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Dupe

By Marian Mendez
Page 4 of 18

Troopers, crew, and assorted personnel, including the one Blake had tied up in the supply closet, were gathered up and deposited in the ship's emergency escape pods, which were then launched on automatic. They probably would reach a habitable world before the oxygen ran out. The corpses were unceremoniously dumped out the airlock, although Tarrant retained enough spacer decorum to aim them toward a solar body.

Tarrant was dragging his feet and nearly stumbled into a bulkhead when Blake caught him. "Come on, Tarrant."

"Where?" Tarrant asked wearily.

"Medical unit."

"No." Tarrant tried to pull away from Blake. "Have to set a course. We're probably in the middle of Federation space lanes." He almost fell over.

"I can set a course," Blake said. "I know some rebel safe-points. Even if the captain got off a message they can't possibly get a ship here immediately. We'll need you fit later, when they do come after us."

"And they will," Vila said gloomily. "We're popular these days."

Dayna was walking beside him, and she patted Vila on the back. "Cheer up, Vila. At least Servalan's gone."

"What, you think there's a shortage of sadistic, power-mad officers in Space Command? We'll just wind up with another loony after us."

"Still, a change is as good as a rest, they say," Soolin remarked. She was cheerful and enjoying the release of tension. Things could get very bad very quickly, but at the moment, they were all alive and free. Cause enough for celebration.

"Who says?" Vila shook his head.

"Vila, go to the flight deck with Dayna," Tarrant said. "Someone ought to keep watch."

"Oh, all right." Vila turned and trudged off, with Dayna trotting ahead.

Tarrant made it almost all the way to the medical unit before he tripped over nothing and sprawled on the deck. Blake carried him the last couple of meters. Soolin followed, saying, "There should be some diagnostic equipment. Avon, don't be stupid." She ran ahead of Blake, and caught Avon by the shoulders. He was trying to get up.

"Let go," he snarled. His face was still pale, but his eyes were closer to normal. He was staring at Blake, who had his hands full getting Tarrant's apparently boneless length draped over another table.

"Just sit there a minute. I need to check Tarrant, and I don't want to have to waste time picking you up off the floor." She stared into Avon's eyes until he stopped fighting her.

"How bad is he?" Avon asked, pulling his legs around to sit up, hands braced on the table. He was breathing heavily, head hanging low.

"I don't know. I don't expect it's too serious, as they did give him some treatment when we were captured. Let me make sure." Soolin crossed to Blake and took the handheld diagnostic scanner he'd found. "Go talk to Avon."

Blake wanted nothing more, and at the same time, he dreaded it. "Avon." He took a deep breath. "I'm glad to see you." He reached out a hand, but Avon made no move to take it. Blake dropped his hand.

"I shot you. At least it looked like you."

"It was me," Blake admitted. "I haven't much time. I'm surprised I've made it this far." He lightly touched his abdomen. "I couldn't die until we had a chance to talk."

"Soolin?" Avon asked, glancing at Blake. She looked up from running a reading on Tarrant and aimed the scanner at Blake. She looked at it, frowned, adjusted the setting and frowned again. "Strange. These readings don't make any sense. No pulse, body temperature seventy-eight degrees, no brain-wave activity. According to this, you're dead, Blake." She pulled her gun. "I asked you once before, what are you?"

"I told you, I'm Blake. The scanner must be defective." Blake had a sudden fear, worse than the accepted terror of death. Something was horribly wrong.

"It read Tarrant properly. " Soolin turned the scanner on herself. "And it works on me. Drop your weapon, Blake."

"I've saved you all," Blake protested.

"Drop it," Avon said, coldly, "or Soolin will drop you."

"No, Avon!" Blake moved forward, protesting. He wasn't even thinking about the threat, just the need to convince Avon that he wasn't an enemy. He heard a whine of gunfire behind him, and was pushed forward by the force of the blast, his belly slamming into the edge of Avon's table. He reached out and held onto Avon. His legs weren't working and it was getting very difficult to see, or think. "I didn't be...tray ..." he got out before his senses failed him entirely. The last thing he saw was Avon's face, looking stricken.

Blake woke up. He blinked and coughed. Avon's face moved into his line of vision. Avon pushed up a magnifier headset and flicked off a laser probe. "Don't move."

Blake tried to lift a hand anyway. He felt the muscles move, but the hand was restrained. He lifted his head and looked down. He was held down by thick restraints. "Why, Avon? I know we were often at odds, but we were always on the same side."

Avon tilted his head to one side and seemed to be considering his response. "I was always on my own side. Blake was always for the masses. Where is he?"

"Where is who?" Blake asked, confused. Avon was hostile, but in a peculiarly cold manner.

"Blake."

"Are you blind, man? I am Blake!"

Avon pulled back the sheet covering Blake's torso. "You are nothing."

