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By Jean Graham
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Cygnus Alpha's repressive grey sky threatened rain. In the seventeen weeks they'd spent here, Vila could not remember a time when the planet's dull sun had shone. _Oh, give me a nice comfy dome and an artificial atmosphere any day!_

"I'm going," he announced, and groaning, dumped an armload of foul-smelling _timbrel_ weed into the wooden cart. Gan used a crude metal rake to pack the bundle into a corner.

"Going where?" the bigger man asked incuriously, and shuffled more timbrel around the cart bed to look busy. "You know well enough there's nowhere to run."

"That's what _they_ say. And you lot are just doped enough to believe it." The thief cast a nervous glance at their robed guardians. The hooded figures, armed with long knives, stood posted at intervals around the field overseeing the handful of prisoners assigned the task of harvesting the pungent weeds. Vila scratched at his own homespun clothing and bent to toss another bundle into the cart. "I can't take this kind of living," he complained. "I have a weak back. I've always been allergic to work. And they haven't built a prison yet could hold Vila Restal. You'll see."

"You think living elsewhere on this planet would be any less work?" Gan's bulk made the flimsy vehicle creak as he moved within it. "Take my word for it, Vila. You'd never get past the outer perimeter."

"Wrong again my friend." Vila leaned over to feign rearranging Gan's bundles, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the weed's musty odor. "If Avon can do it, so can I."

"Avon!" The large man made a derisive, guttural sound. "Whatever's left of him is probably strung from one of Vargas' crosses, rotting out there as a warning to other 'unbelievers.' You want to end up like that?"

Vila grimaced as the muscles in his back complained. "Anything's better than this," he grumbled. "And I don't believe it anyway, about Avon I mean. They'd never have caught him."

"I wouldn't bet on that. The Federation did."

Squatting to gather up another bundle, Vila pretended to refasten the binding. "He always said he could adapt. Maybe that's just what he's doing, somewhere out there. And so could we."

"You're dreaming." Gan leaned on his makeshift rake long enough to cast the thief a jaundiced look. "I dunno why you keep on about Avon. I mean, if he were as smart as he thought he was, he'd never have broken Dainer's neck back on the London, would he? Leylan could have had him executed then, only I think he knew Cygnus Alpha would do the job for him. And it has."

_But we all of us owed him for getting rid of Dainer,_ Vila thought fiercely. _And Blake, for spacing Raiker, even if he didn't come back for us afterward. At least life got a little easier on the London without those two brutes around._

The bell for midday meal tolled, and the thief gratefully sank to the ground to tear into his food sack with its meager ration of dried meat and bread. In the wagon, Gan did much the same, though he went through the motions of praying beforehand. Vila hadn't yet found the courage to ask whether his friend's acceptance of their captors' 'religion' was sincerity or sham -- he hoped it was the latter, but Vargas' drugs had affected all the new arrivals this way. All, that is, except prisoner Restal, who'd been blessed from birth with a stubborn metabolism that resisted many of the standard compliance 'medications.'

"You know what's really ironic," Vila said around a mouthful of nearly-unchewable bread. "They were all three in close custody that day -- Blake, Jenna and Avon -- for fiddling the ship's computer during our revolt, you remember? Well if Avon hadn't killed Dainer when they came for him and got himself packed off to the infirmary for his trouble, they'd have probably sent him over to salvage that big bloody derelict along with the other two. He'd have got clean away, same as they did."

Gan chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "It still rankles you, does it? That Blake got away?"

_Only that he never came back,_ Vila thought, but aloud he said, "No, not really. But I'll bet it nettles the hell out of Avon."

His companion shrugged. "You dream too much, Vila. Avon's dead, and Blake's not coming back."

_The Gan I knew before would never have said that! And Blake wouldn't have given in so easily, either._ "Miserable ingrates," Vila sniffed. "If I'd got away in a ship like that, I'd have come back for the rest of you."

"Oh yes, of course you would."

At the other man's dubious tone, Vila drew himself up indignantly. "I would!"

Gan did not look convinced, so he let the matter drop. "Well, anyway," he said, frowning when a drop of rain splashed onto his hand and was soon joined by several of its fellows, "I'm going."

Having finished his meal, Gan went doggedly back to packing the bundles of weed before the resume-work bell had even rung. "All right," he said over his shoulder, and then paused before he added, "Maybe I'll just go with you."

Vila grinned. _Now that,_ he mused, _is the Gan I remember. There's a life outside this hell somewhere. And you found it, didn't you Avon? That and maybe, just maybe, a way off the planet? That's why I have to find you, Avon, because I want a piece of that action -- before it's too late!_

* * *

"They could all be dead by now, you know." Jenna Stannis faced Blake down across Liberator's piloting console, her green eyes coldly determined.

The object of her cynicism merely tilted his head, a grudging admission that her words might be only too true. "All I know for certain is that _I_ must be certain," he said cryptically. "I... we... need a crew." He turned his back to her then, and strode around the console to address the ship's computer. "Zen, status of pursuit flotilla?"

+Liberator is free of pursuit within immediate sensor range,+ the deep voice responded.

"You mean to say we've finally lost them?" Jenna couldn't contain an exclamation of disbelief. Her vernacular was apparently lost on Zen, but it brought an affectionate grin to Blake's face -- a smile he hadn't used in many weeks.

"High time, wouldn't you say?" he queried gently, and then, "Zen, plot a course for the Federation penal planet Cygnus Alpha."

Jenna's eyes snapped at him. "I still say it's suicidal, going there. You don't owe that lot anything, and besides, it's exactly what the Federation will expect you to do."

Blake took a seat on the flight couch, unconsciously gnawing an index finger. "Maybe," he said. "And maybe not."

Zen derailed Jenna's intended retort. +Course laid in,+ it reported obediently.

Blake nodded. "Execute. Standard by seven."


"You could be giving it all up," Jenna tried again. "And for what? I could take you to any number of planets where you could assemble a crew."

"Of freetraders?"

She gave him a sultry look, as though his inflection had somehow constituted an affront, or worse, a challenge. "You'd have a problem with that, would you?"

Denial glinted in Blake's eyes. "Only in that they'd be an unknown quantity. We'd have no guarantee they'd possess Vila's ability with locks, for example, or Arco's talent for weaponry systems, or Avon's genius with computers. Would we?"

She stabbed at lighted switches on the console, confirming Zen's course. "Life doesn't come with guarantees," she sniped. "Or hadn't you noticed?"

His answer dismissed further argument. "So I've been told," he said. "But I didn't believe it then, either."

* * *

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