AllegianceBy Jean Graham
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Quarrus held a new and dubious honour as the wettest and most miserable planet Kerr Avon had ever seen. He had just spent the past half hour telling Blake so, in less than friendly terms, while Gan and Cally slogged unappreciatively behind, trying unsuccessfully to ward off the assault of moisture from the moss-laden trees.
"Why don't you give up, Blake? There's nothing here - there probably never was!"
Blake, curls pressed limp to his forehead, ignored the remark and paused to consult the pulsating red light on his teleport bracelet. "Zen's still receiving the signal." He nodded toward the wall of dripping green that faced them. "And it's coming from somewhere in there."
Avon scowled. "A remarkable display of flawless directional accuracy - 'somewhere in there'. Something to tell your shipwrecked rabble when we've rescued them, provided we do not drown in the attempt."
Blake ignored that, too, making Avon's scowl deepen. He had failed thus far at every turn to convince the rebel leader that distress calls were one of the Federation's favourite ruses, and even if the signal were genuine, probabilities were high that it was no more than an automated beacon, its programmers long since dead. As usual, Blake stubbornly refused to be persuaded. Foolhardiness, Avon decided, must be a staple sub-trait of rampant idealism.
"We may have better luck if we split up," Blake was saying over the mutter of thunder from overhead. "Check in every quarter hour with the bracelets."
Cally, her own curls a damp tangle, nodded. "I agree."
Gan had been peering at the colourless sky suspiciously. "So do I," he said.
As though the matter had thus been decided, Blake made to move away. Avon stopped him with an irritated warning. "If it is a trap, we stand a better chance together."
Yet again, Blake pretended not to hear him. "We meet back here in an hour," he said to the others. "Unless one of us finds anything. Stay in contact." This with a meaningful glance at Avon. "All of you."
"Damn it, Blake, will you -"
"Perhaps you hadn't noticed," the other man interrupted, and his tone was that of a stern parent correcting an errant child, "but you've just been outvoted. Back here, one hour." With that he pivoted and strode away, if one could be said to stride through the muck underfoot. Gan and Cally, choosing different directions, had done the same, and no sooner had the three of them vanished into the trees than the clouds unleashed a drenching downpour. Jaw set, Avon stood his ground for several moments before selecting a path some meters west of the others and forging into the trees on his own.
The temptation to call Vila and simply teleport back to Liberator nagged him with every laboured step. He'd been a fool to let Blake order him down here in the first place - let the blundering idiot get lost and fall into a bog and the other two as well, he was going back to a quiet cabin, warm air, and dry clothes, and to hell with Blake's damned distress signal.
The bracelet chimed before he could depress the control. "Vila -" he started to say to it, but another, harsher voice responded instead, cutting him off.
"This is Blake. Prepare for teleport; we're going to wait and try searching again when the rain's let up."
Avon glowered wetly at the bracelet. "High time," he complained, but Blake had switched frequencies, and under the crack of a renewed thunder assault, he heard the beginning of an order for Vila to teleport. The words cut off in mid-sentence, lost, he assumed, to the temporary interference of the atmospheric disturbance. Avon bade Quarrus an unfond farewell and stood ready for the teleport's energy field to reclaim him.
"Vila..." He slapped at the bracelet's control switch in consternation. "Vila, you halfwit, bring us up!"
The only response was the diminishing patter of the rain as the cloudburst, spent, surrendered.
Avon shifted frequencies and tried again. "Blake... Cally, Gan. Are you receiving?"
Silence, and the surrounding drip-drip-drip of run-off from the irregular canopy of moss and vine above him. Nothing else.
"Liberator! Zen, this is Avon. I require teleport, do you receive? Repeat, I require tele -"
The loud report of something snapping underfoot brought Avon's blaster instantly to hand. He dived for the nearest cover - a fallen tree - and rolled over to right himself and peer out at the semi-clearing. If this was Blake coming back, he might just cheerfully shoot the man and have done with it. Four months in his company had done absolutely nothing to improve Avon's interrogation- frayed nerves, and a future subordinated to Blake's prating, crusade-mentality was not one that he relished, either. Better to -
Something hard and cold pressed itself to the back of his neck. "Put the gun down, friend."
