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Payment in Kind

By Jean Graham
Page 2 of 4

"Don't you think this has gone far enough?"

In Xenon base's ops room, Dayna Mellanby took a chair beside Avon, who had pointedly ignored both her and the question she'd asked. His eyes never left the computer monitor in front of him, its screen a mad jumble of calculations that Dayna found, as usual, indecipherable.

Avon's non-response to her query did nothing to deter her; she was used to his moods, had long since come to recognize the "invulnerability shield" he hid behind. Where once the defense mechanism had puzzled her, it had never -- to Avon's probable consternation -- intimidated her at all.

"Sooner or later you're going to answer me, Avon."

He looked at her for the first time,eyes wide with a wry, unspoken, Am I?

"Is there some reason you don't want to tell us what happened? Are you so sure we wouldn't understand?"

His attention returned to the figures on the screen. "I've already told you precisely what happened. Tarrant elected to stay behind. There is nothing more to tell."

"Except possibly just where it was that he elected to stay?"

Avon's long fingers moved rapidly over the console keyboard. The diagrammed maze of calculations shifted and regrouped. "That information would be of little use to you."

"Really? Is that why you suddenly found it necessary to put Slave's navigational logs and the record of Scorpio's last planetfall all under voice lock? Your voice lock?"

With a mirthless smile, he said, "Possibly."

"Avon--" Dayna stifled an angry retort, aware that it would likely only damage her chances of dragging anything out of Avon. Emotional arguments would neither impress nor sway him.

Dayna settled into a visible pout that spanned several long moments of silence. The nearly inaudible power hum and the soft clicking of the keyboard were the only sounds in the room. Eventually, she became aware of Vila hovering near the door, looking as though he'd be prepared to bolt at the first hostile word Avon fired in his direction. Not surprising. For the past two weeks Vila had been the target of Avon's wrath rather more excessively than usual. Almost, Dayna mused, as though Avon had transferred to the thief all the vitriol he could no longer expend on their missing pilot. Dayna wondered if this sudden immersion in the computer system might be still another form of guilt evasion, Avon-style.

"We'd like to hear Tarrant's reasons for leaving from Tarrant," she said with a clandestine glance at Vila. "If you don't mind."

"As it happens, I do."

"You'll have to answer us, you know." Vila forged bravely into the room, echoing Dayna's earlier words. "Sooner or later. You can't ignore us forever."

The computer expert cast him a look that clearly warned him not to count on that. Then the eyes shifted to Dayna and affected a bored expression. "I've a great deal of work to do. And I don't think we have anything else to discuss."

He went back to his computations, the dismissal complete and irrevocable.

Dayna and Vila were left to exchange exasperated sighs.

*     *     *

Corinne swept out of the Perseus cabin's wash cubicle and planted a kiss on Tarrant's forehead as he finished refastening his own tunic.

"Still as good as you remember?" she asked.

His smile was bright, though it still held wariness. "Probably," he hedged. "But then, if I thought this was all you really wanted..."

She feigned mock offense at that, until the look in his eyes warned her that the time for banter had passed. He wanted serious answers now; something a tad more convincing than "old times' sake."

"All right," she acquiesced. "I had an ulterior motive. It's hardly a sinister one. Honest."

"They never were, with you. But then, that was before." His tone had lost all its playfulness. "What is it you want, Corinne?"

"What I need," she said, and came back to sit beside him on the bed, "is a pilot. Mine left me in this god-forsaken hole a week ago and I haven't been able to hire another. That's why I couldn't believe my luck, seeing you."

Scepticism tinged Tarrant's answer. "Not a bit of a coincidence."

She shrugged again. "Say no if you like. I'll only keep looking for someone else. You looked like you might be free, so I asked. That's all."

Cautiously, he said, "I'm not exactly someone you can hire on and register with Federation Central. They have a rude habit of frowning on ship's owners who hire wanted mercenaries."

