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By Tom Beck
Page 2 of 31

Chapter One

A ship makes no sound in space. Doesn't matter. The argument on the bridge of the Liberator is loud enough.

There is nothing surprising in the nature of the argument; it's the same old thing, in fact. Avon has an idea that he insists on carrying out. While telling the others as little as possible about it. Needless to say, they would rather not follow him into darkness. He is just as adamant. Hence the energetic dispute.

"Avon, there is no way in hell any of us are going to just fly along blindly with you," says Tarrant.

The computer tech stares past Tarrant, not even dignifying the pilot with one of his fierce glares. "Oh no?" he says in a flat voice. "What are you doing right now, then?" He doesn't even put any life into his question. It isn't a taunt or sneer. He really doesn't care.

Vila takes up the attack. "Look, just because you can give secret orders to Orac that we can't override doesn't mean it's right for you treat us like slaves. Why won't you tell us where you want to take us?" There's almost a whine in his voice that grates on Avon. He doesn't even answer.

"Come on, Avon," says Dayna. "We have a right to know what you're getting us into. You're going to need our help, aren't you? We have to be ready. So that means we need to know." Her hand is touching the butt of her gun. It is a gesture that does not escape Avon's attention.

"What's the matter, Avon?" This is Cally. As usual, she has waited till last, till after the others have had their say, knowing that if they fail she will still he able to get through to him. She hopes. Things have changed recently, but she still feels some of the old empathy for this cold, tantalizing man. Tendrils of thought she stretches out toward his mind, reaching, probing, gently, gently...they are repelled by a cold, black wall of mistrust and resentment and...

"What are you afraid of, Avon?" Tarrant again; strangely enough, voicing what Cally has only just felt. No! she thinks, moving swiftly towards the two men.

Not swiftly enough. Avon's hands are at the pilot's throat. He is shouting, growling, hissing, murder shining in his eyes. Cally and Dayna grab them, pull them apart. It takes all their strength, first to shift Avon, then to keep Tarrant from renewing the bout.

The pilot rubs his neck, casting a very nasty look at Avon. "I seem to have touched a nerve," he mutters ruefully.

"Yes," says Dayna. "I think you're afraid of something, Avon, which is why you won't tell us what you want to have us do. And we have a right to know." Hands on hips, fingers just brushing her gun, she stands glowering at the computer tech. From his station, ten feet away, Vila shudders. By now, he'd have talked, he thinks.

Cally takes Avon's hands, leads him to the rest area, sits him down. He has calmed himself a little, she sees; Tarrant's question stung him. "Are you afraid of something, Avon? Is that why you won't tell us anything?"

He pulls his hands out of hers. "I'm not afraid of anything," he says. "I never have been." There certainly is no look of fear on his face; instead, it is flushed with anger and defiance. But underneath, Cally can sense something, an uneasiness, a lack of confidence, a shimmering of worry about the future. She has never tried to read Avon this closely; he holds his emotions so tightly bound that she has found it in the past extremely wearying to share with him.

"Avon," she says softly, "we are your crewmates. You do have the power to carry us along with you, but that power is something you dare not abuse. You cannot run this ship for long without us, or in the face of our enmity. And there may come a time when you need us. Whatever your objective, is it worth alienating us to achieve?"

He breathes deeply several times, staring straight ahead, as if considering her words. She presses her momentary advantage. "Why not tell us? We trust your judgment," she says, praying that Tarrant won't object. The pilot starts to snort, breaks it off when Dayna elbows him in the ribs. Cally continues, "Where are we going, and why?"

Avon stands up, paces for a few seconds. His face shows conflict, a war between his usual secrecy and an indefinite amount of unwonted openness. The others are taken aback. Avon the Unsure. To none of them does it square with their conception of the computer tech, who has up to now never seemed subject to the ordinary doubts of humankind. He has always known what he wants: usually, what's best for Avon. But even that was something you could count on. But now? What do you do when Avon is unreliably unreliable?

Vila, more perceptive than the others, realizes that Avon is, for once, genuinely confused, uncertain. He approaches his friend as if to encourage him to go through with it, to trust them. "Avon," he says softly, "we aren't going to abandon you, you know. Whatever you're thinking, planning, if it's for the good of the ship, we'll help you do it. You don't have to keep it secret in order to get us to go along. We are all in this together."

Vila's words affect Avon as little of the previous squabbling has. Cally and Dayna also come close in support. Tarrant hangs back, but even he can see Avon's changed mood. It is apparent that he is about to tell them. Finally, even Tarrant joins the group. Avon won't look at them; instead, he stares off into infinity.

