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Dupe

By Marian Mendez

Blake's eyes snapped open, but he saw nothing. Something covered his face. He put his hands up and encountered resistance. He investigated, trying to remain calm. A tough fabric covered his entire body. He pulled and kicked, but the fabric wouldn't tear, barely even moved. It was stiff and colder than anything he'd ever felt, so cold his mind couldn't register the sensation properly. He panicked and struggled, gasping wildly. His right hand struck something metallic amongst the folds. It had felt like a zipper, so he traced it up to the top of the sack, poking a finger through a small gap above the zipper, and pushing until he felt it give. Once he'd widened the gap enough to put his hand out and grasp the zipper pull from the outside, it went quicker. He wriggled out like a butterfly escaping from its chrysalis, landing on a hard surface with what should have been a loud thump. There was no sound. There hadn't been any, he suddenly realized, even his gasps being silent.

He kicked his way loose and stood. He still could see nothing, but he had his panic under control. He turned, arms outstretched to keep his balance, and saw a light. It was only a dim reddish glow, but it was the first point of reference he had found, and he was unutterably relieved. He moved toward the light slower than he would have liked, edging one foot forward to feel the way, and keeping his arms out to protect his face. There were obstacles, heavy, unyielding things that jarred him, and cables that unexpectedly slapped against his arms.

Where was he? The last thing he remembered was Avon... Gods, Avon's face. He thought he'd had a bad time of it, but what had happened to Avon? For that matter, what had happened to him? Hadn't Avon shot him? He groped over his belly, and encountered several ragged tears in his clothing. His fingers went further, and he stopped, sickened by the extent of the hole he had discovered. He didn't feel any pain, but he knew he must be dying. He should be dead already, but something had roused him and graced him with a last surge of strength, blessedly free from pain. He mustn't waste it. He pulled his torn vest together and tightened his wide belt to cover the gaping wounds. It was so cold, that was why he wasn't still bleeding.

He reached the light and fumbled beside it, finding a sealed door and a control panel. The panel had a pair of buttons. One was already depressed. With nothing to lose, Blake pressed the other button. The red light blinked rapidly for several minutes, then faded to yellow, and blinked slower for a few minutes more, and at last, turned green. The door slid open, revealing a brightly lit, small metal-walled chamber with another blinking red light at the far end, beside another closed door. Blake squinted against the light and went in. The door slid shut behind him. He glanced back, then took four steps to reach another control panel with two buttons. He hesitated, then pressed the raised button. His sleeves stirred, and he felt a breeze. Simultaneously, he began hearing a thin beep, synchronized with the light which was now blinking rapidly. The beep became clearer as the breeze strengthened. "No," Blake whispered hoarsely. It had been cold in the other chamber, true, but it couldn't be. Just because he hadn't been able to hear, it didn't mean there hadn't been any air. That was impossible. Temporary deafness must be another symptom of shock. After all, he'd lost a lot of blood. He shook his head. He didn't have time for this. He had a purpose. Yes, that was what had awakened him. He had to find Avon. Everything had gone wrong, it was all finished, but it couldn't be finished until he'd seen Avon once more. They couldn't leave it like this.

The door slid open, and Blake stepped out into a corridor. As he'd surmised, he was on a space vessel, and the arrowhead and linked circles emblazoned on the bulkhead told him whose it was. Federation. Instinctively, he reached into his pocket hideaway for the sleek little `bounty-hunter's friend' Jenna had given him. Ah, Jenna. He'd be joining her soon. Too soon if he didn't pay attention. If the Federation had him, then maybe Avon had been captured also. They wouldn't kill Avon outright. He was too valuable. That sharp mind held too many treasures. They couldn't. Avon must be alive. Blake stilled and listened intently. Footsteps. From the sound of them, one person going away from his present position. Blake ran after the footsteps as quietly as he could. Around a corner- carefully- there! Just ahead of him walked a man in trooper's uniform, casually carrying his helmet in one hand. Blake lunged, grabbed the trooper around the throat with his left arm, shoving his knife into the man's back just hard enough to cut. The helmet fell with a clatter. "It's a very good knife," Blake growled, "If my hand slips, you'll be beside yourself. Don't make me do it." Blake took the man's gun, picked up the helmet and glanced around. "I need someplace quiet where we can talk." When the man stayed silent, Blake tightened his grip and said, "Or I can just break your neck here, and find someone more cooperative."

The trooper's left arm lifted and pointed frantically at a narrow door only a few paces further along the corridor.

"If it's a trap, you'll die first," Blake promised. The door opened as they neared, and Blake shoved hard, sending the trooper face down to the deck. He stepped in far enough for the door to close, and planted a foot firmly on the trooper's back. He looked around. The room had no other exit, and was filled with stacked boxes of standard rations, all secured to racks lining a narrow passageway. Good enough. Blake picked up his foot, and put it under his prisoner, flipping the man over onto his back.

The trooper looked at Blake and gasped. His eyes rolled up, showing the whites, and his head lolled to one side.

Blake kicked the man, and the body shifted limply. With a muttered curse, Blake tossed the helmet to one side, and knelt. He slapped the man's face hard. "Wake up!"

The man muttered, and came around slowly. He blinked up at Blake. "You're dead," he blurted out, cringing away. "What are you, a zombie?" His accent was thick and guttural, but still understandable.

So they were recruiting Outworlders now. Some of the old superstitions lingered in the hinterlands. That could be useful. "Yes. And do you know why I've come back?" The trooper shook his head. "Revenge!" Blake snarled, glaring. "You killed me!"

"No, I didn't! I wasn't even there until after you died."

Blake shrugged. "You're a Federation trooper. You're as responsible as the trooper who pulled the trigger."

"But it wasn't one of us!" The man was frantic. "I swear. It was a rebel. Avon, Kerr Avon, he's the one who shot you, don't you remember?"

Blake frowned, then said, slowly, "Perhaps. I'm not sure. But he's not here, and you are. I must have a victim soon." He opened his mouth and licked his lips. "I'm hungry." He had no idea whether zombies, whatever they were supposed to be, ate people or not, but it seemed a fairly likely guess.

"NO! No, don't, not me, it's Avon you want, Avon! I can take you to him. He's here, on this ship."

"Where?"

"The next level down. In interrogation. Or maybe he's back in the cells with the rest of his crew by now. I don't know, but I can find out."

"His crew is alive? Vila Restal, is he alive?" Blake shook with the sudden surge of hope. If he had those two, then it was still possible. What was still possible? He was dying, and the longer he took to find them, the less chance he had of making his death count for something. In his anger he took the trooper by the neck and shook him.

"Yes, yes, they're alive! The cells, next level down, Blue 32 through 36. Kill them all, they were with Avon, they helped him murder you."
"Murder?" Blake gazed at the guard. "Oh, no. When Avon killed me, it was suicide." He knew that with a gut-deep certainty. His life and Avon's, they were so inextricably tangled together that the universe wasn't wide enough to break the bond. Stretch it, yes, but it was never broken. He felt sorry for Avon. He was going to end soon, but Avon would have to live with the guilt. The death of a friend. That was the lesson some aliens had once set out to teach Blake, but they were far too late. He'd already learned it by heart.The guard looked hopelessly confused and terrified. Out of pity, Blake struck, knocking the man out. He picked up the helmet, and looked at it, then at the unconscious man. He wasn't quite Blake's size, but his uniform was a loose fit. Still, there would be no getting it on over his own clothes. Blake undid his belt and took off the vest, staring resolutely at the wall while he did so. He ripped his shirt into strips, winding enough around his middle to cover his wound and prevent any seepage from showing through the trooper's uniform he appropriated. After he stripped the trooper he gagged and tied the man with more strips. He really ought to kill him, but Blake was sick of death. If he succeeded, there would be other ways to handle the prisoner situation. If he failed- well, at least one man would keep Blake's name alive. That trooper would never forget this day.

Blake knew the layout of this class of ship. Blue 32 was easy enough to find. Outside the cells there were five guards, spaced closely enough to watch each other, but too far apart to be taken out together. He glanced at the number on the door, and unbuttoned the pocket on his shirt. This would be risky. He pulled out a folded paper, and held it out to the guard at door 34, grunting, "Change of orders". He let the paper slip just as the other reached for it. The man bent slightly, and Blake snapped his neck, and flung the corpse in one blindingly swift motion at the guard to his right, simultaneously leaping on the guard at his left. Another sickening crunching twist, and another body hurled, this time to the left. Before either downed man could rise, Blake had thrown his knife, burying it to the hilt between the eyes of the fifth guard. He disarmed the two living men, dropping their guns to the deck and picked them up by their necks, one in each hand. His anger and desperation had given him incredible strength. "Don't make any noise," he warned them and dropped them to the deck. "If you cooperate, I won't kill you." He took off his helmet. "I am Blake, back from the dead."

He didn't know if they were conscripted from the same planet as his first victim, but their reaction was sufficiently terrified to suit him. "Where is Kerr Avon?"

"Interrogation," one trooper answered, just beating out the other one.

Blake not only knew where that was, he knew the standard crew complement on this class ship and how many he'd likely encounter along the way. Too many for one man. But if he had allies... Avon's crew. They should be willing and able to help. Avon may not have had his heart in rebelling, but he had fancied survival. His crew would be competent. Probably not very friendly, after the fiasco at Gauda Prime, but they'd fight for their lives.

"Open the cells." He could see prisoners on the other sides of the observation ports of the nearby cells. He pointed at the empty one, presumably intended for Avon. "This one first."

There was no argument. He took the keys from the guard, roughly frisked them both, and confiscated another set of keys. "In." The guards entered, and he locked them in. "Don't make a sound. No one can protect you from my wrath if you disobey." He really didn't want to kill them. Not unless it was necessary.

He opened the next cell. It contained the blonde woman who had been with Avon. She backed up. "I'm Blake," he said.

"I don't think so. Blake is dead. Even if by some miracle he wasn't, he couldn't be walking around today."

Blake ran a hand through his hair, controlling his impatience with an effort. "I haven't time to argue. Do you want to get out of this cell, or not?"

"I want out." The blonde stepped forward, giving Blake a wide berth as she exited the cell.

Blake retrieved his knife, wiping the blade on the uniform of the man it had killed, then he put the man's body into the woman's empty cell. "Are you Soolin or Dayna?" he asked as he added the other two corpses, carrying them both at once. "I'd heard stories about Avon's crew, but I had no visuals."

"Soolin," the woman replied. She looked past Blake to the bodies. They had been big men, and Blake had hefted them with no apparent effort. "What are you?"

"A friend, despite the uniform," Blake replied. "Can you afford to be choosy?" He picked up the three guards' weapons and tossed one to her. He was pleased to see the easy way she plucked it out of the air and the familiarity with which she held it.

She aimed the gun at him, then lowered it. "No."

"Good. I need help." He unlocked the next cell, deliberately turning his back on Soolin as he did. "You must be Dayna Mellanby," he said as this cell produced another attractive young woman.

She narrowed her gaze. "Must I?" she said. She eased into a crouch and sidled around him. "I don't think I like you, Blake, or whoever you are."

"That's a pity." He handed her a gun, butt first. "Do you like the Federation?"

Dayna shook her head, and checked over the gun. "Not much," she said, rubbing at an ugly bruise spreading across one cheekbone. "But how do I know you aren't Federation? This could all be some sort of trick."

"Paranoia is an occupational hazard among rebels. Still, doesn't a trick seem a bit unnecessary to you? After all, you already were prisoners. What would I have to gain?"

"Our trust," Dayna said promptly.

Blake laughed. "Then I suppose I went about it the wrong way, as I haven't got it, have I?" He opened the third cell. This contained the young man who'd told Avon that Blake had betrayed them. "Tarrant," he said coldly. "Get up."

Tarrant shook his head and remained seated on the hard bench in his cell. He'd been beaten and battered, but his blue eyes still gleamed with defiance. "No. I don't take orders from you."

"You were wrong about me. I didn't betray Avon. I'm trying to save him. If you want to help, then you'll come with us."

"Us?" Tarrant asked, looking at Dayna and Soolin. They looked at each other, and at Blake, then Dayna said, "Well, we haven't any better offers."

Soolin added, "We can always kill him later."

"If you can," Blake added, good-naturedly. "Then again, it might be better if you stay here, Tarrant. I won't need a pilot until after I've taken over the ship."

"Think a lot of yourself, don't you?" Tarrant mumbled, as he worked his way up to a standing position. He went a little pale, but he stayed on his feet.

Blake eyed Tarrant, weighing the man's obvious weakness against his determination. It was a toss-up, but if Tarrant wanted to go down fighting, he certainly deserved the option. "Are you up to handling a gun?" He offered the last of the extra weapons he'd been carrying, and Tarrant took it, slinging the carry strap over one shoulder and letting the muzzle sag forward.

"I'll manage."

Blake opened the last door. "Vila? You can come out now."

Vila was curled up on the deck, as far away from the cell door as possible. "I don't want to," Vila moaned. "It hurts."

"What does, Vila?" Blake said, coming into the cell, and kneeling beside Vila. His voice gentled. There wasn't time for this, but he couldn't rush Vila. Vila was more resilient than anyone he knew, but he had his limits.

"Everything. You. Avon. Me. They're questioning Avon, but they'll start on me next. He'll tell them I know, and I don't. I don't!" Vila was hysterical; for once his babbling was no act. "I don't know anything. He's just like you, Blake, he never tells me anything. They'll kill him, and I'm next." Vila rocked back and forth, moaning in fear.

"Not if we save Avon. If we get him away before they're finished with him, they won't start on you."

"They won't?" Vila uncurled a little, still trembling. "You promise, Blake?"

"Yes." Blake rested his hand gently on Vila's shoulder. "You'll be safe with me."

Vila shuddered all over. "That's what I thought about Avon." Vila looked up at Blake. "He used to be my friend before he tried to kill me. He used to be your friend, too, before he killed you."

"Vila." Blake squeezed Vila's shoulder. "I'm not dead."

Vila looked skeptical, but at the same time as though he desperately wanted to believe. "Are you sure?"

"Quite sure. Come on, Vila, get kitted up. Give Vila a gun, Dayna." Blake had noticed her collecting the two he'd left on the deck.

Dayna looked at Vila. He was still trembling, but his eyes looked less wild. She shrugged. "All right, Vila. Just try to remember to aim away from us."

Vila snapped, "I know whose side I'm on. It's Avon who's confused about that." Vila took the gun with less reluctance than Blake expected. Times hadn't been easy for him either.

"Yes, well," Tarrant said, "we'll explain it to him when we rescue him."

"Do we have to?" Vila asked, plaintively.

"Yes, we do," Dayna informed him. She slung the remaining extra gun over her shoulder and darted to the end of the corridor to peer around the corner. "No one in sight. Let's go now."

"To interrogation?" Vila asked, wincing. He clutched tighter at his gun.

"We need Avon," Blake said.

"But do we need him that bad?" Vila muttered, almost sounding like himself.

"Yes, Vila." Blake was glad to have found Vila, but Avon was more important.

The interrogation area was nearby, which was only logical. Cattle are usually penned near the slaughterhouse. Blake directed Avon's crew to kill as silently as possible the few guards they encountered. He wanted no warning given to Avon's captors. The last thing he needed was a hostage situation. He still remembered Raiker. He wasn't so sure now that he would surrender to save an ordinary hostage, but Avon was special. He needed Avon.

Blake was the first one through the door into the interrogation room. He took in the room in a brief flash. There were two men and a woman standing near a table. Avon was strapped down on the table, naked and bloody. Blake's vision went black around the edges, and he roared in rage, repeatedly triggering his weapon as he ran forward. The shrill whine of his gun cut short shouts of surprise from his targets. He let the gun drop to hang from the shoulder strap as he reached Avon, kicking aside the woman's corpse in order to reach the table. "Avon! Are you all right?"

Avon looked up at him, but Blake didn't think he saw him. His pupils were dilated black pits in a chalky white face. Avon muttered, "No, no," while shaking his head. Blake examined him quickly, deciding with relief that the injuries were mostly superficial, although undoubtedly painful.

The rest of Avon's crew followed Blake into the room. "I thought we were going to be quiet?" Tarrant asked. He winced as alarms began ringing. "That's done it. Soolin, Dayna, watch the door. Vila, get in here." He limped to the other end of the room to check that there were no other personnel.

Soolin nodded, pulled Vila in by the sleeve and gave him a nudge in Tarrant's direction. She positioned herself where she could easily view both ends of the corridor outside the door. A pair of troopers appeared, running, and she snapped off two shots. They fell, and were still. "Two down."

Dayna ignored Tarrant's orders, coming over to the table to look at Avon. She stopped just before she got there and said, quietly, "It's her. Damn."

Tarrant snapped,"Dayna, help Soolin!" He was out of breath, and holding one elbow tightly against his side while he searched through a drug cabinet.

"In a minute, Tarrant. I just have to make certain." Dayna knelt by the woman's corpse, rolled it over, and touched two fingers delicately just under the left ear for a long moment. "She's dead at last." Dayna pushed the limp head to one side and rose gracefully to her feet. She stared down at the body, then shook her head. "You can rest now, father," she said and turned to the door.

"What?" Tarrant asked, looking up.

"Servalan's dead," she announced. "Blake got her. I wanted to do it." She frowned. "Oh, well, at least I got to see it happen." She took up a position facing one length of corridor, and Soolin eased back to cover the other side.

Tarrant looked at Servalan's corpse for a long moment, then swallowed and shook his head. "Vila, come here and help me."

Vila moved slowly, circling widely around the bodies. He perked up a little when he saw the cabinet Tarrant was trying to open. "Here, you're going at that all wrong." He ran his hands around the cabinet, cocked his head to one side, and tapped hard with the heel of his hand on the edge of the cabinet. The door sprang open.

"Thanks." Tarrant picked up a pair of vials and began studying the labels.

"What are you looking for?" Vila asked. He seemed calmer.

"Stimulants. Something to keep me on my feet." Tarrant glanced at Avon. "I'd give him something too, but I don't want to chance a bad reaction."

"Use this," Vila said, pointing to another vial inside the cabinet. "It's got less side-effects."

"All right. I bow to the expert." Tarrant measured a dose, then rolled up one tattered sleeve to inject himself. He shut his eyes and sighed, then straightened, rolling down the sleeve. "That's better." He looked at the interrogation table, where Blake was still trying to rouse Avon. "Blake. Leave him."

Blake looked up. Tarrant was right. Even if he could get Avon on his feet, the man was too drugged to fight. He touched Avon on the shoulder and said, "Rest, Avon. It'll be all right."

"I wish I believed that," Tarrant said softly , while kneeling near the door to add his firepower without getting in the women's way. "Do you have any idea how many troopers there are on a ship this size?" he commented as men gathered around the corner of the corridor. They were quiet, but their shadows gave them away. If they came en masse, Tarrant and the others were done for, but the first troopers to cross the threshold would die. That had to be discouraging. It would probably be a few minutes before an officer browbeat them into a charge.

"Thirty-five," Blake replied as he located another vantage point. "But we've already accounted for over a dozen." He hefted his gun. "We've faced worse odds, Avon and I."

