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By Marian Mendez
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"Avon!" Tarrant shouted, desperately. Everything had gone horribly wrong. His people were being shot down around him. His leader stood, transfixed in shock, over Blake. Damn Blake anyway, for his stupid game-playing. Now that it was too late, Tarrant realized Blake had not betrayed them. It all happened with such nightmare speed that Tarrant couldn't protect his crew, or Avon, or even himself. Oddly, none of the troopers fired at Avon, who was standing mute and helpless. As Tarrant was shot and lost consciousness he hoped that Avon at least might survive.

Tarrant woke slowly, aching all over and rather surprised to be alive. Once he got over the queasiness caused by the stun-shot that had felled him, Tarrant noticed that he was sharing a cramped, cold cell with Avon.Well, he did survive - or did he? The other man was pasty-white, lying so abnormally still that the sight brought Tarrant a fresh surge of nausea. He scrambled to Avon's side and pressed his fingers against the clammy skin of Avon's throat, sighing in relief at the steady, if slow, pulse he found. You look worse than I feel, Avon. And I feel like hell. Hitting that hard floor didn't do my ribs any good. And I think someone kicked me around afterward.

Of course, I hadn't just killed an ex-friend of mine.You're not too lucky with personal relationships, are you? Tarrant firmly pushed aside his pity for Avon. Avon had led them into this mess. He could certainly give Tarrant some help in thinking of escape plans. If Tarrant had to shake him until teeth rattled loose, Avon was going to wake up.

"Wake up. Wake up. Dammit, you're not leaving me to face the music by myself, Avon."

The voice was insistent, persistent, and accompanied by a hard shaking every other word. Avon dragged himself back to consciousness in order to glare at his tormentor.

Satisfied that Avon was now fully aware, Tarrant released his grip on Avon's shoulders. "Feeling better now?" he asked.

"No." Avon gritted his teeth against the pain in his head and pressed a fist to his middle, trying to suppress the nausea rising from his knotted stomach. He caught the pail that Tarrant shoved at him just in time.

The pilot turned aside, making a pretense of examining the featureless walls of their cell until the noise behind him had ended and Avon had an opportunity to regain his composure. But no longer. His own accumulated aches and bruises nagged at him; exhaustion and collapse waiting for the least relaxation of his will. If they were to have any hope of escaping, it would have to be soon.

"Avon, are you with me?" Tarrant asked.

"Unfortunately, yes." Avon grimaced, watching the tall, young man pacing restlessly before the blank, gray door of their cell.

"Just my luck," Tarrant complained. "They couldn't lock me in with one of the girls, or even Vila, who might be able to get us out. No, I'm stuck with you, cheerful ray of sunshine that you are." Avon was silent. Damn it, don't go sullen on me now, Avon. Even though you do have the eyes, and the mouth, for it. You are quite attractive when you're in a snit, you know. Tarrant brought himself up short. Avon's beauty was always distracting toTarrant, but so far he had kept that fact from Avon. After all, he didn't like Avon, and the occasional, - oh, all right, frequent - flashes of desire he had for the other man weren't worth the fuss Avon would make if he ever learned of Tarrant's weakness. He continued, "What are you going to do, Avon? You brought us to Gauda Prime, you got us into this mess."

Avon sat down on the hard bench protruding from the wall. He looked pointedly around the bare room, then examined his clothes which had been slit along most of the seams, making him as tattered a scarecrow as Scorpio's crash had left Tarrant. "Our captors were quite thorough. I have no more tricks up my sleeve, Tarrant. Indeed," he said with a flash of gallows humor, "I have hardly any sleeves left." Tarrant let that remark go unnoted. Avon sighed and looked down at his hands before asking quietly, " the others?"

"I don't know. I only know I woke up in here with you. I think we were stunned."

"Brilliant deduction."

Tarrant turned on Avon suddenly, fists raised, color rising in his too-pale cheeks."Dammit, Avon, you wanted to be leader, now lead. Quit feeling sorry for yourself and start thinking."

"It's your turn, Tarrant, I'm fed up with the whole business." An understatement if ever there was one. I am tired of it all and I don't much care what happens next. Avon lay down on the bench, putting his arm up to shield his eyes from the bright light set in the ceiling.

"I don't believe it. Avon the great, simply lying down and giving up."

"Believe it. I give up. I surrender. I quit. Is that clear enough for you?" Avon lowered his arm and pushed up on one elbow to meet Tarrant's disgusted gaze. "I simply don't care to go through the motions any longer. Fate has been against us, against me, from the beginning. I am tired of beating my head against a stone wall. The wall wins, Tarrant."

"Hell," Tarrant said softly. "It's a fine time you pick to retire, Avon." He sat down on the bench as Avon pulled his legs aside to make room. Tarrant sat there silently, trying to think of a way to motivate the computer tech. Get him angry? No, he decided after a glance at Avon's emotionless face, the man was obviously on the edge. The last thing Tarrant needed was a raving lunatic on his hands.

