1. Snakes & Ladders
It was not one of Blake’s better ideas, but then, that went without saying. Avon rounded a corner of this infernal labyrinth, expecting to find only another blind alley, but instead, he glimpsed a light ahead. He had company.
Avon edged forward cautiously, keeping back against the uneven rock wall as he went. He was reduced to finding himself hoping he’d finally run into Vila again. As something down here seemed to be blocking communication with the Liberator, he had been alone since he’d been split from the thief an hour ago. He didn’t know where any of the others were. He’d spent most of the time silently planning what he’d say to Blake when he finally got out of this.
Blake had, with his usual aptitude for planning an unpleasant outing, brought them to the planet Ieron. It was abandoned, but Blake insisted the former colonists had left some sort of treasure behind them – possibly a valuable technological device that might prove useful. If so, it was buried at the heart of a series of subterranean tunnels. And, that, thought Avon darkly, didn’t even begin to cover the actuality.
Avon peered through the gloom and made out several Federation troopers. The way today was going, he shouldn’t have been surprised.
Then, about to move carefully backwards, he turned on hearing a voice he recognised.
“Well, find a way forward,” Servalan ordered the nearest soldier. “I don’t care if you have to blast your way through every wall in the place, just do it!”
Ah, now, thought Avon, that was different. He looked down at his weapon and moved forward. One shot on target and he’d have done something useful, which was more than he could say for the rest of the day.
Servalan swung around; her white outfit a striking contrast to the black-clad troopers and the general darkness about her. She was in time to catch his movement, and she gestured instantly to one of the troopers: “Over there!”
The guard fired, and, as Avon jumped back, there was a heavy grating sound and another wall moved across the tunnel to block the way forward. He’d been cursing every time this had happened so far, but that was an unexpected escape.
It did, however, mean he was trapped again. Whatever this place was, it had an unsatisfactory lack of logic. He could understand some sadistic mind working out this place with its traps, moving walls and general impenetrability, but why then did doors also open at random? It hadn’t happened since he’d lost Vila, though. Indeed, it was a combination of both things occurring together that had separated him from the thief.
“Thanks,” he muttered, wryly, since being trapped down here alone was infinitely preferable to being trapped with Servalan and a band of trigger-happy Federation soldiers.
Even as he said it, the wall he was leaning against moved and he fell back into an adjoining tunnel, picking himself up hastily to examine his new location. A long, thin, unidentified reptile crawled over his boot and he kicked it away.
“What the hell is this place?” he said, under his breath. It didn’t make any sense, and he had no faith in a mysterious treasure at the heart of it. What was more, if Servalan was here as well, he would rather not be.
“Avon?” said a voice suddenly, and he raised his wrist to his face in relief, to use the communicator.
“Here. And wishing I wasn’t – bring me back up now!”
“Yes, that’s what I was about to do,” said Cally with an underlying edge of humour in her voice. “We’ve worked out some things since you left.”
“Congratulations,” said Avon. “You couldn’t have worked it out before we embarked on this disaster?”
“So, it was – what? A moral maze?” he said, back on the flight deck, and listening to the explanation – such as it was – with incredulity. “So when Servalan fired at me, she was punished and when I thanked the mechanism, it rewarded me? How charmingly naïve and tedious.”
Blake turned. “I’d have thought you’d have worked it out sooner.”
“And how did you get out? I suppose you played the predictable white knight and got through to the centre in no time at all?”
Cally gave a small smile. “Not quite. I’ve only just got both of you back – Jenna, too.”
Avon looked towards the other end of the seating where Vila was leaning back, and looking irritatingly pleased with himself.
“What can I say?” said Vila. “It liked me. A bit of persuasion and talent, and I was in, and back in touch with Cally. You can thank me later, Avon.”
Avon stared towards the ceiling. “A partially sentient maze with the bad taste to like you. That says it all. Next time Blake has a brilliant idea, I don’t want to be part of it.”
“Orac says it was set up when it was still a prison planet – a means of civilising the prisoners, I suppose,” said Jenna, brushing stray dirt from her sleeve as she spoke. “It does make some kind of sense, but I can think of better ways to spend the day.”
Cally nodded. “And then they kept it even after – it seems to have been used it as a means of educating the colony’s children, or possibly as part of a rite of passage.”
Blake nodded. “And when they left, it seems they forgot to switch it off – or they couldn’t. Or perhaps someone had an unwise sense of humour.”
“Oh, and Orac knows this now?”
“He’s been speaking to it,” said Vila. “Like I said. The computer-whatsit at the heart of the maze. That was the only treasure, you see. So basically, when I went at things with my usual charm, skill and gift for getting through locked doors -”
“If this explanation is going to involve any more of Vila being insufferably smug, I don’t think I want to hear it.”
