FugitiveBy Jean Graham
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|"How much do you want?"
It seemed a fair-enough question. At sixty, Kel Shevran had settled into wealth's comforts thoroughly enough to have forgotten his life as Kerr Avon. That former identity, long-buried, now existed only in the Federation's security files as one "criminal revolutionary, dead at Gauda Prime."
Dead, at least, until a ghost he could never have anticipated had walked through his office door.
Vila, or Soolin, even Blake himself might have been easier to face. But this stranger wore a face he had last seen thirty years ago -- in a mirror.
"Is that why you think I came here?" the ghost demanded in a voice that was also Shevran's own.
"What other reason?" Shevran couldn't help staring, and the younger man stared back, dark eyes both accusing and hungry.
"Curiosity, perhaps," he said.
"All knowledge is valuable?"
Shevran broke the gaze-lock, striding away into the expansive hemisphere of the plex dome forming the outer 'wall' of the office.
One quarter of Ferus III's cloud-stippled surface invaded the dome's starview, swollen purple seas threatening to swallow her meager continents. In less than an hour, the revolution of Trans- Shevran Corporation's orbiter would take Ferus past the President's window and leave only the empty stars to view.
He preferred the stars.
Shevran reached out to touch the curved transparency, smoothly chill against his splayed fingers. A bearded man with iron grey hair gazed back at him, eyes glittering.
"Anna..." he said, not quite able to make it a question.
Beyond the imposing semi-circle of Kel Shevran's ebony desk, the dark version of himself, back stiff, answered in a voice devoid of inflection. "That was one of her names, or so they tell me. I never knew her."
For a protracted moment, they regarded one another's reflections. Then the cold young voice said, "You didn't know." Not a question.
Silent warnings began gnawing at Shevran's psyche, presenting the arcane improbabilities that this youthful avatar might be a clone, an android, a manufactured myth designed to trap him. He turned slowly to face the spectre and said crisply, "I still don't."
"The DNA pattern match is on record, if you care to check."
Perhaps he would. Later. For the moment, there were other concerns.
"How did you come here?" The question he'd meant to ask was 'How did you find me?' The trail should have been impossible to trace, for any but a mind equal to his own...
"You were not easy to find," his visitor replied, taking the meaning despite Shevran's ambiguity. "There were... irregularities in the records that established something of a pattern, provided you knew what to look for. It has taken me eighteen years, all told. But I've succeeded."
There was such arrogant pride in the statement that Shevran found himself responding with a sneer. "I admire your fortitude. And I'll repeat the question. How much do you want?" When the newcomer merely glowered, Shevran paced back to the massive desk to place both hands on the glassine surface. He had only to move a finger, touch the hidden keypad, and the internal defense system he had long ago programmed into the desk unit would dispose of his visitor -- neatly and without trace. One finger, and the threat would be no more. But his finger refused to move.
Sentimentality breeds weakness. Let it get hold of you, and you are dead...
Curiosity, perhaps, was an even greater weakness.
"Oh come now," he prodded. "Surely you're not going to tell me you went to all this trouble merely for the sake of maudlin familial ties?"
"Oh, no." The ghost smiled, a soulless expression completely aloof from his eyes, and from somewhere his right hand had suddenly acquired the sleek black shape of a hand weapon. "I came," he said, "for this."
Whatever dramatic reaction the younger man had expected, he was clearly disappointed when Shevran's carefully schooled features showed only boredom -- and a faint hint of weariness. He sat down, fixing the visitor with an expectant gaze.
"Is that all?"
Shevran's answering smile could have thawed Ferus' ice rings. "Oh, it is never enough," he whispered. His slender fingers calmly interlaced themselves, retreating from the desktop to his lap. "Not, at least, without some wearisome justification or other. Surely you came prepared with one?"
The gun sank a few inches beneath unmasked surprise, covered quickly by indignation. "I have a lifetime's worth of reasons," he breathed. "From the creche on. Federation schools that expected your supposed genius to be mine. Your legendary talents, your 'abilities' -- and oh yes, your infamous inclinations toward larceny and rebellion. They watched me every minute of every day, waiting for that. Waiting for all of it."
