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Checkmate

By Alicia Ann Fox
Page 1 of 1

As the Liberator sped away from the space debris that had once been DSV-1, her crew slowly dispersed to go about their business again. Avon and Jenna went to work on their converter unit project, Cally to her cabin, and Gan to tend to Vila's minor injuries in the medical unit. At last only Blake was left, and Orac. The computer was sitting on the table, not looking so impressive by half as it actually was. Blake weighed its key in his hand, and meditated for some time, and at last slid the key neatly into its slot. The computer whined to life. "Yes?"

"You can access Federation records without being detected, can't you?"

"Easily. Which records do you require?"

"I want to know about a man named Tel Varon, a public defender on Earth. I want to know what happened to him."

"I will scan." The computer whirred to itself, lights flickering briefly in the dimmed flight deck.

After waiting about fifteen minutes, Blake began to wish he'd brought something to eat with him. He hadn't eaten since before the encounter with the System. "Orac?"

"Kindly do not interrupt. What do you want?"

"How much longer will you be?"

"No less than sixty-eight minutes."

"Thanks." Blake left the computer to it and headed for the galley. Jenna and Avon were there, arguing companionably over a diagram Jenna had drawn on a napkin. They looked up when he entered, but only Jenna greeted him, and then the two returned to their argument. Neither of them was eating very much, and Blake remembered that the anti-radiation drugs they'd have to take for another week depressed the appetite. No wonder no one had complained of being hungry throughout the entire mission. Blake consumed a large meal, half-heartedly listening to Jenna and Avon's conversation until his chronometer indicated that Orac's time limit had been exceeded.

The computer's sound had changed to a steady hum when Blake returned to the flight deck. "Have you got the information I asked for?"

"I assume you wish to know of Tel Varon, Jr., as he was your defender in your most recent trial."

"Yes."

"Tel and Maja Varon were reported killed in a transporter accident shortly after your trial."

An incredulous look came over Blake's face. "Before the London lifted off?"

Orac flickered for a moment. "Apparently. Do you wish further information?"

"Not just now, Orac." Blake removed the key. "Damn it. They were killed, too." He dropped his head onto his hand.

"Who were killed?" asked Gan, who had just entered.

"I've just discovered why my holding order for Cygnus Alpha never came through. My advocate and his wife were killed, supposedly in an accident."

"And you don't believe it."

"It would have been terribly convenient for the Federation if it were true."

"Did you ask Orac?"

"Yes."

"He could probably find out more for you. But now--" he clapped Blake on the shoulder "--you ought to get some rest. It's time for my watch."

"I suppose you're right--I can't think straight just now." He rose. "I'll see you in the morning, Gan."

#

The next day, Blake sat on the flight deck couch reading an enormous stack of printouts concerning the deaths of Tel and Maja Varon, and such records of his own trial that he thought might be pertinent. It was eerie. Every so often he had to look up to make sure that the flight deck of the Liberator was still there, and he was not on Earth or on the London, dreaming.

Blake took several hours to read the available documents, but at the end he was not much wiser than he had been before. All of the records said "transporter accident," and left it at that. Yet something nagged at Blake. Something he should have remembered, and had not. Memory was the crux of the problem, he thought with a sigh, or rather the lack of it. Blake still could not remember knowing Bran Foster before that ill-fated meting outside the Dome. "No, it wasn't Foster," Blake said slowly. "It was...of course!"

"What was that?" Vila asked, jerking awake. He was the only member of the crew who could manage to fall asleep in a flight chair.

"Dev Tarrant was his name. Varon said he worked for Intelligence, mostly in the outer worlds. It had to have been him."

"Should I know what you're talking about, Blake?"

"No, Vila. Go back to sleep." He flipped the intercom. "Jenna?"

"Yes?"

"Can you come to the flight deck?"

"Hand me that X-level probe, Avon--in just a minute, Blake. Can it wait?"

"Whenever you're finished, Jenna."

"She will be finished much faster if you let us get on with it."

"You're absolutely right, Avon." Blake switched off, and reached to replace Orac's key, but Vila's voice interrupted him.

"Why do you let him talk to you that way?"

"He likes to think he's one up on me," Blake answered absently.

"That's it?"