Avon ignored his cellmate once Tarrant stopped talking. He had found that staring hard at the opposite wall made the blotchy gray surface form patterns, like cloud watching while lying on one's back in a summer meadow. It wasn't much of a distraction from his impending torture and death, or from his failure to protect the crew he'd reluctantly acquired, or from Blake... but it was the only distraction available, unless he chose to talk with Tarrant. And I don't care to look at that too-young face again, to see my own despair reflected in those clear, ridiculously innocent , eyes. He's too young to die in this pointless fashion, but then, so were Dayna and Soolin, and Vila would have argued the point for himself. Grief for his lost crew tore at him, but he let none of what he felt express itself on his face. At least he could spare Tarrant an emotional scene.Stop it, just look at the wall, don't think, just stare at the wall. Interesting...the wall patterns were merging into a humanoid outline. A trick of the light, perhaps. The shadow darkened and became more detailed.Then it detached itself from the wall and walked toward Avon.

"No!" Avon bolted upright. "What?" He stared wide-eyed at the wavering figure; born of the shadows and his imagination... or his madness? This is impossible! The figure grinned at him, showing broad, yellow teeth in a dark, scrubby-bearded face. Its exact appearance was impossible to describe for it varied; changing height from perhaps six inches to three feet in an apparently random fluctuation. The features and clothing changed too, but not as drastically. The basic impression was of a supremely ugly little man in grimy, dirt-colored, baggy tunic and trousers.

"Avon, there isn't anything there." Tarrant spoke calmly, but inside he was sick. Depression I could deal with, but outright stark, staring madness?

"You don't see it?" Avon snapped. He glanced at Tarrant, then turned back to the shadow-man, who was now hopping on one foot while making obscene gestures at Tarrant. "No, I don't suppose you do at that. Never mind, Tarrant."

"Avon..." Tarrant stopped himself and shrugged. Maybe it would be better for Avon to be mad. Considering what they had to look forward to, there wasn't much comfort in sanity. No use looking for any help from Avon now. Tarrant stood up and walked to the door once more. He wasn't ready to die without a fight, even if Avon had broken. I'll try to take a few extra with me, for you, Avon. It would please Cally, I think. She loved you, even if you never had the sense to acknowledge it.

Avon looked at Tarrant, then back at the dirty little man. "I had thought that madness would be more - original- than this, somehow," he mused. "Seeing little men, that is rather trite. Vila at least would have fantasized pretty girls."

"I am not an hallucination," the little man enunciated carefully, in a disconceringly deep and cultured voice. He grinned at Avon again. "You gave up, you said. That means I won. I wouldn't think of leaving without saying farewell." The little man bowed. "You were a most entertaining opponent. In all my centuries, I doubt I've had a better game."

"Game?" Avon asked. He wondered what Tarrant was making of this and glanced at him. The pilot wouldn't meet his eyes, apparently he had decided to leave Avon alone in his madness. Surprisingly sensible of him, really. But, then, you have changed from the brash young fool who thought the universe was a bright, sparkling toy built for his entertainment. You deserve better than this sorry end, Tarrant, awaiting execution accompanied by a madman.

"Yes, of course," the little man said. "Come now, Avon, don't be dense, not after I've been praising your intelligence. We've been playing since Sarran. I had come from Earth with Mellanby, but teasing a blind man wasn't sporting. And those natives, uncouth ruffians! I had begun to despair of ever finding a decent playmate, but you, Avon, came at last. I was glad I'd waited, then. It isn't every Gremlin who finds such a challenge."

"Gremlin?" Avon puzzled over the creature's remarks. It would be preferable to believe that an alien entity with unknown abilities was in his cell, than to think that he had gone insane. The evidence would support either conclusion. "What, exactly, are you? And why can't Tarrant see you?"

"That would be telling." The Gremlin showed its teeth, enjoying Avon's annoyance. "We found Earth a long time ago. Humans made such wonderful playmates that we've stayed with you. When things go wrong, you humans blame fate, or each other, or even entropy. But sometimes, just sometimes, it's one of us, having fun.

"Remember, Avon, when you tried to use an asteroid for camouflage? You said then that there were times when even the most cynical must trust to his luck. It made me laugh myself sick. I nearly had you that time, too, but Vila helped you. Actually, it was all of you against me, and I won." The creature looked smug, and laughed, making a rusty, creaking noise that made Avon's hair stand on end.

"Yes, you won." Avon lunged forward. For an instant he felt the coarse texture of cloth, then he was clutching nothing. On the other side of the room, Tarrant carefully avoided noticing Avon's fit and continued walking, determined not to upset Avon.

The Gremlin reappeared a few feet away. "Naughty, naughty. That won't work, Avon. I can touch you, but you can't touch me." The Gremlin darted forward to pinch Avon. "I can touch Tarrant, too. Watch." The creature sidled up to the pacing pilot, waited a moment, then yanked on one of Tarrant's boots, sending the man to his knees.

