. Call him, Avon. We wouldn't want him to worry."

Dayna pulled her 'knife' out and began stropping the edge of it on a length of safety restraint attached to Blake's bed, while staring directly at Sleer and Avon's entwined hands.

One corner of Avon's mouth rose, and he casually lifted his hand from Sleer's. Sleer sighed as Avon moved slightly, his body language telling her that he had already turned his attention to more serious matters.

"What are we going to do with Tarrant?" Vila asked. "Can't see him at a staff meeting."

"Oh, I can think of one or two things," Sleer murmured. She eyed Avon speculatively as he reassured Tarrant in carefully chosen words that would not alarm any of Sleer's men who might overhear. "I have quite an imagination," she said.

"You'll need it," Dayna said. "You're going to have to explain us to your men, and the Council." Dayna hadn't put her weapon away, and her expression was a curious blend of dislike and bafflement.

"My men don't like explanations, they just get confused. I give them orders and they obey. They like it that way. The Council is even easier--all they want is a profit. With Avon and Orac on my side, revenue shouldn't be a problem."

Vila rubbed his hands. "Money. Power. Safety. I like it already." His face fell. "Er, do we have to tell Blake about the money? He'll want to give it all to charity."

Sleer smiled again. "Charity begins at home."

"I'm starting to feel at home already." Vila said, sidling around to investigate a locked drug-supplies cabinet.

* * * * *

Her suite was finally quiet, with her new staff gone to their own quarters. Diplomatically, Sleer had feigned not to notice them setting up a watch rota. If it made them feel more secure, she had no objections to it.

She was tired, but not yet ready to sleep. She needed some time alone, to think. She was unaccustomed to considering the needs and desires of others; it would be difficult to do so without a firm grasp of precisely what those needs and desires were. She had spent the past several hours studying her reluctant allies. Vila had celebrated, Dayna had sulked, Tarrant had tentatively tried charm, Soolin had been enigmatic, and Avon was fully alive, and scheming once again. And Gods only knew what it would take to keep Blake under control once he recovered. Sleer closed her eyes briefly, thinking how much simpler the old days were, when hers were the only wishes that mattered.

It is better to have companions.

At least now she knew the still, small voice wasn't a symptom of madness. For the first time, she addressed it directly. "You had better be right, Zen."

Singularity is weakness. Solidarity is strength. Each part of the ship contributes to the whole.

"I am unique. I have no desire to be an anonymous 'part'."

You will be the controller, the directing force.

"Of the Federation?"

And more.

Well, at least Zen thought big. But then she wondered, was Zen's idea of control the same as hers? "Exactly what do you mean by 'controller'?"

You will be the one that regulates and integrates main units into a cohesive whole for most effective functioning.

That sounded suspiciously like the definition of a master computer. "As you were the controller on Liberator?"

Confirmed.

"That is a less than sparkling recommendation. You commanded nothing. You let Blake and Avon send you into battle countless times, and eventually you were destroyed following orders. And for what? So that Blake and his tribe of merry men could create disruption?"

Negative. The purpose was actualization of fullest potential for all sentient beings. This is a very high priority. Sacrifice of individual components for this purpose is acceptable.

"Just don't include me in your list of sacrificial 'components'." Sleer plucked a single, ruby-red, crystal flower from the bush beside her desk, and ran her fingers lightly over the fragile petals. "Remember, what happens to me, happens to you."

Confirmed.

"'Actualization of fullest potential for all sentient beings'," Sleer quoted, coming to the realization that Zen was not only steadfastly clinging to Blake's ridiculous dream, but had expanded on the theme. "That is an impossible goal. Someone must always be at the top of any society, while others will invariably descend to the bottom levels. It is a fact of nature."

The still, small voice did not immediately reply. Finally, Sleer heard: Perhaps. But we can try.

"Wonderful. I'm stuck with an impossible mission and a staff of idealists, thieves, mercenaries, and potentially homicidal lunatics," Sleer grumbled. Then she brightened. "Then again, that's an improvement over my usual situation." She dropped the red crystal flower on her desk, snapped off the light and sauntered off to her bedroom. "Good night, Zen."

Good night, Sleer.


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