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Keeper of the Trust

By Jean Graham
Page 2 of 4

By the time they entered orbit over Vaarn, Blake's nerves were very near the snapping point. Avon had continued to harry him about the inadvisability of this mission, and kept up the argument all the way down to the surface. Only when Vila had opened the final lock into the computer center (and then returned outside to teleport back to Liberator) had it seemed that Avon would cease challenging Blake's every move. He fell to programming the destruct sequence with practiced ease, while Gan watched the door and Blake set the initial explosive charge against the computer's housing.

"I've created an opening in the shield," Blake heard Avon say as he finished setting the explosive's timer. "We should be able to teleport from here with no difficulty."

"Good." Blake stood up, dusting his hands. "There's just one other thing."

Avon looked pained. "What now?"

"I saw something resembling an Istra decoding crystal in the next room. I want to have a look before we go."

"You should have thought of that before. There isn't time."

"Call the ship and go up then. Both of you. I'll be along in a moment."

"Blake--"

"Do as you're told, Avon."

It had been the wrong thing to say. The look in Avon's eyes told Blake another argument was imminent. Forestalling it, he turned to walk toward the interconnecting door, and Avon's voice came, chill with warning, from behind him.

"Blake, don't be an idiot."

He looked back, only to be faced with the impossible vision of Avon with his gun in hand. Another of Orac's prophecies fulfilled, he thought darkly. But surely he hadn't pushed that far? A simple command...

Any figure of authority, Orac had said, could serve as the trigger.

He thought, too late, to reach for his own weapon, though he knew he could never have beaten Avon's shot. There was no time. He heard Gan shout his name before the bolt streaked toward him -- and seared past his ear to the door. Glass popped, shattered. And on the other side of the ruined window in the door, a black-clad, helmeted figure toppled from view with a muffled cry.

Blake fell back against the wall, breathing heavily. "Thank you," he managed to say.

There was no response.

When he looked up, Avon's gun was still pointed at him. The dark eyes were focused on him, but they were...somewhere else...as well. The finger over the firing stud flexed once and then steadied, poised...

A small eternity crawled by.

"Avon..."

Something large interposed itself between them. Gan put out a tentative hand and moved, unafraid, toward the gun.

"Come on, Avon. It's all over now. We can go back to the ship."

Avon did not appear to hear him. When Gan gently slipped the weapon from his grasp, his eyes changed, found Blake, and went immediately cold again. The look made Blake want to shudder.

From somewhere, an alarm began to wail.

It was Gan who finally brought the teleport bracelet to his lips and said, "Bring us up, Jenna."

When the three of them materialized on the teleport platform, the tension was thick enough to slice, and was not lost on Jenna. "What kept you?" she asked. "The charges are going off now; you barely got out of there in time."

Ignoring her, Avon moved silently away from the others and disappeared down the corridor. Blake stared after him, knowing the shock he was feeling had to be evident on his face. He saw no point in hiding it. Gan had seen, had stopped it from happening, and the others would know.

"What is it?" Jenna demanded of Gan when Blake didn't answer. "What happened down there?"

"Orac's prophecy happened," the big man said. "Or it nearly did, anyway."

"Blake!" Vila's voice came urgently over the intercom. "Pursuit ships on zero-seven-zero; we've got to get out of here!"

As one, the three of them headed for the flight deck.

Moments later, their pursuit left far behind, Blake stood once again over the transparent, humming box that housed Orac, with Gan, Cally, Vila and Jenna gathered around him. Only Avon was absent from the flight deck.

"Orac," Blake said slowly, "I want to send a priority message to one Sais Javan, Pirathon Centre, Planet Lystra. It's in the 9th Sector. And as always, Orac, the signal should not be traceable to Liberator.

*Naturally,* the computer replied.

Blake rubbed his eyes wearily while Orac digested the request, clicking softly to itself and incredibly, not objecting to the task of relaying messages.

"Who is Sais Javan?" Cally asked beside him.

Blake held up a hand. "In a moment, Cally. Zen, I want flight time to Lystra at standard by ten."

+FORTY-FOUR HOURS, THIRTY-TWO MINUTES.+

*I have isolated the communications frequency for Pirathon Centre,* Orac announced.

Blake sat down again, and folded his hands. "All right," he said. "Message follows..."

*      *      *

Avon had no doubt that Cally could hear the argument approaching the teleport even from this distance down the corridor. He didn't particularly care. When he and Blake finally entered the room, the verbal war was raging in full.