Dayna and Soolin were too busy to exchange even a brief glance, but their expressions revealed what they thought of Blake's optimism.

Vila asked, "When?"

Blake glanced at Vila. "The worst they can do is kill us. We won't be captured alive, I swear it."

"That's supposed to make me feel better?" Vila said, backing away from Blake in alarm.

Tarrant shook his head. "Let's not jump the gun. Right now, we have to concentrate on them." He waved at the shadows.

A voice called out from the corridor, "This is Space Major Varrick. You haven't a chance."

"Too right," Vila complained softly, moving even further away from the door. No one bothered to glare at him, and he headed for the drugs cabinet.

"What do you want, Major?" Tarrant asked.

"I want you to be sensible and give yourselves up. If you surrender now, I'll see that you'll receive no additional punishment for the escape attempt."

Dayna grimaced while Soolin's lip curled slightly. They knew how much that promise was worth.

"That's very kind of you," Tarrant replied. "But that's not saying much, is it? After all, we're already scheduled for torture and execution. I don't think there's really much you can offer us."

"Just release your hostages, then," the Major said. "Commissioner Sleer has influence. She can get your charges reduced if you cooperate."

Tarrant grinned. "The good commissioner has lost all her influence, I'm afraid. She might intercede for you in hell, though. But you should ask for her under her proper name. She was once known as President Servalan."

"Servalan? But Servalan is dead."

"She is now," Dayna called out. "Blake killed her."

"You're all mad. Blake is dead and frozen in our hold. Just like the rest of you will be." Varrick had dropped his placating tone. Apparently, negotiations were over.

Tarrant looked at Blake. "You're pretty active for a frozen corpse."

Blake shrugged. "They made a mistake." He frowned. "So did I, trapping us in here."

"Um, Blake?" Vila said.

"Not now, Vila," Blake and Tarrant said simultaneously.

"But, Blake, I found some drugs..."

"Then take them!" Tarrant snapped. "You can't even die like a man."

Vila gasped, and went silent, shuffling off to the back of the room.

"That wasn't necessary," Blake said.

"Maybe not, but I haven't time to cater to Vila. Not now. If we survive, I'll apologize." He looked grim.

The crowd of shadows was thickening, and a muffled rattling of guns indicated the troopers were getting their courage up for the charge. Blake said, "I'll go back to Avon."

Dayna reached a hand out to touch him on the sleeve. He paused and she said, "Can you do it?"

Blake gazed into her eyes and nodded. "Yes. It was always a big responsibility, being Avon's friend. This is one last act of kindness I can do for him."

Dayna nodded, one sharp dip of her chin. "Yes, you understand Avon. It's right that you should do it."

"But don't be in a hurry," Tarrant added. "You never know."

Blake went over to Avon and stood over his friend. Avon had lapsed into unconsciousness. It was probably just as well, but Blake wished they had a few minutes to settle things. He rested one hand on Avon's shoulder. Blake calmed, and lifted his head to stare outside the door. It would be over soon.

He couldn't see the troopers, so he watched Soolin. He had gained considerable respect for her skills. She would probably be the one to see the attack begin. Soolin blinked, and yawned then tightened her grip on her gun, looking angry at herself for her lapse. Blake was about to say something to her when she yawned again, and slipped over to her side. Dayna landed on top of her, and Tarrant slid down beside them. "What?" Blake suddenly realized what had happened. "Gas! No!" He looked down at Avon, rested the muzzle of his weapon over Avon's heart and said, "I'm sorry we came to this, old friend." He started to pull the trigger.

"No! Blake, don't! It's all right!" Vila leaped forward, knocking Blake's gun aside, incidentally blowing a tableful of torture equipment to slag. "I did it. I put soma-vapor in the ventilation systems." He slapped a drug-patch on Blake's arm. "Here's the antidote. I already took it."

Blake sighed. "Vila, you never cease to amaze me. But why didn't you say anything?" he asked as he took another patch and applied it to Avon.

"Maybe I want a little respect." Vila shuffled a handful of patches, and went over to his three crewmates, collapsed in the doorway. "I don't know. I kinda like Tarrant this way," he said as he put patches on Soolin and Dayna.

"There are a lot of troopers to take care of before they wake. We'll need all the help we can get," Blake pointed out. He went out into the hallway and wasn't immediately shot, which he took for a good sign.

"True," Vila said. "Wake up, Tarrant, you lazy lout. There's work to do," Vila said cheerfully as he put the last patch on Tarrant.

Troopers, crew, and assorted personnel, including the one Blake had tied up in the supply closet, were gathered up and deposited in the ship's emergency escape pods, which were then launched on automatic. They probably would reach a habitable world before the oxygen ran out. The corpses were unceremoniously dumped out the airlock, although Tarrant retained enough spacer decorum to aim them toward a solar body.

Tarrant was dragging his feet and nearly stumbled into a bulkhead when Blake caught him. "Come on, Tarrant."

"Where?" Tarrant asked wearily.

"Medical unit."

"No." Tarrant tried to pull away from Blake. "Have to set a course. We're probably in the middle of Federation space lanes." He almost fell over.

"I can set a course," Blake said. "I know some rebel safe-points. Even if the captain got off a message they can't possibly get a ship here immediately. We'll need you fit later, when they do come after us."

"And they will," Vila said gloomily. "We're popular these days."

Dayna was walking beside him, and she patted Vila on the back. "Cheer up, Vila. At least Servalan's gone."

"What, you think there's a shortage of sadistic, power-mad officers in Space Command? We'll just wind up with another loony after us."

"Still, a change is as good as a rest, they say," Soolin remarked. She was cheerful and enjoying the release of tension. Things could get very bad very quickly, but at the moment, they were all alive and free. Cause enough for celebration.

"Who says?" Vila shook his head.

"Vila, go to the flight deck with Dayna," Tarrant said. "Someone ought to keep watch."

"Oh, all right." Vila turned and trudged off, with Dayna trotting ahead.

Tarrant made it almost all the way to the medical unit before he tripped over nothing and sprawled on the deck. Blake carried him the last couple of meters. Soolin followed, saying, "There should be some diagnostic equipment. Avon, don't be stupid." She ran ahead of Blake, and caught Avon by the shoulders. He was trying to get up.

"Let go," he snarled. His face was still pale, but his eyes were closer to normal. He was staring at Blake, who had his hands full getting Tarrant's apparently boneless length draped over another table.

"Just sit there a minute. I need to check Tarrant, and I don't want to have to waste time picking you up off the floor." She stared into Avon's eyes until he stopped fighting her.

"How bad is he?" Avon asked, pulling his legs around to sit up, hands braced on the table. He was breathing heavily, head hanging low.

"I don't know. I don't expect it's too serious, as they did give him some treatment when we were captured. Let me make sure." Soolin crossed to Blake and took the handheld diagnostic scanner he'd found. "Go talk to Avon."

Blake wanted nothing more, and at the same time, he dreaded it. "Avon." He took a deep breath. "I'm glad to see you." He reached out a hand, but Avon made no move to take it. Blake dropped his hand.

"I shot you. At least it looked like you."

"It was me," Blake admitted. "I haven't much time. I'm surprised I've made it this far." He lightly touched his abdomen. "I couldn't die until we had a chance to talk."

"Soolin?" Avon asked, glancing at Blake. She looked up from running a reading on Tarrant and aimed the scanner at Blake. She looked at it, frowned, adjusted the setting and frowned again. "Strange. These readings don't make any sense. No pulse, body temperature seventy-eight degrees, no brain-wave activity. According to this, you're dead, Blake." She pulled her gun. "I asked you once before, what are you?"

"I told you, I'm Blake. The scanner must be defective." Blake had a sudden fear, worse than the accepted terror of death. Something was horribly wrong.

"It read Tarrant properly. " Soolin turned the scanner on herself. "And it works on me. Drop your weapon, Blake."

"I've saved you all," Blake protested.

"Drop it," Avon said, coldly, "or Soolin will drop you."

"No, Avon!" Blake moved forward, protesting. He wasn't even thinking about the threat, just the need to convince Avon that he wasn't an enemy. He heard a whine of gunfire behind him, and was pushed forward by the force of the blast, his belly slamming into the edge of Avon's table. He reached out and held onto Avon. His legs weren't working and it was getting very difficult to see, or think. "I didn't be...tray ..." he got out before his senses failed him entirely. The last thing he saw was Avon's face, looking stricken.

Blake woke up. He blinked and coughed. Avon's face moved into his line of vision. Avon pushed up a magnifier headset and flicked off a laser probe. "Don't move."

Blake tried to lift a hand anyway. He felt the muscles move, but the hand was restrained. He lifted his head and looked down. He was held down by thick restraints. "Why, Avon? I know we were often at odds, but we were always on the same side."

Avon tilted his head to one side and seemed to be considering his response. "I was always on my own side. Blake was always for the masses. Where is he?"

"Where is who?" Blake asked, confused. Avon was hostile, but in a peculiarly cold manner.

"Blake."

"Are you blind, man? I am Blake!"

Avon pulled back the sheet covering Blake's torso. "You are nothing."

Blake looked down. He froze. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. Through the blood, through the torn flesh, there was something else, shaped like blood vessels, but the colors- green? orange? striped black and white? "What did you do to me?"

"I repaired your circuit linkages." Avon poked idly with the probe in Blake's `guts'. "Quite sophisticated. Without Orac I can only speculate, but it appears that this is designed to transmit human equivalent readings to diagnostic equipment. It also has a feedback system so that you will react as a human. When this area was damaged, you were able to display superhuman strength, without the limitation this imposes."

Blake mind whirled. He remembered the android that had mocked Avalon's form. A machine. A collection of electronic devices and mechanical synapses, that was all he was. Abruptly, Blake felt sick. He turned his head to the side, and vomited. Avon calmly placed a basin under his chin and wiped up the residue when he was finished. "Yes, really a remarkable simulacrum. Your `skeleton' is covered with an artificial flesh, containing muscle, blood vessels, and fat cells. You also possess a functional digestive tract, sweat glands, hair follicles; all the minutiae of external appearance. Amazing workmanship. It would be a pity to destroy you."

"Avon," Blake groaned. "No, I don't understand it. The Federation must have done this to me."

"You aren't a cyborg or a mutoid. You were never human, not any part of you. You are a machine. I can do what I like with you." Avon showed his teeth. "As you have been made to respond as a human, you will undoubtedly react with human fear, but it is all a simulation. You - aren't -real." Avon said the last three words distinctly. "Now, where is the real Roj Blake? Then again, it's unlikely you would know his current whereabouts. When were you switched for him?"

Blake couldn't answer. He was Blake. He was the only Blake he knew. He shook his head mutely.

Avon said, "I am very good with machines. You'll tell me what I want to know, one way or the other. If I have to disassemble you down to component level and analyze the debris, I will. I do have one question first."

"I don't have any answers."

Avon stared at Blake, and for a moment, Blake saw vulnerability there. "Why? Why did you rescue us after you set us up for capture?"

"I didn't set you up. I set up my base on Gauda Prime! I waited two years for you to join me. I am Blake! I am not a machine!" Blake lunged against the straps, but they held.

Avon flinched, but did not step back. "You are as willfully blind as Blake. It's a pity such a magnificent achievement was wasted on a copy of such an irrational man." Abruptly Avon went gray, and leaned on the table. Blake turned his hand and caught at Avon's arm.

"Are you all right?"

Avon wrenched himself loose. "I don't need sympathy from a machine."

"You never accepted it from a human, either," Blake said, softly.

Vila came in the room just then, and cleared his throat. "Um, Avon."

"Yes, what is it?"

"Tarrant wants you to tell him where to go."

"I doubt he phrased it in quite that manner."

"No, but that's what he meant." Vila came in and looked down at Blake. "Um. Does it know anything about Blake?"

"No. No surprise, really. The machine was programmed to behave like Blake. That means it doesn't actually have to think."

Blake was silent under the insult.

"I'll go give Tarrant his directions. You stay away from this machine. It is not Blake. It is not even human."

"What are you going to do with it?" Vila asked.

"I haven't decided yet. If I can reprogram it to obey, it might be very useful."

"But it looks like Blake. You couldn't make Blake into a slave!" Vila protested.

"It's either reprogram it or destroy it. I'm going to get some rest before I start. I wouldn't want to accidentally damage it." Avon looked down at Blake, then shook his head. "It is an extremely expensive toy."
"How expensive?" Vila asked.

"I should say it would run to the millions of credits- if you could find anyone capable of the work." Avon shook his head. "This degree of sophistication was an extravagant expenditure simply to provide bait in a trap. It doesn't make sense." He shook his head once more, and left.

Vila remained behind, looking at Blake curiously. He stared at the slit-open belly, and said, "Doesn't that hurt?"

"No," Blake replied. "But I am thirsty."
"You drink?"

"And eat, and think, and feel. What's the difference between a man and a machine which thinks it's a man, Vila?"

"Well, for one thing, Avon's going to take you apart and fix you so he can trust you. He can't do that with people." Vila discovered a water dispenser and a supply of disposable cups. He filled one and brought it over to Blake.

"I can't drink like this," Blake said, lifting his head as far as he could.

"Yes, you can," Vila answered, producing a straw, sticking it in the glass and bending it down to Blake's lips. "You can't fool me."

Blake drank and then smiled ruefully. "I did once, though. Remember, the time I took us to Atlay? When the Federation conditioning was affecting me?"

"How did you know that? No, don't tell me, I don't want to know."

"Vila, release me. I'm not your enemy, you know that."

"No, I don't. And even if you were a friendly machine, if I let you go, Avon would kill me." Vila turned and began fiddling with various small objects that littered the top of a cabinet. "I told you, he tried once already. Not that anyone cares."

Blake couldn't imagine Avon ever seriously threatening Vila. They had been good friends, even though neither of them would admit it. When he thought of Avon and Vila, he had a mental image of two small boys scuffling in the dirt, calling each other names, then getting up to play another game. Neither of them had ever properly grown up, which was why he could never get too angry with them. "I care," Blake offered. "But I can't believe he really intended to hurt you."

Vila turned back to face Blake, his eyes hard. "I suppose you're right. He didn't mean to hurt me. He was just going to efficiently throw out a bit of rubbish so that he could live. If he had time, he probably would have humanely shot me before he spaced me."

"Vila."

"What?" Vila came close, and leaned on Blake's table, still nervously playing with his handful of objects. " If you really are Blake, you tell me, what can I do about Avon? He's crazy. Of course he wasn't crazy when you knew him, if you knew him at all, so you probably don't know what to do about him, anyway. Why am I even talking to you?"

"I can help, if you'll just let me go," Blake growled, pulling against the bonds. He realized that was a mistake when Vila jumped, dropping a handful of assorted bits.

"No." Vila scooped up the things, pocketed them and fled the room. He paused in the doorway to look back. "I'm sorry for you, but I'm sorrier for me. At least when Avon gets through with you, you won't be afraid of him."

"Vila!" Blake shouted. He pulled hard against the straps, then lay back, cursing. "Damn it." They needed him. Avon needed him. The Cause needed him. Even if he was just a superbly programmed machine, he was a machine with feelings and his intuition was shrieking at him that they would all die without him. He had to get loose. His head pounded. He knew what he had to do. He couldn't let them stop him. He lunged again and this time he felt something move. He looked down. One of Vila's objects had landed next to his right hand. It was a pair of long-handled surgical shears. Blake hadn't much play in the strap binding his wrist, but he managed to pick up the shears between his fingertips, then edge them around toward the strap. He tried for several minutes of increasing frustration before he was forced to admit that the angle was impossible. He couldn't get enough leverage to cut. There had to be some way of getting out of this! He turned the scissors around, trying to reach the straps on his left hand. The angle was good, but he couldn't quite reach. The scissors snipped uselessly in the air above his belly.

Above his belly. Above the circuitry that Avon had repaired. The circuitry that limited him to human strength. Blake thought about it for a few seconds. If he cut the wrong things, he might very well kill himself. He laughed. How do you kill a machine? He called up the mental image of Avon pointing the probe at the repaired places. Now, let's be logical about this. Take one connection at a time.

Blake snipped, holding his breath as he did, despite knowing that he didn't require oxygen. The soma gas hadn't affected him, and neither had the vacuum of the hold. But men breathe, and Blake was determined to be a man. He pushed against the bonds, but they still held. Another snip. He pushed with all his strength against the straps. Nothing. A third snip, this time catching two connections at once. He lifted his arms and the straps snapped. He sat up, tearing loose the chest restraints, then unbuckled the ankle straps.

He was free. Now he could... could do what? Avon and his crew would try to kill him on sight. He couldn't even flee, as they'd used all the escape pods in disposing of the captured troopers. His headache came back again. He rubbed his temples and tried to think. What could he do? He was only a machine! Abruptly, his headache eased and he felt a calm certainty. He knew what to do. It was obvious. He had to go to Earth. Earth was the center of the Federation. He would take Avon and the others to Earth and everything would be all right.

Blake went to the drug cabinet and found the soma vapor cannister Vila had used. It was half full. He opened the valve and set it in the nearest ventilation duct. They would fall asleep, and he would have the ship. It was very simple. He found a soft-tissue regenerator and fused his torn flesh, then put on a Federation uniform. He would need that later.

He waited ten minutes, then went to the flight deck. They were all there, slumped unconscious over the panels. Avon must have sensed something as he lay before an opened emergency vacuum suit compartment with his hand on a detached helmet. Blake put the helmet back and closed the cabinet, then took Avon to the medical unit, where he ran a full diagnostic scan. Avon would recover without further treatment, he decided. He methodically checked each of his prisoners, then put them into the cells he'd rescued them from and locked the doors. He had scanned Vila with particular thoroughness, removing almost a kilo of probes, picks and unidentifiable tools before securing him. Everything was going smoothly. He would save Avon from himself. It was obvious the man was unstable. He could be cured on Earth.

He went back to the flight deck and set a direct course for Earth. He frowned. Wasn't this dangerous? He could scarcely fight his way past the entire Federation. Wait, he remembered now. He was to send a coded signal. He had friends on Earth. They would help. He sent the signal, then settled down to keep watch. It was a pity he had no one to relieve him, but he was strong. He could handle it.

He busied himself checking out the ship and familiarizing himself with the controls, and was momentarily startled when the communications console came to life, reporting an incoming message. Of course, it was the reply to his signal. He didn't recognize the voice, but he knew it was his contact. He heard,"Welcome home. I am impressing clearance responses on your shipboard computer. You will proceed to rendezvous point upon termination of your flight."

The computer beeped and blinked as it accepted the programming. Blake verified receipt of transmission. It had been six hours since he had released the soma vapor. By now the automatic filtration systems had cleared the air and the others should have recovered consciousness.

He rechecked that all flight deck systems were nominal and their course was clear. According to the program, he shouldn't encounter Federation vessels for another forty hours. It was time to attend to the needs of his prisoners. He wanted them to arrive in good condition. They were valuable, especially Vila and Avon. He headed for the cell block, pausing at the supply room to collect prisoner ration packs, selecting self-heating, non-drugged ones. There was no need to dose them with suppressants. Blake was in total control of the situation. He stopped at the first door and slid back the observation panel. He didn't see anyone.

