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Sacrifice and Betrayal

By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 3

Vila ran one hand through thinning hair."We've got big trouble, Orac. And I hope you've got some ideas, because I'm fresh out."

He was still trying to digest all that he's just seen. He'd heard Blake mention Anna Grant once, after Albion. But the thought that this cold-hearted witch could be anyone Avon would love...

*The requisite course of action is quite clear,* Orac huffed in reply to his statement. *You will have to release the others and reclaim the ship.*

"Oh, that's all is it? You got any suggestions as to just how I'm to do that, Plastic-brain? Those corridors are crawling with Federation troops."

*This room contains an access hatch to the sub-deck crawlway system.*

Oh yes. He'd forgotten about that, too. Hadn't Dayna and Avon used it to keep out of Tarrant's sight when he'd first boarded Liberator? Still sounded dangerous, though. And claustrophobic.

"Is that the best you can come up with? Can't you just flood all but this room and cargo hold four with nerve gas or something?"

*That would require the manual attachment of gas canisters to the ventilation intake vents in maintenance chambers four, five, six and--*

"Okay, okay, forget that. Just release the lock on cargo hold four then."

*The hatch on cargo hold four has been secured by manual override. It will therefore require manual--*

"Manual release," Vila chorused with a sigh. "Wonderful. Fat lot of help you are, you flashing heap of spare parts. And while I'm crawling around under the deck, what happens if Servalan starts asking 'Zen' more questions? Who'll coach you on the answers then?"

*I am perfectly capable of maintaining the fiction as establish thus far. Servalan will be informed that our course and speed is Earth at standard by seven. Flight computers aboard the accompanying pursuit craft will be altered to correlate this information. Our true course remains non-specified sector twelve at standard by three. I really must learn more about this game. The possibilities would appear to be virtually endless!*

"Eh?" Vila had the feeling he'd just missed something. "Game? What game is that?"

*Prevarication!* the diminutive computer enthused. *The human capacity for falsehood is unsurpassed anywhere else in the known wor--*

"Later, Orac," Vila groaned. "Now let's go over the story one last time..."

*      *      *

Servalan had insisted on taking the pilot's position, relegating four other stations to her guards. All four had removed their helmets and settled in, long ago discovering that they had little to do and already looking decidedly bored.

Avon, though he had no idea why, had been permitted to remain, resuming his position on the flight couch. Perhaps Servalan considered his presence a form of insurance. Protection from anyone or anything that might attempt to cut off life support to the flight deck, or activate Zen's hallucinatory defense mechanism. Not an unwise move, all told; one he might have used himself. But someone or something was at work against her just the same, though she wasn't aware of it yet. The vibrations pulsing through the deck at his feet were nowhere near the strength of a standard by seven space drive. He could only hope that Orac/Zen had lied about their destination as well.

They had neither seen nor heard from Anna since her indignant departure from the flight deck. She had re-boarded the docked pursuit ship and flown off to join the flotilla accompanying Liberator to Earth. If indeed they were going to Earth.

He could still find little within him to care what became of Liberator or her crew. But the numbness had begun to give way to a quiet fury, a rage directed entirely inward. With a fatalist's eye view, he damned Kerr Avon for a fool a hundred times over, and then went back to damn him again. How had he ever been so naive as to think that anyone -- Anna, Blake, even his own family -- could be trusted? The innocence of youth, perhaps. Well, he would suffer the delusion no longer. Never again...

"Zen." Servalan's voice broke in on his reverie. "Are you continuing to monitor any attempted transmissions from flotilla nine?"

In completely un-Zen-like tones, the computer snapped, *Well, of course I am! *

The president merely smiled at the machine's impudence. "And have there been any attempts by the flotilla to contact Central Security?"

*Pursuit three attempted such a message thirteen point six minutes ago. *

The blood-red lips tightened ever-so-slightly. "And I trust you blocked the transmission?"

*As instructed.*

"Good. You really are quite a clever machine, Zen. Not at all what I expected, after our brief encounter over Kairos. I shall have to find some suitable reward for you when we return to Earth."

*I require no reward,* the pseudo-Zen declared, distinctly miffed.

Servalan's intended rejoinder was curtailed when one of her guards sat abruptly upright at the communications console.

"Madame President... Pursuits one, two and four report they are under attack!"

"What?! Zen, I want visual, immediately!"

The viewscreen irised open at her command, just as the guard spoke up again. "Pursuit two reports the attackers are..." He paused, blinking in disbelief. "Madame, they report the attackers are pursuits three and five!"