He obeyed the request, hoping beyond probable reason that this was merely one of Blake's shipwrecked mariners, and an overcautious one at that. Two more of them materialized from the trees as he got to his feet, all armed, all dressed in soiled fatigues the colour, more or less, of the forest undergrowth. Not Federation...
The man nearest him - the one who had spoken - held his ancient projectile rifle firmly in hand and pointed with a stubbled chin at Avon's wrist. "What's that then?" he demanded. "Some kind of radio?"
Avon met the too-narrow eyes with scorn and took the offensive. "Who are you? What do you want?"
The stubbled face broke into a gap-toothed grin, a soundless mirth shared by the other two. "Parn's my name. And you're what I want, friend." The grin broadened, thin lips pulling back from yellowed teeth. "This is Lorka, that one's name's Dunne, and now that we're all nice and formal like, yours'd be Avon, now wouldn't it?"
"I think you've -"
"Made a mistake?" Parn finished mockingly. "Not very original, are you? We just heard you call roll into that piece of jewellery on your arm. You can take that off too, while we're at it." The gun came up to threaten him. "Oh and... then be so kind as to turn around...and put your hands behind your back."
Avon surrendered the inoperative bracelet, then with a glance at Parn's silent compatriots and the weapons they held, grudgingly obeyed the second command. Immediately, chill metal clamped itself around his wrists, binding them together by a brief length of chain. Parn tugged at the bonds experimentally before spinning his captive back around to face him. His ugly grin remained firmly in place.
"Comfy?" he asked.
Avon frosted the three of them with a look, but it had no visible effect.
Lorka, scratching at a dirty neck, cracked a smile greedy enough to rival a Terra Nostra crimelord's. "How much is he worth, Parn?"
The question surprised Avon, not because it confirmed his suspicion that the trio were bounty hunters, but because he'd had no inkling, until Lorka had spoken, that she was female.
"Big time money, this one." Parn was leering. "A million cees, according to Circe, and there're five more where he came from."
Avon watched their eyes widen appreciatively at the simple arithmetic of dividing six million credits three ways, and wondered why this Circe had been uninformed (or perhaps simply uninformative?) about the additional reward offered by the Federation for Liberator. Blake, Cally and Gan, if they were still on the surface at all, had somehow escaped notice, which meant that they had probably teleported on schedule, and only Avon's bracelet had failed to function. Which further meant that Liberator might well already be on its way out of the system. If Blake could fail to notice Cally's absence after teleport, no doubt he could also overlook Avon's. Perhaps he'd even intended to. But then, there was that distress call, still irritating both Zen's circuitry and Blake's conscience...
Parn's rifle was dancing an arc through the dripping mist. "After you, friend," he said unctuously, and the others chortled at the false courtesy. Avon affected his best bored expression, shook several layers of muck from his boots, and walked in the direction Parn's gun had indicated.
There was little conversation amongst the three over the ensuing twenty minutes, but enough was exchanged for Avon to gather that A) they were native to this mudhole of a planet and B) Circe was a contact they had made over primitive shortwave on the surface, a contact to whom they were now herding their prize. It followed, of course, that Circe would be a Federation agent of one degree or another. Mentally, Avon cursed the faulty bracelet, Blake, the Federation, and his own careless stupidity, none of which helped at all other than to pass the time.
Navigating over the wet, uneven terrain without benefit of free hands for balance proved more difficult than he'd imagined - he fell twice, and suffered the indignity of being manhandled by the grimy and foul-tempered Dunne. He might have been relieved when they came at last within sight of their goal, except that the goal proved not to be the backward clutter of native buildings he had expected, not the cell with antique locks that his hidden pick might have jimmied, but a ship, modern, sleek, and grounded imposingly on a flat expanse of meadow. Avon had the sick feeling that he had just been led to the source of Blake's distress signal.
