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Masque

By Sheila Paulson
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"I won't do it," Avon spat at the crew members and local resistance assembled on Liberator's flight deck who had spent the past fifteen minutes expounding their plan to rescue Blake in great and imaginative detail. "It is frivolous in the extreme and promises no guarantee of success. There must be another way to free Blake from his own idiocy."

"Name one," Jenna persisted stubbornly. She wasn't likely to allow Avon to get away with weaseling out of the plan, especially when part of It had been her idea. "Nothing else gives us the guarantees, and with Venny here, we have a chance to do something we've never done before. Most of the risks are hers, after all."

"You're just afraid someone will laugh at you," Vila said knowingly. "If I were you, I'd be more afraid they wouldn't. You'll never manage anyway. Any of the local group would do better. Now I can manage fine, better than you ever will." He grinned cheekily, reveling in his one chance to outdo Avon.

The tech glared at him, knowing it was likely true. This scheme would not reveal him at his best, and all of them knew it. But if he forced himself to participate, in spite of his myriad objections, he would at least retain some degree of control.

He looked at Venny, the young rebel who made the whole thing possible. Darken that flaming red hair, emphasize her large, lambent eyes, cover the freckles with appropriate cosmetics and she would be a dead ringer for Servalan. She wouldn't have to maintain the pose for more than an hour or two, and since it was unlikely the Supreme Commander allowed her bodyguards to know her well and the local government would treat her with respect and some distant awe, Venny just might pull off her masquerade. She was, after all, a performer in her own right.

But Avon and Vila were not. It seemed ludicrous to pull them into the scheme, except that the local rebels wanted their help. Once inside Government House, they could plant some suspicious materials in the computer and remove a damaging list of locals sympathetic to the Cause from the safe of the Governor General. But attendees at the reception and performance were being carefully screened. The only ones admitted were guests and performers. So Avon and Vila must be performers.

That was where Avon had balked. He knew it would take Servalan to free Roj Blake from the trap he had so idiotically walked into when they'd teleported down to get the list two days ago. The prison was very well guarded, and Servalan's arrival in an hour would be the signal to turn Blake over to her. With their own Servalan replacing her, it would be possible to free Blake, somehow. But only if the exchange could be made.

It was Venny herself who suggested that the trade could easily be made in plain sight. The idea seemed ridiculous on first scan, but everyone had accepted it with such glee that it was left to Avon alone to protest it. Everyone now proclaimed him a spoilsport. Not that it mattered what they thought of him, he told himself. And it was true he did want to be there when the Supreme Commander was taken hostage. He would trust none but himself to hold her prisoner long enough for Blake to be freed. It was just the idiotic trappings of the entire affair that annoyed him so.

Yet there seemed to be little choice. Folding his arms across his chest, he favored Vila with a dark glare, scowled at Jenna, who was watching him defiantly and frowned at Cally, who would also take part in the exercise and who would watch Servalan as he worked on the computer and Vila broke into the safe.

"There seems to be little choice, " he remarked. "But should this go wrong, I will take revenge on all of you." He stalked away, prepared to enjoy a private sulk before it was time to begin their preparations. He didn't actually call it that, but he knew perfectly well that was what it was.



*****



Servalan glared around the arena, caught herself and turned the glare into a gracious smile. She was the representative of the entire Federation when she visited a remote world. It wasn't that she had expected much of Carmel 12, for it was an out of the way place, simply one more stop on the goodwill tour ordered by the council to remind the Outer Worlds that the Federation was still firmly in charge.

But Carmel 12 had croven itself more surprising than she had expected. They greeted her with the news that the rebel Blake had been taken the day before her arrival and was being held for her to take away with her when she left. Astonished, she visited the cells and confirmed that the prisoner was indeed Blake. His crew had made no attempt to rescue him. Surprising when the woman Jenna had come after them on Earth when they'd sought the false Central Control. Servalan smiled a little. As a gesture of good faith, she left Blake in the local prison, but she stationed half a dozen of her men at the cellblock, alternating in three shifts. Blake would never escape them, and a rescue attempt might net the rest of Blake's crew.