"Avon. I know you're in there. Here, I've brought you some food." He pulled the activator tab of the food packet and bent down and slipped it through the feeding slot. "Eat it while it's hot." The packet lay there, just inside the slot. Blake added a water pouch. "It's not drugged."

He heard movement and saw Avon moving back away from the door into view. "Where are you taking us?" Avon asked, his diction precise and voice as cold as space.

That was Avon. Blake smiled at the familiarity of that autocratic voice. "Earth," Blake replied. There was no reason not to let Avon know. Maybe it would please him that Blake was finally sharing his plans with him. "I have contacts there."

"You mean you are delivering us to your Federation masters," Avon sneered. He folded his arms. "Well, you may just come up one short on your quota."

"Avon, don't be melodramatic. I'm not going to hurt you."

"You are a machine. You will do whatever you are programmed to do."

Blake shook his head. "I was with you on Liberator for two years. I didn't hurt you then, and I won't hurt you now. Be patient, you'll see, my plan will work."

"Blake..." Avon shook his head, apparently changing his mind. "Listen to me. You are programmed with Roj Blake's personality. If any of that remains, you must know that you are acting counter to that personality. Blake would never turn me over to the Federation. He would never turn anyone over to the Federation." Abruptly, Avon bit his lip and turned his head aside.

"Ah, I see you recall that I was a bounty hunter on Gauda Prime. I never did turn over any rebels or innocent men. In fact, I had a reputation for picking up the only most vicious crimmos."

"According to the Federation we fall in that category."

"Avon," Blake reproached. "Look, why don't you try just trusting me?"

Avon stiffened. "That was what Blake requested when his programming was triggered. I didn't trust him and I don't trust you."

Blake sighed. "All right, then, stew in your own paranoia. But if I come back and you haven't eaten, I'll consider force-feeding you. Neither of us would enjoy that." Blake gave up on Avon and went to the next door.

"Tarrant," Blake said as he slid the rations under the door. "I hope you'll be more sensible than Avon." He opened the observation slot, curious to see how far recovered Tarrant was.

"Oh, I nearly always am," Tarrant replied. He took the rations and smiled at Blake. "So we're going to Earth. That's good. Could you use some help on the flight deck? I am a trained pilot."

"Nice try, but no, I'm not letting you out." Blake left the observation slot open, as he had Avon's. "I will leave the slots open so you can talk to your friends, though." Tarrant didn't look overly grateful for the favor.

Blake went on to the next cell. "Vila." He looked through the slot and frowned. Vila was curled up at the back of his cell. "I know you're awake." Vila didn't move. "Don't you want your soma and adrenalin?" He pushed three packets through Vila's food slot. "I can take it back if you don't want it."

Vila uncurled slowly. "No, don't do that. I want it." Vila looked thoroughly miserable. He retrieved the packets and opened the special Blake had made up for him. He took a long swig. "I need something to dull the pain."

"You aren't injured."

"Oh, no?" Vila tapped at his chest. "It hurts here." He curled up with his drink. "Go away."

Vila was upset, but that was because he didn't understand how important Blake's cause was. Sometimes people had to suffer to make things come out right.

Soolin and Dayna were quieter than the men had been, but no more friendly. Blake sighed again. He was accustomed to resistance even from his own crew, but he still hoped to eventually win them over. The things he could have accomplished if only Avon would have followed him wholeheartedly. Still, even without Avon, he would succeed in his mission.

"Ooh, oooh, Blake. I'm sick. Please, you've got to help me!"

Blake glanced in the observation window. Vila was writhing on the cell floor. "What's wrong?"

"My stomach. It's burning. The food must be bad."

"Or maybe you drank too much," Blake commented. In the two days since he'd incarcerated Avon's crew, Vila had pleaded for a drink several times and Blake had complied. Being locked up was harder on Vila than the others, for reasons of professional pride if nothing else. Vila groaned even louder. "I could bring you something to settle your stomach," Blake offered. Vila shuddered all over and went limp. "Vila? Vila!" Blake unlocked the door and knelt down beside Vila. "It's all right, Vila."

"It will be," Vila snapped, whirling to strike at the back of Blake's neck. Instinctively Blake moved to his right, letting the blow hit him on the shoulder. Vila yelped and landed on the cell floor, clutching his right hand. He scuttled back away from Blake. "Let me see your hand." Vila shook his head even harder. "At least let me see you move your fingers. You could have broken a bone. I'll take you to the medical unit."

"No," Vila said finally. "It's not broken."

From the other cell, Avon said, "Idiot! You might have been able to escape from the medical unit!"

Blake decided there really wasn't anything wrong with Vila. He left the cell and locked it, then went over to Avon's door. He remembered Avon dismantling the Avalon android and pointing out a weakness in basic design. "Nerves" were thinly covered at the neck, and a sudden pressure on them would lock up motor control. "That was your bright idea, wasn't it, Avon? Did you stop to consider the consequences for Vila?" Blake said, angrily. "You know how important his hands are to him."

"I know how important survival is to all of us," Avon snapped back.

"Then you ought to have tried it yourself," Blake replied. "Instead of using Vila."

"Vila's talents were better suited to the mission than mine."

Vila came over to his window and said, "That's the first time you've admitted I'm better than you at anything."

"But then, he has had much more practice at feigning illness than I."

Blake sighed. They were at it again. He started to walk away, then stopped. When Avon and Vila played their comic routine, it was often intended as a distraction. But what did they want to distract him from? Oh. Of course. He patted his pockets and discovered a distinct lack. "Vila. Hand it over."

"What?" Vila asked innocently.

"The laser probe." He inventoried his pockets fully. "And the spare cell key." He put his hand into the observation slot. "Or do you want me to come in and get them?"

Reluctantly, Vila handed over the purloined objects. "I'm sorry, Avon. I tried."

"Don't you two ever quit?" Blake asked.

"Never," Avon replied. He went back to pacing out the confines of his cell. He would say, if asked, that he was attempting to keep fit, but it resembled the frustrated stalking of a captive predator. He ate next to nothing, but he was still taking in adequate amounts of fluid, so Blake didn't follow through on his force-feeding threat. The journey wouldn't be long enough for a fast to do any harm and he didn't want to allow Avon any opportunity for escape. Maybe he knew other android vulnerabilities. Avon professed not to be an expert on androids, but he certainly knew more than Blake did. Better not to take any chances.

Blake scrubbed his hand over his face and yawned. It had been four days since he slept. He had to handle the ship, watch for Federation traffic in case they required more than a computer response and take care of his prisoners. That didn't leave much time for anything else. He told himself that he didn't need sleep, that it was just an artifact of his programming, a dispensable part of his mimicry of humanity. Only his programming didn't listen to logic. It slowed his reaction time down to the point where he was afraid his clumsiness endangered the ship. If only he could get some help. But he couldn't. The only ones who could help him didn't trust him.

He sat up and watched the star field. It was beautiful and very soothing, watching all the colors, the swirls of nebula, the glowing gas-clouds, the little curves of comets making their rounds. His head nodded. He blinked, slowly. His eyes felt like burning suns themselves. He would just shut them for a few seconds...

A screeching alarm went off, startling Blake to his feet. Which alarm was it? Proximity alert, navigational hazard, systems failure, which? He couldn't think! His body recognized a situation calling for an adrenaline surge, and lifted the hazy dullness from his mind. The cells! He snatched up the gun he kept by his side at all times, and ran.

The corridors were quiet, echoing his footfalls, and nothing else. He skidded around the corner of the cell block. One door was blown entirely out, panels lying shattered and blackened against the deck. A quick mental count revealed it was the cell belonging to Dayna Mellanby. Dayna - of course; she was the daughter of Hal Mellanby, the weapons' expert. Somehow she must have hidden something explosive on her person, something the scans didn't pick up. She'd probably had whatever it was all along, but sensibly waited until her opposition was limited to one increasingly weary guard. No doubt they'd seen him yawning and stumbling over his own feet when he left after his last rounds. She was nowhere in sight.

Blake ran along the corridor, glancing into the intact cells. All the others were still there. Apparently she'd had only one charge. He could be grateful for that, he supposed.

He turned back, and stopped at the first cell. "Where is she?" Blake demanded of Avon.

Avon looked up. He was sitting on the far side of his cell, arms around his knees. "Who?"

Blake glared. "Don't play games, Avon. Where is the girl?"

Avon shrugged. "I've no idea," he said smoothly. "Have you tried the galley? She was complaining about the cuisine."

Tarrant added, "I asked her to pick something up for me, too."

"Vila." Blake went over to the third cell. "Tell me where Dayna's going. I don't want to hurt her, but I will if I must."

"Dayna didn't care for your hospitality," Vila said. "I can't say as I'm enjoying it, either." He looked around the bare cell. It contained basic sanitation facilities, and a hard plastic shelf which served triple duty as chair, bed, and table. "After all, I'd have thought an `old friend' could do better than this for us."

Soolin spoke up. "Oh, not when it's one of Avon's old friends."

"That's true," Tarrant said. "They're always trouble. I wonder why that is, Avon?"

Avon replied, "Presumably the multi-million credit bounty on our heads has something to do with it. Do you think your mercenary smuggler acquaintances would pass up an opportunity for instant fame and wealth?"

"They could do without the fame," Tarrant said.

Vila agreed, "Right. The last thing a crook needs is to be famous. If you're too recognizable, it makes it awfully hard to operate."

"Fortunately for you," Avon said, "you've one of the most forgettable faces I've ever had the misfortune to encounter."

Blake frowned. They were stalling, playing for time. Why? He'd locked up the armory, and locked down navigation. Maybe Vila could have broken into the armory, and either Avon or Tarrant might have been able to take control of the ship, but he thought both tasks were far from Dayna's speciality. He turned his back on Vila's cell, and went back to Avon's. "You know what she's planning." He unlocked the cell.

Avon stood up and backed against the wall. His eyes were bright with anticipation. "Do you plan to beat it out of me? You can try. The Federation couldn't break me. Do you think a mere machine will do better?"

Blake had to wipe the sneer of Avon's face. He stepped forward, blind and deaf to everything but Avon. One step, two, and Avon's eyes widened, flicking to one side. "That's an old trick," he growled, just before the blow fell. In mid stride his leg stopped. He crashed forward unable even to lift a hand to save his face from the impact, but Avon was there and caught him just before he hit, holding him against his chest in a remarkably intimate embrace. He stared into Avon's face. Surprisingly, Avon didn't look triumphant, merely weary.

"Get away from it, Avon," Blake heard Dayna say. He damned himself for an idiot even as he realized what she'd done. She'd blown her cell open, then stayed in it, pressed against the wall nearest the door. He hadn't even glanced in as he checked the others, simply assuming that she'd fled. The moment Avon had him distracted, she attacked.

"It's harmless now," Avon replied. He lowered Blake to the deck and rolled the android onto his back to retrieve the key from Blake's pocket. He tossed the key to Dayna who caught it one handed and grinned cheerfully. "Let the others out, " Avon ordered. He continued kneeling beside Blake, head cocked to one side while studying him.

"Avon, you don't understand," Blake said. He still could speak, and move his head, but everything below his neck was totally inert. He had sensation, but nothing would move.

"But I will." Avon moved so close that his face filled Blake's vision. "I will understand everything before I am done with you."

"One favor, Avon. Kill me. I don't want to be mind-wiped again."

Avon blinked. "As you were never alive, you can hardly be killed."

"Destroy me then. Forget the semantics. Avon, whatever you think, I am Blake. I don't want to live without free will."

"You never had it. You simply respond to your programming parameters in a strictly defined cause and effect mode. Once I have changed those parameters, obedience to me will be as natural to you as your present obstinacy."

Blake felt tears coming into his eyes. He blinked and could not clear them. Avon reached out slowly, and gathered a tear on his fingers. He rubbed the fluid between them. "I do regret that I will not be able to replicate your current stimulus response pattern. You are a unique achievement in artificial intelligence. I wish I could meet your creator." Avon sighed and stood.

"You could, Avon. I was taking you to meet him." Blake tried to look up Avon. "He sent me clearance codes, so we could reach him. He's a resister, living on Earth." Blake wasn't sure how he knew, but he was certain of the facts. He didn't know what his creator looked like or sounded like, but he was like Blake where it counted. He'd made Blake in his own image, after all.

The others had been released and were now gathered around Avon's cell. "Don't do it, Avon!" Vila warned.

"Do what?" Avon said mildly. He was still looking down at Blake.

"Don't listen to him. It's a trap, you know it has to be a trap," Vila said.

"Yes, but it is a most ingenious one," Avon replied. He smiled. "And, if our android friend is right, they will allow us to reach Earth without opposition. I'm tired of gnawing at the outskirts of the Federation. We could do some real damage to its heart."

"We could. We could also get killed for nothing," Dayna said. She toed Blake's leg roughly. "Did you think that maybe it's been lying all along? We'll probably be shot down any second now."

Tarrant looked up, away from his fascinated staring at Blake. "I'd better get to the flight deck. We can argue about what to do later. Avon, can we safely leave that thing here?" Tarrant asked.

"Probably." Avon gestured to Vila. "Check that he's clean."

"Why don't you do it?"

"Because I am telling you to do it," Avon said coldly.

"Oh, all right." Vila came in and quickly patted Blake down. He found Jenna's knife, some small tools, another cell key and a few odds and ends.

"Hurry." Avon said. "He won't be immobilized much longer."

"All right. Nothing else on him," Vila said, snatching up the lot.

"Are you sure?" Avon asked.

"Well, there are places he could have hidden things, but they wouldn't have occurred to Blake."

"Then it wouldn't know about them, either. It is a remarkably faithful copy." Avon gave Blake another peculiar stare, almost a wistful look, then stepped back, pulling Vila with him out of the cell. He held his hand out and Vila handed him the key. Avon locked the door and said, "Even an android's full strength will be useless against this door. So long as the door remains shut, it is safe."

Soolin said, "It would be safer still to eliminate the machine. It's dangerous, Avon."

Avon showed his teeth. "Aren't we all? It's also priceless, not only in terms of its own intrinsic value, which is considerable, but it possesses knowledge that we may need if we are to survive."

Soolin nodded slowly. "As long as keeping it doesn't put us at risk."

"You aren't talking to Vila," Avon said, and went off toward the flight deck along with Tarrant.

Dayna frowned and looked at Soolin. "I think Avon's a little too pleased with his new toy to be thinking clearly."

Soolin nodded. "Yes, I did see his eyes light up when he mentioned its value. The problem is, who do you sell a Blake copy to?"

"He wouldn't sell it, even if he could," Dayna said firmly. "He just likes having something no one else has."

"No, that's not it at all," Vila said slowly. He peeped into the observation slot. "Did you notice Avon can't make up his mind whether he should call Blake `he' or `it'. Until he decides what it is, he doesn't want to do anything. "

Inside the cell Blake sat up, and fell over. His `nerves' were beginning to conduct impulses to his limbs, but still erratically. "Will you kindly stop talking about me as if I wasn't here? I am Blake," he growled. He put his hands against the wall and braced himself. He staggered over to the observation slot. "And I'm not the one you should be worried about. You've said it yourselves, Avon's not thinking clearly.Vila, try to find out what's wrong with him."

"Me?" Vila asked, surprised.

"You're the closest thing to a friend he has left. Talk to him, see if you can get him to open up. He needs help."

"Why should you care? In case you haven't noticed, Avon's not your friend."

"But I'm still his," Blake said.

Vila turned his attention to Dayna and Soolin. "Like I said. It's an awful lot like Blake. Avon might wind up killing him, but he won't let anyone else do it."

"I see," Soolin said. She stared in at Blake. "They were that close?"

"Closer."

"How close?" Dayna asked, interested. She peered in at Blake and met a glare. "He is rather appealing."

"Dayna! No, nothing like that. And don't let Avon catch you thinking that, either."

Dayna chuckled. "I was only joking. Come on, we need to get to the flight deck and see what Avon and Tarrant are up to."

"True," Soolin said. "It'll take something really spectacular to equal the mess we went through on GP. And you know how Avon believes in payback."

Vila looked at her, horrified. "You don't think Avon really means to go to Earth?"

"It would be a challenge," Dayna said, smiling.

"I've never been to Earth," Soolin remarked. "It might be interesting."

"You're both mad!" Vila started for the flight deck. "And so are Avon and Tarrant!"

"No, no, no," Vila moaned. "Not Earth. Not again. Every time we go there, it's a disaster."

Everyone ignored him.

Avon put his hands behind his back, and stared at the viewscreen. "I've checked the computer. We do have clearance straight through to Earth."

"Let's turn around and get out of here before it's too late!"

Avon blinked, but did not otherwise react to Vila's plea. He looked at Tarrant. "It would take someone with either a great deal of technical expertise or a fairly high standing in Space Command to have acquired these codes. They change constantly. If this person is a resister, we cannot afford not to join forces."

"Orac could have got the codes," Vila said. "But we don't..."

"Yes," Avon snapped, turning to face Vila. "We don't have Orac anymore. We also do not have the Liberator, or teleport, or the Photonic Drive. Thank you for reminding me what we've lost."

"I wasn't getting at you," Vila protested. "It's just that it's suicide... I mean, it's crazy..." Vila threw his hands up in the air. "I just don't want to die, is that too much to ask?"

"Yes," Avon said firmly. "I have heard Vila's opinion. He thinks we ought to turn tail and run. What do you say?" he addressed the others.

"Well,Servalan's dead, so I don't much care where we go," Dayna said. "After all, we can fight the Federation anywhere, can't we?"

Avon gave her a small smile. "That is a point to bear in mind. No matter where we go, the Federation will be there. It behooves us to confine our assaults to something meaningful. While Earth may not house the central computer control, it does serve as a focal point for many administrative posts and is the hub of many vital networks."

"So, what do you want to do, kidnap the President?" Soolin shook her head as the others looked at her. "No, don't tell me, it's already been tried. Still, we'd have to land and infiltrate society and identify the weak spots before we could do anything. It sounds very tedious."

"The lightning raid is emotionally satisfying, but it has little effect on a system as far-ranging as the Federation. I should like to try something different."

Blake sat in his cell and listened. Someone had linked the flight deck intercom with his cell surveillance, and he could hear the argument. If he peered out his observation slot, he could even see their images on the monitor in the corridor. He'd got no response when he spoke, so he assumed it was only one-way. It probably amused Avon to have Blake listening yet unable to affect the decision. That was what Avon had always most disliked about Blake's missions. That they were Blake's. Avon felt he had equal claim on Liberator. In a court of law, Blake would have agreed that he, Avon, and Jenna were each entitled to a full share in the ship they'd salvaged, but he couldn't afford to run the ship as a democracy. The Cause was too important. He hadn't dared listen to closely to Avon. It was too seductive, hearing all the supremely sensible, logical arguments for obtaining wealth and safety and enjoying their own lives without worrying about others.