Vila leant forward. “I tried talking to it, that’s all – I mean, you know how it is -.”
“I do. One of your more irritating traits, as I believe was saying before a rock wall relieved me of your company.”
“Well, it took it for manners or something. Gave me bonus points, and let me in. So you can stop complaining, Avon, because otherwise we’d all still be down there. And if Servalan’s there, that wouldn’t be great, would it? No need to be jealous just ‘cos there’s one computer in the universe that likes me better than you.”
Jenna moved over to her station. “Yes, and talking of Servalan, I suggest we get out of here before she works it out as well.”
“It could take her a while,” said Avon, amused. “Morality isn’t her strong point.”
“Better safe than sorry. Besides, there’s nothing left to stay for, is there?”
“Hmm,” said Blake. “What was she doing down there, anyhow? If what we wanted wasn’t any use, after all -?”
“I imagine,” Avon returned, “that she followed us – or fell for the same idiotic legend as you did. Which makes it all rather entertaining from a certain point of view.”
“And all she’ll find, if she ever gets to the centre, is a machine that’s too much part of the maze to move,” said Vila. “Might as well try to take Zen out of the Liberator. But Jenna’s right – let’s get out of here.”
Avon laughed to himself. He wished he’d taken his chance to shoot her earlier, but at the same time, given the nature of the maze, he’d have enjoyed watching her try and make her way out of it…
The raven-haired figure Avon had been watching for the past few minutes was now making her way across the landscaped grounds, under the coloured lights, towards where he was standing. There were other people scattered around the darkened grounds, but they were of no account, merely guests here for the famed annual Haian Masquerade. This woman was different. She was masked, as the festival dictated, but Avon had no doubt as to her identity. By now, he would have recognised her anywhere.
She was wearing white; a long dress, simple but embroidered with tiny crystals in patterns meant to represent ice, and a white fur cloak speckled with further crystals that caught the light. The outfit was finished by a mask with a jagged design picked out in blue and white. Presumably she was intended to be some old winter goddess or ice queen, but Avon didn’t much care. He had never been interested in legends. For himself, he’d taken the simplest outfit he could get away with – ironically, some sort of outlaw, with a black shirt, trousers and matching mask. There had been a cloak but he’d abandoned it as a nuisance some hours ago. One did not have to look stupid merely because it was what everyone else was doing.
What he didn’t have, and was now regretting, was a weapon. The Haians had devised a sophisticated field generating device that was operational during the festival, acting as a shield. No communications from unofficial channels could reach the planet, any firearms were disabled by the field, and it had proved too apt at detecting even cruder and more basic weapons, so Dayna had been returned to the Liberator without ceremony before this rather pointless trip had begun, leaving Avon alone in his mission.
“You find parties as tedious as I do, I see,” observed the woman, joining him in the small white building, which was styled like a primitive temple and more of a garden ornament than a building, in his opinion.
Servalan removed the mask with a brief smile that acknowledged that neither of them were fooled by such flimsy, merely decorative disguises. Then she sat down on the stone bench that was positioned beside him. “I have a proposition for you.”
“And I’m not interested.”
“You might be, Avon. I’d have thought you would have at least wanted to hear what it was.”
“I find myself unable to muster any enthusiasm.”
She shrugged off her cloak and let it fall over the seat. Haian’s climate was temperate, and this was a mild night. “You and I both failed to find Xelian before Qoros took the Veris crystals. So, here we both are, alone and unarmed and unsuccessful.”
“You came here alone?”
“As good as.”
“And? I fail to see what is to be gained by spelling out the obvious. You talk of being alone: I would rather be alone right now.”
“How unfriendly,” said Servalan, looking up at him with a smile. “And all I was going to suggest was that we amuse one another.”
Avon turned back then, with a frown. “How?”
“I would have thought you could have worked that much out,” she returned. “I thought it would be more interesting than waiting for these tawdry festivities to cease.”
“What do you really want?” He sat, at an angle on the other end of the seat. “I don’t for one minute suppose that is your true intention.”
“Oh, Avon. I had not expected such modesty from you.”
“You don’t do anything without an ulterior motive. In any case, you can’t imagine that I like you.”
“Liking is not necessary for what I have in mind.”
Avon leant forward. “No,” he said in her ear. “Now, go away. I’d rather spend the time till morning in peace and quiet than spend even a minute more of it with you. As I said, I’m more than happy to be alone.”
She put a hand to his arm, halting him from leaving. “How dull of you Avon. I’m disappointed.”