"It evens out." Blake replaced Orac's key. "Orac, I want information on a Federation Intelligence agent named Dev Tarrant. Most of his work is in the Outer Worlds."

"All information?"

Blake thought for a moment that he detected a sarcastic note in that question, but decided he was probably imagining it. "I want to know about any involvement he may have had in the death of Tel Varon, his involvement with my last capture, and his current location."

"Is that all?"

Surely that was sarcasm.... "Yes."

"I shall require time."

"Thanks." Blake removed the key and dropped it on the table top, then paged Jenna again.

Avon answered. "What is it now, Blake. Do you want this completed or not?"

"Jenna," Blake said pointedly, "never mind about coming to the flight deck."

"All right."

Blake switched Orac off and stood. "If anyone needs me, Vila, I'll be in my cabin."

#

"I wonder what that was about?" Jenna asked, as she made another minute adjustment inside the panel before her.

"I certainly wouldn't know," Avon replied. He was monitoring her progress on a board covered with small blinking lights. "Sometimes I wonder what goes on in Blake's head."

"Not half so much as he wonders what goes on in yours," Jenna commented.

"It's none of his business."

"He likes you. Can't you tell?" No response. "Will you help me hold this?"

Avon sighed and bent to help her, grunting as he wedged into the small space available. "The gray wire?"

"Where it crosses the yellow one, yes." Her hands, smaller than his, worked dexterously. "Back bothering you again?"

"Mmm."

"You ought to--"

"Leave it, Jenna."

She looked at him sideways. "Whatever you say. There, that's done it." Avon released the wires with a breath of relief and went back to the board. "Do you think it will work, this time?"

"I told you last night we cannot be sure until we try it. Even if it doesn't work, it may not be the fault of the design."

"We hope."

"Is that the last connection?"

"Yes."

"We'll give it one check before we run it. Alpha one?"

"Alpha one okay."

#

Cally trotted onto the flight deck for her watch cheerfully. At the moment the ship was drifting in deep space, a perfect opportunity to practice her piloting skills. It had been weeks since she'd been at the flight controls in a real situation; they felt different when programmed for simulation.

Blake was on the flight deck when she arrived. He was occupied by a pile of printouts, and would occasionally ask Orac for a clarification of some point or other.

"Hello, Blake," Cally said.

"Oh, hello, Cally...I have a new job for us, before that other. We're going after a Federation Intelligence agent."

"We are?"

"Don't worry, I'll consult everyone. Call them to the flight deck, would you?"

Regretfully, Cally put her practice plans aside and hit the comm switch at her station. It took perhaps ten minutes for everyone to arrive, and when all were arranged on the couch, Blake told them what he had learned about Dev Tarrant. "So you see he's been a great danger to rebel groups of all kinds, and still is. All we have to do is find him and identify him to the local group."

"That's all?" Avon sounded skeptical. Blake nodded affirmatively.

Cally spoke next. "Are you sure that it isn't personal revenge you want?"

"He's too much of a danger to the entire cause to go free, if we can identify him."

"We can't," Jenna commented. "You're the only one who can."

"Oh, yes. Perhaps we can use Orac for that. I remember he had a limp--that's too distinctive to be part of a disguise."

"Dev Tarrant probably isn't his real name," Avon volunteered.

"Why not?" Gan asked.

"A security agent would not keep the same name," said Cally.

"--and he would have had the computer records changed."

Blake looked thoughtful. "It would be easier to find him if we knew what his current name was--"

"Easier is an understatement," Jenna muttered.

"Avon, is there any way you can find out?"

Vila piped up, "He can't find what isn't there."

Avon of course rose instantly to this challenge. "Perhaps I can. I will need Orac."

"See what you can do. There's no guarantee that he's kept the same face, either."

"Orac couldn't find out what planet he was on?" Gan asked.

"Unfortunately, no." Blake realized suddenly that he was tired. "Avon, do what you can."

Three days passed. While Avon worked with Orac, the rest of the crew busied themselves with maintenance and flight practice. Gan finally managed to check over all of the teleport bracelets, a time-consuming task that had been in the wings for some time. Jenna burned her hand working on the converter unit, but it was a minor injury. Cally, as she had wished, practiced piloting in her every spare hour, with Jenna to tutor her. And Vila created a magnificent new lock for the cabin they had designated a cell, in case they should ever need it.

