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Of Renegades and Kings

By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 4

The lock pick proved useless on the cargo hold door. For the first time, Avon lamented not having asked Vila for lessons; his own lock picking skills were far from adequate. Woefully inadequate, in fact. Not that he had a broad range of places to go should he manage to escape the hold. The only possibility might be to steal that heap of unreliable bolts Blake's riffraff had arrived in. It might -- just might -- get him to a habitable planet. If one was near. If the fuel held out. If he could pilot and navigate the ship alone. If he could get out of here first.

Far too many 'ifs.'

He gave up on the uncooperative lock, slid the pick back into the concealing heel of his shoe and tried to make himself marginally comfortable on the bare floor. He had no doubt that their glorious erstwhile leader would put in an appearance ere long, to inform the condemned of his fate. That in itself might provide his only opportunity for escape. He would not relish killing Blake, but with his own survival in question, neither would he hesitate should it become necessary.

By his chrono, nearly seven hours had passed when the hum of disengaging circuitry signaled the door's opening. Avon looked up, waited. A cautious Blake finally stepped through into the room, and the tech caught a glimpse of Jenna lingering in the corridor, gun still in hand. He hadn't accounted for the possibility of Jenna. Somehow he'd have made book that Blake would come alone. Perhaps associating with the unwashed masses was beginning to teach the man caution in spite of himself. Pity. In this case, better he should have learned that lesson after he and Kerr Avon had parted company.

The larger man towered over him, glaring down with accusing eyes. "I've only one question," he said, "to which I would like an honest answer. Why?"

Avon gave him a toneless but entirely honest reply. "I didn't."

Clearly, this was not the response Blake had wanted. "It's a bit late for denials. We've already established that no one else aboard could have done it."

With one arm draped casually over a knee, Avon permitted rank disgust to permeate his voice. "Must you be naive as well as stupid? Whoever sent the message must have used a time-delay transmission module. It is the only possible explanation."

Snorting, the bigger man glanced back toward the open door, where Jenna's vigilant shadow fell across the threshold. "We checked for that. No such device was found in the auxiliary communications room."

"A self-destructing module then. That is how I would have done it. If I had done it."

Blake paced away, then swung vehemently back to face him. "No one else had opportunity. Nor did anyone else have motive."

"Someone did."

"No," Blake rasped out. "I don't believe you. I can't believe you. Morgen's people have been checked and double-checked -- even Orac verified them each and every one. All of them are above suspicion. All loyal to the rebellion."

"Oh, I don't doubt it. After all, betraying you was not the saboteur's intent."

"What?"

Obviously, the thought of something more sinister than a straightforward betrayal had not occurred to Blake. Avon smiled tightly and elaborated. "It does not require a genius to reason that you would easily detect such a transmission and alter your plans accordingly. Therefore, the traitor has one of two goals. He is leading you elsewhere into a pre-arranged trap..."

"Or?"

"Or he simply wants to be rid of me. Haven't your guests made that desire clear enough?"

Unswayed, Blake shook his head. "I know these people. Morgen and his wife helped form the Freedom Party on Earth. Their crew are all hand-picked, painstakingly screened. They are not saboteurs."

No. They are fanatics, and fanatics despise individualism, skepticism, cynicism -- all that I am. "Well now," Avon said aloud, "whoever he is shall be your little mystery to solve. When I am gone..." Dead or marooned, he thought bitterly. It probably amounts to the same thing either way. "When I am gone, he will still be here."

"All right, Avon. Enough." Blake's quiet rage scuttled any faint hope that he might listen to reason. "You leave me no choice, I'm afraid."

"Ah," Avon said knowingly. "So the executioner must now justify himseff to the condemned. Save your breath, Blake. You are no better than the madmen you conspire to overthrow."

That rankled. The bigger man's eyes flashed. "You can stop playing the innocent!" he spat. "You've wanted to be shut of us from the very beginning -- you've made a point of that. Well, you should be happy to know that your dreams will shortly come true. We'll be putting you off ship at Devank. It's a neutral planet in the 11th sector spiral rim, far from the Federation's influence, or anyone else's for that matter."

Avon scowled up at him. "Not far enough. Exile will not satisfy the bloodlust of these fanatics you've brought aboard, and you're a fool to believe otherwise."

"Perhaps," was the unexpectedly mellow reply. For only a moment, a hint of doubt tinged Blake's voice. "I'm sorry, Avon," he said. "But if the rebellion is to succeed, I... we... can't afford anyone without a total commitment, total loyalty."

What to say to that? Avon could think of nothing that hadn't already been voiced, and so they glared through an acrid, lengthy silence, so long that Jenna finally peered in to see what they were about.

"Are you ready?" she asked, a shade nervously.

Blake nodded, breaking gazes with Avon as he turned. He paused at the door to deliver a parting remark over his shoulder. "We won't meet again. Good-bye, Avon."

No point, really, in gracing that maudlin formality with a reply. When Blake had gone, Jenna tossed a last jaundiced look through the door before wrestling it shut. The lock cycled with a final echoing clank, leaving Avon alone with his thoughts.

