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By Susannah Shepherd
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"Welcome back, Avon," Vila said cheerfully as the doors to Scorpio's flight bay opened and the scowling dark-haired man passed through them. "How'd it go then?" he chattered on. "Here, you're all loaded up, let me take Orac."

As Vila stepped forward to relieve Avon of Orac's awkward bulk, Avon shifted the computer on to one hip and slammed Vila into the tunnel wall with his free arm. Vila cried out, lifted one hand to his mouth and exclaimed again as he saw his own blood on his fingers.

"What the hell was that for?" he asked in a small voice, full of hurt and incomprehension. Vila let out another whimper as he looked up, and found himself staring down the barrel of Avon's gun. Even worse, he looked up into Avon's face, and saw only madness and death staring back at him from the cold brown eyes. His natural defence mechanisms kicked in, and Vila crumpled to the floor in a faint.

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"Tarrant, Soolin, you'd better get down here. I need your help." Vila's voice sounded weak and shaky over the communicator link to Xenon base's control room.

Tarrant made a sound of exasperation, but Soolin frowned. She was getting used to Vila's work-shy whinging, but this time he sounded genuinely frightened. "What's wrong, Vila?"

"It's Avon. I think he's finally flipped. He...," Vila's voice cracked, and he paused. They could both hear a slight sniffle. "He pulled a gun on me, then knocked me out."

"Vila, are you sure?" Tarrant said in surprise.

"Of course I'm bloody sure!" Vila yelled at him, his voice high-pitched with tension, and Soolin gave Tarrant a dirty look.

"Where's Dayna?" she asked.

"I don't know," Vila said miserably. "She wasn't with Avon. I think she's still on Scorpio.'

"All right, we're on our way," she answered.

"Be careful," he said. "Come armed. I thought...," his voice wavered again, "I really thought he was going to kill me."

Soolin snatched up weapons for herself and Tarrant, and slotted stun clips into both of them. She shoved a drug clip and a laser clip into her jumpsuit pocket and tossed another laser clip to the pilot. "Just in case. Let's hope we don't have to use these."

He gave a grim nod, and they set off carefully towards the flight bay. They didn't see any sign of Avon on the way. Vila jumped with nervousness as they came around the corner, his face pale except for the smear of blood which trailed down from his split lip.

"Did you see him?" he asked, his eyes wide and fearful.

Soolin shook her head. "He didn't come back to the control room or crew room. Come on, let's find Dayna."

She led the way through the doors and on board Scorpio, but Tarrant pushed past her as they made their way to the flight deck.

"Dayna!" he cried, then dashed across to the recliners. Dayna's eyes flashed bloodshot and angry from above the crude gag which had been tied around her mouth, and she struggled against her bonds.

"Where is the bastard!" Dayna shouted hoarsely as Tarrant folded down beside her in a tangle of long limbs and tugged the gag off. Vila had also scurried to her side, and his nimble fingers had her unbound in seconds. She stretched her cramped limbs, then reached up to finger the back of her head with a pained grimace.

"What's wrong with him, Dayna?" Vila asked, and Dayna frowned as she took in Vila's battered face.

"You too?" she said, and Vila nodded and touched his damaged lip again, wincing.

"He was fine when we left Nyrene," she complained. "An hour or so out, he mentioned a headache, so it must have been bad by then. He didn't seem to be getting better, so I went to get him something for it. When I gave him the glass, he threw it across the deck and accused me of trying to poison him!"

Soolin shared a worried glance with Vila. This wasn't sounding good. She didn't know Avon as well as the rest of them, but on a couple of occasions his icy ruthlessness had disturbed even her. She got the feeling from the others that he hadn't always been quite that hard, or so casually violent.

The star drive had been a case in point. Soolin recognised the need for what Avon had done--she admired his instinct for self-preservation, and his ability to think under pressure--but she didn't like his casual, offhanded behaviour after. You had to kill to survive sometimes, but you didn't have to get smart about it. Then, at other times, he'd shown gentle compassion and flashes of genuine good humour. The contrast between the two sides of Avon didn't say much for his overall stability or self-control.

