Sacrifice and BetrayalBy Jean Graham
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|"I don't like this," Vila complained from behind the teleport controls.
Avon, busy clipping on a bracelet, ignored him. Tarrant and Dayna stood
beside the console and exchanged a cautious look before the pilot spoke
"As a matter of fact," he said, "we don't like it either."
"So you've said." Avon checked and rechecked the power pack attached to his weapon, then moved into the teleport bay with a determined stride. Had Cally not been occupied on the flight deck, he was certain, she would have added her objections to the lot. No matter. He discounted them all. "I go alone."
"To meet Servalan?" Vila marveled.
"On a prison planet?" Dayna added.
Avon merely smiled tightly and checked the power pack a third time.
"She hasn't had her hands on the presidency a terrestrial month," Tarrant put in. "Her fleet is still in ruins from the war, her government is shaky at best. And now she wants to strike some sort of bargain with us?"
"With me," Avon corrected. "It isn't quite the same thing."
"It's a trap," Dayna snorted.
"Perhaps," he conceded.
"Then let me go with you," she insisted. "I'll just kill her and then we can all get out of here."
His look said 'no' without any need of words. Dayna smoldered at the implicit condescension, but Avon had no time now for her childish bravado. An impetuous girl bent on revenge was the last thing he wanted in a face-off with Servalan.
"She could be planning to shoot you on sight," Tarrant suggested. "In which case, don't expect us to come looking. Little point in rescuing a corpse.
"I'll keep that in mind." Avon's gun snapped from its holster as he assumed a ready stance."Put me down, Vila."
He watched the three of them 'dissolve' in the white nimbus of the teleport effect, replaced in a moment by an uneven, grassy courtyard. Linear runs of crumbling rock and mortar broke the green. Amidst the one-time walls, Avon spun in a complete circle, but saw no one. What he did see were high walls and towers of ancient stone hemming him on four sides. Tiny, slotted windows looked out from those walls onto a grey, rain-swollen sky. It had the look, the feel, the odor of tremendous age, this place, and he detested it instantly, no less so because the repressive clouds were pelting him with a fine, needle-cold mist.
Once again he turned a full circle, more slowly now, warily scrutinizing the surrounding stone structures with their stairs, walkways, battlements. He saw heavy wooden doors, deeply scarred and secured with iron hasps; the decaying ruin of a guard house standing mute vigil beside a solid, wood-and-iron gate The latter barred a massive archway; Avon musingly wondered if it concealed a drawbridge, and what purpose this relic had served in the first place. How like the Federation to take over and make prisons of the remnants left behind by a native race -- a race they had in all likelihood exterminated.
He wheeled at a sudden movement -- the scraping of a door -- and came face to gun with Servalan. She emerged from shadow, draped in flowing and glitter-strewn white, a triumphant smile on her blood-red lips. She seemed to glide toward him despite the spongy earth beneath her stiletto heels. And though he kept his gun on her and his eyes on the doorway, no one else appeared; for the moment, he was satisfied that they stood alone in the courtyard.
"Avon," she said effusively when she'd come to a stop a few meters away. "I'm so glad you could come."
His tone was colder than the rain. "We'll skip the amenities, if you don't mind. Your message said you had a deal to offer. I'm listening."
Her golden-brown eyes, as wily as they were beautiful, widened in mock surprise. "Oh come now. Surely we can at least go inside, out of the weather?"
"No." The gun's barrel emphasized his reply. "Say what you have to say here, in the open."
"Why Avon," she demurred. "Anyone would think you didn't trust me."
"Anyone," he said, "would be right. I'm still listening."
With exaggerated resignation, she pressed manicured fingers together in front of her and said, "Very well. It's quite simple. I am proposing..." The slightest of pauses here. "...an exchange."
He tried to read the sly eyes, to divine some clue to her deception. In the end, he had to ask, echoing her words. "An exchange?"
"Yes. One prisoner for another. No conditions. Your ship and your crew will be allowed to depart unimpeded."
Not that you could stop them, he thought sullenly. She had already implied that he himself constituted half of the proposed exchange. Who did she hold prisoner in this fortress that she presumed important enough to persuade Kerr Avon to give himself up? Blake, perhaps?
Surely Servalan was not that naive. There was no one breathing for whom Avon would willingly sacrifice his freedom. Not even Blake. If that was indeed her scheme, the new president had severely miscalculated.
She raised a hand above her shoulder to signal someone. Avon's gun reacted, centered on the movement of shadowy figures in the doorway through which Servalan had come. Two Federation guards emerged, a thin, diminutive woman held between them. Though the hair and clothes were wrong, something about her reminded Avon of...
He stiffened as the trio marched closer, halting a few meters behind Servalan. The woman fought, trying to twist away. He heard her say "No," and the voice provided him a final, shattering confirmation.
