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Mirage

By Jean Graham
Page 1 of 44

 

Was my death not enough, Avon?

The voice -- Blake's voice -- drifted with him down the corridor.

And the others. You do not even know, after all this time, whether they are alive or dead. You have not wished to know. Instead, you have come here. For what reason, Avon? To die?

No.

Not to die. Survival was and always had been the force that drove Kerr Avon. And if it had flagged in the horrors of this past, lost year, then he would find a way to make it viable again.

He would find another way to survive. That is why he had come here.

Willing the voice into silence, he passed through a door at the end of the corridor, coming face-to-visor with a severely-dressed administrative aide behind an equally severe grey desk. She did not look up at him when she spoke. "He isn't in," she said.

"I'll wait."

The visor tilted upward, refracting harsh light. Pale eyes regarded him with calm detachment. "It may be some time," she said crisply. "I may be able to locate Director Troas. But I do need a reason. And a name."

"No you don't. You will simply tell him... that it is imperative I speak with him."

Something in his voice, an odd blend of authority and nerve-thin desperation, unsettled her enough to defeat the rehearsed evasion tactic. She nodded toward the inner-office door, primly stenciled with the name LAN TROAS and the title PLANT DIRECTOR. "All right," she conceded. "You can wait in there."

Avon gave the surrender no acknowledgment, but strode through into the relative safety of the room beyond the sliding door. It was a large and tastefully-decorated office, not opulent, but functional. Beside the computer terminal on the black plex expanse of desk, a pair of holo cubes displayed the images of a graying woman and a boy in his late teens. These Avon studied for a long moment before he turned to move toward the small conference table occupying the opposite end of the room. On the way, he passed the mirrored tiers of an alcoved bar, and hastily averted his eyes.

The gaunt stranger reflected there little resembled the man he remembered. Wanted to remember.

The only comfort this image could offer was that it resembled the face on the Federation's wanted holos not at all.

He took a seat at the table, facing the door. Then, as though the strain of having come this far had suddenly caught up with him, he drew a long and measured breath, and slowly lowered his head onto his folded hands.

Time. That was all he really needed. Time to rest, to recover. A week, a month, a year. Any amount that could be begged -- or stolen. Any place that could be deemed remotely friendly.

Safe harbor. Somewhere there had to be one. There had to be.

Too many years, Blake's voice returned, mocking him. Too many lives lost; too many taken. So long on the edge. So long...

With no small effort, he quelled the voice again. But the faces, the memories, had waited only for his eyes to close before returning, a stark and disarrayed tableau. He was too weary to repel them any longer.

Blake lay on the floor beneath him, dark blood spreading grimly from the ruined tunic. The blood covered Avon's hands. Another Blake, worlds removed from the man he had faced at Gauda Prime, stood over the London's computer housing and fervently swore that he would never rest until the Federation's heart had been torn out. Until free men could think and speak.

And with cold, acrid cynicism, that other, long-ago Avon had said to him, "Wealth is the only reality. And the only way to obtain wealth is to take it away from somebody else. Wake up, Blake. You may not be tranquilized any longer, but you are still dreaming."

The only reality. Had he truly been so naive, once?

Reality, in the end, had been the ultimate betrayer, more treacherous than any of the people in his life. And more evasive.

He was not even certain that he recognized it any longer. But Gauda Prime had been real enough.

The ring of black-clad figures, faceless, surrounding him on all sides. Guns poised. Waiting. Alarms shrieking in the red light. A vision, half-seen, of bodies strewn everywhere around him. Faces he knew. Had known. Vila, Soolin, Dayna, Tarrant. Blake.

He had taken aim at the foremost trooper, slowly squeezed the trigger.

And smiled.

...Somewhere, an eternity later, memory had dredged up a voice. Her voice. "We can do it, Avon," it had purred. And his own confident tones had responded, "I know we can."

The same voice, some distant unknown time after the blood and the pain and the dying, had begun to call his name. It summoned him to wake. To answer. And he remembered thinking that she must command some form of power even in hell, to be here at all. It seemed fitting somehow.

He must have told her so. "But you are not dead, Avon," the velvet tones had gloated. "I would never have allowed that."

He'd found the matter largely academic. What difference, to be breathing and Servalan's captive, or deceased only to find that she also ruled in hell?

"Your friends are dead, I'm afraid." That phrase had become a litany, vengeful and melodic. "You've killed them. Each and every one. All the fools who ever trusted you are dead. Someday you really must tell me how it feels to possess such awesome responsibility."

No.

They could not all be dead. Surely... He had been shot with those same guns, repeatedly. And each of the others had been hit only once. She was lying. She had to be. Just as she had lied about Blake on Terminal. And about so many other things. Though she would never willingly provide him with the opening needed to prove it.

So he had never learned the others' fate. Though in time even that had ceased to matter. Nothing mattered any more but defeating her, cheating her of the final victory. She may have taken him at last -- he was a prize she had long coveted -- but he would deny her the other triumph. He would not give her Orac, and nothing her interrogators tried would change that. Servalan's final victory would be an empty one.

How many months of living death had he survived there, locked in her windowless chambers, hounded day and night by the endless barrage of questions, needles, probes, and still more questions?

Until the night she'd had him brought to her private quarters, and there had been no mistaking what she wanted of him now. The survivor in him had begun to see her weakness then. There was, after all, a way that he might make her vulnerable. Madness, perhaps, to comply with her wishes. But his was a madness no less all-consuming than her own.

So there in her quarters, in full view of the humming surveillance cameras, he had given her what she demanded of him; given it without either pleasure or pain or any pretence of feeling. And when it was finished he had closed his hands about her soft, white throat and choked the life from her.