Worst of all would be when Avon would point out how many would inevitably suffer in the process. It was true, and Blake knew it from the outset. At one time there had been honor among the military ranks and corruption was considered something to hide. The Liberator and the hope of freedom that Blake raised, caused the Federation to become more blatant in its use of force, more far-reaching in its vengeance, and more ready to condone wholesale slaughter. Blake had given them a visible enemy, something to justify the most heinous of responses. It had gone too far to stop now. He had to complete his mission, or he would have been worse than the Federation, destroying people's lives to no purpose.

In his musings, Blake had stopped listening. Avon was letting his people talk, but Blake had a strong impression that they would ultimately do whatever Avon had already decided. Still, it would be wise for him to listen to discover what their attitudes were. Tarrant was talking when Blake resumed paying attention.

"Actually," Tarrant said, "We don't really have much choice. We've been funneled into the middle of a strictly controlled flight zone. If we do anything other than continue our accepted course, we're going to be attracting a lot of unwanted attention."

"How much is a lot?" Vila wanted to know.

"Does the word `flottila' have any meaning? This appears to be a popular corridor. I'm picking up signal traffic from dozens of pursuit ships. Sometimes they overlap each other, so it's hard to tell how many there are. Just take it for granted there are too many of them to offend."

"So we go to Earth," Avon said, satisfied.

"Well, looking on the bright side, at least this means you won't want us to go back after Orac," Vila said.

"What?" Avon said, idly, staring at a computer screen as though fascinated.

"What do you mean, what?" Vila paused. "Avon, you don't care that we've left Orac behind?"

Tarrant said, "That's right. You should be frantic. You've told us often enough how we'd suffer if ever Orac fell into enemy hands."

"There's no possibility of that," Avon replied.

"Why not?" Dayna said. She stepped closer and put a hand on Avon's shoulder. "Gauda Prime is covered with Federation sympathizers. One of them is bound to stumble over it sooner or later."

"You must admit," Soolin said, "It wasn't hidden all that well. Even if you kept the key, they could find a computer expert who could make another one. It wouldn't take a genius."

Avon said, "Orac is beyond the skills of even Ensor himself. In point of fact, Orac has gone to join his creator."

Vila gaped. "You mean Orac's dead?"

"Orac was never alive. Just as that thing we have in the cell was never alive." Avon paused, then he said, "I had placed an explosive charge in Orac's casing to prevent it from being affected by transmissions along the telepathic interface. It was a simple matter to order Orac to access that interface if I did not countermand the order within twenty-four hours."

"You made Orac commit suicide?" Vila said. "I thought it was your best friend."

Avon frowned. "As I have repeatedly stated, Orac was a machine. It is replaceable. But only by me, of course."

Soolin said, "I see. You were hedging your bets. If anything went wrong, you wanted to have something to bargain with."

"Would you fault me for that?" Avon stared at his crew, and none of them answered. He smiled thinly and turned back to the console he was investigating. "We will reach Earth in less than two weeks. I suggest we all take advantage of the time. In Vila's case, I should imagine sleeping, eating and drinking will occupy most of it."

"And what will you be doing?" Vila asked. "Planning how to get us all killed?"

"I will be planning how to keep us all alive. If at all feasible. And if not, I will see that the Federation pays a heavy price for our deaths."

Soolin said, "That's a nice sentiment, but I prefer the first option."

"Yes," Dayna added. "I haven't done everything I want to, yet."

Vila grinned at her. "Anything you'd need help with?"

Dayna turned up her nose. "No, thanks." She turned. "Well, if no one's going to start a battle in the next day or two, I think I'm going to have a proper shower and a good eight hours sleep in a real bed." She looked at Vila. "By myself. With the door locked."

"Oh, don't do that," Tarrant said. "Vila will take it as a challenge."

Dayna's smile was beautiful. "Not if he wants to preserve his natural singing voice." She stalked off the flight deck.

Soolin said, "I think I'll follow Dayna's example." She was about to leave, but paused. "What about setting up a watch rota?"

"There won't be any trouble," Tarrant said. "We've got clearance."

Soolin's gaze showed how little she thought of that assurance. "Humor me."

Avon looked up. "You can take the watch after mine, and choose whom you like to follow you. Unlike Tarrant, I have no faith in the efficiency of the Federation space services. Only in their marksmanship."

"I'll stand a watch, of course," Tarrant replied, annoyed. "I only meant that we could relax a bit."

"That's a good way to get dead `a bit'," Avon said. He paused, and then said in a much calmer voice, as if regretting his previous sharpness, "Why don't you go get some rest?"

"Yes, I think I will," Tarrant said. He and Soolin left together.

Vila looked at Avon for several minutes, until Avon looked up. With only Vila to see, Avon looked weary. "What?" Avon asked.

"You haven't said anything about Blake. What are you going to do with him?"

In his cell Blake sat up at this. He admitted to a certain degree of interest in this subject.

Avon sighed. "I haven't decided." He stared blankly ahead. "I just..." He shook his head. "It is ridiculous, but I find myself thinking that I should like to keep the thing, just as he is."

"What's ridiculous about that?"

Avon gave Vila a narrow-eyed stare. "For one thing, we do not know if it has been programmed to betray us."

Blake smiled and said, softly, to himself, "So you do think I'm real. A machine can't betray you." Even if it meant that Avon would kill him, he was glad to know Avon thought of him as a man.

Avon went on to say, "And even if it behaved entirely as Blake, I should get rid of him."

Vila opened his mouth to protest, then he thought over life on Liberator. "You mean, he'd be in command again, and you couldn't take that?"

"I mean that he was taking increasingly larger risks. His fanaticism was boundless, while his logic was infinitesimal."

"But he was luckier than us, wasn't he? Avon, don't you remember how good it felt when a mission worked? When we got the transmission thingie, or rescued Avalon? I'd like to feel like that again." Vila looked nervous, as if expecting Avon to resent his words.

"Yes, Blake was lucky. He had an unerring ability to choose the least optimal course, and succeed through sheer bull-headed persistence."

"We helped, too. He needed us. I liked that, too- being needed, I mean. Lately, I've felt you're just keeping me around as some sort of mascot. When was the last time you needed a lock picked?"

"You have other skills."

"Oh, yeah? Tell me one other thing I can do that you or one of the others can't do better."

Avon looked down and spoke so softly that Vila had to crane his neck to hear him. "You can make me laugh."

"What?" Vila was insulted. "All I am is a clown to you? That's it, Avon. I've stuck with you through it all, because I kept saying `he needs you . He's a mean, cold-hearted bastard, but somewhere deep down, everyone needs a friend.' Even you trying to toss me out a shuttle wasn't enough, but that's it. When we get to Earth, I'm leaving."

"Where will you go?"

"Somewhere they never heard of you."

Avon was silent for a long moment, then he said, "Stay long enough for me to access the computers, and I'll create an identity for you. You know you can't survive on Earth without one."

"You'd be surprised what I can survive. Thanks, but no thanks. I don't want you knowing where to look me up for a reunion. I don't need you, any more than you need me." Vila left the flight deck quickly, almost running.

Avon turned his head to watch Vila go. He said, very softly. "But I do need you, Vila. I need you to forgive me. It is the one thing I cannot do for myself." Avon stood with head hanging for a very long time, before he jerked as if reminded of something, and reached to a control on the panel before him.

The monitor Blake was watching went black. He sighed and went to sit on his bench. Now Avon would be doubly angry at Blake as the witness to his admission of human frailty. "It's funny, Avon. I'm the machine, and I can more easily admit to my feelings than you." He lay down on the bench and stared at the ceiling. "For your own sake I hope you don't kill me."

Blake lost track of time. His only calendar was his beard, and as he'd never bothered to measure how much it could grow in a day it wasn't very accurate. It had been more than a week since he'd been imprisoned, that much was certain. One of Avon's crew had come at irregular intervals to give him food and drink. He was grateful they'd done even that, as they could have decided that an android didn't need nourishment and left him entirely alone for the whole journey. He wasn't sure how he was `fueled', but he did know that he could feel sensations he called `hunger' and `thirst'. He could also feel loneliness and despair.

Avon hadn't come even once, and he seemed to have given orders that Blake was not to be spoken to. That had been difficult for Vila, but apparently even his anger at Avon wasn't enough to make him defiant. No, Vila wouldn't defy Avon, not in anything that really mattered. Avon was too unpredictable.

Blake could attest to that. On Gauda, he'd been struck by the bewildered grief in Avon's eyes. It had ruined his concentration. All he had been able to think was that Avon was finally here, and they could help each other. Avon had strengths that complemented his own, and now that he had apparently committed himself to the rebellion, they could work together. He'd imagined a few insults, and some complaints, and probably a fair amount of bargaining. He hadn't imagined Avon would shoot anyone who wasn't aiming a weapon at him. Avon had never been amoral or ruthless, despite his attempts to portray a hard-bitten, soulless bastard. He often regretted his actions, yet he would repeat them if he felt it necessary and he wasn't hypocrite enough to pretend otherwise. He also was too proud to justify himself to his friends. If they couldn't read Avon as well as Blake could, they probably thought he'd gone mad.

But he wasn't mad. No. Blake refused to believe Avon was that far gone. He just needed less pressure and more alternatives. Blake knew that feeling all too well. He had hoped they could lean on each other. If only he had known what to say perhaps it would have worked out, but he couldn't think what would have been right. Would cold, logical Avon have simply accepted Blake's word that he was innocent of betrayal, without proof or explanation? He had expected Avon to be the same tightly controlled, sardonic pain-in-the-ass who screamed and bitched but nonetheless listened to Blake, and ultimately deferred to him. The Avon who'd shot him down in the tracking gallery hadn't listened to anyone for a long time. He'd run and he'd fought, and he'd lost and got up to do it all over again, each time losing hope until there wasn't anything left but a blind determination to keep trying until it was all over one way or the other.

Blake had come to the conclusion that Avon had come to him simply because he'd no place else to go. He'd wanted the same calm, confident Blake of Liberator days to smile at him and give some bold, impassioned speech about the masses. He'd wanted to crawl into Blake's shadow and rest for a while. Avon had never been meant for command. Neither had he been meant to follow. Blake had tried to lead him without pressing, giving Avon the illusion of free choice. It was all he could do, and it had worked for quite a while, until he fixed on destroying Central Command, then Star One. He really ought to have deferred to Avon on that score; after all computers were Avon's field. But it had seemed to be the only way left. The constant raiding was pointless. Whatever Blake and the Liberator destroyed, the Federation had resources to build anew. He'd been bleeding the Federation, but that blood came from its subject peoples. Those in power were never hurt. He had to find something that would hurt the leaders, something that would make it impossible for them to continue to rule. He had thought that removing computer control would accomplish this. When Star One fell, he visualized the Federation chain being broken and planets rising up in their hundreds, taking advantage of the chaos to declare their independence. Instead, the Federation had come up with new methods of enslavement, more efficient, and more cruel.

He'd seen several devastated worlds after Star One fell and heard horror stories from many more. Jenna had tried to absolve him of the blame, saying that Travis had actually done the deed, but it didn't make any difference whose hand had pressed the button. If not for a quirk of timing, he would have done it. Had he arrived one month, one week, even one day, before Travis, he would have destroyed Star One, and left humanity defenseless before the alien invaders. But for that chance of timing, he could have been responsible for the extinction of the human race.

He also had a strong feeling that Travis would never have allied with the Andromedans if Blake hadn't driven him insane, first by maiming him, then by humiliating him not only in defeat, but in refusing to consider him enough of a threat to kill. No matter how he looked at it, Blake was responsible; responsible not only for what happened, but for what might have happened.

That guilt and fear of repeating his mistake, had nearly paralyzed him into inactivity. Jenna had prodded, begged, and fought him, trying to bring him back out of the darkness. He had finally agreed to return to the fight, but only after another massacre, this time of people who'd allowed him a place to recover. Blake rubbed at his bad eye, remembering them, remembering lying barely conscious in a pile of their corpses until Jenna found him. He hadn't been the proximate cause of their deaths, which was small consolation. They had possessed something the Federation wanted. That was all it took, these days. Of course, before Blake and Liberator and the Andromedans had destroyed so many of their ships, the Federation hadn't so great a need for hull-ablative material to rebuild their fleet. So you could say that it was all Blake's fault, no matter how you looked at it. When they died, he woke up with a cold determination to continue until either he or the Federation, was dead. He'd use whatever it took and do whatever was necessary.

Which led him to bounty-hunting on one of the most hostile worlds he'd ever encountered. It also led to Jenna's death while running supplies for his base of carefully selected recruits. He remembered them, every one. There were not so many he could forget them; the few men and women with unbroken spirits who hated the Federation as he did. They were probably all dead now. Everything came down to him, to his actions. He even felt guilt for Avon's having shot him, which was absurd. Still, there it was, he was responsible for everything. It was unkind of his creators, whoever they had been, to have given him this obsessive need to accept blame. Without it, he might never have been driven to rebel. Blake sighed.

"All right, get up."

Blake glanced up, startled to hear Avon's voice. He started to rise, then thought better of it. "Why?" He looked at Avon through the observation slot. Avon looked exhausted. Perhaps guilt played havoc with his rest, too. Avon opened the door. He was dressed in a trooper's uniform, and looked surprisingly at ease in it. Probably because it was black, to match his view of the universe. Blake remained seated, and looked beyond Avon to the empty corridor. "Aren't you taking a chance, coming here all by yourself?"

Avon sneered, and raised his weapon. "This is quite capable of destroying you. Don't think I won't use it."

"Oh, I've always known how dangerous you could be if threatened. I have no intention of hurting you, Avon."

"You keep saying that. It is meaningless. You are a machine. You do not have intentions. Get up." Avon jerked the muzzle of the gun in Blake's direction.

Slowly, Blake rose. "Do you have scruples about shooting a sitting machine? Is this to be my execution? If so, I'd like to say goodbye to Vila first."

Avon's gun-hand trembled. "I did not come here to end your miserable non-existence, although you are severely tempting me to change my mind. Come." Avon's free hand pointed to the left.

"We can't have landed. I'd have felt that," Blake commented as he moved past Avon, carefully making no aggressive gestures.

"We haven't. We are still a hour out from Earth."
Blake raised an eyebrow. "Volunteering information? That isn't like you."

Avon's eyes glittered. "Keep baiting me, Blake, and you'll find out what I'm capable of."

Blake went silent. He knew Avon couldn't stand to be ignored. Soon enough, he'd start talking if Blake didn't. He kept walking, docilely turning when directed, and waiting when doors opened. It took less than three minutes, by Blake's non-chronometer guesswork, before Avon said, "You're going with me, and I don't want to draw any undue attention." He let Blake proceed him into what appeared to be an officer's quarters. The door to the accompanying lav. was open. "Clean yourself up."

Blake rubbed his hand over the scruff of half-grown beard covering his face. "Shave, too?"

Avon nodded.

"Pity, it was just starting to come in good." Blake grinned, and noted a momentary softening in Avon's eyes. He was glad enough to take off the uniform he'd worn for weeks and bathe. It didn't bother him that Avon stood in the open doorway, watching his every move. If Blake had ever possessed any bodily modesty, life on prison ships and in primitive rebel camps had long since eradicated it. He simply enjoyed the luxury of warm water and scented soap. He finished his shampoo and rinsed thoroughly, then stepped out of the stall before Avon could order it. He roughly toweled himself dry, then went over to the sink, calmly picked up the implement lying there and removed his beard. He did not hurry, but neither did he delay. As soon as he'd checked that he'd missed no stray hairs, he laid the shaver down and looked into the mirror, meeting Avon's eyes behind him. "What's next?"

"Open the cabinet in front of you."

Blake did, and found a clean, neatly pressed trooper's uniform. "I take it that's intended for me."

"Put it on."

"Ask a silly question," Blake muttered. He got into the new outfit, discovering a pair of highly polished black boots and a helmet under the clothes. He put everything else on, but held the helmet in one hand, not wanting to vanish behind it until ordered.

Avon had backed up as Blake picked up the helmet, perhaps fearing that Blake would throw it at him. So Blake would have, if he were suicidal, which he wasn't. "Are you going to tell me what the masquerade is in aid of?" Blake had previously had a glimmering of an idea requiring this disguise, but it had died an untimely death upon his capture. Since then he'd been unable to come up with any acceptable plans; i.e. one that didn't involve the death of either him or Avon.

"We are going to call upon your master."

"Oh? And how do you propose to find this person? Earth is rather large for a house-to-house search."

"You will lead me to him, or her."

Blake shook his head. "I can't. I don't know..."

In a blur of motion, Avon was at Blake's side, gun muzzle pressing into Blake's throat. "You will. You may not consciously know where to go, but you have been going to someone ever since you took over this ship and set it on course for Earth. The individual who gave us clearance and a flight path that ends in a remote island, far from the nearest domed city, is calling you home. You're being whistled up like a pet dog. It seems likely it is your master who is calling."

"If so, I don't think he'll react very well to you shoving a gun under his nose."

Avon smiled. "It works very well on most people, I've found."

Blake gazed back at Avon, unintimidated. "But not everyone."

"No." Avon stepped back. "We're going to the flight deck. Since we are going where you have been ordered, I don't imagine you'll try any tricks. At least not until we've landed."

Blake said, "You're overlooking one point. What if I refuse to go along with you?"

"Then I'll know the trap is already sprung. In which case... you do know that this type ship carries an auto-destruct?"

Blake stopped and looked back at Avon. "You wouldn't do it." But he feared that Avon would. He had lain, paralyzed, on the tracking gallery floor and watched as Avon practically demanded the troops kill him. There was no surrender left in Avon, no waiting for a better moment. At one time his patience had been remarkable, his stamina to be envied, but they were gone as if they never were. This Avon would choose to die rather than fail once more.

"Wouldn't I? The other options are decidedly unpalatable. You keep saying that you do not want me to be harmed. Well, now, that rather depends on you. If Blake knew he was endangering me, he would find a way to warn me." Avon gazed at Blake. "Just how faithful a copy are you?"

Blake had no answer.

Avon waited a few seconds, then said, "Move."

Blake stepped onto the flight deck, with Avon at his back. He had heard the others talking, but they silenced at his approach. Avon waved him to a seat near the front. Blake obediently sat. He wasn't sure what the console in front of him was supposed to control, as it had been disabled. He turned around in his seat. "Don't mind me. Carry on as if I weren't here."

"I wish you weren't," Tarrant said. "Your presence is an added complication. Avon..."

"No," Avon said, without waiting for Tarrant to finish his question. "I have not changed my mind. We will land at the given coordinates. If it appears feasible, Blake and I will disembark, alone. We will locate whoever is responsible for Blake, and if all goes well, we will return. If you get tired of waiting, you are all free to go where ever you like, provided you do not follow me."

"Avon," Vila said, looking worried, "are you sure about this?"

"Concerned for my safety?" Avon asked, mocking.

"Not in a million years. But I am concerned for mine. What's to stop this android-maker from sending back a copy of you with Blake and taking us all prisoner or killing us?"

"Nothing." Avon smiled. "You'll just have to decide for yourselves if it's really me."

