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By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 7

Halfway to the citadel, Avon's free hand strayed unconsciously to his neck and shoulder. He still bore scars from Raiker's rifle stock, from the beating that would have ended his life there and then, had Blake's cries not attracted attention at last, and brought Leylan to the scene. In retrospect, he was not altogether certain he could thank either man for the 'rescue.' But he'd smiled to himself with a different sort of gratitude when from the infirmary bed, he'd overheard the medics say that Blake and Stannis had escaped -- killing Subcommander Raiker in the process.

The castle loomed nearer, already in shadow as Cygnus' anemic sun fell westward behind it. Avon reached the east wall and stood beneath the security camera -- another salvage from the city below.

"Arachne," he said distinctly, "read voiceprint, entry east door." The computer's response was slow -- so slow that Avon's gun was in hand by the time the door at last rumbled open. He'd come across the weapon and a meager supply of projectile ammunition only three days before; it had not left his side since.

#East door, open,# Arachne's halting feminine tones reported.

Avon did not move. "Why the delay?" he demanded.

Again, hesitation. Avon scowled. Piecemeal the computer system may be, but he had assembled every last component circuit of it with precision and painstaking care, and it had all been functioning perfectly this morning. "Well?" he addressed the security camera's pickup. "Answer the question!"

Arachne hummed in mock agitation. #There is an intrusion,# it finally replied. #South door... breached.#

That brought Avon to attention, the gun instantly alert in his hand. He had expected this sooner or later, but would have preferred later, when more of his security systems would be in and the project would be nearer to completion. As it was, the news merely angered him on a personal level. Prison planet or not, his self-imposed exile and this particular piece of Cygnus Alpha were his and his alone, and he intended to brook no interference in his plans.

"Where is the intruder?" he asked, allowing the heavy bag to slide from his shoulder. With his foot, he pushed it inside the door for retrieving later on.

#Unknown,# the speaker above him finally rasped. #There is...# Static crackled. #...incurred systems damage.#

"Close the east door, Arachne."

#East door closing,# it answered at once. Well, at least that function had not been impaired. The thin metal sheeting rattled back across the opening; Avon made a mental note to replace it with heavier material if the project took much longer to complete.

Weapon first, he then left the doorway and made his way around the exterior to the south wall. The entrance there was indeed open -- battered into submission by virtue of a very large rock, from the look of it. Similar projectiles had been used to smash the overhead camera, and the intruder, obviously no technophile, had continued to wreak devastation once inside. Broken light fixtures and wall plating littered the entry corridor.

Avon felt a chill, and immediately dismissed it as the damp of Cygnus' approaching night. He ventured warily through the ruined door and into the devastated corridor, pausing only when he reached a junction that branched into three. The castle's weird blend of ancient stone and high-tech gadgetry gave its halls an oddly sinister aspect, a feeling Avon shrugged off as ludicrous -- the tainted drugs had taken their toll on him, and he would be relieved to be free of them. At least he, apparently unlike his visitor, had not suffered with the side effect of technophobia.


He started at the sudden intrusion of Arachne's hesitant voice.

"Yes?" He wondered what their visitor would make of this, hearing as he would the computer's disembodied half of their conversation.

#We have completed project phase beta-four.# Static scratched across the last of that, and Arachne seemed to stutter briefly. #Projected range is now zero to one-point-one-three miles. With minor circuit repair, we may implement test-one.#

So the damage was minor now, was it? He would have to see that it did not become anything more. "I'll be there shortly," he told the pickup without looking up. "Are you still unable to locate our 'guest'? Answer yes or no; he's probably listening."

#No,# the wall answered succinctly.

"Stand by, then."

One of the three branching corridors presented the intruder's unmistakable trail. More smashed paneling, more shattered lights. Avon toyed with the gun, and the ghost of a smile curled his mouth.

"Well now," he muttered aloud. "It could be that we've approached the problem from entirely the wrong angle."

#Clarify?# Arachne queried.

"Nothing," he said shortly, but the smile had widened to an anticipatory grin. Phobias, drug-induced or not, might as well be turned to his advantage, given the proper application of technology -- and just a touch of imagination.

Holstering his weapon, Avon turned away from the ruined corridor and headed eagerly down another passageway. He had a new avenue of research to explore...

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