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Mirage

By Jean Graham
Page 2 of 44

Given the primary link to work with, overriding Triumph's flight computer mid-voyage had been sheer child's play. Once he had crippled the drive systems, disposing of Talcor had proved no more difficult. The man had been exceptionally slow for a Federation officer, and taking his sidearm from him had been deceptively easy.

Too easy, in fact. As though Servalan had planned it that way.

He'd known it to be true when he had gone, with the gun, to her quarters, only to find the rooms empty. She was nowhere aboard, and the flight console had told him a life capsule had been launched. Though the computer refused, by obvious design, to confirm his suspicion, he knew there would be another ship to pick her up, to follow him back to Gauda Prime and Orac. The survivor, however, had no intention of handing her victory on such an easy platter. If need be, he would leave Orac buried forever.

It had taken him months to lose them. Months more to at last find safe approach to Gauda Prime and to uncover Orac -- only to find that there remained no trace of Vila, Tarrant, Soolin, Dayna... Blake's base had been dismantled and abandoned. Even the bounty hunters had vanished with the planet's reinstatement to Federation status.

Roj Blake, Vila Restal, Dayna Mellanby, Soolin and Del Tarrant were all on record with Federation central computer banks as deceased. Kerr Avon, he noted with some amusement, had initially been listed as 'missing.' The reading had later been revised to 'still at large,' and the reward for his capture increased to three million credits. Top of the Federation wanted list. Blake, after all, was gone, the reward for him dutifully collected and divided by a Federation death squad, the Administration obviously having no quibble with who had ultimately pulled the trigger. But why was there no mention of rewards collected on the others? Curious, that. But Orac had no clue.

The Federation said they were deceased. And yet...

He'd been granted no time to pursue the question. Three million credits posed far too attractive a lure for the galaxy's bounty hunters to ignore. And that, too, had been Servalan's revenge. Revenge for his having snatched Triumph, both literally and figuratively, from her grasp. He'd been forced to abandon the ship early on, and a dozen others after her. With a battered, nameless ore carrier, and Orac as a guide, he had eventually made his way to Caphtor, and the beryllium plant where-in lay the offices of one Lan Troas. Long ago, Avon had known him by another name.

Gradually, he became aware of agitated voices just outside the office door. The aide's, and another, deep and distinctly familiar, even after so many years.

Abruptly, the door whisked open. The deeper voice said brusquely, "Look, I don't know who the devil you are, but I don't appreciate--"

Lan Troas, silvered hair offsetting dark, piercing eyes, allowed the sentence to die when he saw the face that looked up from the table. He stared for a moment; Avon saw the flicker of doubt, then the certainty of recognition. The man tripped the door control to close and lock, and without turning back, said fiercely, "What are you doing here, Kerr?"

The response was tired, lacking all of its old vitality, though the sarcasm remained. "I'm glad to see you too, Tav. I don't even know how many years--"

"The viscasts said you were captured, all of your people killed. Commissioner Sleer had even announced your eventual public execution. You'll forgive my dispensing with pleasantries, but how the hell did you get here?"

Avon searched the deepset eyes for some remnant of sympathy and found none. Nor did he see any trace of the slender, quiet boy whose younger brother had once delighted in proving him 'intellectually inferior.' There was nothing inferior about Tav now.

"Sleer," Avon began, and then amended the name with rancor. "Servalan... is not at all as proficient as she likes to believe. I took her ship from her. I have taken a number of others since."

Tav took a seat at the opposite end of the table. "More deaths," he said ruefully. "More killing."

Avon's gaze grew distant. "Yes. I suppose there must have been. I... really don't remember anymore. So many have... hunted... me."

"And if one of them -- any one -- managed to follow you here..."

"They didn't."

"You can't possibly be sure of that!" A nervous hand raked through the silver hair. "You know what I have at stake here. It's taken years to build this. Years."

Avon's answer was subdued. "I did what you wanted. I stayed away."

"Until now."

"Until now." Avon paused to draw a long breath, then began again, appalled when his voice broke on the first word. "I... need your help, Tav."

Well-remembered resentment answered him. "Well now, that's a switch."

"I have no one else to turn to. Nowhere else to go."

Tav's eyes glinted, as hard and cold as Servalan's had been. "Don't play on emotions you know aren't there. You never needed me before. You never needed anyone -- you made that clear enough. It's a little late to begin needing now, don't you think?"

Avon swallowed, hating the note of pleading he knew his voice held. But he had to ask. Had to try. "You have helped others to vanish. New planets, new identities. You've done it for others..."

"Others! Oh yes -- small time political dissidents. Malcontent scientists on frontier worlds. Writers, artists, all marked one way or another for elimination because they refused to conform. And all of them minor offenders; people with unknown names and unknown faces. Nowhere near the Federation's most-wanted list, let alone on top of it!"

Outburst vented, Tav folded his hands in front of him and stared hard at his interlocked fingers. "There's nothing I can do for you. Understand that. Nothing at all."

Avon studied his own hands, the survivor still unwilling to admit defeat. "A place to rest then. A little time -- a few days. That's all I ask."

The cold eyes pinned him. "You're not hearing me, are you? Every moment you remain here is a threat to me, my family, my livelihood. Why do you think I had to change my name, begin my life all over again? To be connected with you, even remotely, is a death sentence! And I will not hang that pall over the people I care for. You have no right to ask that of me."

Strained silence hung between them until at last, Tav said more calmly, "You have a ship. Take it. Leave here, and if you have any semblance of caring left at all, don't come back."

Faintly, Avon felt the barriers of something long-constrained begin to give way. The thought of returning to the ore carrier, of continuing the endless futile scenario of running and hiding across an empty galaxy, alone...