Still, something didn't seem quite right to Soolin. If he were on a downward spiral after the loss of the Liberator, he might finally have slid into madness, but so suddenly and violently?

"What happened then, Dayna?" she asked.

"I can't remember," she said, with an annoyed frown. "I woke up tied here with a lump on the back of my head, so he must have jumped me and knocked me out. He didn't say anything to me for the rest of the trip back. It was horrible."

"How do you feel now?" Tarrant asked, concerned.

"Just a headache," Dayna said, "maybe a little concussion. I don't think I was out for long."

Soolin had been pondering Dayna's account. "And he gave no indication that anything was wrong, apart from his headache? There were no problems with the trip?"

"No, we've got the supplies, they're in the hold, and we got them at a good price. We were only down on the planet for a few hours." She gave a humourless laugh. "He even looked like he was enjoying himself when we were at the market, he bought me lunch, real fresh food, not space rations."

"Definitely not himself, then," Tarrant muttered under his breath, but the others ignored him.

Dayna had provided the extra clue Soolin had been looking for. "Food. Poison. I'll bet he's been poisoned, or drugged. That would explain the headache, and how he got so paranoid so fast."

"Will he be all right?" Vila asked in a small, worried voice.

"I don't know," she said, "I'm only guessing what's wrong. But I think we'd better find him. And we'd also better assume that he's irrational as well as dangerous." She went to the weapons locker and threw it open to get guns for Vila and Dayna.

"Damn!" The others came over and looked inside. Most of the guns were still there, but all the clips were gone.

"He might be irrational, but he's certainly not stupid," Tarrant remarked.

Soolin took out one of the guns, slipped the drug clip from her pocket into it, and handed it to Dayna. She then took one look at the tension in Vila's face and decided they'd all be safer if he were unarmed. He made no move to take a gun for himself.

"We need Orac," Soolin said decisively. "It'll be able to tell us what's wrong with Avon and what to do about it."

"No good," Vila broke in, "Avon's got it."

"Hang on," Tarrant said, "we might be able to get Slave to link with Orac from here. We should have Scorpio powered up on standby, too, in case Avon decides to do something seriously deranged."

He turned to the flight computer. "Slave, start pre-flight checks."

"I'm sorry, sir," Slave's obsequious voice replied, "but that isn't possible, I'm afraid."

"What do you mean, it isn't possible!" Tarrant exploded.

"The master, sir, he forbade me to allow Scorpio to leave Xenon base without his express approval." The computer sounded truly apologetic, but that didn't help any of them.

"What was that about doing something seriously deranged?" Vila said ruefully.

"Avon, you complete bastard," Tarrant growled.

"We don't need to panic yet," Soolin said. "Slave, are you able to contact Orac, and act as a voice link for us?"

"I can broadcast a request for communication to the Orac machine," Slave said, sounding almost sniffy. "It may not answer."

"Wait!" Vila said. "If Avon's gone all paranoid, he might be expecting us to try to get in touch with Orac. Slave, it's very important that you tell Orac that it mustn't tell Avon that we're communicating with it, or Orac's own safety might be at risk."

"Very good, sir. Orac may be at risk, sir?"

"And so might we, Slave," Soolin said warningly. "Once you have warned Orac, tell it that Avon is unwell. We need Orac's help to diagnose and treat him."

Slave spun on his axis for a few seconds then spoke again. "I'm very sorry, sirs and madams, but Orac is currently deactivated, so I cannot give you a direct voice link as requested."

"But you can communicate?" Soolin asked.

"Yes, madam," Slave assured.

"Then tell Orac that we suspect Avon has been drugged or poisoned, and that he has become violently paranoid. Can it confirm this?"

Slave rotated again. "Orac confirms that the master's behaviour has become delusional, but it cannot determine the cause without recourse to medical diagnostic facilities. An ingested substance is the most likely cause, but external conditioning, a physical injury to the head or organic mental illness are also possibilities."

Dayna shivered at that last potential diagnosis. "But can Orac treat him?"