Blake did practically nothing, as the impatience caused by waiting left him unable to concentrate for any length of time. He wanted this mission to be over, quickly and neatly, so that he could reassure himself about his own motives. Was it duty to the rebellion, or duty to Tel Varon and himself? Probably he would never know. And it didn't matter, he again reminded himself, harshly. Dev Tarrant was a danger that needed to be removed. That was all.

The third night watch after the meeting on the flight deck, Avon knocked on Blake's door. "It's open," Blake said, putting down his glass guiltily. He had decided he needed a small sedative tonight, and alcohol was just the thing. Avon made no comment about the glass and accompanying flask, however.

"I can't do it," he said bluntly.

Mentally Blake cursed. "Why?"

"For one thing, such information is stored on permanent tapes, then removed from the computer's memory." Avon had been keeping long hours, it seemed; he looked tired.

Blake pointed at a chair. When the other man was seated, he asked, "Have a drink? I might keep you talking for a while."

"Thank you, yes." He sipped it slowly and settled into his chair with a weary sigh. "I take it you want a full account of what I've been doing."

"This time. I admit I'm curious."

Avon held out his glass to be topped up and began again. "As I said, the records that you want are no longer stored in a computer, they are preserved as solid objects. However, to read what is on a permanent tape, you must use a computer. That was my first avenue of inquiry. There was a very slim chance that someone had, at some time, reviewed Dev Tarrant's record, and if so I or Orac might have been able to find that memory stored away. Of course, it would have been stupid on the part of the Federation, but there are many such oversights among Federation programmers."

"I see," said Blake, smiling a little.

"Obviously it didn't work." Avon had another sip of his drink. "However, it was a long shot. Orac searched through all available records and found nothing. Then I undertook to search for trace remains of the original memories--one of the weaknesses of the older design tarial cells still present in eighty percent of computers used by the Federation."

Blake was impressed, suddenly, by the sheer volume of Avon's knowledge, and blessed the chance that had brought them together so long ago. "I'm terribly glad you're on my side, Avon."

"Yes, well, the search for trace memories consumed two days. It, also, was a failure."

"Then we need those record tapes."

"Yes. Orac is working on it." Avon drained his glass and stood. He pulled Orac's key from his pocket and gave it to Blake, then set his glass on the desk. "You can question Orac. I've had enough for now." He departed, presumably to sleep, and Blake was left to his thoughts.

Avon met Vila in the corridor near his cabin, and the thief asked, "Don't you ever sleep?"

"Not lately. Now, however, I plan to. So you can put that deck of cards away."

Vila sighed. "Gan's not half so good as you are. Jenna hates cards. And Cally has no proper sense of competition."

Without pity, Avon said, "Try Blake."

"Blake! Ha! You know he never--"

"Vila, I'm going to bed. Make sure we don't run into any Federation ships, all right?" Avon went on without waiting for a reply, punching Vila's shoulder as he passed.

Vila grumped his way to the flight deck. No-one was there, but he settled himself on the couch anyway. Orac was on the table with its key removed; Avon was finished, then. And he hadn't had any luck, by the look of him. Which meant that once Avon had enough sleep, he would probably be in a foul mood. Which meant Blake would be in a worse mood. It was going to be messy...Blake's footsteps on the stairs jerked Vila from his thoughts.

"Hullo, Vila." He didn't sound in an awful mood. Blake crossed the flight deck and attached Orac's activator key. "Status of your search for those record tapes, Orac."

"I require more time. You will be notified when I have found the answer."

"Blake--"

"Yes?"

"Aren't there any people who would know what we want?"

Blake looked startled. "There's a thought. If this doesn't pan out we'll try it."

But the next day Orac found the answer. "Records of this type for this sector may be found on Earth and on Hermestos, in the Illyria System."

Blake beamed. "What do you think of that?"

"Orac, why Hermestos?" Avon asked, ignoring him.

"Hermestos is an unlikely place, therefore--"

"Thank you, Orac."

"Zen, available data on Hermestos," Blake asked.

