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Not Quite Friends

By Irish and Cami
Page 3 of 11

Dayna felt better already. The prospect of shopping in a civilized city, something she had literally never done before, revived her appreciably. And she was going to stay in a very nice hotel and soak in a bubble bath--she wasn't sure what that was, but it sounded enchanting. She was also looking forward to a visit to the local museum of armaments, which Zen said was fairly well known in this sector for its collection of antique edged weapons. Making sure she had a few days' supply of medication tucked into her kit, she left her quarters and started toward the teleport section. This was almost worth getting sick for, she thought, humming under her breath, her long stride carrying her quickly along the corridor.

Hearing raised voices, she slowed her walk. They were at it again. Damn, why was everything so difficult? Why couldn't Tarrant just do what Avon told him to do for a change? She slowed to a halt between Vila and Cally, who were watching the argument through geometric-shaped perforations in the decorative divider between the teleport area and this corridor. Sotto voce, she asked, "What's the matter now?"

Almost gleefully, Vila piped, "Tarrant's royally pi--uh, angry because he wasn't consulted about either the location or the plan to retrieve the crystals. And Avon can't decide whether he thinks it's funny or mutiny."

Cally quelled him with a look. "This isn't amusing, Vila. It's dangerous. To all of us."

She started around him, but he put a hand on her arm, and suddenly serious, said, "Let me, Cally. If they both get mad at me, they can stop being mad at each other and save face at the same time."

Cally sighed heavily and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I'd like to take a stunner in there and ship them both down unconscious."

Dayna laughed, which gave them all away. Tarrant's voice vibrated with rage. "Do come join the fun, won't you? You'll get a better view of the proceedings from in here."

The three of them trailed into the teleport chamber, taking up positions according to their natures, Dayna thought, seating herself behind the console and regarding both men with frank curiosity. Cally approached and stood between the two as if to keep them from a physical confrontation, her expression a mixture of chagrin and weariness. Vila remained just inside the doorway, his kit bag held protectively before his chest. When neither man spoke right away, Cally prompted, "Well? Don't let us stop your tantrum. You did invite us to witness it."

Dayna grinned. Vila seemed to grow smaller. Avon affected amusement. Tarrant exploded. "Did none of you consider that I might have been here before? I had a destination in mind where we could have retrieved the crystals and rested up in safety. The station is a very bad place to be! The ratio of bounty hunters to other inhabitants is probably two to one. And that's not even mentioning the pirates."

Avon said quietly, "You're welcome to teleport to the planet with the others, Tarrant, where you'll be safe."

There was a moment of crackling silence, after which Tarrant said in a deadly voice Dayna had never heard from him before, "I am coming with you."

"No."

Tarrant clenched the muscles in his jaw. Dayna rested her chin in her hand. This was fascinating. Apparently striving to be the voice of reason, the pilot said, "Then I'll stay here. It'll be faster if someone manually operates the teleport when you get in trouble."

Dayna sat up straight. No longer amused, Avon clasped his hands together behind his back, his spine rigid, eyes gone dark and hooded. "That might be difficult. Orac is shutting down life support in less than half an hour. It may not have occurred to you, Tarrant, but the very air you are breathing is radioactive." Dayna glanced toward Vila and saw his expected gulp. She thought he turned a little green. Avon continued, "It will be at least forty-eight hours before the ship regenerates sufficient breathable air to sustain life." He smiled. "I suppose you could stay here in a space suit."

Cally must have said something sharp to Avon telepathically then, because he suddenly gave her a startled look. She glared at him, then turned to Tarrant. "Shastri Station was my idea, Tarrant, not Avon's. In any case, we're here, and we can't afford to stay aboard long enough to go somewhere else. You were not awakened for the briefing because, whether you admit it or not, you took more rads than the rest of us. You needed to sleep. You especially needed to sleep more than you needed to argue with everyone!"

She stalked over to the teleport console, punched in a set of coordinates, fetched a bracelet and marched back to the bay. "Dayna, put me down. I've had enough of this for one day."