Black-clad figures stood, statue-like, on either side of the landing ramp. Mutoids, Avon realized as they approached. One male, one female, or they had been once. It scarcely mattered any more, to them or anyone else, what sex they had been before 'modification' had rendered them automatons and placed them in unquestioning, mindless service to Federation Space Command. The only concerns they had now were obeying their masters and keeping their feeder tubes supplied with blood plasma. In that order.
"You!" Parn barked at the male on the left side of the ramp. "Go tell Circe in there we got a package for her."
The mutoid did not react for a moment, though Avon noted the gloved fingers tightening on the paragun it held.
"My mistress is already aware of your presence," it answered at length.
"Oh?" Parn obviously failed to fathom how that was possible. "Well, then, tell her we agreed on a million apiece, and we'll collect for this one now and the rest when he tells her where to find them." He shoved the muzzle of the rifle into Avon's ribs for emphasis. "We'll wait here."
"That will not be necessary," the female said, and Parn pulled the gun back to stare at her over its raised barrel.
"We have been instructed to render your payment."
Parn's toothy grin reasserted itself. "Well, that's more like it. Where is it, then?"
He hadn't quite finished his question when the answer slammed into him, courtesy of the male mutoid's paragun. Dunne fell in the same instant, a cry of disbelief strangling in his throat, and Lorka's attempt to turn and run got her nowhere - a second shot from the female's weapon cut her down less than four yards away.
Standing impassive amidst the mêlée, Avon silently thanked the unseen Circe for her payment, then allowed himself to be led up the ramp and into the bowels of the waiting ship.
Whatever he'd thought he might find aboard, it was certainly not the lavish elegance which met his eyes: the ship's interior reflected a hedonism that would have given the wealthiest Alpha pause. Neither was the 'cell' what he'd anticipated - the mutoids led him to a cabin, ushered him inside, and after removing Parn's restraints from his wrists, departed and locked the door. Avon gave the mechanism a cursory inspection before concluding that his pick would be no help against magno-circuitry this sophisticated. He turned to survey the room.
Mirrors, draped on either side by red lace fabric. Furniture, opulent gold gilt, antique by the look of it. Crystal decanter filled with red wine, glittering in the subdued light beside a single flower, also red, in a gold-tone vase. Upholstered chairs, patterned carpet - red and gold - the scent of a dusky, floral perfume... And the dominant feature of the oversized room, the bed, festooned in overstuffed pillows and shining gold silk.
The most expensive pleasure houses in all of the Alpha dome levels had never spoken more eloquently of seduction. Avon, tired, puzzled and muddy, stood dripping on the expensive rug, feeling more conspicuously out of place than a Delta ditch-labourer at an inaugural ball.
When nothing and no one interrupted the ongoing silence to resolve his bewilderment, he squelched across the carpet to inspect the only other door in the room, and discovered the thoroughly modern convenience of a sono-shower ensconced in the otherwise antique decor of a spacious bathroom. That his unseen hostess had been expecting a male visitor was all the more apparent by the suit of clothes laid out on the dressing table inside the bathroom door. Clean boots, shiny black and of real leather, stood waiting beside black trousers, overshirt and belt - and a simple open-necked tunic with a bright silver sheen. All in his size and unquestionably to his taste. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to cheat Parn and his friends of their reward money.
Someone also, disconcertingly, knew of his Alpha-bred penchant for a rather flashy wardrobe.
Inwardly, Avon shrugged. As interrogations went, this promised so far to be the most painless of his brief criminal career. Presumably, his hostess planned to appear and state her terms once he had made himself presentable. Well, to that much he certainly had no objection. Indulging the ghost of an ironic smile, he turned on the shower and began to strip off the wet, soiled clothing.
