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Dissolution

By Alicia Ann Fox
Page 1 of 1

The woman awoke, a heavy buzzing in her skull. The patterned white lights on the ceiling were rippling, lashing at her. She shrank back; an ominous drone poured into her ear and she bit her lower lip fiercely to keep from crying out. A blue light flashed, injecting itself through her eyeball, and a scream was ripped from her, not only pain but of confusion and hopelessness.

She had not the conscious ability to form the words that were required of her. She shrieked and collapsed.

When Cally awoke this time the lights burned but did not flicker; it was afternoon, then. Probably afternoon, she corrected herself. The passage of time was deliberately obscured from her, here; it moved backwards and forwards, leaping like a wild thing or flowing sluggishly like blood from a wound, as her tormentors desired. She no longer noticed that her head throbbed, or that her muscles burned. She ignored the tube which fed her vein with nutrients and drugs. Instead she spent all her energy in clinging to her sanity.

Very slowly the Auron woman sat up on the narrow bench in her cell, somewhere in the bowels of one of the immense Domes on Earth. Her ears rang; she leaned back against the wall and breathed deeply until the dizziness passed. How much of it was caused by drugs, how much by conditioning, how much by sheer physical weakness, she was unable to tell. Painfully Cally uncurled her arm. The two needles were gone. Slowly she stood, holding the wall for a moment before letting go and pacing deliberately around the tiny room.

//I should be honest with myself. This little attempt at defiance won't do me a damn bit of good. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, they will break me.//

//I hope I'm able to tell when it happens.//

//I will believe everything I'm told to believe, and remember only what I'm allowed to remember. Blake told us that, so long ago...I remember telling him, later, that he bore no fault for what the Federation had done to him.//

//How facile I was with my reassurances. How little I understood what he had been through.//

//I wonder when it will end?//

//There must be some reason for keeping me here.//

//Every day--each time I awaken--I ask that question. Still I don't know the answer. Not as bait, surely. All my companions must think me dead, even if they did manage to escape Terminal....//

Cally sat heavily and wiped her eyes. //I begin to think it would've been better to have died....//

#

Time skidded downhill and Cally tumbled with it, towards an inevitable heap of shattered stones. When she opened her eyes on the last morning in her cell, the white lights were gone. Frightened, she flinched, then remembered that there was nothing more for her to fear, since death held no more terror for her. She lurched to her feet, wondering what noise had signaled her.

The door opened and two black-helmeted guards stepped smartly inside. A third and fourth seized her arms and hustled her out into the corridor.

//I'm to be executed,// she thought calmly.

At the end of a forced walk long enough to make Cally pant for breath, a door loomed. Head drooping, she didn't see it until she was hurled at it. It opened and she fell through, onto the floor. Gasping for breath, she tried to lift herself, but lacked the strength. Someone laid a hand on her shoulder and turned her over.

It was a woman in a gray coverall of the sort worn in ports all over the Federation. Her long hair brushed Cally's chest; her expression was imperturbable as she examined her captive. "They've had you for a while, I see," she commented, her voice cultured and pleasant.

Someone else grabbed Cally from behind, and wrenched her to the side. She flinched violently, then deliberately lifted her gaze, into the face of Dayna Mellanby. The room was suddenly full of silent people, all clutched about her, and she burst into hysterical tears. //No, this isn't real, I've lost at last! This can't be true! Oh, why can't it be true?!//

She wept in Dayna's muscular arms until she was trembling with weakness and had no more tears left; then she waited for the drugdream to evaporate. She was moved; Vila had lifted her up and carried her carefully to a bench where he sat, with her on his lap. The room didn't change. After a while she noticed that her ribs were paining her and, somewhat drunkenly, she said, "Vila, you're hurting me. Too tight."

"Cally?" he breathed.

The sound of her own name filled some deep hole within her that, until that moment, she had been unaware of. Slowly she dared to lift her head, and met an unshaven chin. Her body began to shake. //Can it be? Surely Gan should be here, if I'm dead. So...perhaps not? And why would Tarrant//--suddenly she was aware, indefinably yet familiarly--//hurt like that, if this were a dream?//

"Could this be real?"

