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By Jean Graham
Page 2 of 7

Arcanian bounty ships were not noted for creature comforts -- less so their holding cells. The cargo hold comprised ten cells; cold, featureless and filthy, divided by heavy sheets of ventilated perspex that had seen better days. It might have been transparent once. Time and a succession of human miseries had left it scratched, cloudy and ochre-brown. Avon did not care to contemplate the various inscriptions etched into the plastic walls; he was more concerned with the mystery of just where the Arcanians might have discovered a price on his head higher than that offered by the Federation. He hadn't been aware of any such bounty. Yet, clearly, it existed. And a high price it must be. Arcanian bounty hunters tended to slave-running if and when wanted criminals failed to keep their holds full. But this ship had only one prisoner.

Servalan, perhaps... He considered the possibility that the president of the Terran Federation, after her recent disgrace at the hands of Sula Chesku (already difficult to think of that woman as Anna -- his Anna), might have chosen to work outside the Administration in order to get her hands on him. Hadn't she offered him shared power on Sarran? Half the known worlds in exchange for his soul. What a pity she was nothing but lies and treachery: he might have been quite content with only one world, had he been able to believe she could deliver it. One world, and the wealth to be free of Federation interference for the rest of his natural life...

The rusty squeal of the cell block door coming open distracted him. Through the circular holes cut in the murky plastic, he could see the woman entering with a bowl of something in her hands. Lorga had called her "Min" when they boarded the ship, an incongruously diminutive name. She was neither small nor in the least attractive to anything other than a Terran bilge rat, which creature she most closely resembled. Shuffling to the door of his cell, she stooped and thrust the bowl through one of the openings. It clumped to the floor and splattered part of its greasy contents onto the plex wall. Avon made no move to retrieve it. The oily- meat odor and the stench of Min herself had already overpowered the stale urine smell of the cell.

"Yer'll get hungry, soon 'r later," she said. "Yer get n'more till that's gone."

He did not look at her. "I suppose," he said to the wall, "it would be of no use to ask where we are going."

A peculiar cooing sound escaped her throat. "Urth Alpha talks very perdy," she rasped. "Very smart, too. Mus' be why 'e's worth so much, eh?"

He allowed his gaze to fall on her then, schooling his features to suppress, barely, the revulsion he felt. "And how much would that be, precisely?"

Her grin exposed crooked brown teeth. "Three 'n' a half mill Fed credits we gets f'yer. More'n three times whut the Feds 'emselves 'd pay. Gon' ta make us maggin rich, yer are!"

Avon was impressed despite himself. Who could possibly have offered a bounty that high, for him? And why?

"Unlikely," he said, and delighted in seeing the grin dissolve from her dirty face. "No one outside the Federation is anywhere near that wealthy."

She snorted, scratching noisily at the crotch of her stiff coveralls. "S'wat yer think. Two days fm now yer'll know differnt." She scuffed away before he could ask any more, the hatch creaking, then banging shut behind her.

Avon sat with his arms draped over his knees, back to the cleanest of the cell's four walls, and contemplated the scant information he'd just obtained. Three and a half million credits and a two day journey by sub-standard drive. That meant they would not leave the sector; would not even clear the next half dozen solar systems. Surely anyone wealthy enough to pay so huge a bounty would not be completely unknown?

Yet he could think of no one.

*      *      *

"I didn't quite hear you." Tarrant's gun pressed itself into the base commander's throat. "Tell me again."

The man coughed and tried to twist away, but Dayna held him, her own gun to the back of his head. "Do as you're told," she warned. "My friend has a rather spastic trigger finger."

Tarrant flashed a grin at her, then shoved the Liberator gun harder into the commander's neck. "Now where are you holding our friend?"

"I told you, we haven't taken any prisoners!" The denial was half-choked by the pressure Tarrant continued to apply.

"We don't believe you," Dayna purred.

"See for yourself then!" The man's hand gestured to the security screens banked on one wall of the office.

Tarrant withdrew the gun, backed away, and flipped the master switch to activate the monitors. Dayna stared in disbelief as the screens flickered to life -- and revealed row upon row of empty cells.

"Try the interrogation section," she suggested. Tarrant did. Three more screens lit. Three more empty rooms. "I told you," the base commander growled. "He isn't here."

Dayna circled in front of him, her weapon teasing. "People don't just disappear. He didn't make it back to the ship."

"Therefore," Tarrant finished for her, "he's here -- somewhere."

The commander squinted at them, considering the possibilities. "Dead, maybe," he offered unhelpfully. "Or..."

Tarrant's gun came back into line with the man's eyes. "Or what?"

"Could've been the Arcanians, I suppose. Would maybe explain what they were doing here."

Dayna saw the subtle change in Tarrant's eyes that might have signalled dismay. "Arc-what?" she asked.

Tarrant's index finger toyed with the weapon's firing stud. "Bounty hunters," he said, and then to the sweating man in the command chair, "I think you'd better explain that. What were Arcanians doing here?"

The man eyed him coldly. "You're Blake's crew, aren't you?"

"Maybe." Tarrant was undeterred. "Answer the question."

"They knew you were coming. Set you up, I suppose, with our weapons for bait. And we had orders not to interfere."

"Don't make me laugh," Tarrant scoffed. "We just blew seven of your pursuit ships to hell, in case you hadn't noticed."

"Decoys," the man insisted, "with mutoid crews. The real ships are still berthed right here, except the four out on patrol. Check for yourself."

"But they fired at us!" Dayna exclaimed. "How could a dummy ship do that?"

"We equipped two with weaponry."

Tarrant scowled. "I knew it was too easy. But it's still a damned expensive decoy. Why? Who gave you the order not to interfere?"

The man shrugged, smiling craftily. "No names, my friend. But it came from the top -- from high command."

"Servalan." Dayna spoke the name as a curse. The base commander said nothing.

"Zen said there was an eighth ship launched," Tarrant recalled. "Our friends the Arcanians, I suppose?"

The commander smiled.

Dayna squelched the temptation to wipe the floor with those teeth. "Where have they taken him?"

"I wouldn't know."

Tarrant bit his lip, thinking for a moment. "Bounty hunters usually want a payoff: that's their business, after all. And they didn't collect it here. So who's paying it?"

"I wouldn't know that either."

Dayna's gun in his ribs made him stiffen and go suddenly very quiet. "Don't know very much, do you?" she queried softly. "We could arrange to make that a permanent condition."

But Tarrant's look said otherwise. A pity. She would have enjoyed killing this worm.

"Cally," Tarrant was saying into his bracelet, "we're wasting our time here. Bring us up."

Liberator's teleport room rippled into being around them then, and Dayna's exhilaration at the near-kill slumped. "Bounty hunters," she said to Cally and Vila's anxious stares. In tandem, she and Tarrant replaced their bracelets in the rack. "Arcanian bounty hunters."

Vila paled. "Oh no. We're not gonna tangle with that lot, are we?"

"They have Avon," Dayna said frostily.

"The weapons cache was a trap," Tarrant added. "For Avon, apparently."

"Wonderful," Vila opined. "And after Servalan and that Grant woman scrambled his brains last week, he was ripe to walk into it. You don't suppose he deliberately...?"

"No." Cally's denial left no room for argument.

"Someone went to a great deal of trouble," Tarrant said. "The bounty hunters could have turned him over to the Federation then and there -- only they didn't. That would seem to rule out Servalan as a candidate."

Dayna had removed her gunbelt and was twisting the synth- leather strap between her fingers. "Somebody wanted Avon badly."

"Somebody got him," Tarrant said, already en route to the flight deck. "Let's find out if Orac's been able to trace that ship."

*      *      *

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