He drew back. “As we’ve both learned again today, disappointment is one of those things you just have to live with.”
As he did so, Servalan smiled downwards, and he saw that she was now slipping his teleport bracelet onto her arm.
“That’s no use to you. If you arrive on the Liberator, you’ll be dead. You can trust Dayna for that much.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” she agreed, still smiling. “You had better retrieve it, then, hadn’t you?”
Avon paused to raise an eyebrow, but played along for the moment, moving one hand to her face, running a finger along her jaw line. “Why this sudden romanticism? You and I, a starlit night and a folly? It’s hardly very likely, is it? Almost too ironic, one might say.”
“I was bored,” she said, her smile more of a smirk now that she had achieved her purpose. “You’re by far the most interesting person here. But then, I’ve often thought that.”
Avon grinned shortly, mostly to himself. “Oh, you don’t know anyone else here – and you find it so difficult to talk to strangers?” He drawled the last, but he didn’t move away. “It’s the way they might turn out to be related to someone you’d murdered, I suppose.”
“You know me so well,” she said, and kissed him. He responded, though he also ran his hand down her arm, finally getting hold of the teleport bracelet. Once he had his hand on it, he kissed her again, roughly, and wondered whether it was worth the risk to strangle her while he had the chance, or if, after all, that would be something of a waste.
He should have drawn back at that point, but why the hell not? he thought and carried on, even though there were a thousand good answers to that question. You’d only have to start with the trail of bodies she left in her wake.
“Avon,” said a small voice from the teleport bracelet, causing them both to halt, and turn their attention to it. Avon tightened his hold on it – he hadn’t let go of that. “Avon? You there, Avon? Look, Orac’s worked out a way to get around the field. We can get you out – we know Xelian’s scarpered anyway, and so’s that other bloke.”
Avon glanced at Servalan. She held out her arm towards him, and he removed the bracelet.
“I’m here, Vila. You saw Xelian’s ship heading away, then?”
“Like I said. Anyway, I told you you should have taken me in the first place. The biggest party this side of the galaxy and you leave me out. What kind of friend d’you call yourself?”
“I don’t, Vila.” He moved away from Servalan as he spoke. “Give me two minutes and then bring me up.”
“Sure you don’t want me to come down there?”
“Okay, okay. Anyway, just so you know, Orac says the problem of getting through the shield’s sphere of influence was almost worth his almighty attention, so I reckon we’d probably better get you back before whatever he’s done stops working. Or sets off every alarm in the place.”
As Avon replaced the teleport bracelet around his wrist, Servalan drew herself up. “Next time,” she said.
“There won’t be a next time.”
“True,” she agreed, with a brittle smile. “Of course. Not like this. Next time I shall kill you.”
“Well, I always like to have something to look forward to,” said Avon, as he vanished.
Servalan waited for only a moment after Avon had gone, and then walked away, without pausing to recover her cloak, or give a backward glance at the fairy lights, and the folly behind her.
3. Beggar My Neighbour
There had been an ambush, courtesy of a group known as the Birgans, who were pirates of a sort, or maybe bounty hunters, or perhaps mere rabble. The end result for Avon had been a brief, outnumbered struggle and then a blinding pain in the head, and very little after that until now. But just before, he thought, as he recovered consciousness, lying on a cold, hard surface, there had been – he had been certain he had seen –
“Oh, at last,” said Servalan’s voice from somewhere above him. “I was hoping you were alive. For the moment.”
So. He hadn’t imagined it. He decided it wasn’t worth opening his eyes yet. “What do you want this time?”
“A way out,” she said with impatience. “What else?”
Avon paused, and opened his eyes. It wasn’t much of an improvement. They were in a dark, solid and distinctly primitive cell. He propped himself up by his elbows, finding that his head still ached and things had an unpleasant tendency to spin about him. “This is some kind of trick.”
“I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it that,” she said. “But, in essentials, yes, and we both fell for it. What are you going to do?”
Avon rubbed his head and risked sitting properly. “Teleport out of here,” he told her, “and leave you to rot – although I suppose that’s too much to hope for. Someone’s going to pay the ransom, aren’t they, madam President?”
“You’re not going anywhere – not by that means,” said Servalan, who was sitting on the only object in the cell – a bare wooden bench that was presumably someone’s idea of a bed. “You seem to have lost your bracelet in the struggle.”
He smiled to himself. “You checked.”
“Naturally.” She rose and walked the short step it took to reach him – the cell was not large.
Avon shifted his position, and wondered what ransom they would demand for his release – and of whom. The Federation, or the rest of the Liberator’s crew? Neither idea appealed.