Avon's fingers touched her chin, and she looked up, inexorably. "You seem to be Cally, as I remember her. But a great deal smaller."

"You're thin as a ghost," Vila explained, near her ear, his voice vibrating through her.

"I don't eat much," Cally said, her voice trembling as well as her muscles. She unfolded her arm and exposed the raw patch where adhesive usually held needled tubes to her skin. "I thought...they were going to kill me soon. I didn't know anything else to tell them." This small speech exhausted her, and she didn't complain when Vila pulled her back against him again. "What's...happened to...Tarrant?" She had finally seen that the young man was curled on another bench against the wall, apparently unconscious.

The strange woman answered, "He's had a sedative. He crashed the Scorpio."

There was something wrong with this statement; at last Cally picked her way through it and said, frowning, "Not Tarrant...." Receiving no denial, she asked, "Why just him?"

Avon sat down at Vila's left, Dayna to the right. "Heroics," Avon stated.

Cally rubbed her forehead with her hands, trying to ease the pounding that never seemed to stop. "It was foolish to...come to Earth, if that's where I still am. You of all people should know that, Avon."

"We were gathered up on a planet called Gauda Prime," Avon told her.

"Oh." She closed her eyes, drifting.

"Cally?" Dayna asked gently. "How did you get here?"

From very far away, Cally found her voice. "Terminal. I couldn't get back up the tunnel...the ceiling had fallen...there was another tunnel...they'd come looking for...Orac. And found me."

"We thought you'd been crushed."

"Tried to...call...."

"It doesn't matter," Vila broke in. "Let her alone, Dayna. She's doped up. Some kind of hypnos, and downers, probably. That's what they give you to keep you quiet."

"True," Cally mumbled. "Not like Space City...."

"So you remember that, eh?"

"I remember as much as I can." The thudding had lessened slightly; she lifted her head. "I'll be better...without their...filthy drugs." She gathered her breath slowly, casting her eyes about the room without real interest, noting the stranger's vigil at the door. "Who's that?" she asked.

"Soolin," she answered for herself. "I turned up after those four escaped from Terminal."

"How did you get to Earth?"

"We were brought here," Avon explained, "from Gauda Prime."

"Oh, yes, I remember...but there's more, Avon." This she knew.

She felt rather than heard him sigh. "It was another trap. I thought we'd found Blake for sure this time."

Cally looked questioningly.

"It was a very elaborate trap. I realized when it didn't know the code--" Cally noticed Dayna's startled glance to Vila, and realized that Avon's policy of keeping a closed mouth hadn't changed-- "but by then, it was too late. Tarrant didn't help by mucking things up--he'd been salvaged from the crash, drugged, and convinced that the android was Blake."

"As I understand it, Terminal all over again, with frills and flourishes," Soolin said laconically.

"Oh."

"What we haven't figured out is why we're here and not dead already," Dayna said.

#

Cally struggled to wakefulness from under a heavy weight, which she gradually realized was Avon's black leather jacket. The vest was spread on the bench under her, and she found it within her to ponder whether or not the garments had been donated willingly. Finally she decided that they had, although there was no real indication either way. She began to sit up, and someone helped her. Tarrant. She smiled at him; the expression felt strange and stiff.

"Well," he said, with a familiar flash of teeth. "Welcome back from the dead, Cally."

"You're better."

"Concussion's been gone. The ribs and collarbone are working on it. We're apparently going to be kept alive long enough that a bit of medical care is worth the Federation's while."

She gathered the jacket around her. Vila and Avon were playing speed chess with a miniature set on the floor in the corner. Dayna watched the door while talking quietly with Soolin.

"I remember Dayna said that you didn't know why you were here."

Again the teeth. "No-one's seen fit to inform us yet."

"It can't be good," Cally remarked, abstracted. She was watching the speed chess. The game was too fast for her to follow with her limited knowledge, but that didn't matter. What she watched was the savage intensity with which the two players hunched over the board. She looked away and up at Tarrant. "What's going on with those two?" she asked, quietly.

"You should have seen them before our little trip from Gauda Prime to Earth." Cally's expression asked for more. Tarrant shrugged. "I don't know. They're better together now than they've been in a long time."