Shevran merely watched him, allowing none of his own apprehensions to show. If this was indeed a trap, then it had been masterfully designed: not even Servalan could likely have devised something this Machiavellian.
"The great Kerr Avon..." The name became a sneer. "You hardly look dangerous now."
Shevran's fingers parted and relaced. "Kerr Avon," he said, "died on Gauda Prime -- twenty-five years ago."
"I never believed that. All my life I've wanted to find you." The gun hand stiffened. "And kill you."
Shevran remained blase while his visitor seethed, wondering if he had in fact been this volatile once. An eternity ago, perhaps. "If," he said in level tones, "your keepers have followed you here, then you will have killed us both."
The face of his youth wore a look of mock sympathy. "I'm touched by your concern."
"So you should be." Shevran's chair swivelled left, toward the dome and the glowing nimbus of Ferus's stratosphere. "Emons," he said to a seamless juncture in the ceiling. "You may come in, now."
He swung back to find rage overtaking his would-be assassin. Black eyes flared. The gun thrust forward, index finger pressing the firing stud without hesitation.
Shevran's voice held all the emotion of a vocoded synth program. "You don't really think I've lived this long by being careless? Your weapon was deactivated the moment you entered this complex."
Anger overcoming reason, the younger man took a threatening step forward, and raised the gun as though to strike.
Shevran never moved. Before his attacker could reach the desk's edge, blue vapor jetted from a recess in its black-mirrored surface, and Kerr Avon watched his own face of long ago contort in pain and infuriated shock.
Then the assassin lay unconscious on the floor, and the door of the expansive office was sliding open to admit Emons, her angular features prim and completely uninvolved.
Shevran came slowly to his feet, striding even more slowly around the huge desk. "You heard all of that?" he queried.
The man once known as Kerr Avon glanced over his shoulder at the ceiling pickup. "In that case," he drawled, "I suggest that you heard nothing at all."
Emons didn't even blink. "Heard nothing at all of what, sir?" Never one for sentimental displays, was Emons. No wonder she kept her job.
"Was he followed here?"
She shook her head just once. "But they'll pick him up again, once he's back within Federation space. If you'd prefer that we 'dispense' with the problem entirely--"
"No." The refusal came faster than he might have imagined possible. Unlike him, to start developing a conscience at this late date. "No," he said again more firmly. "The transport to Denilon, I think."
For the first time in years, Emons' flint facade developed a crack. "But sir..." She stifled the protest at once, as though in shock to realize that it had escaped at all.
Eyes hodded, Shevran regarded the supine figure at his feet. Now that he could study the young face more closely, there were visible differences; not quite a true mirror of the face he remembered. He found that encouraging. Neither a clone nor an android would likely have been less than a perfect replica. Then again...
He knelt, and placed three fingers to the assassin's neck, finding a definite pulse. Not an android, then. And not identical enough for a clone. Therefore...
He didn't like the direction in which the line of reasoning led him. Somehow it made the decision he must now reach far more difficult. Ludicrous, on the surface of it -- this man was a complete stranger, a failed assassin, a probable spy...
Shevran straightened with a scowl to meet Emons' baffled gaze. "See that he's fitted with the appropriate credentials, including a 'suitably impressive' family history, well-seated in the Federation data net." He overran her objection with another command. "Put him on the next shuttle to Ferus and keep him isolated until that transport makes planetfall."
He found it suddenly impossible to stare down at that incredibly young face any longer, and turned away to stride toward the door.
But he could not escape just yet. There was one last onus he must place on Emons' shoulders. One he hated.
He faced the door, and would not look at her. "You will also," he said, "see to it that he remembers none of this."
Her "Yes sir" was all but lost in the rumble of the door as he hurried out.
Kerr Avon was many corridors away before he realized a small, but nagging regret.
He had never even known the young man's name.
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