“Yes,” said Servalan, looking down at him. “Time to find out what value your friends place on your life. What do you fear most, Avon? That they don’t – or that they value it too highly? I wonder what folly they might agree to?”
She was right, but he wouldn’t admit it out loud. They would never give into a demand for the Liberator, of course; that would be insanity. But what else? Money they could use elsewhere; Orac, even? Or they might engage in some ill-advised rescue mission. None of them could be relied on for logic in a tight situation. However, it wasn’t logical to waste time speculating on it, either. It wasn’t impossible that they might come up with a workable plan; it had happened. Instead, he turned his attention to Servalan.
“That’s not a problem for you, is it?” he said. “Given how short a time it’ll take before your freedom is paid for, I’m surprised you -. Ah,” he said, understanding. “How obtuse of me. Will anybody pay for you? Yet another failure, madam President? If, indeed, you are still President. And you’ve enemies at every level. You think they’ll leave you here to die. Less embarrassing, all round, I should imagine.”
“That would be their mistake,” she said, with ice and steel in her voice. “Given the situation, I suggest that we work together and escape this ridiculous, primitive cell. It shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Avon grinned. “Just so you know – if we don’t get out, I’m having the bed, such as it is. You can have the floor.”
“I have every confidence in our combined abilities,” said Servalan, with a smile. “It won’t come to that.” She also implied by her stance that, if it did, he would find that he was mistaken.
He got to his feet, and leant in towards her. She glanced up, with a suddenly uncertain expression, but she didn’t move away. Avon didn’t kiss her, nor attempt to throttle her; he put his hand to her shoulder, to the elaborate brooch she wore on her off-the shoulder black dress. He removed it, with a brief smile back at her.
“This should do, for a start,” Avon said, holding it up. “I want one thing understood, though, Servalan. Once we get out of that door, you are on your own!”
“Oh, I understand,” she said, meeting his gaze, with an elusive, haunted look. “As are we all, Avon. As are we all.”
Interlude: And The One They Didn’t…
Chess might be the universal game of strategy but when it came down to it neither Avon nor Servalan truly had the temperament for it, though Avon always believed he had.
The pretty pieces were, after all, only what you distracted your opponent with while you got on with the matter in hand – which rarely had anything to do with a knight or bishop. Pawns might be used, castles would be taken, and pieces would certainly be sacrificed and thrown aside. Chess, if they played it, by and large, tended to be a matter of who was quickest on the draw at shooting their opponent under the table. Equally, Chess was never supposed to be won with a bribe, or persuasion, friendly, or otherwise. By and large, Chess required a certain willingness to follow the rules that neither of them possessed.
And both of them knew only too well that nothing in life was ever black and white.
Even so, anyone foolish enough to believe Servalan’s claim that she never could remember how the dear little horsy moved deserved everything they got.
“It’s hardly what I’d call a taxing puzzle,” said Avon, keeping a firm hold on his gun as he faced Servalan across the utilitarian corridor of the space station. “A dead body, and you standing over it. I don’t think I could even go so far as to be surprised.”
“Then you would be wrong,” she returned, without moving one inch from the fallen man, nor acknowledging in any way the presence of his weapon as a threat. “I came here to meet Corvin. He had something I wanted, so his death is somewhat inconvenient.”
“Unlikely. I came here to meet Corvin.”
“Oh, how enterprising of him,” she said, with a sudden smile. “And, since it appears we weren’t the only people he was trying to make a deal with, how very foolish.”
“So someone got what they wanted – and Corvin paid for it.”
“If,” added Avon, “I’m to believe you, which I can’t say I’m inclined to. Is there any reason I should let you live?”
Servalan inclined her head. “I can think of a number. However, two should suffice for the moment: Corvin kept the details of his supposedly marvellous invention completely secret. Even in negotiations he only let a few hints as to what it was. However, one cannot ignore such an offer when the man is known to be a genius. And I have considerable resources at my disposal and I believe I know precisely what it was.”
“I’ve made an educated guess myself.”
“Of course. Orac. However, you still don’t have the item itself – and I know who has taken it. As it turns out, Avon, I’m your only lead.” She waved a hand to one side as she spoke.
“I’m sure I could work it out without your help.”
“Oh, I’m sure you could, Avon. I have every confidence in you. But by that time, I suspect the thief will be several light years away. Instead, let us make a bargain: my life for the information you need.”
Avon watched her, his gaze darkening. “That sounds reasonable. Too reasonable. What else do you get if I agree?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Or at least, nothing you’d be interested in.”
“And that’s still assuming you didn’t murder him and take it yourself anyway.”