Deciding not to speculate uselessly, Cally glanced at the pair again. She couldn't tell who had won, but Vila was sweeping the pieces aside with his hand and setting them up again. "Vila's good at that game, isn't he?"

Tarrant snorted. "Speed chess is a gambling sport, Cally. Of course Vila likes it."

Cally pulled her legs up onto the bench and wrapped her arms about her knees. "Things have been going badly, haven't they?"

Tarrant's face closed up. "You could say that."

"I would sympathize, but my energy is taken up with being glad that we're all alive."

"For however long that might be."

The door opened, freezing all motion within the cell, then closed. A Federation officer, bracketed by a pair of icy-faced mutoids, took a step away from the door and said levelly, "Don't bother to stand."

No one had made a move to do so.

"You've been wondering why you haven't been executed yet. The answer is that there is an expedient use you can be put to." He turned and paced to the side and back to the center of the small room, falling into a pose at once commanding and relaxed. His dark curly hair was cut immaculately, his golden-brown gaze flicked like a rotary blade across the six prisoners. "You," the eyes sliced across Vila to Avon, "top the Most Wanted List. Every one of you has incurred the death penalty for one reason or another."

//As if that wasn't extremely obvious, Cally thought. He's working up to something. Has to be--this situation is extremely irregular.//

The tall officer crossed his arms across his wide chest. "At the moment, you aren't dead." Cally, whose attention was unusually arrested by this first change in her routine for many months, noted a flicker of something--was it amusement?--as he pronounced another obvious fact.

//Either he's an incredible sadist or....//

"I am the only obstacle to this. Therefore I would say you owe me something, wouldn't you?"

//He is amused!//

"No," Avon said, finally breaking the frozen silence. "Do you expect us to be grateful?"

"Actually no. It isn't gratitude I want--you must have realized by now that I want something from you." The response was casual and unruffled.

"I had thought that might be the whereabouts of Orac," Avon remarked coolly.

"Your computer is of no interest to me. I merely require your services in exchange for the only real thing I can offer you--your lives and your freedom."

Mentally, Cally gasped. Physically she sat still as a stone.

"I think there might be a chance that you will agree to my proposal. But I shan't tell you what it is until you've agreed. You see my dilemma, and perhaps it will encourage you to believe in my good faith? A trap would be, shall we say, more straightforward." He turned to the door, the mutoids moving to cover his back, then turned again to face them. "My name is Marco." Then he was gone, leaving a strong scent of leather uniform jacket.

#

Dayna and Tarrant vociferously argued over Soolin's head as Vila sat miserably on a bench in the corner. Avon sat there too, but as usual his indifference would only last until the room had quieted enough for him to make what he intended to be a definitive pronouncement.

Cally paced up and down near the door, trying to work off the shaky weakness she still felt in her legs, the illness resident in her stomach. //I'm an outsider, more so than Soolin. I wonder if they will be able to listen to me at all. Though I certainly have a stake in all this, perhaps more than they do--I have nothing else ahead of me.//

Soolin's raised yet reasonable voice interjected abruptly, "I can't see how any of you could think that execution is better than a chance at being alive and free."

Silence dropped like a rock. //Well, //thought Cally, //perhaps I won't have to speak up, after all. //

#

The grim-faced officer, now dressed in a cloth uniform with a leather jacket, dominated the cell once he had entered it. The mutoids stood guard outside, and Marco bore no sidearm. //Therefore we can't take it from him,// Cally realized. //Not entirely a politic decision to come unarmed, then. //

"Have you decided?" Marco asked bluntly. "Death or life?"

Cally wasn't sure how they had arrived at Tarrant as their spokesperson, but the young pilot handled the position admirably. Avon, normally scornful of the young man, wore a studied blank expression and did not interfere; Dayna had finally been swayed by her cooler-headed friend Soolin into agreement with the rest. Vila had had no comment throughout, knowing that his preference was well-recognized by his companions.

"We agree to your terms," Tarrant said.