+Hermestos is a class one planet in the Illyria System. It houses a garrison of Federation ground assault troops on the northern continent as well as two battalions of transients, who are rotated off-planet every thirty standard days.+

"Stop."

"Blake, it's crawling with troops!" Vila exclaimed.

"Where exactly are the tapes stored?" Gan asked. "There may not be any troops there."

As Avon didn't look inclined to do it, Blake turned back to the little computer. "Orac, do you know where exactly we can find these tapes?"

"Through a process of elimination, the most likely hiding place is one of the storage rooms in the central administrative dome. The material is almost certainly unmarked, and will therefore be difficult to identify."

"Marvelous," Jenna commented from the flight controls.

"How many storage rooms, Orac? And their dimensions."

"Eight rooms, ten by fourteen meters."

"Only eight," Blake said.

"Eight big rooms," said Vila. "Eight locked rooms."

"Blake, even if you found the correct room, how would you identify the correct tape?" Cally asked.

"Room or rooms," Vila added. "That's how I'd do it, if I were hiding something."

"Avon, how much could be stored on one tape?"

Avon paused before he answered. Finally he said, blandly, "A standard volume tape would hold perhaps one hundred and fifty complete service records. Confirm, Orac."

"Confirmed."

Blake chewed on his thumb. "They couldn't possibly store all of their intelligence records on permanent tape. Perhaps only active agents."

"Logical," said Cally.

"It's still a huge number to sift through," said Jenna. "It would take days to run all of that through a computer."

"But--someone has to know," Blake said thoughtfully. "Right?"

Jenna sighed. "The trouble is, who?"

"Whoever made the tape," Gan suggested.

"Dozens could use the same tape at different times," Avon pointed out. "Blake, this is hopeless."

"We're a lot closer than we were."

"Someone," Cally said, "has to know how to reference that data."

"If no one knew, why keep the tapes?" Vila added.

No one else said anything. Blake was now gnawing the side of his hand. "Orac, who is in charge of filing those tapes? Can you find out?"

"Such information would be well concealed, but my abilities--"

"Do it."

Vila said innocently, "Why didn't you think of that, Avon?"

"Shut up."

#

+Orbit has been achieved.+

"Give me a visual, Zen."

+Confirmed.+

Somewhat drowsily, Blake studied the uninspiring planet he was presented with. It gave him no new ideas. "Thank you, Zen." The visual display melted away, and he heard footsteps: Avon.

"We've arrived?"

"Yes."

"It is going to be difficult."

"Thomson is the only one we're sure has the information we need."

"Blake, she's commander of their detention center."

"We of all people know our way around detention centers. Besides, you don't have to worry. You're not going."

"Oh?" The tone invited explanation.

"We won't be involved with any computers. And I'll need you later."

"Oh?"

This time Blake ignored the prodding. "I'll be taking Jenna. We shouldn't need Vila, and if we're captured, I'd rather have him on the right side of the door. Cally I want in reserve for the same reason. Those two and Gan can mind the ship, and I'd like you to operate the teleport."

"If you must go on with this."

"How is the converter unit coming?" Blake asked.

"A number of the cells were fused together when Jenna burned her hand."

"Ouch."

"The cells, or the hand? The burn is healed."

"The cells, from your point of view."

"Quite right. They must be replaced individually. Then we must discover why the overload happened in the first place."

"I'd like to see it, when you get it working."

"If." Avon rose. "I think I'll get back to it." He went to his cabin and, as expected, found a disgruntled Jenna there.

They had brought in a table which, next to Avon's own worktable, took up most of the available deckroom. The workplace was strewn with components of all kinds, their disarray in sharp contrast to the neat tool racks Avon had bolted to the bulkhead for easy access. Unfortunately, the racks were not very portable; but then, he rarely needed the full profusion for any one task.

The pilot looked up as he entered. "Avon, this is a mess."

"I know." He cast a desultory glance over the tables, then swept the majority of the components into a box. "We've arrived at Hermestos, by the way." He took a chair and began carefully adjusting his worklight.

"I felt the ship powering down." Jenna, beside him, crossed her arms on the table. "It took me all that time to remove two of those burned cells. I had to stop when my hand cramped up."