Tarrant cursed and looked around to see Avon sitting on the bench blamelessly out of reach. "Must have tripped," he muttered, climbing back to his feet.

"All right, so you win," Avon said. "Now go away. I'm going to be too busy to entertain you."

"Not just yet." The Gremlin perched on the bench beside Avon, swinging its short legs back and forth. "I'll have to look for some time before I find anyone half as good as you, Avon. I'm spoiled. I don't want to settle for second-best."

At the door, Tarrant had stopped pacing and leaned against the wall, listening to the outside. "Avon, shut up." Tarrant turned back to the other man, seeing the fatigue and the despair that a stranger would not readily recognize. God, what will they do to him if they find he's already cracked? Poke and pry and split his guts wide open, that's what. "They're coming. Keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking." He was irritated with Avon in general (just for being Avon), and in specific for getting him into this situation, but he didn't want the other man's vulnerability exposed to the Federation. Except for seeing things that weren't there, and talking to them, Avon appeared normal. Perhaps Tarrant could delay the inevitable discovery. Perhaps he could even find a way out- dim though that prospect was.

Avon gave Tarrant a sulky glare, which pleased the pilot with its resemblance to normal, bad-tempered Avon behavior. Actually, since he started talking to himself, he's perked up. He might fool them for a time. Avon stood and went to Tarrant's side, in a gesture of unity that Tarrant found unexpectedly comforting.

The door opened and armed Federation guards entered, making the small cell shrink even further. Through the open door, brushing past the guards as if they were furniture strode a vision - more like a nightmare - in black feathers and silk. Servalan paused in the doorway, poised to accept the homage of her inferiors.

"Ah, yes, come to gloat, have you?" Come on, boy wonder, distract the lady, Tarrant thought, holding his head high and standing with military stiffness of spine, despite twinges of protest from his ribs.That's what those pearly white teeth are for. He smiled at Servalan.

"Gloat? Now, Tarrant, surely you don't think that I had anything to do with your current predicament?" Servalan smiled, looking from Tarrant to Avon.

"No, of course not," Tarrant mocked, "you just happened to be on Gauda Prime and thought you'd drop in on us." Don't look at Avon, you bitch. Keep your claws off him.

"Oh, Tarrant." Servalan gave him a venomously sweet smile. "You are close to the truth. I did know there was a rebel base here, and I was reliably informed that Blake..." Servalan noted Avon's flinch, and smiled again. "...that Blake was in charge. I had, I admit, hoped to capture Blake to use him as Avon-bait, but I hardly anticipated it would work so quickly." Servalan stepped forward and touched Avon's chest lightly with her blood-red fingernails. She looked upward into his impassive face and said, lightly, "It was a serendipitous accident, sheer good luck, you see."

Avon suddenly smiled. Luck. I'll give you luck. The kind you deserve. "Yes, you have been lucky, haven't you, Servalan? Most fortunate. One could almost say that you have led a charmed life."

Servalan prudently stepped back from the man with the feral grin. "Hardly that, Avon. I have made my chances and improved my position with no help from anyone. I never rely on luck."

He cocked his head, his eyes amused and speculative. "That is very true. You were a worthy match for me. My equal on the other side of the board."

Servalan eyed Avon warily, not trusting his apparent good humor. "Avon, I have previously offered you a place at my side. I still am willing to do so. Give me Orac and you and Tarrant will be spared." She smiled. "I always did have a fondness for you two, I would really rather not see you damaged."

"We need time to think it over," Tarrant said hastily, before Avon in his present fey mood could hand over the only thing keeping them alive. Avon made no objection, his attention distracted by something only he could see.

"All right." Avon's behavior was making Servalan uneasy. "I will give you one hour to make up your minds to be sensible, after that it will be out of my hands." She spread her handsgracefully and turned, not noticing one of her elaborate silver earrings slipping loose to fall to the floor.

Nor did she hear the gruff voice which said, "Servalan will be a pleasure to toy with. Fare thee well, Kerr Avon."

Once the guards left and they were once more alone, Tarrant turned to Avon. "I thought I told you to keep quiet." You're smiling. What have you thought of, Avon? What are you planning? Somehow, knowing Avon had a scheme was reassuring. Even if it didn't work out, at least they could die trying.

"Don't worry. I have no intention of giving her Orac." Avon's smile broadened. "I've given her something much better." He went to the door, and stooped to retrieve the earring. "Now, if I can just get this right. Ah," Avon said, twisting the baubles off the earring to expose a long metal shank. "That should do nicely." He bent down and began probing the door lock.

"What do you have in mind, Avon?" Tarrant whispered, listening to the scratching of Avon's makeshift pick. Either Vila's lessons paid off or Fate was finally on their side, for the door swung quietly open.

"Come on, Tarrant, I have a feeling our luck has taken a turn for the better." Avon smiled at the empty hallway, stood and walked out of the cell.

"Why not?" Tarrant shook his head and followed. One way or another, I'm stuck with you, it seems. Tarrant grinned. And the Federation had best watch out for both of us.

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Marian Mendez

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