Servalan gave him an impatient look, finally taking a step back from the bloodied body, shifting her long white skirt with its black and silver edging out of its way without glancing down. “If you know as much as you say, you’ll be aware it’s not something I could conceal about my person. If you must search me, however -.” She held out both her arms; that, and the expression in her eyes was a challenge.
“I think I’ll forgo that, ah, pleasure on this occasion.” He stood back, and lowered the weapon fractionally. “All right, Servalan. So far, I agree. The identity of the thief?”
“I knew you’d make the right decision. Domino.”
“That is your thief. Man, woman, mutoid or something else, I don’t know but that is the name.”
Avon hesitated and then raised the teleport bracelet on his wrist to speak into it. “Orac? Tell me all you know about Domino.”
“A domino is a part in an ancient Earth children’s game. It was also used in a manner not intended by the game’s original -.”
“A thief or agent named Domino. Currently active.”
“You should have been more specific. Domino is the code name for a thief who specialises in stealing new technology and selling it on to the highest bidder. Current status otherwise unknown.”
“And has a ship recently left the space station?”
“One small planet cruiser departed this region precisely 11.03 minutes previously.”
Avon looked at Servalan, who gave a small shrug and smile in response. He paused to give Orac the order to teleport him back to the Liberator, ignoring the machine’s protests at inefficient uses of its time and processing ability. “It seems I should believe you.”
“As I’ve told you before, there is no reason for you and I to be enemies,” she said, moving away.
Avon paused, on the point of teleport. “Isn’t there? I should mention that there’s no point in you going back for the original blueprints, if that’s what you had in mind. I’m reliably informed that they have also been stolen.”
“Not in person, but in principle, yes,” said Avon with a sudden, alarming smile as he disappeared from the gloomy corridor.
“Avon,” said Cally, as he returned to the flight deck presently. “Orac’s found out some other things about Domino.”
“Stuff you ought to know,” said Vila, sitting on the padded seat, near to the computer.
Avon strode over. “Orac?”
“Updated information would suggest that Domino is currently liaising with the Federation ship positioned at a distance of -.”
“Servalan’s ship? I should have known.”
“So,” said Vila, leaning back, “we’ve got the design blueprints for whatever it actually is, if it works; Servalan’s got the dodgy prototype that definitely doesn’t; Corvin’s dead, and this Domino’s got away with the cash. It’s like I’ve always said – stealing’s better. ‘Cos for the rest of us, I think I’d call it a draw.”
“And,” Cally added, sitting down beside the Liberator’s own thief, “Vila has a point. We still don’t know what it does. It may not even be a weapon, after all.”
Tarrant joined them. “Corvin was brilliant, but notoriously unreliable.”
“My father used to say so,” agreed Dayna. “He’d met him once, I think. Once was enough.”
“So,” finished Cally, “if it turns out to be a new means of making toast, you will all look very foolish.”
“That would add a certain piquancy to the situation,” said Avon, and laughed.
“I’ll see the prisoner now.” Servalan rose, as the door opened and Avon was pushed inside. Then she nodded to the black-clad guard. “You, wait outside. I shan’t need you.”
Avon waited for the soldier to leave and then he looked at her. She was as impeccable as ever, although wearing an unaccustomed dark red velvet – blood red – while he was haggard from the time in the cell, from lack of sleep – and the other things he wasn’t thinking about. To be honest, he wasn’t thinking. It was something of a relief. “That was a mistake.”
He took a step nearer. “Oh, yes. Do you think anything could keep me from killing you now?” (By some miracle of irony she was not the one to blame – technically. In the ways that counted, she was. Oh, she was.)
Servalan did not look away. She only moved nearer, stopping right in front of him. There was something indecipherable in her eyes, but no fear in her movements. “No, I don’t. And if a thing is inevitable, well -.” She gave a shrug, and then stole a look up at him. “Yes. What else have I been waiting for, Avon?”
“This is… some trick.” Her actions forced his unwilling mind to return to some semblance of life, instead of remaining numb or allowing only the anger through. It must be a trick; it always was, but he was too far gone to even begin to work out the rules this time, let alone the state of play. What else could he do now but what he had come here for?
“And then the guards will kill you,” she added. “But you know that.”
Avon frowned, and closed the only remaining distance between them. She did not flinch. “You think I won’t?”
“Oh, I have my reasons. Let us die together. Why not?” And she smiled, and reached out her hands to take his, to place them to her throat; waiting for him to make the next move.
He had to hand it to her. Whether this was a trick, or in some way the end of everything, he couldn’t tell, but she still made a move to steal the only thing he had left: the pleasure of revenge.