But before she could depart, she was forced to attend an entertainment set up specifically for her. Carmel 12 was enjoying a touring circus company, something long extinct on Earth, though she had read of such entertainments in her youth. She had always been ever so slightly curious about some of the performances; the high wire acts, the lion tamers. But they had come and gone and what she had now was nothing so exciting. It was the clowns.

Servalan found them a bore. They capered around in their silly painted faces and baggy costumes making other people laugh. She managed polite, politic laughter at the appropriate moments, but had to stifle frequent yawns as she watched their routine. Goodwill tours bored her.

Look at this one now, with his idiotic painted grin and three purple tears tracing their way down one cheek. He had all endless quantity of silver balls, which he juggled expertly. Servalan did find his dexterity interesting enough, but he deliberately dropped balls every few meters, pretending not to notice. A second clown, wearing a painted frown, a bulbous red nose and a green shaggy wig, followed him carefully, stepping elaborately in his footprints to indicate stealth. When a ball went bouncing free, he pounced upon it, displayed it to the crowd with triumph, then concealed it about his person moments before the juggler turned around to see what was going on. Their exaggerated movements were perfectly choreographed as if they had worked together for years.

When the juggler's last ball was secreted in the second clown's pocket and the juggler started hunting for them in vain, other clowns brought forth a tank big enough to hold a person, all their motions exaggerated, waving at the crowd and blowing kisses.

"And now, Marko the Magnificent will make one of you disappear and reappear, Ladies and Gentlemen," the ringmaster cried. "I assure you, it is perfectly safe. We will try it with one of our clowns, Ferdinand the Clever." At the name, the lugubrious clown grimaced extravagantly, bowed to the crowd and stepped forward, climbing into the box. He folded his arms across his chest like a corpse and the juggler slipped forward and planted a large flower in his folded hands. For just an instant, Servalan suspected it would be rejected, then the juggler skipped smartly away as if making sure he was out of range. The lid was swung closed by a slender, mophaired figure and an older man, Marko, no doubt. He had silvered hair and the poised manner of an old trouper.

"Abracadabra," he cried, waving a wand about. A burst of flame and a puff of smoke accompanied his action and when he raised the lid once more, the solemn-faced clown had vanished.

The box was revolved carefully to show the audience that there was nothing inside, no easy way out. Servalan was intrigued. A device like that, though only trickery, might have its uses. She wanted to learn how it worked. Perhaps something similar could be designed to dispose of her opponents, routing them into a sealed room or a prison cell.

"And now! as you will see! Ferdinand will return to us--intact and unharmed." The box was sealed again, the flame flared up! and the lid ocened to reveal Ferdinand, who leaped out, threw the flower at the juggler with exaggerated disgust, and bowed magnificently.

"We would like a volunteer from the audience," the ringmaster announced. "Supreme Commander, would you so honor us? As you can see, there is no danger. It is perfectly safe."

It would give her a chance to examine the device up close. She rose graciously, holding up a hand to the audience as they applauded her. Her troops lined up at the edge of the ring, but she waved them back. Nothing could happen here. If something went wrong, the whole planet would answer for it, and they knew it. Besides, no one would. dare to harm her when the entire performance was going out on a planetwide viscast. She smiled graciously--and warningly--at the Governor General, and stepped forward.

Ferdinand and the juggler helped her into the box as the mopheaded clown gestured her inside. "You must relax," Ferdinand said into her ear in a soft whisper. "You will be quite safe."

She resented the reassurance--as if she could b-e frightened by such a simple stunt. But then the box closed on her and as she lay there waiting, she realized with sudden alarm that the voice had been familiar. Where had she heard it before?

Suddenly the bottom slid from beneath her and she rolled down a slight trench to come up against a padded wall. Someone bent over her, and she drew back in astonishment as she recognized the face. It was her own. "Supreme Commander," said her double with a mocking smile. "You will- make no attempt at a struggle. Take off your dress."

"I shall do no such thing."

"Then Raymundo will undress you." A great, burly fellow in tights, his face disguised by a villainous mustache, came forward grinning, a para handgun aimed at her heart.

"Quickly," the doppelganger ordered, and Servalan was forced to strip before his eyes. Fuming with outrage, she watched the woman don her clothing, smiling as she completed the last fastening. She lay down on the padding and pushed a button beside her. Servalan watched in fury as the trickster in her clothing was whisked above to take her place.