She was there, as predicted, lounging in one of the chairs with a glass of wine when he emerged in the clean clothes. Why it hadn't occurred to him sooner he couldn't have said, but the identity of his new 'keeper' took Avon aback for a moment. He'd seen her in many a Federation viscast; there was no mistaking those deceptively 'innocent' eyes, and the severe haircut that had become her personal trademark. He hesitated in the doorway, slurring her name into one distasteful drawl.
Her eyes raked him like a slave-market buyer's, and the smile followed, tight-lipped and cunning. "Avon." She pronounced the name with a breathy resonance, nasalizing the second syllable. After that she seemed content merely to study him for several moments.
Avon stared back despite himself. He'd never had occasion to notice, from the viscasts, just how damnably beautiful she was. Somehow the Supreme Commander of the Galactic Federation Fleet lacked even the semblance of threat, wearing as she was a thin silver-white gown that did little to hide her rather considerable feminine attributes. Avon's eyes made their own appraisal in turn, and reached a mutually favourable conclusion.
"I really can't believe my good fortune." Her long fingers curled and uncurled around the base of the crystal wine glass. "Of all of them, you were the one I'd have chosen. The one most likely to be... reasonable. And here you are."
"So it would seem." He had no idea what the 'reasonable' remark implied, but he was not averse, for the moment, to playing her game. He assumed, however, that the 'chosen' business was a lie. Surely it was Blake she had intended to snare with all of this; the clothes must have been re-selected in haste once she'd learned who her hirelings were bringing her.
Arrogant confidence firmly in place, Avon strolled to the opposite chair and paused there to regard her with undisguised admiration. "As I recall, Circe excelled at turning men into swine." He allowed his eyes to explore her candidly, asking the pertinent question of her intent, but her gaze returned only amusement, and a sidelong glance toward the sono-shower.
"I do appear to have fulfilled the legend... albeit somewhat in reverse. I should perhaps have taken closer stock of Blake's associates before this. You're an incredibly attractive man, Avon."
Feeling no particular need either to confirm or parry that, he instead defied what he presumed her expectation would be, and bypassed the chair, coming to stand with practiced indifference at the end of the oversized bed.
"What do you want, Servalan?"
She sipped at the wine, then set the glass aside and folded graceful hands in front of her, the slender forefingers extended, touching. "I've quite a simple proposition, really. I want Liberator, and I want Blake. The others are of no consequence. You may do with them as you like."
He pretended to consider that, inclining his head slightly in a life-long habit indulged whenever he had need to stall for tactical advantage. At length, he said, "And what, as they say, would be in it for me?"
Her lithe form unfolded itself from the chair, and the frost white perfection of her moved within a few alluring inches, green eyes brimming calm reassurance. "Your freedom, a full pardon and, under specified conditions, virtually any amount of money you care to name."
He looked down at her, sternly denying the impulse to reach out and take what she so clearly offered in addition to her words. "A tempting overture," he said, aware of, but unconcerned with the double entendre. "A pity it comes without a guarantee."
"Oh, but there is one." She closed the space between them, molding herself easily to him, one finger coming up to tease the outline of his lips. "You're the only man in the galaxy who truly understands that ship. Only you could begin to duplicate Liberator, its computers, the teleport... Your mind is your insurance, Avon."
He arrested her attempt to kiss him with one hand clamped to the back of her short-cropped hair. A moment later, having thus established control, he drew her to him with a savage grip and forcefully claimed her mouth for his own.
* * *
The overt sensuality of silk against flesh was a pleasure Kerr Avon had long since counted lost with the rest of his life in the domes. Drinking in the warm air's heady scent, he sighed, turned over - and sat up in the bed with a stifled curse. He'd never intended falling asleep, but somehow he had, and now there were two matters immediately apparent that might not otherwise have come about: he was alone in the cabin, and Servalan's ship was in flight.