The authority abruptly left Marco's shoulders, though he maintained his cool expression, and he took a step forward, then another. He sat down on one of the wall benches, the one that wasn't littered with battered jackets. The standing rebels slowly circled around to face him, blocking his exit at the same time. Avon lingered behind Soolin, staring ominously over her shoulder; Vila crossed his arms over his chest, miserably failing in achieving belligerence. After a few moments had gone by and Marco had said nothing, Cally sat on the bench as well, at the opposite end. She knew she couldn't stand for very long, and would be of little use if it came to a fight, anyway.

At last the Federation officer remarked, "I see you've all realized that I'm your only hope. Therefore it will do you no good whatsoever to try and overpower me. You don't look as if that's what you're planning, but for the record, there it is."

"For the moment we have a bargain," Tarrant replied, arrogant in return. "We wouldn't stoop so low as to break our word."

//Space Command training will out, //Cally thought wryly. //Tarrant hasn't the seniority Marco obviously has, but he does have the manner down pat. //

"Perfect," Marco said. "Thank you, Captain Tarrant. I will begin by reassuring you all as to my good intentions. Relatively good. To you, at least. You see, I scarcely care what happens to you after you have done what I will ask, which is why I have no qualms about setting you free."

"Or killing us," Soolin said with an icy smile.

"I wouldn't stoop so low." Marco inclined his head to her and continued, "Here is some small proof of what I say." He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and produced a small bottle, which he gave to Cally. Bemused, she took it. "For drug withdrawal. Twice daily."

Cally folded her fingers over the bottle and placed her hands in her lap. She said nothing.

"That's all very well," Tarrant said, "but what is it you want?"

Marco leaned back against the wall, staring at the ceiling, deceptively relaxed. "I want the six of you to perpetrate a terrorist attack on the President of the Federation, and depose him."

No-one laughed, but Dayna's eyes were merry as she leaned her height over the seated officer. "And then you'll step in? Rule the Federation?"

Sitting up straighter, Marco smiled toothily, uncannily reminiscent of Tarrant when he switched on his charm. "What a bright young woman you are. No, I won't rule the Federation, but I will rule Earth and the closest major colonies. The rest can go to hell for all I care."

"And you really think you can carry this off? That Space Command will follow you?" Tarrant asked, genuinely interested.

//Tarrant believes him, if no-one else does. It's so incredible, I can't believe it to be a lie, either. I wonder what Avon thinks about this? Is he remembering the last coup we witnessed?//

"Oh yes," Marco reassured him. "I'm the Supreme Commander, of course they will follow me. If they don't--there are a few rotten apples out there--they will die. End of story."

//The Supreme Commander. Of course, how stupid of me. No-one else would have the power to speak to us without being detected by his superiors. That would explain how he managed to remove me from my forgotten cell....//

"This is not an unplanned action," Marco was continuing. "I've been working towards this for a long, long time."

Avon spoke up suddenly. "Then it was you who arranged the trap at Gauda Prime?"

Supreme Commander Marco turned his head and stared appraisingly up at the older man. "Actually, it wasn't. I needed a certain type of attack group--yours was one of several possibilities, one that was low on the list as I didn't think you would fall into my hands. Your capture was purely serendipitous for me."

Something sparked behind Avon's eyes, and Cally recognized devilish, ironic pleasure. "You removed us from the custody of--Commissioner Sleer."

"As a matter of fact I did. I've had my eye on her for quite some time; she has pursued far too many questionable activities for my taste. I shall have to make sure that she is not a threat to me...." Marco trailed off, noticing, as Cally did, the feral grin which suddenly lighted Avon's face, and Dayna's, and Tarrant's; and he was, like her, puzzled by this phenomenon. "You hold a grudge well, I see. I shall remember that in my dealings with you."

//I've missed a great deal since Terminal, it seems....//

#

Cally and her companions were quickly and secretly transferred to a house outside the Domes, which had been acquired by Marco shortly after his promotion a year before. Avon used communications equipment lent by the Supreme Commander to contact Orac and arrange for visual recordings of the executions of the Scorpio's crew; then, retaining his safety-conscious nature, wiped all record of the proceedings so that the hidden computer would remain safe. If they accomplished their task, and Marco kept his word, they would be needing Orac again. In the meantime, Dayna worked on the weapons that had been provided to them, Soolin and Avon tested them, and Tarrant ran endless flight simulations on every type of small ship he could think of. Vila reluctantly joined in the weapons practice and spent an inordinate amount of time annoying his companions, out of fear and restlessness, Cally realized. She herself could do little but rest and become used to eating solid food again, and try not to flinch at every stray creak of the wooden doors.