Dayna rather enjoyed that, and the look of confusion that flickered in Tarrant's blue eyes. It was followed by what the girl thought might be a flash of pain, immediately masked behind a mulish expression of stubborn determination. Once Cally had disappeared, Tarrant drew himself to his full height and suddenly changed tactics. "Avon, it is my professional opinion that you ought to have someone guard your back. Since you seem determined to proceed, I offer my services in that capacity."

Quickly, Dayna looked at the older man. Tarrant obviously expected another scathing comment, probably something about Tarrant's fitness to guard anything. Instead, Avon relaxed, strolled across to the rack and tossed a bracelet to Tarrant. "Very well, I accept your offer. Are you ready to teleport?"

With an ironic bow, Tarrant indicated that he was, indeed, ready. Avon recited teleport coordinates to Dayna, who entered them carefully. Standing apart as far as they could in the bay and still teleport at the same time, the men disappeared.

Dayna finally allowed herself to laugh again. "I'm glad I'm not going with them. Well, Vila, do you know where you want to go?"

The thief scurried over to fetch his own teleport bracelet, then crossed to the console and put in his chosen coordinates. "I'm going some place I'm sure I won't run into those two. Bounty hunters would be better!"

When Vila had gone, Dayna entered her own coordinates, retrieved her bag and bracelet and said, "Orac, put me down." The machine's only response was to activate the teleport.

Tarrant pushed himself to match Avon's pace along the concourse toward a section where mercenaries and shippers tended to gather to do business. The young man suspected his companion had taken a stimulant of some kind, because he showed no signs of the bothersome weakness Tarrant was fighting. Somehow, the tech had obviously found out where to go. Tarrant wondered whether he'd already arranged a meeting, or intended to play it by ear. He'd be damned if he'd ask. And they still had to talk about Avon getting into Tarrant's private working files. Just now, however, Tarrant had to concentrate on keeping them both alive.

This area was not the worst part of the Station, but neither was it safe. They'd hardly moved a hundred meters when the pilot realized the crowd was parting for them as if Avon had a force wall in advance of his steps. Well, they were both armed, but so was everyone else. Tarrant glanced sideways at Avon without turning his head and had to smile. No wonder. Dressed in unrelieved black and wearing his coldest visage, Avon would give any normal person pause. These people, as attuned to danger as the Liberator crew, could recognize trouble when it walked toward them with no apparent intention of stepping aside. Now, so long as they didn't run into someone who had to prove he owned the middle of the concourse....

Avon turned left so suddenly Tarrant nearly lost him, and disappeared between two stalls full of what were doubtless stolen computer parts. Cursing under his breath, he rushed to catch up. By the time he reached Avon's side, the man was already in conversation with an unsavory looking person who badly needed a bath and a shave. The merchant glanced at Tarrant, gestured with a smelly cheroot in his grubby fingers and asked, "Who's this, then? Your keeper?"

Apparently unmoved, Avon drawled, "This is a man you don't want to cross, Relk. The first time I met him, he was engaged in efficiently exterminating a Federation death squad. Now do you want to trade insults with us, or do business?" Tarrant masked his astonishment and assumed his most threatening stance at Avon's shoulder, his hand on his weapon.

Gap-toothed, Relk smiled and scratched his pot belly. "No offense meant, young 'un. Business it is. Care to conduct it over drinks?"

"I do not."

The fellow sighed. "Well, I don't have the crystals here is the problem, y'see."

Tarrant grinned at him. "Do you have them at all?"

"Oh, I got 'em. Finest on the station. How do ye want to do this?"

Avon tilted his head, studying the man as if he were an insect. "I want you to bring the crystals here. Now. I will pay you on delivery." Opening his hand, he displayed a gold chain accented with a half dozen glittering firestones. "We conduct business. Now. Or no deal." He smiled brilliantly. "You'll forgive me if I'd rather not give you time to make some...other...arrangements."

The man's rheumy grey eyes blinked twice. Again the gap-toothed grin. "I like a man knows what he wants and gets right to it. I'll be back inside fifteen minutes. Will that do?"