Avon extended his hand and snapped his fingers. When Jenna merely blinked at him, he said, "Give me your hand." Utterly surprised, she did so. He prodded delicately and then proceeded to massage the soreness out. "That was idiotic, Jenna. Next time stop when you begin losing control. Did you damage anything when your hand slipped?"

"No--"

"If you had--" He was more peeved than angry, Jenna decided. And he was right, she had been stupid. Avon continued, "This converter has been giving up enough trouble as it is."

Jenna sighed. "I'm sorry." His dressing-down technique was certainly an odd one. "I got too involved in the work."

"Apology is not necessary." He released her hand and slipped a magnifier over one eye, then picked up the miniature laser cutter and adjusted its pinpoint beam. "Watch."

Excising the damaged cells was delicate and difficult work, but Avon made it look easy. Jenna had had a feeling he would. She had required painstaking concentration every step of the way; Avon let his hands do his thinking for him.

He removed five cells as she watched, then finally set the cutter aside. Lost in observation, it took Jenna a moment to ask, "Why are you stopping?"

His answer was faintly exasperated. "Because I'm losing control. Even I can only do this for so long. Remember?"

"It won't be finished tonight, will it."

"I doubt it. I'm ready to knock off. You?"

"I wouldn't be able to accomplish anything." She got up and stretched. "Are you hungry?"

The rueful smile he flashed up at her reminded her of Blake, for some reason. "I'd forgotten. Yes, food would be a very good idea. One has to take care of one's tools, after all."

#

The next morning, as Blake and Jenna prepared to teleport down, Cally was leaning over the console, checking over her compact assault rifle; Vila was rearranging the items in the pouches that hung from his belt as Blake watched impatiently. At last Vila said, "I've got everything."

"Just be ready, all right?" Blake said. "Jenna?"

The pilot nodded her readiness and zipped up her jacket. Both were dressed similarly in utilitarian clothes such as would be issued to off-duty personnel on Hermestos. They wore Federation-issue sidearms.

As arranged, Avon put them down inside a storage room on the main base. This particular room contained Spaceforce uniforms, folded on shelves, each with a helmet on top. The smell of leather was overpowering.

"Down and safe," Jenna reported, then checked to be sure that the spare bracelet was clipped safely around her ankle, hidden beneath the cuff of her trousers. Blake carried another in his pocket. Hopefully one of these bracelets would enable them to capture Captain Thomson.

Jenna stood guard as Blake cautiously peered out of the sliding door, halting its progress with a short strip of metal to the right spot, as Vila had shown them all long ago. The corridor was clear, so Jenna slipped her gun back into its holster and casually stepped out, Blake behind her. A sign on the wall announced that this was Area G. They needed Area F. Blake indicated the correct direction with his eyes and the two set out.

On Liberator, Cally had taken a seat on the steps, her rifle lying on a towel next to her. Vila had challenged Avon to chess, and both were studying the board with fanatical concentration. Cally yawned. She wished Vila had chosen a game that held more interest for the spectator.

Time dragged. Gan checked in from the flight deck. Blake checked in after the first ten minutes. Time dragged. Seven minutes passed, then Jenna's voice, loud enough to boom in the corridors, called, "Teleport!"

Not a flicker crossed Avon's face as he dropped one of Vila's black knights and operated the teleport. Jenna materialized and stumbled, then looked around wildly. She was alone.

"What happened?" Cally demanded, on her feet.

"Damn--damn--they must have got it off him--put me back down now Avon--"

"Wait," said Cally, taking the pilot's arm. "I will go with you, but tell us first."

Jenna took a deep breath. "Sorry. We found Thomson-and she knew Blake's face. They took our guns, and my bracelet, and were reaching for Blake's when I managed to hit the comm switched on the spare bracelet around my ankle. He might still be at the same coordinates, but there were about six troopers in there, plus Thomsen."

"I think we should wait," Cally said gently. "They will put him in a holding cell. Orac can find out which one. Then we can get him out."

Jenna leaned heavily against the edge of the teleport console. "Yes. You're right."

The comm crackled. "Gan here. What's happening?" Vila hurriedly filled him in.

Jenna was shaking her head slowly. "The idiot. How does he convince us to do these things?"

"Because we're idiots, too," Vila remarked brightly as he shut off the comm. "You'll be needing me to get him out, I expect."