The name was torn from him, a cry that brought a cruel smile to Servalan's lips and evoked an instant, electric reaction from the prisoner. She shook free of the guards' grip -- and then Anna looked at him, recognition and fear both plain in her tormented eyes. Anna was looking at him...
But she cannot be Anna, cannot possibly be Anna. Anna is dead. Four years dead. They told me, and I believed them...
Then the troopers had released her and she ran, past Servalan and into his arms, murmuring his name in small breathless sobs. He pulled the gun back to allow her embrace, held it stiffly beside her left arm as she repeated his name, a litany recited between kisses. He did not respond, and when she realized it, Anna drew hack, hurt and uncertain.
"They told me you'd been killed," she said in a voice hoarse with tears. "I'd heard there was someone with Blake, but I didn't dare hope. Since that last night I..." The tears came then, growing to an anguished cry. "Oh, Avon, why didn't you come back for me?"
Painfully aware of Servalan and the two guards smirking just beyond, he looked into Anna's eyes and spoke the cold, bitter truth. "I didn't come back because you were dead."
"No..." She began to sob, and this time he responded to her renewed embrace, crossing his left arm behind her shoulders, holding her to him. His gaze, venom and bile, strayed to Servalan then, and his right hand tightened on the grip of the Liberator gun. Perhaps Dayna had been right about killing her...
The rain stopped. Water dripped from the ancient walls and somewhere a bird shrilled, a lonely, raucous sound in the stillness.
Servalan's voice was just as sharp. "Quite touching, I'm sure," she purred. "But there's the small matter of our agreement to consider. We'll allow you a few moments of privacy -- to discuss our terms. Our scans indicate that you have only one teleport bracelet, but do let me warn you -- one armed guard on the battlements will kill you both if there's the slightest hint of any trick." The feral smile mocked him. "This particular prisoner, by the way, is scheduled for execution. Sentence to be commuted should the exchange be agreed upon. When I return, Avon, I'll expect your answer." She pivoted, regal despite the damp, and marched straight between the waiting troopers. They followed her back into the building and pulled the massive door shut behind them.
Anna's sobs ceased with the echo of the closing door, but her grip on his tunic grew tighter. "Don't listen to her, Avon! Don't do anything she proposes! She means to kill you, and your crew if she can."
He scarcely heard her. More pressing questions plagued him just now. Questions as to how Anna Grant had managed a resurrection from the dead.
"How, Anna?" He had to know that, first above all. "How did you survive? How, when everyone, even your brother, was certain you were dead? Who hid you, Anna?"
"My husband..." She shook her head, clutching at his arms in frantic desperation. "Oh please, we haven't time for explanations. Go now, while you still can!"
He gazed casually up at the wall above Servalan's door, followed the crenelated masonry until he spied the helmeted figure with the rifle aimed down at them.
"And if I agree to her terms, what then?"
"She has a small fleet waiting to seize your ship, and to kill everyone aboard. We shall all die then. Avon, please..."
He moved her back, to arm's length, the better to search those pale eyes for any hint of falsehood. "She can't have told you that," he said. "How do you know...?"
"I overheard her gloating to one of the guards!" She pressed in close to him again, kissing his neck, his ears, his hair. "Run, my love. Run and never come near this place again. I couldn't bear to see you dead, to see her gloating over that as well!"
He pulled her away again, fixing her with a resolute stare. "I will not leave you here."
"No. Servalan underestimates Liberator. It has outrun her finest fleet before."
"But she will demand that you remain behind. I couldn't live with--"
"Oh, but you will." His tone brooked no further argument. "That is precisely what you will do. Live."
Decision made, he turned back toward the door just in time to see Servalan returning. Anna's protests fell instantly silent when the president of the Terran Federation strolled idly up to face them, guards and smile both intact.
"Well, Avon? What's it to be?"
He upended the Liberator weapon, detached it from the clip and held it out to one of the guards, who took it without comment.
"I agree to your terms," he said to Servalan.
"No..." Anna started forward; he stilled her with an outstretched hand.
"Your word," he continued, "that Liberator will be allowed to leave. That her crew -- and Anna -- will be permitted to leave with her."
"You have my solemn word," the president averred. And he believed her not at all, but if there was one chance, even among millions, that he could at long last save Anna from harm... "I must confess a certain disappointment," Servalan went on, interrupting his reverie, "to learn the great Kerr Avon has a weakness after all. I'd never have taken you for the sacrificial type."
He frosted her with a look, his voice equally chill. "Spare me the psycho-analysis and get on with it."
The president shrugged, displeased at his curtailing of her exultation. "Very well," she said."Give her the bracelet."