"I do apologise, madam, but Orac says treatment is not possible until a clear diagnosis is made."

"So we have to get Avon into the medical unit," Soolin said. "That's hardly going to be easy in his current state. Slave, tell Orac to do what it can to keep Avon acting normally."

"We'd better find him, then," Tarrant said. "Preferably before he finds us." He shifted the gun uncomfortably from hand to hand.

"Let's get back to the control room," Soolin said. "We can track him from there, find what he's doing."

The four of them made their way cautiously back to the control room, then Soolin sat at the main console and began the search using the base's sensors and communicators. Dayna helped at another terminal. Vila went straight to a cupboard, rummaged about at the back, pulled out a bottle of alcohol, and poured himself a large glass. He tossed that back then poured another. For once, no-one bothered to taunt him.

"Here!" the younger woman called out. "The sensors say there's life signs in one of the storerooms."

"Oh, no, Avon, no," Soolin sighed, as she looked at the readout relayed from Dayna's screen. "Not in there."

"What's the matter?" Tarrant asked. His voice was becoming sharp with the tension.

"He's chosen the one room on base that Vila can't get into. Deliberately so, I imagine."

"What do you mean?" Vila asked, affronted at the idea that there was any room he couldn't get into.

"It's an old-fashioned construction, something Dorian picked up. It's got an ordinary modern lock on the outside, it wouldn't keep you out for more than a few minutes. But it's got herculanium bars on the inside as well, and the door frame's herculanium alloy too. The only way in is to cut through the herculanium or the walls, and they're pretty thick."

"Oh," Vila said, thinking. "Bars on the inside? In a storeroom?"

Soolin nodded. "I think Dorian had it fitted up as a bolt-hole. We'll never get Avon out unless he wants to come out. And if he's been drugged..."

"We need to get in to him while he's still capable of opening the door," Vila finished. "It could take too long to cut through all that lot, even assuming he didn't try to kill us in the process."

There was a moment's silence while everyone pondered the options.

"We have to persuade him to let us in," Dayna said. "But how do we do that if he's paranoid? He's hardly going to trust any of us, is he?"

"He doesn't trust anyone anyway," Vila said morosely, swilling another mouthful of drink. "And he's been dangerous enough when he's in a bad mood lately, rational or not."

"Well then, I'm going to have to convince him to let me in there. He might if he knows I'm unarmed, a hostage would give him a bargaining chip," Soolin announced. "And if he's feeling ill, he'll need some help."

She then handed a clear perspex sheet around the crew, with a hastily scrawled note. Orac can lock into the communicator network too. Avon might be monitoring conversations. I'll be going in to tranquillise him.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Dayna asked, very worried.

"Not entirely," Soolin admitted, "but unless anyone else can come up with a better one... It has to be me, I think. He'd probably kill Tarrant on sight, Dayna, you're still a bit wobbly, and I don't think you want to face him again until he's better, do you, Vila?"

She said the last part gently, remembering the abject misery she'd seen on the man's face when he'd told them in detail about his encounter with Avon. Vila shook his head, and looked as though he was close to tears.

"I worked for another paranoid once," Soolin added. "Strange, it was me he trusted most--distrusted least, I mean--and the people closest to him that he started picking off first. I've got some idea what I'll be dealing with."

She squared her shoulders. "I'll go and get ready, then. Dayna, Tarrant, keep guarding the storeroom, stun clips only. Don't hurt him." She scribbled something else, and passed it to the two of them. It's best if he knows you're there, no surprises. We don't need to kill him, not yet.

And if Avon had to die, it would be safest and best for all of them if she killed him, Soolin thought. She was the pro, after all, even if Avon was rather slack about paying her. She didn't have these complicated unspoken ties of loyalty to take into account. Dorian had been right. They were closely bonded, this lot. It was the only thing which could explain why they stayed together.

She laid a finger across Vila's lips to silence him, then took the glass from his hand before she grasped him by the wrist and led him off with her. She was going to need his delicate touch, sober, to make sure her plan came off.

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