Blake looked down. He froze. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. Through the blood, through the torn flesh, there was something else, shaped like blood vessels, but the colors- green? orange? striped black and white? "What did you do to me?"

"I repaired your circuit linkages." Avon poked idly with the probe in Blake's `guts'. "Quite sophisticated. Without Orac I can only speculate, but it appears that this is designed to transmit human equivalent readings to diagnostic equipment. It also has a feedback system so that you will react as a human. When this area was damaged, you were able to display superhuman strength, without the limitation this imposes."

Blake mind whirled. He remembered the android that had mocked Avalon's form. A machine. A collection of electronic devices and mechanical synapses, that was all he was. Abruptly, Blake felt sick. He turned his head to the side, and vomited. Avon calmly placed a basin under his chin and wiped up the residue when he was finished. "Yes, really a remarkable simulacrum. Your `skeleton' is covered with an artificial flesh, containing muscle, blood vessels, and fat cells. You also possess a functional digestive tract, sweat glands, hair follicles; all the minutiae of external appearance. Amazing workmanship. It would be a pity to destroy you."

"Avon," Blake groaned. "No, I don't understand it. The Federation must have done this to me."

"You aren't a cyborg or a mutoid. You were never human, not any part of you. You are a machine. I can do what I like with you." Avon showed his teeth. "As you have been made to respond as a human, you will undoubtedly react with human fear, but it is all a simulation. You - aren't -real." Avon said the last three words distinctly. "Now, where is the real Roj Blake? Then again, it's unlikely you would know his current whereabouts. When were you switched for him?"

Blake couldn't answer. He was Blake. He was the only Blake he knew. He shook his head mutely.

Avon said, "I am very good with machines. You'll tell me what I want to know, one way or the other. If I have to disassemble you down to component level and analyze the debris, I will. I do have one question first."

"I don't have any answers."

Avon stared at Blake, and for a moment, Blake saw vulnerability there. "Why? Why did you rescue us after you set us up for capture?"

"I didn't set you up. I set up my base on Gauda Prime! I waited two years for you to join me. I am Blake! I am not a machine!" Blake lunged against the straps, but they held.

Avon flinched, but did not step back. "You are as willfully blind as Blake. It's a pity such a magnificent achievement was wasted on a copy of such an irrational man." Abruptly Avon went gray, and leaned on the table. Blake turned his hand and caught at Avon's arm.

"Are you all right?"

Avon wrenched himself loose. "I don't need sympathy from a machine."

"You never accepted it from a human, either," Blake said, softly.

Vila came in the room just then, and cleared his throat. "Um, Avon."

"Yes, what is it?"

"Tarrant wants you to tell him where to go."

"I doubt he phrased it in quite that manner."

"No, but that's what he meant." Vila came in and looked down at Blake. "Um. Does it know anything about Blake?"

"No. No surprise, really. The machine was programmed to behave like Blake. That means it doesn't actually have to think."

Blake was silent under the insult.

"I'll go give Tarrant his directions. You stay away from this machine. It is not Blake. It is not even human."

"What are you going to do with it?" Vila asked.

"I haven't decided yet. If I can reprogram it to obey, it might be very useful."

"But it looks like Blake. You couldn't make Blake into a slave!" Vila protested.

"It's either reprogram it or destroy it. I'm going to get some rest before I start. I wouldn't want to accidentally damage it." Avon looked down at Blake, then shook his head. "It is an extremely expensive toy."
"How expensive?" Vila asked.

"I should say it would run to the millions of credits- if you could find anyone capable of the work." Avon shook his head. "This degree of sophistication was an extravagant expenditure simply to provide bait in a trap. It doesn't make sense." He shook his head once more, and left.

Vila remained behind, looking at Blake curiously. He stared at the slit-open belly, and said, "Doesn't that hurt?"

"No," Blake replied. "But I am thirsty."
"You drink?"

"And eat, and think, and feel. What's the difference between a man and a machine which thinks it's a man, Vila?"

"Well, for one thing, Avon's going to take you apart and fix you so he can trust you. He can't do that with people." Vila discovered a water dispenser and a supply of disposable cups. He filled one and brought it over to Blake.

"I can't drink like this," Blake said, lifting his head as far as he could.

"Yes, you can," Vila answered, producing a straw, sticking it in the glass and bending it down to Blake's lips. "You can't fool me."

Blake drank and then smiled ruefully. "I did once, though. Remember, the time I took us to Atlay? When the Federation conditioning was affecting me?"

"How did you know that? No, don't tell me, I don't want to know."

"Vila, release me. I'm not your enemy, you know that."

"No, I don't. And even if you were a friendly machine, if I let you go, Avon would kill me." Vila turned and began fiddling with various small objects that littered the top of a cabinet. "I told you, he tried once already. Not that anyone cares."


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