Though Anna's eyes impeached him, she offered no resistance when he took her right arm, clamped the teleport bracelet over the sleeve of the soiled grey prison tunic. The last time he had seen her, on Earth, Anna had worn only silver bed sheets, and her hair, golden red, had spilled onto her shoulders as she toasted him with the wineglass. He shook off the memory, held tightly to the bracelet Anna now wore, and looked expectantly at Servalan.
In her most triumphant tone, the president commanded, "Call the ship."
He did, avoiding Anna's eyes as he pressed the communications stud. He spoke in concise, rapid-fire words. "Dayna, teleport and break orbit, standard by nine. No questions. Do it now, Dayna!"
In seconds, the white nimbus of the teleport field enveloped Anna Grant, snatching her literally out of his grasp. The pleading in her eyes changed to something else in that final moment; something cold and acquisitive and not at all like the Anna he remembered.
If she was not Anna, but some cruelly engineered avatar of Servalan's making... then he had gambled quite badly indeed, and lost his life for nothing. And Liberator...
The misting rain had returned, the damp clinging to his overtunic and hair. Somehow it left Servalan untouched, as though not even the elements dared challenge her power. The president regarded him with open disgust for a moment, then turned toward the door with a sharp gesture to the guards.
"Bring him," she ordered.
They marched him at gunpoint into the ancient building, through stone corridors reeking with centuries of accumulated damp and mold. The room to which Servalan led them, however, bore no resemblance to the rest of the aged relic through which they'd passed. Instead, they stepped from one century into another, from stone-castle antiquity to modern-day technology in the space of a heartbeat. White paneled walls framed banks of electronic equipment and monitor screens, most of them manned by individuals in Federation fleet uniform. Avon's attention focused at once on the large central screen, where a tracking satellite view of Liberator showed the great ship breaking orbit -- straight into the path of five pursuit ships in V-formation.
Servalan sauntered to the screen's edge, watching the unfolding drama with a smugly satisfied expression. The guards halted Avon a few meters away. He'd never doubted that she would break her word and try to snare Liberator. But he was equally confident in Tarrant's ability to slip the net -- or blast through it.
The ship veered as though to charge past the approaching fleet, veered again when the formation broke and swarmed after it like a hive of angry insects. Then, incredibly, Liberator broke stride and simply drifted to a dead stall amid the closing attack vessels.
Avon gaped. Not a shot had been fired, no apparent contact made. Yet Liberator, like the proverbial tethered goat, sat and waited while the beasts of prey swooped in and claimed her. Two, three, four of them docked, one at each of the great ship's entry hatches. All the while, Servalan's triumphant air remained intact, as though she had been certain of victory from the beginning. Which could only mean...
He stubbornly refused to consider that line of thought. Not Anna. Surely not Anna...
"Dernal to command," a strange voice announced over the control room's loudspeaker.
Servalan floated to the nearest console, depressed a switch. "Captain Dernal," she said silkily. "You've completed your mission?"
"The ship is ours, Madame President," the voice reported matter-of-factly. "The crew are secured in the hold; we have manual control."
But not computer control, Avon thought fiercely. That you can never obtain without overriding Zen's voice lock. And for that you need either Orac... or me.
"Well done, Captain," Servalan was crooning to the radio link. "Report in at once. I shall take immediate command."
"Yes, Madame President."
For the first time since they'd left the courtyard, Servalan looked directly at him and smiled. "Thank you, Avon. Your assistance has been invaluable thus far. And I shall need you, just a bit longer."
He could scarcely frame the words of his response. "Not Anna," he rasped. "There is nothing you could have done to turn Anna..."
"Oh, really Avon. Naivety hardly becomes you."
He could have killed her in that moment, choked the life from her with his bare hands. But the guards restrained his lunge forward. Servalan smugly turned her attention elsewhere as Liberator's teleport deposited a stout Federation space captain near the control room's doorway. The man marched straight to Servalan's side and presented her with one of several teleport bracelets.
"Reporting as ordered, Madame President," he said crisply as she accepted the bracelet and clipped it primly to her left wrist.
"Place one on the prisoner as well," she told him.
The captain glanced uneasily in Avon's direction. "But Madame--"
Servalan flared. "Are you questioning a direct order, Dernal?"
"No Ma'am. It's just that Central Security's instructions were that--"
"Central Security are not in charge of this operation," she interrupted. "I am. And I will not be questioned, disobeyed or countermanded. Now do as you've been ordered."
With a timid nod, Dernal moved to obey her. Others left the control consoles to claim bracelets at the same time.
Avon heard little of their words, and never noticed the circlet being clamped around his own wrist. Something as dark and empty as the void of space had clamped itself around his soul, and the ice of its death grip had begun to engulf him...
* * *
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