"And now," said Raymundo eagerly, "shall we wait for our helpers?" He tossed a robe in her direction.

She put it on coolly as if her nudity need not matter, sitting down on a bench to await the perpetrators of this scheme. A moment later the juggler and Ferdinand arrived through a separate door with the mophead. The three of them stopped in front of her and stared at her. The painted clown faces masked their expressions quite well, though Ferdinand's mouth twitched in some amusement at the sight of her in the moth-eaten robe.

"Well, Servalan," he said smoothly with considerable satisfaction. "It seems we have the upper hand."

"Avon!" she burst out in astonished dismay. Then, controlling her temper, she continued, "I must say the outfit suits you. I shouldn't have quite thought it was your style, however."

Mine suits me, too," piped up the juggler. "I was in my element out there. Even Avon has to admit that." Vila, obviously. She should have realized his dexterity would lend itself to such a scheme. Yes, these two would work together well enough. But where had they found such a perfect duplicate? It had been like looking in a mirror. A clone? Too elaborate, surely. Most likely a chance relationship and a skilled use of cosmetics.

"You want Blake," she realized. "You shall not get him."

I think it likely we shall," Avon said confidently. "When you tell your men you mean to question him privately, they will obey you. It needs very little time, Servalan, to teleport a man. As soon as the performance is finished, 'you' will demand to see Blake. I doubt they will refuse you anything." Avon sat at a make-up table and began to remove the greasepaint, after pulling free the bulbous nose. "Hurry, Vila. We have little time."

"I shall guard her," Mophead said, pulling away the wig to resolve into Cally. She took a second gun from Raymundo, obviously one of the circus crew. Servalan vowed to arrest the lot of them when this was finished.

"And you needn't think you can hurt the circus," Cally continued as if reading her mind. Aurons should not be able to do that. "They are vastly popular here. We have insinuated five people into the circus, and made it appear a government order. The other are innocent. We will, of course, take away our people."

Innocence must be proven," she snapped furiously.

"Try to arrest any genuine performers and you will turn this world against you and the Federation faster than anything Blake might manage," Avon informed her. He stripped away the clown suit to reveal his normal clothing underneath. It was hard to believe it could change him so drastically.

"Besides," Cally put in, smiling slightly, "You will have enough problems justifying the fact that you have freed Blake to worry about arresting other people."

She glared at the Auron. "Naturally I shall be believed when I explain what really happened."

Avon actually grinned at her. "Perhaps," he said. "Come, Vila. Your real work begins now."

Vila's face fell. He set aside his clown suit and joined Avon reluctantly. "You do suppose they're prepared for us, do you, Avon?" he asked worriedly.

"Probably. Come on, Vila." He strode out of the room, and the thief looked around miserably and followed him.

"You needn't expect them to succeed," Servalan said nastily to Cally.

"Oh, but I do." She gave Servalan a confident smile. "Don't try anything. Raymundo reason to dislike you very much. I will restrain him, but if you attempt to break free, will allow him to do his will."

Raymundo glared at her ferally.



*****



Blake was sitting dispiritedly in his cell, shifting position from time to time when the bruises from his beating started to ache again. It had been so long since he was captured that he had begun to wonder if the others had abandoned him here. Since Gan's death, the atmosphere on Liberator had changed, and Blake couldn't help wondering if the might have cut their losses this time. Even if they hadn't, the troops outside the cell were too many for them to risk a daring rescue. He sighed.

The cellblock door slid open to admit Servalan in an elegant white gown, one arm bare, the other swathed in a voluminous sleeve of the type he favored. Trailed by three more her troopers, she swept down the corridor and halted dramatically before him.



"So, Blake," she said with a catlike smile. "We have many things to discuss, you and I"

"I have nothing to say to you, Servalan."

"I think, perhaps, you do." She turned to her troopers and waved her hand. "Leave us I will question him privately."

"But that could be dangerous, Supreme Commander," one of the officers faltered.

"Did I ask your opinion? He is hardly dangerous confined as he is. I do not intend to enter his cell. Go now, all of you." When they hesitated, her face darkened. "Is it necessary to put the lot of you on report?"