He redressed in the black clothes and discarded silver tunic, all the while unsure of the reason for his haste - the Supreme Commander had left him precisely where she very much wanted him, and the door would undoubtedly be locked.
But it wasn't.
No one challenged his exit or his progress to the easily-located flight deck, where he found her enthroned in a spherical command chair, surrounded by her silently efficient crew of mutoids. The chair swivelled to face him when he arrived.
Good morning," she said huskily. "I trust you slept well?" The cliché evoked a glare at once both sultry and disdainful.
Servalan affected not to notice, and the mutoids were oblivious by design.
"You're only just in time," she added, and rose to approach a control console, trailing the faultless white of her floor-length gown behind her.
"The first phase of our... agreement." At her touch, the ship's central viewscreen flickered and resolved into the image of Quarrus' murky ionosphere, a fraction of the planet's curvature, and the dwarfed-by-distance shape of Liberator in stationary orbit.
Avon wondered if it remained there due to his disappearance - or the as-yet unsolved mystery of Zen's elusive distress signal. "And what phase is that?" Better to stay in the game now, he supposed - even if Servalan did hold all the cards. He had to admit he found her wanton amorality easier to deal with by far than Blake's deluded idealism, and her taste in living quarters, clothing - and men - all had something to say for them as well. A life of unparalleled wealth was something that had always appealed to him, and now, once again, it was within his grasp. Reachable... for a price. And, he considered, all that she had offered for his betrayal might just be obtainable, if he manipulated things with proper care. If he made certain that she would continue to need him...
Servalan activated a series of controls to bring the ship's computer on line, and his attention was drawn to the smaller datascreens, glowing blue and fluctuating with the rapid-fire patterns of systems checks.
"The first phase," she said in answer to his question, "of boarding and taking Liberator. You will use this terminal to contact Zen. Tell it to blind the sensor scans, open the aft bay doors and take this ship aboard - all without alerting Blake or anyone else in the crew."
He flashed her a rare, if discomfited, smile. "It could be you overestimate my talents, just a bit."
"Oh, I don't think so." Her tone of voice was lilting, feline.
"All right. Let us say then that I find your guarantee of my personal safety somewhat... tenuous, to say the least. I would prefer to negotiate slightly different terms."
She lounged against the console, irritatingly confident. "Go on."
"I will sell you Blake and the Liberator in return for exclusive claim to the contents of its strongroom. The rest of the crew you will put off on a neutral planet. As to my guarantee..."
Suitably annoyed at his hesitation, she thrust an upturned hand toward him. "Yes?"
"Replication of the teleport facility is impossible without extensive knowledge of the Zen computer and most particularly without access codes which I have programmed and which are known only to myself. I will agree to fit your ships with teleport facilities, one at a time, provided I am given full command of Liberator and free reign to do with it as I please."
Servalan was nonplussed by the proposal. "And what guarantee would I have against you and Liberator simply vanishing into space?"
"You're welcome to stay aboard, if you like." The look that had elicited had made the entire verbal gambit worthwhile. "Barring that, I suppose you will just have to trust me."
She shook her head. "Oh no. You can't have what you aren't willing to give, Avon."
"Well those are my terms. Take them or leave them, the choice is yours."
He watched her consider alternatives, every one of which ran up against the block wall of his solitary claim to knowledge of the teleport's function. And she wanted the teleport - that and that alone, he surmised, was the crux of her interest here. Blake and the Liberator itself were incidental.
"I'll make you a counter offer," she said at last, and now it was his turn to wait. "Your terms, with the addition of a crew of three which I shall put aboard and who will assure that the terms of the agreement are kept."
He forestalled his own objection to that. What did it matter if she crewed Liberator with three of her thick-witted commandos?
He could always kill them later.
"All right," he said. "I agree."
Coming regally upright from the console, she swept a white-sheathed arm toward it in an expansive gesture.
"The computer is yours."