No one answered, because the answer was obvious. After a moment Jenna said, "I think we should move out of orbit. I should have thought of it a hell of a lot sooner--" She dashed out.

Cally followed, more slowly. "I will instruct Orac to monitor. Avon, you'll stay at the teleport?"

He nodded, then held up his hand. "Wait a minute. Ask Orac to keep tabs on Captain Thomson, as well. And try to find out what happened to the extra bracelet Blake had."

"All right," she said, and exited. Avon picked up the knight he had dropped and looked to Vila inquiringly.

"No, thanks," the thief replied. "Knowing I might get killed very soon doesn't do my concentration any good."

"What concentration is that?" Avon asked sweeping the remaining pieces into a bag and stowing them in a drawer with the board.

"You're just mad because you were losing."

"Losing?"

"Yes, losing."

The comm unit came on, and Cally's voice said, "We're 600 spatials out from Hermestos. Orac is monitoring all communications that might relate to Blake, or to the Liberator, or to Captain Thomsen, and has been instructed to put them on audio immediately."

"Confirmed." Avon switched off.

"So now we wait?" Vila asked.

"Now we wait."

#

Vila had dozed off in his cabin when the sound of his name being called, urgently, jolted him awake. His heart pounded like a jackhammer as he slammed the comm button and shouted, "I'm coming!" Then he ran for the teleport room, his shoes in his hand. Nearly fifteen hours had passed since Blake's capture. There had been no computer 'noise' of Blake for at least eight hours, so they had assumed he was being processed in the usual bureaucratic fashion; following that, there was the difficulty of searching all of the security facilities, as prisoners were routinely transferred away from their place of capture.

"Hurry up," Jenna said, her hand tightly gripping the butt of her gun. This time both she and Cally had taken the precaution of wearing two bracelets. Vila could not do this, as he had a much larger ankle, and he bemoaned the fact, but all the same he was ready in moments, kit in hand, Blake's bracelet in his pocket.

"Teleport," Cally said to Gan, and the three vanished. On the flight deck Avon sat in the pilot's position, ready to run.

Thanks to Orac, the rescue would be simple. By careful analysis of the communicator traffic which the supercomputer gave them, they had eliminated most of the cell blocks, and thus were fairly sure about where Blake was being held. The landing party would find his cell, Vila would open it, they would give Blake a bracelet and teleport to safety. Simple.

Avon waited tensely, his hands poised over the flight controls. "Zen, lay in evasion course XY12."

+Confirmed.+

Jenna had written that course schematic. He remembered programming it into the computer for her, and silently applauding her skill. In her field, she was brilliant...as was Vila. As was Blake, if he would ever learn to control his impulsiveness.

His hands were clenched. He shook them out slowly before resting them on the console again. When Liberator ran, there would be no one to operate the weaponry, until the others arrived from the teleport room. Now there was an interesting project...perhaps he could route all functions through one console. The energy stress might be too much, though....

"We're back. Let's get out of here!" Vila's voice said over the comm, breaking the silence.

"Execute," Avon said calmly.

+Confirmed.+

#

In his cabin, Blake slept off what the Federation called "Bendrax" and Vila called "Starshot"; it was a standard drug, used to keep prisoners from becoming violent. His crew had gathered on the flight deck to discuss the next move.

"We cannot return to Hermestos," Avon said. "They're on the lookout for Liberator now."

"And our faces are probably posted all over the planet," Vila added glumly. He hated the idea of losing any degree of his protective anonymity.

Cally all but pounced into the discussion. "This Dev Tarrant is a danger to us, also! Had you thought of that?"

"Oh, yes," Avon replied. "But he is hardly likely to infiltrate the crew of Liberator. Therefore the possible danger from Dev Tarrant is much less than the immediate danger of returning to Hermestos."

"Yeah," said Vila. Avon glared at him but didn't comment.

"It isn't us that I am concerned about," Cally said. "Thanks to Avalon and those like her, there are rebel groups scattered everywhere. It is our duty to try and protect them."

"Blake will want to go back," Gan commented.

"What Blake wants is beside the point," Avon told him.

"How come those rebel groups never try and protect us?" Vila asked.

"We are the ones with the powerful alien spacecraft," reminded Cally with rare sarcasm. "Jenna, what do you think?"