"And if it is, if we want you back."

"I don't see why it is any concern of yours, Vila. Aren't you going to abandon ship the instant we land?" Avon smirked as Dayna and Tarrant turned on Vila in surprise. Soolin may have been surprised, but she didn't show it.

Vila flushed. "Not where we're landing. I'd have to swim across an ocean to get to civilization."

"Civilization, in your case, meaning someplace where there are pockets to pick and bars to get drunk in on the proceeds."

"Why, Vila?" Dayna asked, ignoring Avon's remark. She was looking back and forth between Avon and Vila, a puzzled frown creasing her forehead.

"I have my reasons. If you were half as smart as you think you are, you'd leave, too, all of you." Vila folded his arms. "He'll get us all killed in the end."

"That is the definition of `the end'," Avon said casually.

"This is getting morbid," Soolin commented, "But Vila does have a point. You should take at least one of us with you. You can't watch Blake and look out for everyone else on the planet all by yourself."

Avon looked thoughtful. His eyes flicked to Blake's, almost as if asking for advice, then hardened. "No."

"It is sensible," Dayna put in. "What's the matter, don't you trust us?"

"Why should I? Vila is deserting, your vengeance has been satisfied, Soolin is a long unpaid mercenary, and I can no longer offer Tarrant a ship."

"You hardly offered me Scorpio," Tarrant said. "That ship belonged to all of us."

"Oh, forget about the ships, Tarrant," Dayna said, staring at Avon. "Why don't you want any of us with you, really? You know we aren't going to betray you, not even Vila. You know you'd be safer with companions."

"Companions!" Avon's mouth twitched. "We are not companions. We are five individuals thrown together by fate, forced to work together for our survival. It has not been a particularly successful corporation. Perhaps it is time to dissolve it."

"You never intended to come back, did you, Avon?" Dayna asked. Her voice hardened. "I never thought you were a coward. At least you could have told us."

"I hoped to avoid another tedious argument. Call it an attack of foolish optimism." Avon sat down and swiveled his seat so that he could more easily watch Blake. "We will be landing soon," he said in a flat tone, brooking no further opposition.

Dayna opened her mouth and looked at the others for support but she saw their eyes slide away from hers. She said, "All right, Avon. You go and take care of yourself. Don't worry about us. We'll be just fine without you." She went back to her position and sat with her back firmly to Avon.

Avon looked at Blake. "Haven't you anything to say? No biting, incisive comments about unity, loyalty or responsibility?"

"No," Blake said. "You already know all that." He looked at Avon, unable to keep the pity from his eyes. "You know exactly what you're doing and why. I've been there, too."

"I had forgotten. Saint Roj knows all, and forgives all."

"Avon, I am trying to land this thing," Tarrant protested. "Keep distracting me, and we might yet wind up in the ocean."

"Well, that would shorten Vila's swim," Avon muttered, but after that he was quiet.

Blake was impressed with the quiet efficiency of Avon's crew. Tarrant's orders were brief and usually anticipated. Avon had finally taken his eyes off Blake to watch his own console, and give Tarrant information on ship's status. Without anyone saying anything, Soolin had moved to cover Blake at the same time and Dayna slid over enough in her seat to watch both their panels. Even Vila was alert at his weapons console, despite his sullenness. Not that they could possibly fight their way to freedom at this point. Tarrant proved to be a good pilot, bringing the ship down with a minimum of turbulence and setting it down with barely a jar.

Avon was up and gesturing at Blake with his gun before the engines had reduced to idle. "Let's go, Blake."

"Aren't you even going to say goodbye to your friends?" Blake knew it was pushing, but he couldn't simply let Avon walk off like this. Avon's crew deserved more.

"You can make our farewells, provided you do it quickly."

Blake looked at each of Avon's crew in turn. "I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to become better acquainted. Avon appreciates all you've done for him, even though he can't say it. He never could," Blake said, smiling. He locked gazes with Vila. "And I'm sorry I never told you how grateful I was for you, Vila. Not just your expertise with locks. You were my friend. I missed you and I'm sorry it will end this way."

"Fine. That's enough sentiment, you've impressed them with your humanity. Let's go."
Vila got up, and said. "No." Everyone looked at him. He took a deep breath. "I'm not stupid, and I'm not expendable, but, by God, I am going, and you can't stop me, Avon. I won't let you take Blake by yourself."

"It isn't Blake," Avon said, almost gently. "Don't let the sophistication of the program fool you."

"I don't care what you say." Vila's hands were trembling, but he still picked up a gun that had been lying, unnoticed against his console. "I'm going with you."

"You are hardly dressed for the occasion. Unless you wish to masquerade as a prisoner?"

"You with a gun and me at the other end of it? No thanks, I've been there. Just wait a minute and I'll get my own suit of executioner's blacks." Vila took off at a run, calling back over his shoulder, "Tarrant, don't let Avon go until I get back!"

Avon said, "Let's go, Blake," the instant Vila disappeared. He looked at Tarrant. "You aren't going to be foolish enough to try to stop me, are you?"

"The thought had crossed my mind, yes." Tarrant stood up. He made no move toward his gun, but his eyes were steady. "If Vila wants to go with you, I say he's earned the right."

"So do I," Dayna said. She was also standing, hands carefully away from her weapon.

"And what about Soo... ah." Avon's eyes widened.

Soolin hadn't bothered with standing up. She had swiveled her chair and brought her gun around at the same time. She wasn't aiming at Avon, though. "If I shoot Blake, none of us has to go out there. Of course, Vila won't be pleased, but I can live with that."

"I don't think you can live with displeasing me ," Avon snarled. He stepped forward, getting between Soolin and Blake, his trigger-finger tightening as he did.

Soolin lifted her gun, her lips drawn into a thin line.

Blake cleared his throat, startling both of them into backing down. "I know you aren't interested in my opinion, but I have no objection to Vila accompanying us."

"Oh, one more into the trap?" Avon accused.

Blake sighed, and rubbed the back of his neck. "Make up your mind, Avon. Either you despise your crew and you don't care what they do, in which case Vila might as well come along, or you care about them and don't want to risk their lives unnecessarily, in which case you've already let it go too far." Blake dropped his hands. "What do you want, Avon?"

"I want it over."

Blake shook his head. "Vila was in at the beginning. Don't you think he deserves to be in at the end?"

"Not this end. Vila was never more than an annoyance to the Federation. He was useful to your Cause, and he was useful to me, and we both took advantage of his skills. The difference between us was that I didn't attempt to glorify what we were doing. We were never heroes, just fallible human beings attempting to stay alive. I should like it if one of us succeeds at that. Vila can disappear into a crowd on Earth. If he manages to hold his tongue, he might live out a normal lifespan." Avon lifted his eyes, and glanced at Dayna, Soolin and Tarrant in turn. "None of you have ever wanted to live a quiet, normal life, while it has always been Vila's only desire. He wants a family, a loving spouse and children. Will you deny him his chance?"

Before anyone could answer, a voice came from behind Avon. "It's my life," Vila said quietly. "Not yours, or Blake's, to choose what I do with it." Vila stepped onto the flight deck, a black uniform crumpled over one shoulder and a black helmet hanging from one hand. "I want to go." Vila stood bare inches away from Avon, standing at his full height to meet Avon eye to eye. "For once, I choose. No one is threatening me, or bribing me, or simply ordering me to `get kitted up'. What do you have to say to that, Avon?"

Avon sighed. "Get kitted up, Vila."

Vila grinned. "Hah!" He began pulling the Federation uniform on over his own clothes.

"Well, if Vila is going..." Tarrant began, but Avon shook his head.

"No. We may need this ship for an escape. You and Dayna and Soolin must stay with it to keep it in readiness."

Blake knew better, and so did everyone else.

"We're not children to be protected," Dayna said.

"Aren't you?" Avon said. He shook his head. "I simply cannot afford the distraction. I know how Vila will react in any given situation. He will be useless, of course, but at least he will be useless in a consistent fashion."

"Thanks for your vote of confidence," Vila said, poking his head through his black shirt, and managing to get tangled in the leather shoulder straps.

Avon almost smiled. "Shut up, Vila," he said softly. "Are you ready?"

"Don't rush me!" Vila complained. He stomped into a pair of black boots and winced. "Too tight. I'll have corns in half an hour, see if I don't."

"Inspecting your feet is very low on my list of leisure activities." Avon gave one last long look around at the young members of his crew. "Good luck," he said softly. "Don't bother to see us out." He nodded once, then turned. "Let's go, Blake." He handed Blake a gun. "Yours is non-functional."

"Of course," Blake replied blandly.

****************************************

Tarrant came back from seeing Avon, Blake, and Vila out of the ship. He returned to the flight deck and was hit in the face by a bundle of cloth. He caught it and calmly remarked, "Avon isn't going to like this," as the bundle revealed itself to be a Federation trooper's uniform.

"That's a pity," Soolin said, while holding another uniform up in front of herself.

"Yes, but really, it's Avon's own fault. He shouldn't have called us children." Dayna was inspecting guns. They all looked the same to Tarrant, but he trusted Dayna's judgment- in weapons, at least.

"All right, we'll go, but let's be sensible about it. We go slow. We go carefully. We check every step of the way," Tarrant said. "It won't do our image any good if Avon has to rescue us."

Dayna nodded curtly, but not with any enthusiasm.

"I mean it, Dayna. Worry about us, not Avon. You know he's like a cat. He'll land on his feet no matter what."

"I never had a pet," Dayna commented, "so I don't know what cats are like. I do know Avon. He isn't planning on coming back unless we drag him back."

"And do we really care?" Tarrant said, although he didn't really mean it.

Soolin grinned. "No, of course not," she said. "But he owes us, and we have to keep him around to collect."

"Besides," Dayna said, "he never satisfied my curiosity."

Tarrant grinned, "Did it ever occur to you that you might have frightened him off?"

Dayna gave him a wide-eyed stare of total bewilderment. "How could I have frightened Avon?" She put her three choice weapons on the console. "I'm going back to pick up a few explosives I was toying with. Oh, and I've a neat new vaporizer gun. Pocket sized." She ran lightly off the flight deck, carrying a uniform with her.

Tarrant looked at Soolin. "No, I can't see any reason why Avon might have been frightened of her, do you?" he said.

Soolin brushed a stray strand of hair back from her face. "Who could be frightened of Dayna? I'm the one you should worry about." Her blue eyes sparkled and she mimed blowing smoke from her gun muzzle.

Tarrant looked dismayed. "On second thought, I should just turn myself in to the nearest trooper."

"It would probably be more sensible," Soolin agreed. "But then, why should we change our methods now? Are you going to get dressed here, or shall I?"

"I'm going. I left something in my quarters that I want to retrieve, anyway." He turned.

"What's that, Tarrant?"

"My sanity," he shot back over his shoulder.

****************************************

"They are good people," Blake commented as he led the way down the landing ramp. Dust was still settling and he was glad of the helmet he wore. His voice sounded strange to him, picked up and transmitted through the internal microphone. That was another thing to be glad of. His voice had been transmitted world-wide at least once, during his `recantation', and might have been recognizable.

"Well, I don't know about Tarrant," Vila replied. "He can be pretty pushy. Although he's been better lately."

"Be quiet, Vila," Avon said. He was walking behind Blake, but he'd lowered his gun to the normal carry position. It would look peculiar for one trooper to be guarding another. "Where are we going, Blake?"

"That building," Blake replied, pointing to the middle of a sprawling complex of gleaming white cubes nestled inside a smaller version of the city-dome he'd once lived and worked in.

"What's in it?"

"I have no idea."

"Incredibly helpful, as ever."

"Avon, has anyone ever told you that your sarcasm gets tiresome?"

"Frequently."

"What do I have to keep quiet for when you two are carrying on like that?" Vila complained.

"Shut up, Vila," Avon and Blake said together.

Blake found himself grinning, safely hidden under his helmet. Apparently Vila had totally forgiven Avon, as Blake had done. Avon didn't really deserve it, and wouldn't ask for it, but he needed forgiveness. He handled guilt even worse than Blake did.

****************************************

"Where are they?" Soolin asked. They'd waited a few minutes too long before exiting the ship, and Blake and the other two were out of sight by the time Soolin came down the ramp.

"That way," Dayna said, after using the vision-enhancer on her helmet. "It looks like a vehicle park."

"Good," Tarrant said, with relief. "I'll be glad to get in one, myself."

"Something wrong with your legs?" Dayna said, swinging her head in his direction.

"No - yours."

Dayna frowned down at her legs, puzzled.

"Neither of you seem to have noticed, but there don't appear to be any female troopers here. You're not invisible in those jumpsuits."

Soolin said, "Then we'd better get a vehicle, fast." She waved her gun to the side. "Patrols. Probably coming to check on the ship."

"To refuel it, actually," Tarrant said. "The program Blake downloaded had requested it, along with clearance to leave whenever we liked. I checked," he said in answer to her unspoken question. "Someone here is a friendly."

"Yes, but how will we know who?" Soolin said, and began following Dayna, who was trotting toward the distant vehicle park.

"I wish I had a clue," Tarrant muttered, as he took up the rear guard. There weren't any troopers in the immediate vicinity, but his skin crawled at the thought of leaving the ship behind, at the mercy of his enemies. He also wasn't too happy over the inevitable confrontation with Avon, but that was the least of his worries. Avon wouldn't kill him. He'd just make him wish he were dead.

****************************************

It would have been a long walk to the city, but on the outskirts of the landing area Vila located a small ground-effect vehicle. He was disappointed that neither the door nor the ignition was locked, but when Avon pointed out the sign saying that it was for use of authorized personnel only he felt a bit better.

Blake got in at the driver's seat with Avon at his side and Vila huddled in the rear compartment. "Can I take my helmet off?" Vila asked.

"For now," Avon agreed, and removed his helmet as example. He tossed his head, shaking his hair out of his eyes. "These windows are one-way. Don't forget to put it back on again before we get out."

Blake removed his helmet and familiarized himself with the fairly basic controls. He would have been surprised that Avon was letting him drive, except that he knew Avon had thought it all out and wanted Blake's hands occupied.

"What kind of an idiot do you think I am? No, don't answer that." Vila squirmed around in his seat in order to study the landscape as Blake started the vehicle. "Where are we, anyway? And what is all this?"

"It has the hallmarks of a high-priority research laboratory," Avon replied. "See those pylons? They are energy receptors. Normally ones of that size would power a small city, not a simple residential complex, as that layout suggests. There are also large storage tanks for what must be dangerous substances." He pointed out massive, featureless cylindrical constructions at widely scattered intervals, some mere humps in the distance.

"Could you build androids here?" Blake asked.

"You could. You could build anything here, up to and including planet-busters. But no, I don't think that could be the primary focus of this facility."

"Maybe it's a new sort of distillery," Vila suggested.

"I hardly think even the sort of rotgut you prefer is volatile enough to demand those sort of precautions." Avon nodded at the line of troopers standing guard at the heavy gated fence at the nearest tank. All the tanks that they could see in any detail had several black specks nearby.

"Maybe it's so valuable that they don't want anyone to steal it."

Avon cocked his head to one side. "Something here is valuable. The Federation has invested a great deal in this complex. To what end?"He looked at Blake.

"I don't know," Blake said, annoyed. "Avon, would you kindly stop asking me questions I don't have answers for?"

"How else do we learn?"

Blake grunted and concentrated on driving the vehicle. In a few minutes, he stopped at a small vehicle park just beyond the dome surrounding the `residential block'. "This is as far as we can take the vehicle."

"You mean we walk." Vila said unhappily, and put his helmet back on. "Oh, my aching feet."

"Before you ask, Avon, we are going into the dome, into the central building." Blake concentrated. "Below it, actually."

"Wonderful," Vila muttered, "another dark, creepy basement."

"You did insist on coming along," Avon pointed out. "So why are you complaining?"

"Now, look, I'm here, and I'm being very brave. Can't I make a few pertinent remarks?"

"If you ever did, I shouldn't mind." Avon got out of the hover-car. "Come on then, hero."

****************************************

Tarrant drove the hover-car expertly, keeping a prudent distance behind his prey. "You know, it's going to be difficult to follow if they go into any of these buildings." He glanced at Dayna. They'd all taken off their helmets and he could see her frowning.

"I know," she snapped. "I should have planted a tracer on Avon. I didn't think of it until it was too late."

"Well, it probably wouldn't have worked. He'd have found it before they left the ship."

"Not where I would have put it."

Tarrant opened his mouth, then closed it again. There were things not worth speculating about.

"What is this place, anyway?" Soolin asked, looking at all the monolithic storage tanks, and the great dome that covered a complex assemblage of buildings.

Glad of the conversational change, Tarrant told her, "I can't tell for sure, but it appears to be a manufacturing facility. A bit more elaborate than the rule and far more isolated, and there are structures I've never seen before."

"Like that dome?" Soolin asked.

"Oh, no, that's quite common. They were put up to protect against radiation. Earth was irradiated centuries ago."

"But this area's not `hot'," Soolin remarked. "And it never was. I looked at the scans, too," she said. "So why build a dome here?"

"Probably because the workers are used to domes. They wouldn't be comfortable living in open-air housing."

Soolin shook her head. "I can't see the Federation spending that kind of money to coddle factory workers."

"You're right," Tarrant said. "This island represents an enormous amount of credits. There is something very important to the Federation here."

Dayna grinned. "Do you think they'd mind if we blew a few holes in it? Just around the edges?"

"Maybe later," Tarrant said. "Look, they're stopping. They are going into the dome. Blast."

****************************************

Blake and Vila joined Avon and began walking toward the dome. There wasn't actually a path, but uncounted numbers of black-booted troopers had marched over the plast-cret that seemed to cover the entire island, leaving scuff marks aiming at a gray spot on the arching dome.

Several minutes walk revealed the gray spot as an airlock type opening. It irised open as they neared it, and sealed behind them, leaving them penned in a transparent tube, with armed troopers staring at them from the inner reaches of the dome . Vila shifted nervously and Avon turned his head toward Vila. Even through the helmet, the warning was clear and Vila stood still. Air blew around them, a fine mist sprayed from nozzles set at all angles around the tube and an oddly bright blue light blazed from the tube itself. After a bare minute the light returned to normal and the vapor stopped spraying. Blake stepped forward and punched some numbers into a keypad at the far end of the tube. The inner door opened and they set out again.

Blake felt more sure of himself with every step. "This is the building," he said, "and there is the lift we take."

Avon put a hand on Blake's arm. "Wait."

"For what?" Blake asked, impatiently. He was close. It was almost done.

"It's too easy. I feel..."

"What?" Blake asked again.

"I just have a peculiar feeling."

"Now you sound like Vila."

"That's not funny," Vila muttered. "And Avon's right." Vila nervously peered around. "This place gives me the shivers."

"What doesn't?" Avon said. He straightened his shoulders. "Cowardice must be contagious."

"Hmph," Vila snorted, not feeling up to snappy repartee.

"Well, do we go on?" Blake waited impatiently. "I have to go, even if you don't. I know that now."

"All right," Avon said, reluctantly. "We've gone too far to retreat now."