* * *
Manipulating Zen was child's play when you knew your way around its failsafes, and Avon knew his way quite well indeed. He'd made it his business, over the past few months, to know the machine down to its proverbial component atoms, anticipating that the information might be crucial one day.
One day appeared to have arrived.
Liberator's hold yawned silently open to accept Servalan's cruiser, and the mutoid pilots set down somewhat less than gracefully between the painted guide lines striping the deck. The Supreme Commander watched impatiently while her crew awaited confirmation that the hold had repressurized. When at last it came, she turned to Avon with a smile.
"Safe aboard and no alarms. You've done well... so far."
He gave the loaded compliment an appropriate look of contempt and in equally equivocal tones, replied, "I'm glad you approve."
She gestured once again to the computer console. "Tell Zen to open the inner hatch."
He heard the whine of the landing ramp going down, and the grinding of the portside doors as they were drawn into the hull. Under Servalan's watchful gaze, his hands danced over the controls - and shut the system down.
Anger flared in the amber-green eyes. "What are you doing?!"
"The inner hatch is manually operated," he informed her calmly, and rose from the console. "Shall we go?"
She assessed him warily for a moment, but didn't move. Instead, she extended her right hand toward the mutoids and snapped her fingers twice, whereupon all four modifieds obediently scrambled to line themselves up in front of her.
"One and two," she said to them, though her eyes never left Avon, "arm yourselves and come with me. "Three and four, remain with the ship pending further instructions."
While they regrouped to obey her orders, Servalan produced a diminutive hand weapon of her own from a receptacle in the command console. Staging no further pretence of trust, she brought it soberly to bear on Avon.
"Now," she said, "we shall go."
Avon shot a weary look at the waiting armed escort. "They will not be necessary," he grated. "You will not need weapons to take Liberator."
"Won't I? And just how did you think I was going to take it?"
"Environmental control's main circuitry housing is just down the corridor outside that door. From there, I can instruct Zen to seal and exempt this level, then shut down life support on all the others - until Blake surrenders."
"And if he doesn't?"
Avon's eyes regarded the decking for a prolonged moment. "Either way, you get what you want."
"And you would have no wearisome qualms about betraying, possibly killing, your friends?"
He wouldn't look at her. It made the half-truth easier to utter. "Perhaps because I have none."
In fact, it hadn't occurred to him that Blake might actually be bull-headed enough to die before surrendering the ship. But if he should resort to such extremes, blame could hardly be placed at Avon's door. Besides, he doubted the others would willingly give up breathing in the name of Blake's revered Cause.
"All right." Servalan's gun dipped toward the ship's computer. "Turn off the life support from here."
"I can't. Environmental systems are immune to outside influence."
The gun snapped back to point at him. "If you're lying to me..."
Avon raised his hands in mute surrender, though he wasn't - she would have to continue accepting his terms, however much it chafed.
Angrily, she waved the tiny weapon at the exit corridor. "Move," she said, and before he could comply, added, "and Avon... At the first sign of trouble, I assure you I will kill you, teleport or no teleport. Remember that."
He gave her a half-smile that was more akin to a grimace. "I shall try."
She kept behind him, escort included, all the way down the ramp and across the bay deck to the hatch. Liberator's power systems hummed obliviously around them, no less ignorant of his intentions when he keyed the autolock and spun the latch wheel to 'open.' The heavy door swung outward at his deliberately flourished push, and he turned back to her with a gentlemanly gesture indicating that she might now wish to take the lead.
"Oh, no." Suspicion still clouded her every syllable. "After you, Avon. Just remember, please, who's holding the gun."
Acquiescing, Avon stepped through the oval doorframe. The sharp whine of one of Liberator's blasters caught him totally off guard. Heated air seared past him toward the doorway;
Servalan and the mutoid escorts scattered to dive for cover inside the bay, and Avon barely spun out of the way of the closing door. It slammed with a resounding thud, pushed from behind by the last person on board from whom Avon would ever have expected heroics.