The alarm screamed almost as soon as his hands had encircled her neck. It didn't matter. Though he had no doubt they would kill him this time, his choices had been achingly simple. Servalan here, or Servalan in hell.

He preferred hell.

Gloved hands clamped the silk robe at his shoulders, wrenched him away and threw him against the hard, false marble of her 'personal' desk. He lay there, breathing raggedly, and waited for an end to it. But the shots he'd expected had not come. The guns that should have been trained on him sagged instead, all three of their owners intent on the efforts of their comrades to revive the limp thing on the bed. He knew then why they would not kill him.

They had been ordered not to. By an authority higher than Servalan's. Whether she lived or died, they still wanted Orac. And that meant there would be more questions, more living death. He would never escape their questions.

The survivor in him had died in that moment. Conceded relentless defeat.

He could see only one way in which he could be free...

Unheeded by the inattentive guards, he had slowly drawn the laser probe out from its slot beside the desk's computer terminal. Not a very easy death, all told, but placed correctly, just above the heart...

"Gavik! Stop him!"

More gloved hands jerked the probe away before he could activate the beam. He remembered a flash of light, reflected off the polished butt of the paragun as it was raised and arced savagely down at him. And then...

"That was an exceedingly stupid thing to do, Avon."

Her voice again.

So he had not killed her after all. Or... was it that they had killed him after all?

"I know you're awake. The scanner says you've been conscious for several minutes. Look at me, Avon."

He willed his eyes to open, to absorb the unwelcome sight of her 'medical' facility and the hard metal framework to which he was secured, standing upright. She leaned across the diagnostic computer, ugly, purpling bruises at her throat the only sign of his near-success, and smiled at him with blood-red lips.

"As you can see," she murmured, "you didn't kill me."

"Pity. I shall have to do better next time." That was an echo of something Blake had said once. Aboard the London...

"Nor," she went on, ignoring his remark, "did you succeed in killing yourself, though I'll admit I was a bit surprised to hear that you had tried. A laser probe, Avon? Crude, surely, even by your standards. You may like to know, however, that I have had them all placed under lock and key." The smile became cat-like. "I fully intend to avoid any repeat performances."

He fixed her with an obsidian gaze, determined and immutable. "I'll find another way." And I'll take you with me, if I can.

"I think not," she said as if in answer to his thought. "You see, I plan to take proper precautions this time. Permanent ones. I'm going to see to it you never kill anyone again."

His puzzlement at that clearly pleased her. She raised a hand, and called to someone Avon had not realized was there. "Estes."

"Yes, Commissioner?" A stooped, balding man moved into view. He was a 'medic,' Avon realized. A lackey in white coveralls. One of Servalan's torturers-elite.

"Prepare the surgery," she ordered. "I want him fitted with the limiter implant by this afternoon."

"Yes, Commissioner."

Avon's head had snapped up at her mention of the implant.

Servalan correctly read a fleeting trace of both surprise and fear in his eyes, and that pleased her, too.

"As you know," she said as Estes hastily departed the room, "a limiter implant is equally effective against suicide. Of course... unfortunately... there are other brain functions which may be... impaired?"

Disbelieving, he glared at her, recalling a time aboard the Liberator when Gan's limiter had nearly cost all of them their lives.

"Memory, for example," he supplied, forcing a beleaguered smile. "You might never get your hands on Orac that way."

"I don't have Orac now." She moved closer to him, expertly laying bait across the verbal trap. "It's a risk I'm willing to take, Avon." The voice became suddenly hard. "And that frightens you, doesn't it? It may be the only thing in the galaxy that does. To have anyone alter that meticulously well-ordered mind..."

That little horror had granted her the psychological war; a victory won in a single, bloodless moment. She had seen the fear, unsheathed and defenseless, in his eyes.

"Well, Avon?"

Naked loathing edged an already-hoarse voice. "Do you want me to plead with you? You'd enjoy that, wouldn't you?"

"Probably," came the calloused reply. "But I would much rather have Orac. You will tell me where on Gauda Prime you left him and I will rescind Estes' orders. It's that simple."

Nothing has ever been simple for you, he thought bitterly. But aloud, all trace of the fear now buried under old, familiar arrogance, he said, "You still know how to play the game, don't you
Servalan?"

"I've done with games. Now will you give me Orac or not?"

He watched her for a prolonged moment, and the survivor began to see the glimmer of a new possibility...

"Give me half an hour with your primary computers," he said, "and I will isolate Orac's carrier wave."

"Not good enough." The glint of the predator shone hard in her eyes now. "You will take me to him."

"That," he parried, "is unlikely. Since only Orac knows where Orac is."

"What?" The single word was an imperious command to explain. Pleased at the consternation he'd already evoked, he obliged. "It was programmed to take the flyer deep into Gauda Prime's woods and hide itself. Without tracing the carrier frequency, even I would have no idea where. And only I can trace the frequency."

Scarlet lips twisted slowly into a thinly deprecating smile. "All very clever. But probably untrue. I doubt you would obviate your only means of escape from a potentially hostile base by sending the flyer away. Try again."

"I've already told you--"

"I don't believe you."

The black eyes flashed. "I don't really give a damn what you believe."

Suspicion warred with greed across the glacial perfection of her face, the latter winning. With one manicured nail, she touched a control on the panel. "Estes," she said. "You will cancel that request. Tell Section Leader Talcor I want Triumph prepared for immediate lift-off for Gauda Prime. And see that a link to the primary computers is installed aboard."

Avon smiled wanly at her choice of ships. Ironic, but perhaps appropriate. He had never even known what planet this complex of hers had occupied. But now, with a return to Gauda Prime -- and Orac -- he might begin finding answers of his own. Whether Vila and the others were truly dead, for example...

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