"You support the mission. Vila and Avon obviously want to abandon it. Gan?"

"Avon has good reasons for what he wants, but I agree with Cally."

"I'm the tiebreaker, then," Jenna said ruefully. "Has anyone asked Orac the odds?"

"After that last prediction--" Vila began darkly, fingering his forehead where he had been injured in their encounter with the System.

"I have them here," Avon interrupted, producing a rumpled printout form his pocket. "It boils down to 88 percent against."

"Checkmate," said Vila.

Jenna sighed. Everyone watched her expectantly. At last she said, "We can't do it. We can't risk Liberator, or Blake, with that kind of odds. Any future damage Dev Tarrant might cause has to be balanced against that."

There was a long silence, then Cally said, "I concede. Those were wise words, Jenna."

"Thanks."

"Who," Cally asked, "will tell Blake?"

"Who'll bell the cat," Vila murmured.

"I'll do it," said Jenna. "If Avon will come with me."

"So he can be angry at me?" But, surprisingly, he smiled, though the smile was quickly gone. "All right.""

#

Jenna chose to wait until Blake was rested and fed before telling him of their departure from Hermestos, and the decision on the mission. So once again, the crew of Liberator tried to catch up on the hundreds of tiny tasks that help to keep a ship running smoothly.

Jenna and Avon returned to their converter unit. Avon had completed excising the fused cells before Blake's rescue, and the next step was replacement.

Avon used what were essentially delicate tweezers to fit the minuscule components into the correct pattern, while Jenna ran routine checks on the rest of the unit. For some time both worked in painstaking silence, then Jenna completed her checks and laid aside the board.

"There's nothing wrong," she informed Avon. "So it has to be that bit."

"Mmn."

"What if it isn't that bit?"

"If the rest checks out, something within the transfer circuit must be at fault, causing the overload."

"You're sure?"

"If I'm wrong, I'll simply dismantle the unit again and check it over. It should work. Our planning is sound."

"You're terribly patient, you know that? I'd go crazy if I tried to do this alone."

"I," Avon drawled, looking up for a moment, "would not particularly enjoy flying the ship."

Jenna picked up the scanner she had been using and returned it to its rack. "I'm beginning to see why Blake has so much...confidence in us. Our skills balance out very nicely."

"We could use a weaponry expert. Cally is the closest we have, and hardware just isn't her specialty."

"Can't have everything. Avon--about getting Dev Tarrant. Cally had a point."

"So did you."

"I feel a little guilty about it. We should at least tell Avalon about this."

"So tell her."

It was hard to discuss things with a stone wall. "How many more of those do you have left?"

"Twenty-eight."

"You've replaced eleven, then. I'll work on it for a while, if you like."

Carefully Avon set down the unit and his tool and got up, offering her his seat and the magnifier. Jenna sat and watched him sprawl in the armchair, absently rubbing his hand. She said, "We need to talk to Blake soon, you know."

"Yes."

"I don't suppose you have any ideas to make this easier."

"No."

"Thanks a lot."

"Are you going to talk or are you going to work?"

"You talked and worked," Jenna pointed out. Avon merely looked at her, and she sighed. "Okay."

#

"What!" Blake exclaimed, bounding to his feet and pacing violently to the other side of his cabin. "We started this, we have to finish it."

"It's too dangerous, Blake," Avon said harshly. Blake whirled on him, but Jenna interposed herself.

"Orac gave the odds as eighty-eight percent against. We can't risk the ship and we can't risk you."

"Dev Tarrant is a menace," Blake growled. "Don't any of you understand that?"

"Yes, we do," Jenna said. "But there is only so much we can do. If we informed Avalon--"

"--would I be satisfied?" Blake finished.

"That is the general idea," Avon said.

Blake stood still, chewing his knuckle. If he gave in now, it would be easier to convince them that his Terra Nostra plan was viable. So he drew a long, shaky breath. "Sorry I shouted. Everyone concurred with this?"

"Yes," Avon said. "Eventually."

"Then there's nothing I can do about it, is there?" Once again Blake turned his back. "I have another plan in mind, then." But someday...Dev Tarrant would die.

the end


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Alicia Ann Fox

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