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By Judith Proctor
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Avon leaned impassively against the wall, arms folded across his chest, as Vila rummaged through chests and drawers.

      "What are we going to do with it all?" Vila asked hopelessly.

      "Junk it," Avon replied succinctly. "Even Blake isn't large enough to fit into Gan's clothes."

      "I can't do that!" Vila protested automatically. "It's.. it's..." He fumbled, lost for the words he wanted.

      Avon shifted his position, not totally immune to Vila's distress. "Whatever you do, it won't bring Gan back," he pointed out logically. "Do you want me to do the job?"

      Vila looked up in surprise at the offer, then declined. "No," he said. "Gan was my friend, not yours. You never gave a damn about him anyway." He started taking items down from a set of shelves: a holocube of a group of mountains that developed a snowstorm when you shook it; a pile of booktapes; a couple of fir cones. Fir cones? Where on Earth, or any other world for that matter, had Gan picked those up? Vila shook his head. It was amazing what could be collected in a couple of years bumming about the galaxy. He moved onto the next shelf, gathering up a clock, and a bottle of some patent remedy guaranteed to cure all forms of depression of the spirit. Had Gan really believed in that stuff? Maybe he'd been desperate enough to try anything when his limiter was playing up. Further along there was a small cuddly toy - hard to say what sort of animal it was meant to represent - a bear possibly. Vila rather liked the look of it in spite of its garish colour. He decided to keep it as a memento. Next was a mass of modelling clay - some amateur work of art, and obviously unfinished. Vila lifted it down for a better look. A woman's head, but no one he recognised. She wasn't terribly pretty. Wanting to remember Gan by his achievements and not by his failures, Vila took aim in the general direction of the waste disposal chute to see if he could hit it first try.

      "Leave it."

      Vila turned around at the command. "Are you trying to tell me," he demanded in outright disbelief, "that you want this piece of junk?"

      Avon held out a hand. "Give it to me."

      Vila was tempted to hold back, just to annoy him, but there was something in Avon's expression that brooked no denial. He handed the sculpture over, settling for verbal insults instead. "You, the alpha connoisseur? You're lowering your standards a bit aren't you?"

      Avon stared Vila hard in the eye, then gave his full attention to the sculpture, turning it round and round in his hands - remembering.



The ground underfoot was slippery and uneven, the light from the torches they held, totally inadequate. Avon cursed as he scrambled over a broken rock, his boot landing in a pool of water. At this point the roof of the cave was too low to allow him to stand up fully, and he was developing an ache in his neck.

      "I thought Blake's informant said these caves were passable," he snarled.

      "Jorgens was a caving enthusiast," Gan replied. "He went all through this cavern system years before the base was built."

      "Are you telling me," Avon said in stark disbelief, "that he went through here for fun?"

      Gan shone his torch over a veil of translucent rock that flowed down the far wall of the cave. "It is beautiful," he said.

      Avon didn't bother to answer that. Beauty was fine when you were above ground and in a comfortable position to appreciate it. Several hundred metres underground in a series of limestone caves with water running through them, was not his idea of the perfect place to be. He shone his torch along the line of the stream, seeking the entrance to the next cave. "Charming," he muttered under his breath. The water entered the current cavern through a narrow crevice. They were going to have to wade through knee-deep water - it was bound to get inside their boots. That was in addition to the delights of trying to squeeze between two irregular walls that refused to do anything so sensible as maintaining a straight vertical.

      His bracelet chimed. Avon snarled mentally and pressed the button.

      <Are you managing all right?> Blake asked.

      "Yes," Avon said shortly, "and we'll manage even better without interruptions."

      <You're sure you know what has to be done?>

      He didn't even give that one the dignity of a reply. They'd be under the base's shield soon, and the prospect of a communication's blackout was beginning to look increasingly attractive.

      He flashed his torch at the crevice ahead. It didn't seem any more inviting than it had before. Avon sighed inwardly and moved forward, placing his feet carefully on the rocks made slippery by the stream.



"How much further?" Gan asked. He didn't seem at all tired. Boring though his company was, Avon had to admit that Gan had been a good choice for this expedition. He made light work of climbs that had given Avon real problems. Much though he hated to admit it, Avon wasn't sure that he'd have made it this far without Gan's help. That thought was irritating in itself - dependency irked Avon.

      He glanced at the display on his datapad. "If Jorgens' information was correct, then the water intake should be somewhere in his cavern."

      "The well you mean?"

      "More or less. The water intake for the base is supposed to run down an old well shaft." Avon sounded sceptical.

      "If we go round the walls in opposite directions, we'll find it faster."

      Avon didn't bother to answer that. He set off to the right, looking for signs of an opening in the roof. Any shaft here would presumably end with the ceiling - there would have been no need to build a solid wall down to the level of the water.

      The torchlight reflected off metal. There was the pipe. It terminated in a deep pool which was constantly refilled as the stream flowed into it. Looking up, Avon could see the climb before them. The shaft went beyond the range of his torch. The sides were rough and uneven. There were handholds here and there, but for much of the climb, they were going to be dependent on bracing themselves between the rock and the metal of the pipe. For the first time, Avon had serious doubts as to whether they would be able to enter the base at all. It was one thing for a caving enthusiast to claim that the shaft was easy to climb - quite another thing for two rebels, with minimal equipment beyond pitons and rope, to attempt.



Avon turned the clay around in his hands. The woman wasn't a classic beauty; it was easy to see why Vila hadn't been interested in her. Still, there was an indefinable quality to the face. Gan had obviously taken great pains with his work. Gan had always taken care in everything he did.



      Coming back down the shaft had been no easier than going up it. Every muscle in Avon's back screamed complaint. The sound of the distant explosions, magnified by the echo from below, gave him a small degree of satisfaction: at least they had achieved what they had come here to do. He wedged himself tightly against the wall, checked the rope holding him to Gan, and brought his wrist up to his mouth. "Liberator, this is Avon."

      No reply.

      Damn. He tried again. Still no response. Either the Liberator was off station, or else the explosions that had destroyed the research base had failed to take out the shield generator.

      He looked up at Gan waiting patiently above him.

      "I can't contact Liberator. We'll have to get out of range of the shield before we know if they're still there or not."

      "All right. Can you manage?"

      "Yes." He had to manage, there was no other option.

      Three quarters of the way down, Avon put too much weight on a badly driven piton and slipped. He fell several metres in blind fear before the rope caught him and held. He spun in the blackness, the torch dangling from his belt shining into the depths below him. For a moment there was nothing below him but emptiness, and nothing above him but the dazzling light of Gan's torch shining in his eyes. Then Avon regained control; he reached out and hooked his fingers around the cold, unyielding stone and felt the comfort of its security. Gradually, he shifted his weight to where he could feel himself supported by solid, unmoving rock.

      "Thanks," he said quietly.

      Gan let out some slack in the rope to allow Avon freedom of movement. "The piton caught you."

      Avon said nothing. The rope had been clipped onto a piton, but he'd felt the jerk of it pulling out as he fell. Without Gan he'd have been dead.

      They moved on downwards without any further exchange of words.



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Judith Proctor

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