They backed out while she stood impatiently, tapping one foot. "Shut the door," she called after them. When they had gone, Blake stood to confront her. "I won't talk to you, Servalan, even alone."

"We are monitored, you and I," she said with a smile, gesturing at a camera in Blake's cell. Taking two steps to one side and moving up to the bars, she gestured for him to join her. He couldn't help but notice that this would put his body between her and the camera. For a moment, he considered grabbing her and using her as a hostage.

"I shouldn't," she said coolly, then, to his complete astonishment, she pushed back her sleeve and stripped off one of two teleport bracelets, passing it to him carefully so the camera wouldn't pick it up. Lowering her voice, she murmured, "I'm not Servalan, Blake I'm a lookalike. Put it on and call for teleport."

But this place is shielded," he objected. "They"ve insisted it is, over and over, telling me I couldn't expect rescue."

"By now Avon will have shut it down. Hurry, Blake."

He couldn't trust her; it had to be another trap. But her eyes held none of the scheming malice he would have expected, so he slapped the bracelet into place and pushed the button. "Liberator, this is Blake. Bring me up."

"Bring us up," Servalan corrected. Expecting a trick, Blake was considerably relieved to materialize on the Liberator's teleport platform, where Jenna waited eagerly. The minute she saw him, she leaned over and pushed a button. "Cally, we have him."

"And Avon and Vila?" Cally's filtered voice asked.

"They report they will be finished in ten minutes."

"Then I shall continue to restrain Servalan and join you in ten minutes."

Jenna jumped up and came to Blake, holding out her hands. "You had us worried. Are you all right, Blake?" She frowned at the sight of his bruises. "Are you hurt?"

"Just a little sore. They tried to question me and I wouldn't cooperate."

Her face darkened. "Do you want to go to the medical unit?"

"I'm all right. I'd rather hear about the rescue. This really isn't Servalan?"

"No, this is Venny, one of the local rebels and a member of the circus. We couldn't have done it without her."

Venny grinned. Servalan couldn't have matched the look of mischievous delight in a million years. "I think I'll go wash up. You'd better bring up the others."

"I'll clean up, too," Blake decided. "And I'll meet you on the flight deck. I want to hear about the circus."



*****



It went far better than Vila could have expected. Fearing a cordon of armed troopers around the office and the safe, he was relieved when Avon quickly incapacitated the one guard they encountered. "I should expect more," Avon pointed out. "Hurry up, Vila."

"I'm hurrying as fast as I can." Vila followed him into the office, glancing nervously over his shoulder. But the room was empty and the corridor still deserted.

While Avon used the computer to lower the shielding around the cellblock and to scan for backup copies of the list of rebel sympathizers, Vila set to work on the safe. It was a lovely system, well backed up, protected against all but the most gifted of thieves. But then Vila considered himself the most gifted thief in the business, and he'd read all about this system. One of the things he'd always done was kept up in his field, and Orac had been able to keep him up to date, finding and making accessible current reading material on new systems. This one was a pleasure to work on. He became so caught up in it that he jumped when Avon came up behind him. He'd dimly heard the tech report in that they wouldn't be much longer than ten minutes some few minutes past.

"How much longer, Vila?" he snapped impatiently now.

"Don't sneak up on a man. You'll give me a coronary."

"How long?"

"Half a minute. This can't be rushed like some cell door. This is an elegant piece of work. Truly superior."

"You needn't make love to it, just open it." Vila grinned at Avon's tone. He was probably still smarting at the affront to his dignity entailed by getting done up in make-up and costume. Yet he'd been outstanding as a clown. But that was Avon. Never did things halfheartedly. Vila hoped he didn't find out too soon that the thief had ordered Orac to record the viscast of the circus. He suspected he'd need it one day simply to keep Avon in his place.

"Just a moment, now," he assured the tech, and sure enough, the safe slid open smoothly. Vila grinned and dug into it, producing the list and a backup tape cube. Tossing them to Avon, he rifled through the rest of the contents, pausing when he found a small velvet box. When he opened it, he gaped in disbelief at the sight of a necklace composed of diamonds and rubies. Looking at Avon, he saw a trace of beautiful avarice flit across the other man's face. Sometimes Avon was a man after his own heart.