He hadn't yet completed the sentence when one of the ships on screen burst into flaming debris and spiraled off into the void.

"We've lost pursuit one," the guard said breathlessly.

Servalan swore. "The fools. Arm all ship's weaponry, Zen. Fire on pursuits three and five at once."

*Weaponry is not available,* Orac/Zen informed her perfunctorily.

Before the president could argue further, a half-dozen armed troops clattered onto the flight deck from both entryways. Four of them moved to cover the guards at each flight position; the last two bracketed Servalan, their rifles aimed. Avon watched dispassionately from the couch: no one had acknowledged his presence.

The ensuing battle on Zen's screen temporarily forgotten, Servalan turned an incensed glare on her helmeted captors. "And what is the meaning of this?"

"You'll come with us, Madame President," the muffled voice answered. "Now."

"You commit treason," she ranted. "I'll have Anna Grant and the rest of Central Security on the execution block for this!"

"Now, Madame President. Move." His rifle swung toward the doorway and back again. Fuming, she led the parade off the flight deck, until one solitary armed trooper remained. He did not speak, merely slipped into the pilot's chair and sat back to watch the battle as nonchalantly as he might watch a vidplay. A second ship burst into flaming death on the screen. No way to tell which side was prevailing: all Federation pursuit ships were unerringly identical.

Avon weighed the odds, decided they would never be better than now, and opted for living a while longer. Even if, as Vila would say, he had to die trying... Carefully, he reached beneath the cushion beside him. Ever since the incident at Obsidian, he'd kept a small handgun concealed inside the pillowing.

Inwardly, he laughed at his own inconsistency. An hour ago, he'd gladly have allowed Liberator and all aboard her to perish. Now, however, the survivor in him would choose to fight -- if only for the privilege of facing Anna one last time.

The trooper, still faceless behind his green-rimmed helmet, sat raptly at the pilot's console, watching Zen's screen. Avon shot him through the heart before the man could raise his forgotten weapon, then rose and walked calmly round the flight couch to the weaponry console, tucking the small gun out of sight beneath his leather tunic.

"Orac," he said, "have Zen put up the force wall and clear the neutron blasters for firing. Target the remaining three pursuit ships and commence immediate attack."

*Oh, very well,* the prissy voice conceded with bad grace. *Force wall activated. Neutron blasters cleared. Targets ranged...*

Triple beams of violet plasma streaked toward the three ships. One struck its mark, sending the fighter craft plummeting out of view. The others veered away, milled in momentary confusion, and then at last opened fire on Liberator.

As the console lurched with the impact of the first volley, Avon unleashed a cold and humorless grin. "Now, Orac," he breathed between clenched teeth. "Now, we fight."

*      *      *

Clutching a purloined Federation gun, Vila trailed after Tarrant and the girls with mounting trepidation. They'd already fought two pitched battles with Federation troops and were still trying to make their way to the flight deck. But something damned peculiar was going on. The Federation troops were also fighting each other.

They were approaching the escape pod bay when more gunfire erupted. All four of them flattened themselves to the corridor wall, their motley collection of guns at the ready. In the same moment, Liberator rocked with the force of an outside blast.

Tarrant glanced back toward them with an uneasy smile. "Nothing like having all hell break loose at once," he whispered.

As more gunshots echoed from the bay, Dayna said, "I'd give a hell of a lot just to know what's going on."

A uniformed trooper stumbled into the corridor as she spoke. Four guns snapped toward him, but he collapsed with a gasp before any of them fired.

"I think it is time we learned what is going on," Cally suggested. She motioned toward the bay with her gun.

Tarrant nodded. "I'm for that. I'll go first, shall I?"

When no one objected, the pilot crept forward to the juncture that formed the bay's entrance, paused and waited. Silence. Vila found that more ominous, somehow, than the gunfire. Weapon extended, Tarrant peered around the bulkhead -- and promptly ducked a laser bolt that scored and blistered the wall behind him. He returned fire from the floor, rolled away from another blast, then scrambled to his feet just as a loud thump echoed from inside the bay. Dayna led them forward when the pilot disappeared around the juncture, but before they reached the door, Vila heard the whoosh of an escape capsule launching. They arrived to find Tarrant alone in the bay. Alone but for the bodies of three Federation soldiers littering the floor.

"What's happening?" Vila panted. "Since when do the Feds turn on each other?"

"Perhaps since we became worth fifteen million Federation credits," Gaily theorized. "Who knows?"