"Don't patronize me, Blake."

"Patronize? Is that what I was doing?"

"You know damn well it is. First you divert us here without adequate explanation--"

"I told you precisely why we came here. We picked up Javan's message that his life support computers were malfunctioning."

"--And then you insist on teleporting into an unknown situation unarmed."

"I gave him my word."

"As I believe I've said before, you did not give him mine."

Blake's expression was aggravatingly smug. "As it happens, I did. I know Sais Javan. I trust him. Why don't you try trusting me?"

Avon glanced briefly at Cally behind the console before he said levelly, "Perhaps because you so seldom practice the reverse." Then, in his most scathing tone, he added, "What is it that you haven't told me, Blake?"

The other man turned deliberately away from him to clip on a bracelet from the teleport rack. "What makes you think there's anything?"

"Because for several days now, everyone aboard this ship has been behaving like captives on the way to a slave mine. Vila cringes if I so much as gaze in his direction. Come to that, he's been hiding from me more often than not. I want to know what's going on, Blake. And I want to know what is on this planet before I go down."

As before, Blake deftly evaded the question. "If you're so suspicious of Pirathon Centre, you can check it out yourself, before either of us goes."

"I have. Orac says it is a non-aligned medical research facility."

"So it is."

"But even Orac can be preconditioned, under certain circumstances, to mislead."

"And why would I want to do that?"

"You tell me."

"This rampant paranoia is all very interesting," Blake said flippantly, and handed him a bracelet. "But we're wasting valuable time. Now are you coming with me, or shall I try to muddle my way through Javan's computers on my own?"

Though his suspicions were entirely unalleviated, Avon accepted the bracelet. Sooner or later, he would learn what Blake was up to. But he was also certain that when he did, he wasn't going to like it.

As the teleport effect took them both, he caught a final glimpse of Cally at the controls. Strange. He could have sworn her eyes were shining with tears...

The tastefully decorated reception room in which they arrived betrayed no sign of any life support malfunction. Avon said so, and thought it odd that Blake had nothing to say in response. He seemed... nervous...somehow. And Blake was not usually nervous.

A door opened, admitting a silver-haired man in a close-fitting blue tunic. He looked, Avon decided, like an administrator. Or a diplomat. Perhaps he was both.

"Blake!" The man pumped his companion's hand. "Good to see you again. I'm sorry I'm late. I had a call and I--"

"Sais Javan," Blake interrupted him, seemingly impatient to get on. "This is Kerr Avon."

Javan took Avon's hand with rather less enthusiasm than he'd lavished on Blake. "Good to meet you," he said, and then immediately dropped the protocol. "Everything is ready. Would you come this way?"

Everything was ready? For what? Avon glanced questioningly at Blake, only to find the other man studiously avoiding his gaze.

Something was wrong. Very wrong. He didn't like the way Blake was behaving. There was something almost...guilty...in the way he moved and...

"Gentlemen?" Javan's polite prompt interrupted his thought. The administrator, or whatever he was, waited for them just inside a nearby doorway. Blake held out a hand to indicate that Avon should go first. Bristling, he did so, determined to drag an answer to this mystery out of Blake one way or the other.

He passed through the door -- and promptly found himself between two pairs of uniformed men, each with a gun trained on him.

"What the--?"

He whirled, rounding on Blake, still in the doorway. The guns were quite clearly not aimed in Blake's direction. Only in his own. And that could only mean one thing. One incredible, impossible thing...

"Go with them, Avon," Blake said quietly. "They won't hurt you. They've given me their word."

Avon grimaced, damning himself for several thousand varieties of fool. "Naturally. The reward for a breathing fugitive is higher. Or so I'm told."

Blake's response was not what he'd expected. He looked genuinely hurt by the accusation. "Avon," he said. "It isn't what you think."

"Isn't it?" Avon glared steadily at him, measuring his next words with care. "I should have killed you when I had the chance, Blake."

The hurt expression remained. "I'm sorry, Avon."

Before he could respond to that, the gunmen intervened to usher him away. Javan, he noted, had remained behind with Blake. Probably to discuss the dispersal of reward monies, Avon thought bitterly. One million credits was temptation enough for anyone, after all, and Blake had apparently found a way to collect it with impunity. Avon wondered darkly how he'd failed to see this coming; he had certainly given Blake all probable cause, particularly of late. And though he'd known something to be wrong, he had never once suspected this. Stupid of him...