"Blake won't know a thing about it, " promised Vila, stuffing it into his pocket. "We'll sell it, next chance we get, and go halves."

"Agreed," Avon said coolly. "Now let's go, Vila."



*****



They returned to the Liberator to find Cally at the controls. "I just got back," she announced. "We've sent the local rebels down to the prearranged point. It went well."

"What did you do with Servalan?"

"Left her tied up with her dress beside her," Cally announced, a hint of amusement in her eyes. "It will look very suspicious when she is found." She hit the comm button. "Blake, they are on board."

"Then I'll take us out of the system, quickly," Jenna replied. "I think they should come up here right away." She sounded amused.

Vila glanced at Avon in time to see wariness flit across his face. As the three of them neared the flight deck, they could hear Blake laughing. Vila exchanged a curious look with the other two just before they entered.

Blake was watching the main screen which was displaying, with vivid detail, the clown performance at the circus. As Vila watched, he saw himself miss yet another of his juggling balls, saw Avon pounce upon it with consummate showmanship, waving it about as if to enter a conspiracy with the audience. Vila had known from the laughter of the crowd that the act was going well, but he'd been unable to tell what Avon was doing or even if the tech had followed instructions. But it was clear to him now that he had done exactly that and done it well. The gestures were beautifully exaggerated, as he cast sneaky looks at Vila and concealed the balls just in time as Vila spun around to look at him suspiciously. It was a lovely routine and Blake, at least, was finding it humorous. Jenna, who knew very well just who Ferdinand and the Juggler were was chuckling, too, but Blake seemed to find it hilarious. Avon's sour expression indicated he didn't take much delight in his own performance. He cast warning looks at the others.

"Clowns, Blake?" he asked pointedly.

"I've always enjoyed the circus, Avon," Blake replied. "You should watch this. It's very good. Some of the circus people helped us to get away. Did you catch the live performance?"

Blake didn't know who they were. Vila felt Avon stiffen at his side as if defying his crewmates to give him away. "I should have expected you to find amusement in something simplistic, Blake," he remarked. His eyes narrowed then. "You look like you should be in the medical unit."

"Worried about me?" Blake asked with faint surprise.

"Not in the slightest. I was simply making a statement. I shall walk along with you if you like."

"Not yet. I'm enjoying this. I'll go when it's finished." He turned his eyes back to the screen.

"I, however, am not."

"Oh, but why, Avon?" Jenna asked, a hint of maliciousness in her voice. "Surely you, of all people, should appreciate competence. They really are quite funny."

"Indeed," he said repressively.

"Pause it there, Orac," Blake cut in. "Avon, how did it go down there? Did you get the list? I've been back some time. What were you up to? Any problems?"

"Problems, Blake?" Avon repeated. "None that I could see." He took the list and the data cube and passed them to Blake. "The computer was not well guarded and Vila mooned over the safe like a lover. I believe this is what you were interested in finding. The circus, provided us excellent cover."

Blake took the lists and glanced at them, nodding in satisfaction. "Good work, both of you. But what took you so long? I thought you'd have been back before me."

Well," said Vila importantly, pausing for dramatic emphasis, and only faltering slightly when he saw Avon turn and glare at him. "The safe took some time, Blake," he explained cautiously, then a spirit of mischief overcame him and he threw caution to the winds. "As for the rest, Blake, well, you could say that we were late because we were--er--clowning around."

Jenna groaned, Cally winced, and Avon's face darkened furiously. But Blake paused, narrowed his eyes as he studied the two of them. He glanced at the screen, back at his two most recalcitrant crew members, then at the screen once more. Vila waited, holding his breath.

Then Blake shook his head as if in complete disbelief. "No..." he murmured as if he was a long way from convinced. "It couldn't be." He resumed his seat, glancing at the screen once more and ordering Orac to continue transmission.

But under cover of Orac's fussing, he sneaked a look at Avon, who had busIed himself at his station, then turned to Vila.

Unguarded humor lit Blake's eyes, and before Avon could look around and notice, he winked.

"Clowning around indeed," he muttered under his breath. If Avon heard him, he pretended not to.

The rest of the crew sat down to watch the performance. Aside from their delighted laughter, the only sound to be heard on the flight deck was that of Avon grinding his teeth.

 


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