There were no perimeter guards, not even computer surveillance; Avon made very sure of that, and confirmed his findings with Orac in their brief contact. However, even the lack of watching eyes made Cally nervous, because she could imagine them easily enough, and her specters were worse than the real thing. Luckily she had experienced this set of psychological reactions before, long ago, and knew that the hidden fears would alleviate once she was mobile enough to join with her friends in their preparations.

The days dragged on.

#

"Ooph," grunted Cally as she impacted with the ground. A few moments later she uncurled from around her stomach and propped herself up on one elbow. To the figure looming above her she coughed out, "Once more?"

"No," Avon said. He didn't help her up but sat beside her on the grass. "I've seen enough."

//By the Lost, I feel like a half-dead fish on a riverbank.// "I won't be left behind," she stated in a worried tone.

Avon said sharply, "Shall I break your arm with one hand to convince you? I've won five falls out of five, and I think I've blacked your eye."

Reluctantly Cally admitted, "My ribs hurt, too."

"Badly?" Avon asked, deadpan, apparently feeling no guilt whatsoever.

//It's my own fault, after all.// Deciding to forgo trying to sit up, she lay down gingerly, staring up at the blue, blue sky. "I can still shoot."

"How long could you hold up an assault rifle? Five minutes? I rather thought this would be a pointless exercise."

"Not so pointless," Cally retorted. "I had to find out what I could do against a ruthless attacker." She blinked gently at the scudding clouds. //Exhaustion is rather pleasant when you've earned it...haven't had any exercise in so long, it's like a drug....// The grass tugged at her limp body and she let gravity hold her down, safe next to the living earth. //Avon hasn't said anything for a long while...is he still there? We ought to be getting back.//

With effort Cally turned her head and held out her hand to her companion. Instead of taking it to help her up, he touched her face, carefully probing the flesh around her eye. She gasped sharply and sat up a bit.

"I was wrong, it's closer to your ear."

"You never did have any aim with that elbow," Cally commented. "You were too busy being fancy."

Avon didn't reply at first; he sat back on his heels and stared at her for a time. "Assuming the rest of us come back from this, what will you do while we're gone?"

"Worry, mostly," Cally said easily. "But I won't be staying."

"Marco will want to keep you as a hostage."

"He will just have to go on wanting." A moment later Cally asked, "Does he have a plan?"

"Several. I, of course, am not privy to which is the true one. I suspect that they all are, and everything depends upon available circumstance."

"Umm. I've been thinking what will happen to all of us."

"I haven't," Avon replied quickly. He grinned, but his eyes grimaced.

"One more hurdle, and we're free," Cally said intently, trying to convince him to think about what that might be like. //I want to be free. I've finally had enough. Now I know why Avon said the things he did, back before Star One. I could almost wish that, then, I'd said the same.// Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by Avon's snarl.

"It's always just one more damned hurdle, isn't it? First escaping from the London. Then Star One. Then Terminal. Then Gauda Prime. Now this." His eyes burned at her. "Free means nothing. Nothing. I used to think, When this is over, or When I'm safe and have my own...whatever. Not anymore." Abruptly Avon paused. "Blake's dead, isn't he?"

//How did he know? Did he guess?// "Yes," she breathed.

As if he hadn't heard Avon continued, "You didn't ask after him at all. You didn't ask if we'd had any luck in finding him. So I knew that he must be dead."

Swallowing hard, Cally repeated, "Yes."

"How do you know?"

//Watch the clouds....// "You never believed me before."

"You just...know."

Trying diligently to blink back tears, Cally made an assenting noise.

"I believe you."

Taken by surprise, Cally couldn't think of anything to say.

Some sort of bird began noisily singing in the thicket. She heard Avon shift position, once, twice. She blinked up into sunny glare.