Finally, he starts to talk. His words are terse, his tone hostile, but he does tell them. What he says astonishing; nothing in the least like what they had expected. Even Cally is shocked. He goes on and on, repeating his points, muddling his words. A dam has broken; now that Avon has started talking, he can't seem to stop.

But he says almost nothing, actually. A few simple sentences, disjointed and unconnected. He is still giving orders. Talk but no trust. The mission is clear, his motives anything but. He has told them his plans, as they asked, but they seem to know less now than before.

Cally looks at Avon, trying to understand him, as always, but failing this time. "It makes no sense. What do you want? You sound obsessed, Avon. Obsessed with him," she says. "Why? Why him? Why now? After all this time?" Please, she thinks. Don't shut me out.

But nothing is returned. He has never been further from her. His eyes are shadows of limitless depth, they see nothing and reflect nothing. Cally can sense nothing, touch him nowhere.

The dark-haired man sits in the lounge well, arms crossed, staring down at some invisible beacon He sighs. "It hasn't been 'all this time' to me. It's as if it was yesterday. He has always been on my mind since we parted." Avon scowls. The grimace fits his face. It comes naturally to him.

"I don't understand," Vila complains. "Why should we go looking for him right now? And how do you know he's on this planet, what do they call it, Fontina, anyhow?"

Avon turns to contemplate the thief with something less than pleasure. "I'm not surprised you don't understand. In fact, I'd be a bit worried if you did."

The others on the flight deck follow this exchange with accustomed amusement. Vila versus Avon is a never-ending source of entertainment. But time is running short. Dayna speaks up first to forestall Tarrant.

"Can you stop demonstrating your superiority complex long enough to explain things to the rest of us?" she demands. "Even assuming we agree with your strategy -which we don't -what does make you think he's on Fontina?"

The taciturn dark man turns toward Orac. He glowers at the strange machine, as if resentful that he has to convince the rest of the crew. "Orac!" he commands. "Tell them what you told me."

Orac's peevish voice sounds even more supercilious than usual. *I have been monitoring Federation channels ever since we left Teal and Vandor. It seemed logical that Servalan would seek some new form of revenge against Avon for disrupting her plans.*

"We know all that," interjects Tarrant, leaning indolently against a bulkhead. "Tell us something new."

*I find it difficult to tell you anything at all,* Orac mutters. *Have Kerr Avon describe his strategy to you, then, since you will not let me tell it in my own way.*

Tarrant crosses over to Orac and removes its key. "That's that," he says with satisfaction. "Okay, Avon, what's this all about?"

Avon paces in front of the view screen, never looking at his crewmates. "Servalan lost face publicly when we ruined her plot against Teal and Vandor. She must think of something new," he says. "That means that we must do something new to counter her." He paces and paces. hands clasped behind his back. He might be talking to himself. "She is seeking him now, after all this time," he continues. "I suggest that it is in our interest to deprive her. I also suggest that he can help us overcome her once and for all. He can do things for us that even I can't. And..."

"And what?" asks Dayna.

Cally speaks up. "And if he does all that, Avon can leave us. Right, Avon?"

Avon's head jerks up suddenly. He should have known that Cally would guess. "I am not obligated to stay," he mutters. "Up to now I have chosen to. But I may choose to leave at any time. None of you has any hold on me. We're stuck with each other for now. But don't take me for granted." He paces some more. "Now, are we going after him or not?"

Cally and Tarrant look at each other, then include Dayna in their silent conversation. Vila looks on in concern, wondering what they're thinking. Finally, Cally turns to Avon. "All right. You may have a point. We need him. But why Fontina?"

Avon smiles. "Because he's there. And because Servalan recently sent a message to the Grand Consulate of Fontina to be on the lookout for him. Since she will is unlikely trust anyone else to claim him for her, it would be logical to assume that she herself will go to Fontina to take possession of him. Therefore, we must get there first. Therefore, this conversation is wasting time."

"Well," says Tarrant, "if we're going to beat her, we'd better start now." Cally and Dayna nod.

They take their places. Avon has Zen set a course for Fontina, now well outside the Federation's war-shrunken perimeter. Liberator heads off at Standard by eight. It will take approximately thirty hours to reach Fontina.

Silence reigns on the flight deck, a silence apparently dictated by the smoldering Avon. Also, he seems on edge. Tarrant smirks.

"Hard for you to accept victory, isn't it, Avon?" he gloats. "You don't like needing us. It reminds you that you're human." Avon won't look at him.

Cally speaks up to defend Avon. "Tarrant, you're being unfair. Avon is thinking of our safety, too, in seeking him out."