Avon uttered tonelessly, "In sixteen minutes, I will be gone."

The trader disappeared behind a stack of boxed computer parts. Tarrant turned in a circle, trying to find whomever was watching them. Someone was; he could feel it. Quietly, Avon said, "Look up."

Tarrant did, and saw movement at an overhead air vent. Direct line of fire. "I really do not like this, Avon."

"I don't intend to stand here waiting for Relk. I put a locator on him. Come on." Flashing a glimpse of a palm-sized screen toward Tarrant, Avon set off in the direction their new acquaintance had taken. Irritated, Tarrant followed. He really hated it when Avon didn't tell him things. Things he had a right to know, damn the man. "How do you know he's not leading us into a trap?"

Avon flashed a feral grin. "I don't."

Tarrant had seen him like this before. Whenever they were in real danger, Avon almost seemed in his element. He rode the adrenaline as if he'd invented it, Tarrant thought, and revised upwards his estimation of how dangerous Avon might be. Concentrate, he scolded himself. You'll be just as dead as he is if you allow yourself to be distracted and it really is a trap.

They were in the warren of service corridors that ran behind the shops along the port side of the station concourse. A man could get lost here and not find his way out for days, Tarrant knew. There were stories about people who starved to death in here, confused by the many levels and directions. There were also cul-de-sacs and dead-ends. Tarrant liked this less with every step. It couldn't be far now, he thought, if Relk had really meant to return within the time specified, even if he'd been planning to bring help. Tarrant stifled a sneeze. Dust. What did that mean? This was an unfrequented passageway?

Avon stopped suddenly and Tarrant nearly ran him down. A hand up for silence, Avon strained toward the corner, listening. Tarrant couldn't quite make out what the muttered voices were saying. Softly, Avon breathed, "Damn." He glanced at Tarrant. "Get out. Now." Then he pulled his gun and charged around the corner, firing.

What the hell? Tarrant drew his own weapon, rolled to the center of the corridor and, for a nearly fatal moment, froze. Avon had killed Relk outright, and the ragged figure lying across him seemed to be just about done for. Avon was rifling a box in the corner, probably looking for the nonexistent crystals. Behind him, emerging from an air vent was a man Tarrant knew. "Avon! Behind you!" he shouted, and fired.

The man tumbled to the deck wounded, and immediately started crawling toward his fallen plasma gun. Avon whirled as Tarrant shouted and before the pilot could cross the few meters toward them, he'd put one knee in the middle of the man's back, holstered his blaster and yanked the man's head up by its greasy yellow hair.

"Wexel," Tarrant spat.

Avon purred, "You know this person, Tarrant?"

"I thought he was dead."

"Oh, he is," Avon smiled. He flexed his wrist and a knife appeared in his hand as if teleported. He laid the edge almost gently against Wexel's throat.

"No, Avon." Tarrant hardly recognized his own voice. "This bastard is mine."

Avon rose, somehow made the knife disappear and drew his blaster even as Tarrant approached and kicked Wexel hard enough to turn him on his back. Tarrant saw the man's hand twitch as if to grab for his ankle, and snarled, "Please do, Wexel. Shorten your miserable existence that much more."

The man's narrow green eyes sparked hatred and he cursed fluently in several languages. Tarrant said calmly, "Helen died, Wexel. Badly, because you left us stranded. You know how I felt about Helen."

The man spewed something particularly vile about Helen and Tarrant fired. He waited to feel something like--what? Relief? He raised his eyes and met Avon's. Something about the way the man was looking at him struck Tarrant on a raw nerve and he hissed, "So much for your grand plan."

Avon's face went blank again, his eyes unreadable. He might have been a machine for all the color in his voice when he said, "If you are trying to get me to kill you, all you have to do is ask."

Tarrant, wondering why he hurt so, grinned deliberately. "I'll bear it in mind. Now, shall we obtain the crystals?"

"How do you suggest we do that?"

"Follow me," he said, and walked away.

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