"What do you mean?" Vila said.

"Have you counted the troopers? You may use both hands and your feet if you like."

"So, there's a lot of them. A whole lot of them. And all between us and the ship. And we're on an island, so there isn't much of any other way off, except by ship. I wish I hadn't thought about it, I've gone and depressed myself."

Avon said,"You didn't exactly succeed in raising my spirits. Lead on, Blake."

****************************************

"Great, this is just great," Tarrant said. He had watched as Avon and the other two men disappeared into the dome. What made it particularly frustrating was that he could still see them.

"We can't follow them?" Dayna asked.

"How? You saw Blake punch in a code.We'd be trapped in there and the troopers could just let us sit there and rot."

"I could blow out that tube," Dayna offered.

"That isn't very subtle. I think they would notice. You'd ruin Avon's mission, even if we didn't get killed." Tarrant saw that hit home. She didn't care about danger, but she had a child's reluctance to disappoint a parent. Poor Avon, Tarrant thought briefly. Dayna couldn't make up her mind whether he was a father-figure or a romantic prince. "Damn. That really tears it," he said as Avon followed Blake into a cubicle with double doors. "That's got to be a lift. They could be going anywhere."

Soolin checked her weapon. "Well, if we can't go in this way, why don't we find our own door? There must be some larger entrances for supplies," she said sensibly. "You don't run a place this size with porters hauling goods on their backs."

"Right." Tarrant looked up at the dome, estimating where the curve would come closest to the port. It would be logical to put the freight entrances somewhere along there. "Come on," he said, and led his `troops' off at a brisk march. He did hope that Avon didn't get anyone infuriated before they could arrive. Thinking of Avon's current frame of mind, he decided to speed up.

****************************************

The lift responded to the codes Blake punched in. Avon watched as a matter of course and Blake hadn't the heart to tell him that the exit codes and lift `up' codes were different from the ones he'd already used. He suspected that Avon knew this anyway.

They went down for what seemed like forever. "It will be all right, Vila," Blake said, seeing his friend tremble.

"And what do you think, Avon?" Vila asked.

Avon said, "I think it will be better than the waiting, Vila."

"That's probably true," Vila said. "I never could abide waiting. Not even when I was a sprat. Whether it was something nice or something nasty, I always hated the waiting."

"There won't be much more," Blake promised. "We're almost there."

The lift slowed, and stopped, opening its doors on a bright, surreal scene. They were facing a corridor which stretched in a curve so wide that it wasn't immediately apparent it curved at all. They stepped out into the corridor. There were black painted lines on the glossy white floor, and roofless hover-cars traveled its length. Along the outer edges people strode briskly inside of yellow painted lines. At intervals there were walkways that lifted from one side of the corridor to the other over the hover-car way, allowing the pedestrians to cross. As wide as the corridor was, it was dwarfed by the space it surrounded. There was one single domed room filling the entire cavernous area. Machines moved inside it, scientific equipment was racked in staggered ranks, and a bewildering array of objects filled shelves and formed `rooms' inside the dome. People kept moving all around them and Blake stepped forward. "We're in the way. No gawking, Vila."

Blake strode off to his right briskly, followed by the other two. He ducked into a yellow door set in the outer corridor. "Come on. We'll change in here." Blake grabbed a white baggy coverall from a seemingly endless rack and tossed it at Vila.

Avon took another after a pause. "Don't stand about, man," Blake said and pointed them toward a row of lockers. "You know the drill," he said loudly, as a pair of people in white coveralls entered and looked idly at them. He chose the first open locker and shoved his helmet inside. He kept his back to the technicians as he began pulling off his clothes. Avon immediately followed suit, but Vila hung back. "Shy?" Blake teased, before realizing Vila's problem. He was wearing distinctly civilian clothes under his trooper outfit. "Well, then, change in the loo. Straight forward, to your left. Don't be all day." Blake shook his head. "You haven't got anything special, trooper," he called after Vila, making him stumble, then hurry on. The people in white chuckled and went further down to sealed lockers to retrieve what was apparently their off-duty clothing and began changing without self-consciousness. They were quick, getting pulled together and exiting before Avon and Blake had half-dressed. They seemed to think it natural that people going on duty were in no hurry.

Vila came out finally after peering around the corner. "What is all this?" he said, plucking at his coverall. It was a one-piece garment that covered his feet and hands and bunched uncomfortably around the neck.

"It's a clean-suit," Avon replied as he watched his own suit as it shrank to fit around his fingers and thickened around his feet . "Used in sterile environments. Such as bacteriological laboratories."

Vila went even whiter than his suit. "Oh, no, Avon. I don't like bugs. I never liked bugs. Let's go home."

"It's not that," Blake said. "No, it's not germ warfare."

"Well, there are other possibilities. Cloning. Electronics manufacturing, specifically the higher sorts of computers. And undoubtedly there are other industries that require total cleanliness."

"Just so it isn't bugs."

"No," Blake said, "no bugs here. That's one thing I'm sure of. They're absolutely terrified of germs."

"Terrified?" Avon looked up from investigating the hood that fitted over his head and the self-contained environmental equipment it contained. "That implies the possibility of the destruction of something considerably more valuable than a batch of computer components."

"Yes. There is something irreplaceable out there."

Avon smiled. "Good. Maybe we can sneeze on our way out."

Blake's hands lashed out, and grabbed Avon's shoulders. He snapped, "Don't even joke about it!"

Avon pried Blake loose and stepped back, staring at him speculatively. "That was a triggered response. What are you protecting?"

"I don't know." Blake dropped his hands helplessly. "Did I hurt you?"

"I'm not that fragile." Avon lifted his hood and sealed it around his neck. His atmospheric system came on, and Blake heard it hiss over his voice. The hood was transparent which helped to reduce the claustrophobic feeling of being totally encased.

Vila put his hood up, and brightened as soon as he realized it wasn't as confining as a spacesuit. He flexed his fingers and nodded at Avon. "I could work in this," he said, happily.

"That is what it is designed for," Blake replied. He put his nonfunctional gun in the locker along with his clothes and pressed his thumb against the lock. The fabric covering his hand was so thin that the thumb-print reader scanned him through it, and coded it to be opened only by him. "We can't take guns inside. If we tried to go past the first changing room nearest our lift, we'd be shot down by automatic laser emplacements."

"Should I trust you?" Avon asked.

Blake shrugged. "You have no choice."

"No. I don't suppose I do." Avon sealed all his possessions away.

"Can't I take my tools with me?" Vila asked.

"No. All the tools are kept inside the inner dome. Nothing is carried in or out, except by robots in sealed containers."

"Well, I could hide them on me."

"Where?" Avon replied. "The suits have no pockets."

"Inside?" Vila said weakly.

"And how would you get them out without stripping in front of an audience?"

Vila sighed and put everything in a locker. "I feel naked," he complained.

"Fortunately for my eyesight, you are not." Avon turned to Blake as a small group of workers in white entered. "Time to go."

Blake nodded. "I'll show you to your workstations," he said clearly.

****************************************

It could be worse, Tarrant thought. He'd found the freight entrance. That was the good part. Unfortunately, freight was all that went in at this entrance. Workers unloaded hover-trucks onto a segmented conveyor that sorted it out into sterilization locks of appropriate sizes for the individual cargo, which was then sent on to a storage facility inside. Troopers watched every move the workers made. Every piece of cargo went directly from the truck to storage. Presumably, they watched just as carefully at ships that delivered... wait a minute. "Come on," he said, almost knocking Dayna down by the speed with which he turned. "We're going back to the ship."

"We're not giving up!" Dayna wailed.

"No. I've a brilliant idea. We're packing up. Come on!"

"Do you know what he's talking about?" Dayna asked Soolin.

"No, but I do know one thing. When he gets a brilliant idea, I worry. But not as much as when you get one. Come on."

****************************************

They must have walked a quarter-mile around before Blake found an unmanned workstation. They filed into another decontamination tube before getting access to the station which abutted the inner dome as all the other stations had.

The dome looked even larger up close. There were people inside, they could see as they neared. "They're not wearing clean-suits," Avon noted.

Blake shook his head. "They don't need them. They are the reason for the clean-suits," Blake said, sadly.

"Yes?" Avon prompted.

"They..." Blake paused and thought for a moment. "They have no immune systems."

"That is statistically unlikely," Avon said, " I can see at least forty people in there. I doubt there have ever been that many living persons afflicted with that disorder at one time in the history of the human race. Certainly not all on one planet."

"Maybe they're related," Vila said.

Avon gave him a scornful look. "Under the eugenics program in force for the last eighty years, all individuals with severe genetic disorders are routinely sterilized. Besides, most of its sufferers die in infancy, doomed from their first exposure outside the womb."

"Yes," Blake said. "Unless they are identified before birth and delivered by Caesarean section into an entirely sterile environment in which they must spend their entire lives. They can never see the surface of any planet or touch a living thing besides themselves. They have less freedom than a laboratory specimen."

"You are implying that they were genetically designed. To what purpose? What advantage is there to a captive community of technicians?"

"They aren't simply technicians. Every one of them has a genius level Intelligence Quotient."

"Ah. Suddenly, I see." Avon turned back to gaze at the people behind the glass. They were of all body types and racial extraction, but there was a similar intensity of expression among the group. "The Federation wanted genius, but they wanted it kept harmless."

"You are proof what one man can do. If your bank fraud had gone through, the entire economy would have been disrupted."

Vila said, "You mean they're all like Avon in there?" His eyes grew wide. "No wonder the Federation didn't want to take chances with them."

"These are only the survivors." Blake grew grim. "There were tests conducted on the children. Those who failed to meet the set standards were `allowed' to die. Only the finest minds were preserved. For each one you see here, a hundred children were murdered."

"I feel for them," Vila said. "I really do, but I can't see what it's got to do with us."

"One of them created Blake," Avon said with certainty.

Blake nodded. "Yes. My `father' is in there." Blake splayed his hands against the glass. "I've failed in my mission, and come home to beg forgiveness."

"Less histrionics if you please. It is more likely you've been called back to furnish a report." Avon looked more relaxed. "If what you say is true, it seems that we may have found powerful allies."

"What can they do?" Vila asked. "No matter how clever they are, they can't do much behind glass, can they? I mean, as soon as the Federation gets the idea they're trouble, all it takes is one rock chucked at their dome, and they're dead meat."

"Elegantly put, as ever."

One of the people inside the dome stopped pushing a small cart loaded with small, brightly colored objects and looked at Blake. He abandoned his cart to came over to the dome wall. He smiled as he pressed a button on a panel.

"Is there some problem? My name is Hyatt, and I'm in charge of this section." He was in his mid-twenties, slender, with fair skin, silver-grey eyes and glossy black hair. He was wearing a loose-fitting jumpsuit of a royal blue, intricately embroidered with birds and flowers in rich, tropical colors. He tilted his head to one side, rather like a bird himself, and waited for their response.

Blake cleared his throat, but Avon jumped in with, "No, no problem, we're just familiarizing ourselves with the equipment. This is a stereographic mapping table, is it not?"

"Yes," Hyatt replied. "Currently set for the main plateau on the planet Threedon." He frowned. "The equipment is used to design the optimum locations for implanting subnucleonic charges, so mineral deposits may be more readily exploited. Of course, the planet isn't habitable after that. There had been twenty thousand colonists. It was deemed unprofitable to relocate them." The silver eyes hardened.

Vila gulped audibly and lifted his hands away from the machinery as if burnt. Hyatt blinked in surprise. "You didn't know that, did you? This isn't your assigned workstation."

"I fear we must have been led astray," Avon said smoothly. "We will be on our way now."

"Not so fast." Hyatt pressed another button and the outer door of the workstation closed. "Present your identification."

"No time, we're late. The boss will be very put out with us," Vila babbled. He put his hands on the door, and pushed, but nothing happened. "I knew I was going to need my tools," he muttered.

"Shut up, Vila," Avon snarled. He looked around frantically, but there was no way out, and nothing to be done with the sealed equipment he could reach. There were cabinets that probably possessed tools they could have used to escape, only they couldn't get the cabinets open without tools.

"Who are you?" Hyatt asked, very softly. He came up to the glass and stared into Blake's face. "I know you, don't I?"

"I am Roj Blake. If you know anything about me, you'll know that I am fighting the Federation. We are allies."

"Blake. Blake." Hyatt mused. "Yes! And who are the others with you?" Hyatt was excited, and his eyes glittered with it.

"Kerr Avon and Vila Restal," Blake said, indicating his companions. "We mean you no harm."

"No, of course not. Blake. This is wonderful. I'll have to tell Konny. She's around someplace. Wait here!" Hyatt took off at a near run, then seemed to calm down and slowed down to a brisk walk.

"Well, he's happy. It's nice to know not everyone shoots when they hear our names," Vila remarked.

"It would also be nice if he had opened the door." Avon paced restlessly. "I knew it would be a trap, Blake."

"Then why did you come along?" Blake snapped back.

"Because I've run out of alternatives. We are all dead men, no matter what we do."

There wasn't anything comforting Blake could say to that. He crossed his arms and stood watching the inner dome. Hyatt seemed to be causing a ripple of interest as he went through the group, stopping everyone he met and speaking briefly with them. Heads turned, then elaborate affectations of disinterest were displayed.

"Marvelous," Avon commented. "They are every bit as subtle as you, Blake. We'll have the troopers down on us any second now." His hands clenched. "When they come for us, can you do me one favor?"

"Anything I can, Avon."

"Kill me."

Blake wasn't surprised at the request. " Yes," he said at last. "Do you know any method an android can use on himself?"

"Here!" Vila interrupted, "Are you two going to leave me alone?"

"Blake is very fast. He could probably kill the two of us before anyone could stop him."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it. You got me into this, Avon, and you've got to get me out." Vila stared at Avon, and Avon dropped his gaze first.

"Very well. I only hope you do not regret your choice."

****************************************

"It isn't very comfortable," Dayna complained, squirming around in the weapons crate that Tarrant had dragged out of storage on their ship. The three of them had emptied rations, uniforms and weapons out of stowage and put the empty crates on the plast-crete just beneath the ship's landing pods. Tarrant had called the port, apologizing for not unloading on schedule, and asked for immediate pickup of his supplies. They had argued that he wasn't due to deliver anything and he had argued that he was. After a while, they gave up and told him a truck would be sent out. He didn't know how much time he had left, but he did know he didn't want to be caught with anything suspicious sticking out of a box. He pushed her foot inside.

"It's the biggest one that was left. Now curl up and be quiet. There won't be all that much air, and if you use it all up talking, you'll be left speechless."

"Ha, ha," Dayna said as he loosely resealed the top of the carton with a laser welder and shoved her crate a few feet further away from the ship.

He got into his own box which he'd carefully damaged at one corner, providing a space large enough to slip a few fingers into. He pulled the side shut, and held it in place from the inside, and welded it shut with an interrupted line of touches. It should hold against anything but a determined force. A tiny thread of light showed at the damaged area, and he lay on his stomach and tried to peer through the opening. All he could see was plast-crete. He hoped the truck came soon. He also hoped that Dayna's patience would hold out and that he wasn't going to entirely lose the feeling in his left leg before he got out of his box.

The ride was bumpy, hot and stuffy. Tarrant refrained from complaining, even to himself. He had heard a worker sit down directly on top of his crate. If he could hear them, they could hear him. He didn't want to offend them. They were only innocent workers.

When they dumped his crate onto the plast-crete, he changed his mind. They were ignorant, clumsy louts, who couldn't even read a `this side up' sign. He lay on his side, aching, as his crate was heaved onto a moving surface. Wonderful. Now his gun arm was going numb. He heard two more clattering thumps and then the growl of the hover-truck as it lurched off. There was a hissing soun, and pungent mist began seeping into his crate through the fingerhole. He shoved a finger hard just underneath his nose and held it tightly. He would not sneeze. He would not sneeze.

The sterilization ended, and his crate moved on. He must be approaching the storage area. Soon his box would be logged in, placed in a quiet room and forgotten about until someone developed a pressing need for emergency rations of the least palatable kind. He could probably die of old age before they'd find him.

The box lurched, then moved more smoothly, probably after the application of `anti-grav lifters'. He heard tuneless whistling as someone guided his box. He could see bits of things going past- crates, boxes, bins, and storage containers of all types. The box stopped moving, lurched again, and settled with a creak. The whistling receded. Tarrant was stored away safely. He'd made it. He grinned and put his hand down to rub at his leg. And then the sneeze came. It was so powerful he was surprised the front of the box didn't come off. "What!" he heard shouted and then there was a loud ripping sound as the front of his crate was pulled off. He looked up into the astonished face of a worker in dirty gray coveralls. "Hello," Tarrant said, politely. "I'm here to inspect your safety procedures."

The man gaped.

There were other ripping sounds and the man started to turn. Tarrant lashed out with his right hand, numbing it completely when he connected with the man's chin. The man hadn't time to change expressions before he collapsed.

"Are you all right, Tarrant?" Dayna came over, looking concerned. She moved as gracefully as ever, Tarrant noted resentfully. He crawled out of his box, and began rubbing his legs, trying to get circulation restored.

"I will be," he replied as Soolin came over and helped him to his feet.

"Arno!" the shout was distant and the shouter was around the corner away from them, screaming like a maniac, before even Soolin could get off a shot.

"Maybe I won't be," Tarrant muttered, as alarms began ringing.

"So much for your brilliant plan," Dayna said.

Tarrant groaned and began forcing his legs to move. "Follow me!" he yelled and began running after the man who'd shouted for Arno.

"Right at them?" Dayna asked.

"How do they know we aren't them?" Soolin said, pointing down at her trooper's uniform. "As long as we move fast."

"Right! I'm coming," she yelled and began pounding after Tarrant with Soolin at her side. If they didn't hurry, they'd lose him too.

****************************************

Hyatt returned to Blake and the others in a few minutes, although it seemed much longer. He was accompanied by a woman who was as brightly dressed as he was, although she was at least ten years older. Her jumpsuit was scarlet, covered with painted- on rainbow-colored raindrop designs that meshed so closely little of the scarlet showed around them except at the cuffs and collar. Her hair and eyes were both black, and her skin, although as little exposed to sunlight as Hyatt's, retained a faintly golden hue. "Blake?" she whispered, putting her hand up to touch the glass. "Is it really you?"

"Yes." Blake gazed at the woman. She was blinking back tears. He touched his side of the glass, so that their hands almost seemed to meet. "Who are you?"

"I'm Konny. Why have you returned?"

"Don't you know?" Avon said savagely. His temper was not improved by either sentiment or captivity.

Konnie looked at Avon, startled. "Don't you know?" she repeated. She looked past him at Vila. "Or you?"

Vila said, "Nobody ever tells me anything, so why are they always asking me questions? Is that reasonable?"

Konny shook her head, and turned to Blake. "You were to return if certain conditions were met.The first was if you suceeded in destroying the Federation." She smiled thinly. "Well, we know that hasn't happened. The second was if you thought you could no longer gain useful information." Blake did not react to that. "The third was if you were exposed as..."