"Yes, but if it's to let him jump ship"

Avon interrupts both of them. "Thank you, Cally," he says, "but the last thing I need is for you to defend me. I have stated my reasons and you have agreed with them. Any further discussion is futile and stupid."

"So that's it, is it?" Tarrant looks belligerent. "Avon speaks and we're all to obey?"

Avon smiles. "As I said, futile and stupid."

All this is too much for Dayna. "Look," she says, "we're on our way. Either we go or we don't. In either case, Avon's right. Arguing now is stupid."

Vila still looks nervous. "Well, I don't want to sound stupid, Avon, but have you thought about how we're going to find him when we get there? Fontina's a pretty big planet, you know. And he doesn't want to be found, not even by us. Maybe especially not by us, after all that's happened."

Avon smiles again. "There are certain things that not even he will be able to resist. Things he will need to stay alive and on the run. Things that Fontina has in excess. He will be easy to find."

"Don't be so sure," says Tarrant. "A big port planet like that will have a lot of room to hide in. And nobody's going to help us."

"I won't need help," Avon states.

"Avon, that's unreasonable," says Dayna. "Have you ever been to Fontina? Where will you start?"

"In 'The Shade.' According to Orac, that's what the locals call Fontina's spacer zone. Where else can he go?"

"A spacer zone," smirks Tarrant "You, Avon? You'll be lunchmeat for the jugboys."

"Explain yourself, Tarrant. Some of us do not understand spacer slang," says Cally wearily.

"I mean that if someone like Avon goes into a spacer zone and starts trying to track down someone who doesn't want to be tracked down, all sorts of nasty types will assume that he's a cop. Nasty types in spacer zones don't like cops. They do nasty things to cops. Real nasty things."

" what?" asks Vila, his face pale.

"Never mind, Vila," says Cally.

"Tarrant, you're a fool," Avon says viciously. "Almost as big a fool as Vila. You can't frighten me with bedtime stories. You only scare yourself. I'm a survivor. Like him. I understand him better than any of you. Whatever he's doing, I will find him."

With that, he leaves the flight deck, strides off for places unknown. His cabin, which none of the others have ever seen. Not even Vila has been able to penetrate its mysterious bourn. There have been times when Cally wished, or hoped, or even believed that she might be invited within, but those times seem long gone now. Things have happened recently, things she doesn't fully understand, although she has her guesses. Avon wasn't always the merciless, adamantine icy force he has become since Star One. When she first met him he was wary, not always sure of himself. The betrayal that put him in prison shook him up badly, she is sure. But he seemed to overcome that. The recent betrayal by 'Anna Grant' must have killed whatever human empathy he had left.

In his cabin, Avon ruminates on such matters, deep within the recesses of his mind. He is driven by anger and by resentment and by impatience and what? He hates his crew and he doesn't hate them. He needs them and yet he wants to be rid of them, free of them.

The cabin is a refuge, a dark dungeon where he can imprison his emotions and visit them in private. He spends little time here other than to sleep. He prefers the computer sections or the flight deck, especially when the others are off watch. He can almost not bear to look at them any more. But in here it is almost worse, for here he must be alone, whether he wants to or not He is tense. The confrontation with the others has upset him greatly, distressed him. He is damp with slowly drying sweat, filmy with its residue. The blood is rushing in his ears, his heart is racing, his mind ablaze with ferment and wildness. He has triumphed. Liberator will do what he says. He has again imposed his will on the rest. He has proved his superiority and his dominance. He feels smaller than ever.

He strips, showers, dresses. Lies down. Tries to clear his mind. To no avail. His own mind is the one aspect of his existence that he cannot command, cannot order to his satisfaction. His mind, that repository of genius, commands him, makes him dance to its bidding. Now it wants him awake, on edge, unable to relax, unable to face the future, the future that he has willed, with peace. Avon can never know peace. Especially not now.

For, within his mind where no one can see it, not even himself, Avon is afraid, as afraid as any man has ever been. Afraid of death. Afraid of failure. Afraid, above all, of responsibility.

He will get them all killed, he knows it. The black specter of death has visited him in his dreams again and again, and always with a mocking visage and a grim message: You will kill, Avon. You will kill those you love. Their corpses will be your only companions, and you will cart them around with you for an eternity. Skulls with empty eyes will stare at you forever, and only you will remember what their faces once looked like.

And he has one fear that's even worse. That they will someday, one day, leave him.

He shudders. Beads of sweat roll down his face onto his pillow. The pain becomes unendurable. Suddenly, he sits bolt upright and screams...

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