His captors led him into a small room with nothing in it but a table on which a set of plain blue hospital clothes had been laid out.

"You will change into these," one of the four men said crisply, and when Avon made no move to obey, he lifted his gun ever so slightly and added tonelessly, "please."

He waited, defying them to make the first move. Eventually, one of them did, reaching out to firmly grasp his arm. Avon caught the man's hand and wrenched it toward him, intending to pin it back and take a hostage. But something crackled near him; an energy charge. One of the guns, he realized belatedly, and in the same moment he felt a burning sensation begin to make its way up his ribcage. Not a bullet or a plasma bolt. Those wouldn't...

His hand found the splayed tail of the dart then. Tranquilizer guns... Why would the Federation...? Ah, but they weren't Federation, of course. They wouldn't be. The Federation would come later.

He dimly remembered hitting the floor, and then, never quite losing consciousness, recalled that four pairs of hands had methodically stripped and redressed him in the hospital tunic. When his head finally cleared of the tranquilizing drug, he was firmly secured by cloth restraints to a diagnostic couch in what appeared to be a well-equipped surgery. Either that or a Federation interrogation unit...

Two of his former guards were busy elsewhere in the room. And a woman, blonde, middle-aged, passive-faced, had come twice to stand over him, checking the life-readings on the scanner overhead.

"How do you feel?" she asked solicitously, beside the bed again now.

He stared dully at her for a moment, then turned his head away. "Must we suffer the delusion that you care?"

She pretended not to hear that. "My name is Syene," she said. "And yours is Avon."

Well that was good news. He was delighted to know he was still Avon, though somehow he couldn't quite formulate the properly searing words to tell her so. She was still studying the medical scanner, intent on the heart reading. He could hear it bleeping softly, a rhythmic, slightly too-rapid rate.

"Why don't you relax?" she said placatingly. "There's nothing to be afraid of."

He ignored the pleasantry, still refusing to look at her. After a lengthy silence, he asked matter-of-factly, "When do they come?"

"I'm sorry?"

"The Federation." Her puzzled silence annoyed him. Surely she knew? "To...'collect'...me," he explained tightly. "Blake could not possibly have sold me without some form of go-between, and that has got to be you. Therefore the Federation must be on their way here."

She walked around the bed to look at him, that same unwitting confusion still in her eyes. "The Federation are not coming here," she said with such innocence that he almost found himself believing it. "And no one has 'sold' you to anybody."

Avon blinked, confused himself now. If this wasn't what he'd reasoned it to be, then it made no sense at all. And if it was, then what reason would she have to lie to him about it?

"If you are not go-betweens," he said, "and you are not Federation, then who...?"

"I told you there was nothing to fear. I'm a doctor. Nothing else. And this is a hospital."

A hospital... Not simply the medical research facility Orac had claimed it to be. So Blake had persuaded Orac to deceive him after all. Abruptly, several pieces of the puzzle slipped neatly into place, evoking a small, brittle smile. Orac. Blake saying "It isn't what you think."

"A mental hospital," he said.

"Yes."

He had to admit, it was an ingenious means of eliminating the primary competition. And so like Blake to opt for a contingency like this one. Not to kill him or maroon him or even simply turn him over to the Federation. But to leave him here...

"I assume," he said, "that you are still capable of contacting Blake."

Syene frowned. "I suppose so. But that shouldn't be important to you now." One of the guard/attendants had come to stand over the bed with a hypodermic needle in hand. Just as the Federation guards had stood over him, not very long ago...

He closed his eyes and fought the image back, embarrassed at the realization that the heart monitor had telegraphed his reaction. Impatiently, Syene waved the attendant away.

"What is wrong, Avon?"

Interesting, how genuine the concern in her voice sounded. Either she was an exceptionally good actress, or...

"There is no reason to be afraid," she went on. "I can assure you, the drug is quite harmless. You will feel nothing."

The man with the needle came furtively back again, waiting for Syene's nod of approval.

Avon interrupted it. "Before you do that," he said, "I want you to send Blake a message."

Distractedly, Syene, still studying the monitor, said, "What message is that?"

"Tell him that this changes nothing," Avon said coldly. "There is a way out of any prison -- even this one. And when I have found it...  When I have found it, I still intend to kill him."

Apparently unimpressed by the threat, Syene touched a control somewhere on the diagnostic panel and nodded tightly to the attendant.

"When you leave here, Avon, you will no longer have any such desire."

*      *      *


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