"As an android," Blake said.

"Well." Konnie looked at Avon and Vila, then back at Blake. "You are the first to return."

"How many did you make?" Avon asked.

"I've lost track," Konny admitted. "Most of them were never activated, though."

"Activated?" Avon was pressing the question when alarms rang out. The three rebels whirled, but there was no way out.

There was a grinding noise and an outlined area about three feet square began moving into the workstation. It proved to be the front of a cube, which opened on top once it was fully into the room. "Quickly, get in. We will hide you in here until the alert is over."

"But what about contamination?" Blake asked. He would not save his life at his creators' expense.

"The unit will sterilize your suits. Get in!"

Avon pushed Vila forward. "Only one will fit at a time. Hurry."

Vila curled up inside. It was transparent, and they could see the light and mist of sterilization procedures operating even as it receded into the wall. It opened on the other side, and Konny and Hyatt helped Vila out, then sent the box back.

Avon shoved Blake toward the box, but Blake was much stronger, and simply picked Avon up and deposited him inside. He could read Avon's lips, and smiled at the names he was being called. When the box came back after delivering Avon, Blake was glad to take his turn. Troopers were pouring out of every lift. There were a few accidents before they remembered the auto-defense and disarmed themselves. That slowed them down.

"Hurry," Konny cried out, shooing out of the way the people who gathered to gawk. She grinned at Blake. " You'll have to forgive us. We're not used to excitement. Here." She pushed them down inside a rectangular space hemmed in by heavy machinery on all sides but one. She rolled a supply cart in front of the remaining opening. "I'll be back as soon as I can," she shouted. The alarms muted to a constant undulating whine, irritating, but not difficult to talk over.

"What happened?" Vila asked, hunched down on the cold, white floor. "We didn't do anything."

"No, but we left behind a few loose ends," Avon replied.

Vila sighed and said, "Tarrant couldn't wait."

"Dayna no doubt aided and abetted."

Blake said, "Avon, they couldn't be that rash. They knew nothing about the layout or safeguards of this place."

"Lack of knowledge has never slowed Tarrant down."

"Neither does his lack of common sense," Vila grumbled.

"I'm sorry," Blake said. "I had hoped that they would get away."

Avon made a dismissive gesture. "They should have obeyed orders and stayed on the ship."

"They were concerned about you."

"Can we discuss something a trifle more pertinent? Like survival?"

The blocking cart pushed back, and another man about Konny's age entered. His jumpsuit was basically golden, but had geometric designs picked out over the chest and arms in tiny black beads. He had reddish brown, wavy hair and a high-bridged sharp nose set between two eyes remarkable for their green intensity. He was carrying a small device, roughly ovoid but with a fan-shaped protuberance at one end. He set the device down, and looked at them, eagerly. "My name is Quent. Konny and I were the main instigators of the android project. It's so wonderful to see you." He beamed.

"Yes, well," Avon said, "I'm glad your experiment hasn't entirely disappointed you. May I suggest that you leave before you draw attention to us? I've no desire to be hauled out and shot, simply to amuse you."

Quent blinked, and the impression of a shy, forest-dwelling animal increased. "Oh, yes. I'd forgotten."

"You forgot the Federation is after us? What do you think the alarms are for, then?" Vila asked.

Quent blinked again, rapidly. "Er. Well, don't worry. We'll take care of it. We wouldn't let anything happen to you." He reached for the gadget, but Avon's hand was there first.

"What is the purpose of this device?"

"Um. Well, actually, it's a toy of mine. It sets up a counterbalancing resonance in conjunction with special frequency controlling devices."

"You mean it can block surveillance scanners without being detected?" Avon let Quent reclaim his `toy'. "Then you'd better put it on."

"All right." Quent fiddled with a few dials, then snapped a switch. "But I'm afraid you're mistaken as to its purpose." He reached out and caught Avon as he fell forward. Blake and Vila had frozen in place, only their eyes alive with indignation."It won't hurt, I promise you." He stood up and pushed the cart out of the opening, and other people in more wildly decorated jumpsuits came in and carefully picked up the immobilized rebels and folded them into carts and covered them with what looked like piles of laundry. Blake could still hear through the fabric. The carts began moving. Quent walked along beside him, saying, "Please, understand. I didn't want to do it this way. It isn't kind at all, but Konny said you wouldn't understand, and there wasn't time to argue. You might have been hurt. That would have been terrible. I would never have forgiven myself."

Blake listened, and could make no sense of it. Was Quent turning them over to the Federation or not? He seemed to think he was doing them a favor. Maybe the man was mad. Maybe they all were. They'd been locked up in the most abnormal society conceivable for their entire lives. What did they know about sane behavior? These people lived in a fantasy world, partly of their own creation. In the brief glimpse he'd had of the inner dome, he'd seen nude people wearing tattoos of extinct sea-mammals that covered their entire bodies working calmly alongside people dressed in strips of dichromic metal that curled and fizzled, sparkling blue and copper with every breath. The only norm they seemed to have was non-compliance with Federation standards, ranging from the barefooted, chest-beaded Quent to a woman who had encased herself in a metal exoskeleton and walked along on four metal legs. They were all working busily, but he had no idea what any of them were doing. It became very easy to see how they could have constructed androids without anyone's knowledge.

The carts came to a stop, and there was more talking. Light erupted as the covering cloth was pulled away. Blake blinked up at Quent, Konny, Hyatt and a number of other curious, excited faces. Hands reached in and he was pulled out. Konny smiled at Blake. "This won't hurt," she assured him as she did something to the device that Quent still held. Blake felt his eyes close and all sensation faded, slowly. For a few moments longer he felt himself being carried, the pressure of many hands taking his weight, then even that disappeared.

Blake dreamed. It wasn't like any dream he'd ever had. The emotions weren't there, just events; things he'd done, things he'd planned to do, things he'd hoped to do. He visualized all the rebels he'd ever met, all the missions he'd gone on. Everything he'd ever learned flashed by, just long enough to recognize. Then the dreams ended and he slept.

He opened his eyes, and found he was still paralyzed, but sensation had returned to his body. He was lying, tilted nearly vertical, his back resting against a hard, cold surface as he looked out through a transparent cover at a crowed of the exotic denizens of this eerie place. The reason the surface felt so cold, he suddenly realized, was that he had been stripped nude before being encased in this tube like a doll on display. His eyes focused and his throat went dry as he recognized the black jumpsuit of a space major in the forefront of the crowd. It was covered with a clean-suit that was fully transparent, not just in the face, undoubtedly to assure him of the deference due his rank.

"Who are these men?" The space major demanded to know.

Out of the corner of his eye, Blake could see another tube which contained another body. Presumably Avon and Vila had been treated the same as him. He supposed they'd been handled by machinery. The non-immunes couldn't have touched their bare skin. He still felt as if he'd been violated. If they'd told him what they had planned, he might have agreed to go along with it. Maybe.

"They're androids," Konny answered. She did not appear either frightened or hostile, just mildly amused. "We decided we would like some robots that looked like people. We get tired of seeing the same old faces all the time."

"That one is Roj Blake," The space major accused. "The other two are equally infamous rebels."

"Replicas of equally infamous rebels," Konny said. "We thought it would liven up your troopers' lives as well as our own when they saw our new workers."

"They are remarkably realistic. This one has half-healed scars," he said, while staring at Blake.

"I'm very proud of that," Quent put in. "Did you notice the faded blast-burn on the second one's shoulder? A rebel leads a very ratchety life, after all."

"The third one is unmarked."

Quent shrugged. "That one's supposed to be Vila Restal. The vid-news said he was a coward, so I assumed he would be less likely to be injured."

"If they are androids, they cannot harbor diseases. Why are they in these cases?"

"Because they're pretty," Hyatt said. He batted his eyes at the trooper. "We wanted to admire them for a while before covering them up with clothes and putting them to work. Besides, we haven't activated the voice controls yet. They might wander around and get damaged."

"I'm taking them out with me. If they are androids, they'll be returned after testing."

"No, they won't," Hyatt said, stamping his foot in a childish display of temper. "You never return anything you take." He flung himself in front of Blake's case, and sat down, facing the space-major. "You've got plenty of androids of your own. If you take mine, I'll stop working."

"Can you prove they are androids?"

"Why not?" Hyatt got up and opened Blake's case. "See? Would I do that if he were a real man?"

Blake wanted to hold his breath, but he had no control over it, as he had no control over anything else. He could have been run through another sterilization field, but it wouldn't work internally. His breath would still contain sufficient microorganisms to wipe out the entire community.

"You might if you were crazy." The space major said, "If you've released infection..."

"Well, then we'd die, and you'd be in big trouble." Hyatt grinned. "But we won't. These androids are specially designed. The artificial flesh is self-cleansing. No microbe can live on, or in, them for more than a few seconds."

"Bring a scanner."

"All right." Hyatt rummaged around on a table. "Here." He picked up a device and pointed it at Blake. He pressed a button and showed the resultant readout to the major. "See? Nice and clean."

"How do I know this isn't rigged?"

"Because I said so." He handed it to the major. "Point it at yourself and press that."

After a moment's hesitation the major did. Hyatt looked at the reading and said, "You're a walking epidemic. Are you sure you don't feel sick?"

The major scowled and turned aside. He took two steps, then he returned. "All that proves is that one is an android."

"Oh, come on. Do you think we made a Blake android and then called his friends in to tell us how good a job we'd done?"

The major said, "You're counting too heavily on your value to the state. I can and will risk you, in order to secure this base." He lifted the gun he carried and reset it. "I had to override the security codes to bring this in here. It's set to wide-beam, total cell disruption, including the cells of microbes. If I fire it at a man he will be not only dead, but sterile. And so will the one who opens the case. You."

Hyatt backed up. "You don't like me. You'll probably shoot me anyway and tell everyone it was all my fault. I won't do it!" He curled up at Blake's feet and put his hands over his head.

"If someone doesn't open that case in the next twenty seconds, I'm going to vaporize it, contents and all."

"I'll open it," Konny said, stepping forward. "Just take a second to scan before you decide to shoot." She went to the case beside Blake's and unlatched and opened the door.

The major held both gun and scanner for a long moment, then said, "All right. The last one."

Konny opened the final case, and waited. The major lowered his gun, and tossed the scanner onto the floor. "You've had your little fun. I suggest you don't try my patience in future." He strode out, every step an angry stomp.

Quent blinked and went over to Hyatt. He held out a hand and Hyatt laughed and took it, pulling himself to his feet in one quick bounce. "That'll show them. Imagine, accusing me of lying."

Quent grinned back at him, then turned to look at Blake. He read something in Blake's eyes and winced. "I'm sorry. Really. But we couldn't tell Avon and Vila they were androids too, could we? Not then. I didn't want to tell them at all. I'm sure it's very upsetting." Quent picked up his `counterbalancing resonator' and said, "Please, could you stop them from doing anything rash?"

Hyatt and most of the others moved hastily away. Quent pressed a button and then put the device down on the floor and stepped on it, hard, crushing the delicate plastic to shards. Avon came out of his tube in a flash, reaching for Quent's throat. Blake was there before him and his strength was no longer limited to human norms. He picked Avon up by the chest and simply held on until the surge of fury had faded in the smaller man- no, the smaller android.

Avon writhed and cursed and finally horrified Blake by going utterly limp. He wasn't unconscious, but all the fight had gone out of him. Blake eased Avon down to the floor and knelt beside him. "What did you do to them?" Blake asked.

"Them? I don't understand," Quent said. He was still several feet away, but he wasn't retreating any further.

"Roj Blake, Kerr Avon, and Vila Restal have personal histories, records going back to their births. They had families and friends. They were real, living men. What did you do to them?" Blake should have thought of this earlier, but he'd always known he was Blake, so he hadn't thought about there being another one. Avon might have thought of it, but he'd assumed that Blake had been replaced after Star One, when he disappeared. Blake's memory went back too far for that. He remembered quite clearly the last eight years of his life. He had lived on Earth. He had attended rebel meetings and demonstrations. He'd heard Bran Foster's group die and seen their corpses. He had been the `man' sentenced to Cygnus Alpha, but there had been a Blake before him, a Blake who conveniently vanished so that an android could take his place.

Konny stepped up beside Quent. "We didn't do anything to them. We accessed psychological files, personal histories and genotype records and made inactive androids of as many suspected rebels as we could. Then we watched; the surveillance computers reported to us first. Sometimes we arranged `faults' in the scanners. If one of `ours' died under circumstances that could be hidden we paid outsiders to bury the bodies and we replaced them.

"The original Roj Blake was wounded in a raid and died outside the dome. Kerr Avon was killed by a crimmo when he tried to get exit visas. Vila Restal was murdered by fellow thieves over the proceeds of a robbery. They were dead, and no officials knew it. We replaced them with androids that had all their talents, and more."

Vila had stood, shocked, watching Avon's breakdown. He now joined Avon and Blake, standing over them with one hand on Blake's shoulder. He said to Konny,"Why? Why didn't you just leave us decently dead? What did you think you were, gods?"

Konny's face hardened. "No. We are `valuable resources' to our creators- as long as we produce, we are allowed to live; allowed to live as prisoners of the Federation and of the bodies that they fashioned for us. We were kinder to you. Yes, we used you, but we gave you more than our creators did. You have healthy bodies, capable of all the pleasures of life. You were also given free will. Not all the androids chose to fight. You weren't forced into rebellion."

"Oh, sure. I could have walked away from it all. I almost did once. A beautiful woman loved me. We would have been bonded, and I would have been happy. Only I couldn't do it. As soon as I thought of staying with her, and raising a family, I knew it wasn't for me. I felt so selfish, that I couldn't give up being a thief in order to be a father, but it wasn't my fault, was it?" Vila said.

Konny shook her head. "An android can't father children. If any of you had formed family bonds, your infertility would have eventually revealed your origins. We would all have been discovered. Any behavior that would expose us had to be eliminated from your programming. In your case, your original had very strong parental drives. We could have muted them or replaced them altogether, but we felt that sort of tampering would be too much like what was done to us. We made improved copies, but we didn't make inhuman copies. You are Vila Restal, as he wanted to be. We gave you the tools to excel and you used them."

A cold, hard voice cut in with,"As you used us." Avon had finally joined the conversation. He pushed himself out of Blake's embrace, stood and turned to face his creators. "How many `dupes' do you have?"

Blake stood at Avon's side, his pose one of quiet support.

Konny looked at Quent. He said, "At last count, we had activated twenty-two androids. Of that number, eight have lived as unaggressive citizens of the Federation. Seven were destroyed in various rebel raids on Earth. Three are still active in rebel cells in the domed cities. Four were transported off Earth on the Civil Administration ship London."

"Jenna," Blake said, somehow knowing it.

"Yes. Jenna Stannis is one of ours. All of you were given subconscious recognition cues so that you would trust each other if you met. When Blake and Avon were captured and seemed likely to be sentenced to exile we arranged for Vila and Jenna to join you. We hoped you could capture the ship and raise dissent among the outer planets. Is Jenna still with you?"

"No," Blake said. "She's dead."

Both Quent and Konny looked saddened. "We're sorry," Konny said for both of them.

Avon snarled, "Why should you be? She wasn't real. I'm not real," he said quietly, and then he laughed. It was an unpleasant sound. "For months now, Vila has suspected I `had a screw loose'. I suppose he was right."

"Avon," Vila started.

Avon turned on him. "Blame it on defective manufacture."

"There is nothing wrong with you," Quent said. "We ran diagnostics when we debriefed you. We did perform minor repairs to Blake's bio- systems replicator and removed all your power utilization inhibitors. You know what you are now, so you can judge when it's safe to use your full strength."

Blake remembered the strange dreams. His lips tightened. They had plugged him in and drained him dry. He glanced at Avon to see how the computer expert reacted to being treated like one of his machines.

Avon barely blinked. "So you are saying my ... problems were inherent in the model?"

"You've been fighting for a long time without a break. You're probably just having a stress reaction."

"Oh, that's a nice, simplistic answer."

Konny flushed, and her voice raised in anger. "What do you expect? You were our `children' but you've been out on your own for years. You've changed. I barely recognize you. The Kerr Avon we sent out wasn't a fighter or a terrorist. We weren't really sure why the Federation had him pegged as a resister, but his abilities made him worth preserving." She smiled and added, "Besides, Hyatt thought you were cute."

Avon's affronted expression made Vila chuckle and Blake caught himself smiling. To prevent Avon from retorting, he said, " Avon, we really ought to be doing something about rescuing your young crew members. Or did you forget about them?"

Avon said, "I have tried."

Quent pulled another small gadget out of a pocket in his beaded jumpsuit, looked down at it and said, "We can get you out, but you'll have to wait. There are troopers standing by all the supply and delivery ports at the moment."

"We'll need our clothes," Blake said.

Quent turned and said, "Yes, we'll get you some suits right away. Beyley?" He called over a young woman whose ankle-length blue robe shimmered with holograms of butterflies and told her what he wanted. She listened, nodded and walked briskly away.

"We need the trooper uniforms."

Konny shook her head. "Already destroyed, I'm afraid. They were contaminated."

"What?" Vila said. "I only wore it a few minutes!"

"They had been exposed while you dressed. It doesn't take much to kill us." She looked grim. "We were shown how our friends died, the ones who couldn't meet the Federation's standards. We are risking that horror in order to help the rebellion. If it succeeds, we will probably be abandoned, and die here, but the method will be of our own choosing." She smiled. "I intend to walk out of the dome, and see the sunrise, and then I will go for a swim in the ocean."

"How did you learn to swim in here?" Vila asked.

"I didn't," Konny said softly.

"Do all your people agree to this suicide pact?" Avon asked.

"We have all agreed to fight. Some of us hope that the new government will be grateful enough to us to continue funding our environment, or at least that they will consider us a worthwhile investment."

Avon looked cynical. "New governments seldom think that far ahead."

"It doesn't matter. We hate the Federation for what they have done to us, and what they continue to do. They still send us children every few years. We are all agreed to make whatever sacrifice we must to bring down the Federation."

"And we can really hurt them now," Quent said. "You've given us weapons. Avon gave us plans for Orac, the Pylene fifty antidote, the Star-Drive, teleport, the sopron analog and space vessels of tremendous power and range while Blake gave us the names of organized rebels who can use the information effectively."

"What did I give you?" Vila asked.

"Indigestion," Avon suggested.

"You gave us hope." Konny smiled at Vila. "Avon and Blake could not succeed without you."

Vila puffed up at that. "I taught Blake everything he ever knew."

"Quite possibly," Avon said. "And that is a terrifying thought."

Beyley, the butterfly woman, returned. "These should fit," she said, holding out a multicolored bundle of cloth that flickered with colors and patterns flitting like wild animals over the surface.

Avon said, "Haven't you anything inconspicuous?"

"These can be anything you like. They're hologram suits, like mine." She stroked her right sleeve twice and the gown faded to a neutral gray-brown. A rectangular area on the right forearm resembled a miniature computer input screen. "I've already programmed in trooper uniforms under number one, clean-suits on number two, auto-camouflage on three, facial disguises on four, leisure wear on five, six, and seven. There wasn't time for anything elaborate," she apologized.