"It's time we were getting back," Avon said at last.

#

There were unlabeled hardcopy plans to follow, now. Five of them, each geared to a completely different setting and each requiring some measure of improvisation. Two of the plans, they realized, were meant to unfold at Space Command Headquarters; everyone but Dayna and Soolin was already intensely familiar with the plans of the mobile space station. The third, Tarrant informed Cally one evening in private, was the Presidential Palace. She hadn't recognized the arrangement of unidentified walls, as she hadn't been there for long enough when Liberator's crew had made their one hugely unsuccessful raid, but Tarrant remembered all too well, it seemed. Now that Cally knew Servalan still lived, as Sleer, she wondered how the former president felt about her indulgent personal mansion housing a usurper.

"She'd probably rip his throat out with those shiny fingernails if she got the chance," Vila opined. He added grudgingly, "But Marco's a match for her." The Supreme Commander had communicated with them earlier in the day with the message to be alert for the ship he would be sending within the next week.

"Let's hope she doesn't manage another resurrection," Soolin commented. She was seated on the broad arm of a chair, gazing out of the projectile-proof window at the falling dusk.

"I could stand to deal with someone else for a change," Tarrant agreed.

Dayna patted the gun at her hip but made no further comment.

"I hate this waiting--" Vila began, then stopped, realizing he'd said the same thing twice already.

Avon stepped in the doorway and handed his rifle over to Tarrant, who moved outside to guard the house. "Nothing," he answered to Soolin's inquiring look, and sank into the couch near Cally.

She drew her knees up and wrapped her arms about them. "I hate this waiting," she informed their nominal leader, before Vila could open his mouth. Hunched over as she was, she looked like a particularly fragile baby bird whose wings were not yet fledged. "If we're going to die we should get on with it."

The shriek of a landing ship sliced off her last phrase. Dayna bounded to her feet, followed by Vila and Soolin, then Avon. Slowly Cally uncurled and began to put on her boots.

#

//Soon this will be over it will all be over.//

//Don't breathe so loud!//

//Weapon cocked?!//

//Idiot, of course it is, don't forget to breathe. Relax the arms. Wait for them.//

//Wait.//

//Wait.//

//Now. Breathe and shoot. Shoot carefully. Get that one in the leather. Then the one grappling with Soolin.//

//Check over the shoulder.//

//Safe to shoot.//

//Open the hatch. One last shot. Hurry hurry up Tarrant.//

//Dive for it.//

//Go go go go go!//

#

Cally stared uncomprehending at the blood streaming down her left calf, where a parting Space Command shot had scooped out a shallow fifteen-centimeter ditch. There was no pain yet, only stinging, so she could not understand her faintness. Nevertheless she willingly lowered herself to the deck. The little ship thrummed beneath her as it fled Space Command Headquarters for an anonymous asteroid.

"Hold tight, this will hurt," Dayna told her.

//She wasn't joking about that.// "It's done?"

"Tarrant and Soolin had clear shots," Dayna said. "We couldn't tell who got him. Perhaps both of them."

"Everyone all right?"

"Not a scratch, except for you." After a moment or two Dayna continued in an abstracted tone, "I don't think I like assassinations. They're unclean, somehow."

"Cally?" It was Vila worming his way through the narrow low-ceilinged corridor. "You're bleeding!"

"Not any more."

He scrunched onto the deck beside Cally and explained to her, "It's a bit tight on the flight deck."

"Tarrant will be needing me to co-pilot," Dayna announced then, carefully placing Cally's leg onto her own folded jacket. She clambered over Vila and exited.

He said, "I'll stay back here with you, shall I? Here, lean on me."

//He's shaking. You still aren't used to firefights, are you old friend?// Cally folded her hands around his forearm and asked, "Does Tarrant think we got away?"

"The detector shield seems to be holding up. So far."

This appeared to be true. Vila dozed off, and Cally followed him. Still there were no sounds of alarm from the flight deck. When they finally awoke the ship was maintaining a steady speed and an unwavering course; though almost too small for a crew of six, it was the fastest Supreme Commander Marco had been able to requisition. Perhaps they would escape, after all, though half of Space Command was no doubt pursuing them.