He scarcely knew the voice that framed his next words. They came out in a choked, half-sob.

"Help me, Tav. Please..."

The face across the table seemed to soften minutely. The voice did not. "Now that is a surprise. You know I never thought I'd hear you plead with anyone. What happened to the survivor,
Kerr? You were always so proud of him. You do remember. The one who never needed us?"

"I don't know anymore. I think... he may be dying."

The admission felt strange, though the knowledge did not. He had known it for some time, and for just as long, had had no idea how to stop it.

A shaken Tav covered his surprise by getting to his feet. "I'll see you safely back to your ship," he said.

Avon didn't rise. He stared at rectangular reflections of the overhead light panels in the polished surface of the table, and murmured softly, "No safe harbor."

"No there isn't," Tav's voice answered. "Not here, anyway."

He pushed his chair back into place, considered it for a protracted moment, and then added solemnly, "I wish it could be different, Kerr. I mean that."

Dark eyes snapped up to meet his, imbued with a rekindled fire. "Do you? I doubt it. I'm afraid we were neither of us ever much inclined to self-sacrifice."

Tav's eyes wandered to the holo cubes on the desk. "It isn't only my life I'm protecting," he said tightly. The chair his hands were resting on received a sudden, angry shove, slamming it into the table. "You know damn well what happens to the families of convicted 'collaborators.' They'd be sold into slavery on some outer world penal colony. Or slaughtered outright -- they don't always bother with formalities these days." Fury made the harsh words come faster. "Don't think I'd ever risk condemning them to that, Kerr. I'd turn you over myself first!"

Avon looked up sharply then, gaze locked onto nothing at all for a long, terrible moment. When the haunted eyes finally came up to meet his, Tav turned guiltily away.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean that."

An ugly note of both betrayal and defeat tainted Avon's answer. "Perhaps you did," he said. "Perhaps it is precisely what you ought to do, in fact."

Tav wheeled, revolted by this new implication. "Don't be an idiot. Do you really believe I could sell my own--"

"Why not? Three million credits can buy a considerable amount of 'good will' from the Federation."

Angry and affronted, Tav paced to the office door and tripped the lock to 'open' once again.

"I really don't think we've anything else to discuss," he said to the door. "I have business elsewhere. Perhaps you'd better find your own way out."

Avon considered the words, assigning them an alternate meaning that Tav had not intended. "Yes," he said. "I think I'd better had."

Tav gave him a hard look before his eyes dismissed the matter. "I won't expect to find you here when I return. Good-bye, Kerr."

The light rectangles on the table top blurred for a moment and then refocused. Avon heard the door slide open...

"Tav--"

If the other man had heard before the barrier closed between them, he did not turn back. Avon stared at the impassive door for a long, long time before he spoke again.

"I'm sorry," he said to the emptiness.

*      *      *

You said you hadn't come here to die.

"So I did," he told Blake's ghost aloud. "But that was before."

The laser probe attached to Tav's office computer was older, broader-scoped than Servalan's had been. More suited to the purpose, really. Even if his aim was poor, it would simply burn a wider path.

The coward's way? I never would have thought it of you.

Three million credits, he had said, could buy a lot of good will. It didn't matter to the Federation if the prize was delivered warm or cold. Servalan had ceased to care. Perhaps he had ceased to care as well.

The probe turning slow circles in his hands, Avon regarded the smiling faces in the holo cubes. He knew no names to put to them. They were people... family... he had never known, and likely never would know. But they were Tav's family, in a way that Avon had never been. They typified a life Avon knew he had negated forever the day he'd chosen to break the banking cartel.

It had only been six years ago.

But they were six years in which he had perhaps aged twenty, and throughout them, Servalan had never tired of the hunt.

Servalan.

Thought of her made him stare at the holos even harder. The probe ceased turning in his hands.

Think, Avon, Blake's persistent voice chided. Don't you realize that Servalan will wonder how you came to be here? To die here? And how a beryllium corporate executive just happened to know the notorious Kerr Avon?

It was true. An investigation of Lan Troas' background would inevitably follow. And when that revealed discrepancies...

With slow deliberation, Avon slotted the laser probe back into its receptacle.

You can't help them that way. But you can help Vila, and the others.

"If they are alive."

The rewards were uncollected.

Also true. It may or may not be significant. But perhaps, if he could somehow turn the hunted once more into the hunter... trap Servalan into revealing the truth. Not an easy task, but with Orac as bait...

A new twist to the game. A reason to go on.

The holo cubes smiled at him from the desk top. Tentatively, he reached out to trace an index finger across their softly glowing edges.

You never needed anyone, Tav had said, the words a cruel echo of his own cold proclamation of years before. The one who never needed us.

Against Tav's words there came another echo. You care for each other. You belong to them, Avon, as they belong to you.

One of them is wrong, Blake's voice gently challenged. Why don't you prove to me which one?

Avon rose from the desk, willing the ghost to be gone, but it would not be vanquished.

Prove to me, Avon.

No safe harbor. No place to hide.

So be it. He wouldn't hide then. He would face them, and with Orac as a trump card, it was possible he might even win. Unlikely, but possible. What had Vila said once? I plan to live forever -- or die trying.

"A philosophy," Avon muttered, "more profound than even Vila probably knew."

Weariness, defeat and bleak intentions already forgotten, the survivor departed Lan Troas' office.

We can defeat them. Just as we did before, at Star One.

That, thought Avon angrily, was no defeat at all. It was an illusion. Just as you are an illusion.

A long and petulant silence followed him then, toward the waiting ship. The corporeal Blake would have been looking at him, a smile in his eyes and one finger trapped by age-old habit between his teeth.

An illusion...

He had reached the airlock before the final whispered words touched his thoughts, still carrying with them a smile.

Am I?


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