Bemused, Avon accepted the garment. When he touched it, it reverted to neutral.Beyley gazed at him, expectantly. "Well, aren't you going to put it on?"

"I suppose, as I am merely property, I should not expect to be granted a modicum of privacy. "

Beyley said, " Privacy? Oh, yes, I've heard of that concept." She frowned, glancing around at her glass-walled environment. "Would it help if we shut our eyes?"

Blake chuckled. He took his suit from Beyley and began stepping into it. "Give it up, Avon."

Vila said, "I don't know about you, but I'm cold. I'll be glad to put on anything." He pulled on the suit Beyley offered him, and immediately began playing with the control panel.

Avon frowned, but put on his suit.

"Try five," Beyley said.

The three rebels followed her instructions. Avon's suit turned snowy white, covered with thumb-sized black dots, irregularly grouped. Blake's became diagonally striped in red, yellow, blue and green, repeating. Vila's took on the appearance of blue-black lizard skin, blotched with lighter blue, with orange chevrons running down his arms and legs.

"Nice," Vila commented.

Avon and Blake were less pleased, but Blake had to admit that they looked conservatively dressed among Beyley's people.

"Now," Quent said, "we'll take you to the delivery point to wait for an opening."

Quent, Konny and Beyley led the way. As they left, three nude men climbed into the android tubes, and lay still.

"That won't fool anyone for long," Avon said.

"We are modifying three of the inactive androids to resemble you. That shouldn't take more than another hour or so."

"That may be too long."

Konny said, "We've already transmitted the information we gathered from you, so it doesn't really matter. If we can fool them indefinitely, so much the better. If not, at least we will not have lived in vain."

Avon shook his head. "I think my original had a more sensible perspective on life."

"Of course," Konny said, smiling.

****************************************

"Tarrant," Dayna whispered, "I'm out of bombs. At least the ones you'll let me use."

"Good." Tarrant peered around the corner of the corridor, watching the rubble settle. He'd insisted she use only the smaller charges, and even then, only in areas where the blast would be confined. If this was a Federation bacteria-farm, he didn't want to set it loose. The troopers were nicely panicked, running around shouting indiscriminate orders and occasionally shooting each other. "Let's get out of here."

"Not without Avon and Vila, and Blake, too. I think I like him," Dayna said, settling into a determined crouch.

"Dayna, I hate to point this out to you, but what were they wearing the last time we saw them?"

"Trooper uniforms, of course, just like... oh. You mean, we won't recognize them even if we see them?"

"That is the general idea," Tarrant said. "In fact, we'll probably wind up shooting each other and save the Federation some ammunition."

"Then why did we bother to come in at all?" she wailed.

"Well, we might have found something interesting. Besides, you looked like you could do with a bit of exercise."

Soolin said, "If we're going, let's go." She held her gun at readiness. "I think they're beginning to get organized."

Dayna sulked, but she came. Along the way, she brightened up. When they exited through a gaping hole she'd blown in the exterior wall of the dome, she was quite cheerful again. "Anyway, we've given Avon another way out."

"Several of them, I should say," Soolin commented, picking her way through the tumbled shards of wall.

"Quiet. Leave the talking to me," Tarrant said as he led them to a hover-truck being guarded by a jittery trooper, probably a very young man to judge by the high-pitched voice that challenged them.

Tarrant said, "I'm squad leader Nefer Dunn. My section leader told me to take what was left of my unit back to our ship and defend it against the rebels. Is this truck functional?"

"Sir, yes sir." The man fumbled a salute, then said, "But I'm not supposed to release it without authorization. Someone's coming for it."

"Well, someone's arrived. Do you think my section leader had time to write out orders? Think, man! The rebels are swarming all over the place. They're mad, suicidal terrorists, blowing hell out of everything. You should be glad you're out here."

"Sir, but..."

Tarrant leaned close, and growled. "Look. The rebels' ship was destroyed, I'm told. They'll want another. Mine is closest. All I have left to defend it are these two," he sneered. "The scrawniest of my lot, but at least they were quick enough to duck." Tarrant paused. "I could claim you for detached duty with my unit, trooper. If we don't get killed, we'd probably get medals. Wouldn't that please your old mum?"

"Sir! I'm sorry sir, I can't leave my post, sir." He waved one stiff hand at the truck. "But I certainly don't want to interfere with your mission sir. Please, take this truck. I can go get another one, sir."

"Right. Carry on, then." Tarrant hopped into the driver's side, and gestured Dayna and Soolin around to the back. They jumped into the open tail, and grabbed onto solid-looking crates that nearly filled the bed. "Hang on!" he ordered, and revved the engine. He neatly turned the ungainly vehicle, gave the young trooper one last smart salute, and headed back for the ship at full speed.

Dayna looked back at the smoke pouring out of the dome and said to Soolin, "Pity I didn't get to use any of my really good stuff."

****************************************

Blake looked at Avon and Vila. The trooper who'd been guarding the delivery chute they intended to use had just been ordered away. He would be gone in a few moments and then they'd be on the run again. He wondered just how stable they were. It had been a shock for him, discovering his true nature, but Avon had reacted even more strongly. He appeared calm now, but what was going on under the surface?

"Stop worrying about us, Blake," Avon said quietly. "It is nonproductive."

"I can't help it," Blake replied.

Avon flashed a smile. "Yes, I know. It is the way you were made." He shook his head. "As Vila and I were made to follow you." He sighed. "If I must, I must, but this time, you will listen to me."

"To us," Vila said. "Konny said I was important, that you two couldn't do anything without me, remember that."

"I believe your hearing was at fault. The phrase was more likely `couldn't do anything about you'."

Blake relaxed. Avon and Vila hadn't changed. Avon would continue to bedevil him and Vila would continue to sneak about shirking responsibility and lobbying for party time. He could handle that. "Let's go," he said, sensing that the moment had arrived. He set his suit to trooper black and checked that Avon and Vila were as anonymous as he, black suited, black helmeted minions of the Federation. "We aren't taking any chances. We just want to get back to the ship. Now." He got up and dove into the chute where Konny's people placed finished projects. He was automatically cycled through another sterilization procedure designed to prevent any outside air from leaking into the inner dome. He was beginning to feel like a much-laundered garment and was very glad when he was deposited in the corridor.

The other two followed him. They fell immediately back into the defensive patterns they'd developed on the Liberator, flanking him and alert to any danger. Their first priority was to acquire weapons. Three not-quite-alert-enough troopers later, they were armed and formed into a unit with Blake spearheading.

They couldn't go out the way they came, but since implanted memories of the dome had come back to him fully, that was no problem. A quarter of the way around there was a supply depot with outer access. It was actually more convenient to the port than the personnel entrance they'd used.

Everywhere they went troopers were running about shouting and firing at anything that moved. This led to a general order for all troopers to remove their helmets and visually confirm identities. They ducked into an alcove and pressed number four on their holo-suit controls which eliminated the holo-helmets, replacing them with very believable strangers' heads. Blake glanced at his friends and memorized the faces that looked back at him. Avon was blonde with the bluest eyes he'd ever seen, while Vila had high cheekbones and jet-black eyes that slanted in a dark brown face. Blake didn't know what he looked like, but Vila flinched and Avon's eyes widened.

Their camouflage must have matched well-known troopers, for no one did more than glance at them and then hastily wave them on. Blake really did wonder what he looked like.

Their exit was an anti-climax. They climbed through one of the available holes in the exterior wall and headed for a hover-truck conveniently nearby. The young, freckle-faced trooper who was guarding the truck had obviously heard the identify by sight order. He paled as he gazed at Blake. "Sir." He came to agonizingly rigid attention. "Sir. Have you the authorization to take this vehicle?"

Blake stared at the young man and saw the freckles blaze against a chalk-white face. "No. But I need it. Are you going to argue with me about it?"

"No, sir!" The young man tried to salute again, but he was wavering on his feet. "But my orders, sir! There isn't another truck I can get in time."

Vila took his arm and patted him. "Look, there are lots of things could have happened to this truck. Maybe the rebels knocked you out and stole it. That wouldn't be your fault, would it? Believe me, you don't want to make him mad." Vila shuddered theatrically, glancing over his shoulder in Blake's direction.

"Yes, sir. I mean, no sir. I mean..."

"We're wasting time," Avon snapped. He stepped forward and kicked once in the trooper's middle, then used a double handed chop on the neck that exposed itself when the young man doubled over. "Come on." Avon stepped over the body and headed for the truck.

Vila looked down at the unconscious trooper. "I should have warned you, you don't want to get Avon mad either."

"Vila!" Blake snapped as he swung into the truck next to Avon.

"Coming!" Vila had to run as Avon had already started the vehicle and turned it. He leaped, caught the edge of the tailback, and neatly somersaulted in. "Go, go, go!" he yelled.

Avon was grinning like a maniac and steering the vehicle with wild abandon. Over the roar of the engine Blake shouted at him to slow down then caught a glimpse of himself reflected in a guide monitor and was too distracted to notice the rate at which cracked plast-crete flowed around them. His trooper had a heavy, beetling brow ridge overshadowing two small colorless eyes and a nose flattened by countless blows. He was missing half his upper lip, revealing teeth that had been surgically lengthened, sharpened and dyed red. This was a man who enjoyed terrifying people. He hadn't even any hair to soften the visual blow. Blake blinked and was disconcerted to see those tiny eyes carry out the motion. "I think we should turn off the disguises."

Avon flicked a glance Blake's way and grinned wider. "Why? It's you."

"I wouldn't want to frighten Tarrant."

Avon said, "It might do him good." He returned his attention to his driving, managing to miss the pylon that suddenly sprang out of the dust ahead of them.

"It might give him a heart attack. You did say he was a good pilot?"

"Acceptable." Avon nodded toward his sleeve. "Turn mine off as well." Blake did, understanding Avon's reluctance to shift his hands from the controls for any reason.

Avon made the trip back in about a third the time the outward journey had taken, jerking to a halt at the ship. Vila's legs were shaking so hard that he wobbled as he jumped down from the truck bed and fell to his knees, landing in the dirty, burned, plast-crete below the ship's belly. He got to his hands and knees and kissed the plast-crete.

"That's disgusting, Vila," Avon commented as he walked past.

"I promised myself I'd do it, if you didn't kill me with your driving," Vila said while getting up and brushing dust off his knees.

Avon frowned and pointed to Vila's sleeve.

Vila looked at it and brushed at the dirt.

Avon grabbed Vila's arm and punched the cancel code on Vila's holo-suit. It faded to mouse-gray as Vila looked down at it. "Oh," he said.

Avon slammed a fist into the communicator set beside the main airlock."Open up."

Tarrant's voice came back. "Not until you give the password."

"Password? It's Avon."

"No, that wasn't it," Tarrant said.

"Tarrant, let us in," Avon snapped. "Any second now some bright trooper is going to wonder what we're doing here."

"Convince me you're you."

Avon turned to Vila. "Get this open."

"With what? My tools are back in a locker in the dome," Vila protested.

Avon strode over to the hover-truck and came back with a repair kit which he thrust into Vila's hands. "Use this."

"You've got to be kidding," Vila said, opening up the metal box and staring at a tangle of greasy tools. "This is junk. I'd be better off bare-handed."

"I don't care if you use your teeth. Just get it open."

"Try, Vila," Blake said. "You can do it," he urged.

"Well, all right. I'll try for you, Blake. But I'll have you know this is beneath my professional standing." He knelt beside the lock and began fiddling, then frowned, wiped the grease off the tool he was using and started again.

After several minutes, Avon said, tautly, "Don't look up, Vila."

When Vila started to squirm around anyway, Avon blocked him. "No, it's better you don't see it coming."

Blake came up on Vila's other side and said solemnly, "Yes. It will be quicker that way."

Vila yelped, his hands flew and the lock opened. He scrambled into it and looked back to see Blake and Avon calmly walking in. He looked past them. There was no activity on the plast-crete except for a distant swarm of troopers that weren't even coming in their direction. He looked at Blake.

Blake said, "It was quicker, wasn't it?" He smiled.

"Yes," Avon replied, "So long as he didn't see them not coming." Avon grinned.

"I think I liked it better when you two weren't working together," Vila said. A moment later he ducked at a loud sound. They turned and saw a ship lifting off. Before it disappeared from sight, another one lifted.

"Ah, Blake, I think something is up," Avon commented.

"And we'd better be up, too," Vila said, taking off for the flight deck at a run, barely in advance of the other two. None of the internal doors were locked so it didn't take long . They erupted onto the deck and found Dayna sitting at one console, Soolin studying a second, and Tarrant poised for action at the pilot's station. They were in their usual clothes, but there were signs of haste in the donning of those clothes. Soolin's hair was even mussed. "Tarrant, you are a bigger idiot than Vila," Avon snapped. "Get this ship up," he ordered.

"Not just yet," Tarrant said, hands on hips. " Vila seems real enough, but I'd like to verify that you are the same Avon we brought here before I take this ship anywhere."

Avon said, "If you don't get this ship up in the next sixty seconds, I will shoot you and do it myself."

"All right, Avon. I just had to know it was you." Tarrant said. "Not some android copy."

"No more so than Blake," Avon said.

Tarrant grinned and his hands started to move, then he froze, looking at Blake. "But we know Blake is an android."

Avon said, "Yes, and so are Vila and I." He heard the scrape of a drawn weapon from Soolin's direction. He held his own hands in plain sight well away from his gun. "But it is not a recent exchange. Avon, Blake and Restal have been dead for years. Vila and I have been with you for those years. The only thing that has changed is our self-knowledge. If you cannot accept us, then we will leave now and attempt to commandeer another ship."
"You could have said nothing. We might never have found you out," Tarrant mused.

Blake said, "Avon felt he owed you the truth."

Avon grimaced. "A pretty sentiment, but the actuality is that I didn't trust Vila's ability to keep his mouth shut and I had no desire to face the inevitable confrontation in space. That could have been awkward."

Vila had opened his mouth to protest, but shut it again.

Dayna said, "You're not putting them off the ship, Tarrant."

"Why not?"

Soolin said, "For one thing, we haven't time." She had been sitting at a communications console, monitoring the base's open frequencies. "All ships have been ordered to launch." She smirked. "Something about preventing the rebels from commandeering a ship. It seems someone passed around a story that their own ship was destroyed."

"Not even a Federation trooper is likely to believe that unless..." Avon turned to Dayna. "Unless a ship had been blown up."

Dayna shrugged. "I had some leftovers I wanted to get rid of."

Avon looked at Blake. "See what you are getting yourself into?"

"No worse than my original crew, Avon. I'll make do," Blake replied.

"Wait a minute, if anyone's going to command here, it'll be me," Tarrant said.

Vila gave Tarrant a pitying look while Blake smiled gently at the young man. Avon looked at Blake and let a smile creep out. He said, "We'll discuss it later," and flung himself into a seat. "Vila, man weapons. Blake, stay out of the way!"

Blake settled into a place at the back of the flight deck. Avon was enjoying himself, and Blake wouldn't deny him the moment. Besides, this ship wasn't worth fighting over. He grinned. They'd build, buy or steal something better. At least they would have a chance together. He closed his eyes and let the information that Konny had implanted in him rise to the surface. Among other things he had the schedules and codes for this sector. They could go where they liked with impunity, changing identification to match whatever ships had clearance. They could visit Space Command itself. Five new top-of-the-line ships were due to be commissioned soon. He calculated that they should have just enough time to get there, have Avon and Vila infiltrate the base- the holo-suits would come in handy- and subvert the computers to record them as the crew of one of the new ships. Why be stingy, though? Take two, and let Tarrant have one. A young man needs his own transportation. But they wouldn't have enough crew for two ships- unless they did some recruiting. Avalon had some good people. He'd have to contact her and arrange a pickup of suitable personnel. As long as he was doing that, why not ask for enough people to take all five ships? Timing would be a bit tricky, though. He'd have to get there just before the genuine crews, unless he could somehow divert them. It could work and if he was very clever, he might kill a whole flock of birds with one stone.

Blake was concentrating so hard that he barely noticed their liftoff. He returned to awareness gradually, noting that he was idly gnawing on a knuckle while staring ahead at a star-screen with Earth's moon off to one side. It filtered in that Avon was standing beside him, looking down at him. Blake tilted his head and grinned encouragingly at Avon.

Avon said, "I know that look. You're plotting again, Blake."

Blake rubbed his knuckle across his upper lip, then said, "Do you have any objections?"

Avon sat down beside him and crossed his legs. He leaned back and for good measure crossed his arms. Finally he said, "I wouldn't characterize them as objections. More in the line of constructive criticism. This time around, tell me what you are planning up front."

"So that you can knock down my sand castles?"

"So that you can build them on a firmer foundation."

Blake inclined his head. "You aren't saying that you intend to back me fully and unconditionally?"

"Never that. There will always be conditions. The rules have been slightly altered, but there are still rules." Avon yawned, and looked surprised.

"Rest, Avon."

"I'm not..." Avon interrupted himself with another smothered yawn. "Then again, maybe I am. But I can't afford it at the moment." He sat up straight, but his eyelids drooped.

"Did you put in the clearance codes?"

"Of course. This ship has full courier clearance. We can go where we please." Avon looked at Blake suspiciously. "I take it I'm not the only one who was given that information?"

At Blake's grin, Avon sighed. "I was afraid of that. Can we at least wait until Orac is ready?"

"Orac?" Tarrant asked. He'd been listening to the conversation, while attending to the piloting. "I thought Orac was destroyed."

"I've... commissioned a new one." Avon looked at Vila who asked, "Is it going to be as nasty as the old one?"

"Very probably."

"Oh, joy."

Avon grinned lazily and began slumping in the seat again. Blake shook him by the shoulder. "Come on, Avon. Sets a bad example to fall asleep on the flight deck."

"I wasn't asleep." But Avon got up and left the flight deck. He paused in the doorway to say, "I'm glad you're back, Blake," then quickly left.

Soolin said, "I'm impressed. We couldn't pry him off the flight deck."

Blake told her, "Oh, he's not so difficult to get along with."

Tarrant nearly choked. "Really? What's the secret? Which buttons do I push to get some cooperation from Avon?"

"Tarrant!" Dayna snapped and he looked a little embarrassed.

Blake chuckled. "No, with Avon it's more a question of not pushing. You should try that sometime." Blake rose and stood before the viewscreen, hands on his hips, while staring at the stars. "Look at the stars. They are drawn together by forces we still do not fully understand. Does one star lead another or are they all moving together to fulfill their destinies?" He stretched and said, "I think I'll have a little talk with Avon before he does fall asleep. I'll be back." He walked off the flight deck.

Behind him, he heard Vila mutter, "Great. Avon and Blake are stars. Where do we hide when they go nova?"

"It's the Federation that will be hiding," Blake said ever so softly. "Oh, we will blaze, my friends. We will burn the corruption clean and light the way to the path of freedom." He chuckled again. "I'd better not say that in front of Avon, though. He never could abide rhetoric." Whistling, Blake strode down the corridor.


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