Tarrant bit his lip. "Well whatever the reason, the illustrious president just ditched her prize and opted out in that escape pod."

"Servalan!" Dayna cried as Liberator rocked with another strike against the force wall. "I say it's time to move, then. Let's get to the flight deck and see if we can vaporize that capsule before one of the pursuit ships picks it up."

With murmurs of accord, Tarrant and Cally followed her out. Vila lingered a moment, then went along. He wasn't at all sure he'd like what they would probably find on the flight deck.

And he was right.

What they found were more bodies -- three Vila could see from the entry -- as well as two standing troops and that Grant woman, all coming in from the main access hatch, off another docked ship, he supposed. But by far the most frightening sight was the bleak, utter emptiness in Avon's eyes when he turned from the weapons console to face Anna.

In a blur, Dayna and Tarrant had called out and dispatched the two guards. Avon never blinked, and Anna Grant appeared not to notice.

"I told you it was not as it seemed!" she pleaded with the black, fathomless gaze. "I set all of this up, Avon!"

The computer tech's tone was flat, dead. "Yes," he hissed, and the menace in that single syllable made Vila shudder.

"We intend to overthrow Servalan, take control of Earth administration. We can do it together, Avon. You and I!"

"Nothing we couldn't do," he said, as though echoing another's words. "Imagination our only limit?" He turned away toward the viewscreen, where only the stars stretched now, into infinity. From among the four observers frozen in the doorway, Cally took a tentative step forward. Vila put out a hand to gently draw her back, shaking his head in silent warning. As though she were somehow aware that Avon's cryptic words had doomed her, the Grant woman's features hardened with lethal determination. She reached for a sidearm Vila had not noticed until now -- Cally's shouted warning came barely in time. Avon spun and fired. Where his gun had come from Vila had no clue, but he must have been holding it already, before he turned...

In the next instant, Anna Grant lay awkwardly on the deck with Avon kneeling over her. Vila felt suddenly like a voyeur, watching the oh-so-untouchable Avon gather his dying lover into his arms, cradle her, tenderly kiss her forehead.

Anna's voice, almost too faint to hear, whispered. "It wasn't all lies. Not all... I... let you go... my love."

The frail form went limp then, and the terrible quiet lengthened until Avon murmured something more. Vila had never heard a voice so desolate. "No," he said. "You never let me go. You never did."

Liberator's boarding parties were gone -- all the troops either killed or fled back to the sole surviving pursuit ship that had, until recently, remained docked with the DSV. It turned tail and ran for Earth the moment it was free of link-up. Zen confirmed that it had indeed picked up a life capsule en route.

*      *      *

Not surprisingly, no one thanked Vila for having had the foresight to teach Orac how to lie, or the courage to rescue the crew from cargo hold four. They simply went about the morbid business of clearing the ship of corpses, dragging all of them in turn to the airlock. All but one.

More than an hour had passed since the debacle on the flight deck. Avon had not moved in all that time, and no one had dared approach him.

Vila had walked back onto the flight deck and into an air of tension thick enough to slice. Tarrant, Cally, Dayna, all at their flight consoles, merely sat and stared at the bowed figure still cradling the body of Anna Grant. There were tears in Cally's eyes, the hint of mist in Dayna's. And in Tarrant's, the lost look of a very young boy with no idea how to cope with the dilemma at hand.

Truth be told, Vila had no idea either. But sooner or later, someone would have to do something, wouldn't they? Better it be sooner, he decided, and walking with deliberate care, he moved to the kneeling Avon and crouched beside him.

Avon jerked away at the first touch of Vila's hand, but when the other man tenderly persisted, permitted the second. The thief kept a light grip on his arm then, and tried to meet his eyes, but the computer tech's gaze was inward, to a time and place light years away.

"Avon... Come on, Avon. Give it a rest, then, eh? I'll just take her for you, shall I?"

With patient coaxing, Vila at last drew the clenched hands apart, and gathered Anna Grant's unyielding corpse into his own arms.

Avon rose then. Like a man in a sleepwalker's trance, he moved toward the exit corridor. Dayna started after, but Tarrant held her back. "He'll be all right, Dayna. He'll want to be alone. Just give him time."

Some minutes after Avon's shadow had vanished down the corridor, Vila silently bore his burden down the same route, toward the airlock.

He said nothing to contradict Tarrant. But he had seen death just now in their erstwhile leader's eyes. Cold, quiet, intractable death.

Somehow, deep down, he doubted that Avon would ever be 'all right' again.

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