Kissing him lightly, she said, "You think I care about that? I need to get to Kaban to pick up an overdue cargo load. Strictly speaking, it's not registerable either."

"Strictly speaking," he echoed. "You really haven't changed, have you?"

Her lips sought another kiss, then wandered to his ear. "Whoever you were waiting for," she said, "I don't think they're coming. So why not go with me?"

Tarrant returned the kiss eagerly before pulling back to look at her again. There was just the slightest hint of regret in his eyes before he said, a little sadly, "Why not?" Perseus was slow, almost clumsy by Scorpio's standards, but she was an effortless ship to pilot. She wouldn't have survived a space battle, having almost no armament to speak of, and she lacked the maneuverability of her newer cousins in the starliner trade. But she made the flight to Kaban in three days without incident, and that was all her two occupants had required of her. Tarrant put her down outside a sleepy little settlement on the dark side of the planet, after having made radio contact with Corinne's suppliers. Three figures stood waiting to board the moment Perseus' loading ramp was lowered. While that operation was proceeding, Tarrant eyed Corinne over the flight console.

"You never said just what our cargo was to be," he pointed out.

"Oh, a very valuable cargo." She pressed the control to open the main hatch, and before Tarrant could react, three men stepped in, each holding a handgun levelled at him.

"Sorry, darling." From somewhere, Corinne had produced a compact weapon of her own. "I really did need a pilot. I just didn't expect to run into one worth quite so much money. If you see what I mean."

Tarrant did not move from the flight position. His smile returned, tight and sardonic now. "I wouldn't have expected bounty-hunting to fall under your list of unenviable talents. But then I suppose a million credits is temptation enough to anyone."

"Don't flatter yourself too much." There was a shrewd tone in her voice that he had never heard before. She moved, sliding into a seat opposite him. "It isn't just you. You're only the bait, Tarrant my love. You're going to take us to Scorpio and the rest of them. All 7 million credits worth."

He laughed, deliberately mocking her. "Is there anything else I can do for you while I'm about it? Deliver the Nikonian crown jewels, perhaps?"

"The location of your base will do."

He leaned back in the flight chair, folding his hands and ignoring the trio still standing at the hatch. "Sorry. But I can't quite see as there'd be anything in that for me. If you see what I mean."

The small gun made circular motions in Corinne's manicured hand. "You take us to them and I let you go. Good enough?"

"It might be... if I thought I could believe you."

One of the gunmen strode angrily forward to shove the muzzle of his blaster into Tarrant's face. "I'll tell you something you can believe, deserter." The last word was a resentful hiss. "You program this flight computer to take us to your little band of terrorists, or I'm going to blow your head off right here and now."

Feigning utter disinterest in the threat, Tarrant glanced back at Corinne. "Oh come on now. That's really nothing but a choice between dying now and dying later, courtesy of a Federation death squad. Surely you can do better than that? Just a little?"

Corinne waved the overzealous gunman impatiently away. "Like what, for instance?"

"Like maybe settling for 3 million. Possibly 4."

"The bounty on Kerr Avon," she supplied knowingly. "And...?"

"And Orac, if he comes along."

"Comes where?"

Tarrant adopted a scheming look that admirably rivaled hers. "I can bring Avon here. And Scorpio and very probably Orac. On one condition."

A predatory smile now. "Of course. What condition?" "That you and your... boyfriends... here take Perseus to the other side of the planet and wait for my signal. When Scorpio is mine, I'll let you know when and where to collect Avon."

"And you take the ship."

"That's the general idea. Well?"

Corinne considered, then shook her head slowly. "We'll take Perseus a few kilometers away, out of sight. But I stay."

The gunman who had threatened Tarrant started to object. Corinne silenced him with a look. "How will you bring Avon here?" she asked.

Tarrant chewed his lip for a long moment before answering. "I won't," he said at last. "Orac will."

*     *     *


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