Cally was further reassured by the sight of Avon, following the same tortuous path Vila had from the flight deck to the rear cargo section; he would never have left the flight deck if there had been any chance that he was needed. He sat next to Vila and said, "The news has hit the nets."

"Any statements from Marco?" Vila asked.

"The last I heard, he had 'denounced the terrible tragedy and was taking immediate steps to prevent governmental chaos'. In other words, he and his cronies are busily seizing power at this very moment, if they haven't completely succeeded."

"But what about us?" Vila pressed.

"The assassins' ship was destroyed shortly after we escaped from Space Command. There were no recognizable remains. The Opposition is strongly suspected in the plot, however."

Slowly these statements began to sink in. //This was on the public nets! He's covered himself, and is letting us go free...at least it seems that way....//

"We could still be eliminated later, of course," Avon added, in a not-quite-sardonic tone.

"Oh thanks very much," Vila retorted. "Just when I was starting to get my hopes up."

"Don't worry," Avon replied drily, "Tarrant's hopes are already much higher than yours."

Abruptly the engine noise faded to a low purr, and the hissing of the ventilators became audible. "We're there," Cally surmised, interrupting the banter. "Give me a hand up, I want to hear the instructions."

Soolin was adjusting the receiver on the flight deck, and Dayna had taken over the piloting, when Cally stuck her head through the archway, and gradually static resolved into an irregular beep. "Deciphering," Tarrant said. He was silent for a long time as he manipulated the unique-frequency device they had been given by Supreme Commander Marco. He skimmed the finished message and immediately began to copy it onto a datacell.

"Go on, what is it?" Vila demanded over Cally's shoulder.

Tarrant glanced up from the console, his cocky grin firmly in place. "It's a retroactive pardon for Cally, and part of one for you, Vila. It's still coming through."

"We're supposed to be dead," Avon reminded them.

"But if we should turn up alive, later, then we're all set."

"I think it's a gesture," Cally said. "A legal reassurance." //I should sit down, in a moment.//

The transmission ended a moment later, and Tarrant turned to face the rest of the group. Without preamble he said, "I'm going back to Earth, to work with Marco, and see what he can make out of the Federation."

After a pause Avon said, "No-one's stopping you, Tarrant. But I don't think I'll be coming with you." The look he gave to the young pilot held more respect than he usually admitted to.

"I'll be going with Tarrant," Soolin said. "It looks as if I'll be needing a new employer, and Marco will probably be able to keep me busy."

"Dayna?"

"I--I don't know, Tarrant. Let me think about it for a minute. What about you, Cally? Vila?"

"Don't be funny," Vila said quickly, with a sidelong glance at Avon.

"You're coming with me," Avon told him. "And, Dayna, if you want to--but I don't plan to live an exciting life."

The youngest of their group stared at Avon for a long time, as if memorizing the way he looked at that moment, and finally said, "I don't think I'm ready to retreat yet. I'll go with Tarrant and Soolin."

//This is it. This is the end for me, and the beginning for them. I lost them all, regained them, and now the crew of Liberator-plus-one is separating for the last time. The battles are over. Blake's grand ideals are coming to pass at last and...what will happen to me?//

//I want to go home. But Kaarn will have to do. I hope Franton still lives. I don't want to be left alone again.//

"Where would you like to go?" Tarrant was asking Avon, with no more implicit challenge; all of that was burned away. "And are we going to dicker over the ship?"

"No, because Orac is mine. That's all I need."

//Ouch....//

"Cally! I'm sorry, I completely forgot. Tarrant, you idiot, take over, Cally doesn't need to be putting weight on that leg." Dayna scooted hurriedly out of her chair so her crewmate could sit down. After a moment she commented, "You never said what you wanted to do."

Before she could speak Avon said, "I had been hoping that she would give us sanctuary in the Auron colony on Kaarn."

Great relief swept through her, that her decisions were simplified. She was too tired for decisions, for wishes, even for melancholy. //So I'm not alone, after all. // "I think that could be arranged," she said.

the end


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Alicia Ann Fox

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