The thief finished tripping the override lock without looking at it. His eyes, and his gun, were both on Avon.
"Sorry to break up your little boarding party." All vestige of the usual humour was missing from Vila's tone, though the words tumbled out as rapidly as ever. "But I thought I'd just come down and rescue you - from yourself - before you got in any deeper. Ask me why and I might still change my mind, though. Because if no one's ever told you before, I will. You're a bastard, Avon."
The gun trembled in his hand as he spoke, but remained pointed surely enough in the general direction of Avon's midsection. Whether Vila had nerve enough to fire it...
Avon rejected that line of thought in favor of a bluff. "You don't understand," he began, but Vila cut him off.
"Better than you think. There's a telltale on the weapons console linked to the cargo and landing bay doors. Didn't know about that, did you? Thought not. Anyway, I knew fiddling Zen's sensors like that, it couldn't be anyone but you. I just didn't figure on a Federation cruiser... oh, and Madame Dragonfly in there."
The sound of repeated paragun fire came from beyond the hatch, audible even through the thickness of the bulkhead. Servalan had obviously launched a full scale assault against the door, a contingency that Vila clearly hadn't counted on.
"You're too late to stop it," Avon told him with more confidence than he felt. "But," he added more cajolingly, "not too late to see reason. Play along, and we might be persuaded to be generous with all of that wealth in the storeroom."
Vila snorted. "Play along... With Servalan? I'd sooner cozy up to a tarantula."
Avon's head tilted in a subtle shrug. "Suit yourself," he replied, and the words were punctuated by more muffled gunfire barraging the inside of the door.
Vila's eyes narrowed. "And what about Blake and the others, then?"
"We dump them." Avon wasted no time pouncing on Vila's apparent weakening. "And Servalan as well, once we're clear."
"You'd really dump Blake?" Vila sounded incredulous, as though he'd assumed four months under Blake's moral tyranny might somehow have reformed Avon's character. It hadn't, nor was it destined to. "Just like that?"
"Just like that. Make up your mind, Vila - that door will not hold much longer."
The thief shook his head, and the handgun lifted toward Avon. "I never un-made it. I'm not doing anything like that to Blake, and neither are you."
"Why?" Avon snapped at him, frustration making the words come out gun-report sharp. "What's Blake to you?"
Vila moved around him to the control panels beside the hatch, the gun still pointed all the while, and eyed him with a peculiar mixture of contempt and pity. "Blake's a friend of mine. And where I come from, that means something."
Avon watched in dismay as Vila's deft fingers proceeded to activate a code sequence on the panel. The final switch he depressed was that of the intercom.
"Supreme Commander," he said to the pick-up in stentorian tones, and the gunfire inside the bay cut off abruptly. "We do not regret to announce that the term of your visit with us has been cancelled. In precisely four point three-seven minutes, landing bay two will recycle for launch procedure. If I were you, I'd be back aboard your ship some time before then."
"Avon," the intercom hissed, haughtily discounting Vila's threat for the moment. "Sooner or later, I'll see you pay for this."
Shoulder to shoulder with Vila now, Avon addressed the intercom from the opposite side. "Don't hold your breath," he advised it drolly. "It's of very little use in attempting to breathe vacuum."
Frigid silence answered him, then the speaker picked up the angry click of retreating heels closely followed by the tramping of combat boots. In a moment, they could also hear the rumble of the landing ramp retracting. When the roar of the ship's rotation and launch thrusters began, Avon cut the circuit.
"She's leaving," he said.
Vila was glaring at him, his Liberator weapon still in hand, though it pointed upward now. "No thanks to you."
Avon met the smaller man's hostility with an avaricious half-smile. "It can still be ours, Vila. Yours and mine."
"It's already mine. Well, part of it, anyway. Better poor and safe than greedy and dead, I always say."
