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By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 7

It might have been two days -- or ten. Boredom had long ago stretched minutes into hours, and Avon admitted relief at the shift in the engine drive that rumbled through the floor plating and telegraphed a planetary approach. At least the mystery would soon be resolved.

When the ship entered atmosphere, he lay prone on the floor and held on to the cut-outs in the plex wall, waiting until g- forces had stopped trying to shake him apart -- or extrude him through the deck plates.

Then the ship was down and another eternity of waiting ensued before the hatch at long last clanged open, and his buyer marched into the hold.

Avon had found his feet, tried his best to stand Alpha-proud behind the perspex door; not easy with the stink of the cell and a two-day growth of beard. Just the same, he met his adversary face to face.

"Servalan," he said, not in the least surprised.

"Avon," she returned, with a ripple of black feathered cloak and flowing gown. "You don't look well. Have my 'agents' been less than hospitable? I shall have them severely reprimanded." Her predatory smile mocked him through the cut-outs. Well behind her, Min and Lorga loitered in the hatchway with the gleam of newfound wealth in their eyes.

"Suppose we drop the frivolities and get on with whatever game it is you're playing at."

"You're the game, I'm afraid. Or more precisely, the bait. You're going to help me destroy a very old enemy, Avon."

"And I suppose I should be honored."

"Oh, you are." Her eyes glittered. "You may not know it, but you are."

She'd started to say more, but was interrupted in mid-gloat by the sudden intrusion of Lorga's gun at her back.

"Dun move," he warned. "I only need him breathin'. C'n get as much fer yer dead as not."

Servalan's face reddened, rage widening her eyes. "You have been paid for your services, you imbecile! Paid very well!"

"An' yer planned to take it all back agin, onc't yer killt us." Min took up fumacious residence on Servalan's right: Avon watched the president's lip curl in revulsion, and smiled his appreciation of the turn of events.

"Your 'pets' appear to have slipped the leash," he taunted.

"Jus' got a bedder offer, tha's all." Lorga poked the enraged president in the back with his weapon. "Ged over there." He herded her into the neighboring cell, slammed the door with a resounding thud, and keyed the locking code with his hammy fingers.

"You'll die for this, Lorga. You have my word on it."

His chuckle held all the warmth of a death-rattle. "Tell it to Selket," he said, and guffawed all the louder as he and Min departed, arm in arm.

Servalan's curses blistered the paint on the closing hatch door.

Avon barely heard her. He was too preoccupied with the bombshell Lorga had dropped in parting. The name of the individual who had doubtless masterminded this entire affair: Servalan's 'very old enemy,' Selket.

Lorga had quite clearly said of Avon, "I only need him breathing," which implied that Selket did indeed have further plans for him. But beyond playing the tethered goat for Servalan's snaring, of what possible use could Kerr Avon be -- to the galactic head of the Terra Nostra?

*      *      *

Not for the first time, Orac proved singularly unhelpful in solving the dilemma at hand.

*Arcanian ships are of antique design and do not contain tarial cell computer technology,* it lectured, as though Tarrant should already have known all of this. *They are also notoriously adept at not leaving a discernible trail.*

Tarrant leaned over the flight couch to address the flashing computer, perched on its stand in the lounge section. "In other words," he chided, "you have no idea where the eighth ship might be."

Orac whirred, irritated. *I believe I have just said that.*

"So much for infallibility," Vila moaned from a near-reclining position on the couch. He'd have spaced Orac long ago, had it been up to him. Damned talking box was more hazard than help, more often than not. Except for that one glorious day in Freedom City...

*I have never claimed to be infallible,* Orac snipped. *Merely superior to any existing human or electronic reasoning device.*

"All right, Orac," Tarrant said. "Time to start earning your keep with that 'superior reasoning' of yours. Why would Arcanian bounty hunters take Avon away from a Federation base, when they could have collected the price on his head then and there?"

*For reasons which you yourself have already surmised.*

"Someone offered them a higher bounty," Dayna suggested.


"Who would do that?" Cally asked the question from her place at the piloting station.

Vila, more to the point, asked, "Who could do that?"

Orac's click-and-drone went on for a small eternity before it answered. *There is only one logical possibility.*

They waited. Dayna finally prodded the computer. "Well? What possibility?"

*The Terra Nostra.*

That made even Vila sit up and take notice. The Terra Nostra after Avon? Oh, they couldn't still be smarting over that little fiasco in Space City all those years ago, could they? Or the measly five million he and Avon had taken from that slime-ball, Krantor, in Freedom City. Could they?

"What," Tarrant was saying to Orac, "would the Terra Nostra want with Avon?"

*I am checking possibilities,* Orac replied, and Tarrant turned his probing gaze on Liberator's resident thief in the meantime.



"You've known Avon longer than any of us. What could the Terra Nostra want with him that would be worth a higher bounty than the Federation's offered?"

That was a good question. Vila wished he had an adequate answer. "Could be lots of reasons," he temporized anyway. "Maybe they want him out of the way. Or maybe they think he could help them."

Dayna laughed. "Help them?"

"Well you should never underestimate genius," Vila opined. "Avon's one of the greatest criminal minds, outside myself of course, to come along in the last couple of centuries. Maybe the Nostra decided he was wasted out here, hanging around with you lot."

*Or,* Orac put in unprompted, *it might well have to do with recent political upheavals in the Federation. Blake determined over a year ago that Servalan's predecessor ran the Terra Nostra. After the Andromean War, however, and Servalan's seizure of the presidential office, the Terra Nostra was taken over by an individual known only as Selket.*

"I've heard of him," Tarrant said. "What's any of that got to do with Avon?"

*The alliance between Federation and Terra Nostra has never been a stable one. Selket and Servalan are long-standing political rivals. It is conceivable that one or the other may have chosen to use Avon as a political pawn: a means to defeat or destroy the other.*

Vila's head hurt from trying to assimilate all of that. Now he knew why he'd assiduously avoided a career in politics.

Tarrant straightened, sighing heavily. "So where does that leave us, Orac?"

*I will continue searching for some trace of Selket's location. For obvious reasons, it will be well-hidden.*

"For obvious reasons," Tarrant echoed, and strode around the couch to pull Orac's key. The computer squealed to a vocal halt, though its lights continued to flash in incessant contemplation of whatever Orac contemplated. "That would seem," Tarrant said, "to leave us precisely nowhere, for the time being."

*      *      *

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