Wash your hands of me if you will, Blake. If I find a way out of here, you may have occasion to eat those words.

Assuming Blake lived that long. His newfound friends were far from the compromising sort; hardly the bleeding-heart pacifist Blake was. Sooner or later, they would clash, and he would not have made book on Blake to come out on top of the conflict. A fool leading fools will only fall victim to other fools. Well, may you all go to hell. I will make my own salvation.

With an angry flourish, he removed the lock pick from his shoe once again and started anew on the security housing. He was damned if Kerr Avon would go like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. Not for Blake's -- or anyone else's -- satisfaction. Guilt or innocence was, in fact, irrelevant to the issue. He simply refused to be humiliated, made a pawn to Blake's glorious, foolhardy cause.

Two hours and uncounted imprecations later, the stubborn lock had not yielded. He had just pocketed the lock pick in disgust and resolved to try again later when a buzz-click echoed from across the massive hold. Avon was instantly on his feet, heading for the cover of two large shipping containers. The sound repeated itself with more clicks, then came the loud, reverberating scrape of a cargo door coming open. A moment of panic touched him: was it the interconnecting door or an outer hatch? Had the saboteur decided to be rid of him by opening the bay to the vacuum of space? The scraping continued, but nothing disturbed the bay's atmosphere. No suction, no depressurization. Avon's curiosity finally got the better of him. He peered around the boxes -- and only just stifled an audible sigh of relief. On the interconnecting bay platform, its huge door rolled aside and electronic lock flashing a violated red, stood Vila, dusting his hands and looking around the bay. Cally appeared in the doorway with another surprise -- Orac -- in hand.

"Are you sure he's in here?" the thief muttered. "I don't see him anywhere."

Avon stepped into the open, though he kept one hand concealed in the pocket with the lock pick -- his only potential weapon. You never knew who you could trust these days (therefore he wisely trusted no one).

"Oh," Vila said cheerily. "There you are. You're not really interested in hanging about in here I hope?"

Avon strode toward the platform, eyeing the bay beyond warily. "Just the two of you?" he asked with measured caution.

"And Orac," Cally said and sat the heavy computer down on the armored decking. "'The three of us have discussed it and decided that we agree with your assessment. The Federation can be defeated by other means than war and bloodshed."

Avon's mouth quirked. "And you intend that I should defeat it, do you?"

"With Orac's help." The Auron's gaze remained resolute, giving him no quarter. "Would you rather remain here? It might still be arranged."

Avon's grin escaped in a flash of white teeth. "I accept your terms," he said, and knelt to retrieve Orac from the deck.

"This way, ladies and gents," Vila chortled with a grand gesture at the open bay door. "One rebel ship ready and waiting for one master thief to spirit her away. Preferably to a nice safe neutral planet with wide open casinos, beautiful women..." He babbled on as they descended the ramp into the second bay, interrupting himself at the bottom. "Er, we don't have a pilot..."

"We have Orac," Avon said, and let that be an answer.

The Tolens' ship had lived its former life as an ore freighter. Not much to look at, she had at least been modified with rudimentary weaponry and engines that might, with a heavy dose of luck, push her to TD2. Vila scampered up its landing ramp to open a hatch which he had obviously 'unlocked' ahead of time. Noticing Avon's scathing visual appraisal of the ship, he shrugged and sighed. "At least it flies," he said.

Avon and Cally followed the thief onto the freighter's cramped, shopworn flight deck, where the computer tech cast scornful eyes on the antiquated instrumentation. "Fly, perhaps," he commented dryly. "But it will never outrun Liberator in a pursuit."

"Surely it needn't try." Cally tapped the silent plastic box Avon held and echoed his earlier words. "We have Orac."

He reflected her slow, easy smile. "So we have."

When she produced the little computer's activation key from a pocket, he accepted it, tucking it safely away inside his overtunic. "Just for the moment, however, it might be wiser to get Orac out of sight."

"Eh?" Vila puzzled as the tech secreted their perspex prize in a maintenance closet. "Why?"

"Precautions." Avon slammed the panel shut, moved swiftly to the pilot's console, began manipulating controls. "First, we make certain no one else is aboard." The old-fashioned sensor scan gave him that answer in an agonizingly slow crawl of data across a monitor screen. Three life forms on the flight deck, no additional readings. "So far," he thought aloud, "so good." Now to see if these museum piece computers could initiate flight procedures without alerting Zen. If not, he may need Orac sooner than he'd planned. "Retract the ramp and close the hatch, Vila. With a little luck, we'll be departing shortly."

"Not just yet, I'm afraid." Blake's voice brought Avon's hands up from the console as though it had suddenly sprouted poison spikes. When he turned, it was to find not one but two figures on the landing ramp just outside the hatch. Seann Tolen stood smugly at Blake's side, another 'appropriated' Federation blaster cradled in her arms.

"What's the matter?" Avon queried in his nastiest tone. "Wasn't Jenna available for bodyguard duty this time around?"


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