The intercom precluded Avon's intended response: this time it was Gan's voice coming threadily over the intraship frequency. "Vila?"
Still glowering at Avon, Vila punched the call button. "Yes?"
"Blake and Jenna just came up," the bass voice replied. "You and I are on search detail next."
Vila looked disgusted. "Tell Blake to never mind. I've found Avon."
"You what?" That was Blake, sounding tired, annoyed, and decidedly soggy.
"We're at landing bay two, if you'd care to say hello." Vila cut the circuit on Blake's sputter of incomprehension.
"Search detail..." Avon quoted acidly. "Still hunting for the mythical shipwrecked crew?"
Vila shook his head. "No. For you. Blake has a naive idea the people in this crew have some allegiance to each other. He doesn't know you'd sell him out for a pretty face and thirty pieces of silver."
"But you, I suppose, will be more than happy to enlighten him."
Vila's cagey look and lack of response unnerved Avon more than he would have admitted. Of all the so-called crew, Vila was the last he'd have expected to find incorruptible. What Blake's reaction might be he found still less pleasant to divine. The man's tiresome morals aside, turning Avon in for the reward might well be deemed a fitting retribution in his eyes. End game to Blake. All the wealth and all the clever verbal sparring in the universe would not be enough to corrupt him. Crusaders like Blake embraced sainthood by hallowed decree. The saint in question, mud-covered and rain slick from his most recent surface foray, clumped around a juncture at that moment to confront them, narrowed eyes at once taking in Avon's clean silver tunic - and the air of tension hanging in the corridor. "Vila, how did...?"
"Damned if I know." The gun had vanished into its holster, and the cringing whine was back, full persona, in Vila's voice. But it was his words rather than his inflection that made Avon's gaze dart to him in astonishment. "I got a warning light on the weapons console that a ship was landing in bay two, and when I got here, there he was. Said he found a ride... with some friends."
Blake's reply was swift and merciless. "He hasn't got any."
Still maintaining the pretence that Avon was not there at all, he shouldered past them, knuckled three buttons on the control board, and pulled back the hatch door.
The landing bay yawned in front of him, cycled, repressurized, and shipless. Even the burn marks from Servalan's thwarted assault were gone, obliterated by the zeal of Liberator's auto-repair system.
While Blake gaped, Vila traded looks with Avon behind the other man's back. The thief's smug smile and glittering eyes spoke volumes, none of which Avon would particularly relish reading. Not that he appeared to have a choice...
"All right." Blake had turned back from the door, and his words were directed to Avon this time. Apparently he existed after all. "Perhaps we should start from the beginning. What happened to you down there?"
"Teleport malfunction," Avon answered crisply, and before Blake could impart further demands, added, "It's rather a long story."
Blake's hands rested obstinately on his hips. "I have plenty of time."
As though to belie his statement, the intercom erupted with Cally's anxious tones. "Blake, are you there? Zen is picking up a Federation cruiser in the vicinity."
Well, that was on cue. Avon had programmed the sensor-blind to dissolve in forty minutes, no more and no less time than would be necessary. Only now it was redeeming him for what might be the second occasion.
"On my way," Blake said, and made to go, turning back just long enough to deliver a parting comment to Avon. "I'm sure you'll find time, later, to explain all of this, including just how you got aboard?"
"Naturally," Avon replied, and cast Vila a conspiratorial glance.
Their damp but intrepid 'leader' scowled at them, then shook his head wearily and went on his way.
Avon waited only until Blake had vanished round the juncture. Then he turned on Vila with thinly repressed rage.
Feigned innocence laced the reply. "Well? Well what?"
"Don't play the idiot with me," Avon growled at him. "What do you want, Vila?"
The thief looked contemplative, then broke into a sly grin, all semblance of the fool completely gone again.
"Oh," he mused, irritatingly evasive, "I imagine I'll think of something. Eventually. Meanwhile, I think you ought to practice being very nice to me, Avon."
And with that, he walked away.
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